Monday, June 20, 2011

Indie Author Mailbag: "Can you tell me the best way to ensure the success of my book?"

In a word, no.

If I've said it once, I've said it too many times to count:
There is no one-size-fits-all, by-the-numbers success formula for indie authors. There is no specific template or blueprint that will guarantee lasting sales or readership for any book.

Assuming for the moment that your indie book is exceptionally well-written, immaculately edited and sports a compelling cover, it's just a matter of getting the word out about it and pricing it reasonably, right? Wrong.

Every author is different, every book is different, and every sales climate is different. Consider the (originally self-published) book which launched me into a life of publishing punditry and activism, The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use. This was clearly a simple case of the right book at the right time. Writer's Digest Books was happy to pick up the rights and republish the book in a revised edition because interest in self-publishing is at an all-time high right now and they viewed it as the only truly comprehensive how-to, nuts-and-bolts book on the subject.

Had I self-published the same book just five years ago, neither Writer's Digest Books nor any other mainstream publisher would've been interested in picking it up. The self-published edition of the book wouldn't have been very successful either since self-publishing was widely viewed as a fringe activity up until about two years ago, engendering dismissal at one end of the opinion spectrum and open scorn and ridicule at the other.

Let's take a look at some of the supposedly surefire success strategies for indie authors, as they apply to this book and my other, still indie novels.

1. If You Build A Quality Author Platform, You'll Succeed.
I cannot deny that for anyone seeking a mainstream publishing contract, platform is key. Mainstream publishers want to see a pre-existing audience, and the potential to grow that audience exponentially. However, even for me, a retired software engineer with web developer skills of considerable sophistication, no amount of web presence or social networking savvy would've made my book a success five years ago. Even today, no amount of platform quantity or quality would make my book a success if it were poorly written or didn't contain the specific information the target audience wants and needs.

With respect to my novels, platform has not, in and of itself, made much of an impact. Not only do I have a custom, professionally-designed author website, I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, I'm the founder and Editor in Chief of, I'm a Technorati BlogCritic, on the Board of Directors for the Association of Independent Authors, and...well, I won't bore you with the rest of this litany. Yet despite all this "visibility" and "web presence", my novels only do fair-to-middling business unless I'm actively and specifically promoting them. Why? Because the bulk of my platform activity pertains to serving the needs of self-publishing authors, not readers in general.

So yes, platform is important. But just getting your name and face and the titles of your books out there isn't enough. Your platform activities must be targeted, with each piece of the platform puzzle helping to support the others. At this point, if sales of my novels were to become a priority for me, I'd launch a secondary platform strategy just for them because I know my established audience for The Indie Author Guide is more or less indifferent to my novels.

2. If You Price Your Kindle Books At .99, You'll Succeed.
All of my indie Kindle books have been priced at .99 for over a month now, in a kind of pricing experiment of my own devising. Sales have ticked upward a bit, but not dramatically. It's definitely worth experimenting with different price points on your Kindle or Nook book, since it's easy and low-risk to do so, and you can see (and interpret) results of price changes pretty quickly. But it's a mistake to think that a .99 pricetag is the shortest distance between you and blockbuster sales.

3. If You Make Your Books Available In As Many Formats And On As Many Sites As Possible, You'll Succeed.
My novels are listed on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Createspace, Scribd, GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, and, covering the spectrum from hard-copy through ebooks and even audiobooks. Yet no one on the NYT Bestseller list is quaking in his boots from fear of me and my novels. Sales of The Indie Author Guide, on the other hand, have benefitted greatly from the book's visibility across multiple bookseller and book review outlets. Its availability through the Writer's Digest Book Club has made a big difference as well.

Yes, it's important to get your work out there and available through as many outlets as are feasible; just don't assume that doing so will guarantee significant sales growth.

4. If You Get A Lot Of Good Amazon Reviews, You'll Succeed.
My indie novel, Adelaide Einstein, has 47 Amazon reviews with an average star rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars. My other indie book, Snow Ball, has 16 Amazon reviews with an average star rating of 4.43. Adelaide has more and better reviews overall, yet it sells at a fraction of the numbers I see for Snow Ball.

When both books were first published in 2008, Adelaide Einstein sold better than Snow Ball. Now it's just the opposite. I can only speculate as to why, but if pressed, I'd say that the chick-lit and hen-lit genres into which Adelaide fits are somewhat played out, whereas the mystery genre to which Snow Ball belongs is less trendy. It could also be that Snow Ball's darker tone of humor is more appealing to readers in these trying economic and social times.

5. If You Do All Of The Above, You'll Succeed.
I'm already doing all of the above, and my novels aren't doing gangbuster business. But that doesn't mean the work and time I've spent on all of the above was (or is) a pointless waste.

Since you've read this far, I'll share a little secret with you. There actually IS a surefire success strategy that works equally well for any book, movie, game or music release. And here it is:

Capture the zeitgeist in your work, then maximize
your work's exposure.

Yep, all you need do is figure out what the majority of the Western world's populace will be interested in at a given point in time, create a work or product that serves that interest, time the release of the work to coincide with when interest in its content will be approaching a peak, and then make sure as many people as possible know the work exists.

It's that first part that's the tricky bit, the whole "right book at the right time" part. Then, for fiction at least, there's the matter of actually caring enough about the work to imbue it with passion and soul. But even if the Fates smile upon you, you actually have the right book at the right time and it's filled to bursting with passion and soul, the second part of the equation is just as important: maximizing exposure. So while none of the supposedly surefire success strategies is any such thing for books in general, couple the right book with the right time and #5 above, and you're well on your way.

Unfortunately, since you can't know if you've captured the zeitgeist until after your book is published and you've maximized its exposure, you're pretty much stuck working every exposure and sales angle you can to find out. And even if your book hasn't exactly captured the zeitgeist, if it's a quality book in a broad-based genre, there's no reason you can't drum up respectable sales and interest through your efforts. But it will be an effort, you will have to pursue every promotional avenue available to you (given your personal time, skill and financial constraints), and there's just no way around that.

If you're looking for shortcuts or get rich quick schemes, you're in the wrong business.


Jeffrey said...

I read your article with interest because two years ago I quit pursuing the traditional publishing game and went indie after many years of knocking on doors. I am pleased to report thousands of downloads and sales approaching 1000 with what appears to be ever-increasing numbers.

I still believe quality writing is the foremost attribute for successful authors. Second is a constant marketing effort -- being involved in online discussions, gathering (good) reviews, striking artwork for covers, and, for indie authors, the knowledge that the more books published, the better the chances of total sales.

It's been a long road, but this year, for the first time, I've actually received enough attention and dollars to bolster my sagging confidence.

Thomas C. Stone

My Amazon page:

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. There are so many variables in the writing industry in general but the one constant is good writing and editing. An eyecatching cover is essential icing on the cake. Clever marketing can boost sales, but your final point about hitting the right idea at the right time is spot on if all the above elements are in place. Having a finger on society's pulse is essential in hitting that zeitgeist spot :) Thanks for sharing!

Ameer S. Washington said...

I think publishing is much like music. People see success and usually that success enters into their knowledge at one moment or time. They don't see the hard work that happens before that success. J.K. Rowling is probably the perfect example. She had one of the most difficult times being published that I've ever read about.

In music I always like to use DMX as an example. It took him 12 years to get signed to a record deal and to become commercially successful.

As an author you may have to wait until you've published 5 books or even more until you start to see the economic gains you want. But hey, since we all love writing and write even when we're not making money what does it really matter. Don't quit your day job and play the lottery if writing isn't really your passion.

Great post, and the zeitgeist idea makes sense.

MCG said...

WOW! That's the best description of the publishing and selling of books I ever read! It describes the reality with the accuracy of a surgeon scalpel.