So you wrote a book.
Now you should celebrate. Enjoy the moment. I suggest craft beer. My go-to is barrel aged stouts, invented and perfected by Goose Island. But Prairie Artisan, The Bruery, Alesmith, Founders, Stone, Central Waters, Epic, Boulevard, Oskar Blues, and Avery also work well. More suggestions welcome in the comments.
Now, after celebrating, you are creating a marketing plan.
You're nervous, but you've been an avid student, devouring everything you can on how to sell books. And you've discovered a lot of chatter about a lot of things, including:
The catchall go-to for all authors. You have two Facebook pages, a personal one and a public one. You're on Twitter. You're on Instagram and Tumblr and Pinterest and Flickr and Reddit and 4chan and 8chan and Kboards and Goodreads and Blogger and you are constantly posting new and interesting content because you're smart enough to know that yelling "BUY MY BOOK!" doesn't sell anything.
Guess what? Posting new and interesting content doesn't sell anything either.
When was the last time you actually bought anything because someone liked it on Facebook? Or retweeted a product link?
Your social media isn't going to sell much for you. This blog gets millions of hits a year. You're one of them.
How many books of mine have you bought? Can you name any? What's the latest one?
Sure, maybe some of you have, and you'll comment that you have. But for every comment I get, there are thousands of hits from those who don't comment, and don't buy shit. I track my sales when I do a new blog post. The needle doesn't move.
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA
You're not going to sell a lot of books on social media. While social media does help inform fans that you have a new book out, or something priced cheap, it won't amount to many sales.
That's not to say you should ignore social media. But it isn't going to cover your car payment. Stop thinking it will.
There are a shitload of How To Become An Amazon Bestseller books for you to spend your time and money on, and you may think that reading them will give you some secret insider knowledge of how to sell a million ebooks.
Those books are full of shit.
First of all, check the book's Amazon ranking. Then check the other books that author wrote, and their rankings.
If they aren't in the Top 1000, their advice isn't working.
Second, if you know how to write a bestseller, why aren't you writing bestseller after bestseller? Why are you writing How-To books?
Makes no sense.
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT HOW-TO BOOKS
There is no book you can read that will help you improve your sales to a degree that was worth the time and money you wasted on it.
Feel free not to believe me. Feel free to tell me about the book that helped you sell a zillion copies. But beware: I'm gonna check your rank and post it and make you feel stupid.
Throw money at the problem, right? Nevermind that all advertisers acknowledge that success is sporadic, efforts require constant tweaking and diligence that could be better spent writing, and the only difference between advertising and gambling is that gambling has a better return on investment.
I mean ALL advertising. Can it work sometimes? Sure. Is it worth the risk, the time, the money, the emotional investment?
I say no.
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT ADVERTISING
You're doing well if you break even. And while you can crow about the intangibles of "finding a new fan who buys your whole backlist" the fact is that any serious attempt to explode your sales using ads will require you spending a LOT of time tweaking them, and a LOT of money buying them.
I've spent tens of thousands on advertising over the years. NOTHING is guaranteed. They all require a lot of thought and effort. And all the effort you spend on ads is less time you spend writing.
Why are books special snowflakes? Why not treat your book like any other commodity and sell it using a good old business plan? Do a SWOT analysis. Use Strategic Thinking. Identify your target audience and reach them using a combination of advertising, give-aways, contests, publicity, and identifying influencers that you can partner with.
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT MARKETING SCIENCE
You are someone's target audience. You are actively marketed to every day of your life; online, on TV, while you commute, listening to the radio, shopping, dining out, travelling, pretty much every waking hour.
How many books do you buy based on any of the above?
Answer: few to none. Which brings us to...
If you can get on NPR and get your book reviewed in People Magazine and get Jay-Z to retweet you and get a guest spot on Johnny Carson you can sell a lot of books.
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT PUBLICITY
If you manage to do any of the above--and you probably can't--but if you can, you WILL sell some books... in the short term. Once the publicity ends, your sales will go back down. Look at any viral sensation for confirmation. When was the last time you bought a PSY album?
Smaller publicity like local radio or podcasts or blog interviews really don't move the needle much, and they aren't worth pursuing. You don't need a publicist. You don't need a press release.
SO WTF? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO SELL BOOKS!?!
THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT LUCK
No one can predict what will sell. If they could, every book would be a hit.
Everyone can tell you why a book sold well after it has already sold well, pointing to various things that were done that they claim led to the book's success. They are full of shit.
NOTHING guarantees success.
Not past success.
Not a big advertising budget.
Not a big marketing budget.
Not social media.
Not any sort of plan that you read anywhere.
You can write the Best Book Ever, do Everything right, spend a Fortune, and not even come close to making any sort of money.
SO HOW DO I IMPROVE MY LUCK?
That's the question, isn't it?
I've driven myself half-insane trying to figure out how to sell ebooks. And I've sold a lot. But, like many, my sales have slowed down over the years. I used to make $800k a year. Now I make less than half of that.
Well, the reason I broke out and made major money was due to pure luck. Amazon created the Kindle and allowed authors to self-pub with DTP (now KDP). I was uniquely suited to exploit this new type of media because I had ten shelf novels that publishers had rejected, and I now had the opportunity to self-publish them while undercutting traditional publishers on price. Then, as ebooks grew in popularity, I got my backlist back and was able to leverage a whole lot of cheap books into a whole lot of money.
I still make a lot of money. But when Amazon introduced Kindle Unlimited, my income cut in half, and has never recovered.
Luck again. Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away.
I have gotten some decent publicity in my time. It never moved the needle on sales.
I've had a very popular blog. It never moved the needle on sales.
I've experimented. A lot. I've done interactive ebooks (Banana Hammock and Stop A Murder), I tried Kindle Worlds (now defunct), I've had three pen names, I've combined some of those pen names so I had a consistent brand, I tried starting two ebook businesses, I've done book tours, I've done blog tours, I've traveled to 42 states, I've collaborated with over a dozen authors, I've tried many different genres (thriller, sci-fi, erotica, mystery, horror), I've done short stories and novellas, I've edited an anthology, I've done audiobooks, I've advertised, I've had some big publishers, and I've won a few awards. Plus, I think I write pretty good books.
And all that really counted was Amazon inventing the Kindle, and me luckily being perfectly suited to exploit that new opportunity.
It came down to luck.
And now I have a giant backlist, and Amazon is so well run it continues to recommend my books to readers, and I still make a great living.
It is possible to improve your luck and sell a bit more than random chance.
While I've poo-pooed all of the above strategies, they aren't all entirely bad. None are a magic bullet. None will guarantee sales. But if used cautiously, in moderation, you can give your sales an occasional boost.
Here are the things you need to do, in order of importance.
WRITE A LOT OF BOOKS
The bigger your backlist, the better. And if the books are quality (great writing, great covers, great descriptions) then that will help. Pricing also helps. I have found that I make more money going exclusive with Kindle Unlimited than I do going with with other publishers. I've found that the best price point is between $2.99 and $5.99, depending on length and age (newer is more expensive).
HAVE A NEWSLETTER
You may no longer need a webpage as an author. More important is having a Facebook page and a Wikipedia page. But you should be allowing people to sign up for your newsletter. And you should be sending out one newsletter a month.
What should you put in your newsletter?
ANNOUNCE SALES, NEW RELEASES, and PRE-ORDERS
You should have a social media presence, at the very least Facebook and Twitter. And you should engage people with enlightened conversation and content on these platforms. But every once and a while, mention when you have a book that is on sale, free, available for pre-order, or recently published.
The people who follow you want to know that. So tell them on social media, and with your newsletter.
ADVERTISING IN MODERATION
Why is it the authors who claim to make a killing by advertising their books are the ones selling books about how to advertise?
You should certainly experiment with AMS, boosting Facebook posts and Tweets, Google Adwords, Ebook Booster, BookBub, and any others that are out there. But here's the caveat; before you use any ads, look at other writer's ads and then check the sales rank of their books using those ads that you want to try. If GuaranteedEbookBestseller.com offers you a one-time only deal of advertising on their site for $99, check to see what books they are promoting, and check their ranks. That'll tell you how well that service works.
My career has been all over the place, and I've tried so many new and different things. I've learned from my many failures, and if I had to do it all over, I'd tell my younger self:
"One brand, one genre, stop experimenting, stop being a perfectionist, and just write five good books a year in the same series. Make sure they are professionally edited and formatted, have great covers and descriptions, keep length under 75k words, and make sure they have updated, clickable bibliographies in the back matter, pre-order pages for the next release, and newsletter sign-up forms."
That's it. That's the sum total of my years of knowledge and experience.
Doing that, along with a minimal social media presence and some moderate advertising, and maybe you can attain a following and make six figures a year.
Maybe. It still comes down to luck.
Stop worrying. This is all out of your control.
Stop trying to find the answer. There is no answer. No answer, no logic, no reason, not even any scientific cause and effect.
It's all luck.
So focus on the writing. It's the only thing you have true control over.
Keep writing good books until you get lucky.
That's your marketing plan.