January 2016 marks four years that I’ve been self-publishing. In that time I’ve sold something like 8000 books, a respectable if unspectacular number. My current output stands as follows
9 full novels
3 boxed sets
4 novellas (pen name)
30+ short stories under my own name and two pen names, including 5 short story collections
1 work of non fiction (pen name)
I have three novels finished and in the editing queue, and an insane amount planned for 2016.
However, this post is not about me, it’s about you. The last four years has been an interesting ride. I had the initial learning curve/no sales year (2012), the year of minor gains (2013), the year of decent success (2014) and then a crash down to earth annus miserablis year (2015). I’ve learned a hell of a lot, the most important thing being that you’ve never made it until you’ve made it (and I certainly haven’t made it), and if you ever want to make it, you’d better get writing and get learning and get smart.
Even in the short time I’ve been self-publishing, the landscape has changed a lot. We had Select free promos sending people up to the top of the sales charts, perma-frees being the best way to sell a series, the constant tweaking of the algorithms to make visibility for free books nearly impossible, then Kindle Unlimited and its crazy pages read system. Smashwords used to be the king for the other vendors, then Draft 2 Digital came along which is way more user friendly. Audible opened up in the UK and Europe. Vellum appeared on the scene (for Mac users) to make awesome formatting really easy.
My own books went from uploaded Word files with dodgy Paint-created covers to rather quite snappy looking things with awesome pro covers. I know a bunch of really talented editors and covers designers, so there’s always someone who fits the needs of any one particular book. In short, producing books has become relatively straightforward. Selling them on the other hand, has got harder and harder.
After the trials and tribulations of my own rocky road, I thought I’d compile a short list of things you should do or learn about in order to give yourself the best chance of success if you were starting out now. I’m not going to go into detail about how to do these things, because there are way better tutorials available than anything I can come up with, and for many of them, I’m still a student too. This list is just a starting point.
1. Write good books
Don’t try to game the system, don’t try to write crap and get away with it, because you’ll fail. It’s hard enough getting anywhere writing good books. If you write junk you’ll get bad reviews, and no one will ever buy your other books, which is what you want. You want every new reader to stay on board through your entire catalogue and beyond. Saying that, it’s not necessary to be Charles Dickens in order to sell books. As long as you know how to weave a good story, you’ll be fine.
2. Get them edited
Please don’t self edit, and please don’t spin me a line about how you can’t afford it, or you think you can do it better than a professional. Sorry, you can’t. What an editor is more than anything is a second set of eyes that will spot all the things you missed. They don’t have to cost thousands of dollars (I usually pay between $200 and $600, depending on the editor and the length of the book). And please save the “I can’t afford to spend a single penny on my books for (insert reason)!” line. I’m VERY tired of reading it. If you can afford a computer and a wi-fi connect you can probably save up a little bit of money. And if you really can’t, do a swap, or find someone who’s willing (I don’t know, maybe they’re starting out and want experience) to do it for free. But save the no money line. Please. Have you ever gone to a restaurant where they’ve just dumped the food on the tabletop because they’re saving money on plates? No, me either. So don’t expect me to pay money for your half-finished book. This is a professional business, so if you want to be a professional, act like one.
3. Get good covers
If you have badass Photoshop skills you could actually do this yourself, but if you haven’t just pay someone else. Again, doesn’t have to cost a fortune. A lot of my short story covers are cheap pre-mades that cost $25 each, while I think the most I’ve ever spent on a cover is about $150. I’ve worked with several different designers with professional design skills and I’ve never been disappointed. Ignore people who talk about covers costing a grand or more. They might if they’re custom art, but even most trad-published books only use photo manipulation. If you need recommendations for cover designers, drop me a message.
4. Write good blurbs
I’m still pretty rubbish at this, but I’m getting better. Say what the story’s about, but keep it snappy. Don’t waffle, don’t use clichés, and if you can, try to get a bit of mystery and intrigue in there, get the reader wanting to know what happens straight away.
5. Brand your books, and don’t hop genres
This is a case of do what I say and not what I do, haha. I am USELESS at this, but I’m getting better. My four Tube Riders books (yes, there’s a new one coming) have lovely branded covers, as do the four Crow books (next one out Jan 15th, plug plug), but otherwise I have some sci-fi, some horror-sci-fi, some straight horror, a romance, and a kind of drama thing. I tend to write what I feel like writing, but if you want to be successful stick to the same genre and make sure your books have covers that show both the genre and that they’re part of a series.
6. Write series
Again, I like writing standalones, which is really stupid because they sell nothing. Literally. Write long series and set the first book free to give yourself the best chance of making money. Do this by not being exclusive to Amazon. Set your books up somewhere like Draft 2 Digital or Smashwords, then set the price for a book to free. Once it's free on iTunes and Barnes&Noble, Amazon will likely price match. Best way to get them to do this is by asking them directly with an email sent through the help function of your Author Central page. That's what I usually do.
Now we’ll go on to some marketing/networking type stuff.
7. Set up a Mailing List.
The single most important thing you need to do. I use Mail Chimp, but there are others. This is very, very important. It’s your number one way to contact your readers. I was publishing for at least two years before I got around to it. Don’t do what I did. Have one ready to go with your very first book, sign ups in the front and back of the book, and plug it wherever you can. And if you have a series, offer the second book free with a sign up. At the moment you can get Crow 2: The Castle of All Nightmares free if you sign up to mine, and since the first book is perma-free, you can get half the series for nothing. This has worked pretty well since I started doing it, although the series isn’t a huge seller, but hopefully what you lose in sales of the second book (some people still buy it anyway), you’re hopefully gaining in long term fans. Don’t spam them, by the way. A couple of emails a month is plenty, and nurture them. Give them free stuff, special discounts, etc. List-only competitions. You’ll figure it out, but start that list. Now.
I live in a city of 360,000 people, but there must be 100,000 restaurants. They’re seriously everywhere. Sometimes I’ll spot them when I’m driving along, but more often than not I’ll go to a new one because I see it advertised somewhere, or I hear about it from a friend, who probably saw it advertised somewhere. Then, if it’s good, I’ll go back again. This is how your books should be. Sure, you’ll have people randomly finding them, but there are so many available that your chances are slim. Advertise on sites that post books to increase your chances, and hopefully things like word of mouth will build from there. Keep a tab of sites that work, though. New sites appear all the time, and some that worked when I started out are a waste of money now. Also, always be looking for the next thing. Facebook ads are big at the moment, and Mark Dawson is your man. Also, podcasts and YouTubers might become the way forward in 2016, so look into them.
9. Have a website
And make it snappy. This site you’re currently reading is a blog. Google owns Blogger. If they decide to shut me down for no reason, I’ll lose everything. Get a site that’s owned and run by you. You’ll likely have to use a domain hoster (I use Weebly but there are others), but have something that’s yours. And keep it tidy. Mine used to be reams of messy information, then I turned an old blog into my news page and keep my main site just to act as a kind of store front / landing page so that people can quickly and easily see what books I have available. Again, links in the front and back of every one of your books.
In addition, you can have all the usual Facebook / Twitter / other places sites, but their effectiveness varies. You mostly just want to be contactable, but the eventually you want to lead people to your mailing list.
10. Be nice!
If someone takes the time to read your books and contact you about them, don’t be a douchebag. I read of some many writers that are, and it’s so sad. You have to value every single one of your fans, because their money is providing you with an income. Plus, they’re people, and we’re social animals after all. It helps if you’re natural a nice person, but if you’re naturally an anti-social douchebag just try to rein it in a little. And don’t shit on your own books. If someone says they liked your book, don’t say, “Thanks, I thought it was pretty rubbish, but thanks for reading it anyway.” If you do that, you’re telling them their time was wasted. Be appreciative, be thankful.
And that’s about it. Good luck for 2016, and if you want to thank me for all these awesome tips, go to my site and buy one of my books. They’re pretty awesome too!
Thanks for reading!