Can’t be doing with all that marketing nonsense?
You were just going to upload your ebook to Amazon and see what happens?
The chances are that nothing much will happen. The bits and bytes that make up your ebook will just be gathering dust on Amazon’s servers.
Writing and creating a book is only half the job. Promoting it is the other. They go together like fish and chips, cheese and pickle or beans on toast.
In part 1 of this self-publishing case study, we looked at planning an ebook project. Now, in part 2, we’re going to look at how author Berlie Doherty and I tackled promoting and marketing a Kindle ebook, her novel Rose Doran Dreams.
I’d like to stress again that this case study isn’t a ‘guide to creating a Kindle ebook’ or a ‘guide to marketing a Kindle ebook’. The internet is bursting at its digital seams with websites, books and courses promising just that, and ideally from people who know loads more about it all than I do.
Instead, this three-part case study shows you how WE created and marketed THIS PARTICULAR KINDLE EBOOK. Experienced ebook marketers may well be aghast at how we tackled the project, but hopefully you can still learn from it, even if only from our mistakes!
Marketing a Kindle ebook – our starting situation
I’ve been working with award-winning children’s author Berlie Doherty, helping her transform The Vinegar Jar, her novel for adults that was originally published many years ago, into the expanded, improved Rose Doran Dreams. Picking up a middle initial on the way, to help differentiate this book from her many books for children, Berlie decided to make this project available solely as an Amazon Kindle ebook. (See part 1 of this case study for the reasoning behind all this.)
So far so good, but how on earth do you go about promoting and marketing a Kindle ebook without the muscle of a publisher’s marketing department behind you? After all, even the tiniest publishers have some marketing people working for them, or on their behalf.
We would be on our own here. But one thing is for certain: it’s not enough to just put an ebook (or any other product or service) online and hope for the best.
We needed to put Rose Doran Dreams in front of the noses of people who would enjoy reading it.
Choose your categories carefully
Books sell best when they fit clearly into a specific genre.
Mixing elements of horror, sci-fi, romance and travel may result in a fantastic literary experiment, but readers don’t want experiments. Sci-fi fans want sci-fi, and lovers of romantic fiction want precisely that, without goblins.
How do people searching for books to buy or borrow find what they’re looking for? By browsing the relevant sections or categories. This applies to online shops and marketplaces just as much as it does to physical bookshops.
Sci-fi fans on the lookout for sci-fi look in the sci-fi section or category. The same applies to lovers of other genres.
It’s therefore important to ensure your book appears in the most appropriate categories. This is something you need to think about as early as possible – possibly even before starting your book. It shouldn’t be an afterthought when uploading your book! “Oh, I dunno… definitely fiction… what about historical?”
But there’s more to it than just choosing the categories where the book best fits.
You also want your book to have the best possible chance of being seen.
It makes no sense for your book to be the best seller in a category so specialised that it only contains a handful of books. Not enough people will be looking for these books. Even if you’re at the very top of the category for six months, your sales will be negligible.
But nor should your chosen categories be too broad. If your book doesn’t appear in any category more specialised than ‘contemporary fiction’, it will disappear among the many thousands of other titles quicker than I could think of an amusing comparison for this sentence.
You therefore need to use your judgment to strike a balance. You want your book to appear in categories popular enough for people to find it. At the same time, your book needs to be visible enough for people to notice it.
When you upload your ebook to Amazon KDP, you are only allowed to allocate it to two initial categories. Once the book has been accepted and appears on Amazon, you can contact customer support and request that it be added to additional categories, with the maximum number of categories being ten. You may be thinking two initial categories doesn’t sound very generous, but remember that books which clearly fit defined categories have the best chance of success. If you think your book fits into ten categories, the chances are that it’s not focused enough, and therefore doesn’t fit well in (m)any of them.
We didn’t have the luxury of selecting the most relevant Amazon Kindle Store categories before we started the project, as we were grafting modern marketing methods onto a genre-busting novel which originally appeared nearly 30 years ago, before algorithms took over the world.
So how could we find out which categories to allocate Berlie’s Kindle ebook to?
I set Berlie the task of visiting Amazon’s UK Kindle Store, to find the categories into which she thought Rose Doran Dreams would fit well. (As Rose Doran Dreams would be published as a Kindle ebook only, it was important she visited the Kindle Store, not the main Amazon UK website.)
I asked her to not just browse, but to methodically look through all the categories, starting from the first, and going into and through all the subcategories, then working down the list, following the same procedure.
I also asked her to send me a table of the results, containing the full path, eg: Main category X > Subcategory Y > Subcategory Z, and also the direct links to the categories she thought would be a good fit, so I could easily visit them.
I’m sure Berlie more enjoys writing novels than she does methodically creating lists!
But no pain, no gain, and it’s crucial to spend time on it, in order to get it right.
Pruning the category shortlist
After receiving Berlie’s table of potential categories for Rose Doran Dreams, I then set to work on it myself, visiting all the shortlisted categories and expanding Berlie’s table to add notes.
Some categories could be dismissed straight away, due to them either being too broad or too specialised, as mentioned above.
There is also no point choosing multiple sub-categories of the same category. Let’s say you decided you wanted your book in these three categories:
- Category A
- Subcategory B
- Subcategory C
Books appearing in subcategories B and C automatically also appear under their parent category – category A, in our example. So by specifying the main category as well, you’d be wasting a category. Remember you’re only initially allowed two.
This meant I could whittle Berlie’s initial list down even more. Suggested categories where Rose Doran Dreams would either be buried among thousands of other books, or occupy pride of place among only a handful of others, were mercilessly jettisoned, until we were left with maybe a dozen or so. (If you write your book with one specific genre in mind, you will not only be maximising potential sales, but also saving yourself a lot of work!)
After some discussion and going backwards and forwards, we were able to decide upon two main categories into which to allocate the book when uploading it, and a handful of reserves to request once it had appeared in the Kindle Store.
Should we offer the book on preorder?
OK, so now we knew where we wanted people to be able to find Rose Doran Dreams.
The next question was whether to make the ebook available as soon as it was uploaded, or whether to accept preorders, to be delivered to buyers’ Kindles and Kindle apps on a future publication date.
Next time you’re on the Amazon store, browsing your favourite categories, you will notice that a lot of the books haven’t yet been published, but you can preorder them. This becomes especially apparent if you sort by date order. Some of the books on ‘sale’ won’t be published for many months yet. You’re allowed to add books for delivery up to one year in advance, and many Amazon self-publishers do exactly that.
Why offer books on preorder?
To increase books’ visibility on the Amazon store.
Those books are under potential buyers’ noses for months. So if they have appealing covers and enticing descriptive texts, there is a greater chance that people will click on them and ideally buy them.
And not only do books on presale feature in the coming soon section. Once books have been published, they also appear in the last 30 days and last 90 days sections. This also prolongs their visibility for a few months, before they are submerged among all the millions of other books on there.
Another advantage of offering your book on preorder is that it also gives you more opportunities to promote it on your website and social media etc. First of all, you promote the fact your book will soon be available to preorder. Then that it is available to preorder. Later on, that it will soon be delivered to buyers’ devices. Then that it is now available for immediate purchase and delivery. It’s therefore possible to extend your online marketing activities for longer than would have been the case if you’d just put your book on immediate sale. You want your fans and followers to be in absolutely no doubt that you have a new book coming out!
So the question of whether to make Rose Doran Dreams available to preorder or not pretty much answered itself. Who wouldn’t want to increase their book’s visibility on Amazon?
A disadvantage of preorders
It’s also fair to say there’s a definite disadvantage to offering your book on preorder in this way.
It’s not possible for readers to leave reviews of books that are on preorder. By definition, they’re on preorder, not general sale, so nobody has theorectically read them yet. But reader reviews play a crucial role in whether a book succeeds or not. Luckily, there is a way to potentially mitigate against the effects of this – see further on in this article.
How long should the preorder period be?
The longer the presale period, the greater the book’s visibility. But familiarity can breed indifference, if not actual contempt. (And are people really prepared to wait a year for a self-published ebook, especially if the self-publisher can’t even be bothered to upload a cover image at the same time?!)
We decided upon three months, or potentially a bit less, depending when exactly the text, cover design and ebook itself would be finished. But in the event, the presales period ended up being even shorter, for reasons you will learn in part 3 of this case study.
Three months is long enough for the book to achieve some visibility, but short enough for it not to become ‘invisible as a result of its visibility’.
Plus, we had to factor in that Berlie’s new children’s book will be published later this year.
You absolutely don’t want to be promoting two books at the same time. Not just your efforts would be diluted, but also the results.
As Berlie’s new children’s book will likely be more successful than Rose Doran Dreams, we had to keep the decks clear for it.
By now, any professional marketers will be tearing their hair out. They have carefully worked-out grids containing precise marketing plans for the coming months. They will know exactly what they will be tweeting at any given time of day on any given date during the campaign. But that’s their job, and their projects are planned according to capacity. Berlie and I, on the other hand, were both fitting Rose Doran Dreams around our other commitments.
The question of pricing
Categories… Length of presale period… All sorted.
Now what about the ebook’s price?
This is something else that’s really important, as it has a bearing on sales.
Although buyers of Amazon ebooks tend to be price-conscious, cheapest isn’t necessarily always best.
Plus: authors and self-publishers think: “Hang on, I sold X copies at price Y – I should have made it more expensive!”. But they also think: “Hang on, I sold X copies at that quite expensive price Y – how many would I have sold if I’d made it cheaper?!”.
There’s no right answer, but a couple of things can help:
- The price of the ‘competition’. How much do the other books in your chosen categories cost? This can be a good guide to what certain kinds – or lengths – of books can sell for. But consider too how well known the other authors are. If this is your first book, you will be unlikely to command the prices achieved by established best-selling authors in your genre.
- For German speakers, I can heartily recommend this handy ebook price calculator. Yes, it’s in German, and yes, it’s in €, but as Amazon’s renumeration structure seems to have £/€/$ parity, it’s still a very useful tool for people outside the eurozone. I’ve so far been unable to find a comparable tool for the UK/USA/English-speaking world.
Thanks to the German price calculator and a good look at Rose Doran Dreams’ competition, we plumped for a price of £2.99.
Some Amazon self-publishers like to launch their books at a lower price, for example during the book’s presale period.
Selling at a discounted price compounds the problem mentioned above. While a lower sale price for a certain period can undoubtedly stimulate sales, you could also be throwing away money you could have earned anyway at ‘full price’.
Plus: 99p books or similar tend to attract extremely price-conscious consumers who buy pretty much anything that is cheap, because it is cheap. More discerning readers, of the type who leave reviews, won’t mind paying a few pounds (or euros, dollars etc) if they think something looks as if it will be worth it.
This is another area where it can be good to see what the ‘competition’ in your genre is up to.
In the case of Rose Doran Dreams, we decided not to initially make it available at a lower price. £2.99 is cheap enough for a novel!
Which renumeration model to choose?
When deciding on the price of your ebook, you will also need to consider Amazon’s fees. The company recently changed its renumeration structure, and until recently, £2.99 was a good ‘sweet spot‘ to aim for. If your book was priced lower than this, you would only receive 10% of the sale price minus their ‘delivery costs’ – a charge for the amount of bandwidth used when someone buys the book. With sale prices of £2.99 to £9.99, you would have received 70% minus delivery costs. But for anything over £9.99, you would have been back to 10% minus delivery costs again. Amazon discouraged ‘expensive’ ebooks!
At the time of writing, you now have a choice: 70% minus delivery costs, or 35% with no delivery costs deducted. The £2.99 ‘cliff edge’ has therefore been eroded.
The option of receiving 35%, with no delivery costs deducted, makes sense for books containing a lot of pictures, or which include audio or video. The file size of these books is larger than a book comprising mainly text, meaning you could earn more money from sales at 35% commission than you would at 70% minus delivery costs.
Conversely, if your book contains no or very few images, you would be better choosing the 70% minus delivery costs option.
If your book appears to be a borderline case, you will need to do your sums!
As well as deciding which categories you want your book to appear in, you will also need to choose some relevant keywords and write an appealing description for your book.
Keywords help people searching for books just like yours to find books just like yours. Ideally: yours.
These are too important to leave as an afterthought, hastily cobbled together off the top of your head during the process of putting your Kindle ebook on sale.
Research your keywords before uploading your ebook. And it won’t harm to have them in mind during, or even before, the process of writing your book!
Put yourself in the shoes of people who would enjoy your book. What would they search for? Use the phrases that people actually use.
Potential keywords to consider could include the type of protagonist, topic area, plot, setting or subgenre of your book.
If your book is set in a dystopian world, ‘dystopian worlds’ and ‘dystopian’ may be good potential keywords, but ‘worlds, dystopian’ probably wouldn’t be, as most people wouldn’t enter it into the search box like that.
You’re allowed to have up to seven keywords for your book, and it makes sense to utilise them all. The important thing is your book should actually fit the chosen keywords. If you use the keyword ‘dystopian worlds’, your book really should be set in a dystopian world or be about dystopian worlds.
But not all keywords are created equal. As well as choosing relevant keywords, you also need to choose ones that people actually search for.
Test them yourself by searching for them in the Kindle Store. If the results are irrelevant for your book – or non-existent – you need a better keyword!
Amazon’s search box is a source of free help, as it autocompletes your entries with search queries that people actually search for. Sticking with our example ‘dystopian’, entering that into the Amazon search box brings up some related suggestions, such as ‘dystopian fiction’, ‘dystopian romance’, ‘dystopian fantasy’ and others.
You can also add prepositions such as ‘and’ and ‘with’ etc to the end, to see more suggestions. You can also work through the alphabet, typing a character to see what suggestions come up, and then typing a second character, again working through the alphabet. With any luck, some of these results that people actually search for will perfectly describe your book, too!
Using this method, you can visit each set of results and evaluate them for suitability for your ebook project.
Keyword research is a massive topic. The tips above are only scraping the surface. I could almost write a book about it (except I won’t, as there are many, many people who know loads more about it than I do, who are more experienced in it and who achieve excellent results with it).
One part of the Kindle ecosystem comprises people who search for promising keywords, in order to create a book to fit them, and hopefully earn money from selling it. Notice I said ‘create’ a book, rather than ‘write’ a book. Such people often farm out the actual writing to people on freelancer portals, who write the book for a pittance. No wonder ebooks sometimes have the reputation they do…
You’ve chosen your categories and keywords and decided upon the price. The book’s cover will be appealing and relevant to your genre. What else plays a decisive role in whether your book succeeds?
With printed books in offline book shops, this would be the text on the back cover. The same applies for online shops.
Forget a boring, straightforward description of what happens in your book:
“This is a book about Sarah, who sleeps with married man Dave because she felt like it.”
Instead, your book needs an engaging text which whets people’s appetites, leaving them wanting to know more.
Appeal to readers’ emotions, rather than their heads. Build up suspense and tension. Use powerful adjectives. Leave questions unanswered. Leave people hanging with an ellipsis (…) (Readers’ questions will be answered in the book, after they’ve bought it!)
“But would Sarah, desperately alone in this sprawling and unwelcoming new city, be able to resist the manifold charms of musclebound, smooth-talking and serially unfaithful window cleaner Dave?”
Which would you rather read?
You will have seen them on printed books – endorsements from other authors in the same or similar genre. “Gripping…”, “Masterful…”, “Undisputed masterpiece”.
This is social proof at its best.
Wouldn’t you like to read a book that your favourite author in genre X describes in such glowing terms?
The same applies to ebooks.
Berlie therefore asked relevant authors in her network – and I think also established contact with one or more beyond her existing network – if they would be prepared to read an advance copy of Rose Doran Dreams and write a short quote that could be used as part of the sales text. Luckily, some were happy to oblige, although I can imagine Berlie will be reading advance copies of some of their books too, in the coming months!
Advance copy? At this stage of the project, an initial cover design had been created, but Rose Doran Dreams didn’t yet exist as an ebook. Most, if not all, of the authors asked were happy to receive a PDF of the text. And for any who weren’t, I would shortly be creating an EPUB.
Book lovers expect that authors ask their author friends for glowing endorsements of their books.
But what do ‘real’ people think about the book? This is again social proof, but this time it comes from the target audience – potential buyers’ peers.
Readers’ reviews are crucial for generating sales. You could have written the very best book possible in genre X or about subject Y, but if nobody else apart from you is prepared to say this, many would-be readers won’t be prepared to take the chance. The herd instinct at work!
But how can you get people to review your unknown book, especially if you’re also a hitherto yet-unknown author?
It should be noted here that Amazon’s terms and conditions expressly forbid inducing people to leave reviews of your book for something (money, gifts, favours) in return.
But there’s nothing stopping you suggesting, or even encouraging, readers to leave a review of your book if they enjoyed it and/or found it useful.
Whatever you do, don’t ask your friends and family to review your book. In fact: ask/tell your friends/family not to review your book, no matter how well-intentioned. People’s review histories are viewable, so people can easily see if somebody signed up, gave your book 5/5 and hasn’t reviewed anything else since. This not only raises a massive red flag to would-be buyers, but also to Amazon’s systems. And Amazon is getting better at weeding out suspect reviews. The company’s systems investigate to see whether there is an established level of contact between the reviewer and author.
So how can you encourage people to leave reviews without violating Amazon’s terms and conditions or recruiting friends and family?
You could mention it on your website or social media channels. You could suggest it at the end of your book. Or you could do as Berlie did, and contact book groups/readers’ groups/writers’ groups.
By definition, members of such groups are keen readers, and in many cases also keen writers. If you ask enough people, a proportion will be willing to read and possibly review your book. You could send them an advance copy, either as an EPUB or in PDF or Word format. If they enjoy it, they may be prepared to actually buy your book from Amazon soon after it has been published. In this case, their review would feature a ‘verified purchase’ badge, which helps increase credibility. (If it was only possible for verified purchasers to leave reviews, customer reviews would presumably be less subject to manipulation.)
It helps here if your book is good! You also potentially need a thick skin, as your book may not be suited to everyone, and members of readers’ and writers’ groups will be used to critiquing books they do not consider to be up to scratch.
But an honest 4/5 “Great, but…” review is much more helpful (and credible) than a 5/5 “OMG! This is awesome! You saved my life!” review.
It was Berlie making the effort to round up willing readers, not me, so this is easy for me to say, but ideally we should have had more advance readers. Not everyone who says they will help actually does. Some may decide the book isn’t for them, and would rather not say anything than leave a negative review. Others won’t have time, may forget, or may generally lose interest in the process. There’s no such thing as too many people reading your book, and ideally leaving a review, but there is such a thing as too few.
Social reading platforms
Another important way of reaching potential readers is via social reading platforms such as Goodreads, LovelyBooks and any others which may be relevant in your country.
Not only do such platforms make it easier for book lovers to discover you and your book. Some platforms enable you to set up reader groups for your book, in which you read it together and discuss it. Participants may then be inclined to review it on the platform, and possibly on Amazon too.
However, setting up and running a reader group is an enormous amount of work, and in our case, wouldn’t have been practical.
Other media coverage
It’s also important that your forthcoming book is featured in relevant media. After all, this is why publishers have marketing teams!
However, if you’re on your own, as Berlie was here, this is a massive amount of work. Especially as you probably won’t have the contacts that a publisher’s marketing team has.
Ideally your book needs to feature on all relevant book websites and blogs, which means the people running those websites and blogs need to know about it. Which means you need to tell them about it!
There are services which claim to put authors and publishers in touch with book bloggers and other influential people – for a price. Although we looked into this, Berlie decided not to pursue it at this time, and I can totally see where she’s coming from. Just because a website claims that something is possible, doesn’t mean to say that it will be possible, or at least, not in all cases. And although it would have been interesting to see what effect such a website could have on media coverage, it wouldn’t have been my money financing the experiment!
But on more familiar terrain, I know Berlie is working her existing contacts and also contacting various websites, blogs, newspapers and radio stations about Rose Doran Dreams.
Which Kindle stores?
Things were now coming together. But which Amazon Kindle Store(s) should Rose Doran Dreams appear in?
All our deliberations about categories and keywords were based on the UK Kindle Store. After all, the UK is where Berlie is best known.
But there was also a case for making her ebook available on the American amazon.com store. Partly because the UK and USA (more or less) share a common language, but also because .com websites are often the default international catchall for people in other countries.
That left the question of whether to make it available in some of the other Kindle Stores. Not just the other ones in English-speaking countries, but also in some of the mainland European or Asian Kindle Stores. After all, Berlie does have readers in mainland Europe and elsewhere in the world.
During the setup process, it’s easy to add a book to the different worldwide stores. But just because something’s easy doesn’t mean to say you should do it.
We more or less decided there’s probably no need to make Rose Doran Dreams available in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the rest, even though she does have readers there. (No offence intended to anyone!)
This is a problem with purely digital products. At least with printed books, it’s theoretically possible to send them anywhere in the world by post. But with digital products, rights and territories and things come into play.
So on the one hand, it’s a benefit to have your book available in as many countries’ stores as possible. But on the other, each and every platform or channel that an author (or musician, service provider or other ‘content creator’) maintains involves a degree of regular work. Or at least, it does if you want to get the best results.
For instance, profiles on amazon.de are likely to generate more sales if the author’s profile there is up to date and has been professionally translated into German. The same applies to amazon.fr, amazon.it and all the other Amazon marketplaces. If your profile appears on those platforms in English, and especially if it’s not up to date, readers in those countries may think you’re not bothered about making the effort to appeal directly to them. And they’d be right.
The best laid plans etc… Rose Doran Dreams did actually end up in Amazon Kindle Stores in some other countries, but this was more due to happenstance and communication rather than a deliberate plan.
It’s also crucial to make sure your Amazon author page is fully up to date.
When starting this project, I looked at Berlie’s profile on amazon.co.uk, and she was missing an enormous trick in this regard.
Her profile at that time was really short – just a few sentences – and didn’t really say anything apart from mentioning some hobbies and interests, where she lived and with whom. Her photo was also several years old.
Amazon author pages have a really important sales function. If people browsing the Amazon store land on your author page, it’s a good opportunity to present yourself and your books in the best possible light.
Literally anyone can sell a book on Amazon, and many people do. Or are at least trying to!
For someone just starting out, self-publishing their first book, there may not be much more to say in their profile other than “X loves and writes books in genre Y and lives in Z with her partner/kids/pets.” (But even then, you should still try and make it better!)
But Berlie has written so many books, including for household name publishers, has won major awards (some twice!) and written for the BBC, among many other achievements. How many self-publishers, or indeed traditionally published authors, can say all that?
I know not everyone may be comfortable boasting about their achievements, but the Amazon author page presents authors with a golden opportunity to stand out from the crowd. If you’ve won awards, or your books have been made into TV programmes or films, make sure people landing on your author page are made aware of this!
So Berlie reworked her profile based on these tips. The result is much better, as it mentions the things that set her apart form the vast majority of the ‘competition’ on there – even though the photo is still the same ancient one!
Rose Doran Dreams: ebook case study – summary
I hope you found part 2 of this self-publishing case study interesting, and that it helps you with your own self-publishing project – even if you only learn from what we didn’t quite get right! Part 1, which shows you how we planned this project, is here. Part 3, which covers design and production of the Amazon Kindle ebook Rose Doran Dreams, is here.
Did you run into any of these problems with your self-publishing project? Let me know in the comments below!