A budding author I’m friends with asked me for some tips on selling electronic copies of books, so I’ll pass along what I’ve learned; consider this a companion piece to my post from last year about selling physical books at events.
I self-published my first book in 2012, followed it up with another in 2014, then two more (one a revision of the 2012 novel) in 2015. Though I’ve sold several thousand copies each of my novels Dragontamer’s Daughters and Lost Dogs, I am not yet in the position of being able to quit my day job and support my family with my writing (though I know some who have, and I’ve taken their advice). So I’m learning, too.
I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far, you are either a newly-published author or one who is considering or working on becoming a published author (if you’re merely curious about the business side of writing, that’s fine, too: feel free to stick around). I’m also assuming that you’re a self- or independently-published author, or that your publisher or potential publisher is not one of the huge outlets who carry megastars like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or (shudder) James Patterson.
Defining Goals: What Counts As “Success” For You?
Before I talk about the best ways (yes, there are more than one) I’ve found to sell e-books, let’s consider why you want to. To get rich? To be famous? To get rich AND famous? To write a bestseller? To merely get your story out there and read? To make a groundbreaking literary statement? To check an item off your bucket list? To be immortalized (e-books are forever, after all)? Something else?
And whatever your goal is, how much of that would you need to accomplish to be satisfied? A few authors I know make a comfortable living with their writing—but will nothing less than multiple mansions and yachts do it for you?
A few authors I’m acquainted with are relatively well-known in their genres, sometimes even appearing in national media—but will nothing but red carpet invites and hobnobbing with celebrities slake your thirst?
In his essay “Your Book of Gold,” author John C. Wright made it clear to me that all you need is one reader who will cherish your book as their favorite—but will you need hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? More?
It’s important to consider this, because it will take much less effort to simply get your book out there on the Internet than it will to attempt the sales and recognition that the literary Olympians enjoy. And, of course, the more lavish your goal of success (however you define it), the more difficult the odds against you. As a matter of fact, now might be a good time for…
A Cold Hard Dash of Reality
As of this writing (January 19, 2016), there are over 21 million English-language books available on Amazon.com. To be sure, those are not 21 million different titles, but I don’t think I need to say anything more to convince you that your book is but a drop in the e-book ocean. And hundreds, if not thousands, of new books are being published every day. There are too many books chasing too few readers, so the odds are that your book, like the vast majority of those millions, will not be a mega-seller, either now or in the future.
Which is not to say that your book is bad (though, if we’re being honest, it may very well be: lots of self-published work is terrible). What I’m saying is that it might not matter. Given the volume of published work out there, your masterpiece might be noticed only be a handful of people. As Wright pointed out in his essay, David Lindsay sold less than 600 copies of A Voyage to Arcturus in his lifetime—and yet Voyage is considered one of the greatest sci-fi novels of the 20th Century.
If you’re writing to become rich or famous or both, there are easier, quicker, more reliable ways to do so. If want your name at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, it probably isn’t going to happen. If you want to write the Great American Novel, well…good luck with that.
As for me, I decided that while money is good, my day job already provides, so I write to get the books out there and read. “Success” to me is having someone enjoy one of my stories, and by that metric, I’ve already succeeded—everything else I gain from here on out is gravy. So how did I do that?
Making It Happen
Here are some things that have worked for me. There’s no one-shot, sure-fire trick that will sell millions of copies for you—instead, there are lots of small things that you can do that will, over time, hopefully build sales.
Start with the basics. Write the best book you can, get it edited and beta-read, make revisions, and get a good cover, because people really do judge books by them. While doing all that will not ensure that you achieve success as you define it, NOT doing it will most likely keep you from it.
Be Selective. There are several outlets you can use for your e-book, but I prefer Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s easy (and free!) to publish, your book automatically becomes available for sale on Amazon, you set the price for it (more about that in a second), and you can earn up to 70% royalties (and you can set up an author page on Amazon, which doesn’t hurt).
If you’re going to use KDP, you might as well sign up for their KDP Select program, which will allow you to do Kindle Countdown Deals (limited-time discounts) and Free Book Promotions on Amazon, which will increase your visibility and help drive sales. Readers who are enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library can “check out” and read your book, and the more pages they read, the more you get paid.
The downside? Your book must only be available on Amazon and not at any of its competitors (Lulu, Smashwords) or your website. For me, this is hardly a hardship: my first book was available in a lot of other places, but about 95% of my sales were from Amazon. So when it came time to release my second book, I signed up for Kindle Select, and haven’t regretted it a bit.
Price yourself accordingly. E-book pricing is a funny thing. Too high, and no one will buy it (ask yourself: would you spend $9.99 or more on an e-book from someone you’ve never heard of?). Too low, and you look like the schlockmeisters who peddle digital bodice rippers and penny dreadfuls. As a relative unknown, I price my e-books at $2.99, which is the lowest I can set them in Amazon and still earn a 70% royalty rate. Other, more established authors I know price their books higher, but they can get away with that because they have solid fanbases.
Have sales and giveaways. If you’re enrolled in Kindle Select, you can run either a Kindle Countdown Deal or a Free Book Promotion for each title every 90 days. A countdown works like this: you set a discounted price for your book—typically $1.99 or $0.99—for a period of time (up to 5 days), and Amazon promotes it along with all the others running at that time. You’ll still earn royalties on those sales, but they’ll be at Amazon’s 35% rate for the discounted prices—your goal is to make up the difference with volume of sales.
Giveaways work similarly, but your book will be free and though you will earn no money, it’s a way to get your work and your name out there (and possibly get reviews). Giveaways used to be a phenomenal way to drive future sales, but not so much anymore with the ever-increasing glut of free books out there: it’s easy for readers to horde e-copies that they may or may not ever get to. Still, it beats doing nothing, especially if you’re sales aren’t going anywhere.
Coordinate sales and giveaways with promotional sites. If and when you decide to run a special or give books away, you can work with several websites who promise to help spread the word through their e-mail lists or social media. Most of them, of course, want money for it, and some ask for ridiculous amounts that you will be hard-pressed to make back with the extra sales generated.
The ones that I’ve found that deliver the best results for the money spent are BookSends, and eBookDaily. The most coveted site to work with is BookBub, but they are INCREDIBLY expensive (several hundred dollars, depending on genre and your discounted price) and VERY selective on whom they take (IIRC, they have about a 20% acceptance rate, so if you’re a brand-new author, don’t bother).
Contact your local media. I’m blessed in that my local newspaper—the Bay Times—and county’s TV channel—QAC TV—are very supportive of area authors and are eager to do interviews and cover events I’m participating in, all of which has led to sales. If you have community newspapers or other media where you live, let them know about your work.
If you try to expand your outreach beyond the local, however, you may—indeed, probably will—find that larger outlets don’t care about self-published authors. When my first book came out, I contacted newspapers in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, and nothing came from any of those inquiries.
You might, like I did, find exceptions on the smaller levels, but in general, traditional media is typically only interested in traditional publishing. So where can you turn? Well, you can judiciously engage in social media. There are a bewildering number of sites and apps available where you can sink an enormous amount of time and energy, so I advise picking one or two and going with those. Bear in mind that every moment you spend on social media is one you could spend writing, so try not to get sucked in for long periods of time.
I experimented with Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google +, but none of them did much, and I didn’t like using them, either. My primary social media is Facebook (still the 800-pound gorilla of social media), which may be too 2009 for some people, but works okay for me.
On Facebook, I have an author page where, several times a week, I post links to articles, videos, or what-have-you that might interest fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror, superheroes, etc. I then repost those on my personal page, and often, my Facebook friends will share my link with people they know.
I also attract readers with blog posts. Yes, yes, I know: blogging—previously considered to be a sure-fire way to get readers and sales—is supposedly dead. Well, my experiences tell me otherwise. I try to post a blog piece once a week (it’s all I have time for), and then I put a link to the piece on Facebook, to get people there to visit my blog (which, naturally, links to my site—you do have an author website, don’t you? Of course you do—if not, build one ASAP).
Once upon a time on Facebook, everything you posted was seen by all the followers of your author page. Alas, that time is no more: a typical post might only go out to 10% of them. So because it takes money to make money, I’ll spend $5 or so to “boost” the link to my blog post, targeting either followers and their Friends, or an audience I’ve specified. For example, if my post is about horror movies, I’ll specify that the boosted post be sent to them, so that I can draw more people to my Facebook page and website, and hopefully generate sales and fans.
While you’re on social media, it doesn’t hurt to get to know other authors, in and outside your genre. In addition to swapping advice, authors have helped me by sharing blog posts, and by telling their readers about promotions I’ve run, including charity drives. On several occasions, I’ve donated a portion (or even all) of my profits from book sales to various charities, notably the Navajo Water Project, and it’s worked out well for the charities and me.
Build a mailing list and send out e-mails/newsletters. Out of laziness and thinking that e-mail was so 1998, I resisted doing this until recently, but now I wish I had done it sooner. Facebook makes you pay to reach more than a handful of people; Twitter has its own issues, especially if you’re starting out (and the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter is awful). But e-mail reaches 100% of the people who sign up for it, and you can’t argue with 100%.
You can use an e-mail service like Mailchimp, or do like I do and create a list using your e-mail provider (Yahoo, in my case). I’ve collected addresses from people interested in my books, and once a month or so, I send out a short newsletter telling them what’s the latest going on with my writing. It helps generate sales, both now and (especially) for future releases.
Write another book. Like many newbie authors, I published a novel and then harried myself to promote it here, there, anywhere, and everywhere. Instead, I should have turned most of that energy to writing my next book (which I eventually did).
My mentors have told me that your first book is unlikely to sell many copies; your second will probably do a little better; your third a little better than that, and so on. It’s a snowball effect: the more books you published, the more (hopefully) you sell. Yes, you do need to some promotion when you publish a book, but don’t make it a full-time job. Get back to your real job: writing.
So, that’s all well and good, but let me channel some Axl Rose and advise you to use a little patience (yeah, yeah). For authors who have yet to establish themselves, selling books is like growing trees: it’s most likely going to take a long time, and progress may be slow. When you first release your book, you might see an initial burst of sales (fueled by people you know), only to have it sputter out. Months may go by without any sales. Discounts and giveaways may move fewer copies than you had hoped. Don’t get discouraged.
What NOT to Do
Here are some things I’ve found (or been informed by other authors) that don’t work well, if at all.
Don’t bother with Goodreads. I’m a big fan of Amazon, but not so of its affiliate, Goodreads. I have a Goodreads author page and my books are listed there, but I have no evidence that they generate a lot of sales for me.
I wish Goodreads had one huge, central forum-type discussion board for each genre, so that you could find all the discussion about sci-fi, say, in one place, but they don’t. Instead, there are many, many discussion groups, which is fine for the folks who want to talk books, but is not terribly helpful in promoting one’s work.
Don’t do Wattpad. When I first released Dragontamer’s Daughters (in its original, two-part form), I put it on Wattpad in hopes of attracting readers, particularly young adults, my target audience. While I got some attention, those never translated into sales or dedicated followers that could interact with, like I can on Facebook. Having DTD on Wattpad also kept me from enrolling it in Kindle Select. When I decided to revise and reissue DTD, I took down the Wattpad version and closed my account.
If you just want to publish whatever you’ve written, with no expectation of ever getting paid for it, Wattpad will suffice. As a vehicle for selling books, it’s not the car for you.
Don’t spam people. No one likes pushy salespeople. Only about 1 in 10 of your social media posts should be blatant pitches for folks to purchase your books. If you keep yelling, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” people will just tune you out.
Don’t hound readers for reviews. Reviews on Amazon can increase your sales by making it more visible and by persuading people to take a chance on your book (provided, of course, that most of the reviews are favorable). When someone tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books, I ask them once—ONCE—to go on Amazon and post a review. If they do, great. If not, I chalk it up to them being busy, and I don’t bring it up again if I should see or interact online with them.
Asking for a review is asking someone for a favor. You’re not going to get it by pestering.
Don’t be a dick online. There are certain writers whose books I used to read, blogs I used to visit, and social media I used to follow, but after I saw how they treated other people, I was done with them. I don’t say anything online that I wouldn’t say to someone if I were in public within in arm’s reach of that person. Even if someone disagrees with you, treat them with respect. If they’re merely trolling you, leave the conversation, ban them from your FB page, block them on Twitter, or whatever, but don’t stoop to their level of stupidity, lest they beat you with their experience.
Good luck to you in all your writing endeavors!
Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy. His latest work-in-progress is In Lonely Lands, a modern-fantasy/horror novel, to be published in fall 2016.
Kenton is the author of Dragontamer’s Daughters, based on Navajo culture and belief. He also wrote Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.
Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.