Secrets of Self-publishing and eBook promotion – Part 1

Photo by Bernd Meiseberg

This is the first of a 2-part article.
In part 2 I will share the results of my Author Survey, posted 2 weeks ago.

So, for many months if not years, you pour your heart and soul into a book, edit it to the point where you feel you have a winner, and then what?

The Old Way.
Unless you have connections in the publishing industry, you soon realise that finding a publisher willing even to look at the first page is about as likely as winning the Euro-millions lottery. So you borrow or purchase a recent copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook and begin the laborious process of targeting literary agents. Having exhausted the relatively small fraction of these modern enough to accept email submissions, you reluctantly move on to the laggards. From these you try to select those representing authors of a similar genre to yourself and begin posting off printed samples (with strict adherence to each one’s specific submission guidelines). And then you wait… And you wait… And then, assuming you enclosed a stamped addressed envelope, you receive back the beautiful, pristine, unread pages of your manuscript with a small post-it note onto which the words, “No thanks!” or some other equally disheartening message has been hastily scribbled.
After a dozen or so such responses, I imagine this is where many aspiring authors, until quite recently, would have given up. Of course there has always been the option of vanity publishing and no shortage of companies willing to relieve desperate writers of a few thousand pounds for the privilege of seeing their books in print, but for most – me included – this would not have been a satisfactory option.

The New Way
Luckily, thanks largely to Amazon, there are other options such as Kindle Direct Publishing. Having registered to the self-service KDP portal, wrestled Microsoft Word into spitting out your book in the requisite format , you upload it, set a price and hit “Publish” – Easy!

And therein lies the problem. IT’S WAY TOO EASY! Suddenly you realise that your book is just one of millions, many of which, on closer inspection, look like the output of an army of dyslexic 12 year-olds, but the attractive titles and cover images can still make these harder to weed out than you might imagine.

So what can you do to make your needle shine within the giant Amazonian haystack?
Being a newbie author (published my first novel in June this year), but an oldie marketing guy, I’ve tried to gather some data on what seems to be working and what doesn’t within this strange world of Self- / Indie-publishing which has arisen from the increasingly widespread adoption of the Kindle and other e-readers.
Before moving on to the results of the survey, I’ll first share a little of my own experience.

Amazon offer all KDP authors a promotional program called KDP Select in which, in return for a promise of exclusivity, you are allowed to offer your book for free for up to 5 days in every 90, and Amazon will promote it accordingly (though no real details are ever divulged as to exactly how they do that).

With no name whatsoever as a writer, I decided to take full advantage of this and launched my book with a full 5-day free introduction. To my surprise, during this period over 4500 copies were downloaded (bizarrely – almost all from the UK – even though for days 1&2 US downloads had been more numerous). This sent my novel, CONNECTED, straight to No.1 of the Amazon UK rankings (Free titles) in the categories of both Thrillers and Science Fiction. I was even more surprised when somehow, this momentum was carried through into the ranks of paid titles after the 5-day promo had ended, whereupon it reached No.4 in Sci-Fi (paid titles), No.24 in Thrillers and No.1 in Sci-Fi – Mystery Thrillers. At this point, the book was selling almost 200 copies a day, but as time went on, this number has gradually declined and so I have started to analyse what’s really going on.

What does a relatively high free-download rate really mean?
It is of course tempting to think that people were downloading my free book because it was good, but when I really thought about it, nobody could possibly have known that at the time, since nobody had actually read it and no reviews had yet been posted. Perhaps, I thought, it was the quality of my writing, as seen in the excerpt available via Amazon’s “Look Inside!” option, but having since randomly polled people on various online forums, it seems that many don’t even bother “looking inside” for free downloads, they simply look at the cover, title and first few lines of the description and hit “buy”. Afterall, if later on, they don’t like the look of it, they can always delete it (although personally, I’d rather do the filtering at the time of download and save myself the time later).
So in short, the initial download rate for a new free book must be dependent mostly on the cover, the title and the pitch. I’ve since discovered a whole host of 3rd party websites to which you can submit the details of your free promo, and I dare say this might have further increased my initial numbers, but at the time, I wasn’t aware of this.

It’s all in the algorithms
Much of Amazon’s huge success over the years has been down to the algorithms used to determine what to show you when you shop there. They were the first to come up with the simple but brilliant idea of showing you a list of what other customers just like you have previously bought. Their goal of course is to show customers products which they are most likely to buy. So if a certain product starts selling faster than others, they will recommend it more often. Although they never divulge the exact details, I have seen first hand the enormous boost in sales which results from the algorithms suddenly noticing your book. I have since had this confirmed by other authors far more successful than I.

At the start, I thought it was all down to the bestseller lists, and it’s certainly true that reaching the top 20 (first page) of one of the major lists has an enormous impact on sales, but far more important I think is the frequency with which Amazon recommends your book to browsing customers.

Unfortunately, no matter how well you do initially, as new titles flood in every day, the algorithms will eventually lose interest and drop you like a hot potato. At that point, until another 90 days pass and you can once again ride the free-bandwagon, any visibility your book receives is almost entirely up to you and the time and effort you’re prepared to spend promoting your book.

In the second part of this article I will share the results of my Author Survey, in which I quickly polled some of my fellow authors to find out which promotion tactics work for them and which don’t.

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. This is a great article and really helpful as I start to think about taking the promotion of my new book, Tortoise Soup, up a notch. Thanks! Nick

    1. Thanks Nick, glad you found it useful, and best of luck with Tortoise Soup!

      1. I can’t thank you enough Simon! I have ‘trialled’ this on my thriller novel ‘The Girl On The Bus’ that was laying dormant. to my amazement it shifted thousands and thousands of free copies and the sales are continuing now the offer is over – I have made it into the top 100 paid books in the whole United Kingdom. Wow! Thank you again, a happy blog reader!

        1. Wonderful news, Nick. Congratulations!
          The other advantage you’ll soon see is the flood of new reviews that should start within a few days and carry on for at least 3 or 4 weeks. I reckon on 1 for every 300 – 400 downloads.
          Just before the next free promo, you might want to raise the price a bit. Not only will it look more attractive when free (because the full price is visible but crossed out) but with the extra reviews, it will seem less of a risk and the momentum of the free promo should still get you a good rank and sales volume. Also, although I’m not certain of this, I suspect that Amazon favour books that make a bit more money for them. I experimented a bit and my sweet spot seems to be £2.99 ($4.79) which is the price it’s been for a few months now.

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