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Tips & Advice for New & Indie Authors

(Last Update March 1, 2021). Over the last decade I have run a side business editing and marketing ebooks. From time to time I am contacted by new writers about how to publish and promote a book. I get contacted so often about this that I have starting keeping a compendium of tips. I actually format ebooks for a fee (here’s my rate sheet for this service).

Every author and book is different. What works for one kind of book doesn’t work for another, so advice from one person may be utterly irrelevant to your project. Also, some advice may be applicable to one genre but not the other. Advice about standalone books may not apply to books in a series and vice versa. Except for coffee table books, cookbooks, children’s books, science textbooks and maybe some other specialty books, ebooks are where it’s at. Unless you are buying your own print copies and selling them yourself at live events, the profit for indies is primarily in ebooks.

Bigger publishers are publishing a much slimmer percentage of titles with every year. You can’t rely on them to get a publishing contract. Even if you do, the wait time is significant and the advance is unlikely to be big if at all. Publishers have been blind to many high quality books –opting instead for books by celebrities and books which neatly fit into a genre. The last decade has led to many different hybrid publishing types (described in Jane Friedman’s chart about indie publishing).

It’s practically impossible to compete on price these days for ebooks. The major publishers are using a high sticker price (i.e. over $10) and then doing spot sales to put the ebook under $3. The amount of quality titles you can buy between the 1.99 and 3.99 on a daily basis is jaw-droppingly high.

Amazon’s 2.99 price floor allows you to have 70% profits. Amazon allows you to price between 99 cents and 2.99 but at 30% profits. But if you promote your stuff below 2.99, that means a unit profit of only $0.30-$0.90 per sale (compared to 2.10 per sale for $2.99). Suppose you do a marketing campaign and pay $100 for one title; to break even, a 2.99 ebook needs to sell 47 ebooks. To break even at the 30% profit threshold for your $100 investment, you need to sell 111-333 ebooks.

Publishing frequently helps a lot. You should be publishing every 2 years, so arrange your book projects so that they meet that pace.

If you have the technical competence, it’s better to make an epub file which you can convert to Kindle’s mobi format. If you don’t, you end up using a company’s specific tools and then have problems using them at a different ebook distributor. (Both Amazon and Apple have great author creation tools, but they produce ebooks optimized for their own readers). In any case, it’s necessary to keep your text in a source file (.DOCX or .ODT or .IND) and then update your source file before using the company’s creation tools. Also: I haven’t looked seriously at Draft2Digital, but they distribute ebooks to several major ebooksellers and have good tools for converting from MS Word to epub and mobi.).

Along with the previous suggestion, it’s important to build the author brand rather than the book brand. You need to have some kind of regular public presence (via social media, blogs, podcasts). You shouldn’t have to post regularly on these places unless you have a burning desire to. Many writers do fine without posting on the Internet or do so rarely. I like the idea of contributing occasionally to a group blog or something similar.

You should pay for one review in the trades (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc) especially for your first book. (cost — 200-400$) Some of the low cost review services are worth doing (at least initially) because you can repost it on your book page on various ebook stores. Midwest Book Review, City Book Review, US Review of Books, (and possibly Reedsy Discovery which I’ve heard good things about) . They cost about $50-200. Keep in mind that Citybook or Midwest might do a blurb review even if you don’t pay for a review. Citybook Review says that they do reviews of 40% of books received regardless if it’s paid for.

Set pub date 3-4 months after it is 100% finished and use the intervening time to find reviewers/beta reviewers. (Actually, 6 months in advance is fine too).

Personally I wouldn’t bother trying to contact major publications or book critics about reviews. Too little likelihood of success. Bloggers are more amenable, but I wouldn’t spend much time trying to research them — unless you already know about them. It’s a big time-suck with little payoff. (If you are going that route, you should check out this book . ) I would probably spend the time contacting your local press, but don’t expect miracles.

Professional advice-givers often recommend that indie authors spend money on X, Y and Z. (Fill in the blanks as necessary: a decent editor, a cover design artist, a video book trailer, 1 or more paid reviews, a professionally done author website, a booth at a literary conference, an author photo by a professional photographer, Facebook advertising, Amazon marketing service, a book promoter, ads in newsletters). But you could spend yourself to bankruptcy on these ancillary services without getting any real payoff. If you believe that one area is especially holding back your book’s success, fine, spend money on it while recognizing that it may not improve earnings. Book advertising is notoriously unreliable; it’s trial and error. Spend a little money, watch for results, make necessary adjustments and repeat. The most common criteria for evaluating an ancillary service is: will this extra expense of X dollars produce more than X dollars of earnings? On the other hand, spending on author branding (like a good author photo) doesn’t have an immediate payoff, but it’s probably a good idea to devote a portion of your promotion budget and time on author branding.

The most common “easy advice” given to authors is that they should hire a decent editor and hire a professional to do the cover. What they don’t tell you is that hiring an editor is very expensive ($500 to $1500 for someone experienced, possibly higher). Every writer should aspire to the point where they could edit their own copy as an expert — perhaps asking someone to read through just for typos and obvious discrepancies. Paying handsomely for an outside editor won’t necessarily make a book better or more saleable. It just will make it seem less bad to paying customers. Sure, you need to have a quality control process for your writing. But that doesn’t require paying someone. Remember: with ebooks, there’s always the option to make corrections later and upload a revised version of the book.

Before you sell at online bookstores, at minimum you need to verify that an ebook renders passably on Kindle e-ink (Paperwhite), an ios/android tablet, a 2 year old iPhone and Google Play (both inside Chrome browser and the Google Play Books mobile application).

Whenever authors ask online for feedback about why their ebook isn’t selling, the overwhelming answer from others is “Your cover sucks. You need to hire a professional.” A cover certainly helps with branding and catching attention, but it’s not that important. In the ebook world, a book description, good reviews and author website is much more important than having a topnotch cover. Sure, a good cover can pay for itself (and isn’t that expensive compared to hiring an editor), but 99.9 percent of the time, “Your cover sucks” is a wrong-headed diagnosis of why the book hasn’t sold. Unlike the prose itself, an ebook cover doesn’t need to be awesome; it often needs only to be adequate and functional. Maybe a cover was more important in the days of print books; now it’s just a small and pleasant-looking graphic which appears in search results. (Recently I have been keeping a web page gallery of my fave book covers — so far it has about 200 titles). Update: I ended up paying a pretty penny for an ebook cover for one of my press’s fiction titles. I was very happy with the result; the book was hard to define, and this professionally done cover captured the spirit of it while also looking beautiful to the eyes! But I still think that a bad cover doesn’t damn a book, and a great cover doesn’t ensure the book’s success.

Focusing all your efforts on Amazon is dangerous. It’s good to sell at least in one place which is DRM-free. (smashwords).

I personally don’t like reading or writing serials, but be prepared for books to be rolled up into and sold as bundles later on.

A lot of market tendencies for nonfiction don’t apply for fiction and vice versa.

Unfortunately Amazon gives lower royalties for ebooks with a lot of graphics. This is unfortunate, because they can make an ebook look nicer. If you want to use a graphics-intense ebook, you should still publish on Amazon, but use at least one other distribution service which doesn’t charge a fee for large ebook files.

Don’t fixate on the opinions of what beta readers and friends think. Some people obsess about pleasing everyone with their book. Don’t water your book down just to make Sam or Sally happy.

Don’t treat advice from successful authors or publishing gurus as sacrosanct. When I was in grad school, my teachers (well-known authors) gave great publishing advice — or so I thought. But I ended up not publishing anything for the next 10 years, so their advice — even if helpful when given, was irrelevant by the time I started publishing. At that time — the late 80s, the big obstacle was finding agents — and developing a long list of publication credits to help convince an agent to sign you. Looking back, that seems absolutely irrelevant to my career — even for someone like me who specialized in short stories.

It’s common to price your ebook at 0 or 1 dollar at the beginning and to raise prices gradually over time as you accumulate reviews.

Setting your ebook price at free has some value, but the consensus is that it doesn’t increase earnings much unless you also have 4 or 5 other titles which cost money. It’s also smart to make the first volume in a series free or 99 cents. Also, it’s okay to offer a freebie in exchange for an email signup. But ultimately you won’t win many readers solely by offering freebies.

Although it’s not necessary to set up an elaborate website to promote the books you’ve wrote, it’s necessary to have something — some kind of home base with a list of your books — and a link to ebook stores and possibly reviews. I’m a big fan of 3 minute Youtube vids consisting of nothing but the author looking at the camera and answering some basic questions about the book — the elevator pitch, why you wrote it and what’s interesting about it.

Some kinds of books are unlikely to make money no matter what. It’s important to maintain a diverse portfolio of book projects, mixing ones with more commercial potential with less potential.

Recognize that you’re going to waste a percent of your ad budget on things which accomplish nothing.

The primary way in April 2020 to promote ebooks at this moment seems to be ebook deal newsletters which authors and publishers pay for. Bookbub used to be the best service, but now it’s too expensive. Other services like bookgorilla, bargainbooksy, booksends offer more competitive rates. (Bookgorilla is less than $50 an ad). (Dec 2020: Update: Also, see a place that lets you promote on netgalley for $50 a month, a place that finds likely reviewers fairly cheaply (even though the reviews aren’t that great. I still think bargainbooksy and bookgorilla are better deals though). See also Dave Gaughran’s annotated list of Best Book Promo Sites.

So far, I’ve seen limited returns on these promo sites — only about a 20-50% of the cost is actually returned in earnings — producing a negative balance. The main reason is that most promo sites are geared to promoting discounted books at a price of 0 or 99 cents, and that’s a price point where authors receive only 35% of earnings; in other words, you need to sell 285 ebooks for the promotion to break even. That does not mean all is for naught. If you define success as raising brand awareness for other books or attracting reviews, then the campaign might still be deemed successful. Also, Gaughran makes the argument that promo stacking (running multiple overlapping promos for different ebooks) can have synergistic effects on brand awareness. For example my press is coming out with a great story collection in July by Jack Matthews. It will be priced at 4-5$, but I’ll keep the other Jack Matthews titles on sale at different price points and promoting the cheap titles might increase the interest in the 4-5$ title.

Much has been written about the 99 cent vs. 2.99 vs. 3.99 price strategy on Amazon. For some book buyers (like me) those extra dollars might be dealbreakers, but not for other people. What’s definitely true is:

  • purchasing a 2.99 ebook on Amazon is a LOT more profitable than purchasing a 99 cent ebook. (For most books, you’re talking about $2.07 profit for one sale vs. $0.34). For this reason it’s much much better to be able to persuade readers to buy on Amazon at 2.99 and above.
  • Ebook deal newsletters mostly are encouraging authors to advertise 99 cent specials rather than 2.99 and up novels.
  • Some ebookstores (Google, Smashwords) are offering higher earning percentages for ebooks below 2.99, but those account for a very small percent of sales volumes. You could probably persuade a small percent of readers to buy from those places, but the majority are still going to stick with Amazon.

Generally it’s a losing proposition to buy advertising in general media if a significant portion of the audience are not book buyers. Although there is the potential to reach new audiences, the problem is that other products and companies will be willing to pay a higher rate for ads because the products or services being sold bring more profit per item. On the other hand, advertising on Amazon Marketing Service might have more potential payoffs because the people on the site are more likely to be book-buyers. (Not that I wholeheartedly endorse this service. It depends on the book and the price of the keywords you are buying). Update: Multiple sources have suggested that the bid which A.M.S. suggests is way too expensive for its effectiveness.

The problem with “algorithmic advertising” that you see in social media is that a potential consumer is not likely to see it more than once. Also, consumers are less likely to trust a targeted ad provided by Google or Facebook. Watch your money carefully — especially at the beginning.

If you advertise, you should start with a small fixed amount, then choose an advertising method and then track its performance. (Nowadays you can check daily ebook sales from every distributor). Generally the ad should pay for itself and then some. But you need to figure out which advertising method is actually cost-effective. You can do that by trying only one promotional campaign at a time and checking if it increases sales. It’s okay to burn a small amount of money when you’re starting out (200 dollars or less), but it’s also perfectly okay not to advertise at all (or rather do primarily no-cost techniques).

Don’t count on friends and family to review your title, much less read it. Most of them won’t bother to read the first page (unless the subject is salacious or they think it’s about them).

Generally book marketing always starts out as an exercise in futility — until suddenly it isn’t.

Perhaps this is obvious, but other writers don’t judge you by your sales record; they judge you by steady output and your mastery of the fundamentals. Frankly, every writer starts out clueless about promotion, and eventually the basics of marketing will come naturally. Spending too much of your focus on marketing is a certain recipe for psyching yourself out and diverting attention from the muse’s calling.

Finally, and I hate to say that, but 99.9 of the world’s population does not care about books and specifically your book. Don’t let that get you down.

Tips I tweeted

In answer to a twitter question about inside publishing wisdom, I made 4 tweets:

  • For every talented acclaimed author, there are 100+ exciting indie ones flying under radar & making almost no money. It’s incredibly $$ & risky to promote unknowns — unless you have a)blurbs by famous people b)paid reviews and c) movie deal — or if the author is young & telegenic.
  • Indie author obstacles: Paltry book coverage in MSM (except cookbooks, true crime & celebrity memoirs). Even highbrow media follows the herd. Memoirs by unknowns are especially hard sell b/c you’re still competing against Holocaust, crime victims & celebs w/ drug problems.
  • Amazon’s dominance of book industry is overwhelming. All parties really are subject to vagaries of Amzn policy & business strategy and utterly dependent on its marketing tools. Every author loves/hates Amazon!
  • Only way to overcome these obstacles is publish often, stick with conventional genres and/or have a trust fund (and/or grant money/academic position) to bankroll your noncommercial projects. Of course, to qualify for a grant or position, you have to win a prize/receive some acclaim beforehand. It’s a vicious circle.

Marketing Guides and websites which were actually useful to me:

  • In this outstanding post, Austin author Scott Semegren details the promotion steps he found to be the most useful.
  • Books by marketing guru Nicholas Erik
  • CreativeIndie Derek Murphy (brilliant, insightful guy who unfortunately tends to blame bad covers too much).
  • Dave Gaughram. Here’s an Oct 2020 video where he talks about what works and doesn’t in 2020. To summarize, he calls building & cultivating newsletters the most important thing you can do, says not to advertise on Amazon because of high price, but to look into advertising on bookbub website — which is different from applying to be a bookbub deal.
  • Smashwords CEO Mark Coker writes a yearly column predicting ebook trends for the next year. Here’s the latest column. His business model is very anti-Amazon and that skews his perspective somewhat, but he’s in touch with the world of indie authors.

One caveat to keep in mind is that most of these help books assume you are as prolific as Stephen King and writing in a popular genre. In Erik’s book he says that he assumes a writer is publishing 2 books a year — which is wildly out of sync with the productivity of actual writers. With literary fiction, publishing a book every 2-5 years used to be the norm (and that was only if you had some kind of cushy academic job).

I agree that this standard was probably too easy and that writers should publish more regularly. But there’s a catch 22 embedded in these assumptions. ie.,

  1. the only way you can make a living as a writer is to publish a new book every 6 months or year BUT
  2. the only way you can write a book every 6-12 months is to quit your job and follow some write-to-market formula BUT
  3. the only way you can sell your book is to spend money on ancillary marketing services — which may or may not work depending on your book, BUT
  4. The only way you can find money to spend on marketing services is to invest your own cash — and assume the risk yourself, BUT
  5. The only way to invest your own cash is to be already making a living which lets you save money.
  6. GO to #1 .

This definitely starts to resemble the underpants gnome business model after a while. But all is not bleak — especially if you have some supplemental income to help you with #4. Beginner’s luck could help, as well as a good circle of friends and successful author branding. The main thing I worry about is momentum: if you are not able to publish as often as Stephen King, gaining momentum can be harder (in terms of media mentions, etc). Basically all you can hope for is that readers discover your backlist of titles soon enough that you don’t go broke first.

Book Description Limits

Here are some character & word limits for the various ebookstores and ebook deal newsletters (current as of 11/2020:

  • Amazon opening paragraph (what appears before you click MORE): 466-490 characters.
  • Smashwords opening paragraph: 399 characters.
  • Google Books opening Paragraph: 450 characters
  • Amazon Author Central book description: 4000 characters, 600 words

Ad copy permitted for the ebook deal promoters:

  • Bargain Booksy: 466-490 characters
  • Bookbub 297 characters
  • Book Gorilla: Lead: 105 characters, body: 324 characters
  • Fussy Librarian: 700 characters

A final Disclaimer

I hope this helps somebody!

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