First, there are five obvious things you need for a book to do well:
1) You need a good story. Different people have different views on what a good story is. All you can and should do as a writer is go with your gut. Write the story that’s for you. I write for me, not others; that’s the only way I can be genuine. Not all my books are very successful, but I just keep batting at it.
3) You need an audience that your story will appeal to. Your book only has to be good for a particular audience, but it definitely has to be good for that audience. If you want your book to see a modicum of success it’s best if that audience is fairly large. I started out doing books for middle grade kids. They did get published by a small publishing house, but I’m a relatively unknown author, and as it turns out, people tend to buy from known authors in that category, so a hard area to break into. The later books I’ve written I’ve self-published as an indie writer, and they are urban fantasy and paranormal. I enjoy writing those and there’s a much bigger audience… so I sell more books and it keeps my ego afloat.
4) You need a really good cover, a good title and a good blurb. In short you need to make your book marketable. People do judge a book by its cover, all the time. I have a really good example of this. My bestselling book had no sales at all with its original cover, not one. I’ll show it to you in a moment. After a month or two, I workshopped a few ideas on a new cover, changed the title, and used a pen name. The same book. It made the difference between something that sells and something that didn’t.
Yep, without marketing – regardless of quality –all books sold on Amazon fall into a giant slush pile never, or rarely, to be seen again. There are over 3 million books on Amazon. Indie writers will publish something, and a few friends and family from their social and family networks will buy it keeping it at a reasonable Amazon rating for a while. But it only takes one day with no sales to fall below the 100,000 mark on US Amazon. Unless you’re advertising, only the top 100 books in a category have any visibility. Without advertising, once you’ve exhausted your reserve of family and friends, you’re relying on your social network. Then, when that’s exhausted, you’re relying on strangers. And why the heck is a stranger going to pick your book out of more than 3 million other titles, especially if it has no visibility?
Depressing, isn’t it? So how do you market books? Well, these things didn’t work for me:
Facebook: I’ve had a few books sold through Facebook ties. However, over time people on Facebook have been bombarded with book advertising. They’re hardened toward ignoring the best efforts of book advertising on that media. I still sell a couple of books through Facebook when I have a new novel, but that’s about it. Paid advertising to strangers on Facebook did get me a few sales some years ago, but doesn’t now. Again, people on Facebook are tired of seeing book adverts, they’re not interested.
Goodreads: I’ve never really gotten a handle on how to use this site properly. Other people seem to have done well using it, I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work.
Book blogs: Very much less effective than they were, I’m actually just writing this for the love of writing and because I feel a need to impart information.
Author Websites: People only tend to go there once they've read one of your books, or maybe when they're checking out a book on Amazon and they want more information. I think they're necessary, but they don't independently drive sales. Some authors are very good at getting email lists of fans. The author website probably becomes more valuable then. I'm just a bit lazy in that regard.
Okay, so this is what’s working for me now:
Amazon: Amazon are funnelling authors toward paid advertising. The discussion forums are now hidden if not quite totally gone (not a bad thing) and they have acted to stop abuse of book reviews by deleting reviews by family and friends. They actually troll Facebook to look for author friends there and have recently deleted many non-independent reviews. Reviews are still important though, so policing reviews for abuse is actually a good thing. I approach book bloggers and offer free book copies for honest reviews on Amazon – that’s still allowed by Amazon (for books, not for other things they sell) because it’s a traditional method for doing this that goes back well over a hundred years. I do get random reviews, but only about one for every forty books sold. People are basically sick of providing Amazon reviews. Some book genre are worse than others in this respect. Young readers are very much less likely to provide reviews. Oh, popular books by known authors see more reviews, so as your book progresses through the ranks things may get better. You’ll still get the odd bad review, just ignore those, all books get them, it’s best to not react to those.
Amazon's Kindle Scout, I know works for others, this is where having a large social following may help. Kindle Scout does seem like it will give you a big initial boost. I’ve just never had the social following to even bother trying. I’d recommend it to those who do have that following though.
Okay, the most effective method I’ve found for selling my books has been by advertising on Amazon. Right now, I can make it work, and I hope they don’t change it so that this opportunity is also lost. It makes sense though, advertise in the place where people are looking for books - in the bookstore. Facebook is like advertising on the street. Amazon is where paying customers are looking for books. There are some problems there. Many people are sick of low quality indie books. They stick to known authors, or they rely on a ship load of reviews, or word of mouth (which still goes on). The good news is that there is a small percentage of people (this probably equates to quite reasonable actual numbers) who will buy based on a good book cover, and a blurb that appeals to them. Those people will also talk to their friends about books. I see little spurts in my sales that I think are related to this.
There is an art to advertising on Amazon, book cover and blurb I’ve already mentioned, so I won’t harp on about those, though they are ultra-important. I only advertise e-books at the moment, but that’s because I’m cheap and don’t want to waste my money on a paper book that wouldn’t sell many copies. I can test popularity with an e-book first. Oh, Amazon only allows advertising for the American Amazon site, this is actually a real bummer as my best book would probably do better in front of a UK audience (sad face emoticon). Targeting an American audience with your writing would probably be advantageous for Amazon sales until this changes.
The other thing is the advertising itself, I use mainly the ‘Product Display’ advertising option. I do run the ‘Sponsored Products’ option, but it’s slow, in that not much happens. I get some sales that way, just not many over time. For ‘Product Advertising’ don’t be scared by the $100 minimum advertising limit, I’ve never gotten anywhere near that limit (and you can terminate a non-productive advert at any time). You only pay when someone clicks on your advert, I usually pay about $0.12-$0.17 per click, though I have paid a lot less when I was testing the site out. Be aware that the adverts start out very slow (it’s an Amazon thing). There tends to be a sweet period where there is a lot of advertising of your book going on, usually a couple of weeks from the start of a campaign. I sometimes re-run the same advert campaign before the old one runs out so that I don’t have an advertising gap. Also, only use one ‘interest’ when you use this option, I run about a half dozen or more ‘Product display’ adverts at once, each for a different ‘interest’. That way I can identify and terminate the non-performing options – which I measure as too many clicks for not enough sales. Experiment and work out what works for you.
Amazon tracks paid books sold by advertising for you in the advertising campaigns page, however, I also have my books in Kindle Unlimited. That’s not tracked, and I make slightly more money from Kindle Unlimted than from direct sales. Therefore I assume my advertising campaigns are about twice as effective as Amazon is showing me. Some authors are very down on Kindle Unlimted, not sure why, it may be because they have a hefty price tag on their books and it becomes less cost effective then. I have no complaint about it, for ‘The Dark Witch’ I keep it priced at around US$2.99 so maybe it works for that figure. As a relatively unknown author, I don’t think I can ask for more.
Free promotions on Amazon? Ha, I’ve never gotten much out of those, maybe a small number of sales of the second book in a series, maybe a couple of reviews from author acquaintances who wouldn’t have bought my book otherwise, not much else. I’m wondering if that’s going to change now that Amazon has minimised access to the forums. The free book trolls (who never pay for anything) used the forums to find free books. Now that’s gone, the people who take free books might be a different mix of readers. So I might try a free promotion to see if things have changed a bit. It may just mean that fewer free books get taken.
Anyway, the result of advertising for ‘The Dark Witch’ is shown in the figure below. It’s not a raging success… yet. But it’s not slipping into the slush pile either. My goal is to keep the advertising going, gathering reviews, and raising the profile of the book to the next level. I think if it can consistently get into the top 100 for one of its book categories (which is actually hard to do in popular categories) then it might jump to the next level of sales. Right now, if the advertising stops, the sales stop too. So far, I’ve spent about 30% more on advertising than I’ve sold, but that ratio is getting better over time (The Dark Witch has been selling since about November). Over the March break, when lots of teenagers, and new adults were reading, I made money. So it’s not all doom and gloom, staying above that Amazon slush pile is achievable, and if you can do that, then ‘success’ may be achievable too. I’m still working that one out, but I think I’m on the right path for me.