Self-Publishing Success 4:
Marketing, how not to

How not to market your books:

Posted on January 4, 2013 by Jim

In the first installment in this series of blogs, I described my surprise when my 4th eBook, Child of the Sword, spontaneously sold almost 12,000 copies in 3½ months near the end of 2012, which raised a number of questions:

  1. What's the typical sales curve—books/day—and how will it end: by dropping off rapidly or trailing off slowly?
  2. Will I just sell a few hundred, or a few thousand, or tens of thousands of copies?
  3. What effect will it have on my other books?
  4. What does it take to get on the best-seller lists?
  5. Were my books priced right at $2.99, and what is correct pricing?
  6. What was so different about the 4th book that it sold so well and the first 3 didn't?
  7. What is considered success among self-published indie authors, a few hundred, a few thousand, etc.?
  8. What do I do to support the book as it's selling, and encourage additional sales?
  9. What did I do to sell all those books?

In the second and third installments I provided some data on 1-6. I don't provide answers. I don't really have any answers, just a lot of data and guesswork. I'm going to skip question 7 and save that for last. Now let's look at questions 8-9, which pertain to marketing. First let's look at question 9:

  1. What did I do to sell all those books?

I'm starting with 9 because I can answer it very clearly. Here's the answer:

I don't have the vaguest idea what I did, or even if I really did anything at all.

Marketing with social media:

As I mentioned in installment 3, John Locke is, for all intents and purposes, the king of $0.99 books. He set out to be exactly that, and has purportedly sold over 5,000,000 eBooks. There's no way of actually confirming that number, but it is clear he has sold a lot of eBooks. After selling a million eBooks, in mid 2011 he published How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months, in which he details his marketing strategy.

In early 2012 Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, published The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, a free eBook that "...reveals the best practices of the most commercially successful self-published ebook authors."

Both books describe an intensive use of social media—like Twitter, Facebook and a blog—to build a list of followers. The idea being that people who follow you will buy your books, especially when you announce the release of a new book. That's an oversimplification, but that's the general idea. And yet, I know of two other writers, both of whom have over 2,000 Twitter followers, and are not selling a lot of books.

I've learned from other writers that one downside to this strategy is that if you're really successful at it, you have to spend so much time tweeting, writing your blog, and posting on your Facebook page that there's little, or no, time left in the day to actually write. I don't have that problem, because I have been just plain terrible at the social media thing. I'm a real techie, a geek. I've been writing programming code for decades and speak, read and write several programming languages. So it's not that I'm technologically impaired, I'm just too busy writing. I have deadlines to meet, books to get out, and I don't have time for this other stuff. So I guess my strategy is just to keep writing and publishing.

There are, however, three things I do without fail:

  • If a reader is kind enough to write me an e-mail, I personally answer them.
  • And I keep a list of those e-mail addresses and send out a brief announcement when the next book is released, or about to be.
  • And I keep my web site up to date, with the latest information on the home page.

To date, my books have sold almost 18,000 copies all total in the last 4 months, including almost 13,000 copies of Child of the Sword. And here's a few interesting pieces of data:

  • 58 people have sent me an e-mail asking to be notified when the next book is released in the The Gods Within series. That's less than 1 address for every 200 books purchased.
  • Child has garnered a total of 60 reviews on its Amazon pages, US and UK combined. That's less than 1 review for every 200 books purchased.

We writers need to remember that most people don't want to send us an e-mail or write a review. And that brings us to reviews.

Getting reviews:

There's no question that getting good reviews on your book's Amazon page helps. But regarding Mr. Locke, there is some controversy surrounding his methods; according to a number of sources he apparently purchased reviews to help the sales of his books. But what is meant by "purchased review," and why does that scandalize and irritate so many people in the industry?

In this New York Times article , David Streitfeld reports that in the fall of 2010 Todd Jason Rutherford started a business writing reviews for money: 20 online reviews for $499, 50 for $999. It was so lucrative that he started outsourcing reviews to other writers. One reviewer reports that she had to "...produce 70 pieces of content a week..." to pay her bills. And of course, she couldn't actually read 70 books a week, so such reviews are generally regarded as bogus.

If you don't have a New York Times account, and the above link requires it, try Googleing "Todd Jason Rutherford" and look for "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy - The New York Times." That seems to be a back door into the article.

On the other hand, Kirkus Reviews charges an indie author $425 to review their book. That certainly is a purchased review. But Kirkus requires the reviewer to actually read the book, and Kirkus is known for being frequently quite brutal in their critique of an author's work. So their reviews are considered legitimate, and a good Kirkus review is apparently worth money in the bank.

January 4, 2003 update:
Child of the Sword just got an excellent review from Kirkus.

“A fine fantasy novel that will provide readers with a good weekend escape from reality.” — Kirkus Reviews

You can read the entire review at Child of the Sword Kirkus Review

Back to Mr. Locke. No one disputes that he did sell all those books. And apparently his readers don't care: he's still selling books and they're still enjoying what he writes. And while Mr. Rutherford was put out of business, there are rumors that he's coming back. And if that's true, I have to believe it's only because there are authors out there who are willing to purchase his services. So where do we draw the line? That's a question to which I don't know the answer.

For the record:

  • I am not advocating purchasing reviews.
  • I have never purchased a review of the kind Mr. Rutherford was selling.
  • I do not know Mr. Locke personally, and have never met or spoken with him,
  • but we do share the same publisher: Telemachus Press, LLC, a great outfit with a business model that leaves the writer in possession of all the rights to his blood, sweat and tears.

On a more humorous note, one must remember that if you write it, someone will hate it, no matter how good it is. Take a look at Jason Boog's post Major Bestsellers with More Than 150 One-Star Reviews. In it he points out several monumental best-sellers that garnered their share of really bad reviews. One example:

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (497 one-star reviews, to date)

Well that's it for this series of blog posts on my good luck (and I mean LUCK) self-publishing. I didn't attempt to answer question 7, and wouldn't know how to. So I'm going to leave that one open, and hopefully we'll hear from others on what they think constitutes success for self-published indie authors.