It wasn't until I released my book that I realised generating sales was more difficult than selling table salt to a slug. There is often a conflicting thought process that goes on in the mind of someone ‘artistic' (for want of a better word). Creating the work, improving your craft, expressing yourself and getting feedback from your audience is what it's all about. But getting your work into the hands, ears, eyes and minds of an audience? That's quite a task. ‘Marketing' just sounds dirty to the artist who's full of integrity and imagination. Why should we have to “con” people into buying our stuff? Surely it's good enough that word of mouth will spread and it'll take off organically… just like how the art itself was created.
Unfortunately, that's not the case for most of us. And even now, nearly a year after first publishing my novel, I'm realising more and more the importance of marketing. The depressing thing is, you could write a really shitty book, but if you had the right marketing strategy… you could get it into the hands of way more people than an excellent book with no marketing strategy. It's not a reflection of the work, it's just how the world works. The attention of other people is a highly valued commodity these days and there are big businesses out there spending insane amounts of money to compete with each other for that attention. So, how can we, as lowly writers in a team of one, tap into that ecosystem?
It's simply not possible to sell a million copies (or even a hundred copies) of a book by uploading it to Amazon and not telling a soul. That's what marketing is for, and yet I some people do just that. Click ‘publish' and sit back.
Amazon's book database is so vast, with millions upon millions of books, that unless you've written something for an extremely niche market (ie. carbon dating antique rocking horses) then it will never be found. The search engine is the first place people go, and the majority of prospective buyers are most likely going to search for keywords like ‘crime thriller', or ‘romance'… or they'll know an author they like and search specifically for their stuff.
Readers might peruse the ‘Customers who viewed this item also viewed‘ section at the bottom of their chosen bestseller page – books that are advertised on those pages – but you can bet that those books will best sellers too, or at least quite highly ranked. Because Amazon's job is to make money, and I think it's a fair assessment to say they will make more money linking Lee Child's books with Ian Rankin's than they would linking mine.
The Top 100
There are many complex algorithms going on behind the scenes of Amazon's sales system, and no one outside of the organisation is allowed even a peek at their secret sauce (otherwise it would be manipulated for personal gain). The general consensus, however, is that to make an impact on general sales rankings, it's best to have your book sales spike (ie. lots of sales all at once), but to have that spike last a few days at least. A one-day spike will have some effect, but it's better for it to last over 3-5 days. This will improve the book's ranking, which means your book can inch closer and closer towards the ‘surface' of Amazon's incomprehensibly big database.
To put it into perspective, imagine Amazon was a supermarket. The best sellers in all categories would appear on the eye-level shelves in all aisles, with the top-10 of all books being displayed proudly either by the tills or at the end of the aisles where they have promotions. Books that come into the top 100s of various genres, they'd be scattered about the shelves, but people may need to bend a knee or stand on tiptoes to get to them. Every other book is behind closed doors in the supermarket's vast stock warehouse, and the only way to get to them is to ask a member of staff to go and retrieve that specific book for you… so you better know it by name.
To give yourself a chance of being bought by a passing shopper, you should aim to get into the top 100 of your genre (ie, Crime, Romance etc). This isn't direct marketing, it's passive, but getting your book into the top 100 of a category isn't very difficult if you have a chunk of money for paid advertising, or you know 100-1000 people who are willing to buy your book within a 3 day period. Once it's in the top 100 though, it may not stay for very long, because there are hundreds of thousands of other books vying for position, every single second. But while the book is in position, it will get seen by complete strangers. There are, however, a number of psychological steps the consumer must go through in order to click that all-important buy button:
- They'll see your book in the top 100 list
- They'll judge its cover and quality of its rating
- They'll click into your book page
- They'll read your reviews (if you have any)
- They'll read your blurb
- They'll judge the price
- They might click buy
It's like the Drake equation, which determines how many of the 100 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy are likely to harbour life, with the numbers dramatically decreasing at each stage. That's why relying on a book just being ‘in existence' in Amazon's book store won't do a thing.
Social proofing is important. If a book has no ratings, no stars, and no reviews, people are not only less likely to buy it but are unlikely to. The problem with this is it's chicken and egg type stuff. How can you get reviews and ratings if no one is buying the book? I'll let you in on a little secret called ‘advance readers'. If you put your book up for pre-order, it will give you time to send proof copies to people in return for reviews. And while reviews can't be submitted to Amazon until publication day, you can at least have those people lined up, ready to click submit the millisecond the book launches. Amazon sometimes highlights newly released books too, so you'd be best to have at least a few reviews (hopefully all good!) on day one.
If you know people who've read your book but haven't left a review, it's a good idea to mither them to leave one. And keep mithering, but not too much so they cut ties with you altogether. My book has been on Amazon for a year, and I've only managed to get 15 reviews so far. That's hardly going to compete with Game of Thrones 12,000+ reviews, is it?
There are lots of book sites run by teams of people who just like to read books and write reviews for them. And they're popular too. Consuming books isn't like listening to a song, they take time and dedication to get through and so people really want to know if something will be worth their time (or at least play the odds). And so, they seek out in-depth reviews, not just the couple of sentences we all see on Amazon.
I tried this. I contacted a number of sites, pitched my book, offering them free copies etc, but I got no response. I probably didn't make enough of an effort, but I did go down a paid review route. Reedsy, the website I used for my development notes and copy-editing, have a subsite called Reedsy Discovery where you pay $50 and an avid reader on their list is assigned your novel, reads it and publishes a review. While the review was very glowing (here), I didn't make a single sale from it. This was probably because I didn't ask people to ‘upvote' my book on their website, and so it didn't get mentioned in their weekly newsletter. I'm not a fan of incentivising exposure through competition. I've had it before with film festivals where the people with the most votes win, meaning whoever had the biggest online social presence was crowned. That's not the best reflection of quality, just popularity.
I'm also slightly sceptical about the review. It's a tricky thing when it comes to marketing… of course, you want rave reviews so social proofing is strengthened and you'll sell more copies, but there's also part of me that only wants to sell books if people genuinely like them. I don't want to con anyone. For a start, I personally wouldn't give my book 5 stars, and in my experience, reviews that come from a closed-system (like a film festival or the theatre circuit), are often much more positive and forgiving than from a disassociated member of the public. I feel like those are the real reviews, and anything else is just massaging the ego.
This wasn't available in the UK when the book launched, but it is now. It's a typical ‘pay-per-click' type system where you have to bid on certain keywords that you want to advertise under. So, for example, if someone searches ‘conspiracy theory' in Amazon's search engine, your book may appear as one of the sponsored books near the top of the list, providing you list that keyword as one of your targets, and your bid is high enough to match the general price of it. It can get expensive, especially using more popular keywords or phrases like ‘crime thriller'. One time, I set a daily limit of £10, thinking it might stretch a couple of days. Unfortunately, I had ‘crime thriller' in my keywords list. 20 minutes later my £10 was gone with hardly any sales. That's not to say putting all your cash in one basket for a daily spike isn't a good strategy. I tend to go for more niche keywords these days, and just keep ads ticking over all the time. I may get one or two clicks a week without any sales, but at least it's out there.
This is probably my best source of sales. The good thing about Facebook Ads is you can be very specific about who you're targeting with the book. I can pick people in the UK, aged 25-45. who like reading fiction, like crime thrillers, and have a kindle. The ads system is very sophisticated and you can do a whole lot of campaign testing. I probably sold my most books when I took it down to 99p in January this year and set up a weeklong campaign on Facebook. Now I do a similar campaign once a month, but I focus more on lead generation.
This is a similar style of marketing on Facebook to click-throughs. However, instead of users clicking the ad and ending up at Amazon, they have to fill in some sort of information, typically their email address, in return for some sort of an incentive. In my case, the incentive was my book… for free!
That may seem a bit of a drastic move, having spent years of my life and thousands of pounds getting it onto Amazon, only to give it away, but there's a method in my madness. I was never going to turn a profit with this book. The best thing for me to do now is to use it to gain more followers for my second book. And so, in giving it away for free in return for emails, I am attempting to use what a lot of indie authors think of as the holy grail of self-marketing… the mailing list.
Mailing Lists are deemed to be one of the best ways to market something to another person. It's direct, one-to-one marketing, and many of the biggest mailing lists in the world contain millions of people. So, if you were the owner of that list, and you'd written a new book, all you have to do is write a succinct email about the new book and a link of where to buy it, click send, and millions of people suddenly have it in their inbox. Like with a lot of this stuff, there are strategies… how to write newsletters (make it personable, not too long), how often to send them out (no more frequent than weekly). There are lots of nice mailing lists tools out there too, such as MailChimp or MailerLite (the one I'm using).
Build a Platform
If you want to be an indie author who sells their own work, you should have a platform from where to shout about it. You should also be trying to build a brand.
Have a Website
Authors should be easy to find online. Social media sites are one way, but the ideal way is to have one overriding portal to you and your work, where everything gets funnelled through. It's much easier to maintain one place than several. That's why I set up stewartmcdonald.net. I want people who like my work to be able to come to the site whenever they want and see what I'm up to and whether I have any new work out. I've just recently had this site redesigned to make it a bit more appealing and nicer to show off some of my “products”.
Facebook is another good place to grow a fan base by creating a dedicated page. It felt borderline self-indulgent creating a page called Stewart McDonald, but needs must. I invited everyone on my friends list to like the page (some of who thought it was really self-indulgent, receiving messages saying “Stewart McDonald has invited you to like Stewart McDonald”)… and about 20% of them liked the page. Like the website, I wanted to be able to funnel information through certain channels. I didn't want my personal Facebook account to be my platform, I wanted my work and personal life to remain separate.
You need to have a page on Facebook to use Facebook Ads, and what I noticed is that if you have a running ad, and somebody who's not affiliated to you at all likes it, you can then invite that person to like your page. And each connection, be it a page like on Facebook or an email address, is a prospective future sale.
Start a Blog
Yes, part of the motivation to write this blog was to gain some exposure. I also felt like I had a lot to say on this topic, so why not immortalise it. Someone will hopefully find it useful one day. It takes a long time for me to write these articles though, so my recommendation would be to perhaps create shorter posts. Once a week is a decent frequency, but if you have lots to say and want to say it, then, by all means, post more. The more posting you do, the more you can shout about it on social media, the more people will find out who you are and want to stay in touch with you.
The Neverending Strategy
Marketing shouldn't ever really stop. The second it does, you're forgotten about in a heartbeat. Only those with cast iron brands like Stephen King can get away without a marketing strategy, but they still have them. King could write a new book and just tweet a link to it to his 6 million followers. Many of those will be fans anyway, and he'd simply skyrocket to the bestseller chart.
Marketing should be focused and strategic. It'll probably cost money. And unless you're excellent at social media or marketing yourself, it's probably best to hire someone or some company to help you. I'm very bad at delegation and seeking out help, but I'm trying to improve. Marketing shouldn't be dry, it can be fun and treated like coming up with ideas for stories because there are lots of unique tools and techniques still out there waiting to be discovered. It's very creative.
Here's a few other things you could try, some of which appeared in my Launch Day article – and while it's best to make a big impact on launch, many of the marketing techniques can be introduced at any part of the book's life:
- Make a book trailer
- Send copies to book stores/book clubs
- Improve your social networking
- Hire someone to do it for you
- Get the audio version recorded (lots of people listen to audio books these days).
- Use book promo sites that, for a price, will do just that (example https://www.indiesunlimited.com/book-promo-sites)
- Start a podcast. This, like blogging, is a venture with frequent output, keeping your audience connected to you while you're busy writing your next book.
- NetGalley – This site sends copies of books to influencers.
The list goes on and on, really. The important factor with marketing is to try things and see what works. But don't try them as I tried did… all wishy-washy. Give them a decent go, and you'll get a much more accurate idea of whether things will work or not.
Stay tuned next week for the very last article in this series.
If you have any comments or questions, please post them in the box below.