Use the System: An Indie Author's Method / by Josh Guess

I promised in my last post, the one where I told everyone about my record-shattering sales in March, that my next piece would be about the methods I used to do it. I'm gonna throw in my disclaimer here so no one gives me shit or gets offended. 

DISCLAIMER: I am not better than you. I am not bragging. Every time I write anything about my book sales or try to give advice based on my own experience, I get at least one email blasting me as a small-timer with a big ego. As always, I'm just telling you what I've done and what works for me. Your methods might be better and more effective for you, and if so I think that's nifty. There are a lot of writers out there struggling just as I am, and I take a lot of advice from them. And from bigger-named writers than me (which is most of them), so relax. I'm telling you this because you might be irritated with your current sales, and maybe trying something different will help. 

Okay, we're on the same page now. 

April has been another good month for me. I thought at the beginning of it that I'd be lucky to make $800 or $900 in royalties, but I underestimated the aftereffects of my last promotion. You may remember me giving away most of my books last month for five days, all at once. During that time the four books I was giving away were downloaded about 4,000 times. That's an average of 1k each, obviously. Not bad, because one of the things I focus on is getting my name out there. Putting books in front of people. 

The advantage in selling eBooks is that the vitally important 'word of mouth' works electronically and automatically as well as between real, living people. Folks who like my books tell friends, and sometimes the friends buy them. But the reason I'm happy to give away thousands of copies is because doing so on Amazon (where I'm currently exclusive) means the metadata for those books gets a nice boost. 

If you're a writer who self-publishes, you need to know this stuff. You may not need all the technical jargon, but an understanding of how the system works means more aptly utilizing it. 

Go to any Amazon page for a kindle book and you'll see several places where suggested books appear. Metadata affects that. If you've just published a book and sold five copies, that field is going to be bare. Which means that your book isn't going to appear on many (if any) pages of similar titles. The best way I've found to populate those areas is giving away books. Don't think of the time your book is free as lost profit, but rather as a long-term investment in building a wide base of pages on which your book may appear. 

It all seems complex and abstract. That's because it is. Watching book trends, researching suggested sales, trying to grasp the hugely complicated system of sales interactions on Amazon is hard. It makes my brain hurt a lot and I've been studying it and learning it for more than two years. 

So that's the big one: give away your work. You can do this on your own if you don't want to get into the Select program on Amazon by simply giving it away on your website or blog. This may be helpful or not--I do it through Amazon because that method builds my potential audience on that platform. Doing it on your own can only indirectly affect your sales. For my money doing it through Amazon is faster, easier, and way more effective. 

The other things I do, let's see...

I watch my sales. A lot of other authors don't recommend doing this because it can make you anxious and maybe a little down. I know I get that way when my sales start to decline sometimes. I still check them often, because I want to get an idea when my best sales times are, know what days tend to be my strongest, and to observe long and short-term trends. This is another of those things you may not want to do, but it works for me. When I first got into the Select program, I used two of my free promotion days to give away a book during my two best sales days--Tuesday and Wednesday at the time--and saw immediate results. Sales of that book had been flat for months. I was selling maybe twenty or thirty copies. After those two days were up (600 free copies downloaded) I sold another twenty in about two days. Not a ton of money, but I doubled my income for the month. 

Paying attention to the prices of hot books is important as well. Ebook platforms had their flirtation with the 99 cent eBook craze, but for the most part the luster has worn off that fad. I've never had a lot of luck pricing my books that low, and instead of making up the income difference through volume, I just lost money compared to the prices I'd had them at before. Really, even the $2.99 pricepoint, once a standard on Amazon as it was the lowest price authors could make the 70% royalty rate at--is beginning to wear thin. A few months ago J.A. Konrath had a guest blogger on his site, and she gave very good reasons to price your books higher. Her name (which is the most awesome name EVER) is Elle Lothlorien, and she makes an excellent case for higher eBook prices in this post riiiiiight here.

That's pretty much how I operate. I'm obsessive about finding trends in my sales, understanding the machinery of how the rank system, suggested sales, and assorted pieces of the Amazon pie work, and I give away my stuff. Now, a few caveats. 

I read obsessively. J.A. Konrath's blog is a damn fine resource for writers trying to make a living through self-publishing. Most of what I've learned has been from him, and he's the best kind of teacher: one who experiments constantly himself, gives other authors a platform to share what works for them, and understands that what works for one may not work for another. 

I gave away my novel Beautiful for five days recently. Almost 900 downloads while it was free, but virtually no sales since then. Which is strange, because the last time I gave it away sales jumped up pretty fast and high. Nothing is guaranteed in this business, we all know that. We work our asses off to succeed, but the truth is that we have to keep at it, keep innovating where we can. Slackers need not apply. 

I think a major factor in the sales bump I've had since my last giveaway has to do with the fact that all the books I gave away were in a series. All of them were close to each other in rank on the various top 100 lists on the kindle store, and that stands out to people. The covers are all similarly themed. I have to imagine that a lot of people saw books one, two, and three and said to themselves, "Hey, all three of these are in the top 15 on the free Contemporary Fantasy top 100 list. Maybe there's something good here."

Having a series helps a lot from what I've gathered through observation. It may be different for you. 

I can't give much more advice than that. Write well, get a good cover, and always learn everything you can. Konrath isn't the only indi author out there who has great insight and experience. Find other authors, get their take on the process as well as the nuts and bolts of how it all works. It may not help your sales to change things up (through giveaways or whatever) but I'm damn sure it won't hurt. 

Don't hold me to that, though. I don't want to get mobbed if I'm totally wrong there.