How I got a 6-figure book deal
I’ve received a lot of questions lately about the traditional publishing process and getting a book deal, so I figured I’d answer them for everyone—in case you’re curious. Even if you don’t plan on writing a book, or plan on ever pursuing traditional publishing, it’s hopefully pretty interesting. I’ve avoided most things that require a gatekeeper in the past, so this is very new to me.
I will note that I’m definitely not an expert in this subject, since I only have the one experience so far. Read this more as a “one person who’s done one thing once” than my usual writing, which tends to come from decades of experience and deep(ish) thinking.
Why traditional publishing?
First, I wanted to learn more about it. I’ve done quite a bit of self-publishing (70,000+ sales across four books) but I knew zero about how the traditional side worked. I wanted to figure it out, and the most effective way I learn is by actually doing, so that’s what I did.
Second, I love the idea of experimenting, so I was curious to see what my experience would be like and how sales would work with a publisher also promoting my book.
Third, I wanted to get the book’s story out to as many folks as possible. Most of you on my list already get the value of not blindly growing a business in all directions, since it’s something I’ve talked about for years. And the book will totally be for you (it’s 100% original content too). But there’s a whole other bunch of folks who think business works in a certain way and looks a certain way and that success is fairly narrowly defined. I want to propose a counter-intuitive argument to that way of thinking for those people. And I think a traditionally published book can accomplish that.
Finally, I want to improve my writing. I already write good-ish, but having a talented team of folks pushing me to do even better is a total win. I’m not even talking technical writing either—I want to get better at making points and valid arguments, telling stories and making my words remarkable. By surrounding myself with people whose sole job is to enhance my writing (so it sells more), I can accomplish this.
Why get a literary agent for the traditional publishing process?
Quite a few people have asked why I chose to go with an agent, instead of going directly to publishers.
As I mentioned, I knew nothing about the industry, so I wanted someone on my side, to make sure I got the best deal possible. That’s what an agent does. But an agent also helps authors write their book proposals, which are the biggest part of landing a book deal. They help think up the best way to position it (since they know the industry), they think of the best editors at publishers to pitch it to (since they have contacts and business relationships) and they make sure the proposal itself is written as well as it possibly can be.
My agent has also been my Yoda (my guide for non-nerds) through this whole thing. She knows exactly how the process works, why, and how to get the most out of it. She gave me the information I needed to make decisions as well what to think about when writing the book proposal. And she helped me position my voice and style to work best for the audience I wanted to reach. She’s been absolutely invaluable in this process.
I’ve heard from several folks that finding a great literary agent is as important as finding a publisher, and I believe it.
How’d you get an agent for the traditional publishing process?
First, I asked. It sounds silly, but for those of you who’ve been on my list since last year, the first email of 2017 I mentioned that I was looking for agent. I was floored by how many people replied, saying they were an agent, they knew an agent or they had an agent they wanted to introduce me to. People were happy to make intros for me, I suppose because they all knew my writing inside and out, having been readers for a while. And a few were folks I’ve gotten to know over the last few years.
I spoke to 4 agents total. It would have been 5 but the 5th had some email issues so we didn’t get a chance to talk. There was also a 6th agent who I just didn’t hear back from in time to even consider. I wanted to move quickly, so I went with an agent who was up for the speed in which I work.
I chose the agent I did mostly as a gut decision. Talking to her felt easy, she completely understood what I was after, got the vision of the book’s topic and even had a lot of awesome suggestions on how to make it even better and more captivating. It also helped that she came highly recommended from a rad friend and fellow author/friend, had a great track record, and knew my genre well. The second choice also seemed like an amazing agent and was recommended to me by a good friend too.
I can’t speak for the agents that said they were interested in working with me (all but one wanted to), but I have a feeling it’s due to a combination of the platform/audience I’ve built, my consistent practice of writing, how my previous books performed, and how viable the idea I had for the book is (in terms of what can sell in the market right now). I also think having a very warm intro to each certainly helped—so I wasn’t just some schmuck off the street peddling a book idea.
So… how’d I get a 6-figure book deal?
The first step in the traditional publishing process was to write a book proposal. This is what my agent shopped around to editors at publishing houses. The book proposal is basically a book in short form. It covers a hook, a specific marketing plan, your current platform, a chapter summary (“In this chapter I will explore/discuss/interview”) and who you are as an author. It took about three months to write and is almost 60 pages.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have an engaged audience across multiple platforms, but especially a mailing list (since we all know mailing lists convert better than anything else). Publishers, editors and agents want to know there is already an existing audience, a decent-sized one (reaching tens of thousands of people per month or more), out there craving your words and ideas. This is the proof they need that your words are hitting a chord with others. From what I’ve gathered, the whole process can only happen once you’ve demonstrated that you’ve built up a following, have lots of “influencer” connections and have a good track record of releasing words that resonate with others on a consistent basis.
Once the proposal was done, my agent started talking with specific editors at publishing companies that might be interested. From there, I had phone conversations with editors to talk about who I was as a writer, my vision for the book and the philosophy behind it. They were intellectual rather than salesy conversations (which I thoroughly enjoyed) with ridiculously intelligent and curious book nerds. The conversations also seemed to involve a lot of questions about my lifestyle too (since they are all NYC people and I live in the woods on an island), which I found both funny and entertaining.
Almost-final thoughts on the traditional publishing process
I honestly think the surefire way to get a great book deal is to have a killer agent. I know some folks who’ve gotten book deals directly from publishers, but most of them made less money and gave up more control because they’re not experts in the publishing industry.
Agents go to bat for you, they work their existing industry connections and know the business inside and out. They take care of things you wouldn’t even think to do like setting deadlines for bids (which can encourage multiple offers/auctions). They pitch you as an awesome writer, because pitching yourself can be… awkward.
To summarize, here’s how I got a book deal:
- I worked for 20 years in the field I write about, and never stopped trying to learn about it and notice it. I’ve had just as many mistakes as wins, so there’s a lot to write about.
- I wrote for many years, consistently, and built an audience on a mailing list to demonstrate to agents and publishers that people were already paying attention.
- I always looked to make real human connections with others, so when I needed to ask for help, there were lots of offers.
- I found the best agent ever.
- I self-published 4 books prior, which sold over 70,000 copies in several languages.
- I wrote a solid book proposal.
- The book proposal (and agent) found a great editor and publisher.
My journey, however, has just started with the book I’m working on, since I only just submitted the first draft.
Just so we’re clear here
You don’t need any of the above to publish a book. This just illustrates one way, of many, to do it. The only thing you need to publish a book is to give other people a way to get or buy it.
For many people I know—they want to write a book and are stopped because the above doesn’t work out for them. It could have just as easily not worked out for me. If that had happened, I would have written the same book, and self-published, just as I’ve done 4 times before. I’m happy about my agent and editor, but I’d have been just as happy to log into Amazon and publish it myself.
In order to publish a book, you just have to write a book and share it—that’s it. That can mean saving it as a PDF and sending it to all your friends, clients or students. That can mean putting it on Gumroad or Squarespace for sale. That can mean saving it in the right format (or paying someone a few hundred bucks) to upload it to Amazon’s KDP or CreateSpace platform, so your book is for sale where every other traditionally published book is also for sale. Amazon lets anyone, self or traditionally published, essentially put their books on the exact same digital shelf.
You don’t need an agent, a publisher or even a design to do any of that. Your book is still a book, and the only thing stopping you from putting it out into the world, a lot of the time is you. There are zero gatekeepers required to publish your book, those are completely optional.
Just because I got a book deal this time doesn’t mean I’m not still a huge advocate for saying fuck it to gate keepers and doing things your way, on your terms. If you’ve already written a book that’s not out there, stop waiting for permission, stop waiting for agents or publishers or anyone else to approve of it. Proofread it one more time, save it as a PDF and start selling the crap out of it.
For anyone to notice your writing, you’ve gotta “write good”.
Obviously, this means it doesn’t have to be technically correct (otherwise I’d have said “write well”, so please don’t email me about my intentional grammar mistake).
I have the worst technical writing ever. Ask my copyeditor, editor or literary agent. Good writers don’t have to be adept at the intricacies of the written word. It’s seriously complex and – in the case of the English language – full of rules that make no sense. But still, I spend my days writing articles, books and courses. Consistently, while paying attention to the world and people around me.
People other than writers, like the folks I just mentioned, are much smarter at the technical stuff. A writer’s job is to make clear and effective points with words. If those words have a few spelling or grammar errors, that’s fine. I’d rather write clearly and make the occasional mistake than take 10x longer to write, but have it be perfect in the first draft. Just because catching typos is my Achilles’ heel doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, it just means I suck at catching typos—they’re related but different skills.
Of course I’m not saying that you can’t work at improving the technical side of how you write. Every time someone smarter than me edits something I write, I pay attention. What did they change, why, and how does it sound now? What can I learn from that? When I started I had no idea what active and passive voice were or why they mattered. But I watched and learned.
Writing good means that you can communicate clearly. Not using the biggest words or shiniest industry-only jargon. Communicating clearly means writing simpler than you think. For some reason, the people who have a way with words often think those words resonate truer if there are more flourishes and embellishments. Don’t do that. Making sense is the first priority, everything else comes second. The best writing can be understood by someone who knows nothing about its subject. If you can’t explain something with your words that an absolute beginner could understand, then you need to practice writing more (because that can take time, and I still don’t have the firmest grasp on it).
Writing good means that you don’t matter. Yes, it could be a personal memoir or point you’re making from your own life, but still, you don’t matter. The “you” part of your writing is only as important as it relates to the reader. The reader matters more, unless you’re writing in your journal and you’re the only person who’ll ever read it. When you’re writing for others (like blog posts, books, courses, newsletters, etc), you need to write compelling stories for them. Make sure they matter in your words, especially when you’re sharing a lot about yourself. If the people you’re writing for aren’t interested in what you’ve written for them, it sucks, but it gives you an indication that what you thought was important to them wasn’t. That’s fine, we make false assumptions all the time. When this happens, you’ve got to spend a little more time paying attention to the people you’re writing for. One of the most effective methods I’ve found is to (gasp) actually talk to them. I realize this approach is something a lot of writers don’t want to take (writing to people is easier than talking to people) but I can’t recommend it enough.
Writing good means that you leave your readers with something by the end. A call to arms, an action, a task, or even just a whole whack of knowledge. Whatever the case, in order for it to be “good” it’s got to give something away. (Otherwise it’s just vapid noise, and there’s enough of that on cable news.)
Writing good isn’t about coming up with the most epic piece that’ll instantly go more viral than the cat jumping out of a cardboard box video you just watched before reading this. Most writers only get popular YEARS after they begin sharing their words. There’s no real scientific way to know if your good writing is going to hit its mark, get shared, go viral, or hit the NYT bestseller list until after it’s been written and shared. Even for myself, I write every single week, and hope at least a handful of articles are epic.
Contrary to what shitty growth hackers will tell you, writing good doesn’t mean you have to write massively long pieces either. You write until you’ve made your point, hopefully in as few words as possible. Old story goes that Hemingway was out for drinks with some buds and bet the table ten bucks each that he could craft an entire compelling story in six words. He gathered the money, grabbed a napkin and wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A six word story that’s more compelling than any 4,000 word “ultimate guide to ultimate guides” SEO-loving piece ever written. Dr. Seuss bet the co-founder of Random House he couldn’t write a book with less than 50 distinct words. Green Eggs and Ham turned out to be his best selling work.
Writing good is absolutely within your control as well. What happens after that isn’t. Most of the time, at least for every writer I’ve talked to, the pieces of writing you think are the worst are the ones that end up doing the best. So you never know. You just write good, as often as possible, and share it. The more you share, the more likely you are to release something that leaves a mark. It’s a war of attrition but then again no one ever said writing was easy, let alone getting people to read your work.
Word length, grammar, typeface, first person, who cares? It’s like debating shades of white in a paint store: it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day. White paint is white paint. Good is good. Writing good simply means that you can clearly share valuable ideas with someone else. And I’ll take that over dense or flowery language any day.
Cracking the best-seller list
Maybe you want to write a book because you want to crack some best-seller lists. Maybe you want to create a course because you want to blog about making $100,000 from it. Maybe you want to start a mailing list because you want to reach 10,000 people.
But here’s the thing…
These are status symbols, that are the online equivalent of being able to park a Lambo (hashtag #lambogoals BRO) in your driveway to make your neighbours jealous.
We equate goals like these as “making it”, when really, they’re meaningless. You can buy your way onto any best-seller list (or publish a book about your foot in an obscure category on Amazon to achieve it). You can make 6 figures on a course launch if you put enough money into ads. You can grow your list quickly if you employ ever tip, trick and tactic imaginable to get subscribers (imagine all the popups and screen take-overs, firing at all times).
Would you even like yourself if you reached these goals by means that don’t fit who you are or your real purpose? Are you after these goals because you actually want them or because some internet thought leader in a fancy skirt suit told you that your life would be better if they happened? Do you want a fancy car in your internet driveway just because it’s a status symbol?
Technically, I’ve hit all those things (minus the fancy the car – I drive an awesome, cheap, old VW hatchback). Not a single one of those milestones changed my life in any drastic way. The book sale that went from 9,999 to 10,000 didn’t magically unlock a section of Amazon’s site that I could get free publicity from. The course sale that went from $99,700 to $100,000 didn’t automatically put me in touch with Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin so we could pal around, smoking cigars (I’m not actually sure if either of them even smoke cigars because I don’t know them). My 10,000th subscriber wasn’t any more special to me than the 2nd subscriber.
(Interesting fact: my second subscriber to this list was a guy named Dustin who unsubscribed 2 days later with a nasty unsubscribe message calling me a jerk…)
On each of those days when those arbitrary life-goals was hit my day probably included: doing dishes or the laundry, cleaning poop out of the rat pen, putting on my Costco sweatpants on one leg at a time…
I’m not saying any of this because I’m ungrateful. I am so continually surprised and incredibly appreciative of what I have and the support for my work I receive. The point I’m trying to make is that chasing the “INTERNET DREAM” of these things is a vapid pursuit that will either leave you jaded (like me), feeling shitty about yourself or chasing something you never really actually wanted.
I didn’t initially quit my job because I wanted to travel the world with my laptop and work 1 hour a week from a beach somewhere. I’m introverted and hate sitting on the sand (it gets in too many places and electronic devices) — I quit my job because my boss was more interested in cocaine than clients and I didn’t want to go down with that ship. I kept working for myself because I’d rather not deal with the social anxiety of leaving my house on a daily basis and being a freelancer let me feed that neurosis.
I didn’t start writing books to get on a speaker circuit and command 5 figures for speeches. I’m enochlophobic and think most conferences are thinly-veiled industry circle jerks—I’ve never even done a speaking gig. I wrote my first book to challenge myself to actually do something I expressed interest in doing, instead of just continually saying, “Oh yeah, I’d love to write a book.” I imagined a handful of people might buy it. I did, however, get sucked up into the whole best-seller thing and totally used that on my website (I’ve since removed it because I know it doesn’t matter).
My first course was created because I was angry that schools weren’t teaching business and marketing to creatives. I started making courses when I was doing client work full-time and figured I’d sell enough to break 4-figures over 12 months.
It’s easy to get sucked up in the Internet DreamTM though. I’m not immune either. It’s satiates some human voyeuristic trait to read those blog posts about making lots of money or having a big audience or making it or unlocking that one secret that’s holding us all back. But these things are one tiny segment of one person doing one thing, and more-over, it doesn’t mean that person is even happy or enjoying what they do.
We only ever hear what the loudest talkers are saying at us. We hear about their accomplishments through their lens of purpose.
There are countless people online who are doing amazing work but just don’t talk about it in a way that publicly pushes their own agenda. We only hear from the people who want us to know just how much they’ve accomplished, which helps them draw some invisible and meaningless line that they can stand on one side us (and then sell us access to cross over it and stand with them).
Adding “best-selling” to your author page increases your street cred when asking an extra zero in your speaking fee. Writing about your “6 figure launch” builds trust when you want to keep selling your course to more students (honestly, I’ve done that here and here – and they’re two of my most popular articles ever).
So what’s the point?
I want you to make things because you want to make things. Because they should exist in the world, but don’t yet. Because you actually, really, honestly fucking enjoy creating them. And yes, partly because you like making money and feeling accomplished (who doesn’t?), but also because your voice should be heard. Not the voice of how you reached some bullshit milestone, but the voice of you sharing what you know with the world.
And if you want to show off your accomplishments, that’s cool. Everyone that’s legitimately reached any milestone they feel is important has earned the right to feel damn good about it. And even talk about it a little, if they want to. But when the only reason you want to do something is so that you can reach some arbitrary goal—then maybe you should reconsider doing it in the first place, just skip the hassle and hard work and go right for the glory (or possibly just buy a badger of honor):
(The official Badger of Honor – unfortunately no longer available on Etsy)
I’m giving notice
As a writer, the most valuable skill you can foster is your ability to notice things.
To listen for stories, for points of view, for questions asked of you, for phrases that catch your ear or your eye.
Stories often come from unlikely places. A few days ago I was listening to the Q (a big deal if you’re Canadian) while driving and The Lumineers were talking about their latest album and the story of their title track, “Cleopatra”.
It was a beautiful story about the first woman taxi driver in the Republic of Georgia. The day her father died, her boyfriend asked for her hand in marriage. Surprised and stricken by grief, she didn’t say anything. He took it for a “no” and walked out of her house, leaving a trail of mud across her floor from his boots. She never washed the mud off, never saw him again and regretted losing the love of her life due to bad timing. She didn’t want to stop noticing what she lost.
Stories are everywhere, if you notice. Everyone has at least a handful. I laugh when people tell me there’s nothing to write about because there’s everything to write about. You just have to notice the world around you.
As a creator, the most valuable skill you can foster is your ability to notice things.
Notice what people wish they knew. Pay attention to what they’re asking of you. Look for patterns in what people are talking about, questioning, wanting, needing, yearning for.
Creative Class (my first course) started because every day I’d get at least one email from someone asking a similar question about running their own business. They had the skills locked in for their craft, but not the business stuff. I noticed a very obvious pattern and created something accordingly. Then I paid attention and listened to the folks taking the course and altered it to be better for them. Each iteration of the course is based on what I notice students doing (or not doing).
As a human, the most valuable skill you can foster is your ability to notice things.
Not just about others, but about yourself. How does what you’re doing make you feel? What’s the reason you’re doing what you’re doing? How does it serve your purpose? What is your purpose?
Noticing doesn’t mean judgement. Judgment and attention are very different and don’t tend to happen at the same time. Noticing means you’re open to learning and listening. Judgment means you’ve stopped listening (and stopped learning) and are busy forming your own opinions.
If I’m too busy simply waiting for my turn to talk or waiting for you to finish saying something so I can refute, debate or deny it, then I’m not noticing anything – not about myself nor about what you’re saying. I’m closed off to noticing because I’m too busy judging.
Noticing also doesn’t mean hearing. Hearing something can be passive and unconscious, whereas noticing requires a bit of focus. It means you’re paying attention and being consistent with it.
There’s background music playing as I write this and although I’m aware of it, I haven’t noticed anything about it (or the stories it holds). I actually just realized that the music I thought was playing (PostData’s self-titled album from 2010 – how Canadian of me) was actually playing through headphones on my desk (which were nowhere near my ears).
Pay attention and you’ll start to notice things. About yourself, about other people, about your customers, about the world and about where you want to be in it.
Noticing means we’re open to exploring ideas. Noticing means we’re paying attention without bias. And amazing things can happen when we do.
Marketing tools for any self-published book
The self-publishing advice you see on blogs telling you how to get people to buy your book is all pretty much awful. Guaranteed in 5 easy steps!
This isn’t because of bad intentions or even some sort of trickery. It’s just that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to generating sales for your book.
You can achieve success—however you define success—by doing practically anything that goes with or even against current advice online for self-published book marketing. The “self” in self-publishing means you’ve got the reins.
Save the silver bullets for werewolves (especially if you’re writing a book about werewolves). If there was a silver bullet, everyone would be doing that one thing, and it would get so watered down that it would become completely ineffective.
Tactics that game the system also tend to stop being able to game the system fairly quickly. So by the time you’re reading about it, it’s already too late to use it.
Self-publishing is a long game
And keep in mind, if you simply try every piece of advice out there on marketing your book, you’re going to spread yourself way too thin to be effective.
Marketing your self-published book involves a lot of focused work, typically as much work as it took to write the book in the first place. And there are no guarantees. But without marketing your book, no one beyond your friends and family will read it.
I’ve always approached book marketing as experiments. I try something that may or may not work, and if it does, great! If it doesn’t, then I don’t try it again. I’ve given away llamas, run contests simply because it was Thursday, launched books in every platform that would have me, and tried so many things even my own head spins a little .
I’ve sold, given away, bundled, and sold the foreign rights to my books to the tune of 70,000 copies through self-publishing. I’m no Stephenie Meyer (probably because none of my books have werewolves), but for a self-published guy who knew nothing about the industry when I started, I’ve done alright.
Base your self-publishing plan on your intentions
The way you market your self-published book should be based on two things: your values and the intentions for the book. If something feels slimy or inauthentic, don’t do it. You should never let a bit of exposure trump your values. Short-term gains that feel wrong seldom result in long-term growth as an author. They can also decrease your social capital.
The intentions for your book can really be anything—credibility and status in your industry, increased bookings for speaking, consulting or projects, building your brand, further educating your audience with a new point of view on a subject they care about. Your book, your intentions. And however odd—because anyone can write a book now—books are still a strong signal that you’re an expert on a topic or in a field.
If your intention is to sell a million copies or get on a best-seller list, that’s more the result of many things going right, since it’s really out of your control. Plus, most of the time, you’re just going to be disappointed with that for a goal. Only a handful of books sell a million copies or get on the NYT or WSJ lists. And you don’t need either to make money or build credibility (or even to have fun with your book).
Sometimes self-publishing is a series of fortunate events
A few of my books are “best-sellers” and it was really just a result of trying lots of things that slowly pushed sales higher. It’s a war of attrition on experimenting, failing, learning, and continually pushing for more exposure and connections. Mostly it was about noticing things around me and not letting excuses get the best of me.
Your intentions also have to match the content and message of your book. For example, if you write a book about American Condors (which are EPIC, seriously), your intention can’t really be to get more gigs speaking on the web design circuit. Or, if your book is about a super specific topic that relates to a teeny-weeny group of people, it’ll never be a massive best-seller (but can definitely become a phenom in that small group).
Even though there’s a “self” in self-publishing
Once you’ve got an intention, move onto your audience. Who are they? Why will they care? Where do they currently get their information from?
If you don’t know who your audience is, consider this:
- Why did you write the book?
- What do you want people to get from it?
- Why would those people be motivated to get information from your book?
From there, think about motivations people would have in common. What would they find valuable?
An audience of “everyone” is typically too big to grasp or connect with. Where does “everyone” get their information? There’s no single source. What motivates “everyone” to learn something? There’s no single motivation. What does “everyone” care about? There’s no single topic.
You get the idea… “Everyone” is not your audience.
Your audience is a specific set of people with specific motivations and values. They’re much easier to reach and connect with than everyone.
Your audience is probably awesome, but they are also self-serving and need to know what’s in it for them. What are they going to learn that can’t be found anywhere else? How will they benefit from this knowledge? How can they apply that knowledge to better their lives, careers, or wallets? They’re putting both their money and their time into the book, so they need to be sure it’s worth both. Even free books have a large investment of someone’s time.
Meet your audience where they hang out
Once you have a handle on your audience and what motivates them, you’ve got to go to them. Where are they currently getting their information? Which blogs, podcasts, publications, influencers, media outlets do they consume?
Make a list that includes contacts at each source. Their name, email address, and social media profiles. Then start to follow them, interact with them in a way that fits with you. Help if they ask any questions or need assistance. Get on their radars. Keep notes about your interactions.
If it’s a publication that accepts guest posts, start pitching them. For podcasts, ask to be a guest. If it’s a blog that does interviews, ask to be interviewed. In each instance, lead with what’s in it for them and their audience. Also, keep notes on which people you’ve pitched, and if they accepted or turned you down.
Not many people are going to promote you and your book out of the goodness of their hearts. That is, unless you’ve built strong relationships with them first. It’s better to pitch yourself and your book on how it relates to their audience and how it will benefit their audience. Just like figuring out the motivations of your audience in order to sell books, you’ve got to figure out the motivations of the sources your audience consumes to pitch what’s in it for them to feature you.
Marketing tools for self-publishing
As I said at the start, there’s no single way to market a self-published book that’s guaranteed to fit with your personality and also have massive results. What you can do is align your book with your intentions and values, and constantly work at moving in that direction.
Selling your book and selling what’s in your book is the same. You wrote a book because you wanted to convince people of an idea. Marketing your book is convincing people that the idea is worth the purchase price and time to read it.
The tools you use to market aren’t just creative or design decisions. They’re marketing choices that need to align with your intentions and your audience.
These are tools you need to have in place to launch any self-publishing marketing plan:
What are you delivering in the content? Is the title easy to remember? Is it both descriptive and captivating? If necessary to explain the premise more, use a byline to push just a little more information on the cover. Use it to narrow down your audience (who it’s for, who it’s not for), get more specific or describe the key point.
What story are you telling with your book in 1–2 sentences? Use this for pitches to media, your mailing list, or as the call to action on your site. Why is the story interesting? Test different one-sentence stories on social media (and measure the resulting clicks) or on your newsletter (using A/B tests). Adapt your story based on what performs best. Your story is how you describe your book in writing or in interviews.
Does it look professional? This is the biggest factor. Because anyone can publish a book, you don’t want your cover to look like you made it yourself (unless you’re a pro book cover designer). It has to look as good or better than the biggest books in your category.
You need three of these: one sentence (for things like social media bios), one paragraph (for bylines on guest posts), and one page (for all the details). Include your relevant accomplishments, relevant credentials, previous books, press mentions (“as seen in X”), and anything interesting that your audience will think is interesting, too. If you have a hard time writing something that balances being criminally egotistical and not boastful enough, ask a friend, editor, or reader to help write it. Sometimes it’s easier for someone else to talk about you than it is for you to talk about yourself.
For self-published books, you want more professional and less Instagram selfie. Use a pro camera or hire a professional to make sure you’ve got a photo that looks as good or better than the top authors, and also matches the style of your writing (if it’s casual writing, wear a t-shirt, if it’s formal, wear a suit or sleek black dress, etc.). Make sure your face is the biggest part and the focal point of the shot. Save your creativity for your next poetry-slam.
You also need three of these: one sentence, one paragraph, and one page. This is less a summary of the content and more the sales pitch on why someone needs to read it. What’s interesting, noteworthy, or newsworthy about it? What’s the most important thing your audience will learn? Why should anyone care that you wrote it? What is the benefit of reading it?
These prove that someone, typically more well-known than you, not only wanted to read it, but liked it enough to publicly endorse it. There are three general types of book blurbs: press mentions from recognized media sources (places where your audience gets their information), key industry influencers (names your audience will immediately know and be impressed with) and clients/customers (who benefitted from reading it).
This is the sales page for your book on your own site. Include all of the above, with links to buy the book through your own payment processor (like GumRoad) or Amazon (read about where to self-publish here), B&N, iTunes, etc.
Hands down the most useful tool, however you use it, is your mailing list. Start collecting emails before your book is ready. Use it as an announcement list when your book is ready, and use it to consistently communicate with your audience. There’s no better way for an author to talk to their audience and sell books than a newsletter. You can use your mailing list as a place where you send blog posts to first. That means send them to your list, then publish them on your site later.
The self-publishing grand finale
These tools are all opportunities to sell your book using whatever self-publishing marketing method you feel resonates the most. Your choices on cover, title, blurb, and bio all need to be carefully crafted with your audience in mind.
The key to marketing a book is to have written a great book that people want to read and then talk about. Then it’s a matter of figuring out what aligns with your intentions in terms of getting the word out.
Write for your audience, not for yourself (even if it’s a memoir). If the quality doesn’t happen within the pages of the book, no amount of marketing will help.
Books are sold by word-of-mouth and regular people talking to other regular people about what they read. Press and publicity help, but the best promotion comes from people telling the people they know to read something. Write something worth reading and worth gushing about. Is it difficult to do? Totally. It requires lots of work, revisions, editing and testing. If is it impossible to do? Hell no. Readers don’t care if you’re self-publishing, they only care about the book they’re reading.
Less convincing and hard selling needs to happen if people can easily grasp your concept and want to get your insight on your chosen topic. So be clear, be useful, and be unique.
Have all of the above in place well before you launch your book. Plan out exactly how you’re going to market your book, using the tools above as laser-focused weapons to slice through the existing noise of everyone else’s self-published book.
How to cultivate a writing routine when you run a business
It’s all well and good to talk about using your blog and mailing list to connect with your audience by writing articles. But it begs the question I hear almost daily:
How do I create consistent content that I don’t get paid to do? I have a business to run.
Content can drive your business. The more content you create (which can be articles, videos, audio, drawings) the easier it will be for readers and potential customers to see value in your expertise and what you sell. When they know you, they’ll be more likely to pay for what you do.
Most freelancers or entrepreneurs who use content successfully publish something at least once a week. This keeps your business, voice, and brand in front of your audience. But that’s 52 new pieces a year, so let’s break down exactly how to cultivate a practice to create all that content.
Have a purpose and an opinion
More important than any single blog post, your whole website, or even your newsletter, is your why. Think about why you write, share, and sell what you do. What’s the bigger message and purpose? What does it mean to you? Use that purpose as a lens through which to filter all your content. Draw a line in the sand about what you stand for and what you’re passionate about as it relates to your work.
Commit to daily creation
Write (or create) every day, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Close other apps, turn off your phone, and focus on creating. Don’t worry about quality yet; focus on getting your ideas out in the format you want to share them in (writing, video, drawings, etc.). If you write seven days a week and only need to share once a week, you’ve got seven pieces to choose from. The more often you create, the more likely you’ll be to create something worth sharing with your audience.
Keep an idea scratchpad
Even if you don’t have time to write when an idea strikes, have somewhere that’s always nearby (or open if it’s a file) to at least jot down the idea. Get ideas for content from:
- Clients/customers asking you a question (others may have the same question).
- Learning something new that relates to your work.
- Interesting conversations you have with industry peers or clients.
- A known pain point or common struggle in your type of work.
- Making a mistake that you hope others won’t make, too.
- The inside scoop, back story, or behind-the-scenes of what you do or make.
- Talking about how people use your product or service.
- Writing case studies or success stories about previous customers.
- Noticing every opinion and idea around you.
Any given topic may have already been written about by someone else, but it has never been written from your perspective. Bring up a unique or personal perspective on the subject. Say something about it that relates to your journey, or to the type of people in your audience. You don’t have to dish on everything in your personal life, but write honestly from the heart. Learn how to tell great stories even if you think they might be unpopular.
Make outlines first
Staring at a blank page can be daunting and encourage procrastination. Write an outline for your first draft that simply highlights the key points you want to make. Don’t waste energy fussing about style, format, or how well it reads. A first draft outline helps you focus on the topic first, and how it’s written later.
When you can, get ahead of your publishing schedule. Try to create a few pieces of content at a time and get ahead of your editorial schedule by a few weeks. That way if you get sick or life rubs lemons in your eyes, you’re covered.
The more books, blogs, articles, and publications that you read, the more ideas for topics you’ll have. Read outside of your industry, as well. You never know what will inspire you to create new content. Just stop reading about how to dominate at blogging (it’s too meta and filled with bullshit). It may even inspire you to write your own book.
The best advice for becoming a better writer is to write more. The sooner you can get over the fear of writing and start cultivating your own consistent practice, the faster you can start creating content that connects and engages with your audience.
The common elements of good storytelling
My favourite activity while I lived in Tofino, BC was attending my artist friend, Roy Henry Vickers’ storytellings. His art gallery is a large room, set mostly in cedar, with an inset middle area where people can sit at several levels and listen.
Roy Henry is First-Nations, so his culture is one of passing information to the next generation through story. And he does it well. So well, that the handful of times a year he tells stories for a few days in a row, the room is always full.
I’ve heard many of his stories more than once. I enjoy those the most, since I know what’s coming I can focus on his delivery and emotion. Sometimes there are tears. Most of the time there’s laugher. But every time, the stories are more visual than watching television.
No mic or stage required, just Roy Henry standing level with everyone else. Even the prints I own of his remind me of the stories he’s told – and I have quite a few.
Storytelling is as old as any culture, but probably better preserved as a practice with First-Nations than European culture. It was the primary way of passing along information, long before the written word even existed. I try to practice it in my own articles as much as possible too, along with being consistent.
We’re still hardwired to learn better if someone’s words have meaning and emotion to them (proven with science!) because the use of narrative helps our brain focus. That’s because the neurons that fire when we’re listening to a story are the same ones that’d fire if we were actually doing what’s happening in the story (Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, Annie Murphy Paul). It’s why you get scared during a scary movie even though you know it’s not real or why I forget there are other people in the room when Roy Henry is storytelling.
Antonio and Hanna Damasio, USC Professors of Neuroscience, did studies on how emotion shapes our thoughts. It turns out, they shape them a great deal and we don’t learn without them. Stories are a catalyst for emotion since they take facts and other things we want to retain and put them into an emotional structure.
Roy Henry isn’t the only one to use stories to pass along information (even if he is my favourite).
All Seth Godin’s books are parables, citing real examples and people to make this points about marketing.
Almost every TED talk starts with the speaker telling some first-hand experience that shaped the information that follows in their talk. Good marketers have used stories to get consumers to do what they want for years—look at any commercial that doesn’t show the product it’s selling, except maybe at the very end, once the story finishes.
So, what makes a good story? What are the common elements of good storytelling? Here are a few commonalities I’ve noticed watching and reading my favourite storytellers:
Good stories are easy to understand. They’re also told in a language that matches the way the intended audience communicates, so they don’t need to spend time interpreting and then absorbing. Simplicity also aides in memorability, because the overall lesson is easy to grasp in summary.
Just like Roy Henry, who experiences the stories he tells as he’s telling them, good storytelling requires an emotional component. Most of the memorable ones have humour, pain or joy (sometimes all three). If every story were simply facts stated, one after another, most of us wouldn’t listen or remember any of it.
Not truth in the scientific sense, where there’s an objective fact stated, but true insofar as the teller believes in what they’re saying and are honest with themselves and their audience about it.
Good stories are first-hand experiences the teller actually witnessed. Even if it’s a story that’s passed on generationally, an effective one still has an element of how that story relates directly to the teller, told in the teller’s own words.
Regardless of the audience size, a good story works for any audience. One to one-million. It isn’t concerned with how many people can hear it, just that someone, somewhere is listening to it.
Think about this the next time you want to tell someone something. Whether it’s to sell a product/service, make a point or give a speech. How can you reinforce what you’ve got to say with a good story?
And next time you find yourself in Tofino, BC, stop by the Eagle Aerie Gallery. I hope you’ll be lucky enough to be there when Roy Henry is storytelling.
Create an engaging blog for your product
If you’re launching a company or product, congratulations, you’re now also a content creator—or you should be.
It’s not enough to simply launch something, you need to also showcase why it’s launched, how it will help (not just via a sales page), why you and/or your team are experts enough to create it in the first place and most importantly, what the story is. This typically takes the place of articles on your product blog.
As a web designer, a side-project enthusiast and a creator of countless products (from tech startups to self-published books), I’ve spent years working on products and their associated blogs. Too often I’ve focused on the wrong things, or seen others do the same. Here are a few things I’ve learned, mostly the hard way, about what it takes to create a successful product blog. There’s a direct correlation between good content and product sales. And thankfully, the writing doesn’t have to be all SELL, SELL, SELL to be effective (it’s actually better if it’s not).
What comes first?
Should you start blogging first or creating your product first? The answer, most confusingly, is both. Here’s why:
If you create an outline and soft goals for what the product is, and don’t let anything become too concrete, it can evolve or change based on audience interaction and feedback. This then helps laser focus writing content, so every blog post ties in or relates to the product. Doing it as an idea, then blog posts about that idea allows you to pivot or tweak the feature-set if there isn’t any response or even negative interaction.
I always embed a mailing list subscription box at the end of every blog post, with a call to action to subscribe that defines what the product will be. I then switch up the wording every few weeks at the start to see what works best (or A/B test). This lets me know what the audience is interested in and use that to guide the product development. If I get 20 signups for one blog post but 200 for another, I immediately know what is more interesting to my audience.
Find your voice
Often if you’re starting a company or building a product, you may not have ever had to write publicly before. It could be something that’s hard for you to do, or even scary. The good thing is that, in order to become a writer or a better writer the solution is easy: you just have to write more.
Before I became a “writer”, I spent every single day writing at least 500 words. Most of it was garbage, but that was fine, I wasn’t writing these words for blog posts, I was writing them to learn how to write better and to figure out how I expressed what I had to say in writing. Every writer I know has said the same thing: the more you write, the easier it is to write more.
Most people call writing authentically “finding your voice”. Really, it’s a matter figuring out how you say what you have to say, using your own unique perspective. That’s what makes writing enjoyable to read—if it’s written using real examples and stories, in a voice that’s uniquely yours. Most of this comes from simply noticing things and ideas, much more than waiting until you’re a perfect technical writer.
Good writing take risks with what you have to say, takes a stand about something and have an opinion. Especially if it’s a product blog, your product is your opinion on how something should work. Your blog should be written in a way that expresses your opinion on the product, the industry or how you think it’ll make your users live’s better.
If you’re building a product, there’s an assumption that you’re an expert in whatever niche that product will exist in. If it’s a book on marketing, you’re a marketing expert. If it’s a web design app, then you know a whole lot about web design and app development.
All the blogging you do, at it’s core, should both relate to your expertise and share that knowledge in a way that non-experts understand.
How has what you’re writing about worked for you, in your first-hand experience? Is there a case study or example you can use to tell the story? This leads your audience to believe that you’re credible (which is hopefully true!).
Weave stories into everything you write, because that’s the mark of a good writer. We remember stories, it’s part of our cultural DNA. Don’t just tell people something, use examples and metaphors to make a point about your product or expertise around it.
Find your audience
Since your product will serve a specific audience (no great product is made for everyone), your blog should do the same. The content doesn’t have to be for a specific industry, it can be for a certain type of person (regardless of their profession) that would benefit from what you’ve made.
Who does your product help? Those will be the type of people that’ll benefit from your writing on the blog. Write specifically for those people, or even for a single person in that group. What do they value? Where are they stuck, troubled or frustrated? What matters to them? What do they truly desire, not just from a product like yours, but in general?
If you don’t know the answers to these types of questions, ask and then listen. A few months ago I spent 10 days talking to 30+ people from my mailing list on the phone. I offered 15 minute free consults with my readers to help solve problems they were having with web design, writing, creativity and entrepreneurialism. While my intent was to help them, it also helped focus how I created my latest product (a book on those subjects). I now have a much better idea of how to build out what’s next, because I listened to the people who will hopefully be first in line to buy it.
At first your product blog may not have many readers, because your audience doesn’t know about it yet. The best way to remedy that is to figure out where they currently spend their time and meet them there. Message boards, Facebook groups, Google+ Communities, even comment threads on industry articles (like this one!).
People are intrigued by a little mystery and if it’s done right, they can’t wait to learn more. Show your readers what you’re working on with your product, before it’s ready. Not the whole shebang, but bits and pieces, screenshots, excerpts, features, etc.
Make sure your audience knows some of what they’ll be getting when your product is ready to be purchased. Then it’s not a guessing game (which can lead to a lack of sales), but instead a knowledge of what it is and a desire to get it as soon as it’s ready.
Danielle LaPorte teases perfectly. She routinely posts screenshots of new projects on her Instagram. She also replaces the header on her website with new offerings before they’re ready, teasing the date and that change is coming. The anticipation drives her followers crazy, who are all eager to buy the day something comes out.
Build your mailing list
Blog readers might never come back. RSS readers may not check their feed for a while or just may not click over to read what you’ve written. Social media followers will miss what you say unless they’re tuning in at the exact time you’re talking about a blog post.
Mailing lists are different because they show up where your audience lives, their inbox. This is why there’s a higher engagement rate for mailing list send-outs versus tweets, RSS feeds or blog posts. Because most people check their email often (sometimes every few minutes).
Send your articles as full text pieces to your list. Ask for feedback through replies at the end of each email to show that you’re interested in a two-way communication, because you should actually be interested in hearing from your audience.
If you’ve got a product blog, a mailing list for the product launch, or a pre-order button, you’ve got to give a valid reason for people to do what you want them to. “Read Now” or “Sign Up!” or “Buy!” aren’t valid reasons.
Tell your audience why they should do those things with concrete benefits. Make the pitch about them and how what you’d like them to do will actually help.
Nathan Barry doesn’t just ask you to sign up for his newsletter. He gives an example of how signing up will help you grow your audience, promote your next product or sell more of what you’ve made. Grow your list? Write a book? Design an app? He’s got you covered and lets you know.
The biggest thing I learned while being a creative director and working on large campaigns, was the importance of brand consistency. Not just in how things look, but in how products are described and how companies speak to their audience. If it’s done right, it’s in one unified voice.
That means your product blog should be consistent in the language, terms used and voice. The sales page should seem written by the same person as the blog posts, and every blog post should be in the same voice/tone, spreading the same overall message that the product has.
This makes your brand sound like it all makes sense together and gives people a clear idea of what it stands for, regardless of what they’re reading or doing on your website.
Stop listening. Stop reading this article and get to work.
Both on the product and on the content creation that goes with it. It’s all well and good to learn from others, but nothing takes the place of first-hand experimenting.
There really aren’t any hard and fast rules either, just ideas and observing what’s worked for others. Almost every successful product and its blog has broken a few rules.
Try things. Find your voice. Listen to your audience (or don’t). Change direction if something’s not working. It’s your product, it’s your blog, and you get to make the calls.
What we might think matters for a blog typically doesn’t. SEO, good design, social media share buttons are important, but they’re very much secondary to the real core: the product and the actual content. We can sometimes get far too caught up in those things and forget to focus on the core.
I always come back to the same two questions if I feel like I’m losing my focus: How can my writing be more valuable to the audience it serves? and How can my product be more valuable to the audience it serves?
The blog for your product is as important as the product itself. Ensure you have enough time to dedicate to creating content around what you’ve made, even after your product has launched. This is what differentiates a decent product with a product that’s talked about everywhere you look.
I wrote an article no one wanted
I wrote an article.
No, not this one, a different one (that’d be too meta).
And sure, I typically think all of that for at least a few minutes until my inner critic tells me it’s awful and people will unsubscribe or unfollow or send hate-mail after reading it. But before the critic piped up, I thought this article felt too awesome to just live on my website, which doesn’t get as much traffic as say… The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Fast Company, LifeHacker, Forbes, Inc., or Smashing Magazine.
This was the article that would launch 100,000 book sales for me.
So I pitched it to the big, relevant, abovely-noted (not a real word, but you get what I mean) publications. All of them. Actually, it was about 20 publications, not just the abovely-noted ones.
I got kind of sweaty at the prospect, because what if one of them wanted to run it? Half of them have run articles I’ve written, so it wasn’t too much of a long shot. Plus, I get sweaty when I write (which is puzzling and annoying).
I waited a few hours, checking email every few minutes. No response.
Then I waited a few days. No response.
After a week of waiting (I hate playing the waiting the game, I’d rather play Hungry, Hungry Hippos), it was time to give up on those pitches. I found 20 additional publications to pitch the article to. Not as big in terms of following or author cache as the first 20, but still amazing publications with much bigger audiences than I have. Once again I waited. Hours. Days. A week.
“Maybe the article is awful” I started to think.
“Maybe these publications see me for hack I am” said my inner critic.
In a last ditch effort, I pitched it to a friend who has guest posts and a big site, but I didn’t even hear back from them for a week (even though I see them tweeting hourly). “Not right for the website” they eventually said. This was the only response I got.
I ended up posting the article on my own website and then tweeted about it (which is the start and finish of my shitty promotion plan for every blog post).
I assumed it wouldn’t go over well. Because why would my readers want to read it if no publications even bothered to reply to tell me how much they hated it? I post it anyway because I still think it’s (partially, at this point) awesome and valuable.
Then the article gets read.
First by a few people, then by more. Then someone with a big following promotes it, then a few different publications contact me to see if they can repost it on their own sites. And it gets traction and gets a little popular. It gets up-voted on HackerNews (until those assholes remove it from their front-page because they have their own editorial agenda).
It ends up being read by a lot of people. 100,000 book sales did not happen, but there was a small and noticeable increase in sales for a day (woo!).
The first part, about not hearing back on pitches, happens practically every time I write and pitch something — a handful of times, it hasn’t. The second part, about an article getting popular, happens only once in a while.
I write and/or pitch articles to publications and get no response all the time. It doesn’t matter if a month prior I wrote an article for them that they published, which received loads of comments and views.
They’re busy, underpaid, overworked, and have too many emails to get through in a day. But they’re the gatekeepers of those publications.
I can publish whatever I want on my own site and it might become popular (or not). I can publish whatever I want on medium.com or any other platform that allows anyone to publish anything. And those articles might get popular or they might not.
The point is that I keep writing.
Sure, I’ll pitch articles I think are a fit to publications that I think would like to run with them, but I don’t let it stop me if they turn me down (usually via deafening silence).
If they don’t want my writing, it can live elsewhere. And if no one reads, likes, shares, whatever’s it—that’s fine too. That just means next time I’ll try to write more valuable pieces.
I just keep writing.
The more I write, the more likely it is that my writing will provide value to the people that read it. And that can happen on someone else’s publication or my own website. And more importantly, it can happen for one person or more than one person. Either way, it’s a win.
I’m only attached to doing more writing. Because that’s all I can control, right now, in this moment. Not who could read it, but that the article is there, just in case someone wants it one day. Wherever it happens to be (or not be) published.
Self-publishing battle royale
This is what I’ve learned, having now self-published five books (selling 70,000+ copies total)—two using Gumroad and Sellfy (which are indie sales platforms, aka: digital goods e-commerce services, or “indies” from here on in), and my latest on Amazon’s KDP Select platform. My next book is through a traditional publisher.
My first two books were sold as PDFs and promoted exclusively on my own website. While they were added to Amazon (using BookBaby), I put zero effort into promoting them there. The thought was that I may as well get 95 percent of the sale (minus transaction fees) through indies, since Amazon was only paying out around 70 percent to authors.
The main reason I used KDP for the third book is because I hadn’t used it before, and have a penchant for experimenting (which is actually a topic from the latest book). I talk/write a lot about self-publishing so I wanted to make sure I understood every major angle.
Obviously with an indie, as soon as you upload the file, you can sell it. With KDP, you’ve got to wait until it appears on Amazon (and it takes longer to appear in global Amazon stores too).
For my book, it took 12 hours, which isn’t bad. But as I’m also selling the paperback, that took another 24 hours to show up on Amazon and 72 hours to “sync” with the Kindle version (so you can see both the Kindle and paperback version on the same page). Currently, this doesn’t happen automatically either – you have to actually contact Amazon to connect the two versions (they are fixing this in the future).
Basically, there’s lots of waiting for Amazon, so in future, I may submit the paperback and Kindle versions a few days before I announce the book is launching, which is a simple and easy remedy (even if you’re impatient like I am).
This brings up a fundamental difference between Amazon and pricing via indies. If you’re selling your book on your own site, you can offer “packages” where you sell your book for a higher price, but include extras, like videos, interviews, audio, etc. This can work to your advantage because it can allow you to sell your book at a much higher price, if it comes with supplementary items.
Nathan Barry, Sacha Grief and Danielle Laporte do this and make more than typical self-published authors, because they’ve turned their books into more of a packaged product than just a book. They package audio, video, additional files and more into their book sales to sell different packages/tiers.
You can really price your book based on whatever you’d like, give it away for free or charge hundreds for it. There is no average or “industry standard” for pricing books that are sold as part of larger products. It comes down to whatever your audience feels is valuable for what’s packed into the content. With Amazon, you’re bound by their pricing limits for lowest price and highest price (using KDP it’s $2.99 to $9.99). More importantly though, your book is placed in a marketplace with other books, so if your book costs much more than similar books, it may not sell as well. Similar to pricing books using an indie, the price really comes down to the perceived value your audience feels they’ll get from it. With my experience (since I have books for $1, $17 and $6) is that the lower the price, the more people will buy the book. So if numbers are what you’re after, lower is better.
On the incoming-money-to-you side, Amazon’s one-click is killer awesome. People can buy your book by clicking a single button—no need to enter payment or personal details (since they already did that at some point since most people have bought from Amazon).
The trust factor with Amazon is fairly high, so people are less averse to giving credit card info them. Their mailing address and credit card are already saved in Amazon’s system for the most part, so payment is fast and easy.
For an indie, most now have a small modal window that appears on top of your website to collect personal and credit card information. It’s simple and flows nicely, but it’s definitely not a single button click. And the trust factor may be lower if they aren’t sure of the payment system or aren’t 100% trusting of your website.
The IRS also requires Amazon to collect 30 percent of your royalties if you’re not American (this can be avoided in some countries with tax treaties with the US—read this) They pay out monthly, for the previous month. For Sellfy, the money (minus their fees), is deposited instantly. For Gumroad, it’s weekly. Both transfer right into your PayPal account. It’s quick, painless, and their fees are around 5 percent, plus PayPal fees, which are around 3 percent. Compared to Amazon, you get a much higher percentage using an indie.
The biggest drawback of selling through Amazon is that I don’t know exactly who bought my book. I can’t see their email address. I can’t even see their name. They’re just a number and a royalty percentage in a spreadsheet.
Whereas with Gumroad and Sellfy I can see who bought what, and both services save those email addresses into a mailing list or export as a CVS file that I can import into any other mailing list program. They make it very easy to stay in touch with purchasers.
The one idea I’ve had so far is to link to my mailing list on the last page of my Kindle (or paperback book). It’s not 100 percent conversion, but at least it’s something.
Amazon is great for showing the first few pages of a book right in a browser, and the final page of that preview is the buy button—no downloads, no plugins, just a popup window where you can read content.
For indies, you have to link to a separate preview file and include a link to buy it at the end, which is a few more steps but still fairly easy. You could also create a plain-text preview for selling on your own site.
The added bonus of creating your own preview file is that you get to specify length and content, whereas with Amazon, they pick where the preview cuts off.
Updating your content
With an indie, you just re-upload the book file(s) if there are changes and it’s instant. With Amazon KDP, it can take up to 12 hours to appear.
The big kicker is, for the paperback, if you’re using CreateSpace, your book goes offline for a few days while Amazon reviews the updated files. There’s currently one missing word in a sentence in my book, and I can’t update the paperback because I don’t want my book to disappear from Amazon for three to four days.
With either, you need to rely almost entirely on your own draw or audience to get people to buy your book. Neither option promotes for you, so bring your own people to the party.
Just because you uploaded your book to Amazon doesn’t mean anything special will happen. And if you don’t promote it on Amazon, it’ll get buried beneath 12 million books already on there. That said, if you sell a lot of copies, your book will start to chart on Amazon’s Bestseller list which puts it front of more eyeballs.
It pays to get a big push of sales at the same time, to bump your book higher up in Amazon’s rank. Because I announced it to my mailing list at the same as some friends also mentioned it to their audience, the initial spike pushed my book to #3 in creativity on Amazon.com and #1 in entrepreneurship on Amazon.ca within a few hours of launch. I’m sure this helped expose the book to people who aren’t part of my own audience since it was on the first page of a few categories on Amazon and still routinely shows up on the sidebar as a “Hot New Release”.
Amazon also lets authors create an Author Central profile, where you can add a biography, link up your RSS feed, and even your tweets. This appears right on the buy page of your book, which helps lead people to your website or social media. People can even sign up to be alerted when you have new releases.
If you’re selling on Amazon, you can sign up for and use an Amazon Associates account to become an affiliate of your own book, and make a bit of extra cash. It’s a tiered chart for much you get (from 4 percent to 8.5 percent) but it adds up quickly and I’ve already made a few hundred dollars extra through this, outside of my royalties.
The added bonus is that you collect money from any product someone adds to their cart after they clicked the link, so you earn on more than just your own book. This is money Amazon would keep otherwise, so you may as well take what’s yours when promoting/selling your own book. It’s allowable and legit under Amazon Associate’s terms of service too.
With an indie, if you have an affiliate program, the money an affiliate makes (even if it’s you) comes off of your cut instead. The upside here is that you can either not have an affiliate program, or make the percentage a number that works best for you and the people selling your book. I’ve gone as high as a 50/50 split sometimes, because it’s made sense for that specific situation.
If you’re selling your book on your own website, you can add whatever content you want. Reviews, testimonials, etc. And it’s up to your audience to believe that they’re real. I only bring this up because I’ve caught a few people using my name and photo for their books/services with a testimonial that I didn’t write, because I’d never seen or read whatever they’re promoting.
With Amazon, reviews actually say that it’s verified that the person bought your book. So Amazon reviews are therefore great to bump potential purchaser confidence. If you’ve got lots of 5-star reviews, then you’re golden. The flip-side is that if trolls or people that really didn’t like your book start leaving horrible comments, you’re screwed because you can’t take them down or edit them, all you can do is leave a comment on their comment (which, granted, can start a flame war).
Definitely encourage reviews from your existing audience. Chances are that if they are already into your stuff, they will like what you’ve written and leave favourable, glowing reviews.
My favourite thing about publishing with KDP is the highlights and notes feature. On your book’s Amazon page, you can see what sections of the book are the most highlighted and what public notes people are leaving. As a writer, this is so interesting, because it shows me what parts of my writing people have found the most important or interesting. I can read and reply to notes left by readers too, which is a lot of fun.
The best you can hope for with an indie is that people email you or connect on social media with what they loved about your book. This does happen, but not nearly as much as a quick Kindle highlight. However there are platforms, like ReadMill, that can facilitate this without Amazon.
Gumroad, Sellfy and Amazon KDP have great support. I’ve contacted each, and all have replied with helpful information within a few hours. They’re all on equal footing here.
Amazon’s KDP Select program requires 90+ days digital exclusivity, but in return allows you to create deals, freebies, and add your book to their lending library (for greater exposure). So if you’d like those things, you can’t use both Amazon and an indie until the 90+ days is up. If not, you are free to sell your book in both places.
A huge benefit for sales of my last two books were having them included in discount bundles on websites like Dealotto, Mighty Deals, AppSumo, etc. Once my 90 days exclusive is up with KDP Select, I’ll definitely attempt to get my book there to increase sales. I’ll also sell the book directly on my website, to receive a higher cut of the book sales.
With my latest book, which has only been out a few weeks, I’m waiting a year to conclude whether it was a great idea or a horrible mistake to sell on Amazon. The metrics are simple, to me: look at the number of people who bought it and how much I made from it. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to my other two books (both of which were on different subjects), but it’ll give me some general idea, I’m sure.
So I’m going to disappoint you, here: There’s no cut and dry, “Use this (and ONLY this!) to sell your self-published book”. I hope the information provided in this article is enough to help you make the decision for what’s best for you and your book. Either way, there are serious benefits and drawbacks. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding, though:
- Are you able to provide support to purchasers if they have trouble with the file format, downloading or receiving the file? If you don’t have time, Amazon wins here since they take care of all of that.
- Are you going to be making multiple edits/updates/revisions once the book is launched? Indies win here since those changes can be instant.
- Do you think you can charge more than the average price of a book, or offer extras? Go with an Indie—I recommend Gumroad or if you want to offer affiliates, Sellfy.
- Would you rather get 95 percent royalties than 30-70 percent? If so, indies are the way to go.
- Are you looking to get a lot of reviews, highlights, notes for your book? Amazon does this best.
- Do you really want the information and email address of each purchaser? Amazon does not provide this.
- Support from both is a draw. Both have great customer service for authors.
And personal preference counts for a lot, too. Case in point: I’m more in the “book as a book” camp than the “book as a product” tribe, because I like to spend my time writing instead of creating packages/extras, even though I’m fully aware that probably leads to generating less revenue.
If you aren’t an established or well-known author, it makes sense to have your book on Amazon since the trust factor is slightly higher there, but you receive a lot less money per book (which is an okay trade-off to build your reputation).
My gut feeling is that Amazon is just easier. They take care of issues/support and all I need to worry about is effectively drawing the right people to the sales page. There’s no download issues, file formatting, or compatibility problems. It’s just promotion and sales.
Now go forth to write and publish your book!