Fancy filling Amazon’s server with another self-published book – yours? Want some insight into the overall process? And into things to avoid?
This is part 1 of a self-publishing case study, which shows how award-winning children’s author Berlie Doherty and I set about planning an ebook reissue of one of her older novels, which had been unavailable for some time.
It is not a ‘guide to creating an ebook’ or a ‘guide to marketing an ebook’, let alone a definitive guide to either area. After all, there are many, many websites, books and courses devoted to both of these things, created by people a million times more knowledgable and experienced than I am.
Rather, the aim of this case study is to show you how WE created and marketed THIS PARTICULAR EBOOK. I hope it will be useful to any would-be self-publishers among you, even if only so you can learn from our mistakes.
Planning an ebook – how the project came about
In spring 2021, I was working on a new website for author Berlie Doherty, including creating pages for each of her 60 or so books. One of her early novels, The Vinegar Jar, had long since been out of print, but had been available as a homemade ebook since 2011. And homemade ebooks have homemade covers.
Making my best effort at diplomacy, which isn’t always a virtue that comes easily to me, I said I’d rather the website showed the 30-year old professionally designed cover than the then-current, homemade ebook cover. “Let people at least get as far as Amazon before deciding whether they want to buy it or not!”
It was then that Berlie asked me if I’d fancy designing a new cover for it.
Would a new cover be enough to kickstart sales?
Would a new cover give a new lease of life to a shelfwarmer that had been gathering dust on Amazon’s servers for 10 years? And whose average reader review on the platform was 3/5?
It also makes no sense to graft a new cover onto a basic ebook that is already more than 10 years old. Especially one automatically created by Amazon’s systems from an uploaded Word file. In the time since the ebook had been published, ebook standards and ebook and reader technology have changed and improved enormously.
It would be much better to relaunch the ebook, with a striking new cover, professionally created insides and by putting some marketing effort into it.
That’s how this self-publishing project was born. Berlie also decided to take advantage of the opportunity to adapt, extend and improve her novel. From now on, people would be buying the very best possible version of what was then still The Vinegar Jar.
Ebook or print? Which shops?
Having decided to rewrite, redesign and relaunch The Vinegar Jar, the first question was how to self-publish it, with the options being:
- Self-published as an ebook only, via Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing)
- Self-published as an ebook and paperback (print on demand), via Amazon KDP
- Self-published as an ebook and paperback (print on demand), to be available not just from Amazon, but also from other outlets
- Self-published as a fixed run paperback (or hardback) and ebook
Option 4 could be discounted straight away. Fixed print runs of books only make sense if there is an absolutely guaranteed audience eagerly awaiting them. Otherwise, the result is a pile of unsold books in your garage/attic/under your bed. Plus: the financial outlay is massive. And not forgetting the logistics of actually selling them: directly via your website, or on a dropshipping basis (where a third party deals with orders, dispatch and customer enquiries). And there would also be all the tax and VAT stuff to deal with.
So let’s look at the actual options we were faced with:
Self-published as an ebook only, via Amazon KDP
Self-publishing an ebook via Amazon KDP is absolutely the easiest way there is to self-publish an ebook. Literally anyone could do it. (And seemingly already has.)
Over the years, the process has become even easier than it used to be. You can literally just upload a Word document and have Amazon convert it into a basic ebook – albeit one which looks like like a Word document. Ugh!
Advantages of an Amazon ebook only
- The easiest way of self-publishing a book
- Amazon’s massive reach – virtually everyone who uses the internet has an Amazon account. Plus, you don’t need a Kindle e-reader to read ebooks in Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, as there are Kindle apps for computers, tablets and phones
- A keen audience of voracious ebook buyers/lenders/readers
Disadvantages of an Amazon ebook only
- You’re tied to your book being available from only one company
- The perceived (and not totally unjustified!) lack of quality of ebooks available via Amazon KDP
- Customers there are very price-conscious, meaning you’d need to sell decent volumes in order to recoup your costs, let alone make a profit
Self-published as an ebook and paperback (print on demand), via Amazon KDP
As above, with the additional option of a print on demand paperback, as some readers prefer printed books. Print on demand means that a physical book is only (digitally) printed whenever someone orders a copy. That avoids the stack of unsold books under your bed. As with the purely ebook option, you could literally just upload a Word document and have Amazon print it as a book.
Advantages of an Amazon ebook and print on demand paperback
- The easiest way of self-publishing a book in both ebook and printed form
- Some people prefer paperbacks or avoid ebooks
- Paperbacks have more tangible worth than some bits and bytes stored on a hard drive
Disadvantages of an Amazon ebook and print on demand paperback
- You’re tied to your book being available from only one company
- Many self-publishers are happy to just upload a Word file and have Amazon’s systems convert it into an ebook and printed book. Buyers are therefore basically getting a Word file with a bound cover! But proper book design and typesetting requires the necessary skills, or some financial outlay to hire someone with those skills. So for self-publishers for whom quality is important, the production costs/amount of sales ratio is relatively high. This option therefore makes more sense if you can be sure of sufficient sales of your book.
Self-published as an ebook and paperback (print on demand), via most outlets
As for option 2 above, but with the ebooks (and optionally, printed books) being not just available from Amazon, but from other popular outlets too – online and offline. But I should make clear at this point that this option means your book is available to order by offline shops, not that they will stock it. They won’t.
Advantages of an ebook and paperback (print on demand) via most outlets
- People aren’t forced to buy your book from Amazon if they don’t want to – they can buy it from other large US corporations instead. But people can also order the book from other online bookshops in various countries, or order the paperback from ‘real life’ shops.
Disadvantages of an ebook and paperback (print on demand) via most outlets
- Production involves more work (different formats/sizes/specifications)
- You would need to engage a third party company to place the book with Apple, Google and all the other retailers, as it’s not possible to do this yourself. Nor would people outside the US want to deliver themselves into the tenacious claws of the US tax system. Once in them, never out of them! These third party companies take a commission on sales and possibly also a setup fee. And although many of them are able to take care of designing and creating your ebook and printed book, I would be designing and creating Berlie’s book. Involving a third party just to place the books with retailers would be introducing extra costs.
- The production costs/amount of sales ratio is relatively high. This option therefore makes more sense if you can be sure of sufficient sales of your book, especially from the places other than Amazon, in order to justify the extra effort and expense
Decision time: an Amazon ebook
When Berlie originally asked me if I would be able to design a new cover for her book, I get the impression she had a physical paperback in mind. I’m not sure she’d even thought about an ebook version.
For some people, books are things made of dead trees, whereas ebooks are some new-fangled contraption. But for others, books are books, irrespective of whether they’re papery things or collections of zeros and ones on an electronic device.
Having considered the advantages and disadvantages of the three serious options, she decided to make the new version of her novel The Vinegar Jar available as an Amazon ebook, just as the previous edition had been.
While I’m sure she would have liked to see it in print again, especially after such a long time unavailable in this format, we didn’t have any idea how many copies she would be able to sell, and whether it would justify the additional work and expense involved.
Planning an ebook – our starting situation
Fast-forward a few months. It was now time to get this ebook project started.
Although Berlie had previously self-published The Vinegar Jar, and has also self-published another of her early novels, I get the impression they were just uploaded to Amazon, mentioned on her website at the time and that she had hoped for the best. “If I put it online, readers will find it and buy it!”
But this isn’t the best way to go about things. Largely because it doesn’t work.
Be clear about your book’s genre
I asked Berlie what sort of book it was.
“Well, it’s a sort of, hmm… I don’t know… maybe a bit of this, a bit of that. Sort of mixed in with a hint of X and a smidgeon of Y.”
I’m paraphrasing and overexaggerating there, but perhaps you can see the problem?
A book’s genre should be crystal clear.
Sci-fi fans want to read sci-fi. Historical fiction fans want to read historical fiction. And readers of specialist erotic fiction want to, erm, well…
So if you, the author of your book, are not clear exactly what it is and who it’s aimed at, how can you sell it to other people?
Clear positioning is crucial. (Writes someone whose own marketing positioning is as clear as mud, but who is at least aware of this fact.)
“It’s a fantasy novel, set in a dystopian world, about a goblin with a massive sword.”
People writing their first book often think: “Well, if I make it a mix of genres X and Y, it will appeal to all the people who like genres X and Y, so I’ll sell more copies than if I just made it genre X.”
However, the opposite generally applies. If you mix genres, your book appeals to fewer people, and therefore sells fewer copies than it would have done had it fit into one genre. Why choose some wishy-washy mixture of genres X and Y when there are books offering you pure, unadulterated genre X?
Even before we started actually working on the ebook, or how to market it, this was the position we were were in.
How popular was this 1990s novel?
If you’re reading this as someone who’s just about to publish your first ebook, this bit won’t apply to you. (But you’re still welcome to read it!)
To get an idea of how popular a revamped version of The Vinegar Jar may possibly be, I looked at the statistics for web search behaviour and for Berlie’s website, which more or less confirmed what I already knew.
The average UK monthly search volume for the book in Google was 0. There was no pent-up demand for this book that we would be relaunching.
But there’s always a certain number of people online on the lookout for vinegar jars, and as the book’s page on Berlie’s website appeared high up in the search results, it did attract a small number of visitors. Who quickly realised the page wasn’t an online shop selling actual vinegar jars, and so who promptly turned on their heels.
Choose a unique title
When deciding what to call your book, choose something unique, so that it’s the most relevant – ideally only – result in search engines or website search boxes. Google your potential titles yourself before deciding on one. Forget any that are single words, common phrases or expressions, or which are already the title of a book, song, music album, film or show etc.
You want people searching for your book to find exactly what they’re looking for – your book – and not have to wade through a load of irrelevant results.
In fact, in Germany, where I am, your book title has to be unique, otherwise you can get in trouble! People here are very litigious, and there are always lawyers lurking, hoping to cash in on things like this.
For this reason, I asked Berlie if she would be prepared to consider changing the book’s name to something unique.
And so, after some googling on her part, The Vinegar Jar became Rose Doran Dreams.
Awareness of Berlie over the years
Having established how popular The Vinegar Jar was, it was time to see just how well known and popular the author currently is.
Berlie has had over 60 books published, including by major publishers, some of whom are household names. She has won the prestigious Carnegie Medal twice, and has also written numerous plays for theatre, radio and TV, including for the BBC. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages, and a few of them, and one in particular, are fixed staples in schools in the UK and beyond. And although she’s best known in the UK, her website visitors come from far and wide. In short: she’s a successful author.
…About half of her books are currently out of print, and in some cases have been so for many years.
And of the remaining ones, only a dozen or so are sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness that people regularly and consistently search for them online and visit the respective pages of her website. Of these, a handful receive the most interest, and one in particular gets the absolute lion’s share of visitors. A textbook case of the Pareto (80/20) principle in action!
She’s also semi-retired. Whereas she once had several books published every year, her most recent new book at the time of writing this was published six years ago (although a new one is due later in 2022). Her profile is accordingly lower than it once was. A look at Google Trends confirmed that.
Although the number of people googling her has always moved in lockstep with the British school year, there has been a steady decrease over the years. Today’s spikes of interest are nowhere near comparable to those in the early part of the century.
What’s more, Berlie is known as a children’s author. Her two novels for adults (one of which was The Vinegar Jar; now to become Rose Doran Dreams) were published in the early 1990s. It’s also fair to say they are not among her current best sellers.
So we were now faced with three hurdles:
- The book’s genre isn’t crystal clear
- Berlie is known as an author of children’s books, not books for adults
- And her profile is lower than it was in previous years and decades
But that’s not the end of the hurdles:
We’ve seen that the book doesn’t easily fit into one genre. The next problem is the following:
One author name – one genre.
Imagine you’re a sci-fi fan, and one of your favourite authors, who has written five sci-fi books, all of which you devoured, then writes a historical romance novel. Would you buy it? Doubtful, and even if you did, and they then followed it up with a history of stained glass windows, would you buy that? Probably not.
This is really important.
Imagine author X usually writes in genre A. She’s also a massive fan of genre B, and so decides to write a book in that genre. She is advised to write it under author name Y – a different author name. The idea is to keep the two totally separate, so that fans of genre A aren’t put off by her excursion into genre B, and would-be purchasers of her book in genre B aren’t dissuaded by her history of writing in genre A.
For this reason, I asked Berlie if she was willing to consider using a different author name for Rose Doran Dreams:
- A completely different name, mentioning on her website and Twitter etc that it was her
- A completely different name, not mentioning on her website and Twitter etc that it was her
- A slightly adapted name – people would be able to see that this was the Berlie Doherty
She decided to add her middle initial, so The Vinegar Jar had become Rose Doran Dreams and Berlie Doherty would become Berlie W Doherty.
On the face of it, this is good.
What makes things more complicated is that her other novel for adults is still available in a self-published edition, without the middle initial. Maybe that would be a good candidate to relaunch in future?!
Know your audience
To have any level of success selling something, you need to be crystal clear who your target audience is. (This is something else I haven’t yet successfully nailed in my own business.)
Because Berlie is known as a children’s author, her regular website visitors and Twitter followers are visitors and followers because of children’s books.
And yet here we are, about to try and sell a book she has written for adults.
This is another hurdle.
Existing audience not interested
At the time of starting this project, Berlie had approaching 2000 Twitter followers. But this doesn’t mean that, if she tweeted about her new book for adults, 2000 people would promptly visit her website, click the link to Amazon and dutifully buy the book.
Only a small proportion of her Twitter followers are committed enough to read the news items and blog posts that Berlie tweets. This isn’t specific to Berlie, but is a general rule of thumb. Social media is a very casual, non-committed way of showing interest in an author (or musician, artist, business…).
Considering all the above, saying: “Here’s a book I wrote for adults, nearly 30 years ago, which I’m making available again!” isn’t likely to generate much interest, or (m)any sales. Most of Berlie’s existing website readership and Twitter followers are unlikely to be interested in a book for adults.
It would therefore be no good to just stick the ebook on Amazon, mention it on her website and tweet a link.
We’d be trying to sell Rose Doran Dreams to the wrong people. What we needed to do was try and sell it to the right people.
So who WOULD be interested in Rose Doran Dreams?
Adults who would enjoy reading this particular book.
This probably sounds banal, but it’s worth letting it sink in.
The target audience for Rose Doran Dreams is much, much bigger than the number of people who visit Berlie’s website and who maybe also follow her on Twitter.
The target audience for Rose Doran Dreams will for the greater part never have heard of Berlie Doherty, with or without the W.
Who are these adults, currently completely off Berlie’s radar, and Berlie off theirs, who would enjoy reading Rose Doran Dreams?
They’re people who enjoy reading books that are similar to Rose Doran Dreams.
“Aha!” many authors exclaim at this point. “My book is totally unique, because of XYZ!”
I’m sure it is, but all books have underpinning structures, use certain techniques, and get classified under certain genres, so there are always similarities, even if any book may be the only one in which X does Y because of Z.
Our task therefore was to make these hitherto unknown to us people, who enjoy books that are similar to Rose Doran Dreams, aware of Rose Doran Dreams. We needed to:
- Put Rose Doran Dreams in front of them
- Attract their attention with an appealing cover, which fits the genre (aargh, the genre again!)
- Lure them in with an appealing ‘back cover blurb’ text and additional sales copy
- Tempt them with the right price
A massive opportunity…
Put like this, Rose Doran Dreams represents a potentially massive opportunity for Berlie. The book was published (as The Vinegar Jar) in the mid-1990s, and had been out of print in paper form for many, many years. And the self-published ebook with the homemade cover presumably wasn’t flying off the virtual shelves, at least in recent years.
So of the people who may be interested in Rose Doran Dreams, hardly any of them will be aware of it.
If only it were that simple…
The (self-)publishing scene today is very different to the publishing world when Berlie wrote The Vinegar Jar, back in the early 1990s.
People who succeed in self-publishing research their potential titles for uniqueness, stick to one genre, and are fairly prolific, enabling them to build up a name as a writer of genre X. Some of these do also write in other genres, but they do so under a different name, and try to be prolific in those genres, too.
The thing is: times change, and tastes change.
By transforming The Vinegar Jar into Rose Doran Dreams, and making it available again in 2022, we’re applying modern methods to a book from ‘the past’.
It was clear at the outset that this could go either way: either fans of similar books could regard Rose Doran Dreams as an unknown masterpiece or lost gem, or it doesn’t find resonance among the ebookworms who actively scour the Kindle shop for new titles to buy or lend.
Our task with the design, production and marketing of Rose Doran Dreams was this:
- To try and market a 30-year-old book…
- …Which doesn’t neatly fit into one defined genre
- Written by someone well known…
- …Albeit for something else,
- …And not as well known as she once was!
There would be absolutely no guarantee of success.
A new author starting out today would be advised to write a novel that fits clearly into one genre.
But Berlie was now excited by the idea of expanding and improving her early novel. The project had accordingly become very important to her.
Considering all the above, I advised her to think of the money she would be paying me for Rose Doran Dreams as an investment, in order to create the very best possible version of the book. Should it break even, that would be great. And should it make a profit, that would be fantastic. But no guarantees!
Planning an ebook: a self-publishing case study, part 1 – a summary
Have you ever fallen into any of the self-publishing pitfalls we did? Let me know in the comments below!