Saturday, May 07, 2011

What Works: Promo for Ebooks

I get bombarded by email, mostly from people either thanking me or asking me for something, and I simply can't respond to everyone. If you've emailed me and not gotten a reply, it's because I need an assistant, not because I hate you.

That said, one reoccurring question seems to be: "I've got an ebook, now what can I do to make sure it sells a lot of copies?"

The bare-bones answer: There's nothing you can do to guarantee a lot of sales.

Sales involve luck. Luck is all about random chance, which can't be predicted or planned for. There is no magic bullet for generating big sales.

But... there are a few truisms I've discovered.

1. Sales Fluctuate. What is your best seller this month may drop off next month and may again be your bestseller two years from now. Ebooks are forever, and forever is a long time for a book to find its audience. Don't sweat it. Don't panic. This is like surfing. Waves may die, but new waves always come along.

2. Remember the Four. I've noticed the books that sell best seem to be professional looking (covers, formatting, editing), have low prices, good product descriptions, and are well-written. Don't put up anything less than terrific on all counts.

3. The More the Merrier. The more books you have for sale, and the more you keep adding to your virtual shelf-space, the better you'll do. Right now I have 40 ebooks available. That's a lot of ways to be discovered. And once discovered, it's a lot of titles to sell to fans.

4. Exploit All Platforms. Kindle is still King, but remember to upload your books to Createspace, B&N, Smashwords, and Overdrive (more on Overdrive in an upcoming blog post.)

5. Practice Makes Perfect. I'm currently reading a book that was recommended to me by my buddy Henry Perez, called Outliers: The Story of Success. It mentions the 10,000 Hour Rule. In short, no one becomes an expert at something without having invested 10,000 hours in it.

I found it interesting to apply this to my career. It took me twelve years to become published. While holding down a fulltime job, I still managed to write over a million words during that time--roughly 15 to 20 hours a week. Guess what? That's 10,000 hours.

Since being published in 2004, I've been writing fulltime. But the majority of my job has always been promoting my work, not the writing itself. It wasn't unusual (and still isn't) for me to work 60 hours a week.

Guess what? In order to reach the point where I understood the opportunities that ebooks presented, and was able to capitalize on that opportunity, I'd put in another 10,000 hours learning how the publishing industry worked.

So according to the 10,000 Hour Rule, I'm a dual outlier, in both writing and self-promotion.

In other words: if you aren't a raging ebooks success yet, keep at it. You may not have put in enough time yet.

Now what does this all mean to you?

While none of the above guarantee success, if you're doing them all you're maximizing your chances for success. But success STILL involves chance.

Chance. Luck. Randomness. We hate these things, because we want to be in control of our careers. We want to believe that working hard will make us winners.

That isn't necessarily true. But working hard can improve your odds at success.

Years ago, when I was more known for my self-promotion techniques than I was for ebooks, I used to always caution that the things I tried did not guarantee I'd become a bestseller. All they guaranteed was that I'd sell more books than if I hadn't done anything at all.

All promotion results are twofold. First, there are the tangible results of a marketing effort, which are usually calculated by immediate sales. But there is a secondary result that is tougher to gauge. Much of what we do to promote our work is intangible.

In other words, we may not know that what we're doing is working, until later. Sometimes years later.

My first novel, Whiskey Sour, is still selling strongly after 8 years. I attribute this to the massive amount of work I did in the past. I visited over 1200 bookstores. I signed tens of thousands of autographs. (Hell, I wrote the definitive article on how to do booksignings.) I traveled to 40 states, met countless librarians and fans and booksellers.

I began blogging in 2005. I gave away ebooks that same year. I was one of the first authors to use MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to promote my work. I did a mass mailing to 7000 libraries. I amassed a newsletter list of 10,000 names. I've gone to scores of conventions, conferences, and book fairs.

As a result, my books are all still in print, while many of my peers are out of print. (A cruel irony, since right now I'd pay big money for my books to go out of print so I could get the rights back.)

My efforts didn't turn my early books into bestsellers, even though I did more to promote them than just about any other author who ever lived.

But I did sell some books.

These days, I no longer do signings. I don't speak at libraries, or visit conventions. For years, I talked about having a one-on-one interaction with fans, and now I don't answer my email. I used to scramble to get interviews, now I turn them down.

In 2011, the game has changed, and so have the rules.

So what are the new rules?

Here are my thoughts. Again, none of these will guarantee huge sales. And none of them work all the time for all books. But doing these things will help to sell more books than doing nothing at all, and I've found them to be the best use of my time.

1. Use Your Fans. Blake Crouch and I have done well by sending free advance ebooks to fans we've got on our mailing lists, or found on Offering a freebie in exchange for an honest review seems to work well.

2. Social Network. Being active on Twitter and Facebook beats not being active. But remember it is about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell. No one likes ads, or being sold.

3. Change Your Price. I've become a fan of putting ebooks on sale. The more books you have available, the easier this is to do without hurting your pocketbook. Keep in mind that you may not see instant results.

4. Write More. The best advertisement for your writing is your writing. The larger your virtual shelf space, the more you'll be discovered.

5. Diversify and Experiment. I've had as many failures as successes. Though my ebooks Trapped and Origin continue to sell hundreds per day, I've got other ebook titles that only sell a hundred per month. I have no idea why some sell better than others, but I'm continuing to explore new genres and experiment with formats.

My worst selling novel on Kindle is Banana Hammock, a humorous Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type of interactive narrative. I think it's funny as hell, and perfectly suited for ereaders.

Oddly enough, it is one of my bestsellers on OverDrive for the library market. Go fig.

If your sales are in the gutter, switch genres. Get a pen name. Try something different. Play with the cover art and product description. Switch the category label. There is no surefire path to success, but if you want to hit a home run, you gotta swing at everything.

6. Use Your Peers. Do guest blogs. Trade back matter excerpts. Review each other. Buy each other. Support one another. We're all in the same boat, and we all need to row.

(My latest novel Flee is now available on Smashwords, Amazon, Nook, and the Apple iBookstore for just $2.99.)

7. Prioritize It. In my never-ending quest to get into Bartlett's Familar Quotations (there's a quote list at the end of this blog post) I've coined yet another axiom that I invite all to retweet:

"Don't prioritize the mundane."

By mundane I mean routine and ordinary.

If you want to have extraordinary sales, it means devoting an extraordinary amount of time to it. That means sacrificing other aspects of your life, like leisure, sleep, and family.

If you don't want to give up Netflix, or miss your kid's baseball game, or get out of bed at 4am, that's fine. It's your life, and you decide what is important.

But while you may win Dad of the Year, never have bags under your eyes, and be able to quote every episode of Seinfeld, you probably won't ever sell 1000 ebook a day, either.

I realize these rules aren't what writers want to hear. A writer would much rather be told, "Tweet your Kindle URL three times a day for three weeks, and you'll sell 15,000 copies." That just isn't how this works.

In fact, doing that could actually harm you. In that spirit, here are some things that I don't believe work.

1. Advertising. Joe's First Rule of Marketing is: Only do things that work on you.

I have never bought an ebook because I saw a Facebook ad, a Google ad, a print ad, or any kind of ad. Ditto postcards, bookmarks, or any sort of handout.

I've never heard of an ad campaign for a book that paid for itself.

I've never met any writer truly satisfied with the results of advertising, but have met many who aren't.

Those who wish to sell you ad space will tell you that ads are meant to announce releases or inform potential fans, and have intangible effects that reinforce brands.

That's fine. But I'm not paying $500, let alone $5000, for intangible effects. I get plenty of intangible effects on my own, for free. If I don't see an immediate sales bump, I'm unimpressed.

I feel the same way about publicists. I've met some terrific publicists who do exactly what they say they'll do: get you publicity. Radio interviews, newspaper and magazine coverage, and press releases are all well and good, but guess what? I've been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The LA Times, and many others. I've watch my sales while this happened, and didn't notice any appreciable uptick.

Odd, isn't it? Being on the front page of the LA Times, and not seeing a huge boost in sales?

How many publicists would be able to land you on the front page? How much would they charge?

Are you sure you want to pay for publicity?

You can see the effects for yourself. Tomorrow, I'm mentioned twice in a long ebook article in the Washington Post. Watch my Kindle rankings. See if they change dramatically.

Here's what I'd like to see with publicists and advertisers. I believe their purpose should be to sell books, not sell the writer their services. So offer to pay them a percentage of every sale that can be directly linked to their campaign.

I doubt you'll find any takers.

And let me state here that I don't doubt that ads and publicity have intangible, long-term benefits, and even some tangible short-term ones. I'm sure they do sell some books.

But in order for me to be behind them, I need to be shown they can sell enough to at least cover their own cost.

2. Appearances. I used to evangelize public appearances, and would speak at every opportunity I could. These appearances undeniably had value, both tangible and intangible. I sold books while there, and sold books after I'd left, for sure.

But I never sold enough to justify the cost of travel, or the time it took away from my writing.

These days, I get offered decent money to speak. But being flown to Texas, or Italy, is a minimum of three days lost to me. Even being paid $5k or more for an appearance, my hatred of travel, and the burnout I still feel from giving so many talks, panels, and lectures, does not make it worthwhile. So I quit cold turkey.

And my sales have increased.

Now it could be said that perhaps my sales would have increased even more had I kept up with appearances, but if you look at the biggest sellers in both print (King, Patterson, Rowling) and ebook (Hocking, Locke) you'll notice that they do very few public appearances.

I've eased up a bit on my moratorium. Amazon is bringing me to BEA (I'll be wearing a tee shirt will a bulls-eye on it) and OverDrive asked me to be the keynote at Digipalooza, which I agreed to because I'm pretty sure ebook lending at libraries is going to be the next big thing.

But in these cases, the main reason I'm going is to meet the people I'm working with, as face-to-face time at the bar is great for cementing relationships. Meeting fans is secondary, though I'll do my best to dazzle those I encounter.

The conference/library/bookfair/book touring circuit I've embraced in the past helped me sell a lot of books, though not in proportion to the time and money I spent traveling.

But until Autography becomes fully implemented and organizers begin catering to the ebook crowds, appearances have little value for self-pubbed authors.

3. Spam. Spam comes in all flavors these days. You can spam via email, via Twitter and Facebook, via Goodreads, Library Journal, Shelfari, via forums, via blog comments.

As mentioned earlier, no one likes being sold. Especially hard sells, repeated again and again and again.

It's a fine line to walk between blatantly tooting your own horn and informing those that want your message. So tread carefully.

Have a mailing list and make sure it is opt in/opt out. I use When you use Twitter or Facebook, make sure links to your books are vastly outnumbered by content. Content, as you know, is information and entertainment, not spam.

Building relationships online is about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell. This blog wouldn't be popular if it was about me trying to sell my shit. Surf through a few dozen of my past entries, and see how many are about me offering information, vs. me trying to sell my books. Even though people come here of their free will, I could easily lose readers if I began to spam my own blog with constant self-promotion.

Occasionally it's okay. But out of the 600+ blog posts I've written (over 500,000 words) I doubt there are more than 30 that are dedicated to me selling my ebooks. The rest are content, which is why people keep coming back.


I fully believe that the ultimate reason I'm selling so many ebooks is because I got lucky.

I was able to improve my odds by being a good writer, being prolific, being professional, and learning a lot about writing and promotion. But it still came down to luck.

Ultimately, there isn't anything we can do to guarantee success.

However, as I'm fond of saying, being "successful" isn't a good goal.

Goals should be within your control. "I want to hit the Top 100" or "I'm going to sell 10,000 ebooks by June" are not goals. Those are dreams.

Goals are "I'll have three books up on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords by September" or "I'll be active on Facebook and Twitter until I get 5000 friends each." Those are within your control, and worthy pursuits.

Everyone needs to stop worrying about things they have no control over, and focus instead on the things they can control. Write well. Be professional. Experiment. Learn from mistakes. Keep an open mind.

There are no longer any gatekeepers. But that doesn't mean being a writer has gotten easier.

You want the real secret for success? Work your ass off until you succeed, no matter how long it takes.

Konrath Motivational Quotes

There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.

Denial is a powerful opiate.

If you're selling eggs, don't piss off your chickens

Ebooks are forever, and forever is a long time.

When you're learning how to walk, you don't take classes. You don't read how-to books. You don't pay experts to help you, or do it for you. You just keep falling until you learn on your own.

Before you make the key, study the lock.

People would rather fight to the death to defend their beliefs than consider changing their minds.

It's about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell.

You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than becoming successful in this biz. But if you really want to get hit by lightning, you can improve your odds.

No one is entitled to anything.

What are the last ten books you bought, and what made you buy them? Use those techniques to sell your books to other people. Do what works on you.

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humility trumps ego.

Praise is like candy. We love it, but it isn't good for us. You can only improve by being told what's wrong.

Your book is your child. You can't recognize its shortcomings, any more than a proud parent can consider their child dumb and ugly.

The experts don't know everything, and they might not know what's right for you.

Fate is a future you didn't try hard enough to change.

Anyone looking for you can find you. Get them to find you when they're looking for something else.

Life gives you wonderful opportunities to conquer fears, learn skills, and master techniques. "I can't" shouldn't be synonymous with "I don't want to."

People seek out two things: information and entertainment. Offer them freely, and they'll come to you.

The Internet isn't temporary. What you post today can lead people to you decades from now.

Writing is a profession. Act professional.

No one said it would be fair, fun, or easy. But it can be worthwhile.

We're all in the same boat. Start rowing.

If you can quit, quit. If you can't quit, stop complaining--this is what you chose.

There are a lot of things that happen beyond your control. Your goals should be within your control.

Just because something is publishable doesn't mean it will get published. Just because something is published doesn't mean it will do well.

Write when you can. Finish what your start. Edit what you finish. Self-publish. Repeat.

The most successful people on the planet have one thing in common: nothing can stop them. Don't expect to reach your goals without sacrificing things that are important to you. You can't be both happy and ambitious.

Being your own best advocate is about understanding how people react to you.

Fake confidence, and real confidence follows.

Maybe you can't win. But you sure as hell can try.

Always have two hands reaching out. One, for your next goal. The other, to help people get to where you're at.

If you can't be smart or funny, be brief.

If you're not in love with the sound of your own voice, how can you expect anyone else to ever be?

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

There's a word for a self-published writer who never gives up... rich.