How to Sell Books: A Cheatsheet
How did I go from fantasizing about selling my books, to releasing 6 novels and also creating a boxed set that raked in over 20k this past year? To collectively earning roughly 40k (over 61k including shared income from boxed set) over the last year in my spare time? To collaborating with an author whose book was optioned by Ridley Scott to be made into a film? No, I don’t do this full-time. It’s a beautiful side-job and a source of supplemental income that anyone with the desire and intelligence can attain. Here’s how.
I used to tinker around with the idea of selling my books like so many other writers out there. After all, it’s a beautiful dream right? To spin our own yarn, get it before the eyes of a lot of readers, and on top of that, make some money? An impossible dream.
I struggled to finish my first book, and when I finally did finish, I thought the work was over. Once I realized that the world of traditional publishing was a dead-end for me, and the thought of tackling its monstrous collective slush piles became a psychic vampire, I gave up. Like the fate of so many others’ tales, my stories languished on my hard drive for ages.
Getting someone to actually read your novel is another thing entirely. It’s almost as draining as writing the damned thing. Usually you target close friends and family first, providing them with enough guilt to eventually reach the end of your book and tell you how wonderful it was. So why doesn’t anyone want to buy the thing? Here’s what I discovered over the past two years.
First off, your family probably doesn’t read the kind of stories you write. And if they do, you’ll be hard-pressed to get them to finish your story when we live in an age where time is scarce, and selecting what to read is like figuring out how to spend your vacation time. What I realized after struggling through the quagmires of traditional publishing and forcibly trying to gain an audience for my book through friends and family is this: You don’t have to do any of it.
That’s right. I found my readers not through my friends, family, and anyone I whose hands I could shove a print copy of my book into. I found my readers through my computer screen. It sounds like the biggest gimmick in the world, as if I’m pitching some service. But I’m not. I make a couple thousand dollars a month selling to people I don’t know. The trick is then, how?
More people buy e-books today than print books. There’s no getting around that fact. Couple that with the idea that all of the major retailers out there allow you to sell directly through their websites for free. That’s right. Most people still don’t know this in this digital age of broad reach. You can simply open an account and submit your books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo. In doing so, you’re also eliminating a middle-man: you don’t have to split a hefty cut with a publisher. Normally, using Amazon as an example, you’ll make 75% profit from every book you sell. If you price below $2.99, you’ll still earn 35%, which is better than your cut with a traditional publisher.
If you’re still not sold, consider this: If you manage to sign with a traditional publisher, not only will you get paid only a few times a year instead of every month (as happens with self-publishing), but you’ll have to pay the publisher back for money they didn’t recoup. This means you’ll owe them money for your book. Of course there are exceptional cases where a book outsells its advance, but in most cases, you’re doing a lot worse. And here’s the main reason why: Even if you do sign traditional, they’ll still want you to sell yourself, because they won’t do much marketing for you. That means you’re still on the hook to promote the heck out of your books.
Here’s how it worked for me.
Once I finally decided that self-publishing was the way to go, I immersed myself in an online community of self-publishers. A really good community of self-publishers. I absorbed everything and asked questions and read threads until the early hours of the morning. The topics cover everything from grammar, formatting, marketing, audience, plot concepts, cover design. You name it, I soaked it in. So what was the result? I actually saw the numbers on my self-publishing dashboards rolling up.
There are little milestones that will amaze you when you finally take the dive: Selling your first book to a stranger; selling your first one hundred books; your first thousand; getting your first e-mail from a customer who loves your book; getting an essay from someone who hates it; getting your first glowing review online; getting your first horrible review; getting messages from people who stayed up all night and ruined their work day because they read your book obsessively and even cried over it. All of this is possible for the average Joe. I should know, because I am one. I teach English full-time as a public school teacher in New Jersey. Writing isn’t something I’m able to do full-time, and I’m okay with that. The effort I’ve put into figuring out this self-publishing thing has paid off and allowed me a nice, sizeable side income. Luckily for you, I’m going to boil the last several years of knowledge into some basic points. The thing is, it’s 10 percent theory, and 90 percent action. I’m here to drop some of the theory and let you get on your way to enjoying an extra cup of coffee each month, courtesy of your coffee, all the way up to enjoying an extra vacation to Hawaii, which I just returned from.
The following is like a cheat sheet for everything you need to know to start making a side-income with self-publishing:
- Write the book. This one’s obvious, since without developing a consistent writing habit, you’ll always have that half-finished curiosity of latent potential taking up dead space on your hard drive. What I’ve found helpful is engaging with an online community for encouragement. I use KBoards Café. Also, I’ve found reading books about writing, such as On Writing by Stephen King, as highly motivational. The book won’t write itself, so that’s the first step. I’m assuming you already have that brilliant story idea in your head. Get on it without feeling like the future is cloudy—there’s a one hundred percent certainty your book will make some money if you do the steps that follow. It may be a few books a month, enough for a few extra trips to Starbucks. But things will build gradually if you’re motivated to get better at this, so honestly the sky’s the limit. Go into your writing knowing this, and then forget everything else and write. There are loads of resources out there on writing itself, it’s that the stage of the game you’re at. This includes, drafting, revision, and getting a manuscript that’s ultimately as polished as it can be.
- Get the cover. Sadly, this is as important as the book itself. I know we want to think there’s no way the cover should matter as much as our wonderful stories, but it’s true. The good news is, if you’re decent with Photoshop like me, you can make most of your own covers by purchasing stock photos. If not, premade covers are available all over the internet of good quality. How do you know if it’s good? Easy. Just look at what’s on the top 100 paid books list right now on Amazon. Is your cover comparable to one in the genre you’re writing in?
- Format your e-book. Again, if you’re like me, you’ll do this part yourself. You can also pay someone to do it. I use a program called Calibre to create my e-books. You’ll be taking your original file (mine are .docx files from Microsoft Word) and converting them into .epub and .mobi formats. Amazon takes .mobi, and the rest take .epub. The main thing is to make sure the book’s interior is clean and resembles other e-books out there that are selling well. This means a table of contents section that works. The last, and most important element some might say, is to create a backend—or front end—that contains links to your promotional stuff, which I’ll outline in a further bullet. This means links to your social media presence and ways to be notified of your next releases.
- Publish! This is the monumental step. You have the e-book and the cover. Of course you’ll need a catchy blurb, which I’ll recommend that you derive from something similar to your book in the same genre. I don’t mean plagiarize, but gather the essence of how a blurb is written. It’s again, sadly, about as important as the story itself. Once this is done, publish your book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo, and any others you might want to use. Some authors will advise you to use only Amazon, and it’s not bad advice since they are the biggest vendor by far, and offer perks such as their KU program and countdown sales to those who go exclusive for them. This decision is up to you.
- Promote. This is just as labor intensive as the writing in the beginning, but the steps I’m going to suggest definitely work. You just have to put time into them consistently. I don’t mean you put more time into promoting than writing. In fact, the rule is just the opposite, as I’ll offer in the final key to the puzzle of making income through selling your books. You should be writing more than promoting on any given day. Still, you have to do the following things: Make an author Facebook page. This is instrumental, and will act as one of your two main home bases. Get as many likes as you can from the people you know. Don’t spam posts. I suggest only posting when you have important information regarding your books, such as release dates or progress. When you have a strong base of fans here, you can post riskier stuff that may be less directly related to your writing. But at first, you’ll spam scare the fan. After creating your Facebook page, you’ll want to create an author website, desirably your own name followed by dot com. This will be where you post the occasional article about your stories, and anything related to your whole self-publishing journey. The rule here is, the more you post the better. As long as it’s interesting and not redundant and related somehow. Once you’ve done this, you’ll want to work on the non-home base stuff. In no particular order, you need to establish a presence on Goodreads, Twitter, and the online writing community of your choice. (As I mentioned, I love Kboards Café.) Once you’ve done all these things, you’ll find places to give away your book to get some initial reviews. This is very important. The initial reviews are what will allow you to market your book through the most effective e-book marketing services, most of which are e-mail based. In order to give away your book for free, run giveaways on Goodreads, LibraryThing, or any of the other sites out there that let you put your books into the hands of readers who want free books. Once you rake in some of those reviews, you’ll want to start submitting the major thrusters: Bookbub, Pixel of Ink, E-Reader News Today, and Kindle Books & Tips. There are tons of other sites out there for you to discover that will happily take a bit of coin from you to put out a send a link to your clean, polished e-book that has some solid reviews on it. In fact, the best place to learn about the places to market your e-book once the home bases are in place and the book is published is through participating in your online writing community. Ask questions. Respond to others. Form your presence in the world of self-publishing authors. And lastly, the perhaps most important tool you’ll have in marketing your book is in creating your mailing list. This is where readers will sign up to read more of your work. You can use Gmail for your first 500 customers, but I recommend using a site like Mailchimp to get your list going. Have a clear link everywhere so it isn’t hard for readers to stay with you. This most importantly includes inside the e-book itself. And remember this: Do not spam your mailing list. As with Facebook, send out messages judiciously, even less frequently. I advise you to only hit your mailing list when you release a book, especially at first.
- Keep Writing. This is easily the most important component for your success. It all comes full circle here—what you started with, which was finishing the book, must continue. This is where some people will opt out, wanting to only write that one best-seller and call it a life. If that’s you, the whole structure I’ve laid out won’t work. You have to keep writing. As soon as you hit publish, you start the next book. I don’t care what genre you’re writing in, or if you’re jumping around from genre to genre. (It’s advised to build a brand and start within one popular genre at first, and write only in that genre for the purpose of momentum.) The thing is, you must publish often, and you must write consistently to do that. It won’t be a problem if you love writing. One of the things I like to do to keep my writing and publishing regular is to publish in parts. Not every author advises this serial method, and maybe it’d be best to start off with a fully completed novel to build reader trust, but I absolutely love it. Ideally, I publish a new part to a novel every 3 weeks. Each part is about 20k words. Once the whole thing is done, and out there in parts, I publish the collective novel as a new book. Pricing is what makes this work—each part should be priced as cheaply as possible, the first being free if possible (there are methods out there to achieve this). Once you have the omnibus edition ready, price it anywhere from $2.99 to a dollar cheaper than what buying the collective book in parts would be. This makes the full book a deal. Just make sure that if you follow this serial model, you let readers know they’ll pay a bit more if they want to read as you go. Many will happily wait for the final release.
In the end, here’s what will happen. You’ll get your book out. You’ll start to soak in the knowledge of the burgeoning self-publishing community. You’ll sell a few books and be surprised that a stranger wanted your book. Then, you’ll get to work, writing in your spare time and marketing for a few minutes each day. It comes down to consistency and discipline, coupled with your desire to write good books. Of course I didn’t speak about quality. That should go without saying—if your books suck, no one will buy them, and if they do, they’ll receive horrible reviews. But the structure I’ve laid out cures this problem: because you’ll keep writing as soon as you get one book out, you’ll continuously improve on your writing. Read every review you get at first, and learn to have thick skin and objectively take what will help you improve and leave the rest. Looking at things this way can make it seem like a grind, and at times it may even feel this way, but the end result will be your supplemental income. I freaked out when I sold 10 books in a month, and I freaked out again when I sold over 6,000 a month ago. The feeling never goes away, as you crack each new milestone and barrier. It’s what makes you keep writing. You’ll have a passion for improving your craft, asking a lot of questions on your online forum, and getting better with each new release. Even if you bomb your first few stories, and haven’t hit your stride yet, in some worst-case scenario, you can take your progress and roll it into a pseudonym so your bad reviews don’t follow you. Sure, you’ll have to notify the readers who have stayed with you about your switch, but it’s very rare this will happen if you’ve put the time into properly polishing your story, cover, and blurb. Proper polishing on your story means you’ve edited and revised it as much as you are capable of doing, and then paying someone else to finish the editing and revision if you don’t think you’re up to the task. I prefer to edit and revise my own work, which I feel makes me grow a little faster as a writer—I’m more aware of my previous mistakes and they don’t leak out as easily when I’m writing that first draft.
I’m confident that if you follow the above system, and have even a bit of natural talent as a writer, you’ll be earning money and hearing from people who loved your story before long. I can’t say how much it will be, but I’ll say this: I was happy to make ten bucks from my writing. I am happy now making a little more than that. And I’m not going to be heartbroken if I don’t ever make the big bucks either. I’m happy enough to earn supplemental income with my writing. The beautiful thing is, your e-books never go anywhere. The more you write, publish, and repeat, the larger your digital footprint will be, and the bigger your back catalogue will be when you hook a new reader. A lot of readers will love your newest book and go buy all of your other work. It’s a win/win situation.
If you have any specific questions about any of the concepts mentioned here, be sure to e-mail me. You now have the keys. The more time you invest in learning more about each one, the sooner you’ll find your first milestone of success, one I’m positive you’ll shatter before you know it with one you’d never have thought possible.