Before I get into specifics, keep in mind that Amazon changes the rules of the game often and drastically, but as of December 2015, the strategies below are proven and effective.
A few months back, I wrote an article on self-publishing that was based on researching Amazon’s resources. I had the good fortune to speak one-on-one this week with an author who is currently finding success in the self-publishing world. Aya Morningstar writes romance, which is one of the most lucrative genres at the moment. If you’re interested in reading, or just researching her work to see what’s working in the current market, you can find her books here.
Aya’s first foray into self-publishing was a short story and novella, which showed her that she had a lot to learn about the process. She published 20 erotica shorts (6-9k words) under her second pen name. Within two months, she was making around $3000 a month. However, the changes to Kindle Unlimited rolled out shortly after, cutting into her profits.
Currently, she’s transitioning into writing novel-length books with her third and current pen name, as authors of erotica shorts were hit hardest by the Kindle Unlimited changes (which now pays authors based on pages read versus rentals).
Aya was kind enough to share some of what she has learned about the industry.
First Thing’s First
Before I go any further, it’s worth emphasizing the point I made in my original article on self-publishing: if you self-publish your book without the proper preparation, you are gambling, and the odds are not good.
The authors finding success in the self-publishing world are not necessarily the best writers. You could write the next Harry Potter, but if you handle it wrong, you’ll end up in deep in the millions on the rankings list. Traditional publishers will also turn their nose up at your second-hand book. The truth is, without an understanding of the process, many authors will make mistakes that bury their books without even knowing what went wrong.
That’s a lot of gloom and doom, but there is hope.
Amazon rankings are the lifeblood of your book. High rankings are the most valuable advertising your book can get. The higher your ranking, the more visibility, the more sales, the more reviews, and so on. So how do you get a great ranking and keep it?
The first insider trick is the “30-day cliff”. For example, suppose a book needs to sell 20 copies a day to remain at rank #2,000. On day 31, those 20 sales are worth less, and the book’s ranking will start to sink. Amazon wants to bias their rankings toward newer work, or else books like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games would be crowding the top 10 for the next twenty years.
If you haven’t already mentally jumped ahead, consider what that means for you as an author. If you were thinking “the sooner the better”, and just planned to throw your book on Amazon and figure the marketing thing out as you went along, well, think again. The absolute best chance your book has for success is a carefully thought-out launch plan. It is extremely unlikely for your book to climb back up to visibility after the 30-day cliff on its own.
Taking Advantage of Recency
One useful bit of knowledge about Amazon’s ranking system is that it doesn’t care how much you price your book for. For shorter works like romance novellas, many authors choose either the $0.99 or $2.99 price point. The $0.99 price is a great idea for the first 30 days, as it will boost sales (which boosts ranking). However, the royalties from a $0.99 sale are not impressive, so the wise option is to offer your book on Kindle Unlimited for free.
The percentage authors earn on each sale is based on the price. For example, a $0.99 book does not earn 1/3 as much as a $2.99 book—it earns 1/6 as much.
Kindle Unlimited pays authors based on how many pages of their books were read. The change hit writers of short fiction hardest, as the potential for earnings and rank decrease with page count (pages read also boost ranking). At $.099, the fees from Kindle Unlimited can account for a vast majority of your earnings.
After 30 days, many authors then change the price to $2.99. This can prove to be a very profitable cycle. If they push out a new book after 30 days, readers will be drawn in by the low price. Some of those readers will look at the back catalog, which will slowly fill up with $2.99 books. Essentially, once you establish a back catalog, your new books are mostly advertising tools to bring readers in to your existing work. On her old pen name, Aya Morningstar even offers a book that is always free to hook readers and get them interested in her other work.
The last piece of advice on rankings is to make your new book free for a weekend and make a huge advertising push. This puts your book temporarily in the free books chart as well, which is much easier to rise to a high ranking. And remember: rank is visibility, and visibility is key.
Many self-published authors squirm at the word. They don’t think they have that kind of money, or that the risk is too big. First of all, put it in perspective. You could potentially reach dozens of people who exactly fit the demographic of your intended audience for the cost of a coffee. However, there are places where your dollars are well spent and many where they are not. Do your research before deciding to spend your money with an advertiser, as more of them are wasting your money than not. If you’re not judicious in your search, you could spend more money than you earn.
One paid advertisement option is Facebook. Facebook paid ads allow you to choose who your ad will appear to based on an almost limitless set of characteristics (finally, a reason to be glad they are creating extensive personality profiles on all of us!). You only pay if the person clicks your link. The amount you pay is capped at a number of your choosing per day. The cost per click depends on how likely the individual was to click your link: if they were extremely unlikely, they cost more. If they are extremely likely, they cost very little. While it does sound great, the truth is that Facebook advertising is extremely complicated to master. So enter at your own risk, and accept that it’s going to be a learning process.
When To Advertise
According to Aya, one of the most effective times to advertise is during a promotional period where your book is set to free (as long as it’s on Kindle Unlimited). Authors of all genres can use a service on Fiverr for $10 to $30 to help with this process. Another effective technique is to tweet a picture of your book’s cover announcing that it’s free and then find ways to get users with 1-2k followers to re-tweet your post. Just keep in mind that if you’re on a budget, your dollars will do the most work during a free promotional period.
Aya Morningstar Take On Advertising
I use BKnights, one[other] proven romance website that charges $15, and the re-tweet strategy during my free promo. This got me 2,000 downloads yesterday, which sent my book to top 100 in the entire Amazon free store (and #4 in shapeshifters). This means that anyone browsing the free charts in romance is likely going to see my book and can grab it for free. My ARCs [advanced readers who ensure the book has reviews ready at the time of release] were late, so I only have 9 reviews, but they are all five stars. So people see a free book at a high ranking with good reviews and grab it. Now when I switch the book over to paid, I have some real visibility. Also, over 2,000 people have my book and likely around 100 of them are going to click my mailing list sign-up link. This makes my next release more successful.
Another factor involved in Amazon rankings is reviews. Throwing your book on Amazon .. and hoping for reviews is risky. By the time people read your book and get around to reviewing it, you’ll be nearing the end of your thirty day boost—and that’s if anyone chooses to buy a book with no reviews. The wiser option is to give away free copies of your book in exchange for honest reviews. You can find beta readers on the writing subreddit of Reddit, writing forums, writing communities like Scribophile, Goodreads from friends and family, etc. If you’ve already published or are publishing, you can also add a ARC-list sign up link to your book. Your only task here is to convince someone to read your book and bother going online to write a review for it.
Just make sure you are clear with your beta readers that you expect an honest review.
Your book’s cover matters, and you should not make it yourself. It doesn’t really matter if you’re artsy. The fact of the matter is that like everything else, book covers are an art in and of themselves. The pros know what catches the eye and what doesn’t. You might be able to grab a freelancer for as little as $30 to $50, or if you’re more invested in your project you could check out a site like this that offers packages from $99 to $379. I stumbled upon that particular link on reddit’s writing subreddit, but there are plenty of cover designers for everyone’s taste and budget.
Your book’s blurb is also extremely important. You can do everything within your power to bring people to your book. But for many, the blurb is the selling point. It’s your chance to intrigue the reader and convince them to buy your book. Keep in mind that blurbs are an art, and the best practices vary from genre to genre. Take the time to look at books in your genre and analyze their blurbs. It also would be wisest to study the blurbs of breakout authors who are currently finding success with their first work in your genre. Authors who have established their names often get away with writing weak blurbs.
Mailing lists are another critical element to building your audience. While these will not benefit sales for your first release, they will begin paying dividends each time you release new work. You can use a website like Mailchimp and set up a free sign-up for your mailing list. Also, take steps to ensure that your mailing list link is attractive. A simple, “click here to sign up for my mailing list”, is going to gain far fewer subscribers than a more appealing approach. For example, Aya Morningstar recommends writing a short story or offering a free story from your back catalog to your mailing list subscribers. Consider taking time to make a well-formatted image above your mailing list link as well
Aya prefers to put her books out on Wednesday or Tuesday, which gives her advanced readers time to post reviews and time for her to set the book to free. On Friday, she sends out her newsletter (which includes custom-artwork and is nicely formatted) to her mailing list. Her newsletter lets subscribers know the book is out and free for a limited time. She also books her paid ads on Friday. The end-result is an attack from all angles. It’s also a process that builds in effectiveness with each subsequent release.
It’s easy to get caught up in the writing part of being a writer. Go figure. But if this article has done nothing else, I hope it has at least proved that in the self-publishing realm, writing only one element of the process. It is very much a symbiotic relationship.
If you self-publish and have found any tips or tricks that I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments. If you found this article helpful, consider subscribing to get an email when I post new content (and only when I post new content – I promise).