Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
The journey to writing and launching that first book is one of the most challenging things anyone can do in their professional career. You’re constantly out of your comfort zone, having to learn a myriad of new things, and must wear every hat in the business realm. It’s no wonder that as many as 80 percent of the books that hit the market fail to sell even 100 copies.
So how can a first-time author get into that 20 percent that sell? Based on my 20 years of experience in product development and marketing, and having run the gauntlet of self-publishing, I believe the following three tactics to be critical to success for a debut author.
Publish a Quality Book
This may sound like very basic advice—and it is—but it’s amazing how many self-published authors fail to understand the concept. The word “quality” is a very broad term. For a book, it can mean the caliber of the writing, the number of typos, the use of evocative vocabulary, the cover, or even the layout and fonts. The general perception is that self-published books are typically lower quality than their traditionally published counterparts, as they seemingly don’t go through the same editorial processes, proofreading and production. And in many cases, that’s true.
But it’s also true that many self-published authors put the time and effort in to deliver a top-quality product that rivals the best a publishing house can put on the market. The problem is that public perception can trump even the best product. All it takes is one typo to reinforce the perception of poor quality, and a reader may put a book down rather than risk suffering through more of the same.
Quality comes with a price, however: editors and proofreaders are expensive. Still, for a new author, it’s well worth paying. The developmental editor I engaged for my book, Casimir Bridge, ripped my original manuscript to shreds, forcing me into a year-long, cover-to-cover rewrite. While it was an extreme exercise to undertake, it took my novel from, as she put it, “an amateur manuscript to a professional quality draft.” It was the best thing I could have done for my book.
Proofreading is also critical, as typos are a common complaint against self-published books—they reinforce that perception of lack of quality. I proofed my manuscript at least a dozen times, had family members with publishing backgrounds do so another five, and there were still so many typos that I decided to engage a professional—twice! Even still, some made it through into the published version. It’s not that typos don’t make their way into traditionally published books—trust me, they do—it’s that readers expect to see them in self-published works and tend to treat them more derisively.
Covers Sell Books
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but most people in fact do. I recently conducted a survey in which I asked people to look at three book covers, and if that was all they had to go by, which they would choose to purchase. One of the covers was from a professionally published book and was brilliantly done. The second was decent—not great, not bad. The third was bad, and I mean really bad. For consistency, all covers had the same name.
For the second question, I added reviews to each, reversing the ratings against the quality of the cover, giving 3.5 stars to the excellent cover, 4 to the middle cover and 4.5 to the bad cover.
Lastly, I added the number of reviews to each, in addition to the rating. The excellent cover 3.5-star book had very few reviews. The middle cover 4-star book had a moderate amount, and the bad cover 4.5-star book had a lot. Take a look at the results:
As you’d expect, judging a book strictly by its cover meant that the best cover won—nearly three quarters of the people said they’d purchase the awesome cover just based on the visual. When ratings come into play, again, as you’d expect, the higher rated books made up some ground. But still, more than half of the people chose the better cover over the two with better ratings. Then you add in the number of reviews, and the bad cover makes up a lot of ground. But even with a low 3.5-star rating, and very low 12 reviews, the book with the best cover still wins over the 4.5-star book with more than 400 reviews: 41.5 percent to 34.1 percent!
If that doesn’t prove that a good cover is critical, I don’t know what does. Spend the time and money on a very strong cover, it will be well worth the cost.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
Tastes Great, Less Filling. Remember that marketing campaign for Lite Beer? Not to offend anyone who likes Lite Beer, but it doesn’t taste great. The less filling part works for me, primarily because I would never finish one. Yet the marketing campaign was hailed as one of the best of all time, and rightly so. It took a marginal product and made it sell.
The world is littered with failed products, not because they are poorly conceived, but rather because they weren’t marketed effectively. This is especially true of books. Many self-published authors think that they can drop a book on Amazon, get a few sales, word of mouth will take over, and the rest will take care of itself. That almost never happens—the best-written book can languish in obscurity if no one knows it exists.
One of my favorite book series is The Origin Mystery by A.G. Riddle. I use Riddle as an example quite a bit because he tends to do things right. His series has sold more than a million copies and garnered nearly 20,0000 reviews on Amazon. Yet I still see paid advertising for his books—he understands the need for effective marketing, and his books have been successes because of it.
Also, think about giving books away as a marketing ploy. It might seem counterintuitive to authors after they’ve spent so much time and effort to write and publish their novels, but there is a big sea of readers out there, and giving away some books is the equivalent of dropping chum in the water. It might feed a few fish, but it will draw in many more. Look at the graph below depicting my Kindle Unlimited sales before and after I did a very successful, four-day free promotion.
Don’t be afraid to spend on marketing, even if initially what it costs to market is more than you get from sales. Most products that hit the market lose money until they generate enough awareness that organic sales push them into profitability. So set a marketing budget and use it effectively. Poor quality products will sell thanks to great marketing. Great products will fail due to poor quality marketing.
No one ever said self-publishing was easy, but you can be successful by taking some common-sense steps. And if you focus on the important things, you will be well ahead of the game.
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