How Self-Published Books Are Made: Start to Finish (PART II)

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In last week’s post, How Self-Published Books Are Made: Start to Finish (PART I), we assembled everything we needed to self-publish, decided whether to go e-book only, e-book first and then paperback or e-book and paperback together, sorted out our US tax situation and finally, self-published both an e-book with Amazon KDP and Smashwords, covering all major e-book retailers, and a POD paperback with CreateSpace. (Or we went to somebody like eBookPartnership.com because removing tabs and putting back in italics got all a bit much for us.)

But that was only half the battle. What do we do now that the books are here? How are we going to let people know they exist, and convince them to buy a copy? How do we sell our books?

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Please Don’t Say ‘Social Media’…

Sorry, here it comes: the best way to sell self-published books is by using social media. But before you roll your eyes and throw in the towel on this whole self-publishing thing because ‘twittering is for teenagers’, let me say this: just think of it as word-of-mouth. That’s what’s always sold books, and it’s what sells books now. Taking it online just amplifies the numbers and, for self-publishers, levels the playing field too.

The readers of books like yours are out there, online, and you can reach them directly in numerous ways. That’s the easy bit. The hard bit is reaching them in the right way (tip: not in a way that annoys them or smells like spam) and, once you’ve done that, convincing them that your book is worth a read.

It is possible to sell books without using social media, and I’m sure you all know someone who did this. I do too. But there are the exception to the rule, and you can’t assume or expect to be the exception. There’s usually something else in those stories too, like impeccable timing or luck. I think you should do everything you can to try and sell copies of your book, not sit back and relax and hope for a cloud of fairy dust to burst above your head.

I also think you should avoid traditional PR. It may work for books that are in stores but I’ve never seen it work for self-published e-books and paperbacks that are only for sale online. I’ve only see it spectacularly fail, leaving self-publishers with empty wallets and bitter disappointment in its wake. If the item is for sale online, keep the promotion online. And do it yourself. Hiring someone else to tweet for you, for example, is like paying someone else to give your friend a hug.

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Self-Published Book Selling 101: No One Cares

No one cares about a book just because the book was written, because it exists. Just think about this in logical, familiar terms. Why did you buy the last book you bought? And why did you buy that one, and not any of the other ones that were on the same shelf or in the same store or mentioned in the e-mail Amazon sent you? Why do you care about some books and not about others? What’s the difference?

Your job, as both writer and publisher of your work, is to make readers care. To give them genuine reasons to. (I once got an e-mail on Goodreads from an author who said—and this is a copy and paste—’This is not a giveaway, or a blog tour, or anything remotely related to an ‘event’. [He’d sent it through the Event feature.] Just a statement from one blunt person to all of you. Buy This Book. You’ll like it. I promise.” Oh, you, the writer, promises I’ll like it? Really? Pinky-swear? Well, let me just run out now this very second and buy this book with the terrible cover and boring-sounding blurb that has no reviews and doesn’t even bear a slight resemblance to the books I like to read. Color me convinced! Yeah, right.) You need to make the potential reader think, hmm, this sounds interesting and then, this seems like something I’d like and finally, the price is right and I think I will like this: let me go hit that Buy button!

Think of what has to happen in order for someone to buy a book:

  1. They find out the book exists (through social media, like a mention in a tweet or a blog post, or through Amazon search results, or through a review they see online)
  2. The cover is eye-catching enough to make them stop and take a look. It also instantly identifies the kind of book it is, which hopefully is the type of book this reader likes to read
  3. The blurb makes you want to read the book
  4. The author bio convinces you the writer can write
  5. There are reviews that don’t seem to be written by family members, friends, etc.
  6. The price is high enough that you think quality but low enough that you think trying this book is risk-free.

Consider how many of these elements—the cover, the blurb, the author bio—will have been decided during the publication process. That’s why it’s so silly when self-publishers do all the self-publishing bit and then say, ‘Right: how am I gonna sell this baby?’, as if the two things are entirely disconnected. You are selling copies of your book through the decisions you make every step of the way.

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The ‘This Book Exists’ Bit

In an extremely simplified way (because this is supposed to be a summarized overview type thing, not a 10,000-word rehash of everything I’ve blogged about and written about already), here are the five stages of letting the world know that you book exists, i.e. step 1 above in what has to happen for somebody to decide to buy a book.

  1. Build a core of support. If you want to sell 10,000 books, you don’t need 10,000 Twitter followers. The Big Three of social media—blogging, Twitter and Facebook—are there for you to connect with people who are really more interested in you, the writer, than necessarily the subject matter or plot line of your book. They want to support you, just as you want to support them—and in a very genuine way. I’m talking here about your social media friends: your blogger friends, the people you chat to on Twitter, etc. This might also extend to a mailing list of subscribers, if you’ve been at this a while. This is the group that when your new book comes out, buy it mostly because it’s by you, and also tweet about it, post reviews online, invite you to guest post, etc. They get the ball rolling—they don’t buy every book you plan on selling. They are your (small but enthusiastic) core of support.
  2. Build anticipation towards a launch date. Most self-publishers don’t use launch dates, and I think that’s a grave mistake. Traditional publishing uses launch dates, and so should you. (As opposed to ‘My book will be out in the summer’ or ‘The e-book should be ready next week’.) You need something to build towards. And it doesn’t matter if the books are available before the date you pick. It’s purely for promotional purposes. Before this date, you should be blogging about your book, perhaps organizing a little blog tour, running Twitter giveaways for advanced reader copies (ARCs), video-blogging, posting photos of the proof copies to Facebook, etc. etc. See Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) Like Fight Club.
  3. Target specific readers. If you publish your e-books on Smashwords, you can download both an ePub and a Mobi (Kindle) file of your book that you can then e-mail like you would any other file. This is perfect for reviewers. Find relevant book bloggers, Goodreads users and Amazon Top Reviewers and offer them a copy of your book. Remember though that just like the steps above for buying a book, reviewers must also be convinced to read and review your book. See How (Not?) To Get Your Book Reviewed for more. You can also set up a Goodreads giveaway for paperback editions of your book; the winners will post their reviews online.
  4. Maximize launch. Your launch day is most likely when the maximum number of virtual eyeballs will be on your book, and when your sales rank gets the best opportunity to rise up (or down, it being the lower the better) on Amazon as your core of support goes out to buy it. You want to create events around this time to maximize this, like a blog tour, or a big giveaway, or a blog post you know will get lots of readers. It’s up to you, but my key point is don’t let this day pass just like any other. Make something of it.
  5. Help Amazon sell your book for you. Sign up for Amazon Author Central and go into the back end of your Amazon listing through it. Add formatting to your blurb, add extracts of the book blogger and Goodreads reviews you’ve now collected, add any evidence you’re a good writer to your author bio. Perhaps run a price promotion or even (if you dare) run your book through KDP Select. This will all encourage sales, which will push your book higher up search results and into things like ‘Customers who viewed this item also bought…’ etc., which, if you can keep it going, will inevitably lead to Amazon doing all the hard work for you.

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How To Self-Publish in 32 Easy Steps: A To Do List

If I was self-publishing a new, full-length book right now, here’s how I would do it.

  1. Write the book
  2. Get your US tax issue sorted, if applicable
  3. Check you’ve money to (potentially) lose in the bank
  4. Create a marketing/promotion plan for your book, including a schedule, a blurb and a launch date
  5. Start blogging about the book, i.e. building anticipation about it
  6. Research reviewers, make list of potentials
  7. Research and decide on prices
  8. Find and hire an editor
  9. Edit book, meanwhile:
  10. Find and hire a cover designer
  11. Mock-up paperback interior to determine page count
  12. Download cover template from CreateSpace and:
  13. Send cover template to cover designer
  14. Proofread book
  15. Create two copies of the manuscript
  16. Create interior PDF for inside of paperback from Copy A
  17. Okay cover design from cover designer
  18. Upload files to CreateSpace and order proof copy
  19. Format Copy B for e-book conversion
  20. Upload files to Amazon KDP and Smashwords but publish ONLY on Smashwords (leave KDP in ‘draft’)
  21. Download ePub and Mobi files from Smashwords and immediately unpublish (so no one can buy the book for now)
  22. Check e-book files using Kindle App for PC/Mac and Adobe Digital Editions
  23. Check proof copy paperback, publish if all okay but set to ‘Private’ (so no one but you can order it and it doesn’t go out to retailers)
  24. Order x amount of paperbacks to send to reviewers
  25. Contact reviewers, offering paperbacks or e-book files. Send them.
  26. Two weeks before launch date, publish paperback
  27. One week before launch date, publish on Amazon KDP and Smashwords
  28. Wait for Amazon listings to go live
  29. Sign up for Amazon Author Central, email them to get them to link Kindle and paperback listings
  30. Announce to the world on your (chosen by you) launch day that the book is now available
  31. Sell loads of copies of it
  32. Start writing your next book.

This is obviously a very simplified version of an actual self-publisher’s To Do list, but I think it’s a good working order and has all the main stuff on there. You might also be interested in the post I did that listed everything I actually did to self-publish my book Backpacked, How Much Work Is Self-Publishing?

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Sales Reports and Payments

All of these websites—CreateSpace, KDP and Smashwords—have sales reports you can refer to any time. CreateSpace and KDP pay you by the month, Smashwords quarterly.

You can also make changes to your books at any time by uploading new cover or interior files.

But I Did All This And It Didn’t Work!

Welcome to publishing! A popular anti-publishing point is that the publishing industry can’t tell you why one book sells and another doesn’t. But that isn’t just publishing. That’s BOOKS. (And also, TV shows. And movies. And broadway shows. And breakfast cereals.) It happens to traditional publishing companies and self-published authors, because we just don’t know how the reading public is going to react to any given book. I’ve seen this even within my own range of titles—I’ve done pretty much the same thing with all of them (although, thanks to a decreasing amount of free time, probably less and less as each title has come out) and yet one of them still sells steadily three years later and the one I think is the best never seems to catch up. It isn’t just publishing professionals who don’t know why one book sells and another doesn’t. Nobody does.

So brace yourself: you may do every single thing right, from writing a great book to making your Amazon listing the best there is, and you might still fail to sell any copies. That’s just the way it is. There are no guarantees. And you’ll just have to deal with that.

What Next?

Start writing the next one!

Any questions?

I wrote, like, a whole book about this you know. You can buy it in paperback or e-book, and you can even buy the e-books directly from me. You can also browse all my self-printed themed blog posts here or sign up to receive all future posts by e-mail in the sign-up box in the sidebar. I’m also on Twitter @cathryanhoward

42 thoughts on “How Self-Published Books Are Made: Start to Finish (PART II)

  1. Joan Brady says:

    This is fantastic information – thank you. I already have your Self-Printed book – which is super useful by the way – but it’s still great to see the action points distilled like this. A bit terrifying too – think I’ll print it off and hide the rest of the actions points while I am working on the first one!

  2. evie gaughan says:

    Brilliant post Catherine 🙂 On behalf of ‘about-to-self-publish’ authors everywhere, THANK U! (Pinky Swear? Very funny..) Any suggestions on who to contact re: blog tours? It can be hard to know where to start.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      The people I’d contact about blog tours are the bloggers I know whom I’m ‘blogging friends’ with. If you haven’t connected with other members of the blogging community, you can’t (or shouldn’t) have a blog tour.

  3. Russell Phillips says:

    Excellent post. I don’t disagree with any of it, but I’d like to emphasise one of your points, and expand on another.

    not in a way that annoys them or smells like spam

    This. This many times over. Also, note that even if you hand-write 1,000 email addresses into your email client before firing off your “buy my book”/”review my book” email, you’re still a spammer. You’re just an inefficient spammer.

    Regarding PR and hiring people: If you do decide to do this, vet the company before you give them any money. I used to do book reviews on my blog, and I got many emails from one particular publicist asking for reviews. None of the books were in genres that I reviewed, none of the emails followed the “how to request a review” instructions on my blog, and I kept getting these emails after I’d stopped doing reviews. Don’t just ask the PR company for a list of happy clients, look to see if anyone has complained about them.

    • Acaye says:

      This is a very fantastic and timely read for me. Thankyou. I self published my first poetry collection then started looking for a publisher for my next collection….It is not really working , for a Ugandan especially with no agent yet with dreams of winning a Pulitzer prize of poetry someday….yeah! Dreams! Anyway, thankyou

  4. cassandracharles says:

    Good poat. I’ve read your self-printed book, too, and it has been very useful. The list may look a bit daunting, but it’s best to do all of these things now rather than being pushed into it later on.

  5. Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) says:

    So much great info! Trial and error is always part of any process, but then along comes a post like this that can give my self-publishing and platform-building efforts a shot of much-needed clarity.

  6. Creative Metaphor says:

    This is an amazing pair of entries. One question, is there any benefit or reason to purchase your own ISBN numbers as opposed to letting the self-publish company (CreateSpace) supply you with one?

  7. rosedandrea says:

    Reblogged this on Rose's Road and commented:
    Here is the second installment of Catherine’s How Self-Published Books Are Made: Start to Finish. This one concentrates on what you should do once you have gotten around to the publicizing portion of self-publishing.
    It’s rather illuminating (and entertaining).
    Enjoy!

  8. barry knister says:

    You know what we all think: you are the gold standard among those who offer valuable information. Your bracing reality slaps are important to all indie writers–make that to all writers, period. And they are invariably accompanied by clear advice on what to do. Thank you again.

  9. td Whittle says:

    Thank you for this information, which is useful and concise. Unless I have misunderstood the terms of the KDP Select contract I have read recently, is that one cannot publish on both KDP Select and any other digital distributor during the first ninety days or so of the contract. That might be worth mentioning, no? Also, would you advise against using KDP Select, in favour of straightforward KDP?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I have mentioned that, many times before. This is just supposed to be a post (or two posts) about the bare basics.

      I think there’s still some benefit to KDP Select, but only if it’s your book’s first 90 days and you don’t have to pull your titles from other ebook retailers in order to enroll in it.

  10. Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) says:

    Reblogged this on JeriWB and commented:
    This two-part post titled “How Self-Published Books Are Made” by Catherine Ryan Howard was too good not to share. Whether you’re a writer, or just more of a reader, this post on self-publishing is a must read. I became aware of the blog Catherine, Caffeinated via the author interview I conducted with South African author Consuelo Roland. Please enjoy the read and let me know your thoughts on the state of publishing in general.

  11. Sarah Somewhere says:

    Hi Catherine, just discovered your blog and here’s how: I was on Amazon doing a few reviews for friend’s books, then found ‘Backpacked’, opened the preview (as I am currently living in Mexico and planning to travel to Central next year), liked what I saw, then read your bio and saw you had a blog. Googled your name, now here I am and I love your site so much (as well as your impressive resume and knowledge) that I bought your book. Phew! Won’t be starting it for a bit as I am currently on another travel memoir about a cycling trip through Africa, but it’ll be next! And considering I used to have this blog theme, I now consider us new BBFs. KIDDING! Kinda…

  12. Dina Krohne says:

    I just finished writing a weight loss book and really appreciate these posts. At least I know which steps to take…all except…how do I make “blogging friends”?

  13. jwethne says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have been looking for a really long time for a blog or website that wasn’t vague on promoting a book. They say, “Do a blog tour”, while I sit there going, “Okay, great… What the hell does that mean?!”

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