Publishing has been on my mind a lot lately, as I gear up to get my next book out the door and start writing another one. Let’s say that you too have a book lurking inside your head, or better yet, a book lurking on your hard drive and waiting to see the light of day. These days, publishing the book is the easy part, if you do it yourself. Using the services of BookBaby, BookBrewer, Lulu and/or CreateSpace, I’ve seen authors go from idea to published book in under two months. But after that “Christmas morning” moment when you open the box or the PDF with the proof copy of your self-published book in it, you’re up against some tough odds. Various articles (such as this one and this one) note the similarity between the average number of copies that a self-published book sells (about 150) and the number of Facebook friends that the average person has (about 190). So, let’s look at some potential strategies for expanding your book sales beyond your Facebook friends. Many of these apply to self-published and traditionally-published authors!
You need a niche or a very targeted readership. My first book, How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, has sold about 5,000 copies. Hopefully it’s a good book, but it also fills a very targeted niche (people who want to become translators; translators who want to improve their businesses) and appeals to a very specific kind of person. And no niche is too small; one of Lulu’s current bestsellers is about the 1940 census in Mendocino, California. Just make sure that you can complete the sentence, “The kind of person who would buy my book is…”
You need a platform. This wisdom comes from my good friend and social media guru Beth Hayden. At first, I didn’t want to hear it. I just wanted to be a word artist and forget the marketing stuff. But 5,000 books later, Beth was right. You cannot just put your book up for sale and expect that people will find it and buy it. “A platform” can take many forms: maybe everyone in your industry knows you from your previous writing (like Chris Durban, author of The Prosperous Translator). Maybe you create a whole new website, blog and seminars that complement your book (like Judy and Dagmar Jenner did for The Entrepreneurial Linguist). Maybe you go on a book tour and do tons of interviews in all kinds of media (like Nataly Kelly did for Found in Translation). But you cannot just throw your book at the Internet and hope that it sticks.
Your book has to actually be good. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Stereotypes of self-published books exist for a reason: lots of them read like a stream of consciousness that the author banged out at 3 in the morning, saved as a PDF and printed. Many seem not to have even been spell-checked before printing. It takes time, money or both to create a professional-looking book.
You have to get good, unbiased reviews of your book. Your mom and your Facebook friends are guaranteed to love your book, and that’s how you’ll stall out at 150 sales, unless your mom buys them for all of her friends, and then maybe you’ll sell 200. I’m being a little harsh here, but part of what will sell your book is the opinion of people who matter, or people who rave about you in an unbiased way. There’s a big difference between your college roommate writing an Amazon review that says “This book is awesome and everyone should read it” and someone you don’t know writing “I was about to call an attorney to help incorporate my freelance business. This book showed me exactly the steps to follow, in a way that I could understand. Right there, I saved over $1,000.”
Once the book is out, you have to promote it. Send out review copies, do signings, blog blog blog, Tweet Tweet Tweet, package the book with an hour of your consulting time, ask your local bookstores to feature it, flog it to your college alumni magazines, and anything else you can think of. When you’ve exhausted your bank of ideas, read John Kremer’s 1,001 Ways to Market Your Books and steal some of his ideas. Think way outside the box, like this Brooklyn novelist who opened a “Novelade stand” and offered free cookies to anyone who bought her (published by Houghton Mifflin) novel.
You have to believe that you can do this. Here in Boulder, we’re all about “putting it out to the universe” and other techniques that may or may not work. But the older I get, the more I believe in the power of a mindset. The indie author wave (and by “indie” I mean both self-published and traditionally-published authors; basically anyone who isn’t Janet Evanovich or David Baldacci) isn’t just coming, it’s here. A couple of months ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reported that 27 of the top 100 Kindle books were self-published. Hugh Howey, author of the hugely successful self-published science fiction series Wool, reports that his Kindle Direct royalties often top six figures per month. My book certainly isn’t in that category, but the royalties (normally $400-$600 per month) have paid for some sweet vacations.
So, now that you feel inspired, get it done! 2013 could be your year to break beyond the publishing averages; if you have other tips for authors, please add them in the comments!