Anyone can self-publish a book. It takes a few hours of research, some formatting, click upload, and away you go. Easy, right? Sure, if that’s all you want. But to succeed at self-publishing (and for the purposes of this article, let’s assume by succeed I mean have your book earn a profit), you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone.
A single book uploaded to Amazon, with no marketing, no market preparation, no plan, will soon start to sink beneath the 12 million* books currently published on the store. This is where the self-published author must set aside their creative side and become a designer, a salesperson, and a marketeer. In short, to succeed, you must become a small business owner.
Before you hit publish, think about the market you want to reach; your target market. Who are your readers? 18-30 year-old women, 18-50 year-old men? What else do they read? What genre does your book fit into? When you know your readers, take a look at the bestsellers in your genre (you can do this by drilling down to the number one spots on Amazon’s paid charts). What are they getting right? Examine the covers, blurbs, prices. And here’s the trick; don’t assume that because you love your cover, your readers will. Is your blurb punchy enough? How does your price compare? Don’t get hung up on what you think is great, i.e. 'well my work is a masterpiece and is clearly worth $9.99 as an ebook, especially with my home made arty cover'. Look at the market, the bestsellers, and imagine your book among them. Genres have expectations. Appeal to those expectations, don’t go against the grain or you risk confusing your readers. This process requires you to detach yourself from your own work, and look at it objectively.
Being able to study your market and package your book correctly is half the challenge, and not every writer can do this (hence traditional publishers have teams dedicated to marketing). The other half of the challenge is writing a good book!
Once you’ve packaged your book correctly, the next thing you need to consider is how to turn a profit. Unless you’re a break-out success (which is something you can’t plan for, but does happen to the lucky few), one novel is notoriously difficult to eek a profit from. After you’ve paid for editing, cover design, and formatting, you might find yourself wondering if you’ll ever earn enough to be in the green. But don’t worry, there’s a solution. Write more. Wash, rinse, repeat. Amazon’s friendly Hot New Release algorithms will be relatively kind to your book for up to 90 days. After that, you’re on your own. If you can, try and write a related piece of work, another novel, a spin-off, whatever you can do, and get it released inside that 90 day window. This keeps you and your author brand visible. But, it’s not easy to write in such a short timescale. If you can’t, then don’t fret about your novel’s placement in the Amazon store. Don’t keep checking your sales numbers every single hour. This won’t help you sell books. Writing the next book will.
If you can do those four things, you can build a brand, a following, and with each new release you’ll find it gets easier.
But the hard work doesn’t end there. You didn’t think you could publish and forget, did you? Once you have more than one book out, you need to look at promotion (and no, that’s not shouting 'buy my book!', on Twitter—don’t do that.) You need to get visible, and stay visible, or Amazon will gobble your books down into the depths of the store.
You’re going to need to speculate to accumulate, just like any small-business owner. You need to invest in keeping your work buoyant by using tried and tested methods such as 99c promotions, or Amazon’s free days. If you’re in Select, you have a limited amount of free days to exploit. Use them. Don’t hoard them. Visibility is key. But just setting your book to free for five days, and expecting Amazon to do the leg work generally isn’t enough. Pay various subscription lists such as Freebooksy** to distribute your fantastic limited time offer. Remember, you want to get visible, and if that means giving your work away free, then bite that bullet and swallow it down. In business terms, this is what’s called a loss leader. New business owners don’t sit back and wait for customers to appear. They advertise. You need to do the same.
The publishing market changes yearly, sometimes monthly, and what works today may not work next month. Keep an eye on books that are similar to yours. Research your fellow authors. Get involved in forums. Keep learning and keep writing. Success is unlikely to land in your lap without hard work.
Welcome to self-publishing, where you’re a writer and a small-business owner. Now make your book work for you!
*Taken from current Amazon ranking figures
**Suggested lists to target, depending on genre
***Due to the fluctuating nature of self-publishing, I can only impart advice on what’s worked for me, using that information together with information from similar authors in various genres. I cannot guarantee your success! But I can help you find your feet in an ever-changing, challenging, but deeply rewarding business.
Pippa DaCosta is a hybrid author. Before securing a traditional publisher, she published the Veil Series (a x5 book urban fantasy series) independently in 2013. She’s also published two science fiction books. Pippa is published by Bloomsbury & Random House Germany. Her work has been featured in the Galaxy Chronicles anthology. Pippa continues to self publish and traditionally publish. Pippa is represented by Hannah Sheppard at DHH Literary Agency.