How to sell 11,000 books in less than 4 weeks

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The title might be a little click-baity and just a tad misleading. I can’t tell you how to sell 11,000 books in four weeks, but seeing as that is what I’ve just done, I figured I’d have something to say about it.

My annual sales report for Oct 2015 to Sep 2016 mentions that in those 12 months, I sold 16.6k books. Then in the month of October I sold almost as much in just a single month. The 11k mentioned in the title was just one book. I sold other titles as well. In fact, the very point of selling the 11k books was to sell more different books.

So, what happened?

Well, I finished the Moonfire Trilogy and wanted to do an ad campaign to get more people into the series. I’d made book 1 99c for a while immediately after launch back in June and sold about 700 copies. But then I put the price back up so that I could concentrate on finishing the rest of the series (because refreshing sales dashboards is very distracting).

When that was done, I didn’t want to do another 99c promotion on the same book, but I did have something else. The Moonfire Trilogy is a sequel to the Icefire Trilogy. That series is now about four years old, and while it’s still selling, I felt I could play with it a bit. It also feeds into the Moonfire Trilogy. I spent a bit of time correcting some oopses I’d found, paid for another proofread, because there are always mistakes, always. I tizzed up the covers, and I put one very important line at the very end of the 900-page book: “The Moonfire Trilogy is set in the same world twenty years later. Click here to get the first book”.

Then I did something outrageous: I lowered the price for the entire trilogy to 99c. Then I applied for Bookbub. They said yes.

The ad ran on 8 October.

This happened:

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And this:

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And this:

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I sold 3046 books on that day on Amazon, with another 1500 on other platforms. The Bookbub site gives an estimated number of sales of 2400 copies. I needed to sell 1500 to break even on the cost of the ad.

I was happy. I know from running my own promotions that sets of books always do better than single books, because obviously they’re a better deal.

So I was very happy.

I expected the book to quickly sink into my usual comfort zone: oblivion. This particular book sells a good bit on Kobo, but rarely sells at all on Amazon (people there tend to prefer the individual volumes). I had planned to leave it 99c until this upcoming weekend’s Science Fiction and Fantasy promotion and I hoped to ride a bit on the tail of the promotion. I thought I might sell another few hundred. I sold EIGHT THOUSAND.

The book didn’t sink back down. It stuck to a ranking of around 3000 in the Amazon US store and it’s pretty much still there when I’m writing this. And yesterday, this happened in Amazon UK:

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I have NO idea why any of this happened, except to say a huge THANK YOU to all who bought it. It’s been a tad nuts, to be honest.

The ingredients to this success? Bookbub, no doubt, but to do so much better than their estimate? A good deal, lucky timing, and decent-sized community already familiar with your name. I’ve been featured by Bookbub seven times, so readers of Fantasy and SF will have seen my name a few times, and many more readers will have heard about my books from the SF/F promotions. That’s all I can think of.

The book will be featured in the SF/F promotion this week, and I’ve decided to keep it 99c until 21 November. Next week and the week after, a number of SFF promotion buddies will post to their mailing lists about it. It’s truly amazing to have such a great community.

Why books don’t sell part II

A while ago, I wrote a post Why Don’t My Books Sell. It was originally written on this blog, but before I did the crash & burn to fix weird problems with this blog, I moved it to the “Self-publishing” section on my author site.

That post is all (well, mostly, at least) about the book. It’s about cover, branding, quality of storytelling.

But it is not uncommon to see books that defy all the advice in that post, which is pretty much conventional wisdom. The books that are full of formatting, spelling and grammar errors that DO sell really well. Or the books that are beautifully done but don’t sell at all.

If anything, the fact that both these things happen means that there is something else going on.

Luck.

Sometimes it is just that. The author came in at a right time, something caught the attention of readers and the book took off.

But let’s unpack “luck” a little.

If luck means you’ve got to be somewhere at the right time, it means that you’ve got to BE somewhere first. In other words, the more you try, the more luck you can catch.

The more you try, the better you get at it.

Audience.

Who are your readers and how much do they care about books that follow strict formulas, and story tropes and how much, indeed, do they care about spelling and grammar? (I can hear a whole library of writers shudder right now)

Marketing types will sometimes tell writers to imagine a typical reader and then to imagine where that reader hangs out.

The fact is that a lot of beginning writers have Absolutely No Freaking Clue about who they are writing for, how to reach those people and how to engage them.

A lot of writers bumble through the beginning of their career trying this or that before eventually figuring out that this sort of stuff is important.

Who are my readers? Well it’s different for each series, but the typical reader for the Ambassador books is male, over 40, has a tertiary education. He is a geek and if he has a partner, he is unlikely to have children. He may be gay. He is quite likely not to live in the US, although he might. He votes left.

Where does he hang out?

He goes to geek cons. He talks about these on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ He buys books mostly through word-of-mouth and promotion sites.*

Do you see a pattern emerging with what I’m doing with my promotions?

If you have no idea who your “average” reader is, then you don’t know where to find them.

So what about those books that are full of mistakes, poor craft and still sell like hotcakes?

I had an epiphany about these, because it always baffled the hell out of me. Invariably, these writers report that they do much better in Kindle Unlimited (Amazon’s subscription service) through page reads than through sales.

I heard someone mention on a podcast that he had bought his 12yo son a subscription (because at that age, the boy can’t buy his own books: no credit card) and he was tearing through books. At that age–sadly but true–many kids are also not going to care much about spelling.

So. Audience.

How much of that audience is yours?

If you just publish a book and have no way of letting people know that it’s out, then it’s going to sink pretty much no matter how good (or bad) it is. A lot of people who get “lucky” out of the gate brought their own audience. For example from a fan fiction site or they’re a podcast host who had been talking about a novel for a long time. Or they are well-known in a non-fiction field and everyone knows that they are writing a novel that encompasses the profession, hobby or discipline.

It takes a community to launch a book successfully.

* How do I know this? Well, it’s quite easy. You make an ad on Facebook for the book. You target broad, like the genre and a major writer in the genre. You see who clicks and run the breakdowns on age, country, gender. And when you correspond with readers, Facebook will often give you a quick rundown of their education, job, marital status and hobbies, if they choose to share it, and it’s amazing how many people do.

Writing or Marketing?

If you poke around the internet, you will find posts by various wise writers exhorting you to spend x amount or proportion of your time marketing and the rest writing. Often it comes down to 80% writing and 20% marketing.

I think these sorts of enforced schedules miss a really important part of being a writer:

Marketing is not some evil thing that should be avoided at all cost, nor is it something that takes you away from writing, or something that needs to be rationed.

Marketing augments your writing. Marketing sells what you have already written, increasing the value obtained from your intellectual capital. Marketing can also help you decide what to write next: see what sells best, and then write more of that.

How much time do I spend doing either? However much is necessary. If I’m in the middle of an early draft of a book, I’ll spend next to no time marketing, but when I need to think about how plot threads fit together, I move to do more marketing, because most of it involves interacting with people and it takes your mind off thorny plotting problems, and that ironically helps you see the solutions that have been staring you in the face all the time.

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.

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.

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.

Why I give books away for free

Listened to the Marketing SFF people’s podcast with Elle Casey this morning.

I love Elle and the nice, unassuming way she treats her career and the success she has had. She said a lot of things that I agree with.

But she went on a little bit of a crusade against people who offer books for free, because apparently it conditions people to think that all books should be free. She had a mini-rant against people doing Facebook ads for mailing list subscribers, which I could get into. Mainly because I think Facebook ads take waayyyy too much time that I’d rather be writing, and I also think that people signing up *because* you’re offering free books tend to be on average the most unengaged peeps (only marginally more engaged than those you get from competitions).

But.

Then she said “unless you are offering a free book 1 in order to entice people to buy the rest of the series”. And this is often a caveat we will hear from the self-professed free-haters. It’s OK if it’s a marketing strategy.

And I just wonder what else these people think we’re doing with giving away free books. You distribute free books so that people can read a sample and go on to buy the rest of the series. That is the whole point of it.

In order to spread the reach, you advertise your free books as much as possible.

But then, their argument goes, you get emails from people wanting the entire series free.

Yes, I know. I get them, too.

And you know what?

I GIVE THEM THE BOOKS!

That is, if they want to review the books.

Get this: someone writes me saying that they’re a poor pensioner and can’t afford books but liked a free book, and wants the rest for free. I tell them: OK. Become a reviewer, and you get all my books for free.

Maybe what they tell me is true, maybe they’re lying. I don’t really care. What does it cost me to send out a review copy? Nothing! What do I get? Reviews! Win=win.

So I’m afraid I don’t get the anti-free-ranty people. Where do they see lots of writers giving away books *without* some sort of strategy to entice people to buy more books? Because all the writers I know who use free, use it as strategy. I could certainly argue that it *needs* a strategy to work, but I’m not seeing the conditioning to expect everything free. Second and subsequent volumes in series are never free.

Self-publishing: about selling on non-Amazon platforms

This morning I was listening to the Creative Penn podcast in which Joanna talks to Mark Levefre, the director of Kobo Writing Life.

Kobo has a special place for me, because it was the first platform where I started selling more than coffee money. That was pure luck, but lately I have been selling quite well on all non-Amazon platforms, and in the interview, Mark confirmed a few points that I had also noticed about selling on non-Amazon platforms.

Anyone who knows me will also know that I am a big proponent of being “wide”, meaning: selling on all retailer platforms where possible. This is the opposite of being in Amazon’s Select program, which requires you to be exclusive.

That’s not to say that I don’t play with Amazon’s toys every now and then. I like poking things to see what happens.

But it means that the bulk of my work will be available everywhere I can make it available.

A good many people complain about not selling much outside Amazon, so here are some of my thoughts about selling on non-Amazon platforms.

Other platforms are about the global reader. In many countries in the world, you can’t even access Amazon. Those people can only buy at Kobo or Google Play. Last months sales from Google Play featured countries as varied as Poland, Ireland, the Philippines, Switzerland, Finland, New Zealand and Argentina. There are many more people reading in English outside the US than there are inside it.

Other platforms are about commitment. I’m a Kobo reader. When I go to someone’s page on Kobo and I see a half-arsed selection of just a couple of their minor titles there, I know that that author is not committed to selling to me. I go and find another author.

Other platforms are about slow building and few spikes. It takes a long time to build up a sales history on some platforms. If you flip-flop in and out of Select, you start from scratch each time. Once your books have built up this sales history, they will sell themselves pretty much without your involvement.

Other platforms are about tailoring. I can’t comprehend why writers do their best to optimise their listings on Amazon, and then just plunk their books on other retailers (with the same blurb and same keywords as on Amazon), and expect the books to sell, without making ANY effort whatsoever to tailor their books to the site, and often without having looked at the site and what makes it tick.

If you have no real commitment and spend no effort advertising your books on other sites, you can’t expect to sell.

But, some people say, if I take my books out of the Select program, I make so much less money!

That may be true for some (it certainly wasn’t for me), but selling everywhere is not primarily about money. It’s about security, because if you’re exclusive with Amazon and don’t show consistent commitment to other sites, then when Amazon sneezes, you’ll be in bed with glandular fever for six months.

Selling on other platforms is also about taking control of your audience. It’s about learning to create your own sales rather than relying on retailer algorithms to do it for you (or, all of a sudden, to stop doing that for you overnight).

To try to go wide out of panic after a sudden downturn is the absolute worst time to do it. You can’t be in a hurry when you go wide. You need a lead time before you see the significant benefits.