It’s downright easy these days to self-publish. Companies such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords and CreateSpace are cheap and easy to use, and if you can’t figure them out there’s a wealth of helpful information online that’ll steer you in the right direction. Producing a good looking self-published book and doing it professionally has probably never been easier. But one thing is getting increasingly difficult: selling copies of that book. In a world where new books arrive by the second and readers are faced with more choice than ever before, selling even a handful of books is far from easy. Today we have an interview with Debbie Young, author of Sell Your Books!, who I hope will share some of her top tips with us…
Me: First of all, thank you for sending me a copy of Sell Your Books! I was most impressed with it because as you know I love books as physical objects, and SYB! is quite the lovely book indeed — the colours on the cover are so deep, for example. It’s very impressive. Tell us about its publication.
Debbie: Thanks, Catherine, I agree! Even though Sell Your Books! was published back in November, I am still bowled over by how beautiful the printed book is. I keep stroking its velvety cover, and I love the quality of the interior paper and typography too. Even my non-author friends want to pick the book up and handle it. A covetable cover is a great selling point, because once you’ve picked up a book, you are much more likely to buy it (a phenomenon known rather cutely as “puppy-dog selling”).
To be honest, the final cover design looks nothing like my original suggestion! I really wanted a cover that would tell you at a glance what the book was about – the old “does what it says on the tin” trick – but SilverWood’s designer came up with a very different starting point from mine. I provided feedback, and the design evolved till we were both completely happy. The simple, clear message and bright colours are cheerful and engaging, but the blue is calming too – just the right combination to raise the spirits of the nervous author worrying about the task ahead!
The book was commissioned by assisted publishing company SilverWood Books. Knowing I had many years of PR experience behind me, Director Helen Hart asked me for suggestions as to how she could help SilverWood’s self-funding authors promote their own books in an affordable but effective way. I was really impressed with how much she cared about her clients – absolutely the antidote to old-fashioned vanity publishers that took the authors’ money and ran.
It was a bit of a “Physician, heal thyself!” moment when I said “Why not produce a self-help book about book promotion, specifically written with indie authors’ needs in mind?” Helen immediately liked the idea. “How would you like to write it?” came her reply, and so my journey began!
After eighteen research-filled months, my manuscript was complete, and it was off to SilverWood to be turned into an e-book and paperback. The production standards of the finished product are representative of SilverWood’s service to its paying clients. Every time I visit the SilverWood office, I find myself ooh-ing and aah-ing over their latest titles, which are always beautifully designed and presented. This is my first book, and for me, this experience demonstrated the advantage of using a third party service if you’re not confident or knowledgeable enough to specify the finer details of your book’s production, which I’m not – though I realise that there are plenty of authors, including yourself, Catherine, who are happy to tackle the whole job!
You mention that the best person to sell your book is you, the author, which is absolutely something I believe. Why is this so and what would you say to a writer convinced that a PR company will do a better job while they sit back and relax?
Being an author who has spent a couple of decades in the PR business, I can speak from first hand experience on both fronts.
Any decent PR company will make a very good case for what a fab job they would do for you, and insist that they are keen to represent you. Up to a point, they can act as a facilitator, but only at a very high price. You would need to sell an awful lot of books to cover typical PR charges, which are calcuated per hour of executive time spent, rather than by results achieved (which may be nil). Book promotion takes a lot of time. You could therefore end up paying a lot of money for absolutely no increase in sales. You’d also still be required to put in a lot of time to support the PR people (talk about the tail wagging the dog!), approving press releases, revising copy, doing press interviews (the PR would only arrange them, not actually do them). So the time saving would not be as great as you might assume.
No matter how keen a PR purports to be, nobody is going to be as knowledgeable as you, the author, about your book or your subject matter, or as passionate about the book’s success. Even if you are shy or nervous of speaking to someone about your book, once you get going, you will be more eloquent and engaging than any third party. The media don’t want to interview a PR about a book: they want to speak directly to the author.Monkey and organ-grinder are the words that spring to mind here – because when did you ever hear a book programme on the radio, for example, where the PR, rather than the author, was in the hot seat?
As a writer, you have all the qualities essential in a promoter: you are articulate, literate and intelligent. With a book such as mine pointing you in the right direction, you have all you need to run your own successful promotional campaign. And you won’t have to buy a single banana.
Most of the advice we see given to self-published authors (mine included) focuses on online tools like Twitter and Facebook, yet in SYB! you also cover venturing out into the real world (!) for things like literary festivals, library events and school visits, and getting mainstream media coverage. Why is this useful?
These are relatively easy things to do at a local level, and they will cost you next to nothing, so it seems foolish, misguided and possibly even arrogant, not to bother with them. They are very easy ticks to get, and you’ve got nothing to lose by doing them. They’re also a good source of material to put on your website, so, if you’re smart about it, you’ll get far more mileage out of these events than just a splash in the local paper.
I think engaging with “real” people can also help a new author feel like a “real” author. If you go into a school or a WI meeting, for example, they’ll greet you like a celebrity. Being a big fish in a small pool is a great confidence booster. A modicum of local fame will make you feel less anonymous and worthless when you’re pitching against everyone else in the vast space that is the internet.
Local events are generally very small scale, enabling you to engage one-to-one (or one-to-small-group, anyway) and to gain useful feedback from individuals, including “quotable quotes”. And you never know who you might meet. When I put a notice about my new book in our parish magazine (and newspapers don’t get much smaller than that!) I had neighbours approaching me on the street to order copies for their mother-in-law, their aunt and even their cleaning lady who were all writing books. They’d never have known about my book if I hadn’t shouted out about it locally.
If your book is good, and you do a lot of local PR, you’ll become well-known locally and be invited further afield. I’ve just been invited to address my first local conference (hurray!) to speak about blogging. I don’t think I’d have been asked without my local PR profile. People who have met you locally will also tell more distant friends about it, and spread your reputation further (think pyramid selling!) Before you know it, quite a big readership will have grown, all from your having planted a few small, parochial seeds.
For a self-published author who hopes to have their books stocked in stores, approaching a bookseller can be an extremely daunting experience. What tips do you have to put them at least a little bit more at ease?
To research this important subject for my book, I spent a lot of time chatting with a local bookseller who had been worn down by inappropriate approaches from eager self-published authors that had no idea of how his business operated.It was a real eye-opener, I can tell you, and I’m very glad to be able to share his advice.
Firstly, put yourself in the shoes of the bookseller. Understand that every inch of his shelf space has to make money. Your challenge is to convince him that your book will make him as much profit as every other book he’s chosen to put on his shelf. Think of it as a balloon debate – prepare to make the financial case for your book.
Secondly, respect the bookseller’s time. He doesn’t have hours to spend chatting to individual authors. The big publishers send in sales reps that pitch a book in ten seconds – and they’ll reel off dozens in the space of a single visit. Your book may be worth a long conversation to you, but the bookseller doesn’t have the luxury of time.
Finally, be as well prepared as if you were defending your book in a court of law. Take along evidence: Exhibit A, local press cuttings that show you’ve fuelled a local demand for the book; Exhibit B, reviews that demonstrate it’s a high quality, respected publication, not just a piece of typo-riddled junk dashed off in a spare weekend. And so on. There’s a whole lot more about how to butter up a bookseller in Chapter 8 of my book!
Give us three quick DOs for selling your books:
- Produce the best book you possibly can – writing, design, presentation. Any compromise on quality puts you at an immediate – and avoidable – disadvantage.
- Be realistic in your expectations. I don’t mean assume you’ll fail – just don’t expect your Picker’s Guide to the Wild Mushrooms of Hampshire, say, to be a national sensation.
- Engage with other authors online to learn best practice, lift your spirits and stop you feeling alone in your quest to sell your books. There’s a generous, supportive network of experienced self-published authors out there (naming no names, to spare others’ embarrassment, but some of them REALLY like coffee!)
And three quick DON’Ts:
- Don’t be disheartened if it takes a long time to achieve sales. Too many people give up too soon. This is tragic, because there really is no need. Unlike traditional publishers, who will give a book six months or so to prove its worth, you have as long as you are prepared to try. Books don’t have a sell-by date. E-books never go out of print. That is VERY EXCITING!
- Don’t send needy tweets and status updates saying “Buy my book! Like my Facebook page! Please RT! I’ll like yours if you like mine!” It makes you look like an amateur and turns people off.
- Don’t give away free copies of your book without very good reason. In particular, don’t post free copies to reviewers on spec, whether online or in print media, unless they have categorically asked you for one and you are sure they will read it. You’ve put your heart and soul into your work – don’t give it away, but SELL YOUR BOOKS!
About Debbie Young:
During a career longer than she cares to admit, Debbie Young has meandered between journalism and PR, writing memorable copy about all kinds of things from ice cream to education, and from cat litter to continence (not so great a leap, then). Now freelance, she published Sell Your Books! in October 2012, in tandem with running a wide-ranging blog of book promotion tips at her Off The Shelf Book Promotions website. She also weaves wonderful WordPress websites for her fellow authors, as well as offering them general PR guidance. In keeping with her recommendations in this interview, she operates on the “teach a man to fish” principle, advising authors how to run their own promotional programme, equipping them with the necessary confidence and skills, rather than doing it for them. When time permits, she reviews self-published books on this website to draw attention to just how good the independent publishing sector can be.
To ensure she occasionally leaves her study for more than just cups of tea and the school run, she also works part-time for the national children’s reading charity, Readathon, helping to raise the next generation of eager readers, to the benefit of authors everywhere! She’s a volunteer fundraiser for JDRF, the leading charity for research into Type 1 diabetes, a serious condition which affects both her husband and her young daughter. 25% of the author’s royalties for “Sell Your Books!” is being donated to the JDRF.
And with her other hand… she writes a personal blog, YoungByName, about anything that takes her fancy, espcially life with her Scottish husband and small daughter in the small Gloucestershire village that has been her home for over 20 years. All of human life is there.
While keeping all of these plates spinning, she’s now working on a collection of short stories and a volume of the best posts from her YoungByName blog, to be published later this year.