Is there still a point to use free books?

In Self-publishing Unboxed, I mentioned that I don’t use permanently free books any more.

People have asked me when I would recommend using free books, and when not to use them.

Free books are excellent for giving away samples of your writing. People will download the free book and then will read the other books if they liked it.

But if you have a permanently for a book on Amazon or any of the other retailers, you will find that after initial burst of downloads, the number of people downloading your book reduces quite a lot.

When that happens, you will have to advertise.

And with advertising comes a cost. Also, there are only so many venues where you can effectively advertise your free book, like ENT, Freebooksy and, if you can get it, Bookbub. Eventually you’re going to run out of places to advertise, and it will be harder to get free downloads. You can ask fellow writers in similar genres to post about your free book to their mailing list, but you have to work harder and harder to give your free books away. There are people doing this very successfully by the way. But don’t expect the fact that you have a free book to just lead to higher sales by its self.

On Amazon, I tend to only get free downloads if I have advertising going, on Kobo, the free books are right at the bottom of the rankings, so people will only find them when you point them to the free book, and this is the same at Google play. Apple is the only retailer that still shows free books to readers in a place where they can actually find them, but unfortunately, a soon as you make your book free on Apple, Amazon will make it free, too.

When I say that I no longer use free as a tool, that is not entirely true. I definitely use free, but I give away free books in exchange for people’s email address so that they can be on my mailing list.

This is a huge advantage, because now you know who your readers are.

I started doing this when I noticed that all the downloads on the retailer sites were through activities of mine. If you’re going to have to pay to get people to download your free book, you might as well pay for a place where they need to leave your email address to get the free book.
I uploaded my free books on Instafreebie and Bookfunnel and required mandatory email signups for people to download their copy.

I will occasionally make a book free for month or so, but I won’t leave it like that, because the downloads diminish when your ad campaigns have finished, and there is no point leaving the book free if you are driving all the downloads.

In short, free is useful when there are external mechanisms that will direct new readers to your books. If you are the only one directing the readers, you should dictate where people download it. It might as well be in a place where you can get their data.

The comments on this blog are closed, but this post is syndicated to my Facebook page, where you can comment and ask further questions. Find out about the Three Year Plan self-publishing books here.

Relaunching books–when does it make sense?

In a previous post, I said something about the wisdom of relaunching your book when it is your first book and you’re beginning writer. I cautioned against spending too much time and money on a book that still has significant flaws because you may need to learn more about the craft.
But there are definitely situations where relaunching your book makes a lot of sense. When would that be?

In that post, I also mentioned that the time to relaunch your first book would be after you have written a couple of additional books. When you are certain that you have learned enough to write an engaging story that people want to read, that is when you go back to the first book, and use what you have learned about writing, editing and cover design to fix up the book, especially when you have a second book in that series ready to go.

This is the most common way in which we see people successfully re-launching books, but it cannot be done in a vacuum. Just re-launching a single book is probably not going to be terribly effective, but it is a lot more effective if it goes hand-in-hand with the launch of a second book in the same series.

So what would be the best way of going about a relaunch?

If you have a first book that is just sitting there gathering digital dust, the cover is not terribly ideal, the editing was not that great, you may want to take it down if you plan on writing a second book and then relaunching both as s series.

Another reason to relaunch your book may be because you want to change the genre it is in. You may not be editing your book, but changing everything about the packaging to make it more in line with the new genre you are targeting. New title, new cover, new blurb.

Other reasons could include change your pen-name, re-organising your series of rebranding your covers.

Almost all of this type of stuff is done when you have a number of books and you want to fix up your first book or bring it up to speed with the other books.

Relaunches can be quite successful, but they work best if you treat the books like a new product. Change the title and change the cover and to make sure you have a whole series of books for people to buy.

This means not simply copying the new version of the book over the other version, but taking the old version down completely and re-launching as a new book with some ads and announcements to your mailing list.

Relaunching can work very well, but you need to have a plan, because just putting a new cover on an old book is unlikely to have much effect.

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Publishing as ESL writer

People ask: English is not my first language, can I make money as a writer?

My first reaction to this would be: hold the phone, who says that you can’t publish no matter what your first language is.

There are numerous traditionally published authors whose first language isn’t English. When you think of it, the concept of first language is a sliding scale anyway. If someone learns to speak another language in the childhood but then went to an English school, is that still a first language?

But let’s just suppose you did not grow up speaking English for any part of your life, and you live in a country where English is not a main language.

Can you still publish in English?

You are probably thinking of those cases where reviewers make nasty comments like: I don’t think this writer’s first language is English. They mean this as an insult, and just to be sure, it gets directed at writers whose first language is English, too. Not only that, it doesn’t always mean that there is something wrong with the author’s English. It’s often the reader’s perception of it.

English is a very varied language, and there are many different flavours. As an exercise, I once tried to write a story in Indian English. They use sentence constructions and words that are perfectly correct English, but are not used in the same way in some other parts of the world.

So, before you get hung up about English not being your first language, consider that English is a fairly wide spectrum and that the insult that English is not the writer’s first language gets levelled at native English speakers, too.

Now, of course this does not absolve you from having to learn English grammar and spelling. But I know many non-English speaking people whose English is better than that of people who grew up speaking English. So it is completely possible.

In the beginning, with your first book in English, you are probably going to need an extra layer of editing. You will need an editor who is clued in about your native language and the common mistakes that people make when writing English.

I would recommend that you read a lot in English and absorb the right phrases and terminology through books that you love.

One thing you should never do is apologise. When you publish a book to the best of your ability and have used a native English speaking editor, don’t tell anyone that English is not your first language.

Why not?

Because people are going to put copious amounts of extra nitty-gritty attention into looking for flaws (that mostly aren’t flaws at all) and all you’ll do is put words about English not being your first language in people’s mouths when they write reviews. You will end up with stupid comments like “I enjoyed this book despite the fact that it was written by someone whose native language isn’t English”. Seriously, don’t even give people a reason to say dumb stuff like this.

Even in the self publishing world there are many writers who neither live in an English speaking country nor speak English at home. Some of them are very successful, some of them have published under an English sounding name. If you want to be like them, that is totally possible.

Initially, you may need to work a bit harder on your prose, but there is no reason at all why you can’t take part in the fun.

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Sick of juggling sales spreadsheets?

When your books are distributed wide, you will be bombarded with sales spreadsheets from vendors every month.

What to do with them?

There are a number of options to aggregate your sales data so that you can make sense of them.
One of those options, which I recommend in Self-publishing Unboxed, is a program called Trackerbox.

Trackerbox and allows you to see your sales per country, per retailer, per series, for any time period that you choose. It gives your sales in all the different currencies and also tallies pages read if you are in KU. It gives free downloads. Other than the usual venues, like Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and Nook, it supports formats from more unusual sales sources like Bundlerabbit, as well as print books, audiobooks, and even a user uploaded spreadsheet option for hand sales at cons.

Trackerbox is a program that you download and use on your computer, rather than give all your passwords to run online. Therefore your financial data, and your passwords, are secure.

Trackerbox has only been available for the PC. But Mac use amongst writers has exploded, because there are so many great programs for the Mac. The owner is now running a kickstarter to make a version of Trackerbox for Mac.

You can support the kickstarter and will get your version of the program when it is done.

So if you use a Mac, why not support the kickstarter now, so that this version will become a reality.

Should you pay for Amazon or Bookbub followers?

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of promotions coming up that help you get followers on Amazon or Bookbub.

“Followers on Amazon?” you ask. “I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

Yes, you can follow an author through the little button under the “buy” button that says: do you want to hear when this author has a new book out and on the Bookbub site it is pretty much the same.

So, when you have a new release, the site will email to all the people who have clicked that button that you have a new book out. That’s a good idea, right?

Well, many authors ask, how do I find out how many followers I have on Amazon? Can I see who they are?

The answer is: you wish.

Bookbub does show you how many followers you have, and how many of those are in the US, but again you don’t have access to their email addresses. If you have more than thousand followers in the US, you can get access to a pre-order announcement service to those followers, but you have to pay for it. Sounds like a money grab? You betcha!

When Amazon sends out a notification that you have a new book, you can definitely see it, especially for pre-orders. They will send out one email to your followers when the book is on pre-order, and they will send another one it is available for sale.

However, they don’t always send out emails (my last three books were ignored by Amazon), and you have no control over when this email goes out.

Bookbub is a lot more reliable about sending emails, but again you have no control over when this happens.

So, you are going to spend money to put my people into this nebulous pile of email addresses that to the list owner may or may not use when you have a new release?

You can probably already tell that I’m not a fan.

Furthermore, if you advertise for these “likes”, a lot of the clicks to your profile are going to be polluted with people who haven’t actually bought your book and who don’t care about what you’ve written, they just wanted to enter the competition. It’s much like taking part in cross promotions where people have to sign up to your list in order to win a prize. With the huge disadvantage that you don’t get their email addresses.

It’s not that I think it is an entirely stupid thing to do. Nor do I think it’s something that will harm you (except you may spend money for not much gain). I think that if you going to pay to get cold leads, as these are called the industry, then actually get the cold leads and get your hands on their email address so you know who they are and you can send them what you like when you like.

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Should you go with a small press?

This is a question that often gets asked: what are the benefits of going with a small press?

First of all, there are a number of different definitions of the word small press. Some people define a small press as one that is not one of the big five publishing companies in the world. By that definition, a small press can be quite big.

But mostly, when people ask about small presses, they mean operations that are run by just one or maybe two or three people. They put up a website, advertise themselves as being open for submissions, and then are flocked by aspiring writers. Should you follow those writers?

There are a number of reasons why people like the idea of a small presses. It’s personal and there is a good chance that you will have some input in things like cover design, while having assistance in the nitty-gritty of publishing for those tasks that you don’t necessarily want to learn yourself. You don’t want to find an editor, you don’t want to have to worry about cover design, and you don’t want to do the marketing. But you have submitted your book to the big presses and agents already, and they all said no. So what is left? The small press sounds attractive. You can still say “my publisher”, so if traditional publishing is your aim, you appear to have fulfilled it.

But before you go any further, have a look at what your aim is.

Many people just want to be published by someone other than themselves. They like approval from the industry. However with a small press—or maybe a better word would be micro press—how much clout this approval carries will depend on the reputation and activities of the person running it. How well connected are they, how well respected are they, how good are they at getting your book in front of other people?

With the advent of self publishing, many small presses do very little that you can’t do it yourself, so why would you sign with them?

These presses are very author-centric, market and sell to the writing community. They often fall down severely on the marketing side of things. Usually these presses are run by people who do it for the love, who have a day jobs and who then juggle a number of authors in their spare time. They don’t have time to read up on the latest marketing techniques, because they’re too busy sorting out cover designers and meeting deadlines. Many are still focused strongly on print, and don’t have the resources to do all the things that you yourself could do for your books, simply because you don’t have nineteen other authors to worry about.

Many of the more successful small presses are focussed on the con circuit. They have tables at genre conventions and the main mode of selling is through these. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just that this is what they do, and this method may not be what you envisaged for your books.

So: research the press and see what it’s doing to sell books.

If the small press has a reasonable history of publication, you are fairly safe in assuming that they will do the right thing by their authors. You can also safely assume that the press will do as it promised.

As a precaution, I would say also plan not to worry about money, because you will see very little of it. Most of the proceeds will go into covering the production cost, and there are so many occasions that I’ve had to chase up small presses for payment they never got around to making (“Oops, we forgot”) that I have given up trying. If you sell reasonably well as self-published author, you need to have a very very good reason to go with a small press. They need to offer you an advantage that you could not get on your own. Maybe the owner has awesome connections that could put you into contact with writers or publishers you have always dreamed of working with. Maybe the press is really good at getting books into local book stores, and you don’t want to go through that hassle yourself.

In any case, take a really good look at the contract. Ideally the contract should only be for a number of years with five being the most common. Ideally, the contract should only cover rights they are going to use. For example if the press deals with just print books, make sure you retain the e-book rights. If the press is very locally-focussed, make sure you retain worldwide rights to every country except yours. Make sure you retain your audio rights, make sure that in case the press does not meet their obligations and deadlines, you have a way to get your books back.

As I said most of these presses are run by only few people. Life happens. They get sick, get busy jobs, have to move, or have to deal with family crises.

So in conclusion, should you go with a small press?

It may be an option if you are totally uninterested in taking any form of control over your marketing or the production of your book. If you just want to see the book out there, and don’t want to optimise your income from it. It may be an option if the press is well respected and you want angle for an award. Or you want to be in the press’ community. Or if they can offer something that you cannot get by yourself.

However, if you want to optimise your income from your book, you want to be able to run promotions, or actually just run promotions full stop, or you want to publish a number of books in the same series and want to do it quickly, you will probably find it immensely frustrating.

A small press can be a good way to get a foot in the door if you are afraid of all the things that go into publishing. Research your press well to make sure that they put out a quality product. Don’t just go with anyone because they call themselves a publisher. Look at their product, look at the number of reviews that they have garnered for those books, look at the covers and how professional they look, buy one or two of the books to check the editing and most importantly, check the reputation of the owners.

However, don’t expect riches and don’t expect your book to appear on the bookshelves of every local bookshop.

The comments on this blog are closed, but this post is syndicated to my Facebook page, where you can ask for advice.

Mailing lists–what about blacklists?

This is for people who take part in multi-author promotions that run a competition where people sign up to be in the draw for a prize. The competition organiser will send you a list of mailing list subscribers. In addition, the organiser may keep a spreadsheet with a blacklist for email addresses who have filed spam reports or have otherwise been abusive.

This would be a good thing, right?

In principle, yes. It happens that competition entrant who has never taken part in any of these competitions didn’t read the fine print, and suddenly they start receiving a whole bunch of emails from authors claiming that they signed up for that mailing list. It happens at these people fly into fits of rage and send abusive emails to everybody.

Yes, seriously, the rudeness of people cannot be underestimated, nor their inability to read (often not so) fine print.

You do not want these people on your list and you would be best to unsubscribe them.

But what about the people who did not email anyone but who, according to someone’s mailing list provider, reported them for spam?

In the past, when I have had such lists provided by competition organisers, I searched for a couple of the addresses, and half the time, I found that some of them are engaged and valued subscribers who open my emails and sometimes even reply to me, or they may even be on my advanced readers team.

So what is up with that?

Well, like opens, spam reports are unreliable. I have had people I know supposedly report me for spam while knowing that they would never have done any such thing.

Internet service providers tend to be very nervous about spam, and while they filter out much of the deluge that washes across the Internet every day, they will also record false positives. Rather a lot of them, even.

So if you get handed a blacklist, I would absolutely remove people who have been in contact with members of your group and have sent them rants or abusive emails. But I would do nothing with people who have reported spam because they may not have deliberately reported anyone for spam at all. They may just have moved the email in the bin, and that can count as a spam report.

So let them come in, and give them an easy unsubscribe option.

If you have proper processes in place, your spam percentage will be quite low anyway, and it’s not worth worrying about if it means that you may also accidentally unsubscribe a good number of loyal readers.

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How often should you publish?

In the three year plan, I use the example of publishing four books a year. I did this because it is a comfortable publishing pace for me, and I think it should be very achievable at just a thousand words a day.

But how often do you really need to publish if you want to have a successful career?

There are some people who say that they want to publish every month or even every two weeks, and others who live comfortably off publishing a book a year or in some cases even less.

Both these approaches use very different mechanisms to keep sales going.

If you publish frequently, you will make use of the algorithms of the retailer sites, most notably Amazon, where this has the most effect. If you sell well on Amazon, and especially Amazon in the US, it can be very effective to publish shorter works frequently to keep your books being recommended to readers. Amazon thrives on a high level of churn. This is much less for other retailers, so if you sell well worldwide, it is much less important to publish as frequently.

But the frequent publishing method assumes two things.

In the first place, it assumes that you can produce books that people want to read at this speed, and keep doing it. Some people find it relatively easy, some people end up publishing shorter works, but most of us cannot write a book every month let alone every two weeks. We have lives, we need more time, we write in genres that require extra work like research into various aspects of the story. Writers of historical fiction or technothrillers or hard science-fiction will find it very hard to write that many books in a year.

Even writers of fantasy or people who write about real life things that they have to crosscheck to make sure that they got everything right. That stuff can take a lot of time.

And some people’s brains just don’t work that way.

So assuming you can put out quality books that people want to read, if you can write that quickly, a high speed of publishing is better than a slow speed.

Algorithms. You will hear people talk about 90 day cliffs and 30 day cliffs on Amazon, but the problem with getting fixated on things like that is that Amazon can change how it shows your books to prospective readers by changing one line in the code. They may not get around to doing that for two years, or they can do it next week. You cannot build a business on that kind of uncertainty.

However, it is always better to have more books, and to publish more frequently. It seems that three or four books a year is a comfortable pace for many people.

But what if you have a day job, or you simply can’t write that quickly for whatever reason.

Well there is always George R.R. Martin, and in a small way, we have our own self published writing equivalent in Mark Cooper, who makes a living and published his last book in December, but the book before that 3 years ago. All that time, he kept his income up through diversification and advertising.

If you write big and chunky books that people like to read, that get good levels of word of mouth, and you publish them in a series that people love, they will very often be happy to wait. Just make sure that while they wait, you have them on your mailing list so that you can let them know when the book is out.

If you don’t write a new book every two or three months, you will also have to be much smarter with advertising. You cannot rely on the retailer algorithms to recommend your books to everyone once the initial burst of sales from the release is gone. You have to advertise your book, you have to get inventive. Make bundles with other writers, run cross promotions, use the wide range of advertising options, including Facebook and AMS ads and try everything and continue to do it if it works. Make sure that your books are out on all platforms in all different formats including print and definitely audio, because the audiobook market is a completely different animal with a different audience.

So: how often should you publish?

The answer is: as often as you can while maintaining quality and avoiding burnout. This is going to be different for each writer, but if you try to push yourself too hard and put out books before they’re ready, you will lose readers. If you push yourself too hard and get burnt out, you harm yourself. If you don’t publish books and don’t advertise, you will lose your readers, so there is a balance in between publishing frequently and getting smart with advertising. Unless you sell so much that you can employ someone to advertise for you, you will probably have to choose between either of those activities. You can either spend a lot of time writing, and not that much advertising, or you can devote more energy to marketing and less time writing.

Somewhere in that equation, there is a balance that everyone needs to find for themselves.

The comments on this blog are closed because of excessive spam, but this post is syndicated to my Facebook page, where you can discuss it or ask further questions.

Is it worth to invest in my book?

This is a question I get asked quite a lot. Is it worth to invest in my book?

As usual, the infuriating answer to this will be: it depends. It depends both on your situation and your publishing history.

I’ll be answering this question for the situation that this is your first book, you have published it a while ago and it has been sitting in the seven figure “telephone number” ranking range on Amazon for about two years. Maybe you have been able to get a review or two, but you have not been able to sell great numbers of them. You have an inkling that maybe the book is not as good as it could be. You want to know whether it is worth investing money in that book to make it better and hopefully to get it to sell.

In the first place, let me say something. To get a dead book like that to sell is not impossible, but it is very hard. You have to know what you’re doing and understand why your first attempt didn’t work and how to change things to have a better go at it.

But more likely than that, it is your first novel ever. In the dark days of traditional publishing, there was a saying that first novels should stay in the bottom drawer.

Now, the moment I say this a vocal handful of people will go up in arms saying that so and so published their first book after typing “the end”, never showed it to anyone, never did any writing training, and it really well.

Well good for them.

However, if this is you—completed your first novel, gave it an edit and published it—there are a number of things that are solidly stacked against you.

Most importantly: storytelling is a craft. It needs to be learned.

Oh, but you will say, I am great at English and I always did really well at school and I write reports in my day job. I can write.


I repeat: Storytelling is a craft that needs to be learned.

Not writing. Story telling.

In fact, the writing can be severely mediocre, and even riddled with errors, as long as the story is engaging.

Second fact: Few people are natural storytellers.

So before you stare yourself blind at cosmetic issues, like the cover, like proofreading, like pretty writing, and whether or not it is a problem that English is not your first language, worry about learning to tell a good story.

And for this, you probably need to take a step back and ask some people for advice. These people cannot be your friends, or any people who have a vested interest in your happiness, because they will probably make you very unhappy.

Alternatively, enrol yourself in some courses about storytelling or buy some books about this, and learn about story structure and how to write engaging characters, and point of view.

Notice that I have not mentioned the individual book here.

When you start to invest in your fiction, you don’t start by investing in your product straight away. You start by investing in yourself.

It is best to set the book aside, and write another book with the things you are learning. Learn about story structure, learn about writing engaging characters, learn about point of view.

Yes, again, some people are born storytellers, but for the most of us, it is a craft that needs to be learned. In fact, I hazard a guess that the more you assume that you are a natural born storyteller, the less you actually are. The people who are runaway successes either have history of storytelling in other forms, or they luck into writing something engaging and are taken completely by surprise by their success (a significant percentage of the latter actually find it really hard to repeat that success with a second book or series). If you struggled for a while, that runaway success is obviously not going to happen to you, therefore you need to work for it.

So to come to the question: if you have published one book and it is not selling, is it worth getting it reedited, gutting the book and getting a new cover on it and re-launching it?

Is it worth spending $1000 or more on a book that is already not selling?

I would say it is not at this point. Write another book. Develop your storytelling craft. Then write a third book.

Then maybe go back to the first book, gut it and then do the work using all of the aspects of the craft you have learned.

Do not fall into the trap that great editing and a great cover alone can make your book sell. You can make your book sell by learning to tell a more engaging story that people want to read. An editor can’t (and won’t) do this for you. Don’t throw good money after bad.

The last chapter in my self publishing guide Mailing Lists Unboxed is called Patience Really Is A Virtue. Self-publishing writers have far too little of it. They want shortcuts to bestseller sales without having to do work. They want to pick up a violin and walk into a symphony orchestra.

Forget about the prodigies that people talk about all the time. Seriously, forget about them right now. Do the work. Fix the major problems with your storytelling and then write another book and another book and another one. And then maybe think about re-launching your first book. I can guarantee you will be embarrassed how bad a writer you were and how good you thought you were.

The comments on this blog are closed, but this post is syndicated to my Facebook page, where you can ask for advice.

Ask me a question

Hey guys, I’m getting a lot of questions about self publishing.

While I would like to help everybody and answer the questions, I’m afraid I don’t have time to email everybody individually. I’m an author and don’t run a coaching business. Also, questions have a tendency to repeat, so here’s an idea: if you ask me a question, I will answer it here, so that everyone else can see it, too, and this site becomes a depository of useful answers.

Don’t worry, if I answer your question, my default is that your question will be stripped of identifying features and you won’t be mentioned by name, unless you really want to of course.

To ask me a question: comment on here via the Facebook link to my page, or send me a message through the comments form on my website (link in the header).

It is probably not a very good idea to message me through Facebook, because I often don’t see those messages, especially if you are not already in my friends list.

All kind of questions relating to self-publishing or writing are welcome, either from beginners or more advanced people.

I will start very soon with the first of the questions.

The comments on this blog are closed, but this post is syndicated to my Facebook page, where you can ask for advice.