In 2013 when I released Successful eBook Publishing, my goal was simple: build my platform. It worked, because I used it to get a course published by Lynda.com, now called LinkedIn Learning, and it led to numerous speaking engagements.
My second release, Register Your Book—a narrowly focused how-to guide on the fundamentals of publishing a new book—was released in 2016.
This prepared me, I thought, for taking over as the publisher of The Book Reviewer Yellow Pages when the opportunity was offered to me in 2017. This was my second experience with directory publishing, plus I had the history of eight previous editions, an existing brand to build on. My goal now was income.
Unfortunately, I was now the author of three one-off books that had no connection to each other and had only a limited connection to my business, AuthorImprints, or to my personal brand, for that matter.
In this three-part series, I want to take you through my decisions and steps to reboot my publishing strategy.
- In Part 1, I’ll talk about the challenges and my plans for addressing them.
- In Part 2, I share the steps I took in publishing the first book in my Countdown to Book Launch series, My Publishing Imprint.
- In Part 3, I disclose this past year’s book sales and royalty numbers so you can better understand the results of the reboot.
Please note: Apart from my course on LinkedIn Learning, I am a self-published author. The statistics, tactics, and advice here are tailored to self-publishing, and more specifically, to nonfiction self-publishing. That is not to say traditionally published authors can’t benefit. But traditionally published authors have little if any control over book pricing, where their book is sold, and metadata—three key tools available to self-publishers.
Also note that links to resources and references appear at the end of each post.
What needed to change, and why
It’s a sobering fact that an average of over 6,000 books are published every day. The idea of relying on Amazon to market your book is a failed strategy. I was experiencing this firsthand, and I’m in the business of helping authors self-publish books.
After reading books and blog posts by other self-published authors and overlaying that with my own publishing experience and business goals, I realized I needed to do three things:
- Create more consistency in my branding.
- Publish a series of books.
- Publish more frequently.
I also had to at least consider two other important facts about self-publishing:
- Will I “write to market,” that is, write what is selling? This is far more lucrative, assuming you have the passion and you do the research necessary to pull it off. The alternative is to “write what you know,” which I believe most writers gravitate to for obvious reasons.
- Did I want to build my own platform for selling books, or did I want to use Amazon’s? The former takes longer, but relying on Amazon also has risks. To me, the answer depends on goals and writing categories.
The art of the release: how should you release a book?
Perhaps the most important insight I got from releasing the ninth edition of BRYP was when I wrote a blog post for Jane Friedman’s blog. For this post, The Essential First Step for New Authors: Book Reviews, Not Sales, I developed what I call The Book Review Journey: the importance of getting early customer reviews on Amazon and seeking them from people in a specific order.
The idea is that early reviews are critical, and people who know you are more likely to leave a positive review. Subsequently, in an interview I did with Jim Kukral before releasing The Book Review Companion, Jim made the point that you should never spend money to advertise a book until it has customer reviews, and specifically, reviews on Amazon.
Around this time, I began paying more attention to pricing and its role in early marketing. I recall preordering Alinka Rutkowska’s Write and Grow Rich for 99 cents. A few months—and dozens of reviews—later, the price had been increased and the book was still selling well. Why?
Because the early sales momentum was being sustained by the social proof of those reviews.
But it isn’t just reviews that help a book build momentum
Because virtually all self-published books are sold online, researching and optimizing your book’s metadata is a foundational requirement.
- It ties your books together—both in words and design.
- It associates your book with similar books, thus creating relevance as far as the Amazon algorithm is concerned.
The lessons were clear:
- Price matters. A high price creates buying “friction” and limits or retards uptake, especially during the critical early weeks of the book’s release. And the less well-known you are as an author, the more price matters.
- Early and positive reviews matter. They are the social proof needed to create and sustain momentum. (Selling lots of units at a low price is a vanity metric if you don’t have Amazon customer reviews to show for it.)
- Metadata matters. I call it training the Amazon algorithm. Metadata also provides a framework for planning future book releases.
My publishing reboot strategy and initial focus
As difficult as publishing one book was, I knew I had to step back and create a plan for at least three books. Only by defining a plan for three books could I be assured that the plan would be sturdy enough to provide a foundation for more than three books in a series.
I defined a seven-point plan:
- I would create a series of books, each 15,000 to 35,000 words.
- I would focus on the subject of what I call professional self-publishing and the marketing-related opportunities available during the production and early release of a book. Narrow and specific was okay, as long as I could reach my word-count goal without adding fluff.
- I would not release book 1 until I was done drafting book 3.
- I could not justify the cost and time commitment only for the possibility of high royalties on that investment. The books needed to help market AuthorImprints services. So, I decided I would “write what I know.”
- I would focus on selling copies, not on royalties or profitability.
- I would focus on getting early and positive customer reviews on Amazon as a marketing strategy.
- I would obsess about consistency in branding and metadata.
I also considered producing books with lower production values to save money and time when it came to updating the books. Specifically, I thought of using an MS Word template for layout and design instead of using InDesign. I ended up backing away from this because I realized these books would be a reflection on me and AuthorImprints—it’s our business to produce attractive books. The money I would have saved is immaterial compared to the longer-term value of what I was creating.
Where to start?
For the first book in my series, I settled on what I consider to be the most fundamental decision any new self-publisher should make: whose name will you use as publisher? The topic fit perfectly with our business and my personal philosophy.
It is a simple question, and judging from the number of people who opt for Amazon to be their formal publisher—92% of all self-published books, according to Bowker—I wasn’t sure people cared about the name of their publisher.
But the decision about why and how to use a publishing imprint name was and is complex. And 8% of 1.5 million new books is still a big number. Turns out, I could write a whole book on this topic, and I did.
At first, I thought about making it perma-free, like many successful fiction writers do with the first book of a series. But this was nonfiction, so I wasn’t sure. Later, in a call I had with the moderator of the /self-publishing sub-Reddit, Stu discouraged me from the idea, saying that free in this case would send the wrong signal.
He was right. I have since discovered that a book I thought might be a giveaway has turned out to be a business-defining investment.
Since the release of My Publishing Imprint on August 16, 2019, the book has sold 1,400 copies and brought us significant new business. It’s also become a key marketing tool for other books in the series. Perhaps best of all, it continues to attract partnerships and accolades, furthering my efforts to build a personal brand and platform.
In the second part to this series, I will share how I went about designing the cover and launching the book. I’ll also touch on the other books in the series and how all these worked—and continue to work—together to build something more powerful than my original one-off publishing strategy.
References and further reading
- “The Essential First Step for New Authors: Book Reviews, Not Sales”
- LinkedIn Learning: Distributing and Marketing eBooks. Instructor: David Wogahn
- “Bowker Self-Publishing Report Analysis – 5 Surprising Findings for 2019”
- Books in the series Countdown to Book Launch:
- “3 Questions for Jim Kukral: Audiobooks, Short Stories, Netflix Releases”
- Write and Grow Rich, Alinka Rutkowska