Things I've learned from self publishing

It’s been six months since I published my first book on Amazon. I thought I’d be well on the way to notoriety, infamy and gazillionaire status (also known as being able to quit my day job) by now.  I thought I would write my books, publish them and the dollars would start rolling in. I would bask in the glory of being an author, with actual published books (well, electronic ones anyway) and I’d be invited to conferences and summits and to guest present at seminars and workshops and on radio shows and everyone in the entire world would be keen to hear what I had to say about my books and this self publishing lark.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am but an insignificant and powerless grain of sand waiting to be washed away into oblivion by the relentless Amazon tide.

It’s quite depressing, because I know I can write and I know I write well and I know that readers love what I write, but standing out in an extremely crowded marketplace without spending a gazillion dollars on promotion is quite tricky. No one tells you about that. Well, they probably do, but as humans are often wont to do, this information has been blocked out and buried, not least by me.

So this post is, in part, about addressing the dearth of information about what it’s really like to self publish because according to practically everyone, Amazon is a goldmine. Except it isn’t, not in my experience anyway. And it’s because I’ve approached it the wrong way, and by wrong way I mean being clueless about it all.

1. Make sure you do your research

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made so far is thinking that self publishing on Amazon is all about launching my fabulous writing into the world and that people would recognise my talent and start buying my books. I had a platform and all I had to do was click the big, yellow Publish button and the accolades and dollars would come. I thought that the simple acts of writing and self publishing would be all that I needed. I knew how to write, so I had that base covered. I didn’t know about self publishing on Amazon, so I took the Kindle in 30 Challenge and learned all about that. I knew I might have to do a little promotion, but I was comfortable with that; after all, I have a Masters degree in Communications Management. I could do that side of things with my eyes closed.

What I realise now is that writing and loading my books up into the Kindle store and publishing them comprise only a couple of pieces of the self publishing puzzle. What I neglected to realise or understand is Amazon, pure and simple, is an internet store. It sells products. It uses internet marketing principles like SEO and keywords and categories and algorithms that I know nothing about. And because, like Jon Snow, I know nothing about this stuff, I am lagging behind. Books about coconut oil (because they are niche categories) that are ghost written and stuffed with keywords so Google will find them—and are so badly written baby Jesus would be weeping a flood of tears—do better than my beautifully written tomes and are making their publishers gazillions of dollars. Don’t believe me? Read this and prepare to be depressed. People are making shitloads of cash gaming the system, because it can be gamed.

My recommendation is to do as much research as you can about what it takes to be successful on Kindle before you self publish. Don’t rely on your writing, at least in the beginning. Good writing will only get you so far, and unfortunately because of the way that things currently stand, it’s not far at all.

2. Don’t skip the launch of your book

The importance of a launch for your book in the Kindle store can not be overstated. And it’s not for the reasons you think i.e. your book being read by a bunch of old fans and discovered by new ones. A book launch is important because you need to get as many downloads as you can—at this stage it doesn’t matter if it’s actually read or not—so that your book will be favourably indexed by Amazon’s algorithms. I have it on good authority that if this favourable indexing doesn’t occur, your book will languish in the bowels of the Kindle store forever, never to be found by anyone. The only way a book can recover from a non-launch (so I’m told) is to unpublish it and relaunch it with a new cover and a new ASIN.

So what’s the best way to launch your book? Lots of downloads (hundreds, thousands) in the first few days it is released; however, unless you are an established author (I’m not) with a gigantic email list (don’t have) this is difficult to achieve. The only other way to do it is to make it free, and you can only do that if you enrol your book in Kindle Select, where you are allowed five free days per quarter for each book you have enrolled. You also have to let readers know it’s free, and that means spending money (not much if you don’t want to) on promoting it.

Did I do a launch for my books? Not for Love & Other Stuff and I’ve had not much joy in terms of readership; those books are languishing in the aforementioned bowels of the Kindle store. My short stories, though, are a different matter and I’m surprised at how well they are doing in comparison to Love & Other Stuff even though short stories (so I’m told) are difficult to market. I honestly thought Love & Other Stuff would be exceedingly popular, given the Cheryl Strayed phenomenon, but I was wrong. Clearly, I didn’t do my keyword and category research.

3. Don’t rely on the first book of a series to sell the rest

Every writer and teacher who ever writes and teaches on the subject of self publishing says that a surefire way to boost your sales is to publish a series. It could be fiction or non-fiction—it doesn’t matter. The first book in the series will sell the next one and so on and so forth. Amazon’s algorithms will kick in and will sell the next books in the series for you.

Can you hear that? Crickets… tumbleweeds… more crickets…

In other words, I’m still waiting for the domino effect to occur.

While a few friends have bought a few books, sales have been dismal. I have now made Part 1: Broken Heart Stuff permanently free as a carrot dangler, and Part 2: Love Stuff is free if people subscribe to my mailing list. I’ve done some promotional work around Part 1, and the reviews (such as they are) are good, but I haven’t managed to move readers along the product funnel. Maybe I’ve overpriced them, but at $2.99, I’m hesitant to drop the price, although I could do a discount promo to .99c once I have them all published (Part 5: Commentary Stuff is good to go, and Part 6: The Journey Stuff isn’t far behind). I haven’t enrolled these books in Kindle Select because they don’t qualify: unfortunately, they have been published elsewhere i.e. this blog and on Smashwords. Amazon is ruthless when it comes to people complying its terms and conditions (T&Cs) and I’ve heard of people having books removed and accounts closed because they argued with Amazon over T&Cs.

4. Misunderstanding the review process

Speaking of absolute compliance with Amazon’s T&Cs, be careful with reviews. More specifically, be careful with who reviews your books. When Part 1: Broken Heart Stuff came out, I sent the link to my work colleagues via my work email. One work colleague loved it (she was a fan of non-fiction) and she promptly wrote a review saying how much she loved it and why. Of course, I was thrilled and eagerly watched and waited for this first review to appear. Nothing. After much emailing occurring between Amazon and my colleague, and Amazon and me, we discovered her review was deleted because she knew me (did you know that Amazon monitors IP addresses? No, I didn’t either) and it was supposedly biased. I was mortified, and so was she. So much so, that she promptly deleted her account (she is very mindful of her digital footprint) and will never buy another book from Amazon, written by me or anyone else. Shame, because this girl buys a lot of books.

Since then, I got smarter about asking people for reviews. I did it via my Facebook account. Whenever I ran a promo and people messaged me to say how much they liked my book, I asked them to leave me a review. Guess what? A couple of those were deleted by Amazon as well. Again I was mortified. People went to a lot of effort to write thoughtful reviews and those reviews were deleted. What the? Who knew that Amazon monitored IP addresses to that degree? Scary stuff. Now I run my VPN whenever I do anything even vaguely Amazon related. And those missing reviews? People have kindly sent them to me so I can add them to my product descriptions, so they haven’t been totally wasted.

Apparently, the whole review fiasco has come about because an author paid for reviews

(Reviews matter. They provide social proof and help if someone is wondering whether to download your book or not, even if it’s free. If you want to use third-party websites to promote your book, you are often required to have a minimum number of reviews before your book is accepted. Sometimes it’s five, sometimes it’s ten, sometimes it’s twenty. Reviews are hard to come by, so when someone writes a review and it’s deleted it’s a BIG deal.

And yes, I get that I’m playing in Amazon’s backyard, and it’s their rules. I can’t help but think that they’ve tried to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer with the way they go about things, and the few bad apples have ruined it for the rest of us. I’d love to move my books out of Amazon if I knew I could be self-sustaining, but their market is too big and I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face if I did so. I have, however, made the Love & Other Stuff series available for direct purchase from me. Just go to the Delicious Publishing Bookstore and you’ll see links under each of the books.)

5. Get your calls to action right

Calls to action—in other words, what you want people to do once they’ve read your book—matter. And how you go about your calls to action (CTAs) matter. I thought one page in the back of each of my books telling people about my other books and my blog and my mailing list would suffice. I’ve been wondering why I wasn’t getting traction with any of it—no subscribers, no blog followers, dismal sales. Turns out of I’ve been doing that wrong too. Who knew?

What I’ve learned is that each CTA must be separated. If they are all lumped in together, there are too many things to do, so readers don’t do anything. So here’s how I’m approaching it now:

Front matter:

  • Copyright (combined with the book title—I used to have them on separate pages)
  • Acknowledgements (I’m still toying with the idea of combining Acknowledgements and Dedication to take advantage of Amazon’s Look Inside feature)
  • Dedication
  • CTA for book review (with link to the book)

Back matter:

  • CTA for book review (with link to the book)
  • CTA for what to read next (with images and links)
  • CTA for my other books that readers might be interested in (with images and links)
  • CTA to subscribe to my mailing list (with link and reason why they would want to subscribe)
  • CTA to follow my blog (with link to my blog and RSS feed)
  • CTA to get their book signed (with link)
  • About the author

It seems like a lot of CTAs, I know, but apparently it must be done!

 6. Don’t skimp on promotion

And by skimp, I don’t necessarily mean on money—although you do need to spend some dollars on promotion. I mean don’t skimp on the time you spend promoting your books. I thought (foolishly, it turns out) that I just needed to publish my books, write a media release and a few blog posts, send out and respond to a few tweets, let my Facebook friends and the couple of groups I was in know via an event posting, post a couple of quotes from the book to my Pinterest account and update my Facebook page and the job was done. I thought that Amazon and its magic algorithms would sell my books for me (or so I was told).

I laugh out loud at the naive child I was.

At the very least, I should be promoting at least one book every week or so and trying to get to #1 in category. And by promoting, I mean the following (this is what I’m doing for The One and it’s still not enough):

  • ensuring I’ve done my keyword research on both Google and Amazon
  • scheduling Kindle Select free days and raise the price to $1.99 beforehand (so it looks like free is a bargain)
  • once I’ve worked out my days, schedule a promotion (I’m currently using Bknights on Fiverr and they are awesome) and post the free days to as many (free) book promotion websites I can (this takes time to research, is tedious and it is difficult to know the ROI—I tend to use sites that other authors recommend)
  • schedule a two-day promotion for when The One reverts to .99 (paid book promotion site, plus a Bknights promotion)
  • on the promotion days, post to as many Facebook groups as I can to generate even more exposure.

I should also be buying, testing and tweaking Facebook ads, and tweeting and posting the link to my book on more websites on my free days. And in between these sorts of promotions I should be trying to guest post on as many blogs as I can and appearing as a guest on as many podcasts as I can. I should also be courting more reviewers and doing book trailers and Rafflecopter giveaways and putting more energy into sites like Smashwords and Kobo and Instagram and Pinterest. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could be printing postcards and bookmarks and other marketing collateral like mugs and bags and t-shirts with quotes from my books. I could also be doing book tours and readings and signings and radio interviews once Love & Other Stuff goes to print.

And (here’s the depressing and disillusioning bit) after doing all this, there is still no guarantee of success.

Promotion is a full-time job and I’d rather spend it writing, but I don’t have a choice other than to promote. Ok… that’s not true. I could choose not to promote,  but then even fewer people would know about my books and my writing.

Last word

I thought self publishing would be easier than it is. And by easier, I mean not as hard to get traction and a foot-hold in the market. Six months in, I thought I’d be much further advanced than I am. Granted, I’ve learned a lot, and I can use this knowledge with any subsequent books I release BUT I can’t help feeling that I’ve lost momentum in the six months I’ve spent wandering dazed and confused around the Amazon wasteland.

If I had my time again, I would have done a lot more research about what is required to be a successful author on Kindle; but hopefully, after reading this post, you’ll go in the direction I should have gone.

Instead, I got caught up with the exciting idea that I was an author, even if it was a self published one…

 


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I knew nothing about self publishing before I did the The Book Ninja Training. I completed the 4-week course in January 2015, and since then, I have self published 12 books on Amazon (and Kobo, Nook and iBooks).

The course took me from knowing absolutely nothing about self-publishing to becoming quite the self publishing ninja myself.

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Don’t make these 6 self publishing mistakes

Diane Lee


Diane Lee is a fifty-something Australian author who quit her secure government job in 2016 because she was dying of boredom and wanted an adventure. Taking a risk and a volunteering job, she escaped to Hanoi, Vietnam and hasn’t regretted it. At all. Diane now works part-time for a social enterprise, and as freelance writer and editor. One day she hopes to marry a red-headed Irish or Scottish man named Stan.


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19 thoughts on “Don’t make these 6 self publishing mistakes

  1. Thanks for your “confession” with such helpful info and reminders. I hate your website promos jumping around and flashing in your right column. Very distracting trying to focus on your message.

  2. You’re so right about Amazon and self-publishing and thanks for dispelling all the myths that have grown up around self-publishing. So much of it is about SEO and marketing. I don’t enjoy the marketing and self-promoting that it calls for one bit (does anyone?) and, consequently, don’t do enough of it.
    If only getting off the slush pile in a ‘real’ publisher’s establishment wasn’t so difficult. I’d go the traditional route like a shot, given the opportunity.
    Hope you enjoy the coffee!

    1. Apparently, traditional publishers are just as bad because they leave a lot of the promotion up to authors. I’d like a chance to find out though! And thank you for my cup of coffee, Rosemary! I really appreciate it 🙂

    2. The one mistake I haven’t made is sinking my hard earned dollars into self publishing! One could spend an absolute fortune on all manner of “support” services… there are a lot of people making a lot of money out of this industry 🙁

  3. I just bought you a cup of coffee, Diane, although it’ll look like it came from my husband, Matthew. He’s a good guy, not at all creepy. Or at least I don’t think he is. 🙂

    Ah, Amazon.
    Oh, self-publishing.

    SO MUCH HARDER than the prevailing opinions lead one to believe. I’ve only gained any traction on Amazon when I made several works perma-free. I have no idea how many reviews have been requisitioned by Amazon, but given the horror stories bubbling up from the trenches, probably at least some. I’ve heard of reviews being yanked because the author “knows” the reviewer on Twitter. Ouch.

    Thank you for your honesty. If I wasn’t on the literal other side of the planet, I’d want to meet up and have that coffee together. Then we could be sure no one (I mean you, Amazon!) is tracking our IPs. 🙂

    Hugs,

    -aniko

    1. Thank you for the cup of coffee Aniko! I really appreciate it. Would you believe I’m getting more traction from blogging and coffee than I am on Amazon?! I had no idea that self publishing would be this difficult. I was so naive. I thought it was a case of “build it and they will come”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I feel like I am sitting an exam (Advanced Astrophysics) where I have studied the wrong material (History of the Sumerians) in a different language (Latin) and which have no hope of ever passing. And the exam invigilators (Amazon) repeatedly burn me at the stake for sins I didn’t even know I was committing! It’s a losing battle 🙁
      Other than that, I’m well and I hope you are too, Aniko. I’m very much looking forward to featuring your Secret Lives of Writers piece! Big hug for you too! And one day we will have a face-to-face coffee xo

  4. One question about reviews on Amazon. I reviewed a Facebook friend’s book. I use an alias for Amazon reviews and did not state that I knew the author. Another of her friends came right out in the review and said she knew the author. Both our reviews are still visible on Amazon. Could there be something else that triggers Amazon to pull reviews from friends beyond just knowing the author? This particular book only has a handful of reviews. Is it the act of actually asking for reviews via a digital footprint or something else? Or is Amazon that inconsistent?

    1. I have no idea, Rebecca! I do know they monitor ISPs but beyond that, I don’t know much about their process. We need a whistleblower to dish the dirt!

  5. Hi Diane,
    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m pretty much in the same boat except that I haven’t even tried any promotion or anything! I wrote the two books I have up on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Bradley-Charbonneau/e/B00JE2AERE/ … although as I give you that link, I realize that I’m relinquishing any reviews or any siblings of yours (at least by blood) forever and ever) pretty much as a fun exercise together with my two boys.

    Goal accomplished: wanted to write a book together with my kids, did that, got it up on Amazon. Check! Yay! Celebrate! But that was the beginning and end of the celebration.

    Now a year later and I’m taking my writing more seriously and your post here is a huge help for my next books. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together.

    1. First of all, congratulations for writing and publishing your book, Bradley. It’s a huge achievement and not everyone makes it that far! I’m glad you found this post useful. This self-publishing gig is a steep, never-ending learning curve, I’ve found. I wish it was as easy as click the “Publish” button, but it isn’t. *heavy sigh*

      1. Well, technically, it IS as easy as hitting the Publish button IF you’re only looking to publish your book. But what many don’t understand is that it’s one step of many (many!) in a long process.

        In fact, it probably exists, but I think it’d be helpful to see a timeline of something like, “Timeline of the Successful Book Launch.” Hitting Publish would just be a little blip along the way. 🙂 I bet it’s a long timeline …

        1. Exactly! Writing and publishing are just small pieces of very large puzzle. And you are also right in that publishing success depends entirely on what your definition of success is. My definition of success is being able to quit my day job, or at least decrease my hours significantly AND have people love what I write. The two (for me, anyway) are intertwined.

          1. Those are admirable and wonderful definitions of success! It’s kind of funny for me in that I’m just so thrilled to be writing again (after a 10-year hiatus) that success is just writing.

            But things are changing rapidly in my world and my goals for success are aligning with yours. Let’s get there, OK? 🙂

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