Marketing a Self-published Book

Testing recommended techniques

Original artwork by Darrel Bevan

In the past two years I have written and self-published thirteen books in three series (with two one-offs). They have generally been well received by those who have read them, so the content is fine.

They are all set in the same alternate history between 1857 and 1911, and they’re Science Fiction which technically makes them Steampunk. Not the easiest concept to sell especially when the actual subject matter runs from TV drama-style (the Frozen Beauty series) through YA action-adventure (the Iron Pegasus series), action-romance (Broken Vows), and the flagship Maliha Anderson series which are crime thrillers and definitely require a strong stomach.

It’s a truism in the self-publishing world that the best way to promote your books is to write the next one. Series are de riguer with the first book perma-free. But there are problems with that. I’ve written all those books and yet … the books bump along the bottom with very few sales except for those I create myself

What I haven’t done, beyond a few tentative tests, is any real marketing.

Is marketing really necessary?

That’s an important question and it begs a bigger question: What is self-publishing, really?

A self-publisher, if they are serious about their work, is an independent publisher. They must carry out all the same functions of any publishing company from sourcing the original manuscript (i.e. you have to write something), through editing, cover design, book and ebook layout, packaging, distributing and marketing.

No single person can do all this by themselves. Okay, there may be one or two publishing polymaths in the world, and I admit to being envious of those people who can write and do good cover designs. I’m not one of them. I do however have 20 years experience in magazine publishing (as writer and editor), so I’m not completely clueless about the whole production process.

Most people will outsource editing, cover design, layout (though it’s not that hard given the available tools), distribution (Amazon, Kobo, et al) but not marketing. You could outsource marketing but personally I wouldn’t trust anyone who demanded a chunk of money on the promise of marketing.

As an aside, the dubious world of vanity publishing has invaded self-publishing It’s all too easy for naive authors desperate for success to get conned into paying out thousands to so-called “self-publishing companies” to do nothing that couldn’t be achieved with less than $1000.

So is marketing really necessary?

Let’s assume for a second that my books are of reasonable quality (trying to sell books that are no good is not going to work), such that people who read them quite like them. Well, this has generally been found to be the case, so we can assume the books are okay. But new people don’t buy them. Why?

Potential readers don’t know the books exist.

You can build the most awesome mousetrap in the world but people won’t be beating a path to your door unless they know it exists.

And that’s the job of marketing.

In the self-publishing world we call it Discoverability. This is why “writing the next book” is considered important. The more books you have out there the more “discoverable” you are.

Frankly thirteen (soon to be fifteen) books is in excess of what’s considered a good number for discoverability. Yet still, my books are undiscovered. They need help.

Hence the decision to spend some money and follow the guidelines laid down by those who have already walked this road. I am not going to pretend that I thought any of this up on my own. I stole all the ideas from the likes of Mark Dawson, Nick Stephenson, Lindsay Buroker, Michael Coorlim, Eduardo Suastegui and many more I have forgotten the names of.

The Plan

To carry out this plan you need the first book of a series on free. It can either be permafree if you have all your books on multiple platforms. Or if you just go through Amazon then you have the promotion options, such as “Five days of free” and “Countdowns”.

I’m just on Amazon for now. (I have had titles on the other platforms but got even fewer sales than Amazon, so have withdrawn them for the time being.)

Just making your book free will do nothing, you have to promote it when it’s free using the newsletters and mailings that support free and budget books.

The two biggest are BookBub (BB)and Ereader News Today (ENT). BB is notoriously hard to get into because they are very picky, but the best results are usually gained from it. ENT is less huge and less expensive but is easier to get into.

Stage 0: The books

This was an experiment for me so I decided to go with my YA action-adventure Iron Pegasus series, which has only three books.

The first thing I did was go through each book and make sure they were totally clean in terms of editing and format. Many newsletters demand a minimum number of reviews and ratings level, my first book did not have it, so I got some friends to do honest reviews.

(It’s important they’re honest. I actually have a “good” review on the UK site which is fake. I know the guy who wrote it did not read the book, and it really annoys me. I hate it and wish he’d never put it there.)

What’s also important is that I added links to the next book at the end of each story “What to read next”. Just to keep the momentum going. No choices just “This is the next book click/touch here to get it.”

At the end of the third Iron Pegasus book I linked through to the first of the Frozen Beauty books. More about that later.

Stage 1: Booking the days

I applied to ENT and got the date Wed 24th November. So I immediately booked my five days free with Amazon, with ENT as the penultimate day.

Amazon has interesting algorithms for placing books on its Best Seller ranks, nobody knows the exact details except Amazon of course, but as far as we can tell books that rise fast in the ranks will also fall fast. Slow risers will stay up longer.

So when you book your individual newsletter promotions it makes sense to start with the smallest and work your way up to the biggest in order to get a steady increase during the promotion period.

Now I went for ENT on the fourth day with another of the larger lists on the fifth day. There was method in my madness: I assumed there would be a whole bunch of people who would not read their ENT newsletter until the following day. I wanted the book to be free then as well.

Stage 1b: Countdown to book 2

It was important that I pull people through to the second book in the series because then they might also buy book 3. To that end I made book 2 $0.99 (99p in the UK) using the Amazon Countdown promotion.

The idea of the Countdown is that you can start a book at a low price and then have it increase in price in increments. However if you have just one increment you can effectively change the price for up to 7 days.

So I did. I started the Book 2 Countdown on the same day as the Book 1 free but kept it going for the full 7 days. My logic? Book 1 is not a long read, someone could easily read it in a day and if they wanted Book 2 they’d be more likely to buy it if it was on offer.

Stage 1c: Facebook advertising

People will tell you that FB advertising is useless. It isn’t, if you have the right product and target it correctly. Targeting is critical. Shotgun advertising is worse than useless, it’s expensive.

I admit I’m not great at writing advertising copy but I did my best, and the beautiful artwork I have for Harriet Edgbaston (by the artist Darrel Bevan) is a guaranteed draw.

I also knew that the money I spent here would not have a visible return. I was promoting a free book.

The targeting I went for was people who read, who have also expressed an interest in Steampunk (about 2.1 million people). However I limited the expenditure to $150 over the five days. It’s easy to let these things run away from you.

In addition I kept the advert distribution to a person’s standard desktop newsfeed (not mobile or any other distribution point) because the power of the graphic would be lost in any other format.

According to the various advices I’d read I mentioned that book 2 was on offer, and also that the book was free to read on Kindle Unlimited. (The advantage being that if they chose to use KU, I’d still get paid.)

Last minute things

The day before I changed the text of the first book’s blurb on Amazon to mention that the second book is on offer. This was to try to get some sales of book 2 (and at least make some income).

I built a bunch of links so I could track which social media links were working and having an effect. My biggest social media presence is G+ (and Twitter is the smallest) which is reflected in the results.

Costs and things to remember

Total outlay was somewhere in the region of $250. If I had had a BookBub promotion it would have been considerably more.

Putting out the first book for free is an investment in the future. There is a percentage of people who will never read the book even though they download it. Some will hate it or, at best, be unimpressed so never read the next. What I want are the people who do read it and do like it enough to read the next one, and the next one, until they’ve consumed all thirteen (or fifteen, or however many).

And I can’t measure it.

Day by Day results

Okay, so what we’ll do now is look at what actual results occurred. There are graphs further down if you don’t want to wade through this.

21st Nov

Promotion by social media (G+:32, Twitter:2, FB:19, Direct:6)
In fact there might have been a newsletter promotion on this day but if there was it had almost no effect. I believe I added myself to the AMC mail out. But maybe I didn’t. Or maybe it didn’t happen because it was free.

I got huge support from my author buddies on G+ and FB in the form of shares of the promotion. It was very helpful.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 149
Book 2: 3
Book 3: 1

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Free Steampunk) US#5, UK#10
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#118, UK#490
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#254, UK#263

22nd Nov

Promotion by Reading Deals
The first proper promotion. Almost didn’t happen because they linked to the paperback page and sent an email saying they wouldn’t include it because the price was $8.99 and not $0.00. Managed to sort it out, but there was a short panic.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 618
Book 2: 9
Book 3: 3

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Free Steampunk) US#1, UK#4
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#132, UK#71
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#465, UK#312

You might wonder why, with sales of Book 3 happening it’s still going down. Other books were selling better, probably. The UK market was barely impacted by the promotion.

23rd Nov

Promotion with Freebooksy
This is one of the bigger promotion sites and Book 1 was the first book in the list. Right there at the top. The results were good but the lack of any sales in Book 3 or increase in Book 2 sales was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps Freebooksy subscribers are only interested in free books.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 1021
Book 2: 9
Book 3: 0

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Free Steampunk) US#1, UK#5 (Science Fiction US#9)
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#47, UK#145
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#192, UK#340

Now you can see the downloads of Book 1 leaking into the category level above Steampunk

24th Nov

Promotion with ENT
In this case not much better than Freebooksy in free downloads, but the sales of the other books recovered. Perhaps the ENT subscribers are pickier, but they know what they like.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 1189
Book 2: 11
Book 3: 2

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Free Steampunk) US#1, UK#7 (Science Fiction US#3, Action-adventure US#5)
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#20, UK#179
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#64, UK#356

So in the free lists Book 1 is now on page 1 in multiple categories, plus Book 2 is on the first page of paid Steampunk. This is where I had missed a trick, I hadn’t modified the blurb of Book 2 to say that Book 1 is free.

25th Nov

Promotion with BookSends
I think I did the right thing the way I arranged the promotions. BookSends is pretty good as can be seen from the results.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 738
Book 2: 8
Book 3: 3

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Free Steampunk) US#1, UK#3 (SF US#5, SF/F US#11)
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#22, UK#26
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#109, UK#41

The book was now on the first page in three categories on Amazon — those three are one above the other. Book 2 dropped off the first page, unfortunately.

Did the UK suddenly catch up? Too late. What happened was that on the final day I promoted to the British Steampunk Community on Facebook. Why did I leave it that late? Because they have a rule about leaving six weeks between commercial postings and that was the earliest I could post.

26th Nov

No longer on free
What happens next is what’s of real interest.

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 20 free downloads (left overs); 10 paid.
Book 2: 2
Book 3: 0

2–3 people reading the series on KU. All three books have pages being read.

Someone started reading Frozen Beauty #1 on KU, which can only have happened because they linked through from Iron Pegasus #3. (Nobody, and I mean nobody, has been reading the Frozen Beauty books.)

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Paid Steampunk) US#28, UK#244
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#30, UK#81
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#98, UK#97

Not unexpectedly the bestseller position is now dropping but these are still pretty good (ignoring the UK).

27th Nov

As I write this article let’s look at where we’ve got to:

Downloads of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: 2 paid (and one read on KU)
Book 2: 0
Book 3: 0

Meanwhile someone has eaten their way through Frozen Beauty #2 and #3. Unfortunately FB#3 links back to the first Iron Pegasus book. However all books also have page listing all the other books.

Over the last couple of days books in the Maliha Anderson series have also been bought.

Amazon Bestseller position of Iron Pegasus
Book 1: (Paid Steampunk) US#60, UK#38
Book 2: (Paid Steampunk) US#78, UK#70
Book 3: (Paid Steampunk) US#140, UK#76

Just don’t ask me what’s going on with the UK market.

The Facebook Advert

This was running the entire period of the promotion and it did feed a steady stream of people to the page on Amazon. A little over 1 in 100 clicked-through and it reached nearly 10,000 people during the five days.

Interesting demographics were that most clicks came from men over the age of 30. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact the promotional image was a picture of an attractive young female and an ornithopter. I could A-B test that, but I probably won’t.

Summing up

Did I make my money back in the period? No, but then I didn’t expect to. However I did make about 50% of it back, which is the benefit of having series and also the existence of KU (if you’re on Amazon only).

Total free downloads: 3750 and if only 1% of them decided to read the other books, I will make the money back and more.

Let’s look at some pretty graphs:

For me this was an experiment because I wanted to find out what could be achieved doing a promotion “properly” with something that was pretty hard to sell.

It told me it could be done.