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Tips & Advice for New & Indie Authors

(Last Update November 7 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. As of June 2021 I have organized a random assortment of tips into categories. I actually format ebooks for a fee (here’s my rate sheet for this service).

General Observations

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.

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.

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).

Focusing all your efforts on Amazon is dangerous. It’s good to sell at least in one place which is DRM-free. (smashwords or payhip). I talk about this in more detail in the section below titled Selling Ebook Files Directly to Readers.

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.

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.

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.

Writing Habits and Goals

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

Deadlines and Productivity. In the software industry, the question about when something will be ready always has the same answer: it’s done when it needs to be. At some point, project managers need to cut off work on new features and just make the existing features work great. Inevitably compromises have to be made. With books and creative writing, no deadline is set in stone and no compromises need to be made. It’s done whenever you decide it is. Setting writing goals (300 words a day, 2 chapters a month, 1 novel per year) is a pretty thing to do for motivation, but ultimately the goal should not be how many books or pages you have cranked out, but whether you have produced something which is the best you can possibly do.

Ebook Formatting and Quality Control

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.).

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).

Ebook Covers. 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 are 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.

Unfortunately Amazon gives lower royalties for ebooks with a lot of graphics. (35% instead of 70%). 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. 8/2021 Update: For Amazon, larger books also require a higher minimum price. If you keep the epub under 10MB, minimum price must be 1.99. If it’s over 10MB, minimum price must be 2.99. I’m currently producing an ebook with multiple graphics (12-14 images) and have managed to stay under 10 MB without compromising on quality. (Nov 21 Update: Another strategy is to price it fairly high on Amazon and then sell discounted versions of it on payhip — where there are no restrictions on file size).

Promotional Strategies — Branding, Targeting, Audience Building

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. Another author regularly contributes to Quora which increases the number of times that strangers can learn who he is. Maybe one shouldn’t start writing for Quora purely to publicize the author brand, but if it’s something you were doing anyway, it might bring payoffs for the author brand.

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.

I generally think you get the biggest bang for your buck from efforts that permanently improve your visibility or brand. On the other hand, advertising only works for a finite period of time, and then you have to pay again. That’s why I think things like author websites, videos, podcasts, author photos and sponsored reviews are better investments than paying for ads which only last for a day or small number of days.

Getting Reviews

You should pay for one review in the trades (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc) especially for your first book. (cost — 300-500$).Some of the low cost review services are worth doing (at least initially) because you can repost them 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): these 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. Booklife (aka Publishers Weekly for Indies) claims to review ebooks for free, but I’m skeptical). (Nov 2021 Update: I am less impressed by City Book Review — especially for the price).

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.

There are a few websites and services which allow you to do giveaways of ebooks in the hopes that winners will eventually post a review. I recommend Librarything Member giveaways which are easy to do. Occasionally they will pay off. Usually about 25-75 people sign up, and I’m lucky if I get 1 review after each giveaway.

I’m optimistic about Bookroar, a book review swap service which opened in July 2021. You list your books and then agree to buy and review a book by another indie author. After you post a review of the book you chose, you will receive a credit which allows you to post your book for reviewing by someone else. Amazon generally prohibits reciprocal reviews, but Bookroar ensures that you never review a book by a person who has reviewed your book. It’s just starting out, but it has good possibilities — especially if your book is accessible and not too long or strenuous. (November 2021 Update: I vote an enthusiastic yes about Bookroar. In fact, I’d even recommend that you pay $10 or $25 to be a paid member, so you get 1 or 3 extra credits a month. So far all the reviews from Bookroar have been high quality (fingers-crossed). Even the somewhat negative review was so well-written that I think it still helped the book. That’s enough to make me think that the whole concept has great potential — and the only price you pay is the time to review another stranger’s book).

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).

Using a Professional Book Reader instead of Hiring an Editor

Some common advice given to new writers is that they need to hire an editor. What they don’t tell you is how expensive that can be. You can be talking about over $1000 for something that is not guaranteed to result in more sales.

For some people who are starting out or recognize that their writing style is flabby, paying 1000-2000 can be a worthwhile investment for a full editing job. But you shouldn’t have to do it every time. Few very writers can afford to spend that much for each book they write.

Here’s an alternative idea: Instead of hiring a developmental editor (which can be pricey), I’ve been recommending that people hire someone to be a “beta reader.” They can be a friend, but it’s better that you not know the person too well — it might affect their objectivity. The beta reader will read the book and then provide one or two pages of notes — reactions and responses. The beta reader won’t correct for style or suggest ways to rewrite paragraphs. Instead this reader will just give touchy-feely responses and mention parts he did not understand. Paying 200$ or so seems reasonable for this kind of feedback without putting too much of a burden on the editor (or your pocketbook). Keep in mind that this is only one reader. Another beta reader may notice totally different things. Here is the kind of beta reader feedback which really helps:

  • This part can be skipped without ruining the story.
  • I didn’t understand Person X’s motivation here or what he/she meant when he said Y.
  • I lost track of who was saying what during the conversation.
  • This part dragged.
  • This scene or chapter didn’t seem necessary or relevant to the main story.
  • Is there a sentence or paragraph missing here? This word seemed wrong or misplaced.
  • It would be better to spell out earlier that A is B (I didn’t realize it the first time I read it).
  • I wanted to know more about Person G and why he/she would act this way.
  • (Occasionally) Wouldn’t it be nice if J happened or if K did this? (Authors rarely follow suggestions about plot or character, but once in a while such a suggestion hits its mark).
  • This part was too predictable. Or this part was a big surprise. (In response, the author should always ask: Was it good or bad that it was predictable or surprising? Why was it good/bad?

Deciding upon a production & promotion budget

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? Actually, you don’t have to break even at the beginning. Spending money on author branding (like a good author photo) are steep one-time investments, but after they’re done, they can have long-term promotional value.

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.

You’re going to waste a percent of your ad budget on things which accomplish nothing. Generally book marketing always starts out as an exercise in futility — until suddenly it isn’t.

Submitting to literary contests. I’m of mixed feelings about submitting pieces to literary contests. Here’s some duotrope data (2021) about submission fees and chance of success. To summarize: Average fee paid for literary contests is $19, with 2% chance of receiving an award. Average submission fee paid for genre contests is $17, with 9% chance of receiving an award.

Newsletters and Audience Management

The big trend these days is author newsletters. I haven’t been a fan of them until recently. They can be a big time suck, so be careful. They work by advertising a freebie (or “reader magnet”) if the person would sign up for the newsletter. The easiest way to get started is to sign up for Mailer Lite (free) and put your freebies up at Book Funnel. (20$/year).

Author newsletters can’t perform miracles, but it’s easy to advertise a free book somewhere and then to keep these people interested over the long run. If they sign up, then you essentially don’t need to pay to reach these people anymore; just shoot an email. In contrast, advertising on Amazon/Facebook or the ebook deal newsletters can be expensive and time-consuming. You need an easy way to keep in touch with “interested readers”. That means of course that you need to have several books available for sale for ebook newsletters to work.

A new service, StoryOrigin offers authors the ability to do newsletter swaps — which makes a lot of sense. But you can do informal author swaps — ads on one another’s blog or newsletters. The real trick is finding like-minded authors you want to swap with. Some authors occupy very narrow niches.

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.

For newsletters to be effective, you need to have some content you can use as reader magnets. Despite the fact that you make no money from these giveaways, they could potentially lead to more sales. For that reason alone, they need to be just as high quality as the stuff you sell.

Selling ebook files directly to readers (i.e., the DRM-free option)

Probably the most common ebook question I see on forums is: where can I sell my pdfs?

Ever since Amazon decided not to sell PDFs to consumers, authors have wanted a way to sell PDF’s instead of EPUB or MOBI. It’s easy to convert DOCX or ODT files to PDF, with one big caveat. It mainly is optimized for one display size. (You can use Adobe to create a “reflowable PDF” but it’s way more trouble than it’s worth).

Because it’s so hard to do well and because Amazon doesn’t sell PDFs, publishers are using PDFs mainly for advanced reader copies (with the bigger publishers encrypting the PDF using Adobe). Still this does not answer the question: how to sell digital files directly to consumers?

First, it’s important for you to accept these things:

  • theoretically people could share the file inappropriately with others. It could end up appearing on sharing/piracy networks. (I’m fine with that because it doesn’t threaten my livelihood at all).
  • At least 50% of readers lack the technical proficiency to transfer a PDF/EPUB/MOBI file to a reading device.
  • Even if people had that technical proficiency, they still prefer purchasing from a bookstore which has a cloud-based ebook reader (like Amazon, Google, BN, Kobo).
  • Many of the tools for marketing to readers are geared to Amazon and they don’t allow linking to DRM-free ecommerce stores (which is really irritating). You have to find a way to inform readers about this option, so the value of selling files directly depends on establishing a direct way to communicate with audiences.
  • These services are ideal for reader magnets, newsletter promotions, prizes and review copies. All you have to do is provide a URL and a coupon code!

Here is a list of DRM-free bookstores. As I see it, you have two main options: Payhip and Smashwords. At this date (Nov 2021), Payhip is the best option for selling digital content. As an example, here is the e-commerce store for Personville Press. Very fast and easy to set up.

  • Payhip: 0 monthly charge, 5% transaction fee + Paypal/stripe — usually 2.9% + 30 cents). Ability to generate coupons, freebies, interface with mailing lists, Name-Your-Price option, PDF stamping (if you are selling PDF), 5 gig total storage maximum, ideal for audiobook files (upload as zip files) 0.61 cent earnings (on 99 cent price item), 1.08 cents (on 1.50 price), 1.54 earnings (on 1.99 price), 1.77 earnings (on 2.25 price), 2.00 earnings (on 2.50 price), 2.46 earnings (on 3.00 price).
  • Smashwords: looks like a bookstore, with ability to browse, upload interviews and author profile. (No audio books). You can directly upload EPUB and MOBI files (not PDFs). From direct Smashwords sales, 0.56 cent earnings (on 99 cent price item), 0.98 cents (on 1.50 price), 1.39 earnings (on 1.99 price), 1.60 earnings (on 2.25 price), 1.81 earnings (on 2.50 price), 2.22 earnings (on 3.00 price).

Amazon’s agreement with authors allow it to price match the lowest available price on the Internet. I don’t think payhip is on anyone’s radar right now, but Amazon certainly auto-detects that ebooks are free or lower price on BN, Google, Kobo. You can get around this on Smashwords by creating a “public coupon” which is a discounted price only found on the Smashwords site and nowhere else. My rule of thumb is to price titles on Payhip and Smashwords as 50% of its Amazon price because (for titles costing less than 2.99), the revenues are only 35%. Even with that lower prices, sales on Payhip and Smashwords are still puny compared to Amazon.

Pricing Psychology

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. (Note: See below for important update about the effectiveness of offering freebies).

Most of the problems with advertising come from Amazon’s low royalties on ebooks priced below 2.99.

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 35% profits. But if you promote your stuff below 2.99, that means a unit profit of only $0.34-$1.04 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 35% profit threshold for your $100 investment, you need to sell 142 ebooks (for 1.99 cent per ebook) or 294 ebooks (for 0.99 cent ebooks).

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.

Advertising and Promotion

Several discussion boards always contain questions about advertising, and the consensus answer seems to be: don’t bother trying unless you have several books under your name. Purely from a marketing point of view, having several books to promote is easier than promoting only one — especially if discounting one title helps them to be a repeat customer. .

The primary way in April 2021 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. (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). 2021 Update: I highly recommend Dave Gaughran’s annotated list of Best Book Promo Sites which he ranks the promo sites and updates regularly.

On Google Docs I created a spreadsheet where I calculated the “break even” point on advertising (prepare to be depressed!). Some remarks:

  • Sometimes the goal is not to break even but simply to increase distribution of titles (with the hope of snagging reviews or repeat customers. Maybe its goal is simply to raise awareness of the author in readers.
  • Ad effectiveness can vary with time. I promoted a new ebook at 1.99 with 3 sponsored reviews, but no reviews from paying customers. Earnings were low. On the other hand, if the Amazon page had more reviews from paying customers, maybe the rate of return would be different. Also, it’s conceivable that higher prices and/or better rates can improve future returns. For example, GPB and Smashwords currently pay 70-85% for ebooks under 2.99. It’s not too far-fetched to envision that Amazon will improve earnings below 2.99.

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.

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.

Another issue with buying ads on Amazon is ad saturation. Author and book promoter Dave Gaughran once wrote: As I write these words, there are currently 248 different titles on the product page of the Kindle edition of “Let’s Get Digital.” Between the ads, Also Boughts, Also Vieweds, Amazon promotion, and other links, there are hundreds of things that could distract a reader before they purchase.

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).

What we Need: More fundamentally, there is a real need for a book promotion service to allow optional links to Payhip or Smashwords or the author’s home page. That way, the author can direct the reader to a place with the lowest transaction fees and the most likely to result in a newsletter signup or a suggest sell to another ebook. It may take a long time for that to happen.

Advertising on Facebook and Amazon

I have never tried either service yet, although I will do so reasonably soon. I remain gloomy about its usefulness. Here are some general thoughts on strategies without having tried it:

  • If you’re linking to an Amazon ebook, you need to have the ebook priced at least 2.99 for it to pay off. (Lower prices mean you have to sell more copies to break even).
  • If you can advertise on book pages, aim not for 1st tier authors/books but 2nd/3rd tier.
  • Expect Facebook, etc to change their rules about promotions often.
  • The goal is for the potential reader/customer to come across the author’s name or book several times. Just hitting the reader one time won’t be sufficient.

Promotional Value (and Challenge) of Making Ebooks Free

It’s unclear how effective offering freebies can be in promoting the author and the book itself. David Gaughran’s post on the the topic is probably the best resource. Let me try to guess based on experience.

Offering freebies is good if you have many products by the same author which you want to sell. If multiple products are available, it’s good to have at least one thing for free.

Given that ebooks are already usually cheap, a low price isn’t so much of a barrier that it prevents the customer from buying. But still it’s a lot easier for someone to decide to vote YES on a free item on a Cloud-based reader than paying a small fee for something. It’s slightly harder to vote yes on a free ebook from a DRM-free site even if it’s free because you have to download and manage the file. Maybe your established fans might do it, but that’s why I use a lower promotional price on No-DRM stores.

Offering a freebie in exchange of a newsletter signup seems to be good for the author. Also having a BUY ONE GET ONE FREE does seem to make someone more likely to pay.

I don’t think putting a book under creative commons is a particularly helpful promotional tool for ebooks. Why? You still need to pay or work hard to promote the ebook.

The big unknown in author circles is whether participation in Kindle Select (ie, Kindle Unlimited) actually makes you more money in the long run over conventional sales. One clear advantage of Select is that you are allowed to price your ebook for free for 3 days (but elsewhere, you can do it every day without rules or limits).

Advertising to make something free? As counterintuitive as it sounds, authors have to spend a lot of time and money promoting free works. Is it worth it? It offers several possible advantages: 1)possibly more reviews and word of mouth, 2)getting the author’s name out there (so people will buy other ebooks by the same author). Here’s what I found after promoting a first story collection (not enrolled in Kindle Select) as an experiment in Oct 2021:

  • $60 for 1 day ad on Freebooksy brought 828 Amazon downloads +36 apple (864 total) ( I paid 6.9 cents for each person to download)
  • $30 + $5 top listing for free ebook on Ereaderiq brought 671 Amazon downloads + 9 apple (680 total) (I paid 5.1 cents for each person to download).

I was pleasantly surprised to see this many downloads occurred, but am unsure whether it brings more sales for this particular ebook over the long run (will report more later).

Blurbs and Making the Amazon Book Page Look Pretty

One way that established publishers beat the pants off indie authors and publishers is amassing an impressive number of blurbs about a book which are prominently featured on the book landing page. Some come from published reviews , while others may come from famous and not-so-famous authors. I suspect that some of these blurbs were written by authors from the same publishing house or friends or teachers of the author. Gosh, we readers are so easily swayed by social proof. For that reason, I once believed that blurbs weren’t particularly reliable or honest.

When I got into publishing, I began to see things differently. It is really really hard to get a book reviewed, especially a title which is long or complex or challenging. For those hard books, you can end up purchasing sponsored reviews just to get a decent review of it (and that’s no guarantee that the result will be to your liking. I’ve heard stories of books being savaged by Kirkus reviewers which people paid $400-500 for).

In other words, publishers and authors use blurbs to save money on efforts to get a book reviewed. Sure, it’s not better than bona fide reviews or sponsored reviews. But it’s better than nothing. Also, often a well-written blurb from another author can capture what is unique or interesting about a book. (A poorly written one can make it sound generic and cliched).

Have you noticed that occasionally a blurb can be taken from a blurb for a different book? I used to think, “what nerve trying to pawn off an old blurb on another book!” You’re missing the point. Sometimes a statement about another book can provide a good clue about the current one. For example, I’ve been using this generic blurb from an older review of a Jack Matthews book for his newer books. Unfair? Maybe, but this blurb (which costs nothing) is just so great and generally applicable! Matthews stories are like friends from small towns: They are honest, warm, occasionally lyrical and as strange and idiosyncratic as the rest of us.”

Here’s one tip for rookies: Use Amazon Author Central to create an author landing page. (It’s on the Marketing Resource Manager page). That requires a separate step — and is totally different from KDP, but it lets you add an author photo, include reviews and stuff from the Author. In July 2021 Amazon allowed authors and publishers to include A+ Content (basically illustrated banners right above the customer reviews). That’s a good thing, but I doubt it will radically change sales if the other elements aren’t compelling. (I am creating an A+ banner for one book and will report back how much of a difference it made).

Update: I created a nice A+ panel for a very quirky book. But I discovered something interesting. Apparently, these panels (and the review section) must be approved for each different country store. More importantly, the Reviews section in Amazon Author central must be approved to appear in Amazon’s other bookstores (UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan).

Should you submit your short fiction to magazines?

Here’s why I quit submitting to story magazines: the rewards (monetary and nonmonetary) never were significant enough to justify the effort. Also, the submission/acceptance process was too slow. I would spend months waiting for an answer that wasn’t an acceptance. The delays imposed by waiting for publication seemed silly given that I could self-publish a story collection fairly quickly.

Here are some screengrabs of submission statistics (Aug 2021) for nonfiction and fiction to journals and litmags. It ain’t pretty.

During the 1990s I followed litmags and submitted to them with marginal (and mostly disappointing) returns. It’s true that there are some paying markets, but not so many in literary fiction — many of which are being run by graduate English departments (which publish at a glacial pace). Another thing. Getting in print increasingly seemed irrelevant given that Internet and blogging has the potential to spread word of your ebook more quickly and cheaply.

It kind of reminds me of the question of whether high school basketball stars should try out for the pros or play college basketball. Conventional wisdom says, play college basketball first, then go pro. But if you are good enough and if your athletic career only lasts for a few years anyway, why waste 4 of them in college? (It’s not like you can’t go later). Succeeding on the fiction magazine circuit seems to be more of an exercise than an actual milestone. In the past, publishing in magazines was helpful in convincing agents to represent you or publishers to publish you. But if it is no longer a problem to get published or self-publish, why bother?

I’ve always liked litmags — they have always been vital for poetry, but the prices for most of them are high — and frankly I’d be lucky if friends and family ever picked up the New Yorker once in a while. You’re never going to get many adults — even adult readers — to keep up with Paris Review or Narrative Magazine — especially because even I personally don’t follow them anymore.

Also, I’m not particularly convinced that getting published in these mags would lead to more book sales. Readership at these places remains pretty limited (though I was pleasantly surprised recently to learn about Narrative Magazine — which seems to be doing a lot of things right).

It’s also important to compare the cost of magazine subscriptions vs. the cost of ebooks. You can always find great discounted story collections through ebook deal newsletters and blogs and price alert services like ereaderiq. Heck, you can also sample the first chapters on the Kindle! I buy tons of discounted story collections by indie/unknown authors for less than $5 (and I even write a monthly column on what I find).

The important question becomes: if the pay rate for stories is nominal in litmags and if litmags have very limited audiences, what value does getting published there have in establishing or helping a literary career? (aside from impressing English department heads and application committees). I’d much rather receive a positive review of a story collection ebook than have one of my stories accepted from one of the so-called prestige journals. Maybe instead of submitting to these places, I should just pay for an ad instead. There’s far less waiting involved.

The process/time thing was the thing that most bothered me about story submissions, and I’m glad to see that services like duotrope have made it much more efficient. If I were starting out, I’d probably try harder to submit stories using this intermediary, but it does not make sense for someone my age to do so. On the other hand, I am more interested in getting published in anthologies (which are essentially special issue magazines). Duotrope is great for identifying anthologies looking for submissions.

I could hardly call myself a commercially successful author (although I am proud of the things I have written and self-published). And I understand that some writers have benefitted from being published in story mags (especially in certain genres). On the other hand, over the decades, I have gotten the sense that most of what gets published in the New Yorker (to name a high profile mag) came in not over the transom but directly from whatever is in the publisher’s catalog for the next season.

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 Mainstream Media (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 Amzon 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 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.

Tips for Young Student Authors

(I prepared the next few tips for an ambitious high school author wanting to publish her first book).

It’s good to try out a lot of things and don’t worry about success or failure. Most readers, agents and publishers are not going to want to read or publish a writer who is still in school, but there are always exceptions to that rule. The important thing is to finish the project you started and make it the best it can possibly be. Even if the book amounts to nothing, 10-20 years later you will always look with pride at how you managed to pull everything together.

The biggest challenge a writer faces is indifference and rejection. The other big problem is that people are less interested in reading books by people who are not famous. The battle to convince people that your books are interesting takes a lot of patience and perseverance.

The other big challenge is that writing a book is hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of revision. It is hard making it as slim as possible and also easy to read. Just organizing plot and character is complicated and hard. It can frustrate many people (even many smart people). Often you don’t realize why your book is hard to read. It’s also hard being original, or trying an idea that doesn’t just copy what another author has tried.

The big overwhelming question the author must ask is, “so what?!” Why is this book important? Why should someone care about your character? Why should someone read this book instead of a book by Hemingway or Tolstoy? Maybe friends or family can appreciate something you’ve written, but keep in mind that most potential readers are never going to meet you or know how interesting or unusual you are.

Finishing or publishing a novel is a worthy summer or school project, but many writers have the sense that their writing style will improve, and so there’s no rush in publishing when your style is not yet ready. That raises a paradox. Practice makes perfect; the more you write, the easier it becomes. Also, every writing project is in a sense a practice project, so there’s no harm in perfecting it until you are completely happy with it — regardless of how old you are. (Many sci fi authors and poets get started early though).

A writer can end up waiting forever for the right publishing opportunity. The submission/rejection process is long and frustrating. It is not unusual to self-publish your first or second book just because you’re sick and tired of waiting for opportunities.

If you want to self-publish commercially, I recommend publishing as an ebook — either through Draft2Digital or KDP. Both are free. The main problem with KDP is that you are using proprietary tools that work on only one platform (i.e, Kindle). Ideally you want to create an ebook which is readable on several reading systems. Draft2Digital uses its own tools, but I think they produce epubs that can be submitted to any bookstore. Alternately you can use Calibre or Adobe Indesign. The main problem with printed books is that the options either require your buying 100 copies and selling it yourself — or uploading it to a print-on-demand place (like Amazon, Lulu, etc) and then being forced to sell it at too high a price.

If you want to self-publish noncommercially, I recommend Wattpad or something similar. Many writers have developed a following of loyal readers that way even if they are giving away stories for free.

If you want to produce something you can show your friends, consider printing it informally from Kinkos and selling for a few bucks (as a zine, etc).

There is no shame about waiting until you finish graduating from college to start publishing; you’d still be ahead of most writers. One important reason for completing a book while still a student is so you can include it with applications for college or graduate school.

Paying for editors to edit your fiction is always an option, but it’s too expensive for most people.

If you are under 25, the easiest way to get feedback for your fiction is to join a writers’ group or sign up for a creative writing class (at community college or at a university). Often you can find information about local writers’ groups at your public library. Or you can start one yourself! Don’t be alarmed if people in your group are significantly older or younger than you. A variety of perspectives always provides the best feedback.

Alternately you can join an online writers’ group; the main problem is people don’t have to be polite or civilized, so it can quickly get nasty.

A good place for getting started is publishing to magazines. If you want to submit to magazines, submit to contests, find literary agents, I recommend signing up for duotrope $5/month or $50 per year.

Nowadays it’s becoming common to pay a submission fee to enter a contest or submit to a magazine. This is not a scam, but you should be careful not to pay too much for this. $5 or less per submission is reasonable.

Some good books for starting out: Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Also Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark and A Worker’s Writebook by Jack Matthews (which my publishing company publishes!) I love the Roy Peter Clark book even though it’s more about nonfiction writing and journalism.

One first step to being a good writer is finding out what’s out there. I’d recommend subscribing to a newsletter of your favorite author. Also, subscribing to an ebook deal newsletter can make you aware of good cheap ebooks out there. (Look for bookgorilla, bargainbooksy, bookbub).

Another good step is regularly listening to podcasts by authors or about a book genre. There are tons of good ones.

See also: writing advice for middle school students (applies to older writers as well!)

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

Publishing How to Books I recommend

(I’m limiting myself to practical books about producing and marketing books. Information in these books go out of date very quickly. I also recommended some writing guides above.)

How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition): June 2021. Self-publishing in print, eBooks and audiobooks, children’s book marketing, translation and foreign rights Kindle Edition by Karen P. Inglis (author website). I know next to nothing about children’s books, and so in Aug 2021 I paid 6.99 for the second edition which just came out. It’s an excellent book which covers a lot of ground. The author is from UK, and UK/Europe has a different market than USA, but most of her tips still hold true.

Relevant Things I’ve Written about publishing

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