Marketing a self-published book

I get quite a few questions from friends and acquaintances about how I sell my books, often in an ill-disguised form of the real question: if they were to write one, how could they get it sold or at least read? It’s a legitimate question and I’ve learned a lot about marketing my books, but I certainly have no magic bullet.

For starters, I’m a big fan of Amazon and its marketing tools. I wrote my first book, Held for Ransom, in 2001 and was lucky enough to get an agent to take it. It got read by 14 different publishers over the next 18 months. I got all sorts of feedback, both positive and negative, but much of it contradictory. In the end no one wanted it. Fast forward to 2011. I’d written about half of my second novel but given up on it largely due to my bad experience with the first one. Then my wife mentioned self-publishing to me. I did some research online and saw how easy and cheap creating and uploading a digital book was to both CreateSpace and Amazon. I cleaned up my first book, created a cover using CreateSpace’s online tool, and uploaded it to both places. It sold pretty well at first, but mainly to friends, former co-workers, and so forth. I was hooked.

I’ve now written a total of six novels and I’m working on my seventh. Marketing them hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried using Smashwords. It’s tricky getting your book in the premium catalog and when I have succeeded, I’ve found that it doesn’t really sell well in any other market besides Amazon. If you make your book available there, you can still sell on Amazon, but you cannot join KDP, which requires exclusivity. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Marketing (KDP) is where the marketing tools are. KDP grants you 5 days every six months to make your Kindle book free. You won’t make royalties during that time, but your book will get exposure from Amazon and may receive hundreds or even thousands of downloads, especially if you list it with various marketing websites as a free or bargain book. I’ve found that only the first two days are worthwhile. You get onto various lists then and downloads max out by the end of the first day, although they usually continue well into the second. I’ve always seen my sales go up when I use this tool, especially among the other books in the series, but even right after the free promo with the free book. Listing it with those marketing websites can be done cheaply or for free if you shop carefully, but most have very little effect on sales or downloads. You can also waste a lot of money with them. Readers who want freebies know how to go Amazon’s own free books site. BookBub is probably the only really effective one and it’s both expensive and very hard to get on unless your book is already a big success.

Amazon gives you a great deal of control over the product page, too. You can add reviews, create a detailed Author page with a photo and link to your blog. Amazon also has paid advertising options through Amazon Marketing Services. I’ve used AMS, Facebook, and Google AdWords. The only one that ever produced increased sales was AMS. The other two are subject to abuse, overcharging you and placing your ads on unsuitable pages. The reality is that people don’t search Google or Facebook for a good book to read. They search Amazon. It’s the 800-lb. gorilla in this space. Its tool is much easier to use than the other two sites, too. You have to be careful not to bid too high, though, or you will not recoup in sales what you spend. The main advantage is that your book will get exposure in places you don’t normally get any and with readers (i.e. book buyers!) who like your genre. A similar promotion at 99 cents is also available. Yet another great Amazon tool is the Kindle Online Lending Library (KOLL). More about that in a future post.

You can’t rely on Amazon alone. You have to use social media, especially free media. It may be distasteful to hype yourself, but someone has to do it if you want anyone to buy, or even hear about, your book. Join Facebook and Google+ groups, real groups of actual people who discuss something, not just book marketing groups, and post enough there to have credibility on the subject matter. Then when your book comes out, find a way to mention it without sounding too much like an advertisement. For me, that has meant geocaching and law enforcement groups. On occasion someone objects to commercializing the group, but if you are a regular contributor and don’t overdo it, you can get by with it. If you’ve written a cooking/recipe book, join a recipe-sharing or foodie group – preferably lots of them.  You get the idea. I have a Twitter name but I doubt I’ve ever sold a book through Twitter. I do get lots of marketing spam from book promotion sites, proofreaders/editors, audiobook voice actors, and so on from Twitter, but from time to time some of it is useful in identifying another free and easy promotion route.

Ultimately, what you need to get people to buy your books is good content, a good cover (more important for fiction than non-fiction), and lots of good reviews, especially on Amazon. Once your book’s review total creeps near triple digits and maintains a 4-star plus rating, the other tools, like the free and 99 cent promotions, work much better.  How do you get lots of reviews, you may ask? That’s a subject for another post. It’s a topic that is very hot among self-published authors.

Lastly, develop a mailing list. I now have over 200 fans on mine. That is the cheapest and easiest way to get sales on a new book and can be used for other promotions. It’s slow going at first, but you can get email addresses several ways. First make your email address available in your book (e.g. about the author page), through social media, etc. Collect the email address of every fan who contacts you. If you have a blog, put a contact form or email address on it. If you sell through your own website, as I do for my paperbacks, accept PayPal because you’ll get the buyer’s email address. Hold a contest with a book giveaway, preferably several copies, and spread the word through social media and require them to fill in a form. People are much more willing to give up their email address if they can get something they like free.

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