For all the work I've spent, and time and money invested, it's kinda funny that when you quit banging your head against walls, it also quits hurting.
I started self-publishing in 2006. My first books on Lulu say that this was 2007. And that was in their own early years.
Fast forward 15 years.
Email programs have continued to improve, and Gumroad has become a major player as a truly independent digital publishing platform.
We also have Draft2Digital and their entry into Print-on-Demand publishing in addition to becoming an leading aggregator of ebook distributors.
Walls I Kept Bumping Into
Fortunately, my background is in research and loop-hole finding. But I still needed to wade through a tremendous amount of PR-fluff and outright scams that claimed their "next-best-thing-to-sliced bread" was the answer.
Conventional wisdom is at least "90% crud" as SF writer Ted Sturgeon is famous for quipping.
And the pure bunk out there are the worst walls to hit up against - because you put them there yourself by believing their hype.
Amazon built itself by first shipping hardcopy books and then getting into enabling writers to self-publish. And then grew their huge market share to bully everyone else into submitting to their methods of doing business. But other ebook and print book distributors had (and still have) different ideas. Fortunately, authors can still make at least 50% more publishing everywhere else in addition to Amazon - and keep more of their royalties meanwhile.
Most of the advice books out there are on how to succeed on Amazon. Yet the proven marketing actions of the traditional publishers are more effective and still in place everywhere outside of that U. S. behemoth. Meaning that your book on Amazon has to be treated "differently" than everywhere else to get any sort of "results" - or so they say. For instance, there are usually around 200 additional links on any given book sales page. The reader has to click on "read more" to see the actual blurb you wrote for it other than the first couple of short paragraphs. And if you don't pay for ads on your own book pages, then someone else's book will show up more prominent on that very page.
Authors are spending 20-25% or more of their royalty income back into Amazon for ads in order to get their own books sold. And this data came from a panel of six-figure authors.
This just scratches the surface of that particular blocking wall.
Promotion Through Unnecessary Channels - for no result
I was sold on blogging long ago. And it's always been a problem to get your content to rank well on search engines. Because to get found, you had to be within the top 5 or 10 spots on search engines. The SEO rules have changed, but not much.
Of course, like Amazon, Google adjusts its rankings by how much ads you buy with them. An internal tax.
Meanwhile, Google and the other Big Tech companies only sell books as a sideline. People don't go on search engines to buy books, they go there to find answers to their problems. Sure, if your non-fiction book fits, then they'll recommend it (and get their affiliate payment). People go to Apple for phones and computers. Only Kobo sells only ebooks, and Barnes & Noble sells those in addition to their print versions. Amazon sells anything and everything. And to advertise on Facebook or other "social" media is less effective - because people are just being too darned social there.
But it's been just a few years ago where BookBub came on the scene and developed their newsletter system only for the avid readers who were constantly running out of books to read. They run ads, and these are perfect for reaching people who are actively looking for authors with big backlists. These newsletter-type mailing lists cost less to buy ads on, and have a bigger payoff. Especially if you don't particularly target Amazon where all these also-rans compete for targeting their particular category of readers.
Podcasting and Video
I was also sold on podcasts. Which also don't sell books. You get an ad in front and back, maybe in the middle. And the people who listen to these things have to remember to type your ad link just to into their browser.
Right. They don't. Unless they have a podcast app that gives them a link that opens a browser...
Meanwhile, you're cranking out recordings when you should be writing.
Video is the same scene. You're having to crank out videos all the time. And that means, again, you're not writing.
There's a lot of people who make income off of podcasts and video. Usually, this is where they get paid for other people's ads they insert. Again, this isn't books sold. And the time/money investment for those media is huge.
At the end of 15 years, I had what?
A lot of books published, and an extensive backend that wasn't selling much of anything.
Now, the disclaimer, is that I hate ads. They always come in at the wrong time, and interrupt you with something you don't want or need. Sure, I run ad-blockers and ignore the sites that tell me to turn them off. Because - again, they are making money off running ads, not on producing incredible content that people come back to read over and over.
I don't figure that I should treat people like I don't want to be treated.
Amazon, Facebook, Google - all have lousy user interfaces. Because of the ads they run. Why do you think people run ad-blockers? Because they want to find the information or entertainment without interruptions.
Secondary to that, they don't want their personal information ripped off.
Books are safe that way. Even ebooks - because there might be small ads from the author or publisher in the back, maybe an opt-in form at the front, but otherwise you get to read straight through.
You can't do that on YouTube any more. Tons of unwanted ads.
But How Do You Sell Books?
Conventional wisdom says you run ads.
The real bottom line is that you get your books in front of people who want to read books.
The other advice is to get a big list.
And how do you do that? Again, the advice is to run ads. Get free opt-ins and turn those subscribers into buyers. Some "experts" say you should spend at least 50% of your time marketing your books. Instead of writing.
The other approach is to build a huge email list of people who can go out and buy your book on pre-release and later, so that it will stay high in Amazon's list for a little while longer. (Not to worry, you have another book coming out next month and you can do it all over again...)
Easier said than done. People who come onto your list for a free book, or several, get a lot of books that way. So they have too many in their line-up to read already. Why would they want to buy anything?
Then your list is filled up with people who don't buy anything no matter what you say.
Meanwhile, you're paying to send emails to them. And taking time out to do your blogging. And your podcasts are running. Then your backend says you can't put videos on their site without some extra payments every month - or just go pay for hosting somewhere else. But that backend isn't covering your bills. You're burning through your time and money with nothing to show for it.
The other poor/shoddy/horrible advice it to put your books exclusively on one distributor's platform.
You're just cutting your potential income. And if that one distributor ever cuts you loose for some imagined "violation" of their constantly changing terms of service, then you have to start over from scratch. A few years ago, authors on Kindle Unlimited saw their income drop by half - and this was across the boards. To Amazon - authors, books, and customers are all commodities that are tracked on spreadsheets. Profit Margin.
All these walls I ran into.
And then I wised up. It took awhile. 15 years.
What the Author Needs, and Needs to Do
Of course, we're leaving out being able to write a "damn good book" as so many call it. You have to learn craft, and that is only done by lots and lots of writing.
But the other work you need to do is to get your business ducks lined up.
There are three things you need as a bottom line:
An active list of readers you've built relationships with. Ones that open emails and click on links.
A backend that sells books.
Affordable promotions you can get in front of people who buy books, lots of books.
The best (and slow) way to get readers onto your list is to get your books out there with an opt-in in the back. This works, because they bought your book to get to that opt-in in the back. Again, they bought something first.
Your backend should also be giving you emails of people who buy something.
When people buy, and are happy about what they bought, they'll want to buy again. People who look for giveaways don't value those books - they keep looking for more giveaways.
So you get a backend where you can sell your books directly - and give you those email addresses.
And you put your ads on newsletters where people want to get recommended books for them to buy.
Those three steps are the simplest and direct routes to controlling your own book sales.
For the most part, you can ignore advice from the six-seven-eight-figure authors out there. Sure, you can churn out disposable books and push them on Amazon to people who just want their next "fix". And wait for the carpal tunnel syndrome to catch up with you. Meanwhile, it's write or starve (or both).
Outside of Amazon, readers want quality books that they are willing to wait for. But it's not one novel every month. It's more like two or three really great novels a year. Traditional publishers have known this since books came out in print. And is why those publishers are so ridiculously picky about who they sign.
Your Action Steps
Your have to regularly prune your list of people who aren't opening, and aren't clicking on links. Like - weekly. And be happy when people unsubscribe. Sure, you wish they didn't, but you don't have something they are looking for. Eventually, you'll get down to a list where you have 50-60-70% opens and 20-30-40% clicks. And then you have your true fans. A direct line to them.
And you treat them with respect. Give them some one to root for, who helps them find what they are looking for. You're someone who is on a journey and is willing to share what you're going through with them.
Sure, you also make it possible to support your work by giving them more books to buy, as well as subscriptions. Because they will pay for the good stuff. It's not writing them "hit-over-the-head" sales pitches all the time. Your email newsletter isn't a constant Buy My Stuff.
I've got a good email service provider in Mailerlite. And I'm streamlining down to just Gumroad to sell my books directly (although I also send my books everywhere possible with an aggregator, Draft2Digital.) Now, the reason I use an aggregator is that they only get paid when my books sell. And their work saves me a lot of time in formatting and getting books onto the main distributors. I can just concentrate on writing the best books I can, each one better than the last one. Draft2Digital also allows me to create printed books on demand, and provides access to Findaway for audiobooks.
My Gumroad work is ramping up. This is where I'll put my free "reader magnet" books for delivery. And where I'll set up a paid (yes, they pay me) Advance Reader Club. Because I've done the free route and the freebie-seekers don't buy. People who have some skin in the game (oar in the water, dog in the fight) are going to expect something back. It's also going to give me a paid Insider Club, where I can give them valuable books monthly for the monetary exchange they give me monthly. And I can talk to them about the books coming up, survey them.
For non-fiction books, this is also where I can put my courses built out of that same content. Anything digital (and even physical, if I wanted) can be sold there. It's built for sales, not just sitting there as a money-vacuum - a drain on your royalties.
No, I don't run ads - yet. When I do start this up, I'll start woith Bookbub ads and then move out into the other reader-newsletters. Because my long research has shown this is the most ethical ad spend, the least expensive, plus you reach the people who really appreciate a "damn good book".
Over to You
Don't take this at face value. Test everything for yourself, especially if I said it. Yes, there are lots of six-figure authors out there. And many of these will sell you their courses about "how they did it".
I've collected and dissected and discarded hundreds of their approaches. Even recommended them - until I found out they didn't work. Those sequences might have worked for them, but there's the devil in the details - and you don't ever see all the details that actually led to their success.
The model here is "Content Inc." by Joe Pulizzi. And he's only recently started writing fiction, after he turned around and sold his content business for 8-figures. He lays most of this out, but just not for writers.
Writing is content production. The business runs on natural principles that can be uncovered, tested, and proved. Tweak these for yourself to your own operation. Anyone can have anything they decide as success.
It's not what other people or most people think it is. Ignore conventional wisdom. As the saying goes, "90% of the time you'll be right."
Meanwhile, focus on your writing and improving your craft. That's what readers really want.
Watch this as a short video...