The dreaded M word

The mention of the word marketing gives a lot of writers hives.

I think this is mostly because they misunderstand what is meant by marketing. They think that marketing means shouting buy my book on Facebook and Twitter. They think that marketing means sleazy tactics and mentioning your own book at every available opportunity, whether appropriate or not.

They remember when they went to a con and a writer on a panel sat down at the speaker table and displayed all his books in front of him, they thought it looked silly, and they desperately didn’t want to be like that.

The news is that you don’t have to do this at all. Schlepping your books is not marketing. Schlepping your books is ick. Effective marketing is both fun and smart. It’s fun because, having created the product, marketing is where you get to see the sales and make the money. It is where you can make the difference between seeing almost no return to gaining a healthy income, if your book does its job.

Effective marketing is to position in your book in places where people will naturally find it. Marketing is to display your book in a way so that people who normally like those types of books will be intrigued and prepared to give it a try.

You are right to be turned off by the hard selling author, and there are not many good reasons for doing this. If fact I would say it turns most people off.

Marketing isn’t even about doing promotions and holding sales, although some of it can be. But promotions and sales are nothing if there is no tactic behind them. If you promote the first book in your series, you hope that people will buy the rest at full price, because that’s where you make the money. If you give away free books for people to sign up to your mailing list, and you will have their address for new releases and develop a better relationship with your readers, which, if done well, will result in increased sales.

Your cover is marketing. Your blurb is marketing. The way you interact and do promotions with other authors is marketing. Marketing is purely about finding where you audiences are and making it possible for them to find your books. Most of this is done behind the scenes.

Marketing is not sleazy. Selling can be sleazy. Marketing is not selling.

Writing the book is only one part of the equation. Once you have written the book, it would be silly not to try to position it so that people can find it and if they like the sound of it, buy it. That is marketing. That is where the fun begins.


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 more information about the Three-year plan self-publishing books here.

Why do you hate Amazon?

I admit, that’s a click-bait title. I don’t actually hate Amazon at all, although sometimes people could be mistaken for thinking so. I certainly make enough comments about the things that they do and we have to watch out for. But hate? Nope.

My position on Amazon is indifferent. Amazon just is. I use it. I don’t buy Amazon hype and I don’t buy Amazon hate. I don’t think either of those two options are healthy for the independent writer. Use with care. Watch your chickens and don’t let your own prejudice stand in your way.

One position I see touted at times is that if you sell on Amazon you have to love everything they do or get out because we have to be grateful they let us play in their sandbox.

Seriously what bunk.

Just because you list your books on a site that means you can’t criticise them?

Amazon deserves our criticism. So does Google or Apple or any other large company when they do something that doesn’t pass muster. By their very nature, very large companies slip in their standards. They may perform one part of their service well, but might have problems in others.

They may exploit their content providers. They may treat their workers poorly. They may source their materials in dubious ways. Whatever it is, the only way they get called out on it is if we, the public, kick up a stink. And we need to do this, no matter how much we enjoy other parts of their services.

In short, if Amazon does something dinky, speak up as part of the community that has an interest in selling there and being treated fairly.

If Amazon does something dinky, the answer is not to take your books off or shut up. The answer is to make sure they live up to their promise to treat us fairly.

I, for one, am not going to fight my battles over the heads of my readers.

Trends in self-publishing in 2018

The end of the year always offers time for reflection, and I make no exception for this blog. Here are some trends I see coming in 2018.

More people going wide or diversifying income
As the market becomes more mature, people who are interested in a lasting writing career will realise that they need to diversify to spread risk particularly in relation to the second point in this post. This could mean taking books to more distributors, but also doing print and audio and branching out into different genres, different pen names, or creating another income stream from non-fiction, crowdfunding, direct sales or providing services.
This is necessary because…

Amazon will continue to do things that will make sense only to Amazon (and even that could be debated)
And who knows what it will be?
In 2017, writers in Select saw their page reads spectacularly eroded through page flip. And we saw that Amazon doesn’t care that it can’t tell how many pages a reader has read.
We also saw Amazon taking a publicity hit when a scammed book went to #1 in the store. Of course, in Amazon-style, they responded extremely heavy-handed, punishing legit writers. I know they cancelled a bunch of dubious accounts as well, so that’s something at least. But there was a fair bit of collateral damage.
Amazon is known to use a sledgehammer when all they need is a screwdriver.
For us, it’s a constant battle, so…

People will give up
I’ve seen the tone in self-publishing forums change markedly in the last year or so. It’s no longer super-buoyant. People realise that this gig is a lot of WORK. Some don’t want to do it. They will quietly disappear. They will realise that they’ve written the one book everyone is said to have in them and move on to basketweaving.
For the rest of us…

More people will have a go at selling books direct

OK, I already set up my web store, mostly for ebook cover design, but with Bookfunnel, we now have a secure ebook delivery mechanism that doesn’t include having to provide the reader with instruction on how to put the book on their device. So more people will start doing this. How successful they are remains to be seen, because discoverability is an issue. I see this function valuable for large collections and special material for fans.
But to continue in this vein…

Bookbub will take steps to start selling books
OK, this one is a little bit out there, but why not? With Amazon eroding affiliate income, it makes sense for Bookbub to retain a higher percentage of the cut and start selling direct to customers.
Which brings me to…

A reduction in the number of rented lists
Anyone who says that the efficiency of “rented” lists (Freebooksy, Bargain Booksy, Ereader News Today, Free Kindle Books & Tips) has declined markedly is not dreaming. I’m not entirely sure what is to blame, but my guess is poor curation could be part of the problem. For some of these lists, you only need a credit card to join the fun. It’s a pay-to-play environment, and that benefits no one.
These lists should be curating what they feature, not rely on lazy-arse selection through “star ratings”, but actually, y’know, look at the books that are submitted, and only feature books that meet their criteria. Anything else might make a little bit more money in the short term, but is otherwise just shooting themselves in the foot.
So my prediction is that some of these sites will have to reinvent themselves or bite the dust.
For authors, it means finding new ways to promote…

More people will jump on the collaboration bandwagon
If the hot buzz last year was author cross-promotion, this year it’s co-writing. Since output is the name of the game (to some people at least), what is better than to write and publish twice as fast with someone else? Nothing, in theory, and so people will jump on the co-writing bandwagon in order to make millions…
Except when they don’t.
Realise that it is a bandwagon and that the head of the column—where the most profitable deals are—has already passed.
If you want to collaborate, nothing is stopping you. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Making a metric butt-tonne of money is not a reason.
And also…

Some multi-author collaborations will explode. Spectacularly. Like, in a take-me-to-court fashion
I’m seeing some stuff that gives me hives. While it seems fine to try to publish a book with a friend, what happens if tensions arise over content or payment? What happens if one of the partners suddenly finds spectacular success and resentment builds in both directions? What happens if a partner fails in their commitment through no fault of their own? What happens when a writer realises that the co-writing contract they signed is poor and/or exploitative?
Pleaseplease, if you co-write, make sure you have a proper contract. Please ask the hard questions before the difficult situations present themselves. What if someone can’t do it anymore? What if one partner wants out? How are you going to make the accounting transparent to all involved? What if one of you gets hit by a bus? Before you embark on a co-writing project, run the contract past someone with a strong BS meter and ask them to poke holes in it.
But to close off…

Some things never change. Keep writing the best books you can. Attempt to own and control as much of your audience as you can. Sales are cool. Readers on your mailing list are better. Don’t rely on the retailers to market for you. Learn to do it yourself. No one is going to care as much about your work as you do.

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 more information about the Three-year plan self-publishing books here.

The Things That No One Talks About

I first started publishing in 2011. It was an exciting, vibrant time when the sky was the limit and the world was your oyster.

There were a couple of well published cases of writers who started making a lot of money that got a lot of publicity from the news. For us, the writers still submitting to publishers, self-publishing was an ever more attractive option.

I published my first book in January 2011, and I have watched this industry grow and evolve. While there are still a lot of positive stories, negative stories have gotten a lot more screen time recently. People are saying the self-publishing space is too crowded, people are saying the deck is stacked against them.

At first, those types of stories only came out during the months of the northern hemisphere summer. This is the time where traditionally not as many books are sold as in the months after Christmas. People were seeing a downturn in sales and started wondering if the industry was declining.

However this year the negative stories seem a lot more pervasive.

Newsflash: it is hard to make a living as a writer.

It seems like the industry’s boundless positivity has finally caught up with reality: most writers won’t succeed.

So here are a few things that nobody talks about. This is not a negative post, just an attempt at putting a few things in perspective.

1. People talk about 2009 or 2011 as being the golden time of self publishing. As if when you published back then, your manuscript would instantly turn to gold. But nobody talks about is that there are a lot of us around, myself included, who did not get easy sales and did not make millions. We were doing just exactly the same thing as new writers are doing now: figuring out what works what doesn’t.

But nobody talks about those writers. And nobody talks about the complete lack of services or knowledge that was available to people self-publishing at that time. At the time when I came to self-publishing forums, it was still extremely common to see people with the most horrid covers on their self published books. While it is still happening, most people realise that as soon as they come to forums and see the covers on the books of the writers who are selling well, that these are things that need to be fixed first before you can sell. The tools to do this are so much more easy to find. The many ways of marketing your book are also easy to find out about. So no, for the individual writer it has certainly become a lot more easy to put out a book of quality that will have a chance.

2. While we’re on quality. Nobody talks about it. It’s considered downright rude to tell another writer that their book isn’t very good. Good is a sliding scale anyway and what is good to someone is complete rubbish to someone else.

But even with gorgeous covers, there are too many books that fail the most basic concept of quality. No it’s not that they’re free of grammatical errors, it is that they fail to tell a story that enough people want to read to give the book viable market.

Now to be honest, this also applies to traditionally published books. But because with a traditional publisher a lot more people look over the book before it’s published, someone who wants to publish this book through a publishing company has to convince a lot more people that the book is worth spending money on. With self-publishing, the only person who is going to make that decision is you.

While writing by committee is in general not a very good idea, marketability by committee is almost mandatory. When you self-publish, you bypass this process, and you may well be publishing a book in which the first three chapters are so insanely boring to most readers that nobody will go and buy the second book.

So at the risk of being crucified by the comments, I will say that a lot of self-published writers spend far too little time in their early careers figuring out how to write books that more people want to read. This is not about grammar and it is not about editing except to say that you could be helped by developmental editing, but even a developmental editor will not fix your story. You have to learn the craft of storytelling.

3. The marketing slide. If you have a book that doesn’t sell, marketing may make little difference or it could make a lot of difference. Books that require absolutely no marketing and just sell themselves are quite rare. Books that cannot be made to sell with any amount of marketing also not terribly common although more common than the first.

Most books fall somewhere in the middle, where some marketing is required to make them sell on a continuous basis. With every book, there is the point at which the return just isn’t there in terms of money and time spent.

4. There is no magic trick. Yet, we see new and less successful writers searching for the one trick that will make them a bestseller. The one secret that they can do that will suddenly drag their books out from the bottom of the charts. The one marketing trick that will make them a lot of money. Many of these people start becoming bitter when they don’t find that trick, and some of them will never stop looking for it. They blame the bestsellers for holding it back, they hang onto the skirts of those that they perceive as more successful than them and hope that some of the magic will rub off.

In a way, they’re right: there is a magic trick. It is called: write a book that readers want to read. It is called: do the work. It is called: learn continuously to write better fiction and serve your audience better.

But sadly, that is not the trick that these people are looking for. They want an easy fix, and they demand that it be given to them by those they perceived as more successful.

There is no magic trick.

Sometimes when you hang around for long enough and participate in enough different things, you will find something that works really well for a little while. It may be a new promotion site with a particularly engaged audience that buys a lot of books. It may be a particular ad platform that suddenly starts delivering some good results. But not only are these tricks often short lived, they rarely make or break a writer’s career. What does make or break a career is for a writer to throw themselves into learning how to apply themselves best to their chosen tools.

There is no magic sauce. Don’t waste your time looking for it. Definitely don’t antagonise people by demanding that they give it to you.

5. There is a perfectly good living to be made from your fiction without ever having a bestseller. There is even a very good living to be made without any of your books ranking anywhere in any top hundred listing in the Amazon US top lists. Ever.

In the first place, the world is much bigger than just that particular market. In the second place, you often have to run promotions to hit those charts with regularity. Promotions require you to mark down your book.

You make a lot more money from selling at $4.99 than at 99c, although it is much easier to rank with the latter.

If it’s about money in the bank, and ultimately, it always is, then worry less about rank and more about the dollars and cents on your sales dashboard.

6. What goes up must come down. It is very rare that book starts selling and keeps selling at an amazing level for very long time. I think we can all name those books in our genre and count them on the fingers of one hand. There are many more books that did well for a while, and then disappeared from sight. There is nothing wrong with that. But let’s acknowledge that it happens. So ride the highs and then put away money for when sales are less. Manage your income through advertising your backlist during the time that you don’t have any new releases.

7. The good part. Around the year 2000, I ran an Internet business selling non-fiction books on very specialised academic subjects. At that point in time, this was a gold rush. I bought books new from publishers or as batches secondhand, I marked them up and sold them on online platforms which were only just starting to gain popularity.

It was in the pre-Amazon days, and people were looking for places to buy rare books. There was one time that I flew to New Zealand to buy two books in an auction, which, when I sold them the week I got home, funded my entire trip. I was constantly thinking but what if these book buyers learn how to look online for themselves and find these bargains?

Which of course they did.

Not only that, but selling print books and carting them to the post office is heavy and time-consuming business. There is a lot of investment needed in terms of storage space, stock, furniture to put the stock, accounts at the post office, for running this type of business. Our entire house was full of books. In my best year I sold multiple six figures, but most of that went into buying new stock. A lot of it also went to the post office.

You need almost no investment when you self-publish online. Even my online book business never saw as much investment as some other business types, because I did not need to rent a shop, although I considered it, and I never needed to employ any people.

Self-publishing is at the low extreme in terms of the capital investment slide. The only stock you might need is a handful of copies of your books to give away to people you meet or maybe to sell at cons. You can even choose not to do this.

The other prior investment you need is a decent website and editing and covers for your first books. It baffles me that people even complain about this investment. Make no mistake, self-publishing is extremely easy to get into compared with just about any other business.

It is also extremely easy to get your money. We are dealing with a couple of large retailers who pay regularly and pay on time. All you need is a bank account and Bob’s yer uncle. You may need some tax numbers, and again self-published authors complain their heads off about this, but it is nothing compared to what you need to set up a business with a storefront.

Not only that, but you don’t have to chase non-paying customers. The only fraud you’re going to have to deal with is that of those annoying serial returners on Amazon. They’re not even costing you any real money.

So step back, and appreciate how easy this business is.

8. You need to keep changing and reinventing yourself. You need to keep learning. If you keep doing exactly the same thing year in year out, you die. You need to keep improving your fiction, you need to keep on top of underlying trends, you need to give your readers something new to look forward to all the time. You need to make sure that you’re not caught unawares by certain trends or closures of certain businesses like we have just seen with Pronoun.

One of the main advantages that we have over businesses with employees and offices in New York is that we are agile and can completely turn around a business strategy in the matter of days.

This may well be the golden time self-publishing, and it may well be, as doomsayers say, that it will only get harder from now on. It will get harder because everybody is doing it, but it also means that the rate of attrition is going to be huge. Many people will try self publishing but give up after they have found that it’s hard work.

And frankly that has never been any different in the world of writing. So don’t fear, if you’re doing your work properly and you’re learning and you continue to learn about business, and have persistence, then I guarantee that you will have a reasonable career.

Ironically, this is exactly the same thing I heard as a new bright-eyed and bushy-tailed writer at my first con: the ones who succeed are the ones who do the work and persist.

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 more information about the Three-year plan self-publishing books here.

Why rank-chasing leads to madness

Let’s do a little exercise.

Find 10 random readers, and ask them why they buy their books.

I bet that nine times out of ten they will say that the book was recommended to them by a friend or a place that they trusted.

Ask those ten people why they bought the book they last bought. I also bet that in the majority of the cases, they bought that book because they read and liked a previous book by that same author. They are repeat customers.

Ask them if they remember how much that book was ranked in the store where they bought it. I bet that none of them will remember.

I bet that very very few of them will randomly go to a retail website and buy the book that is best ranked in the category.

They will know that either that book had a publicity push or it is a new release, but if they have never heard of the author or the premise does not appeal to them, they won’t buy that book.
People buy books because they know the author, have read something by the author before, or because a friend recommended the author.

So why then, are authors so terribly obsessed with the rankings of their books, and worse, their author rankings? Clearly, no one cares.

Well, a higher ranking increases visibility in most retailer stores. A higher ranked book is going to come up higher in some searches and may be more likely to be recommended to buyers of related books.

But this would be most important for books that come up on the first page of important and popular categories. Anywhere below that, rankings are simply a measure of the number of sales. Now if someone were to look at it in detail, they would understand that a book that’s ranked at 1000 would sell better than one ranked at 10,000, but the rankings on Amazon hide quite a long way down the page and and even an informed reader would have to look for them. As far as I know any ranking outisde the immediate top 10 has not ever influenced someone to buy a book. Does a book that is ranked at 10,000 get less visibility than one at say 5000?

Even so, since ranking reflects sales, what can you do about it?

If you are in a really popular category, your book maybe higher up in the ranking of that particular category, but as I already said if the category is really popular that’s not going to make much of a difference, because people who shop by ranking, uncommon as they are, are not going to scroll through pages and pages of books. Those people will buy something off the first page.

When your book has sold more copies, it will be recommended to more people. In that way, ranking has a latent influence, because it takes a while for all this information to filter through and be reflected in the site.

So yes, ranking has some influence, but mostly it simply reflects prior sales.
But, and here is a big but, many authors are so fixated on ranking that they forget many other things.

One of them is what I have said many times before: you can make a perfectly good living by selling one copy a day of each of your books on each of the retailer sites. Ranking on Amazon US—the factor that invokes all this ranking anxiety—does not reflect sales in the UK or other parts of Amazon, which can all add up to a substantial amount. It doesn’t tell the story about print sales and audio sales, which are also on Amazon, but are not reflected in the ranking. It does not reflect sales on any of the other platforms.

Most of all, it does not take into consideration the subscription program Kindle Unlimited. When your book is in Kindle Unlimited, and exclusive to Amazon, your ranking will jump when someone borrows the book. It will do nothing when someone reads the book, even though that is when you get paid. It is perfectly possible that people borrow the book and never get around to reading it, or look at a few pages, decide it’s not their thing and then return it in favour of another book. It is entirely possible for a book to be ranked at 5000 in the US Amazon store but generate less income than a book ranked 50,000 that is not in Kindle Unlimited, which does not get boosted through borrows that are never read, but which gets sales from other platforms.

Ranking, especially ranking in a single part of a single retailer store, and a single country, is it very poor metric for either writer success or income. Worry about your total income, not the rank of your books.

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.

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.

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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