Part of the Indie Authors Series
Discoverability—as ugly a word as I ever saw—is the term increasingly applied to the dilemma facing every author and publisher: how to make your book discoverable so that it can be found.
The challenge is even uglier than the word. Consider:
- Between 600,000 and a million new titles were published in the US in 2012, of which about half were self-published1 Amazon Kindle alone carries over 800,000 digital titles
- Less than one in ten new books will get professionally reviewed2
- The average brick-and-mortar bookstore will stock well under 1% of the millions of books actually in print in the US, perhaps even less than 0.1%3
The problem is an obvious one: no matter how good the book you’ve just written—and everything that follows assumes you have written a good book, and that it has a good cover, and has been edited and proofread—how do you get it noticed? Although I’d love to give you a single, simple answer, there isn’t one. But there are a lot of partial answers.
The Two Hundred Pocket
The huge majority of self-published and even small indie titles sell between fifty and two hundred copies, then stop. The reason for this is that their audience never breaks out of the immediate circle of the author’s (and perhaps publisher’s) family and friends. This is a real and well-documented phenomenon, and an extremely hard pocket to break out of. To make matters worse, the stigma against self-published books—whatever anyone tells you—is alive and well, not least among many traditionally published authors. Unless you’re a triathlete, getting your book noticed and taken seriously is going to be the most difficult thing you’ve done in your life.
First of all, release your book in print as well as an ebook. Print hasn’t and isn’t going anywhere, and being in print gives you extra credibility both with reviewers and readers. There’s a learning curve and skills involved in formatting for print (or you can pay someone to format for you), but the actual setup costs of POD (print on demand) are very low.
Second, be patient. I know, you’ve spent a year or more writing and rewriting and now you’re done, you want that book published and selling—I’ve been there. But you really need to do two things: first, produce an ARC (advance reader copy) of your book, which you’ll send out to publications, bloggers, reviewers, and hopefully be able to use to get blurbs from well-known authors in your genre; and second, allow at least four months between ARC and release date.
When you send out ARCs, let those people know what the book’s release/publication date is. Anything less than four months—six is better—dramatically lessens your chances of getting reviews or blurbs. People are busy.
Also, think hard about how you’re going to price your books. With print, you should remain competitive with other Trade Paper (6” x 9”, your likeliest format) titles—nobody is going to buy a $20 paperback. Since POD is expensive, margins will be slim: I suggest allowing yourself a $2 - $3 profit margin per book. With digital books, the opposite may apply: the greatest temptation is to under price since you have no hard costs. Don’t do this! My advice is to save the $1.99 - $2.99 range for special promotions and flash sales: if your book is too cheap, many people will think it might not be very good. The “sweet spot” for full-length novels in digital form is settling between $4.99 and $6.99. Given you’ll make an average of close to 70% profit across platforms, that’s a win-win price range.
This is when the huge bulk of the work to making your book discoverable takes place, not when it releases.
During the 4-6 months of lead time before public release, do something towards making your book discoverable every day. Work towards getting a buzz going by:
- Sign up for Amazon KDP4, B&N, Smashwords, etc. author accounts to ensure you have digital distribution in place (CreateSpace, LSI, or whoever you use for POD will take care of print distribution)
- Work up your author page on these sites
- Send out press releases to your local newspaper and radio stations—the media love local stories.
- Query book bloggers and look for people who write or blog about similar topics to your book’s theme and query them.
- Put a teaser excerpt on your website or Facebook page or website, and do full chapter and cover reveals.
- Design bookmarks or postcards
- Hold a contest (or several) with a signed print ARC as a prize—Goodreads is especially good for this. Start saving for and planning your book launch party. And above all, work daily on your next book! (more on this below)
- Don’t omit sending review print copies to Library Journal, and allow a minimum four months lead time before publication to give yourself a chance of getting reviewed
- Learn about and use book metadata to make your book more discoverable
- Set up pre-order links for your digital titles distributed via Smashwords (Amazon doesn’t allow this). Do this three months before release, and begin directing traffic to the pre-order links; since all the pre-order sales occur on release date, this can cause a sales spike that will boost your rankings into visibility
All the above assumes that you’re working on a tight budget. If, however, you’re able to commit some funds in the low thousands range, you should do definitely consider the following:
- Upload a digital ARC to NetGalley (www.netgalley.com). It’ll cost you around $400, but this site, aimed at “reading professionals”, can be very helpful in getting your book widely reviewed across many platforms and even into libraries
- The Kirkus Indie Review program (http://www.kirkusreviews.com/author-services/indie/) which is designed especially for the self-publisher: it’ll cost you around $500, but a good review here is bankable (and should go on the back cover of your book!)
- Some modest advertising in Library Journal. With something around 16,000 libraries (including branches) in the US, this is a market no author should ignore
When the Great Day Comes
Besides announcing on social media, I strongly recommend having a book launch party, the bigger the better: try for at least several dozen people. Invite family, friends, and co-workers, and have the party within a week or so of your book’s publication. Writing a book is a major achievement! Provide food and drink, plan a reading, and be sure to have plenty of print copies of your books on hand for selling and signing. Ordinary readers may or may not recommend a book; but get people enthused and they’ll evangelize, blog, tweet, buy gift copies, and generally want you to win.
Other things to do now include selectively giving away coupons (this is not the same as lowering your book’s price), holding another signed book giveaway on Goodreads, and leveraging any attention your book gets to open doors to more guest blog posts and free promotion. Get friends to ask for the book at their library—librarians will often buy to request. Visit your local indie bookstores; although they’ll probably insist on consignment, many will try to help local authors, especially if they like the book.
But the very best thing you can do now that your book is published is to work on your next book. Almost without exception, the self-published authors who succeed are those that build a following over time by publishing frequently, and preferably in the same genre.
Two Minor Cautions
With regard to social media, don’t overdo it. Too much self-hyping alienates people, and time spent on social media is time not writing. Limit self-promotion to at most 10% of your tweets and FB posts. Concentrate on being interesting and social on social media, not on trying to pimp your book.
I’d also recommend not getting too carried away with blogging. Unless you’re already a celebrity, most people following your blog will be other writers, especially if you blog solely about writing. Although it’s good to have your blogging platform in place, it’s also another time sink that takes away from your writing.
Don’t Discount Luck
The last—and by no means least—ingredient for discoverability is luck. And luck is typically dumb and unpredictable.
When I published my first book, Aegean Dream, a bittersweet memoir of the year my wife and I spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos, I did everything wrong, following just about none of the advice above. For seven months I remained firmly trapped in the Two Hundred Pocket. And then, in March 2012, UK sales began to creep up.
What happened? I’d got lucky with my subject matter: Greece was in the headlines because of the debt crisis. I’d also written about an island that happened to be the island where the hit movie Mamma Mia! was filmed—in fact, shooting was taking place in the last month of our stay, and Pierce Brosnan actually had a small cameo part in our lives, as well as in the book. It was also the time of year that Brits start thinking of summer vacations, and Skópelos—about which there’s very little written—is a popular destination. All these factors coincided to make the book spike on Amazon UK so that Amazon began cross-linking and bootstrapping Aegean Dream to higher visibility. Without any action on my part, other than perhaps having written a good book in the first place, the book sold over 3,000 copies in just the summer of 2012, a respectable number even for a traditionally published book. And it’s still selling today.
The path to discoverability, though demanding of time and effort, isn’t rocket science; just
- Write a great book and package it well
- Publish in both print and digital formats
- Allow plenty of time between ARC and final release and use that time wisely
- Disseminate review copies as widely as possible
- Have a great launch party
- Leverage every success to greater advantage
- Start immediately on your next book
- Don’t despair if you’re stuck in the Two Hundred Pocket: your book isn’t going out of print. Writing is your job now, and every book increases both your visibility and the discoverability of your previous work. Non-writers believe authorial success is an overnight thing—it’s not: writing is a job like any other, and success is mostly gradual and incremental. If you do well and honestly and stick to it, you’ll succeed.
And you never know when dumb luck will give you an unexpected and welcome boost.
1 - Numbers vary wildly across sources, partly because not all ebooks carry identifiers.
2 - “Professional” is used here in the loosest sense, including book blogs and review sites—essentially everything other than customer reviews. As a reality check, the New York Times Book Review receives about 40,000 books a year from authors and publishers, of which around 1,200 (3%) are chosen for review; Library Journal reviews about 7,000 titles in a year.
3 - Again, there are no hard figures, these are best-guess estimates. Even the very biggest branches of large chains like B&N carry at most 200,000 titles. A small indie bookstore may carry only 10,000 or so.
4 - I like Amazon, but would strongly advise against signing up for KDP Select, Amazon’s program that gives you five book promo days when you can offer your book for free in return for giving Amazon a three-month exclusive. Although the program was very successful back around 2010-11, its value today is minimal. Amazon have changed the way they “score” free downloads, and everyone’s ereaders are loaded with free books anyway. It can even hurt your image, since “free” is increasingly associated with “bad”.
Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.
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