How to self-publish your book on Amazon (the ultimate guide)
- Self-Publishing – How to Make a Living
- An Overview of Effective Self-Publishing
- Write a Good Book
- Create a Strong Cover
- Prepare Your ‘Look Inside’ Material
- Prepare Your End Material
- Format Your E-book
- Build Your Print Book (if you want to)
- Build Your Website
- Create Your Readers’ Magnet
- Mailing Lists and Other Technicalities
- Social Media: Why You Can (Mostly) Ignore This
- How to Choose Categories (BISAC Codes) on Amazon
- How to Choose Keywords on Amazon
- How To Price Your E-Book on Amazon
- How to Launch Your Free Book
- How to Launch Your Paid Book
- The Long Term: Where Do You Go From Here?
• Free. You pay nothing to Amazon, though there will be some costs involved in preparing properly.
• Fast. Allow 12-24 hours for the book to go live worldwide.
• Awesome. KDP can make your work made available to a worldwide audience. That’s something that even the largest traditional publishers can’t offer, unless they have acquired worldwide rights.
That’s the great side of self-publishing (and it’s really, really great). It’s easily the best thing to have happened for authors since I started my career in 1998. But there are challenges, too, of which the biggest is simply this:
• Invisibility. Amazon has 3.4 million titles in ‘literature and fiction’. 3.6 million history titles. Half a million comics and graphic novels. And of course, the flood grows ever bigger. Half a million new titles became available on the Kindle store in the last 90 days alone. Your title might be great, but bury it amongst 499,999 competing titles and it’s still likely to vanish.
In short, self-publishing on Amazon is awesome and scary in about equal measure.
This post will tell you how to publish your work on Amazon in a way that is low-cost (not zero cost), professional and effective.
Just how effective it is will depend on you, your books, your genre, and how much work you put in. But it is, these days, perfectly realistic to aim at earning a decent living wage from Amazon KDP publishing (possibly supplemented by publishing on Apple, Google, Kobo, etc).
And just to be clear, although a good chunk of my author earnings come from traditional publishing, the money I earn from self-publishing my work in North America alone amounts to a more than decent living wage.
What’s more, I expect to earn more in 2017 than I did in 2016. I earned more in 2016 than I did in 2015. This path leads upwards.
And if I can do it, you can. It’s hard work. It involves a little upfront cost. It depends on some clever tricks of marketing and presentation.
But it works.
And I’m going to share everything.
This post is basically the ultimate guide to self-publishing your book on the Amazon Kindle store and I’ll update if and when things need to be tweaked or changed. Because the post is super long, I recommend that you bookmark it and use the Table of Contents up top to navigate. If it’s helpful, you would really help me out by Tweeting about it, or linking to it from your website.
So: to business.
Effective self-publishing requires:
• Strong underlying material. In other words, your book needs to be good. If it’s not, no amount of clever marketing will save it.
• A properly presented e-book. What I mean by this is that the cover needs to be strong. The material at the front of your e-book (the ‘Look Inside’ portion) needs to tempt the reader to complete their purchase. The material at the back of the e-book needs to clinch the deal. It needs to turn a one-off reader into a permanent, committed fan.
• A properly constructed author platform. That means a website, a reader’s magnet and a properly set-up mailing list. If that sounds scary or technical, don’t worry. There’s nothing hard here and I explain it all, anyway.
• Sensible pricing. No one will buy your book if it’s too expensive. You won’t make any money if it’s too cheap.
• Well-chosen metadata. Another scary term for something that’s basically simple. Because a lot of purchases on Amazon come via different types of search, you need to make sure that your book will pop up in the right places, not the wrong ones. And it’s all easy.
• Promoting your book. So far, everything in this process is about getting ready for publication. Actually launching your book comes right at the end of the process. And, once you’ve built any kind of track record, you do that launch via your mailing list.
You basically tell these guys (your committed fans) that you have a new book for sale. They rush out and buy it. Amazon notices that there’s a huge sales surge in this cool new book, so their search engine starts showing it to more and more people. So now you have totally new readers buying your book and as they enter your world, they start signing up for your mailing list, so your fan base grows and your next book goes even better. All that works well once you’ve got started, but how do you get started in the first place? Well, there are tricks there too and we’ll cover them.
In short, the basic marketing process on Amazon is (A) prepare properly, (B) build a mailing list, (C) sell your work to that mailing list, (D) acquire additional sales from brand new readers who arrive at your work thanks to the visibility acquired via those mailing list sales, then (E) rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.
There are set-up times and costing involved, but after that it’s easy-peasy. In July 2015 I launched a book in the US where my complete marketing plan consisted of:
- One email to my mailing list.
I didn’t tweet. Didn’t post on Facebook. Didn’t blog or send out review copies or anything else. (My younger twins were born that month, so I wanted an easy life!)
You want to know how much money I made?
I earned $30,000 from that one email and, since then, things have only got better. I’m going to show you how to do all of that, so buckle up as we hit the detail.
People always laugh when I say that, but it’s the only absolute essential of the whole marketing process.
It’s also the area where writers most tend to rush things.
Again and again, we see writers struggling to achieve sales on Amazon. They talk with intensity about their metadata, their Facebook campaigns, their experiments with permafree and a million other things. But when I look at their books, they’re too often just not good enough.
And if your product isn’t a hundred percent, your sales will only ever be mediocre. Remember that if you’re writing thrillers, you are selling head-to-head against Lee Child and John Grisham. If you’re writing YA fiction, you are selling head-to-head against Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth.
Getting nice comments from your beta-readers is not enough.
Scary truth: everyone gets nice comments from their beta-readers. So do this properly. Hone your craft. Get detailed comments from professional, third-party editors. Try pitching your work to literary agents and see if they’re interested.
The level you need to reach is where agents are interested in your work or at least kind of interested. If you aren’t hitting those levels, your work isn’t yet ready. That’s OK. These things take time. (And, by the way, The Writers’ Workshop offers first class editorial advice and writing courses, so what I say is self-interested, but hey, that doesn’t stop it being true.)
There’s one school of thought which is that you may as well get your work out there. Make some sales, acquire some readers, and learn on the job. Well, maybe. But I think that’s the wrong attitude. I think the writers who succeed are the ones who want to put the best possible product out there always, every time.
In any case, the ultimate message here just can’t be wrong. Get the book right. Only once you’ve done that does everything else start to matter.
The cover is second in importance only to the book itself.
If the cover doesn’t immediately appeal to your core reader, then that reader won’t even arrive on your book page or read a single word of your book. You have to get the cover right. Nothing else is good enough.
That means your cover has to:
• Look good in the thumbnail.
The book has to work at small scale. Designers always like showing you the hi-res version of their image – which is fine, it has to look nice at scale too – but your very first task is to shrink that right down and see if it works when tiny.
• Look good when compared with competing titles.
I always copy that thumbnail sized image onto a screengrab of an Amazon search page, full of books written by my own direct competition. Then I ask: does my image look competitive on that page? If not, try again.
• Inform the reader instantly what kind of book it is.
A YA dystopian cover should announce its YA dystopia instantly. A rom-com cover should be instantly interpretable as such. Yes, that means that those covers tend towards the cliches, but that’s good. The first task of a cover is to say “I am a book of type X” where X is a rom-com, or thriller, or romance, or whatever else you’re selling.
• Convey a mood or feeling.
Readers typically buy books because of a hook and a feeling. So for example: ‘It’s this book about an ordinary girl and this hunky vampire, and it’s sooooo sexy.’ That’s hook plus feeling gives a reason to buy.
A book cover can’t really convey the hook (that’s the job of your blurb) but it can and must convey the feeling. So those Twilight covers conveyed a general sense of dark, forbidden sexiness. That was all they needed to do, and they did it superbly.
• Generate questions, don’t close them off.
Covers that answer questions don’t tempt readers in. Covers that prompt questions invite further exploration. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight cover is a good example of that. Why that girl? That apple? That black background? You instantly want to know more.
If the cover had been pretty girl plus hunky vampire gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, well, it would have sold some copies, of course. But it would never have been the global hit it became. Takeaway message: your approach to your subject matters needs to be oblique and suggestive, not right on the nose.
• Use good quality images.
That’s sort of obvious, but it’s very common to see self-published books where the images look like (and almost certainly are) stock images from some free or low-cost image library. And they don’t look bad, exactly, they just look stock-imagey. They have a seen-it-before quality which is death to your project of attracting and retaining the reader’s exploring eye. If you need to pay money for a top-dollar image, then pay that money.
• Use good quality typography.
Again obvious, but getting the typography (the font styles, etc) on a book is a harder game than it sounds. If a draft cover feels a tiny bit ‘off’ when you see it, then it is wrong. That feeling never lies.
Right. So now you know what you want to achieve. The question is: how the heck do you achieve it?
And that’s strangely hard. You’d think that getting a strong book cover was a reasonably mechanical process. You write a sensible design brief. You hand it to a competent person. Boof, you get back a design that’s going to be anywhere from good to excellent.
And, in my experience, it’s not really like that.
I’ve had poor to mediocre covers from best-of-breed traditional publishers. I’ve had mediocre book covers from talented, award-winning freelancers. I’ve used competition type websites with results that were OK, but not utterly satisfactory. And, yes, I’ve also got some book covers that I’m totally happy with.
So my recipe for success is as follows:
• Fire your Uncle Bob. Unless your friend, relative, etc. is a professional designer, that person is not right for you. And yes, you may save some money by using an amateur. But NASA would probably save some money by patching their rockets together from stuff found in a junkyard. There’s a reason they don’t do it.
• Use pros. You can go to competition type websites, of which 99Designs is the most prominent example. You can go to outsourcing type sites like Fiverr or Upwork. You can search libraries of premade book covers for sale – for example here. Or you can just Google around (search “book cover designers”) and look at different offerings. There are pros and cons to every avenue and in the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You may blunder around a bit until you find the right solution for you, but that’s OK. This is a creative process and you may need to experiment before you get it right.
• Spend money. Just to be clear: the phrase “blunder around a bit” can mean “spend some money getting projects started with designers who looked really great (and are great, actually), just you didn’t like their initial designs and twigged things weren’t going to work out.” Don’t end up settling for almost-good, because you couldn’t bear to write off the $150 that you had to spend. Either invest again with the same designer to get something you’re happy with or close off that avenue and start again. Remember that your first cover will almost certainly be by far your most expensive. Once you’ve settled the look (the kind of image, the mood, the typography, etc.), the next batch of covers will be easy-peasy.
• Only work with people where you’re happy saying ‘no, not yet’.
A crucial one this. You need to be happy with your cover. That means continuing to look at images, to work away at typographical niggles until you’re genuinely delighted. If your designer charges you $90 an hour beyond a certain level of changes, or if your (talented but not infinitely patient) Uncle Bob is just going to start rolling his eyes at you, then those people may not be right.
You must feel OK with demanding perfection.
And yes, in part that means being meaner and pushier than you normally like to be, but it also means working with someone where you can be as mean and as pushy as you like.
More on covers here, if you need.
Now we turn to the book itself.
What is the front material there to do?
For e-books there is only one answer: the front material is there to convert ‘Look Inside’ browsers to people who actually buy your book. It’s effectively a front door that has to look welcoming if you want to tempt readers inside.
If your front end material does not directly contribute to that goal, then it needs to go elsewhere. Yes, you may want to find room for your thanks, your copyright notices and all the rest. But do those things make people buy your book? Of course not. So bury them at the back.
The front of your e-book probably only needs:
• The cover
Because you need it, and readers expect and want it.
• A title page
• Formal proofs
That means any plugs from fellow authors, from newspaper reviews, or anything which tells readers, ‘Yes, serious, professional readers have read this book and rated it highly’. At the start of your career, you may struggle with those formal proofs, but that’s fine. All new authors are in the same position. Do what you can, but don’t fret too much.
• Social proofs
In other words, any comments from readers that tell people, ‘Yep, people like you have read and enjoyed this book.’ Social proof is quite possibly just as important, maybe more important, than any number of great notices in the New York Times Review of Books, and even as a newbie, you can accumulate social proofs. So go do it. And put those proofs up front where casual browsers can find them.
• Constant reminders about what your book is and what it offers.
Remember that people who click on the ‘Look Inside’ feature may well only be browsing in quite a casual way. So they kinda took in your cover design. And yes, they kinda read your book description. But just as bookstore browsers flip books over to look at them in quite a casual way, so too with people browsing on Amazon.
You need to assume that these browsers haven’t intently studied anything. They are only two or three clicks away from buying something quite else.
So hammer home your message, by carefully choosing your formal & social proofs & other related text.
My own Look Inside text will try to remind readers that, “This is an exciting crime thriller featuring a really interesting female detective.” That proposition won’t appeal to all readers, but it should appeal to the kind of readers my book is aimed it. So make it clear. Keep it uppermost in the browser’s mind.
• Offer a freebie.
I’m going to talk more about readers’ magnets and email lists in a later section of this post, so for now, just notice that I recommend you offer a freebie, a story available for readers to download for free, up at the front of your e-book. We’ll talk more about what and why soon.
• And plenty of text!
The shorter your other front material, the more room you have to give readers what they really want, which is a taste of your book itself. Make sure that your first chapter is strong, and let readers get there fast!
If the front material in your e-book is there to persuade the browser to buy, the end material has a rather more complex set of functions. It should:
- get your readers to buy another book from you
- get your readers to give you their email address
- build a real human bond between you and your reader
- encourage readers to write reviews
- make the extent and structure of your book series and other works really clear.
The thinking here is simple. A reader has just finished your book. We have to assume they enjoyed it (if they didn’t, no marketing genius in the world will entice further sales.) So what next? Now is the moment to reach out and build a lasting bond between you and the reader.
E-books that just finish without doing that are kind of like the door in the image: they kick you out onto the street, leaving a slightly disappointed feeling behind. E-books that look after the reader are far likelier to create a pool of keen buyers, who’ll come back to your work again and again and again.
So how to achieve those happy results? Answer:
• Write an author’s note that feels personal.
Make sure that it’s full of your voice and personality and directly thanks (perhaps even compliments) your readers.
• Invite participation
Notably by encouraging readers to give you their email address in exchange for a free story from you. More on this shortly (but it’s key; you can’t miss this step.)
• List out your series and other work
Make sure you do this in a way that is clear and inviting. The clarity matters: start with the first item in the series, or with the most logical starting point if your work isn’t in series form.
And make it tempting! Either include book covers or make sure that the text layout feels really appealing. And don’t just list titles. Offer short blurbs as well, with links to e-stores where readers can buy the books.
• Be smart about offering those buy links.
Remember that Apple won’t accept books with Amazon links in, so you can either (A) go exclusively to Amazon (probably the best bet for self-publishing and e-book newbies), (B) have a mobi (Kindle) file that is different from your epub (Apple, Google, Kobo, and everyone else) file, or (C) create a landing page a little like this fine example to let readers choose their own store.
Remember that e-readers are probably reading in an online environment where they can take instant action.
That means that print books are a terrible model for how to put together your end-material. Web design is actually a much better model. You want to put easy-to-access links in places where your readers might want to take the actions enabled by those links.
So don’t just talk about the other books in your series. You need to make it unbelievably simple for a reader to go buy those books on Amazon, Google, Kobo, wherever. Making it easy will make a huge difference to your conversions and that means making a huge difference to your pocket!
Don’t get too obsessed by this technical part.
The part that matters is the part we’ve already talked about. Writing a great book, preparing inviting front material, developing material at the back of the book that seals the deal with the reader, those things matter a lot. The rest of it? Phooey! The rest of it is just a technical exercise that you can either do yourself or outsource.
Me: I hate those sort of things so I outsource it. It’s not expensive and it’s easily done.
Or do it yourself via simple online tools. Scrivener is one option (you pay for this, but it has loads of other features and loads of writers swear by it.) Calibre is another. Some e-book distributors, for example Draft2Digital, offer free online tools that are very simple to use and come with no strings attached.
And no matter how you’re doing it, make sure that your Word file is in good shape to be converted. All the advice you need can be found right here.
Most self-publishers will sell the vast majority of their work in e-form, not book-form. My own e-sales are probably about 15 times greater than my hard-copy sales. (In self-pub, I mean. With my traditionally published work, the balance is much more even, or even leans more to print.)
What’s more, print books are harder and more expensive to put together. You have much less control over the selling price. A lot of the promotional techniques that work brilliantly for ebooks don’t work as well for print. And so on.
But I say that to be honest, not to put you off completely. I sell thousands of self-published print books each year. I make a little over $3 per sale, so I end up with a satisfying amount in my pocket as a result of those sales.
And I do nothing at all to promote those books.
All I do is promote my e-books actively and intelligently via the Kindle Store and elsewhere, and that visibility brings my work to the attention of some readers who think. ‘Hey, this looks good, but I’d rather have it in hard copy.’
In general, I’d advise newbies to launch with e-books only to start with and add in print once your e-sales reach more than 10,000, but it’s your call.
KDP is now offering a print option too. You’ll need a back jacket and spine design as well as your front cover (but those things are easy, once you have the front sorted.) You’ll need typesetting, to be sure the interior of your book looks lovely. Just Google ‘book typesetting” to find good alternatives and expect to pay maybe $400 and up for the pleasure. Upload the book via KDP. Bingo.
But do remember: your e-sales are likely to predominate by a large margin and your print sales will only start to take off if your e-sales do. And national or international distribution via bookshops is basically a fantasy, unless you have a traditional publisher to take care of that for you.
You know you need a website, but why? What do you want it to do for you?
There are lots of flaky, fuzzy answers floating around the internet and they’re almost all wrong.
Some people will tell you:
‘Oh, it’s a key part of your brand.’ Really? Why? Most readers will surely just be happy with (a) the book, and (b) Amazon. Why do they need anything else?
‘You need to make yourself discoverable by search engines.’
This is rubbish. Or it is if you’re writing fiction. Google-search and similar just doesn’t matter to most novelists. How could it?
‘You need to build a platform.’ Why? What does that even mean?
So here’s the one thing you need to know about your author website.
Your website is there to collect reader’s email addresses.
That is its purpose. That is why you have it. If it does that and almost nothing else, you’re doing fine. (Or, full disclosure, that’s true if you’re a novelist. If you’re writing non-fiction, then the truth may be a bit more complicated, depending on your situation.)
Yes, you will probably want a page for each one of your books. Yes, you probably want some kind of bio. Yes, you probably want a contact page. If you like writing blogs, you probably want a ‘news’ or ‘blog’ type page as well.
But I can’t even remember the last time I posted on my author blog. I don’t make any sales from my book-specific pages (I make them, duh, on Amazon.) The contact function is nice because it means readers can get in touch with me, but if I disabled the page, the world wouldn’t collapse and my sales would remain untouched.
Your website is there to collect reader’s email addresses. That is its purpose.
And how does it do that? Well, the primary chain is simple. It’s this:
- You have a link in your e-book that says, “I’ve got a free story for you, please come and get it”.
- That links passes the reader to a page on your website that handles that story-for-email exchange.
- The reader gets your free story; you get a way to contact them in the future.
That is a very fair exchange: you are, in a way, giving the reader something of more value than the thing they’re giving you. And it’s an honest one. You will make it clear that yes, you will retain that reader’s email address and sometimes make use of it, though only for matters directly related to your books.
However, the way you structure that basic exchange is critical.
Apparently, tiny differences in set-up will make a few percentage point impacts on your conversion rates, and, when cumulated, those little impacts can make a huge difference to the success of your campaign.
So your ebooks need to take people to a page on your website that maxes the number of people downloading your story.
Here is an example of a really good page from my own website (and please, don’t just look at the image. Visit the page and see what happens when you click the buttons (functionality matters!):
• Eliminate all in-site navigation. This page exists on my HarryBingham.com website, and that website has completely normal navigation tools up at the top. Except on this page. On this page, I want people to click those damn buttons! I don’t want them to be distracted by any other good stuff I have on the site. This page has to say “Either download the story, or close this page: there is nothing else to do, read, see here.”
• Have incredibly obvious calls to action. Giant orange buttons on a monochrome background? Yep, that’ll do.
• Don’t ask for an email address straight away. Weird one, this, but it matters. If you’re too quick to grab for that email address, people will be put off. so it’s better to make it a two-stage process: (A) let the reader give you an order: “give me my freebie”, then (B) obey the command. And it just so happens that obeying that command involves collecting an email address.
Your home page too should be all about fulfilling your website’s basic mission, which is (remember?) to collect your readers’ email addresses.
You can see my home page here. Note it puts at the forefront the basic proposition: Hey, get your free e-book here. And count how many links there are on that front page to the one same get-your-freebie landing page! There are nine.
And if you think this is overkill: it isn’t. 66% of the visitors to my website end up leaving me their email address. They are readers who have liked my work enough to buy it in the past, and to collect the free story I’ve offered. Those are the people who are most likely to buy my work again in the future, and I have a way to get in touch with them direct.
How cool is that?
Oh, and since you’re building a website, you may as well do the obvious bits right. The branding of the site should be synced with your books’ branding. The site should communicate what you are all about as an author as swiftly as your book covers do. Your site should be mobile responsive, so that it looks as good on a phone as it does on a PC or tablet.
And so on. There are other bits and pieces to get right, but any half-way competent designer should do them fine.
If you want to build the site yourself, then do – just get that landing page right, and make sure that you pay that teeny-tiny bit extra for www.yourname.com rather than www.yourname.wordpress.com. The latter is OK for when you’re just starting out, but then you’ll sell a load of books and want your own domain name, so really just make that little investment upfront. You’ll be happy about it later, honest.
So, we know:
- A reader’s magnet is a free story that you give to your readers in exchange for their email address
- You advertise that freebie in the front and back of your ebook to max the number of people who take you up on the deal.
And in a way, if you know that, you know everything that really, really matters.
Obviously, you’re going to make sure that your story lives (broadly speaking) in the same fictional world as your for-sale novels. You can’t use a horror-fiction magnet as a lure for your fluffy romance readers, or vice versa.
Obviously, you’re going to make sure that your magnet is well-presented and has a lovely book cover.
Obviously, you’re going to scatter plenty of links in your ebook (the front and back of it, not the actual text), so that readers can’t possibly miss the fact that you have something free to offer. I also recommend that you make at least some of those links graphical (that is, you use a book cover or similar) to invite the eye. Text links are great, and you should use those too, but graphical + text beats text alone.
The story you offer does not need to be a full-length novel. I reckon anything from 5 to 15,000 words is absolutely fine. Just make sure it’s a satisfying piece of quality writing. Don’t cheat your reader!
And that’s it. One story (a magnet) to attract readers and collect email addresses. That already sounds good, but in fact, as we’ll see, it’s going to form the absolute heart of your promotion strategy.
Are you following me so far? We’ve got links in our e-books that say ((in effect) “Get your free download here”. Those links take readers to your website, where the story-for-email exchange is made.
But how does the actual plumbing of all that work?
The answer is that you will need two tools.
The first is Mailchimp (or any other mailing list provider.) They will store your email list, send mass emails, eliminate duds and duplicates, handle the unsubscribe process, and plenty more.
The second is Bookfunnel, an outstanding outfit that makes the delivery of your free ebook (your reader’s magnet) unbelievably simple – both for you and for your reader.
Both services are paid, but the money involved isn’t crazy. You’ll pay $100 a year for Bookfunnel and Mailchimp is free until you hit 2000 mailing list subscribers, and $20-30 monthly thereafter.
Bookkfunnel is so simple to use that you won’t need any help setting it up. Integrating Mailchimp with your website might require outside help, depending on how much you hate fooling around with that kind of thing. But don’t cut corners here. Creating a smooth pathway for your readers is key. They need to:
- see a link in your ebook
- click over to a (navigation-free) landing page on your website
- hand over an email (to your Mailchimp mailing list)
- be delivered a book via Bookfunnel.
That’s all easy enough and if you need help with the websitey bits, then get it.
A lot of writers worry that self-publishing is going to be all about bigging yourself up on social media. Endless tweets, endless bragging Facebook posts.
And it’s not! It’s not! It’s not! It’s not!
Those things don’t work. They’re a waste of time. They’re horrible to do. You’ll lose all your friends. And everyone will hate you.
I do have a Twitter account and an author page on Facebook, but I am largely Trappist on both sites and I certainly don’t get book sales via either route. (I have a Twitter account mostly because that makes it easy for Twitterholics to contact me if they want. Some of those contacts have proved of real value. I have an author page on Facebook because a very big trad publisher once told me I had to have one. So I got one, and neither they nor I ever used it.)
Nor do you need to blog.
Although I do blog about Writers’ Workshop related things on this website, I hardly ever blog about author things on my own harrybingham.com website. And if I do, that’s mostly because I feel like doing it. Actual book sales deriving from those blogs are pretty trivial.
Now, OK, there will be categories of author where social media does really matter. If you’re a fashion blogger wanting to sell books, you’ll need an Instagram following. If you’re writing for teens, you’ll need to be on whatever social media channels those guys are using.
It’s also true that social media can be a great way to network with fellow authors and influential bloggers in your niche. Those relationships are worth fostering but they’re not, directly, to do with selling books at all.
So for most of us, the big news is this:
If you hate social media and want nothing to do with it, you can still sell books very effectively on Amazon.
If you don’t want to blog routinely or do the work involved in building a large following, that’s just fine too. It doesn’t matter.
To be clear, there are exceptions. There are authors who work blogs and social media incredibly effectively. If you already have a platform, you can figure out great ways to make use of it.
But if you’re nervous of getting involved in all that stuff, then don’t be. Just forget about. You don’t need it.
When a bookshop shelves your book, they need to choose where to shelve it. With romance? With crime? With general fiction? With health and beauty? Or what?
Same thing with Amazon, except that Amazon has far more categories. So when you upload your book to Amazon (which is easy, and has become easier) you will see a little box that looks something like this:
You’re not choosing categories because you want to help Amazon with its filing. You are choosing categories in order to sell more books.
Here’s the thing. Amazon has an overall bestseller list, of course. But it also has a massive range of sub-bestseller lists – for things like “Fiction > Crime” or “Fiction > Mystery & Detective > International Mystery & Crime”.
Readers like to peruse those lists and Amazon likes to direct them there. So if you can get on your chosen lists, your book will get more eyeballs and all the clever stuff we’ve already put in place (to do with book covers, Look Inside, etc.) will convert those browsers into buyers.
You therefore need to choose categories by thinking, ‘What bestseller lists would I most like to be on? And which ones do I have a realistic chance of appearing on?’
That’s the whole deal right there. That’s (almost) all you need to know about choosing categories.
For newer authors, it’s better to target rather more niche lists. So in my case “International Mystery & Crime” is a bit more niche than “Fiction > Crime”. It won’t get as many people viewing it, but my chances of sitting close to the top of the list and staying there for some time will outweigh that issue.
Until you have a little experience of your book, your genre, your sales, you are largely guessing as to which lists to target. But at least you know what you’re doing here.
Two last things on this topic:
- Amazon now uses the (more sensible) term ‘categories’ for this selection process. It used to talk about BISAC codes, a hoary old library classification system. You may come across both terms being used, but don’t worry about it. They’re the same thing.
- You have to read this section, on categories, in conjunction with the one that follows, on keywords. It’s when you put those two things together that the magic happens.
When you come to upload your book, Amazon will ask you to give it seven keywords that describe your book. Here’s how the box looks, filled in with some of my keywords. (And, as you can see, some of those keywords are actually two or three word phrases. That’s fine, but the term keyword is still used.)
But while categories have only one role (they let you choose what bestseller lists to target), Amazon keywords have two roles to play, and they both matter.
Those keywords let you:
- Choose what sub-bestseller lists to target;
- Choose what thematic searches to target.
Now if you’ve targeted that list, you might be a little nervous. Sure, you think your book is good, but do you really want to fight off 329,999 other badasses?
I’m thinking not.
So what you need to do is break that group of 330,000 titles down into more manageable sub-units and if you click on the relevant broad category, you’ll see that Amazon has given you a host of more manageable sub-units or mini-bestseller lists, in effect:
Something magical has happened!
We started with 330,000 competitors, right? Only look what’s happened to them. If you count up the number of books allocated to those ‘moods and themes’ categories, you get under 150,000 books. If you total up the ‘characters’ list on the right, you get around 100,000 books.
Half to two-thirds our competition has just disappeared because those authors/publishers haven’t chosen keywords that get them down into their relevant sub-categories.
You’re not going to make that mistake!
Once you’ve picked your overall category, go to the relevant Amazon bestseller list and find our what sub-categories it has that might be relevant to your work.
And fill your boots. Those sub-categories are just made to promote you and your work.
Don’t be dumb about it. If your book isn’t racy, then don’t use that keyword just because you figure you could clamber onto that list. But if you see a sub-category where your readers are likely to gather, then jump on it. Use the relevant keywords as some of your choices.
(Navigation tip: the best way to find those bestseller lists is just to enter ‘Books’ or ‘Kindle Store’ in the dropdown box on the Amazon search bar and then, leaving the search bar blank, hit enter. Because the search bar is blank, Amazon knows you want to look for books but doesn’t know which books you want, so it just takes you to its default book navigation page.)
That’s one excellent use for keywords. But sometimes people use that search bar for a term like “murder mystery”. They’re not looking for a specific title, probably, they just want to browse what books Amazon has in that broad area.
And you can grab those searchers!
Just make a list of the sort of things that your potential readers might search for. Be freeform. Be creative. Give yourself a bit of time.
Then (and this is crucial) test out those ideas on Amazon itself. So if you think that ‘murder mystery novel’ might be a good keyword to use, just start typing it in. Pretty soon you’ll see a dropdown that looks like this:
But others are searching generically, so they’re perfect target readers.
Only they’re not looking for ‘murder mystery novel’. That search term doesn’t even appear. They’re looking for ‘murder mystery books’. So that’s the search term you should use.
So to sum up:
- Choose categories according to what overall bestseller list you want to appear on;
- Choose keywords first according to what sub-bestseller lists you want to appear on;
- Choose keywords next according to what you think your readers will be searching for;
- Always check those final choices against those Amazon dropdowns.
The whole exercise might take an hour or two and generate steady sales for years to come.
Pricing. Crucial. Scary.
And also easy.
The key bits of data you need are these:
- Free e-books get 41 times more downloads than paid ones (data here).
- 77% of readers who download free work also buy paid work (data here, see point 53).
- Amazon offers two royalty bands: 70% and 35%. You get the 70% royalty if you price inside the $2.99 – $9.99 envelope. Anywhere else, and you get the 35% royalty.
- Indie authors tend to price their work (excluding free and promotional material) in the $2.99 – $4.99 range.
- The same broadly goes for Amazon Publishing – that is, the publishing arm of Amazon. That fact is relevant, because no one is going to be smarter than Amazon at interpreting the data from pricing experiments. If $5.99 is their ceiling (and it is), then it should most certainly be yours.
And, because too many numbers can make your head spin, here is a crucial graph from the geniuses behind Author Earnings. (You can find the graph itself, and the usual super-intelligent commentary here.)
Crucially, it also fades out all books sold by authors with a longer publication history. What we’re looking at here is books sold by authors like you. Ones who are new to the industry. Whose publishing experience is two years or less.
You’ll notice that indie authors cluster in the $0.99 to $3.99 range.
You’ll also notice that Amazon Publishing authors sell mostly in the $2.99 to $4.99 range.
You’ll also notice that the ‘Big 5’, i.e. the giants of the traditional publishing industry, aren’t selling many e-books by debut authors at all and that the prices they’re seeking ($9.99 and above) are simply way out of the current market for such books.
As of today, and in New York, more than London, publishers are deliberately pricing their new authors out of the market for e-books. Weird, but incontrovertibly true.
So much for sales, but we only care a bit about sales. Mostly, we care about revenues. About money in our pocket.
So let’s take a look at what’s happening there. Another graph from the same fine source:
And that’s all you need to know.
• Free books get you readers. They build your fanbase. They make no money.
• $0.99 books get you lots of readers (but fewer than free). They make a bit of money, but not much. Sell a $0.99 e-book and you make $0.35. Sell a $2.99 e-book (at that higher 70% royalty rate) and you make $2.09, so you have to sell 6 times as many of the cheaper books to make as much.
• $1.99 books are kind of pointless. Just look at that chart above: everyone agrees with me. They’re too expensive to attract the freebie/promo readers, and they’re too cheap to get the 70% royalty. Just don’t price at that price point. It’s mostly stupid.
• You make money by pricing between $2.99 and $4.99. That’s where the money is. Where exactly you pitch your wares depends on all kinds of things. Do you want to aggressively grow your business in the longer term (while sacrificing some short-term revenues)? Then price at $2.99. Do you want to harvest your existing success? Then price at $4.99. Are your readers generally younger, or poorer? Then price low. Are your book buyers generally more affluent? Then price that tad higher. Can’t decide? Then price at $3.99 which is an excellent compromise.
But that also means that newer authors (and I mean you) need a strategy that covers both your bases.
- You need to offer a free or very highly discounted ($0.99) book in order to get readers into your universe. Without an existing fanbase, you essentially have very few other routes to this happy outcome.
- You need to have full price ($2.99 to $4.99) work that actually puts some money in your pocket.
Those of you who are somewhat competent at mathematics will notice that I’m telling you to write two books in order to sell one.
And yes, I am saying that.
Except that, as you write more over time, that one free book will start leading readers into an ever larger pool of paid work. It’s how this game works.
Also (full disclosure), those of you who are supremely excellent at mathematics will also have noticed that I’ve told you that:
- You also have to give away a reader’s magnet, a roughly 10,000-word short story, for example, in order to collect emails.
So you have to write two books and one lengthy short story or novella in order to sell one book.
Well, yes, really. I mean, there are other ways to do it. (Paid Facebook advertising? Using Amazon’s own paid advertising services?) But mostly, yes, that’s the formula. The one that we know to work.
It’s the one I recommend for you.
Right. So we have, I hope, persuaded you that it’s worth giving away a book for free.
Your purpose is to attract the 41x greater downloads. It’s to acquire fans. And it’s to get the email addresses of those fans so that you can contact them directly when you have paid work to sell.
Now there are four broad methods for doing this. Because old articles never leave the internet, you’ll see some quite old advice that appears to be authoritative, but things change and change fast. So some of those older methods just look limp or expensive or awkward compared with the more recent ones, so do read the whole of this section before you make your pick.
• Method 1: just give your book away for free everywhere
What you’re going to do here is upload your book on Amazon (at $2.99, or whatever), then upload it to Google, and Apple, and Kobo and everywhere else too.
It’s too annoying to do that second part yourself, so you get an outfit like Smashwords or Draft2Digital to do it for you. Those guys will charge a kind of agency fee on any revenues you make, but pay it. It’s money well-spent.
Then, via your distributor, you simply make the Apple-Google-Kobo price $0.00. That’s easy-peasy. You just do it.
Amazon doesn’t like free. (It’s a shop; it likes selling things.) But take a look at your book page, and scroll down to the Product Details section. You should see at the bottom there a little rubric that looks like this:
So tell them. Report that lower price using the automated tool. I also recommend contacting Amazon more directly via the contact page on the KDP site. Say something like this:
“I’m a serious and long-term author, looking to build fans for my work or series. I’ve made this book available for free through other stores, including Apple, Kobo, Google etc. I would really like it if you would consider making the book free on your store as well. And, to be clear, my long-term aim is to sell a lot of work, at full price, through your store. I very much appreciate your help.”
They won’t guarantee to help. It’s not automatic. Their response is variable in terms of outomes and timings. But you’re probably OK. Fingers crossed.
The results can be very good. I did a freebie in January 2016 using roughly this method. I notched up about 10,000 downloads in the first week, through Amazon alone. Other e-stores were additional. Some further downloads followed (though at a much lower rate). And of course, my mailing list took a terrific jump upwards and I got plenty of emails and reviews from readers telling me that they loved that first book so much, they wanted to jump right into the rest of the (paid) series.
• Method 2: Give your book away on Amazon only (for a limited period)
If you agree to work exclusively with Amazon – by enrolling in KDP Select – you will enjoy the ability to schedule Kindle Countdown promotions, which give you the opportunity to price your book cheaply, or for free, for 7 days in every 90 day period. Amazon will promote those deals itself and, if you go for the $0.99 option, you’ll still be on a 70% royalty (rather than the normal 35%).
If you are exclusive to Amazon, and I think the default choice for new authors is probably to go exclusive as you learn the ropes, then you certainly should use these opportunities to the fullest possible extent.
(I wouldn’t ever discount for seven continuous days, however. You’ll find that any sales surge quickly tamps down. You’re better off doing one three day and one four day promotion spaced about 1.5 months apart.)
To be clear, though, these short one-off promotions are not really the same as the perma-free option we’re mostly talking about. So if you want a ‘perma-free’ book, you are probably making that one NOT Amazon-exclusive, pricing it free elsewhere, then coming back to Amazon as per Method 1 above.
• Method 3: Give your stuff away via Facebook ads
This approach had a real surge in popularity recently, but it’s a strange one, I think.
With the other approaches in this section, you pay nothing (or very little) to give your work away for free. With the Facebook approach, you pay real money to acquire each new reader. You literally place ads on Facebook that say (in effect) “Hey, come and get your free book (but you’ll need to give me your email address to get it.)”
And that works. As a method of getting readers, it works.
But that new reader of yours might be a flake.
They might or might not read your free giveaway.
They might or might not go on to buy other books in your paid series. In fact, you might end up feeling like this:
After all, the arithmetic looks like this:
- Unit revenue from your free giveaway: $0.00
- Unit cost of acquiring those readers: $0.50 (or something like that)
- Your profit per reader: -$0.50
Now that basic arithmetic does not look particularly attractive to me, but it is possible to make things work, if you:
- are very good at managing your Facebook ads, so you target the right readers and keep your costs per click down very low.
- are really good at massaging those giveaway-readers into your paid-readership. That normally involves further little free gifts and a really strong series of automated emails aimed at shifting kinda-interested readers into definitely committed ones.
- have a long tail of paid work to sell. Because, of course, the more you have to sell, the higher the expected long-term revenue that will be generated by each new reader.
The people who succeed here do tend to have a lot of work to sell and they work really hard and intelligently at managing their ad campaigns.
Which is fine.
But do you want to be an ad manager or a writer? If (like me) you think the whole business of managing a huge Facebook ad portfolio could quickly become wearisome, there are probably better ways to do this.
The one real exception I can think of applies to new writers who do have some cash to spare who just want to get on and do it. Instead of following my (very organic) sales method, where each new book just expands the mailing list and readership ready for the next one, you could just invest say $3,000 in basically buying 6,000 reader emails.
Now I don’t think those bought-in emails will convert as well as my own ones do (because they’re just fished from Facebook users thinking, ‘hey, yes, a free book would be nice’). But still. If you want to start with a bang, and have a few thousand bucks to spare, then go for it.
And if you do, take this sage man’s excellent advice. He knows a lot more about it than I do.
• Method 4: Instafreebie: the love child of Facebook ads and Bookfunnel
But hold on a moment.
Wouldn’t it be great, really great, if you could just spend $20 a month and some nice company just distributed your work to highly interested readers? And collected their email address? And added that address to your Mailchimp account?
Hey, and what if that same company was also really good at helping readers actually get your book from the download page to their actual device?
Well, my friends, that company now exists!
The company is Instafreebie.
It distributes for you. It collects emails for you. It does everything other than launder your underwear.
They charge $20 a month and the results are stellar. One indie author, JN Chaney, who has used both Facebook ads and Instafreebie reports these results:
I just scaled back my Facebook Lead Ads. I still use them, but I’m now seeing better results with a lower price tag using Instafreebie. Let’s crunch the numbers:
- My Facebook budget for that ad was $23 per day yielding an average of 49 subscribers per day at an average CPL [Cost Per Lead] of $.51.
- Instafreebie is $20 per month yielding an average of…are you ready for this?
84 subscribers per day at a CPL of $.0076! Not even joking.
(It could have been 129 per day had I figured out that I need to require an email address to download.)
I’m about to use Instafreebie myself, but I know already I’m going to love it.
(And Facebook? Sorry, but you were soooo last year.)
We’ve done all our prep work. We have written a great book. Commissioned a great cover. Got great front and end material. We’ve written our reader’s magnet. We’ve got our website and other bits of plumbing in place.
We’ve sorted out our metadata (our BISAC categories and keywords). We’ve figured out our pricing. We’ve got some initial names on our mailing list, probably because we’ve made use of Instafreebie or other tools to distribute free samplers of our work.
We want to launch our first proper paid-for book on Amazon.
We don’t just want readers. We want money.
So here is a really simple launch strategy for you to follow:
- Upload your book to Amazon, Apple, Google, and everywhere else
- Send an email to your mailing list to tell them that the book is now available for sale
- That’s it. Have a drink, go for a long walk, take a nap.
You’re probably thinking: you have got to be kidding. There has to be more to it than that.
But does there?
Well, on the one hand: yes, there are some more advanced strategies that make sense, which we’ll talk about another time.
But mostly: no. Follow that strategy and you’ll do just fine. (So long as your books are any good, of course. You can’t sell lousy books.)
And the ultimate reason for the success of this strategy has to do with Amazon’s sales rank algorithm. That algorithm is absolutely crucial but it involves just a tiny bit of arithmetic, so bear with me.
Every book (indeed, every product) on Amazon’s system has a score which is made up of:
- how many units you sold today, plus
- half the units you sold yesterday, plus
- a quarter of the units you sold the day before that, plus
- an eighth of the units you sold before that,
- and so on
A score is calculated for every book on the system. Those scores are placed in order. And, bingo, what you’ve got is Amazon’s sales rank.
Now that piece of information is astoundingly important.
Because it tells you that short term movements in sales are intensely influential in determining overall rank.
Let’s say you want to hit #100 in the Amazon.com Kindle bestseller lists. Good target, right? Well, you have broadly two ways to get there:
- You can sell (roughly) 500 e-books every day for a month, or
- You can sell (roughly) 1000 e-books in a single day.
The first of those things is very hard to achieve. How, after all, would you even do it? Maybe a massive (and expensive!) Facebook ads campaign could do it, but you’d end up spending a lot more than you were earning back.
The second of those things, the big, one-off pulse in sales, is easy to achieve.
In fact, you already know how to do it.
You just contact your mailing list and tell them, ‘Hey guys, I’ve got a new book out!’ They love your stuff, so they’re going to rush to buy your book. (On my last launch, 30% of my mailing list bought my book within 8 hours of me sending the email.)
That’s your sales surge right there.
The sales surge powers you right up the Amazon sales charts. All the good stuff you did with categories and keywords means your book will get to be visible right where it needs to be: in the exact places that your potential readers are browsing.
All the good stuff you did with covers and your Look Inside section means those browsers will convert into readers. And those guys are new readers. They aren’t buying your book because they were on your mailing list. They’re buying your book because they were casually browsing, but you managed to ensure that your book was right under their noses when they were doing so. You’ve just expanded your readership.
And that’s good. But it gets better. Because all the lovely stuff you did with the end material of your book means that your new one-time readers will soon turn into your committed fans. They’ll join your mailing list and expand your reach for the next time you play this game.
And that is the whole secret of successful self-publishing on Amazon.
You turn that wheel and keep it turning, with book launch after book launch. If your work is strong enough to keep your readers reading, your sales will only increase from cycle to cycle.
This (uber-massive) post has revealed the basic art of self-publishing success but, believe it or not, it’s still something of a starter guide: a basic template.
And, as you get your self-publishing career properly started, you’ll soon start to think about some broader questions. For example:
• How often am I going to publish a new book?
Me, personally, I’m very old school indeed. I write one book a year and can’t see myself going much faster than that. Loads of indie-publishers will aim to write and publish a book every three months. And, indeed, if anything the trend is for writers to try and bring that down to one every two months.
The more you write then (probably) the more money you’ll make. But you’re not just in this game for the money. You want a nice life as well. And you want to be artistically proud of your books. So where do those things settle for you? Are your current writing rhythms capable of change or are you happy where you are?
• What do I do between launches?
The mailing list-driven, sales-spike approach works really well to promote your book on launch and you’ll enjoy a lovely month or two of elevated sales as that book floats gently down the rankings.
But that still leaves plenty of months where your book sales spitter-spatter along at the rate of a few books per title per day.
How do you gee things up there? Bookbub has long been an absolutely crucial resource for authors. (See information on their promotional requirements here.) Facebook ads have been another popular resource. Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) ads are increasingly important.
But how do you manage all that? Do you want to manage all that? Do you have the skills to do this? Or do you want to outsource it? Or just ignore it?
• Are you going to be Amazon-only? Or sell your work everywhere?
You can go either way on this or, indeed, vary your approach. The Amazon-only approach has some advantages in that: (A) it’s easy to manage, (B) you enjoy sales via KDP Select that would otherwise be closed to you, and (C) Amazon is so dominant that you’re accessing most of the market anyway.
And against that? Well, there are other retailers and they’re keen to make sure that they don’t totally lose out on the indie-publishing boom. Some prominent indie authors get a full 50% of their writing income from the non-Amazon stores, which they’ll achieve using techniques additional to the ones described in this post. With those other retailers, you don’t win via an approach of fire-and-forget.
Where you stand on this decision is up to you. There are prominent voices on both sides of the fence.
• How do you strike a balance between writing and managing your business?
Personally, I don’t do much business management at all. Most of my mailing list growth is organic: people like my books and sign up. I make enough money with my current approach and I just don’t particularly want to spend my time fiddling around with Facebook ads and the like.
But you might be different (and most professional indie authors are!) You’ll have to figure out the balance that’s right for you. You might want to outsource some tasks to third parties. You might want to do it all yourself. A classic small businessperson’s dilemma.
• Do I need a literary agent?
Once upon a time, that would have seemed like a strange question. You’re an indie author, right? You’ve turned your back on that whole traditional superstructure. Except things do change. If you do well in English language markets, literary agents have a role to play in selling those additional rights. Foreign language sales. Film and TV. Audio. Or maybe you want to go for the full traditional publication with some portion of your portfolio? Or in one specific national market, such as the UK? If you’re not thinking about these things yet, you will probably want to do so in time.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
That’s it from me. I promised the ultimate (starter) guide to self-publishing on Amazon and I hope this has come reasonably close to being just that.
It’s not comprehensive. There’s a LOT more to tell you. But as a starter guide? I think you have most of what you need right here.
But what about you? Are there techniques that really work for you that I haven’t covered? Or do you have techniques you think others should really be adopting, and how successful have you been?
Let me know in the comments below. I really look forward to hearing from you!