Self-Publishing With Amazon and Kindle-Unlimited

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.

Recency

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. 

Advertising

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.

Beta-Readers

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.

Cover Art

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.

Blurbs

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

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.

Final Thoughts

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).

 

If You’re New To Writing, You’re Probably Making This Mistake

This particular problem likely exists among males more than females, but I won’t generalize any further. I’m sure there are females out there just as guilty as us guys. What am I talking about? Action scenes. New writers abuse and misuse action scenes more than any other type of scene. I’ll explain how you can identify this in your own writing, convince you that it really is a problem if you are skeptical, and show you how to go about fixing it and keeping the problem from cropping up in the future.

Too Much Action

Probably the biggest error with action is including too much of it. There’s a really simple explanation for why new writers do this. When you read skilled writers, they are often adept at making the reader feel as though there’s always about to be action. You may also feel like there’s always the threat of action. To use a well known example, Game of Thrones certainly has its moments of action. However, they are few and far enough between that much more of your time as a reader is spent anticipating action or being caught off guard by it. Think of a horror movie for another example. The best part of the movie and the scariest part is often before you ever see the monster. Once you’ve seen the monster, anticipation, fear, and interest tend to wane. Action isn’t much different, but there’s an exception.

Using Action Correctly

One of the reasons I say new writers use action too much is that they are not using it correctly. Skilled authors fall into this at times as well, but more often than not, if you are reading a published author and an action scene is taking place, something more is happening. Look deeper and you’ll realize that in addition to action, there is a character changing or growing. Let me give two abbreviated descriptions of action scenes to show meaningless and meaningful action more clearly:

The lead-up to both scenes is that a man who has been learning a forbidden form of magic is confronted by two thieves in a back alley.

Meaningless action: The man fights the thieves and all sorts of descriptions are given to how the fight takes place – he dodges left and throws a bolt of energy that does something gruesome, etc. In the end, he emerges victorious and goes back home, having demonstrated how strong he is.

Meaningful action: The man fights the thieves, realizing that he’s going to die if he doesn’t use the forbidden magic against them, which may have farther reaching consequences like alerting authorities or starting him down a dark path. He grapples with the decision during the struggle, eventually making a decision to one side or another.

The difference is very clear. In one example, the author saw an opportunity to make a “cool” fight scene and had fun describing some gory details and exciting magic. In the other, the author used action as a catalyst for character change and growth. Many times, a character will be teetering on the edge of a decision, and one of the best ways to shock them into picking a side is some form of action. When action develops character, it is satisfying and meaningful.

Identifying Meaningless Action

Test your own writing. Go back through on your next round of edits and find all your action scenes. Test them. Does the scene serve any purpose other than to show action? Be careful when you answer this as well. You may say, “Yes, because it’s a castle siege, which is a really important part of the plot.” I would counter by asking if there are really no characters in that entire castle who are facing some sort of moral dilemma. I guarantee there has never been a battle in the history of humanity where lives were the only things at risk. Get inside your characters heads and find ways to make them grow and change from action. Remind yourself that in the real world, actual violence is exceedingly rare and leaves an intense mark on people. If you really have your character kill dozens of people in a year or two, imagine how much that would actually disturb and numb him.

Avoiding Action

There is a place for action. It adds tension, suspense, and allows for some reader satisfaction. However, think back on some of the most memorable action scenes you’ve ever read. I bet most of them were somehow critical to a character and his or her development. In other words, something far greater than lives was at stake, and every character involved likely walked away changed in some small way. That being said, using too much action is like putting too much salt on French Fries. Used sparingly, it can enhance the fries. Used excessively, it drowns them in its own flavor and the eater (or reader) has no chance of identifying or enjoying the flavor beneath.

So the next time you are planning out a scene or just feeling your way through one, think twice when action pops into your head. I would challenge you to even re-evaluate your story’s climax. Is it an action scene? Does it need to be? Is it facilitating a major change in your character?

These are questions worth asking yourself!

New to Writing? Don’t Make This Common Mistake

I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of beginner fiction. Once I recovered from the eye-bleeds, I noticed a universal truth: new writers try too hard to sound like writers. If you’ve never seen this in action, you may be wondering what I mean. After all, isn’t the point of writing to sound like a writer? No! If you’re writing fiction, the point is to tell a story.

I’ll break down the ways to identify “writerly” writing in your own work as well as methods to eliminate it.

What Does “Writerly” Writing Look Like?

It looks ridiculous. Kind of like a baby in a business suit. But really, let’s go through some examples. I’ve noticed a few categories where beginner writers really over-do it, and I’ll demonstrate each.

The first is verbosity. The biggest word is not always the best word. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. There’s a few ways this problem can show itself. The more innocent is in a replacement scenario. The sentence goes as it normally would, and suddenly, a nine syllable beast appears.

“She affianced in fisticuffs with her alarm clock, exhibiting a promptitude for vehemence.”

Looks silly, right? This comes from the belief that being a good writer means impressing people with your vocabulary. The truth is that what impresses people isn’t a large vocabulary or using words they have to look up. People are impressed by clarity and a good story. Don’t let your writing get in the way of the story.

Verbosity’s Ugly Cousin

The other common form of verbosity is even more of a problem for your writing. It is a huge separator for writers with experience and beginners. So what is it? What could be worse than affiancing in fisticuffs? Refusing to delete sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes because you really liked how one part sounded.

Maybe you mentioned the way your protagonist saw their reflection in a window, and it was warped and you thought that was just seemed so cool, because her soul is warped at that point! Perfect! So what’s the problem? The problem is that you realize while editing that all the details surrounding that one sentence you liked should probably be cut from your story. Experienced writers will maybe light a candle or say a small prayer before laying down on the delete key. Beginner writers usually can’t bear to sacrifice a good sentence or idea.

My advice? Never get too attached. You have to be able to kill any single sentence or word you put down. If it makes you feel better, throw it on a document somewhere and tell yourself that you’ll find a way to bring it back from the dead some day. But for now, be ruthless

Over Description, or The “All-Points-Bulletin”

Maybe you’ve read this kind of description before. Crime novels and mysteries are particularly common perpetrators. Beginner writers love to over-describe as well. In fact, I met a beginner writer the other day. He was about six foot three, looked like he has about a size 32 waist, brown hair, blue eyes, strong jaw-line, calloused hands, walked with a limp, had a lazy eye, chewed on a toothpick—you get it. This problem comes from a lack of confidence. As a writer, you need to trust in your readers to read between the lines and fill in details. Your job isn’t to describe every single detail, but to give just the right details so your reader can picture the scene.

The common adage is that authors should “paint a picture” for their reader. I think this is a little misleading. It’s more like playing a game of connect the dots. Often, one or two strong details are more than enough for a reader to get the right impression of your character or scene. You could mention the way your character always checks to be sure the Gucci logo is facing outward on her purse. Maybe even that the purse seems well-worn. That’s a fun description. Readers get the satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, so maybe she’s kind of obsessed with how people see her. The purse being beat up probably means she’s actually not that wealthy but made a sacrifice to seem that way. So she’s probably a pretty superficial person.” You could throw in bleached blonde hair to complete the image. Granted, this description saves some words because it’s in our contemporary society.

Look at the following description from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

“He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

Short, sweet, and to the point. The image will stick with readers and help them visualize scenes involving this character for the rest of the book. It’s unique and likely causes them to sift through people they know for an example of a “Coca-Cola” shaped man, which adds to their engagement with the text.

Setting The Scene Efficiently

Setting a scene works the same way as describing a character. I always remember from the Wheel of Time series that the scene descriptions were painful. Every room was full of gilded cabinets, dressers, drawers, mahogany bed stands, intricate carpets, and lavish curtains. Worse, I knew this because the author spent about a paragraph each time a character entered a new room (and another paragraph describing what they were wearing). Obviously no writer is perfect and readers are okay with that; after all, the WoT series was hugely popular and successful despite the over-descriptives being a common complaint. But what could he have done differently? He could have trusted his readers to fill in the gaps.

Would you be able to figure out that a room was likely decorated richly if the wine was poured from a gold cup lined with gems? Probably. Would you be able to even assume the room was richly decorated if it belonged to a wealthy merchant? Probably. So am I telling you to never describe a room? Not exactly. A room that says something about its owner is worth describing. A prince’s room being Spartan, for example, is somewhat interesting. It makes the reader wonder why a wealthy person has no interest in wealth, and what he is interested in.

Final Thoughts

 

The lesson of the day here is to be concise. If you’re just jumping into the writing business, remember this. Seasoned writers will spot you like blood on snow if you try to sound like a writer. Also remember that all those authors you read in high school and college were probably at least a generation or so behind our culture today. They were writing for a difference audience, one with attention spans longer than seven seconds. If you’re writing for a wider audience than college professors and indie book-shoppers, the hard truth is that you can’t write like Flaubert and expect modern audiences to respect it. Just look at the biggest and most popular new books of the last decade. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. If you’ve never looked between the covers of these books, I can tell you the writing does not strive to be literary. It’s all about telling a story.

Today’s reader wants a good story, and they want one that goes down easy. Every big, dense word is like a chunk in their literary smoothie. They don’t want to stop to chew. If it tastes good enough, you can get away with a few chunks, but if the flavor isn’t great, you had better make sure that baby goes down smooth and silky.