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How to Sell Books: Nearly Three Years of Learning

A fellow aspiring author asked how my advert for Take Whiteman ended up in his FB feed.  

He was looking for a few tips on Facebook ads but once I got on a roll, I banged out this tome. If you’re interested in the writing, have a gander at what’s below. I’m still very new at the writing thing, so take everything with a pinch of salt. In fact, nothing below guarantees success. They are only the lessons I’ve gleaned in my short time of trying to write and market stories, and as you’ll read, my “success” has been quite limited.

Take or leave what you like. What knowledge and experience I have, I’m paying it forward.

Without further ado, if you want to write successfully, I’m told by others who know they’re stuff, do these things:

1) Educate on the Issue

I listen to podcasts. They’re free and they have everything you need to become informed on how to write and market books. I would recommend listening to these podcasts regularly. Make sure to go back into their previous episodes and listen to any discussions on topics related to a marketing/selling topic.  I’ve probably listened to something like 250 hours of podcasts and it is the concepts and practices in these conversations that set you up for developing your own book marketing strategies.

For your new lifelong learning journey, I would recommend:

Novel Marketing Podcast:

The Self-Publishing Authors Podcast – The SPA Girls:

The Self-Publishing Show with Mark Dawson:

The Creative Penn Podcast:

The Six Figure Authors Podcast:

Wish I’d Know Then… for Writers podcast:

2) Join Facebook Groups.

There are two kinds of FB groups you can join to help your author marketing game.

First, you can join FB groups that talk about, review, or give a home to readers and authors in a particular genre to connect and chat. If you’re writing about military subjects, then you’ll want to join the Military Thriller Book Group, which is administered by Steve Lepper. It’s quite active and has many authors on it. I would also add it’s entirely drama and politics-free. Some authors in the group are happy to share their industry secrets or practices. Here’s the link:

The other type of FB group are those groups that help authors with bookselling. There are several, but the one I’ve found the most helpful is 20Booksto50K. Join it and peruse the many posts on book marketing and the business of selling. There is a plethora of info and much of it is extremely helpful and inspiring. Here’s the link:   

Alright, now that you’ve got a skinny on how to increase your knowledge, here’s some info on how you go about selling more books. In providing the following, know that I am still very much a newbie and my own efforts to sell my book series have only recently become positive and then only moderately so. Nevertheless, you asked for advice, and I’m a big believer of paying it forward. So take what you want from what follows, but know that if you invest time in what’s above and attempt your own efforts at selling, there’s every possibility you can mop the floor with my own selling efforts. 

3) Produce the Best Book You Can. From everything I’ve learned, this is the most important principle for successful writing. If you don’t produce a high-quality product, you’re much less likely to sell books. Therefore, it is recommended that authors spend as much money/time as they can afford on the following services if they’re going to publish:

a) Editors: Developmental editors; Copy editors; Line editors. What are each of these? If you invest in learning about writing, you’ll learn more about each and what they do. The bottom line is: if you can, get a professional editor to work on your manuscript so that it becomes better than what you could produce on your own. Note: Other than sinking in your own time, this is the most expensive part of publishing a book. I won’t tell you what I spent on editing for my first three books, but I will reveal that my sales haven’t come close to paying for the editing services I’ve purchased.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, because the vast majority of the comments I’ve received on my novels is that they’re well-written and good stories. Not perfect mind you but solid. I’ll confess that each of my stories all have typos in them. In all cases, I paid for a Copy editor but not a Line editor, which is the person who does the final cleanup of your manuscript. For each book, I had spent enough money that I was like – nope – people will have to take me as I am; I’m exhausted and out of money. As I move forward in my writing career, this is something that will have to address. I think that most folks are willing to forgive independent authors for some minor editing issues, but the advice you’ll hear all the time is that if the effort isn’t there to produce a professional product, it won’t be good for your readership.  

b) Covers: Make sure you have the best cover you can afford and make sure it’s consistent with your genre. Again, based on everything I’ve learned, a solid, professional, eye-catching cover that is consistent with the genre you’re trying to crack, is really important. When readers see your cover, it needs to tell them: this is a professional product + it’s from the genre, they like to read. For example, if you write an espionage/spy novels, it is an absolute must to have the silhouette of some guy running on your cover with shadowed/ominous looking buildings in the background. If you’re writing urban fantasy, you have to have a young person who has glowing hands. Every genre has its tells. Go to your genre on Amazon and scan the books and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

There are many, many book cover designers online. These services generally cost between $800 to $1600 depending on the package you get. However, there are cheaper and as good or nearly as good options through gig sites like Fiverr or Upworks. If you go to either of these sites, you can find many designers (and editors) who will do the work for you and there is a range of prices. In most cases, you’ll get what you pay for. However, you will see there are folks from places like India, Pakistan and other such countries who will do very good work for less cost. But even here, the better folks are going to cost more money.

Another option to find a quality cover designer is to approach any authors you connect with on FB and ask them for recommendations. That’s how I found my cover designer. My experience with the independent author community is that most people want to help, so just ask.     

c) Read Your Genre: Not much to say here other than you should read or listen to books from your genre as much as possible. I’m not going to get into the craft of writing because I’m still writing neophyte, but what I will say is that just like your cover, your story needs to match themes and tropes of the genre you’re most trying to emulate. For example, my stories are military/political technothrillers (or I like to think they are), as a result, I’m listening to people like Tom Clancy novels, James Rosone & Miranda Watson, Mike Lunnon Wood and Larry Bond. In these books, the storyline is political, military, and generally grand in scope. I still listen to people like Mark Greaney and his Grey Man series and similar authors, but this is a different genre: the CIA, lone wolf operator, James Bond-type story. It’s similar and very entertaining, but different.

What are the masters in my genre writing about, what are the story tropes they use, etc. In my current FB adverts, I say my stories are Clancy-Inspired. I can make that pitch because I’ve listened to many Tom Clancy novels and have tried my best to make sure my story feels like the stories he wrote. And in the feedback regarding my stories, more than a few people have indicated that they do have a Clancy feel to them. High f-ing praise if you ask me. No, I’m claiming to be as good a writer as Tom Clancy, James Rosone, or these other fantastic authors, but they are my true north and I’m trying hard to be like them. I think this makes me a better author.   

4) Have Your Own Website. This isn’t critical but so many of the people who’ve been successful in the writing world suggest this is really important. As best I can tell, it’s a key thing to have for two reasons:

First, it gives you a place where people can find you outside of FB and Amazon (or Kobo). There are many ways to get a website up and running. You can do it on your own or pay someone to create your site. Either way, once it’s up, you can manage the content fairly easily and it’s a good way for you to connect with your readers. Readers (or so I’m told) want to form a personal connection with the people you read. A website allows you to do this. Having your own website is also a place where you can have other services available in addition to your writing. For example, if you wanted to do public speaking, you could put out an electronic shingle on your web page indicating you provide this service. Same for editing, beta reading, etc. It’s your website so you can put anything you want on it. Foot massages, croque lessons, poor marital advice. Literally anything.

The second reason is that you do not own FB and Amazon. At any time, they can kick you off their platform and if they do, you’ll not have any way to connect with your readers or sell your books. Think of your website as your backup plan should anything happen on one of the platforms you don’t own.

A third reason you might want to have your own website is direct sales. This is all the rage right now but I don’t have any experience with it myself. But I’m told having your website can be helpful in this regard.

5) Build a Mailing List. If you listen to the podcasts I’ve suggested, you’ll hear this repeatedly. There are a number of reasons you should have your own mailing list. As I understand it, these include:

a) it’s a great way to keep in contact with your readers in between books. The more your readers know you, the more likely they are to buy your next book. I’ve signed up for several newsletters and I can tell you the best ones are those that come regularly, are thoughtful, and reveal something about the author. Having said that, I find newsletters challenging. The toughest issue is finding something to write about that your readers might be interested in. I’m really not that interesting so it’s a challenge;

b) you own your mailing list. No one can take this away from you. If you get kicked off of Facebook, Amazon or wherever, you still have a way to connect with your people. It doesn’t happen often, but when someone is kicked off a particular platform and they have no way of communicating with their audience, they’re sunk. If you have a mailing list that you own, this can never happen.

Re: mailing lists, I can tell you my own experience has been mixed. For almost two years now, I’ve sent out newsletters regularly and have tried my best to make them interesting, but I’ve seen little engagement with my subscribers (approx. 500). Like everything in this business, the newsletter seems fickle. I’ll send out what I think is an interesting newsletter and the extent of my engagement is 3-6 unsubscribes. Sigh… but like most things, I shall persevere and like my efforts at FB advertising, perhaps one day, things will get better. The positive way to look at it is that for each newsletter I send out, something like 36% of recipients open it and read it. They might not write back, but this is at least some sign they’re interested and engaged.

If you are going to undertake a newsletter, you’ll need a service to get your newsletter out the door. I use Mailerlite. It’s free up to so many subscribers. There are many email software options out there. Regarding the best practices regarding newsletters visit:       

6) Have Multiple Books, Including a Freebie. Like newsletters, this is another piece of advice you’re going to hear all the time. Writing and releasing one book is generally not a winning strategy to sell books. All of the info I’ve heard is to refrain from any marketing strategy (where you spend any kind of money) until you have three or more novels.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t publish your first book and get it out there. You can. But in order to have the best chance of getting a positive sales run, you need 2 to 3 more books up where folks can finish one and then move into the next. This is what readers like to do. And this is key: many experts suggest giving your first book away or set it a .99 cents (this is what I’ve done). You have to make the entry point to your reading low barrier, and this is why you need multiple books. Set your first book for free or .99 cents, the next at 1.99, 2.99, and so on.

Important: just like everything else in this above, nothing says you have to do this. You can absolutely take your first book and jump into Amazon or FB advertising and let it rip and set it at $4.99. These are only best practices I’ve heard talked about in multiple podcasts and by several marketing gurus. David Gaughran is one such guru. He has lots of free content on his website that you can check out and he’s the peson I’ve kinda/sorta followed.

Regarding this escalating price point strategy, one thing you’ll hear repeatedly as you hear about the author business is that very, very few people make a profit on their first or second or even third books. It is a marathon as they say. And certainly, this was true for me. Despite my recent sales, I’m not close to breaking even on what I’ve spent on writing my first three books.

What the recent sales I’ve had have told me is the following: a) I’m on the right track generally; b) though I still have lots to learn, much of what the experts say does work; b) my writing and creative thoughts are good enough that people will be interested in reading what I write in the future. I just have to wash rinse and repeat for another three to five years 😉

A final and key piece of advice for this section. Everyone, and I mean everyone who knows about the writing business world says the following: the best way to market your first book is to write your second and then your third, and so on. It is extremely unlikely that your first book will have success. You have to keep writing, publishing, and marketing. Persistence, along with the rest of what’s in this too-long advice piece, is what results in a successful novelist. And even then, the odds are that you won’t be successful.       

7) Let People Know About Your Books (FB and Amazon Advertising): When I offered help about how to promote your book, I recall this is what you were interested in. My apologies that it’s taken so long to provide an actual response to your question.

Briefly, here are my thoughts/recommendations on this subject:

Don’t try all of them. Try one and try to get reasonably good at it so you can make an assessment if the approach is working. Some people have success with FB, others with Amazon, and some are successful with both. I’ve tried both and Amazon didn’t work for me. I spent several hundred dollars and I don’t think I sold one book. Other people swear by it.

When I published my third book and I got nothing with Amazon, I buckled down and took a few courses on FB advertising and tried that. Initial results weren’t anything to write home about, but I kept learning (I’m still learning) and tweaking ads and trying new ones, and after a few hundred dollars, I started to see traction in a few marketplaces, namely the UK and Canada. As I hit my stride, I expanded to Australia. The US (the biggest market by far) has eluded me thus far. I’m struggling to find the right formula to get people to take a chance on my book. So I’m still figuring it out – very much so.

In any event, here’s really what you really need to know. Take some courses on one of FB and/or Amazon advertising and then experiment.

I would recommend you start with Udemy: Udemy is my go-to for online learning. It has courses for just about anything and they’re constantly on sale, so you should be able to find an advertising course for less than $18 Canadian. Every course is well explained and has reviews so you can easily find something you think will work.

Take one or two courses and experiment. Once you have a bit of knowledge you may wish to elevate your game and seek out other learning opportunities. There are many folks online who offer courses on advertising. I’ve taken a few of their free offerings and they’ve helped. There are also many books out there. Re: online courses, I’m not yet to the point where I’ve purchased any, so I can’t recommend one. I can point you to a few people I’ve come across whose content was helpful to me:

David Gaughran has content of FB and Amazon

Matthew J. Holmes covers both platforms

But there is so much content out there and I’m just a neophyte. You’re best to start your own journey and build your knowledge. The podcasts I’ve recommended are regularly interviewing folks who are experts in advertising.         

8) Create a Facebook Author Page: If you don’t create your own website, and you’re on FB, you can and should create an Author’s FB page. I set mine up back in July and already I can tell you it’s been a positive way to engage readers, plus you’ll need one if you’re going to FB advertising.  It’s a must to keep your personal FB page separate from your writing business. 

Very briefly, if you get to doing ads, people will like and comment on them. And they’ll message you with questions or feedback, 98% of which I found to be positive and encouraging. It’s fun and interesting to engage with people who are interested in your writing from all over the world.

The FB advertising back-end is pretty powerful to manage your ads and assess how they’re doing. It’s daunting at first, but like anything, if you muck around and do some learning it becomes helpful. I’ve only been doing it for three months now and I feel like I’ve got a basic handle. I’ve much more to learn though.  

9) Find Your Genre and Write to it: And finally! Likely this could have come earlier and maybe a bit of a rehash of other things I’ve talked about, but here you go. Another craft and marketing piece of advice you hear regularly is to make sure you’re writing to market/genre. Thomas Umstattd Jr., calls this finding your Timothy – he’s got a podcast that explains the concept.  

In my case, I have a clear sense of who my audience is: people in Canada, the UK, and even Australia, who enjoy Tom Clancy-type novels, but who wish such a story could be written from a Commonwealth angle. The United States isn’t the only country that has the capacity to do exciting things internationally. To that end, the genre I’m writing to is technothriller but I’ve added a Canadian/Commonwealth twist.

There are hundreds of genres. Thousands of them. They go from broad (thriller) to very narrow (female spies of color who are also vampires who are looking for love) – well maybe not that narrow, but you get the picture. Find the genre and the sub-genre you want to fit into and make sure you know it inside and out. Discover and learn the tropes, closely follow the cover conventions, look at the cover blurbs, see the length of the stories, etc. Learn these and craft your story so it fits within the genre’s box.   

Each pool of fans for a genre has expectations. If you meet these expectations, the more likely folks are going to enjoy your story, and the more they enjoy your story, the more likely they are to read more of them, rate, and recommend them.

This isn’t to say that an unconventional story can’t do well. Every now and again something that defies convention does well. But as I understand it, this is a rare thing.

Conclusion – Finally. Sorry, this was so long. Once I started writing, I just got on a roll and I thought, why don’t you just turn this into a blog post. So, I went all in.

With all of the above said, please keep in mind, that I’m still very new and what’s above isn’t a formula that guarantees success. To be very clear, while I’ve published three books and I’m proud of them, and I think they’re pretty good, I’m still thousands of dollars in the hole. It’s only in having recent success with FB advertising that I’ve begun to sell enough books that I’m bringing in some revenue. Honestly, had I not made this recent progress, Red Blue Storm would have been my last story.

What’s above represents the learning I’ve gathered over the course of about three years of listening to writing marketing podcasts and my own trial and error. I hope it is helpful to you and advances some of your learning so you don’t take as long or get discouraged as I have.

If you want to check in from time to time to see how we’re both doing, I would welcome that.  

My very best to you own writing journey. Take good care.

R.A. Flannagan

Published inThe Writing ProcessWriting Journey

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