When I decided to publish my first book, I read a whole stack of books about self-publishing. The one that made the biggest impression was Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should, by novelist David Gaughran.
David’s book stood out because he not only delivered plenty of useful advice, he also did a superb job of describing the seismic upheavals in the publishing industry, and made a compelling case for the creative and financial benefits of self-publishing.
And he also provided real-life inspiration, in the form of 33 success stories of writers earning a steady living from publishing their own work.
This week sees the publication of Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books – as the title suggests, it builds on his earlier book with advanced marketing advice for more experienced self-publishers. To give you an idea how good it is, I bought it on Saturday and finished it by Sunday afternoon.
David has been kind enough to answer some questions for Lateral Action readers about the opportunities (and pitfalls) for writers right now.
I’ve benefited enormously from the advice in David’s books – if you’re remotely interested in self-publishing your work, I suggest you pay close attention to what he says.
There are two conflicting versions of what’s happening in publishing right now: according to some people the sky is falling in, and Amazon is the Big Bad Wolf come to destroy the industry; while others are telling us mind-boggling stories of self-publishing success, and trumpeting a new era of opportunity for writers.
What’s your take on the current state of publishing? Do you see any parallels with what’s been happening in the music and movie industries?
I think Big Publishing is in trouble. It seems to have learned little from the disruptions that radically altered other industries, especially the music industry. At least the music industry can make some argument for being blindsided by the speed and power of that change, but publishers had time.
Those publishers had another advantage over the music industry. When digital disruption hit music, there was no killer app – at least not one designed to sell content, Napster was very successful at sharing content but failed as a commercial venture. In the book business, even before there was an e-book market to speak of, the Kindle and the Kindle Store were already in place.
Despite these advantages, publishers still made the same mistakes. They forced through (much-hated) DRM, when it did nothing to prevent piracy and plenty to antagonise customers.
The only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price, yet publishers responded to the rise of e-books with windowing (not releasing the e-book until several months after the hardback) and illegal price-fixing to ensure that digital books remained more expensive than their print counterparts – a futile attempt to hold back the digital tide, and another one which angered their customers.
While large publishers were fighting change, self-publishers embraced e-books and built audiences. By my estimates, self-publishing has captured 25% of the US ebook market – and that’s in the space of a couple of years.
Writers have benefitted immensely from this revolution – mostly because they don’t depend on those large corporations anymore to make a living.
We can write whatever we like, and sell it to whomever we choose. And we can sell very, very cheaply and still make good money. Writers are lucky in that their production costs are extremely low when compared to musicians, and, especially, filmmakers. The only extras we need are conjured from our imaginations.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and pitfalls for independent-minded writers right now?
The opportunity is immense. The distribution system has been blown wide open by the digital revolution and writers can reach readers all over the world just by uploading to a handful of sites. A few years ago, that would have required a publishing deal and an agent to sell your foreign rights, and then interminable delays in getting the foreign edition out, and then further delays in getting paid – if you got paid.
I received my latest book back from the editor on Tuesday, formatted it on Wednesday, uploaded it on Thursday, and launched it on Friday. It’s already in the charts in America, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the UK and I’ll get the money for those sales in a couple of months.
Those markets are going to grow and grow – they will all see the same spectacular growth we’ve seen in the UK and the US. I think we’re only at the very beginning of a golden era for writers.
It’s not without its challenges, of course. The obvious result of an open distribution system is that the floodgates open. The number of titles being published is rising sharply. There are something like 2,000 books published every day on Amazon. Authors have to be smart in how they carve out visibility for their books in the endless sea of the Kindle Store.
What advice do you have for writers who are just starting out in self-publishing?
The most important thing for those taking their first steps is to put together the most professional package they can: a good book which has been professionally edited, a striking cover that speaks to your genre, a compelling blurb that entices your target audience, a killer opening that will hook any readers who sample, clean formatting that won’t pull the reader out of the narrative, and a price that won’t make them think twice.
Too many authors skimp on those steps, and then waste money on marketing. That money would have been much better spent on putting out the most professional book possible. As Seth Godin says, the best marketing is designed into the product.
In my earlier book Let’s Get Digital, I urged self-publishers to remember that when they release a book, they are competing against the biggest books from the biggest authors. Their book should look the part.
How about more experienced independent writers – people like me who have already self-published a book (or few) – how can we get more books into the hands of the right kind of readers?
Writers waste more time and money on ineffective marketing than anything else. Experienced self-publishers in particular will complain that promotion is pointless, makes them uncomfortable, or eats up too much precious writing time.
The only thing that has ever really sold books is word-of-mouth, but sites like Amazon can act as a trusted source of book recommendations for readers. If you position your book correctly, and adopt marketing strategies which work with the Amazon algorithms rather than against them, Amazon will do much of the heavy lifting for you.
It’s all about making your book discoverable and visible. You need to make sure your metadata is in good shape – particularly that you have chosen the right granular sub-category for your book. And you need to understand how Amazon’s grand recommendation system works, and tweak your marketing accordingly.
This is an area where smart self-publishers can really get ahead because the large publishers haven’t got to grips with it at all. I’ll give you an example.
Last summer there was some controversy when a traditionally published book went free on Amazon. It was taking part in some promotion at Apple, and Amazon price-matched the free price. Readers began downloading it in their droves after it was featured on a couple of popular sites.
Those downloads led to the book landing near the top of the free charts on Amazon, and that visibility in turn drove further downloads. When the publisher realized what happened, they were enraged. They demanded Amazon return the book to the paid listings, but Amazon refused while the book was still free at Apple. Incensed, the publisher removed the book from sale until the Apple promotion was complete.
This was a huge mistake. If that publisher had understood how the algorithms worked they would have realized that as soon as the book had organically returned to the paid listings in a couple of days, it would have seen a huge post-free bounce. Instead, they lost all momentum. It cost them hundreds of sales, maybe a lot more.
Another example happened more recently. Dan Brown’s US publisher set The Da Vinci Code free for a couple of weeks to build buzz in advance of his launch and placed an excerpt of the forthcoming release in the back. But even though the new book had a pre-order page on Amazon, they didn’t link to it! I can’t even imagine how many sales they lost out on.
His publisher didn’t even have a mailing list sign-up to capture addresses from the tens of thousands of readers that downloaded the free book. The only link was to the homepage of Random House imprint that published the book – where there was no mention of Dan Brown or his books! This is basic stuff, and it’s the reason why savvy self-publishers are grabbing so much market share.
Could you share one or two of the biggest mistakes you see writers and publishers making when it comes to presenting their work on Amazon – and how to fix them?
Aside from the basics mentioned regarding a professional product, people need to take more care with the metadata they enter when uploading their book. Keywords are important, being one of the only things that will trigger your book’s appearance in Amazon Search (especially important for non-fiction). But even more important are categories – which are central to almost everything I talk about in Let’s Get Visible. Selecting the correct granular sub-categories is crucial, and changing them at the right time can really help.
Launch strategy is another area where self-publishers have much room for improvement. As soon as the book is proofed and formatted, they often upload it without any real plan. Once you understand how the algorithms work, you will completely change your approach to launching books.
Most of Let’s Get Visible is devoted to getting more visibility on Amazon – is it really the best strategy to focus most of our marketing efforts on one retailer? Will the strategies you outline on Amazon work on other platforms too?
Amazon will always try and recommend customers the book they are most likely to purchase – based on browsing history and purchase history, as well as those of similar customers. Its competitors are more like traditional bookstores, training customer attention on the front tables where a select few books are being pushed.
As with physical bookstores, places on those virtual front tables are bought and sold. Amazon is different because it will give visibility to any book, whoever published it, based on its performance.
It’s somewhat analogous to the battle between Yahoo and Google – which I’m sure Amazon was watching. Where Yahoo went for the quick and easy money of auctioning off the prime real estate at the top of search results, Google played the longer game of making relevancy a key factor in which ads would appear there.
Amazon will recommend to each customer the book they are most likely to purchase, whether it’s published by me, Random House, or one of their own imprints, and whether the book costs 99c or $14.99. Amazon knows that they might make less on this immediate sale, but they will make much more in the long run as trust in the recommendation engine grows. This focus on relevancy is why Google won, and it’s why Amazon is winning.
Because of all this, there are visibility opportunities on Amazon which simply don’t exist elsewhere, or are only available to large publishers. The content of Let’s Get Visible reflects that disparity. Most of the marketing strategies will reap best results on Amazon, but there is a section on other retailers covering the best approaches to making headway there.
David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in London, who spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories. As well as several fiction titles, he is the author of the self-publishing guides Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible.