How You Can Become A Self-Publishing Rockstar

    Would You Like to Become a Self-Publishing Rockstar?

    Are you confused by self-publishing?

    I used to be, but not any more.

    Johnny and I both wrote for our own websites, and for blogs like Write to Done, for years before self-publishing 1.5 million words of fiction in 2013.

    Many authors (and marketers) say there’s never been a better time to be a writer, the gatekeepers are gone, it’s a gold rush etc. Some of this is true, but it’s surprising how much misinformation there is.

    Yes, things are better for writers than they used to be … but without a plan in place, they’re also arguably worse. It’s easier to be discovered, but because anyone can now publish, there’s too much noise in the way of that new-found discoverability.

    Here are some truths that will help you become a self-publishing rockstar.

    TRUTH #1: You are responsible for your success.

    Everything from pricing to customer loyalty to promotion is a tool in a willing writer’s hands: you are responsible for your own success.

    That’s both good news and bad news.

    If you’re not selling well in the U.K., maybe it’s because you haven’t promoted your book enough in the U.K. Or because you should manually adjust your U.K. price, rather than basing it on the U.S. dollar. (Although US$4.99 converts to £3.08 as of this writing, £2.99 is a better price psychologically and might lead to significantly greater sales despite the lost nine pence.) Your flagging U.K. sales could be due to anything. It’s your job to figure it out.

    If you’re an independent publisher, you will have many tasks, and will need to find a balance between doing everything yourself, and delegating or outsourcing work.

    More tasks mean more control, but they also mean – well – more tasks. So you must decide which you’d rather have: control (which, for people like us, means the ability to make things happen when and how we want them to), or a simpler work day.

    TRUTH #2: Focus on strategies, not tactics.

    In early 2012, KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) had a deal where authors could agree to 90 days of Amazon exclusivity in exchange for five days of free promotion. For a while, this was like a switch we could turn on to drive sales, making our books free, then generating revenue during the post-free bump. But Amazon changed its algorithms and this feature became nearly useless for many authors.

    An additional severe limitation on how the biggest book blogs could promote free e-books triggered widespread panic in the indie community. Authors reliant on free downloads later translating into paid sales ran around in circles screaming that the sky was falling.

    To make things worse, Amazon was also changing its website to hide the Top 100 Free lists so that free books became less visible to casual browsers.

    At the time, we were publishing a book each week with our shiny new publishing company. Our standard M.O. was to make our books free for the first three days so our faithful readers could snap them up, leave reviews (giving us solid social proof for later buyers), and seed those books in the customers-who-bought-this-also-bought-this lists of as many shoppers as possible.

    It also meant something to rank well in the free lists; people who’d never heard of us would see the book at the top of a free list and download it. Abracadabra – brand-new readers!

    The removal of ‘free download’ as a promotional tool was awful, but not devastating because we were only using free giveaways as one of our tools. It was a tactic — a specific useful thing in place at the current moment.

    The underlying strategy (to get books into as many ideal readers’ hands as possible in a way that rewarded our faithful regulars and maximized reviews) was unaffected by the change. We simply abandoned the tactic of making the book free for the first few days and asked how else we could implement the same strategy.

    We asked ourselves: “How can we reward our regular readers, maximize reviews, and get those books into the right hands?”

    The answer became our next tactic: to price books at 99 cents for the first 3 days. Because our books are normally priced $2.99 and up, this was a good loyalty discount and had pretty much the same effect.

    Eventually, this worked even better than free promotion because only people willing to open their wallets bought the books. Free-seekers are different from even 99-cent purchasers, and it led to better reviews and better reader loyalty and engagement.

    You must have rock-solid strategies, and never stake your business on flash-in-the-pan strategies.

    TRUTH #3: There are more gatekeepers than ever!

    If ‘gatekeepers’ refers to people in positions of authority who have the power to keep your book out of print or e-ink, then there aren’t any gatekeepers in self-publishing. That’s awesome!

    But if ‘gatekeepers’ refers to people who have the power to dictate how well your book sells, whether you should write a sequel, and whether you get good reviews and good word-of-mouth promotion, then guess what? Such gatekeepers abound – they’re called readers.

    Some indies think that the ‘self’ in self-publishing makes them an island. They are in charge, and they can do whatever they want. If they want to put a flying shark on the cover of their historical romance, no one can stop them. If they want to ignore feedback, act rude, and price their short stories at $20, that’s up to them.

    While all this might be true, having an actual career (rather than a time-intensive hobby) requires actually pleasing readers.

    Self-publishing isn’t about writing and doing whatever you want; it’s about having a direct pipeline to the people consuming your work.

    When we talk about removing gatekeepers, we’re talking about eliminating the people who presume to tell you what your readers want without letting you find out for yourself.

    Author J.A. Konrath has a story about his book The List. Joe already had a traditional publisher, to whom he presented The List. They said readers wouldn’t want it. Joe thought he knew his readers better than they did, and felt certain they’d like it, so he self-published – and sales proved him right.

    Thats what we mean when we talk about getting rid of the gatekeepers.

    But don’t forget that there are still plenty of people keeping the gates. Please your readers — keep them engaged, respond to their needs, and effectively lead them from each book they finish to something else they might like — and you can build a fantastic indie career. Fail to do this, and you’ll find yourself locked out in the cold.

    TRUTH #4: Everything has changed – except for what’s important.

    Today, the power of the Internet lets us directly reach and connect with our readers, and we’re incredibly grateful to write at this time in history.

    Self-publishing authors are in the book-selling business … and business is business, no matter where you conduct it. They are still buyers and sellers, even if the seller isn’t a big bookstore, and the customer is shopping on Kobo.

    Price, packaging, presentation, intelligent upsell offers, and customer service still follow the same guidelines they always have. Whether it’s a traditionally published book or an e-book, a sale still tends to drive people to buy what they might not otherwise have bought, an overpriced product still won’t sell well, and an under-priced product will confuse customers and lead them to undervalue it.

    In 1950, readers read books. In 2013, readers read books. At both times, readers enjoyed well-crafted stories with compelling characters. If a good book ended on a cliffhanger, both sets of readers would want to know what happened next, and were (are) therefore more likely to read the sequel. Readers at both times would enjoy a chance to get to know their favorite authors, and engage with them, if they could. Readers across the years would feel appreciated if they got a shot at special deals or reduced pricing. All readers would rather buy a boxed set of 3 books than spend more by buying the 3 books individually.

    Whenever you hear about some change in the indie world (a new bookseller opens or a prominent social media vehicle closes down), don’t be reactionary and change your strategy. Instead:

    Ask yourself: Does this change how readers read or how business is done?

    Let your answer to this question guide you on whether or not you need to change your strategy.

    Self-publishing success is within your reach if you can take responsibility for your success, focus on strategies rather than tactics, and concentrate on pleasing and engaging with your readers. But most of all, you need to remove your author hat and put on your business hat, because as a self-publisher, you’re a business owner. And your business is selling books.

    Remember that in the end, what matters most is that an author writes great stories to satisfy their readers, and that a businessperson sells quality products to please their customers.

    Have you an indie publishing story of your own? Share your experience, suggestions and responses in the comments!

    About the author

      Sean Platt

      Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt published 1.5 million words through their company Realm & Sands, and built full-time self-publishing careers from scratch in 2013. In their comprehensive self-publishing guide Write. Publish. Repeat, they tell you everything you need to know about how to do the same. 

    • Alicia says:

      I love that you point out that self-publishing isn’t about the “self.”

    • LadyLagoon says:

      This is a very intresting article on self publishing.As a hopeful future writer myself(By the way,LadyLagoon is not my real name,just a pen name I want to use as a writer)It is very nice to have this info.

      Love this article!

    • Thank you. What you say makes perfect sense. But about the pricing, there seems to be a problem. Amazon prices my longer short stories of 5000 words too high. I price at $2.99 or $3.99 or sometimes even$1.99, but they can load the price up to as much as $5.99-7.99. I try to change this, but the changes do not always carry over to my books. Or if they do go to a lower price, they soon revert back to the higher price.
      So I would say that I am NOT in charge of my pricing.
      Is there anything I can do to stop this price fixing?

      • This doesn’t really make sense to me. Are your short stories filled with images, perchance? If you load files up and make them large (for instance, for the images in childrens’ books), then Amazon will increase the price to cover delivery charges. But that’s a HUGE increase, and I can’t think of a reason for it.

        For stand-alone short stories of that length, we routinely price them at 99 cents unless we want them permanently free, which we usually do. I’m wondering why your stories would be different. And if there’s no reason, I would definitely contact Amazon support and ask. You can price work at whatever you want. (I made a 4-book word bundle 99 cents for a special promotion recently, for instance.)

      • I have never seen Amazon change or raise a price of an ebook. They do with print copies, and only discount them. They are no allowed to do that. The author sets the ebook price. If the book is found at a lower price elsewhere, they will match that, which, BTW is an easy, excellent way to offer a book for free on Kindle for a long period of time. Just discount your book on Smashwords, click on the Amazon link saying you’ve seen the book cheaper and fill in the details, and they usually will match that price. I was able to give away tens of thousands of copies of one of my novels, which helped draw in a lot of sales on my other books and generate new fans of my writing.

    • Thanks for sharing that. Yes, the days of KDP Select bringing riches are over. But I went with a different strategy last month when releasing a new novel under an unknown pen name (to see if an author without any web presence could sell out the gate). It was mostly a genre experiment, and in short I took Mark Coker’s advice (Smashwords) and priced the book at $3,99, which implies quality, and from statistics shows to be the best selling price.

      What is interesting is that the book hit the top #247 paid in Amazon, #6 in historical romance, #6 in westerns, and #10 in historical novels (overall). All the other books in the top 20 in those lists were priced below 3,99, which does prove that cheaper-priced books will draw readers, and that will help get noticed on the genre lists, which is crucial. I do plan to discount the book for five days after Xmas, but I think it was intriguing to see I sold about 1,500 books in two weeks (and of course made a lot more money at the 70% royalty at 3,99 that I would have at the 30% of .99 cents).

      I’m curious to know if other authors have tried this. Perhaps I would have sold thousands more copies at a lower price, but by aiming at readers who were willing to pay 3.99, I got readers who love this genre and would read intently and write honest reviews. And so far the reviews have been terrific and supportive.

      • This is a great story. Can I ask how you released the book, if the pen name was unknown? Did you just put it on the market? One genre we haven’t dabbled in is romance, and I’m wondering if it was simply that it was a new release in the genre that made it take off. Because those numbers, without a push, have been very hard to see based on our experiences. So I want to know how you did it! 🙂

        • The book is COLORADO PROMISE by Charlene Whitman. RWA stats announced recently that 40% of all ebooks purchased are romance. My guess was that the genre basically sells due to supply and demand. All the authors I know of writing in that particular subgenre (historical western romance) claim every book they release hits the top of best seller lists and they make at least 3k a month. One unknown debut author (who I patterned my book after, using the same cover designer, etc. ) sold 80,000 copies and still doesn’t even have an author website.

          And yes, I just put it up on Amazon to see if it would sell. I had about 3 people do a feature on their blog (no time for a proper blog tour but I may do one later) and did ask a couple of established romance authors to read in advance and write an endorsement, one being a reviewer for Examiner, just so I could put some editorial reviews up as well. The key, of course, are the categories and keywords, as well as utilizing all the space on the page for excellent description and use of keywords.

          I plan to write and release an ebook soon (ha, when I have time!) “From Idea to Selling in Three Months” that will give a 30-day step-by-step on what to do to get a book up and selling right away. But frankly, I do believe genre is 80% of it. I have a dozen terrific novels in various genres with great reviews, some that have won awards, and they have never sold hardly at all, despite all my marketing efforts. The authors I personally know who sell big, sell in the popular genres.

          I see it with my editing clients all the time. Some write very good books, and the day they put them up on Amazon, they hit all the best-seller lists and sell very well. But these are specific genres like African American urban romance, YA romance (romance again~), paranormal, strict genre mystery or thriller.

          Hope this helps explain~

          • It does, and it’s amazing. Thanks so much… I had no idea certain genres could perform that well almost automatically! I guess we need to see if there are any stories we’d like to tell in any of those worlds…

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