A newbie writer’s guide to getting your first Bookbub ad (or other major advertising)

In conversation.

GH = Grasshopper
VA = Veteran Author

GH: Soooooo, I hear Bookbub is all the rage, but is that site even open to us indies, because I submitted my book once, and they didn’t want it.

VA: *loud belly laugh* You submitted ONCE? Mwahahahahahahaha!!!

GH: But they didn’t even tell me why they didn’t want it. The whole site is a stitch-up between the trads and the people who already sell well. Those people don’t even need it. Look at meeee. I’m down in the rankings and no one is seeing my book. It’s a conspiracy.

VA: OK, so let’s look at your book.

GH: *blushes*

VA: Is your cover the best you can make it? Is it appropriate for the genre? Is is skilfully made?

GH: Well, it was made by a friend who has a design business–

VA: Book cover design?

GH: No, she designs business cards. But it’s all the same, isn’t it?

VA: No, it isn’t. The format is too wide, making the cover look odd. The type is far too small. The picture is OK, although the photoshop skills could be better, but it doesn’t represent the genre. Get another cover.

GH: Okaaayyyy.

VA: Let’s look at your blurb. Is it short and snappy? Does it give a clear idea of what sort of story we’re going to get? Does it support the genre indicated by the cover?

GH: Well, I got my friend and her mother to review the book, so I copied those reviews into the blurb. I don’t want to give too much away about the story.

VA: Get rid of those reviews. They’re already in the review section. Don’t be too coy about what happens in the book. Lift a corner of the story and entice readers. Look at blurbs of successful authors.

GH: Okaaayyyyyyyy…..

VA: What about your sample? I see that you start the book with a dedication to your dog, a poem by another writer (do you have permission to use this?), a glossary of terms and a long prologue that’s a condensed history of the world. Get rid of those things, or at the very least move them elsewhere. The back of the book would be a good place.

GH: But why?

VA: They’re cluttering up your sample. People downloading the sample get hit with a wall of irrelevant stuff–

GH: But they need to know–

VA: Trust me, they don’t.

GH: Okay, but tell me, I asked why lowly indies like me never get featured on the big sites. What does that have to do with all this?

VA: Hear me out. What about your formatting? I see that your book uses HUGE indents and sometimes has empty lines for no reason.

GH: Formatting is the easy part. You just upload a Word file.

VA: That will work, if you have your Word file correctly formatted. You DON’T EVER use tabs for indents.

GH: You don’t? Really?

VA: Learn how to do it properly.

GH: Okaaayyyy, but I still don’t see–

VA: Reviews, how many do you have?

GH (sigh of relief): All right, you’re getting to the problem. It’s simply impossible to get reviews. And then you do giveaways and people will only review on goodreads, where the reviews are of no use to me. Everything is conspiring against new authors getting reviews.

VA: Nope. Reviews are a function of sales. Sell more books, and get more reviews.

GH: But they’re saying you need at least fifty to get into Bookbub! That’s impossible. Everything is stitched up by the older crowd.

VA (annoyed): Stop blaming other people for your failure.

GH: *blushes* Sorry.

VA: Because reviews are a function of sales, you must sell more books. Have you done all the things I mentioned earlier?

GH: I’m getting to it.

VA: OK, when you’ve done them, lower your book to 99c.

GH: WHAT? Do you know how much all this cost me? *faints*

VA: Do you want to do this or not?

GH (weakly): I guess…

VA: Lower your book to 99c for a week every month and run promotions on it. Start with the cheaper ones. Sell as many books as possible. Offer your book free to people who want to review. This will take a while.

GH: But! FIFTY reviews!

VA: They will come.

Six months later.

GH: OK I have 45 reviews, but it’s really slowed down a lot. Should I apply again?

VA: Yes, you should.

GH: What if they reject me?

VA: You apply again, as soon as you can. And again, and again. And again.

GH: But what if they never accept me?

VA: It happens. But by doing all the steps above, you’ve ensured that you may not even need it anymore. And above all, stop obsessing and keep writing.

GH: That’s what I most enjoy doing anyway.

Ambassador 5 is out!

Ambassador5Small

The next Ambassador book went live!

Read about it and get buy links here.

With the previous book, Coming Home, I finished the arc that I started at the end of book 2, involving the ancient ship. Blue Diamond Sky is a complete story, but at the end you will see that it leads into a bigger arc that I will spend the next few books exploring. We are going back to Earth. There is an election looming and things are looking dicey.

I am really enjoying the series. The characters are like friends to me and I know them very well.

My favourite character? There are a couple, actually.

Veyada, because he talks no bullshit.

Sheydu, because she talks no bullshit either, and because she is an older woman with a penchant for explosives.

Thayu, because Cory does not quite know the depths of her previous experience. He doesn’t really know what she did before she came to his household. He knows she has upper level spy training, but he doesn’t know what she did with it.

Asha, because he leads the most powerful army in the galaxy, because he finds Cory curiously interesting and toys with him like a cat with a mouse, giving him scraps of information or positions not normally available to outsiders to see what he will do with it.

More news!

I’m auditioning Ambassador 1 for audio production!

Self-publishing with a very small budget

In my last post I spoke about how I spend about $1500 average on each book. That includes editing, proofreading and formatting and the cover. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes less. The biggest variable is the cover. Some covers I can make, others I leave to someone else. I find it easier to spend more money because I am far more secure that I’ll be able to recoup the cost. The pre-orders for Blue Diamond Sky have been extremely encouraging, allowing me to recoup my costs if not this month certainly next month, even if I spent–how much!?–on the cover. I’ve also recently added a developmental editor to my go-to team. But I started out a one-woman band.

The cost per book has climbed gradually since I first started self-publishing in 2011. My first books cost virtually nothing. This post will be about how I did that.

The ballpark $1500 amount is divided into three components:

  1. Editing
  2. Cover design
  3. Formatting

I’m going to show you how you can save money on these and still have a decent product.

Editing

The first books I published had already been edited. They were novellas and short stories that had been published elsewhere. Never assume that an editor–even a very good one–picks up all flaws, but if you’ve had the rights to an old novella returned to you after a year or so, you probably have enough distance from the work to read it through carefully and publish it. What if your work hasn’t been published?

Beg, steal and borrow.

You will probably know that I am a big proponent of spending some time (like, a few years) in a writing workshop learning the ropes. This is free. Your fellow writers will give advice, and some of it will be BS and some of it will be great. Grab the people who are great by the horns and form your own little sub-group. Read and comment on each other’s work, and then, when you’re happy with it, swap a proofread with a meticulous different writer. It’s important that this isn’t all done by the same person who has already seen the book before, for the same reason you suck at proofreading your own work.

There we go! Instant editor.

No, it won’t be perfect, but if you’ve done your homework and learned your craft, the result will be acceptable, for now. The downside of course is choosing your editing partners and the time you have to invest in looking at their manuscript while they look at yours. There are all sorts of potential difficulties with this method, but it is a way to catch mistakes before they get published.

Once you feel you’ll want to pay for editing (and to be honest, you probably should do this sooner rather than later), you’ll find a wide range in pricing. Decent editing will costs you a few hundred dollars, and a bad editor is worse than no editor.

Red Adept Editing is an example of a reputable editing company used by many self-published writers.

Cover design

It is so easy to completely overboard with cost for cover design. Some artists quote thousands, and no, you don’t have to spend that much for an effective cover.

A couple of things are very important about your cover:

  1. A cover needs to convey genre and tone more than accuracy
  2. Covers that depict scenes from the book are usually bad and don’t work
  3. Simple is better. Keep the lettering readable at thumbnail format.

I asked the question about cheap cover design in the Writer’s Cafe on the Kindleboards (if you self-publish, this is your go-to advice think tank, so go and join already).

The consensus was:

  1. Your cover is always going to cost something, but it need not cost much.
  2. If you have no graphic skills and don’t know where to start, buy a premade cover. Remember the first point about covers. It’s about genre and feel, not about accuracy. On a premade cover site, the designer selling the cover will put your name and title on the cover, and that’s all the changes you’ll get. Don’t bug them for more. It’s a premade cover. Get a custom-designed one later.
  3. If you have some graphic skills, you can buy an image from stockphoto sites. A little-known fact is that these sites also sell artwork. Look for example at all the neat stuff I got when searching “fantasy landscape” at Dreamstime.
    Get some nice fonts from dafont.com. Typography is as important–if not more important–than the image. It can make or break your cover. Don’t use the fonts that came with your computer, don’t use any colours other than white, at least when you start. If you feel iffy about text and fonts, you can find layout designers on fiverr.com.
    But seriously, if you really don’t know what you’re doing, get a premade cover. They can be had for under $50 and won’t look too terrible.

Some premade cover sites:

Some resources for DIY options:

But, as someone on the Kindleboards said, book cover design is more about the designer than the tools. Read up on book cover design tips by designer Derek Murphy (at the time of writing this post, the ebook is only $1).

One of the most important things to remember about self-publishing is that upgrading a cover is easy and can be done later.

Formatting
Formatting is not hard, but it’s fiddly and time-consuming. You can do the DIY route and buy Guido Henkel’s Zen guide to formatting.

Or…

Get a free account at Draft2Digital and let them upload your books to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and a host of small sites. Upload a Word file. Download MOBI (for Amazon) and EPUB files. Upload those files to whatever sites you want to go direct. Done.

Or…

Polgarus Studio in Tasmania formats your ebook for $60-70. They also do print formatting.

Concluding remarks

There you go. I’ve mentioned some services and instructions. There are a lot more once you start to get a feel for what you should be searching. If any of these services are full or don’t offer what you want, it might pay to ask them where else you can get a service they recommend.

Most important is that in this case, Google is probably not your friend, because it will bring up a whole host of expensive vanity press options.

Once you start making a bit of money and want to invest it back into your book (as you should), decent services can be had for (current as of May 2016):

  • Line editing + proofreading: $400 – $700. Look for a service that does both
  • Custom cover design: $100 – $800. Less for photo-manipulation, more for custom art.
  • Formatting: $60-100 for ebook, more for print.

If you’re a beginning author outsourcing all these three things, you should not need to pay more than that. If you are, examine the reason why and whether you find it beneficial, in other words, whether it’s justified by your sales.

Expenses–and books don’t sell themselves

I came across this post in my Twitter feed.  TL;DR: an author lamenting how much it costs to produce a book, and how little she has sold.

The expenses side in her post looks fine. I tend to budget about A$1500 per book for editing, cover design and formatting. I have a line editor/proofreader who also formats my books. I use a variety of cover artists, and this is where the main variation in expense comes from. I’ve also recently started working with a paid content/developmental editor.

A$1500 per book serves me fine. This, of course, is a one-off cost and the more books you sell, the more you get out in profit. It is also where cover price affects your bottom line. At $2.99 per copy, I need to sell 750 copies to cover my costs. At $3.99, I need to sell less than 500. Everything else is gravy.

But the trick is: how do you sell 500 books? It is in this part of the equation that you can make a huge difference. To me, it sounds like the author of that blog post has not done an awful lot of effective promotion.

Promotion is not yelling at your social media friends. It’s not bookstore visits, blog tours or signings. It’s not even incessantly buying ads. There are only a couple of sites that are effective anyway.

Promotion is:

  • A good self-hosted website that you use as platform for:
  • Your mailing list signup form
  • Listing all your books and places where people can buy them
  • Write an engaging series of a couple of books
  • Make the first one free, and link to your mailing list signup in the front and back of the book
  • Now advertise the hell out of your free book.

A good dose of patience is also required. And writing a couple of books per year.

Amazon Scammers, Stockholm Syndrome and why I don’t really care

I came back from Melbourne last night (photos later) to find the umpteenth brouhaha having broken out about Amazon (and specifically Kindle Unlimited) scammers.

What are Amazon scammers?

The TL;DR version:

  • Amazon has a program where readers in certain countries–not Australia or New Zealand–can buy a subscription for $10 per month and read as much as they like.
  • Authors then get paid those reads per page read. OK, cool.
  • People who publish direct at Amazon will see benefit to bundle their books, because they will have more pages. More pages = more money. OK, still cool and totally fine.
  • But certain people will then fill those books with rubbish: google-translated copies of the same book, unrelated material, all of which you have to wade through in order to get to the book… and sometimes there even isn’t a book (it could be copied public domain material, recipe books, crappy fiction ghost-written by desperate people on fiverr). Okaaaayyyyy…
  • Until some of the books are plagiarised. Not OK.
  • But then there is usually a link at the front of the book that says “Win a Kindle every month!” The user clicks it and is transported to a page at the very end of the ebook. Hey, presto! The entire 10,000-page book has been read! (Amazon has only recently reduced the maximum size of bundles to 3000 pages for this reason). Very smart, but sneaky.
  • And then the publisher hires people in click farms to borrow books and click to the end each and every day.
  • But, you say, click farms are often in countries that don’t have access to the program? Not a problem that a VPN can’t solve. Also, the first month’s membership of Kindle Unlimited is free. Make a disposable account with a dummy email address every month. In fact, make hundreds of fake accounts.
  • All the top-level scammer has to do is pay the paltry wages of click farm employees.

Don’t believe it happens?

Read this

Then look at pretty much all the books in this search. Go to the “Look Inside”. Entire categories are being taken over by these types of books or their slightly less blatant cousins.

This is pretty disgusting, and some of these people are absolutely raking in the cash.

But.

There is a lot of handwringing going on in the self-published community about this. People express the thought that “Amazon should do something about this” and that money should go to honest authors and yadda yadda.

Fair enough.

But. This scam is not directed at readers. It’s directed at Amazon, and yes, they certainly would do well to clean up their house.

(my two options: 1. nix the KU program, 2. employ actual people to vet newly-uploaded books. They won’t do 1. because they’re Amazon and stubborn, and they won’t do 2. just for the sake of making the point that they’re not Apple or Kobo and that they’re Amazon and stubborn)

When I take off my moralising hat and I put on my author hat, I see this as Amazon’s problem, not my problem. And because I take control of my own audience, Amazon’s problems are not my problems. Because of all the things I’ve done over the past few years, I’m in a position where Amazon is not my sales. It’s a decent proportion of the sales, but I send people there, not the other way around. I would just as happily send them elsewhere. Many people read on more than one platform.

This, in my opinion, is why you don’t want your income tied up with a single retailer: because you start believing that 1. the retailer cares about you (I doubt Amazon cares very much), 2. that they have your best interests at heart (No, they don’t, they’re in the game to make money), 3. that your opinion matters to them (no, it doesn’t, or at least not until a critical mass has been reached).

Cut the Stockholm syndrome. Amazon doesn’t care about this. This scamming is daft, but it’s not about writers. Do your homework and take control of your own audience.

Supanova Melbourne: Come and say hello

I’m leaving tomorrow to go to Supanova Melbourne.

If you’re in Melbourne or are also coming, come and say hello. I’m in the Artists’ Alley at table 36.

We’re leaving tomorrow, because on Thursday, my daughter and I are planning a photography trip to the Twelve Apostles. Let’s hope the weather behaves!

It’s likely that you won’t hear from me on this blog until I’m back. I may or may not have internet. The accommodation says there is free wifi, but seriously, you know what free wifi is like, so I’m not holding my breath.

In other news, I just heard that Bookbub is finally taking Ambassador 1 on 11 May. This is going to be very, very big, especially since it’s so close to the release of book 5.

Moonfire Trilogy: snippet

Moonfire

Because I can. Book 1 is finished. I’ve had a talk with a content editor today, will be making a few tweaks. Like the Icefire Trilogy, the series will have multiple point-of-view characters, and one of them is meteorology student Javes (Javesius). As part of their education in their final year, the students have all been sent on field placement, and he was sent to a very small town in northern Chevakia at the very edge of the desert.

This is one of the things that happens to him:


Within moments, Javes was surrounded by dusty, dark people. They were all yelling at the same time.

“Where has the dust devil gone?” a man screamed. “Where are all my horses?”

“Is it coming back?” another man wanted to know.

“The devils are meant to stay in the desert,” a woman said, her voice indignant. “They don’t come as far south as this. Pashtan said so.”

“Pashtan said nothing about that this could happen.”

“I don’t know why you ever believed him. He’s not even from here and knows nothing about our land.”

“Pashtan is dead!” Javes called out over the din.

A good number of people fell quiet. They stared at him.

“Dead?” a woman said.

“Yes, dead. You know, not alive. Same as the other cart donkey. Had the flesh tripped from its bones. The cart was turned over and everything covered in dust.” He wiped his face. He didn’t think he’d ever felt more exhausted in his life.

More people fell quiet.

“And you survived?” a man said, his voice incredulous. “The city kid? What sort of magic is that?”

“It’s not magic. It’s only because—”

“You survived! That’s a sign. You should have Pashtan’s position.”

“You could not possibly do any worse than call dust devils into town!”

“He did that because you cheated him out of two bottles of cider—”

“Quiet!” Javes called.

People stopped yelling.

“I will contact the meteorology department for a replacement meteorologist—”

“What are you talking about? There has been a sign. He died while you were here. You survived and he died. That’s a sign. We have a new meteorologist.”

Several people nodded their agreement. “It’s a sign.”

No, no. Javes was overcome with a feeling of total horror. “I can’t stay because I’m not finished with my education yet.” That was the only thing he could think of saying, and it came out really lame. But his mouth was dry and his mind blank. He shuddered at the thought of spending his entire life in Pashtan’s simple square house with its two rooms, of trudging past all the weather stations in a donkey cart every day, and doing this day in day out, and sitting at the plain wooden desk every night to work out the curves and trends and traipse to the telegraph office every few days to send the results to Tiverius.

The life of a regional meteorologist.

That was not what he had signed up for, was it?

Self-publishing: Warning – There Are Sharks In The Water

General warning: as soon as you decide to self-publish, a certain section of the population decides that you are a cow to be milked. Some will be blatant about it by sending you emails soliciting your business. Usually, it’s to buy into some form of marketing. Mostly, you’ll be marketed at in more subtle ways, where people tug at you with statements like “I went from selling xxx to selling yyyyy using this method/site!”

Especially the latter is very hard to evaluate objectively, because writers get told to treat their writing as a business, and you should therefore invest in that business, right?

Wrong!

Yes, you should invest in your business, but you should invest smartly in that business. You will not make your book sell better by randomly throwing handfuls of money at it.

In order to know how to invest smartly, you first need to know what you need and who offers the best services to give you these things.

It is perfectly OK NOT to invest terribly much while you’re learning the ropes, especially on the side of marketing.

Don’t become that author with the $2000 book trailer without a clue how and where to use that book trailer (hint: book trailers are a luxury that you can spend on when you can afford it. They don’t lead to many sales).

Don’t become that author with a $1000 book cover by a great artist who 1. has never designed a book cover before and 2. didn’t really portray genre cover conventions that help sell the book.

Don’t become the author who bought a marketing plan from a vanity-type press because the people emailed and it “sounded so good”.

If someone emails you about a service and you have to pay for it, it’s not going to be something you want.

Don’t fall in these traps. Educate yourself. Decide what YOU need and then hunt for people to provide the service. Anyone whose service is good will be very busy and won’t spend much time looking for clients.

No, it’s not easy. Yes, it sounds like work. If it sounds easy and too good to be true, then it usually isn’t. Do your homework. Sit on your wallet until you’re convinced that the service is good. Ask other people about it. Google the service. Ask the Kindleboards hivemind about it. Do. Your. Research.