The following is edited from PMs I’d exchanged with a first-time fiction writer. Much of this probably isn’t new for anyone regularly reading my blog, but it may provide others with some fresh insights.
Here’s the backstory: Earlier this week, I’d read a friend’s wife’s historical novel. She’d published it in Kindle herself. I was impressed by her writing skills.
As we swapped messages, she asked if I write outlines for my books.
1. Use the Hemingway Editor on the first five or so pages, to make the “look inside” easier (meaning: simpler phrasing) to read.
After readers have read more of your book, and they’re used to your writing “voice,” readability and sentence lengths are less important.
However, for marketing, your text needs to be super-simple for readers to get into. Even on the Amazon sales page, you want readers to be caught up in the story from the very start.
I have the Hemingway Editor on my desktop, but you can use it, free, at the website. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ <— Just highlight their sample text, remove it, and paste in part of your opening. (The software was originally called the “Hemingway App,” and a lot of long-time writers — including me — still call it that.)
2. [She had published using her real name.] Add a co-author name — one you make up — that will be your future pen name, and republish your book.
So, at Amazon (etc.), the authors (two names on the cover) will be your real name, with a second, co-author name you choose, as well.
(I like to find interesting names in my family tree, from the era I’m writing in, and select one as my pen name. Sometimes, book sales will improve with a pen name that’s related to the genre or time period you’re writing about.)
That way, people who know you (in real life) can find this book, but your fans will start following your pen name… and you keep most of your privacy.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting up boundaries, early, to protect your privacy and your family’s. Trust me on this. Please. Fans can be a little overzealous. Sometimes in scary ways.
3. Add a subtitle, saying what the book is about. Tell people the time period, and what the genre is. For example, I’m working on Regency romances right now, so my titles (with subtitles) will be something like “The Dangerous Duke – A Regency Romance.”
4. If you can, hire someone to design a professional-looking book cover. The right book cover will pay for itself, quickly.
You can hire her at the lowest price and get something pretty good, but I give her about $35 and she creates something amazing for me. In addition, I can use the cover on my Kindle (etc.) books, as well as my printed (CreateSpace) books.
And, any graphics she uses… you can be certain they’re legal to use. (I can’t say that about all Fiverr cover designers.)
Those are the basics, as far as I’m concerned. You can follow-up with more professional marketing, including help from Fiverr book marketer, bknights, and some well-targeted Facebook ads.
A good book deserves the best marketing you can give it. Of course, your marketing efforts shouldn’t compromise your time (or budget) for actually producing books.
Nevertheless, if you’re publishing books at all, they should be good books and have enough marketing to be discovered by hungry readers in your sub-genre.
Would you like to offer ARCs (Advance Reader Copies, or Advance Review Copies) to people who will post honest book reviews at Amazon and other booksellers’ sites?
In this article, I’ll share my insights and top resources.
However, I apologize in advance. I’m writing this article, stream-of-consciousness style, because I’m radically revising my priorities and schedule… but I want you to have this information, quickly. So, I may ramble and this may include typos.
Let’s start with Amazon itself.
Contact people who review at Amazon
Sure, everyone talks about searching Amazon for reviewers (in your category) who have contact info on their profiles.
The standard advice is to limit your search to reviewers ranked in the top 1000 (or so) reviewers, and send them a form letter offering a free digital copy of your book in return for an honest review.
As an Amazon reviewer often ranked closed to #1,000 at Amazon, I can tell you what happens:
I receive cookie-cutter form letters — usually with at least one typo — offering me a free book in return for an honest review.
In most cases, that author read just one of my reviews, and hasn’t a clue what the real scope of my interests is. (They also hint — heavily — that they’d like a five-star review or none at all. Clearly, they haven’t noticed that I usually post four-star reviews, unless a book or product is exceptionally good.)
And, in most cases, I delete that email. I accept less than 1% of the requests I receive.
Flip side of that coin: in a book marketing webinar I attended this week, Bryan Cohen suggested that, even with a well-written letter to prospective reviewers at Amazon, authors should expect about a 10% response. (If you want three reviews, send out 30 requests.)
So, the “contact Amazon reviewers” practice can work, but be sure you’re contacting the best possible reviewers for your books, and your emails are personal and compelling.
Alternate ways to find reviewers, at Amazon and elsewhere
Authors can use online resources — not at Amazon — to get books into the hands of Amazon reviewers.
A few people have been selling expensive reports that describe this tactic. Please don’t waste your money. You can find this information online, free.
The basic concept is:
You give people free copies of your books.
They talk about your book at their (popular) websites.
Or they write a review (usually at Amazon.com).
A good review at a website (blog) can be even more useful than an Amazon review.
Why give books to bloggers?
If a review website (blog) is especially popular, you can quote it in an “editorial reviews” blurb on your book sales page.
Here are some guidelines Amazon provides at Author Central, as of April 2016:
Reviews should consist of transcribed text from reputable sources. The name of the source should be credited after the quotation. For example, “A fantastic read.” –The New York Times
Quotes from outside reviews should follow “fair use” copyright guidelines and be limited to 1-2 sentences.
We recommend you limit your Reviews to 3000 characters. Customers may miss out critical information if your reviews are too long.
With permission from the reviewer, you can also use an excerpt of the review on your book cover.
This can be especially convincing as “social proof,” particularly if your printed books are sold through brick-and-mortar bookstores, or if you sell your books from a table or book in a store, at a conference, or even at a flea market.
Even if just to get more buzz, I think it’s a good idea to offer review copies to book bloggers, as well as authors in your field who’ll provide useful (but honest) cover blurbs.
Why give books for Amazon (etc.) book reviews?
Traditional publishers still send out free review copies, expecting reviews at Amazon (etc.), but they know how to do this.
Many indies have made career-damaging mistakes trying to achieve the same goal.
The problem: If you rush things, those great, honest reviews could backfire, badly. Amazon shoppers are becoming wary of reviews that could be shills.
That product description has many spelling and punctuation errors, plus a nightmarish level of keyword stuffing.
(“Keyword stuffing” is finding any excuse to add myriad words & phrases that people might search for, at Amazon, hoping to land that product or book in the search results.)
Most reviews for that product are five-stars, from a time between late July and early September, and include a line about receiving a discounted or free product in exchange for the review.
Everything on that sales page looks so shady, I’d never buy the product.
My advice for beginners…? If you’re going to offer review copies to your fans, or through a service, keep the numbers low and try to space them over more than a few weeks. (It’s ideal to see them peppered throughout a larger collection of non-ARC reviews.)
Do I need to say this? Only honest, unpaid Amazon reviews
Read and closely watch Amazon’s Terms of Service, to understand the differences between a “paid review” and the very normal publishing tactic of sending out review copies (also called “ARCs“).
In 2015, Amazon brought a halt to any kind of payment (for reviews) when they said, “We don’t allow anyone to write customer reviews as a form of promotion and if we find evidence that a customer was paid for a review, we’ll remove it.” [Emphasis added.]
In addition, I’ve seen a few authors recommend “giveaways.” In those, the reviewer not only receives a free copy of the book, he or she is also entered in a drawing for a prize, if the person posts an honest review at Amazon.
The prizes may be cash, a Kindle reader, or something else of value.
I may be too cautious, but as I understand Amazon’s rules, offering anything of value — even an entry in a contest — is considered a “paid” review.
So, I wouldn’t do that.
Follow traditional models
Instead, follow the practice widely used by traditional publishers: Send out free, review copies to selected, eager readers — on a precise schedule — as well as to publications like your local newspaper, topic-related magazines (e.g., Romantic Times), and so on.
When you send review copies to magazines, particularly print magazines, it’s smart to send them all at once, as early as possible. Due to editorial & printing schedules, those reviews may appear over a period of months… but there’s nothing wrong with them all showing up at the same time. These kinds of reviews are considered “social proof.”
Where to start
As an indie author, you have several choices:
Build a “street team” to review your books, sometimes by giving each person a free copy of your latest book, even before it’s available to the public.
Find will-blog-for-books bloggers, on your own. (You can search at Google for them, post at forums they frequent, etc.)
Use a paid service to offer your books to their professional bloggers/reviewers. (The reviewers aren’t paid. They simple receive a free book with a request for an honest review.)
The best choice is to get your own readers to be part of your “street team” or “advanced readers team.”
You’ll give them free books to your fans while asking them for an honest review. (Your phrasing must be clear: The book is free. You’re not giving them the book with an expectation of a favorable review.)
However, if you don’t have a mailing list yet, or you’re uneasy asking your readers for reviews, you can find reviewers at free and commercial websites.
But first, that Amazon-ish warning, in more detail
In addition to avoiding anything that looks like payment for a review, remain current about the phrasing your readers (of free books) should use in their reviews. And then, be sure your reviewers know the exact phrases they must include.
Not sure what’s okay and what could put your indie publishing business at risk? Call or email Amazon’s support team. Really. They’re very nice people and their information will be better and more current than anything I can tell you.
And — as always — check others’ reviews and insights about any service that charges a fee. I haven’t personally used any paid services to get reviews — aside from hiring a few bloggers (not Amazon reviewers) at Fiverr.
Tip: If you’re hiring a book blogger at Fiverr, be sure to tell them not to review your book at Amazon. Some of them — meaning well — add a “bonus” review at Amazon.
I always say, “Please do not review this book at Amazon, only at your blog.”
Professional resources for reviews
Interested in professionally-managed review resources?
Here are a few — info & distribution sites — to get you started: BookLook Bloggers – NetGalley Both of those seem to be widely recommended.
I have less information about Online Book Club, which doesn’t look as polished. (If you’ve used them, successfully, be sure to let me know.)
Recently, I’ve attended several webinars about book marketing. Most of them were snooze-worthy, repeating things I’d heard before.
I’m not always sure where this kind of information originates, but when I do know, I tell you about it.
Meanwhile, by the time it’s diluted four or five times — in the Internet Marketing version of “post office” — it’s lost a lot of its impact… as well as some key points for success.
For those with deep pockets, I know that Nick Stephenson’s book marketing training is superb.
Much of what I hear & see, online, is a watered-down version of what he recommends. And, sadly, those watered-down versions often omit key points Nick (and no one else) shared, but authors really need to know.
Don’t despair. If your favorite price tag says “free” on it, you’re in luck. Nick also provides free training, Your First 10k Readers. (I’ve raved about it, before, and still do.)
Follow his advice before investing in any “budget priced” book marketing courses. Nick’s course may be all you need to catapult your book sales into a far higher range.
One topic repeated in several webinars is the use of emotions — words and images — in book marketing.
Here are some of my notes.
Use power words in book descriptions, landing pages, etc.
For the best words to use, I’ve heard phrases like “emotionally charged” and “semantically charged” words.
Make your book descriptions richer with words that match the tone of your book… amplified, slightly.
However, a too-gushy sales page will send readers running in the other direction.
My simplest advice: Add two or three obviously powerful words in your first sentence (or in the first 20-or-so words, if you’re not writing lengthy sentences). But that’s a generalization; your results may vary.
If you’re still blinking and wondering just how to use words like those — when, where, and how many — I recommend Bill Platt’s Hypnotic Book Descriptions.
In that report (selling for around $21, at the time I wrote this), Bill goes into excruciating detail about what works and why.
Much of his 51-page report is loaded (maybe overloaded) with the kinds of stories and phrases to use in your book descriptions, sales letters, and emails to readers.
And, he includes a 33-page bonus of already researched and categorized word lists related to specific emotions you might want to generate in your potential book buyer. For me, that was a real time-saver.
The main report…? I’m condensing his important points — and his (very useful) book description templates — to about two pages, to keep as a reference in my marketing notebook.
However, that’s my reaction. I’ve been involved in marketing since forever, so a lot of what Bill said wasn’t news for me. I just needed his report’s nudge to get me to use what I know. That nudge was worth the money.
At the moment, adding emotionally charged words to your marketing seems to be a very hot topic. The free resources I’ve linked to should get you started.
If you need more insights, Bill’s information is very good.
Other than that…? So far, after watching far too many book marketing webinars, I can’t recommend anything new in the $17 – $297 price range. (And, to me, it looks like a lot of people who used to sell $37 reports and courses have marked them — and new, similar training products — up to $197 and higher, without adding more value.)
First of all: In the next few days (today, Friday, or Monday), I’ll move this website to new hosting. While the site is in-transit, if you visit eibhlin.com/writing, you’ll see a blank page or error message… and the next day, it will be back.
It’s stat day for me. I check my numbers every Thursday, based on the previous (Thurs > Wed) week.
That means I can sit down and analyze the numbers on Friday, see what I’d changed and what may still need some tweaks, and plan my upcoming week. (It’s probably a hyper-organized Virgo thing.)
So, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow morning: Analyze my numbers, in depth.
But, one thing leaps off my income graphs today: A very nice surge in my KDP sales. In fact, my KDP sales income increased 50%.
Sure, my numbers always increase slightly in the second week of most months.
Here’s why: People pay their rents on the first of the month, and tighten their belts a little during the week (or so) that follows. So, my per-title sales often slump, slightly.
And then, the next week (second week of the month)… people go back to buying books.
This week’s surge in KDP numbers was far more than the usual uptick.Since we were moving — something that’s taken up much of my past two or three weeks — I didn’t complete new books, or change book covers or descriptions.
And since I’m not doing any real marketing until I’m deeper into Nick Stephenson’s course, I can’t say anything changed in my marketing; there was none.
I did change two (and a half) things, on about half of my books in KDP:
1) I adjusted my prices so they’re at — or more in line with — the prices recommended by the beta KDP Pricing Support software. (That’s on the pricing page for your book, at your KDP dashboard.)
For me, that usually means increasing my prices. I often start with a low price (and an eye-catching cover) that’s almost irresistible, to get some buzz going.
2) I went through my keywords and removed any words that were already in the title of the book. Then, I reached a little further into names of related sub-genres and themes, and added those words.
When in doubt, go through your reviews — and reviews of competing books — and look for words that stand out.
3) The half-change was to restore every book I’d retired when it came out as part of a box set. And, I increased the related boxed set price so it matched (or was close to) the price recommended by KDP Pricing Support.
(Until then, I’d figured the individual books weren’t really selling any more, so I took them out of circulation. And, it appears that bargain-pricing my boxed sets wasn’t a red-hot idea.)
I’m not sure if that helps anyone… but there it is. I may find additional reasons for my KDP sales surge, when I analyze the numbers more closely. However, I’m about 99% sure those two-and-a-half changes are what led to this week’s 50% increase in KDP income.
The Diffusion of Innovations concept has been a beacon for many of us who are innovators or seize ideas early.
We not only don’t understand the mind of those at the opposite end of the bell curve… in some cases, we don’t speak their language, at all. That can impact our success as writers, as well as our marketing efforts.
While I don’t have time to go into all the nuances of that, I want to share a few things that are on my mind, this morning.
First off all, here’s the Diffusion of Innovations process, courtesy of Wikipedia (links will take you to Wikipedia references):
Innovators are the first individuals to adopt an innovation. Innovators are willing to take risks, youngest in age, have the highest social class, have great financial liquidity, are very social and have closest contact to scientific sources and interaction with other innovators. Risk tolerance has them adopting technologies which may ultimately fail. Financial resources help absorb these failures. (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 282)
This is the second fastest category of individuals who adopt an innovation. These individuals have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the other adopter categories. Early adopters are typically younger in age, have a higher social status, have more financial lucidity, advanced education, and are more socially forward than late adopters. More discrete in adoption choices than innovators. Realize judicious choice of adoption will help them maintain central communication position (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 283).
Individuals in this category adopt an innovation after a varying degree of time. This time of adoption is significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. Early Majority tend to be slower in the adoption process, have above average social status, contact with early adopters, and seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 283)
Individuals in this category will adopt an innovation after the average member of the society. These individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. Late Majority are typically skeptical about an innovation, have below average social status, very little financial lucidity, in contact with others in late majority and early majority, very little opinion leadership.
Individuals in this category are the last to adopt an innovation. Unlike some of the previous categories, individuals in this category show little to no opinion leadership. These individuals typically have an aversion to change-agents and tend to be advanced in age. Laggards typically tend to be focused on “traditions”, likely to have lowest social status, lowest financial fluidity, be oldest of all other adopters, in contact with only family and close friends.
Here’s the traditional graph:
A few people discover the trend (and your book), then more people do, then a lot of people do… and then things taper off, sooner or later. From Model T cars to go-go boots to mullet hairstyles, history is littered with products and trends that peaked and then faded.
Flash-in-the-pan (aka “viral nonfiction”) books are likely to follow that blue bell curve. It may last weeks or months, but — in most cases — that’s the very best you can expect from those books.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO NICHE AUTHORS
Here’s my modified graph that can explain audience interest, especially if you’re planning to remain in a niche for a long time:
I’ve added two lines, one red and one green.
The red line indicates the evergreen audience. They’ve probably been in your niche since forever. Their numbers were pretty small, until a trend (fad, TV series, celebrity attention) made the subject popular.
The evergreen audience — people who will remain interested, whether the niche is popular or not — will grow slowly. New people will discover the topic due to its sudden popularity and exposure (or despite it) . Some of that evergreen audience will lose interest in the topic, either because they’re bored or because they’re unhappy with the fad-followers who temporarily dominate the field. Others will replace them. That’s normal, in any niche.
But, when the fad is over, you’ll still sell books to the evergreen audience. And, with some luck, that audience will continue to grow at a stable pace.
However, if you expect to continue to sell books at the same pace as you did when the topic was at its peak… that’s unlikely. (Not impossible… just unlikely.)
The gap in sales is indicated by the green line (peak sales level) and the arrow pointing to where your sales are likely to be when the fad concludes.
If you’re in a niche for the “flash-in-the-pan” sales, the blue line (bell curve) is what to expect, depending on when you enter the niche, and whether the book can sustain interest after the fad is over.
If you’re in a niche for the long haul, the red line is the one to focus on. You’ll still have a bell curve of sales, but at some point — especially if you don’t keep up with the fad and maintain appeal to the trend-following audience — your book sales will drop to the red line.
There’s nothing wrong with an evergreen book that sells reliably, month after month and year after year. That’s the bread-and-butter of most authors. It’s what pays the mortgage and puts food on the table while we’re researching and writing other books… or just taking some time off.
SALES AND EFFORT
If you’re coming into the niche early into its popularity, you’ll need almost no effort to sell your books, as long as you’re presenting genuinely new, fresh, interesting material, well written.
But, if you have any illusions of sustaining sales once they reach their peak — without considerably more effort — you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
And, if you continue marketing your older book the same way as you did when you first published it… ditto. With each phase of the diffusion curve, your marketing must change.
Early Adopters buy (and read) a book because it’s new and sounds interesting. Maybe another Early Adopter mentioned it, or maybe they stumbled onto it at the bookstore (virtual or brick-and-mortar)… but they didn’t find the book because “everyone’s talking about it.” (The “everyone talking about it” is what sells to the Late Majority. And, for Laggards, it has to be talked about — not necessarily favorably — by people they consider their peers.)
Students of diffusion have noted that it is usually the wealthier people in a village,the most prosperous doctor, the upper middle class school district, etc., that adopt innovations first. — Dr. Peter J. Richerson, Diffusion of Innovations (emphasis added)
Those are the people in your target audience, if you’re presenting new ideas or you’re an early adopter of a trend, and you want to catch that wave of popularity.
For continued sales, you need to thinkahead to the Late Majority and Laggards. Your marketing has to find them, through many social layers. It helps if they can identify with you (or your book’s hero) — as Everyman — as well.
Example: Einstein was considered “just an egghead” until the media popularized him with the sticking-out-your-tongue photo.
Social marketing isn’t just about the initial splash. It’s something you’ll need to grow, steadily — and never let up — if you want to continue selling briskly (or as briskly as possible) to the Late Majority and Laggards.
Decide early. Lay the foundation of your social campaign and — as Stephen Covey says — begin with the end in mind.
Otherwise, it’s a daunting task that will tyrannize your time and — unless you outsource the work — prevent you from writing your next best-seller.
But, at a certain point, you’ll need to trust that your book is good enough that it’s going to sell to your evergreen audience — who may enter at any phase of the Diffusions curve, relative to when they become interested and why — and forget the Laggard audience. That ship has sailed.
That doesn’t mean you won’t sell books. It depends on where the red line is, when the trend is over. (My graph is just a suggestion of a normal-ish evergreen audience.)
WHEN EVERGREEN IS ‘GOOD ENOUGH’
Your book might remain a popular classic.
Here’s the poster child for authors: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, in the UK, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).
How long has it been since you saw an ad for that book? Even the movie is practically an “oldie.” Adults and children don’t buy the book because it’s new and innovative… they have other reasons, largely supported by social proof.
Here’s how that book ranks at Amazon in April 2013, more than ten years after its release:
Look at that. Over 7,000 reviews.
Seriously, does anyone buy that book based on individual Amazon reviews, now…? Probably not. And, keep in mind, practically every public library in America owns multiple copies of the Harry Potter series. It’s not like anyone has to buy a copy now, to read it.
My point is: If you’re researching niches to see what’s trending or popular, aiming for quick sales, expect that blue bell curve.
And, as a side note: You may want to consider why people keep adding reviews. As I’m writing this, six people have left new reviews in the past 24 hours. What makes the Harry Potter books so magnetic, people still want to feel as if they’re part of the dialogue? Emulate that with your books.
If you’re writing books for the evergreen audience represented by the red line in my graph, enjoy the peak sales if and when the topic becomes a popular trend. But, at least 80% of your efforts (marketing, additional books, and merchandising) should focus on your evergreen fans.
Caveat: Make sure your evergreen audience is worth your full focus. Were other authors successful in that niche, before it started trending? (Anne Rice did just fine, long before Twilight.) If only ten people buy your $2.99 Kindle book each month, that’s not going to help your budget very much. Either write more books or find more ways to earn income in that niche… or expand into a related niche… or choose another niche altogether.
If that niche has always sustained writers, be satisfied with your core audience… the fans who will remain once the trend has come and gone. They’ll continue to go to Star Trekand The Prisoner conventions. They’ll never stop analyzing the hidden meaning in 1984. They’ll always save Saturday nights for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even Blake’s 7 and Space: 1999 have enduring audiences.
In marketing terms, your evergreen followers an entirely different audience than those who grab onto a trend and follow it until the next shiny fad comes along.
And, like the return of Doctor Who, you never know when the evergreen fan following will launch a fresh trend, due to enduring popularity. (Remember, the root of the word “fan” is “fanatic.”)
Choose your business model for the book you’re working on now. Never forget that the red line and the blue line are very different. Market accordingly.
Then, move on to your next book, whether it’s for that same audience or a different one.