Part I: The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula

Welcome to my five part guide on how to market your self-published fiction books. Everything from performing proper market research to optimizing your books’ covers, keywords and blurbs is covered within. Each section can be read independently, so if you’re having a problem with a specific topic, feel free to skip ahead.

This is a marketing system derived from personal experience and studying successful independent authors. As such, I promise not to throw a bunch of random tactics (or folksy feel-good stories) at you, since I’m sure you have plenty collecting dust already. Systems are valuable because they standardize the marketing and sales process. A good system is a blueprint that produces repeatable, consistent results. Instead of remembering what to do, we can focus on execution.

As Atul Gawande so eloquently states:

The reason [for medical error]…is not usually laziness or unwillingness. The reason is more often that the necessary knowledge has not been translated into a simple, usable and systematic form.

If systems work for doctors, they will work for you, humble indie author.

Thus, each section concludes with an action checklist & summary. These steps don’t cover everything within the guide, just the main points. If you skip the exercises, you will get no results. Information is useless unless implemented.

In Part 1, I’ll explain:

  • Crucial mindset principles
  • Three critical marketing formulas
  • Why product positioning and market research are the most important components of marketing

Here we go.

A Note

It would be impossible to cite all the sources of the information within, for I fear every other sentence would have an attribution. Suffice to say, I’m much less the creator of this guide than a curator.

My aim is not to assume credit, but to systematically assemble the best advice on marketing independent books within one comprehensive resource. So to the generous authors and entrepreneurs who recognize their influence: thank you.

The Value of This Guide

I want to be clear: there are no secrets within these pages. I am not going to teach you twenty-one tactics that make your skull spontaneously combust in stunned awe of my ingenuity. If you frequent writers’ forums, you will have seen much of this information already. Only if you are fairly new to the indie game will you likely be surprised by the strategies I discuss.

Here’s the problem this guide solves: you’re probably not using that information to sell more books.

Information alone is not particularly valuable. In an era of hyper-connectivity, information is a commodity. Translating it into results, however, is difficult. If you’re anything like me, even if you have all this information, it sits in a mental box marked “to be used later.” I eventually wrote this guide as an organizational tool to make all this information usable for me while weeding out the nonsense/myths that naturally proliferate on the internet.

This guide assembles best marketing information into a step-by-step, actionable framework. Plenty of authors recommend that you “get good covers” or “write good blurbs.” This is solid, well-intentioned advice, but it is also vague. Not only do I clearly define what “good” means, but I also give exact formulas, with clear instructions, on how to commission a great cover and write a snappy blurb. I do this for every component of marketing vital to your success as an indie author. Think of this as the difference between “do pushups and eat some green stuff” and a workout/diet system optimally designed for a specific goal.

Our system is designed to sell books.

In short, if you do the work, you will almost certainly see results. In the beginning, this is best used as a paint-by-numbers marketing guide. When I lay out step-by-step instructions, put the guide down and follow along, exactly as written. While that might offend your creative sensibilities, those who do run through the exercises and checklists will find themselves leapfrogging the competition.

After you deeply understand the concepts, you can – and should – build your own framework upon them. I don’t expect everything to resonate with you. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee: Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.

Why Should I Listen to You?

This is a question you should ask of all information, so-called “authorities” often have no expertise. This is why we have gag-inducing clickbait like how I made $3,245 in six days via Kindle.

This marketing guide is not that type of frivolous, non-actionable content. While it’s free, it aims to be higher quality than every paid course on the market. This is a bold claim, but if you follow the steps, I believe you’ll find it to be true. Thus, I offer three reasons to consider listening to me:

  1. I’ve experienced every problem you’ve encountered.
    1. My first novel sold 14 copies in its first year (at $0.99).
    2. It had zero reviews for that time.
    3. I’ve had multiple books hammered by bad reviews, killing them right out of the gate.
    4. I’ve had multiple books lose thousands of dollars.
    5. I’ve burned thousands of dollars on useless promos.
    6. I’ve launched a book and had it sell less than 100 copies, despite my best marketing efforts.
    7. I’ve commissioned expensive covers that were unrelated to the genre.
    8. I’ve written terrible blurbs.
    9. I had 4 newsletter subscribers at the end of 2015 (three years into my indie career).
  2. These problems have forced me to reflect deeply on what works – and what does not. Instantly successful authors nail the fundamentals naturally or through good fortune. This tends to limit their ability to guide people through common problems. E.g. if your sink has always worked, you won’t understand how to fix it. I’ve experienced a shit load of (metaphorical) flooding sinks.
  3. I’ve tested basically everything in this guide. This isn’t theory, or a summary of six books on indie publishing I read this weekend; these are hard-earned facts, backed by actual data from 4+ years of experience, 45+ titles, and 6 different author names in a variety of genres.

But really, none of that matters. The best reason to listen is simple: I use this system myself.

I’d Still Rather Do My Own Thing

It’s perfectly valid to dismiss all my advice. I’m just one guy, and I’ve promised you no grand secrets. It’s inevitable that I’m mistaken about certain things. Such is the curse of being human.

What is invalid – if you’re starting out, in particular – is ignoring everyone. Collectively, the indie author community is one of the most open and generous you’ll find. Ignoring their 10+ years of hard-won wisdom in the name of “forging your own path” is sheer idiocy. If you insist on learning everything in this business through trial and error, you will never make it. There are lightning bolt exceptions, of course, that everyone fawns over. But reinventing the wheel every time you need to travel is not a good life strategy.

For the unconvinced, imagine you’re a hunter-gatherer in 30,000 BCE. Your tools are rudimentary, so you slice your hand open trying to gut a fish. Blood is streaming all over the rocks and your hand hurts like hell. But this is less concerning than the future you envision. For you also know, from watching the aftermath of similar accidents, that such wounds are often lethal. You have no idea that an infection is caused by bacteria; all you know is that, soon after cutting themselves deeply, people often get deathly ill. Few survive this sickness.

However, there are plants in the forest that can make a healing poultice. If one mixes yarrow and aloe together, one often survives, and the pain is eased. But there are no guarantees.

Instead, however, you decide to be bold. The medicine man has instructed the tribe to avoid certain plants – but, desperate to live, you decide that he is a fool. Or, worse, keeping valuable secrets for his own nefarious purposes. After all, you’ve seen three people close to you perish after using the yarrow-aloe mixture. So you do the opposite, gathering the plants he has declared deadly to craft your own poultice. Nightshade. Hemlock. In addition to rubbing it in your wound, you double down and eat the stuff by the handful.

Your tribe finds your corpse a week later, half-eaten by bears.

This is foolish. This seems obvious to the point of not meriting mention. You’d be wrong. The number of people I’ve seen ask for advice on forums, receive great, free consults worth 6-figures, then ignore all of it is, sadly, much higher than those who bother to implement it.

The trickiest thing about indie publishing – much like poker, or stock trading – is that optimal processes don’t always yield good results. Even doing the “optimal” thing in this business often leads to frustratingly poor outcomes. You might get attacked by bears anyway. There is a high variance in outcomes: you can get a great cover, write a great book, pen a killer blurb and have the whole thing flop. Multiple times in a row.  This can lead people to declare conventional wisdom “nonsense” and the publishing business all “luck,” after which they traipse off into the forest to eat poisonous plants.

You don’t have to listen to me. Like the yarrow and aloe mixture, there are no guarantees of your indie survival. But you don’t need to be the guinea pig for marketing nightshade, either. Many tactics and strategies don’t work. Period. Other authors have lit substantial piles of money on fire before you – learn from their mistakes and build on their successes, instead of putting your fingers in your ears and yelling la, la, that won’t work for me and they’re all idiots, so I’m gonna do my own thing.

No author has enough time, money or, quite frankly, mental fortitude to survive an endless stream of unforced errors.

You need to follow a good, proven strategy. Then you need to persist long enough to see it through.

On Business

When you strip away all the platitudes and buzzwords, running a successful business comes down to two core things:

  1. Strategy: e.g. your system/plan (what you’re gonna do). How many books you’ll release in a year, which genre, when they will be released, what kind of advertising you’ll do, how much you’ll spend, and so forth.
  2. Execution of that strategy. Actually doing it (well). Most people blame “productivity,” for their execution problems, but showing up is only step 1. Step 2 is executing competently. This is difficult. Further, a poor, unrealistic strategy inevitably results in poor execution. Great execution flows from great strategy.

These are simple principles that hide deceptive layers of complexity.

Note: I will use “strategy” and “system” interchangeably through this guide.

It is crucial to design your marketing strategy in accordance with your goals, available resources (money, existing skills, people who can help you etc.) and execution capabilities.

This is why dogma is stupid. Even if there was a theoretically most efficient strategy to achieving authorly success, it wouldn’t necessarily be your most efficient path. Understand the principles, however, and you can adjust the strategy – and advice – to your personal situation.

And that’s when you start making real progress.

This Guide’s Core Principles

All systems are built upon principles. My marketing philosophy is no different. These are not beliefs, nor things I necessarily wish to be true; these are principles that, from experience, data and research, I’ve found are likely to be true.

  1. Think critically of all advice (or, The Emperor Has No Clothes).
  2. Life is dictated by evolution: Success in indie publishing – and, presumably, life at large – is not about being the strongest, fittest, smartest or quickest. Success results from being the best adapted to the current environment. You must be willing to try new things; many of these will be uncomfortable. You can adapt, or you can die.
  3. Compound interest rules the world: Compound interest applies to everything from money to newsletter subscribers to skill acquisition. Get 1% better per week; 1% per week compounded over 5 years is a 13x increase. At the start, however, progress is modest – until you hit critical mass, which people mistakenly call “overnight success.”
  4. The 80/20 Rule: 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. The #s vary (e.g. sometimes 1% of your actions can produce 99% of the results). The key takeaway: a select few actions have a disproportionate impact on your results. You cannot do everything, nor should you even try; most tasks are worthless. Small, marginally effective tactics are, in fact, liabilities holding you back, as they thieve time from high impact tasks.
  5. No amount of tweaking and marketing can revive a book or series that fails to satisfy reader expectations. If you’ve tried a lot of things and your book still sinks like a stone, congratulations: you’ve written an unsellable book. No worries. I’ve written 15+ of them.
  6. Implement one thing at a time. Mailing lists. Genre research. Covers. Categories. Trying to master everything at once is a recipe for information overload. It’s probably gonna take 3 – 5 years to become a successful author – you can’t learn or do everything today. Just identify your main problem and then attack it step-by-step.

The Internet Marketing Formula

Effective marketing involves just three steps, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing:

  1. Traffic: you direct potential readers to your book page via paid ads, your mailing list, social media, Amazon’s algorithms and so forth. Getting traffic is also known as “generating visibility” or “doing promotion.” Covered in Part 2.
  2. Conversion: you convince readers to buy your book via a stellar blurb and cover, competitive price, professional first few pages and so forth. Later, you convert them into fans by pointing them to the next book or offering them something of value to sign-up for the mailing list. Covered in Part 3 (covers/blurbs) and Part 4 (email lists).
  3. Assessing ROI (return on investment): did you make money? If you sold 1,000 books @ $3.99, but it cost you $10,000 in production and ad costs, your business isn’t long for this world. Assess what methods aren’t working, what series aren’t hitting it off with readers and then return to Step #1 (traffic) and tighten things up on the next go round. ROI doesn’t get its own chapter, because it can be boiled down to the following rule: double down on what makes you money and immediately stop what doesn’t.

That’s it: you need to get readers to your book’s page, and then you need to convince them to buy it; and you need to do these two things inexpensively enough to generate a profit so you can repeat the cycle.

Simple. Not easy.

The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula

The trifecta of indie author success can be distilled into three components: genre craft + marketing + consistent production. When one of these three elements is substantially lacking, your job becomes difficult to the point of de facto impossibility.

But this framework, while useful, isn’t a directly actionable strategy. Enter the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula.

I’ve seen this formula work for authors in every genre. It’s about the most consistent damn thing I’ve found in a business filled with more twists and turns than the actual books.

Ready? Here it is:

Genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words/150+ pages (4+ per year) = full-time author

Or, put another way:

  1. Research: Understand the tropes and expectations of your sub-genre. Can your target market support your financial goals? What are your audience’s expectations? Meet them to craft a book that your target audience needs to read.
  2. Traffic: Find three effective, targeted traffic sources that suit your marketing strengths/budget.
  3. Covers/Blurbs: Get great, professional covers and write compelling blurbs that clearly convey the genre.
  4. Newsletter: Build your mailing list.
  5. Consistent new releases: Once you get the first four steps down, you can massively amplify your revenue by simply releasing more titles. The most effective marketing tactic is a new release. However, if you suck at the first four things, publishing more books will only lead to more expenses.
    1. Writing full-length novels (60,000+ words) in a series makes marketing far easier/more lucrative. Most readers want books of a satisfying length, with characters they grow to love. Even if you hate series, you still need to write them. Otherwise, success is almost impossible.

These five parameters were not devised because of preexisting biases against literary fiction, short stories/novellas, standalone novels, taking years in between releases or anything else (for further insight, check out the Author Earnings Report RWA 2016 Presentation). They simply give you the best odds of succeeding in a competitive business.

There are ten thousand more things you can do. But if you execute these five things at an 85 – 90%+ level, you’ll make it. How can that be, you say? Don’t you have to create epic landing pages, split-test everything, release six books a week, type six million words a minute and write massively to trend to succeed?

None of the complex stuff matters if you get the fundamentals wrong. Indie publishing becomes an unmanageable albatross when you try to get everything right. This formula forces you to focus only on keystone tasks.

The rest of this guide covers each of these components in depth, so you’ll understand exactly how to execute them properly.

First, however, I’m going to break each of these down.

I’m Going to Ignore Marketing and Just Write Good Books

I didn’t forget the importance of good books in the formula above. It’s vital – just not in the way most authors think. In addition, “write good books” is a uselessly vague piece of advice, often proffered with a sinister undertone: if you’re not selling, your books are crap. Ofttimes, the craft needs work – particularly if early novels. But I see more marketing breakdowns, to be honest.

Authors love to talk about writing good books. Do that. But writing good books is not a reader acquisition strategy. No one can tell if your book is good from the cover or blurb (and no, most readers don’t read samples). They assume your words will be entertaining when you execute these elements well. It is not until they are deep within the book some hours later, however, that the final verdict is known. Thus, writing good books – particularly strong, satisfying endings – is a reader retention strategy. Ultimately, all business is built on repeat business (for us, readers who become fans).

Without penning compelling books that your target audience NEEDS to read, you will never have a career. But publishing a good book will do nothing by itself, either (with rare exceptions that I can assure you are not you), until you make it visible to the world.

Genre Research = Write to Market, Right?

Yes and no.

Writing to market is a dirty phrase to some. For the uninitiated, it means heading over to Amazon, browsing the genres and actively writing/designing your book to appeal to specific sub-genres. This sounds like some wildly new concept. But it’s really just writing commercial fiction aimed at a preexisting audience.

Genre/market research – or writing to market, if you prefer – is about understanding genre tropes and expectations. Genre fiction makes up the bulk of novels sold. Think romance, thrillers, cozy mysteries, urban fantasy, military sci-fi and so forth. These genres & sub-genres all have established fan bases that want certain things from their books. As an author, your job is to deliver the expected experience in a satisfying and delightful way. To do this, you need to understand what makes a thriller different from a romance. The major genres are as follows:

  • Romance
  • Thriller
  • Mystery
  • Crime
  • Sci-Fi
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Western
  • Literary

A genre is not homogeneous. All sci-fi readers are not looking for the same thing; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is very different than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation).

Once you drill down into your chosen genre, you must understand the granular sub-genre differences. This is a matter of studying what makes Snow Crash (cyberpunk) a different reading experience than The Expanse (space opera), despite sharing some tropes – or a billionaire romance different from a bad boy rock star one. You can do this by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best way is picking up a couple books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list and just reading them.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Selling authors have done this for over a hundred years. They will do it for a hundred more, long after your books are forgotten. If you are going to write a romance, understand what readers expect. Thriller? Understand what those readers expect. Want to mash up the two genres into romantic suspense? Fine – understand which elements must be present to craft a satisfying cocktail.

Too often, I see writers using “but I wanna write the book of my heart” as a lazy excuse to not understand their chosen genre. These same folks tend to whine about how readers don’t buy their books. And, ironically enough, these same people would scream if their favorite country artist released a punk rock record without changing the packaging/giving them a heads up. And rightfully so: that artist would have broken an implicit promise to their fans.

You can mash things up, swirl things around and do all sorts of crazy things once you understand the rules and boundaries of your chosen genre(s) – e.g., you create Firefly, which is a space opera western. You can break lampshade tropes, break expectations and turn genres on their head, once you have a deep understanding of the components. But, in the immortal words of Charlie Parker: Master the instrument, master the music and then forget all that shit and just play.

Mastery comes first.

You earn the right to “just play” by doing your genre research. Some people understand this intuitively, from having read dozens or hundreds of books in a specific category over the years. Others, like me, had to actively study their chosen genre of choice.

There are two primary approaches to picking a genre to write in. To quote myself from this essay:

Writing to genre: writing a book in a well-defined genre/sub-genre, using many of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. E.g. disaster fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance

Writing to trend: writing a book in a well-defined sub-genre that’s currently hot & selling well, using all of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. Trend books are often laser-targeted toward a very specific sub-genre (in a popular larger genre) that has suddenly grown to a size that outstrips normal demand. Often they’re simply sub-genre books that are enjoying a sudden swell of popularity. E.g. Navy Seal romance, billionaire bear shifter romance, tough guy urban fantasy

You must understand your genre and audience’s expectations. Plotting techniques integral to thrillers will ruin romances. Genre expectations – and even many sub-genres – differ substantially from one another. Contrary to the misguided beliefs of struggling artistes everywhere, studying genre tropes is not optional.

Imagine ordering a lobster in a restaurant, only to be given flounder. Would you accept the chef’s “innovation” or explanation that they’re both “seafood”? Absolutely not – you’d never eat there again. This is what you’re doing when, say, you don’t include a happily ever after (HEA) in a book marketed as a romance. A reader ordered lobster, but you delivered something else entirely. You broke the implicit promise your cover/blurb made.

There is a point where the tailoring becomes so extreme, however, that you sacrifice long-term sales for short-term gain. This is writing to trend: searching for hot genres and then writing tropes exclusively the way people like them now. People’s broader tastes don’t change much (romance has been around for almost two hundred years), but fads within each genre fall in and out of favor rapidly. By focusing only on these tropes, your book will sink when that sub-sub-genre is no longer hot.

Weigh the pluses and minuses and factor in your writing speed when making a decision. Writing to trend demands fast releases, but it’s the quickest way to go from zero to making a living. Writing to genre allows more creative latitude and is a better path to building a long-term, non-commoditized brand. I think you’re best off somewhere in the middle: where you’re writing in a genre with current commercial appeal, but which has also held readers’ interest for, say, longer than the past ten minutes.

And, finally, to find the intersection between what you enjoy writing – and write well – and what readers will buy.

Traffic: Why Only Three Sources?

This guide is built upon the 80/20 principle. Even authors who sell far more than me have a tendency to fall prey to nonsense. I have no interest in working 100+ hour weeks (or even 50 hour weeks) and vaporizing insane amounts of money on things that “might” be working. From my exploits as a writer, marketer and reader, I also understand that the number of things I can be truly great at is limited. The chance of me producing excess value in 10 or 15 marketing areas is zero. The chance of me producing negative value in many of those areas is high, simply because marketing is competitive. When I spread my learning time and capital too thin, it is difficult to hit the “critical mass” in both skill level and monetary investment necessary to compete.

I am not interested in fighting a war of attrition, where I must constantly add 5 more traffic sources and 20+ hours to my workload to keep up. This would reach an unsustainable breaking point due to the laws of time and space, but your sanity is far more likely to wave the white flag before than.

Thus, while 1 + 1 = 11, 1 + 9 = 0, or -2. By doing more, we actually accomplish far less – or even head backward. This is counter intuitive in an entrepreneurial culture that worships at the altar of #hustle. But most of that extra work is, at best, wasted – and, at worst, screwing you over.

The idea is not to strictly adhere to the concept of “three.” You might have four or five traffic sources – or two (relying on one puts you in a precarious position, and is not recommended). This parameter, instead, is to encourage you to think deeply about your marketing choices – and track your results. We want to be efficient and honest with our marketing efforts. If one has 10 marketing channels, it’s impossible to track or evaluate the results.

If one only has three sources, then he had better be damn sure they’re working on all cylinders. This encourages us to put in higher quality effort – and engages our critical thinking to analyze what is working and what must be changed.

Covers and Blurbs

There are quite a few things you can tweak on your book’s product page. None of them matter anywhere close to as much as your cover or blurb.

You might wish that your book would sell based on the merits of its writing. Repeat sales do. But closing the deal when a new potential reader comes to your book’s product page is almost 100% down to your cover and blurb.

Getting a great cover is not necessarily about commissioning the most expensive, intricate piece of art you can find. Similarly, a quality blurb might not dazzle with its prose. Ultimately, these two components are packaging tools that draw the right reader’s attention. A great cover will get them to your page. An intriguing blurb/hook will close the deal.

There are authors who succeed with terrible covers and anemic blurbs. This path is not recommended. A truly great cover and hook-laden blurb are more powerful than a BookBub or $100/day PPC campaign. You are pushing boulders uphill if you ignore either.

Newsletter: It Sounds Like BS

While I talk a lot about the importance of building a newsletter/email list (I use these terms interchangeably), you should know that this is really a synonym for platform. You need some sort of direct conduit to readers – be that social media (Facebook/Twitter), your mailing list, a forum or some other place where you can directly contact readers. Otherwise your career is on borrowed time.

The reason I choose the newsletter as the platform of choice out of all the available options is simple: it is 100% under your control and ownership. Facebook can, and has, changed its algorithms. Companies that were built upon free organic reach to their fanpage Likes suddenly found that they had to pay (substantially) in order to reach their full fanbase. Further, an email list subscriber is worth anywhere from 20 – 50x that of a Like, Follower or other social media action.

Building a platform is paramount to a long-term career, and the cheapest method of long-term promotion. PPC costs rise with competition. Promo sites become less effective and more expensive. If you can channel a chunk of your advertising budget into building a list that you own – comprised of people who like your work – this will make you immune to the inevitable shifts in algorithms, reach, click prices and so on. In any business, the best people to sell to are your own customer list.

Series, Full-Length Books, and Consistent Releases

You’ll see the advice to write in series hammered home by almost every writer. Why? After all, most of the novels that we can name are probably standalones. Thus, it would seem, that writing such one-off novels was a viable career path. While I wish this was true – as both a consumer and writer, I prefer standalones – it, alas, makes this gig an almost impossible slog.

The reason you almost have to write in series is three-fold:

  1. Voracious readers like them. A lot.
  2. 1 sale = 5 sales (or however many books are in your series). Basically, each new series/book forces you to convince readers – even your big fans – anew that it’s for them. If, however, they like a series character, then Book 1’s purchase results in a stream of largely effortless follow-on sales.
  3. You can spend a lot more on advertising. Because of point #2, your read-through from book to book in a backlist of series titles is much higher than a backlist of unrelated standalones. As such, you can spend significantly more acquiring a customer – even going into the read. If you know that 50% of people go on to read Book 2 ($3.99), then 90% of those people read Books 3 – 8 ($3.99/ea), then this means a sale of Book 1 @ $0.99 is actually worth $0.35 + $1.35 + $7.54 = $9.24. That means, in theory, you could spend $5 to sell a reader Book 1.

Naturally, standalones aren’t revenue killers in all sub-genres. Psychological thrillers, for example, are dominated by standalones – and indie authors are making a good living in that sub-genre without releasing in series. The same cannot be said about urban fantasy or space opera; these are dominated by lengthy series books. As always, understand what your audience wants, then give it to them. That will usually be a series.

Moving on to the next order of business: I recommend 60,000+ word novels. One, in almost any genre, this is a satisfying length that exists in a comfortable Goldilocks zone – neither too short nor too long. Second, if you’re in Kindle Unlimited (KU), this puts your book’s Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) comfortably between 325 and 400 KENP, which means you receive around $1.45 – $1.80 each time a KU subscriber reads your entire book.

Readers prefer full-length novels, and are more likely to borrow/purchase them. Many promo sites, including the mighty BookBub, only accept novel-length works of 150+ (print) pages or more (which is 35,000+ words, depending on chapter breaks/spacing). Finally, a full-length novel generally enjoys a longer shelf-life than shorter works, selling for longer. There are exceptions in certain genres, where shorts (erotica) or rapidly released novellas (romance) can perform well. As always, you must do your genre research to unearth viable strategies in your chosen sub-genre.

Consistent releases mean something different to everyone; the topic is a point of debate on writers’ forums. One thing to remember: a trad-pub author is considered prolific if she publishes 1 book a year. In the indie world, this is considered glacially slow. Two books is considered a snail’s pace. But in the writing world at large, this is 99.9th percentile.

A book a month has become in vogue, but that’s an unsustainable treadmill for most. Even writers who pen productivity/write faster books don’t generally release that fast. Why? The writing usually suffers, the workload is insane, and you also have to launch the damn thing. It’s another case where 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4, but 1. You do more work and spend more money for less results, unless you have systems in place.

Ultimately, I’ve seen many indies succeed by writing 2 books a year. But there’s a caveat: they had a backlist. If you’re just starting out, your goal is to build that backlist – both for the craft practice and the marketing opportunities it provides. A series with 8+ books in it has far more marketing options available than one with 2 titles. You can also spend far more to acquire readers – even giving away/selling book 1 at a loss – because you’ll make it up on the backend.

There are downsides to releasing less: your release months tend to be your must lucrative, which means you need to budget better for the rest of the year. New releases give the rest of the series a visibility boost; without them, you’ll need to spend more money on paid promotion. Keeping your newsletter subscribers engaged is more difficult if you only send new release emails; six months between emails is an eternity in internet time. And, finally, you need to make sure those books are rock solid, in everything from the cover to the genre targeting – if you screw up a release, it’s much harder to recover.

This is why I recommend 4 releases annually – and 6 books if you’d like to become a 6-figure author. Releasing once every three months – or two months – is realistic for many once you develop some chops, and it’s a pace that won’t burn through all your cash or mental resources at an unsustainable rate. It also smooths out your earnings, and gives you a shot at redemption when one of your books/series inevitably flops.

To Reiterate: Execute the Fundamentals Well

Genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words/150+ pages (4+ per year) = full-time author

Play with the variables in accordance to your personal strengths and weaknesses; some people are productivity monsters, and write 12+ books a year. They constantly tap into the massive boost Amazon gives to new releases (covered in Part II), instead of doing stuff like Facebook Ads. Other people only release a couple times a year, but build a huge newsletter that launches them into the Top 100 reliably.

Leverage your signature strengths. These will help you stand out in a crowded marketplace. Make sure your weaknesses aren’t sabotaging you. This will maximize the impact of your strengths.

You can, of course, ignore all of this. I am not claiming that this is the only path to full-time authorship. This formula, however, has been engineered to maximize the probabilities of succeeding in a very competitive industry. Throwing every element to the wind would unwise. While it is possible you will succeed by marching to the beat of your own drum, it is not probable. A few authors break all the rules, but most replicable long-term successes are built upon remarkably similar foundations.

I’ll repeat this formula throughout, so as to drill it into your brain. If you already know how to execute each of the elements within, then you don’t need to read further. If you don’t, then the rest of the guide will show you how. Quite frankly, you could execute the formula exactly as written above, ignore everything else, and I’d be shocked if you didn’t start selling a lot of books. But, of course, us authors – as creatives – have a natural suspicion of formulas and systems and often insist on testing the virtues of nightshade and hemlock for ourselves.

If this is you (unnecessary testing has certainly been a hallmark of my authorial journey), just make sure, when you do, the antidote is ready.

General Marketing Concepts

Before I explain how to do market research, there are a few general marketing concepts that will help you. This might get a little esoteric, but I promise it will be useful in understanding conceptually why I insist on certain things. These have been applied to various marketing campaigns for over a hundred years; now you’ll be applying them to the domain of bookselling. First of all, marketing is not advertising or promotion. These are often used as interchangeable synonyms. Advertising and promotion are subsets of marketing – important ones, at that – but they are not the entire picture.

Business school is largely a morass of useless nonsense, but one concept that isn’t complete crap is the 4 Ps of marketing: price, product, placement and promotion. This is also known as “the marketing mix.” These elements are all critical. Price and placement you have little control over as an indie author; you’re basically stuck between $0.99 – $9.99, and you can sell your books either via Amazon (exclusively) or wide, at all retailers.

This is actually good, as it allows us to narrow our focus primarily to promo and product.

There’s a 5th P that the B-school folks missed: packaging.

The best marketing is baked into the product. Many entrepreneurs and writers spin this as a quality issue. This is understandable, as marketing is a basically a four-letter word in our culture. We want to succeed based on the merits and superior quality of our product. But, once products meet a basic threshold of competence, quality is rarely a differentiator. In fact, committing to excessive quality can often send you to an early grave due to costs.

This is not a suggestion to cut costs, merely a reminder to inoculate yourself from bullshit stories. Superior products win is a nice story. Alas, the graveyard of brilliant 1 season TV shows and lost classics suggests tells us otherwise. The show Terriers was one of the best of the last 10 years; alas, it had a terrible name (e.g. marketing). And you’ve likely never heard of it.

The most important piece of marketing is called product-market fit. Basically, this fancy terms means you’ve created a product your target market wants. Fairly simple, right – but most companies never achieve this. They either never do their proper research, or can’t quite crack the alchemical code of consumer desire. In the world of indie publishing, achieving proper product-market fit comes down to understanding your target genre and audience. Fortunately, unlike the world of startups – from which this term originates – we are not creating never-before-seen products that might have no demand in the marketplace.

Readers like books. They like certain types of books. Go to these pre-existing genres. Where authors get in trouble is when they don’t understand genre. Often they brush this off by saying “I want to write the books in my heart.” Unfortunately, this is just a lame excuse for not doing any research and not bothering to understand genre conventions. As an author, you are a service provider – your job is provide entertainment.

It is not entertaining for a reader to pick up a space opera, only to find that it’s a philosophical treatise on the merits of dust. This is poor product-market fit, and your reviews will reflect this disconnect.

Which market should you choose for your new product (book)? Famed copywriter Gary Halbert once said that the most important thing in business is to find a starving crowd: a group of people who desperately want what you have to offer because no one else is giving it to them. In indie terms, this is what’s known as an “underserved niche.” There are many small sub-genres that have been long ignored by traditional publishing. These have flourished in the new indie paradigm.

Of course, in broad, popular genres that are “saturated,” there are often hidden starving crowds. Readers who are sick of the same lame characters and plots of convenience. How do you design a book that will appeal to these underserved consumers? You read the Amazon reviews of popular books – positive and negative. Find what those popular books are lacking, and then bake that into your own.

Positioning: Building a Unique Author Brand

Ultimately, the goal of all your marketing is to create an author brand. However, we don’t achieve this the same way as Coca-Cola or Geico. We don’t have millions of dollars for branding campaigns that go up in Times Square. In recent years, analytics and direct marketers have started to preach the “brand advertising” is dead mantra, saying that any campaign without a trackable ROI is worthless. I wouldn’t go this far; the marketing people at Coke or Apple are not morons.

However, as indie authors – even if you make 7 figures – you do not have the funds for this large-scale, mass-media campaign. But we can still develop our brand. What is a brand, after all? It’s essentially a symbol that sets an expectation for the experience and quality you can expect. It also has emotional connotations; Coke is associated with happiness, inclusion, relaxation, Christmas and a host of other things, depending on the season. A brand is a promise of a consistent customer experience.

Your name at the bottom is an implicit promise of a certain type of reading experience. It can be a very specific genre experience – fast-paced thrillers with hard-nosed, broken protagonists – or a more general experience (e.g. “speculative fiction that makes you think”). It’s easier to build/convey a consistent brand experience around a specific sub-genre (e.g. legal thrillers, urban fantasy etc.) or complementary genres (e.g. sci-fi and fantasy; crime and thriller) than a more general experience. The latter, of course, can be done; just know you’ll have to hone your authorial voice/style more to create a brand that transcends genre boundaries.

Ultimately, the heart of your brand is your unique selling proposition (USP). For author marketing purposes, a USP is a “hook.” What do you offer that no other author can? A classic example is Domino’s famous 30 minutes or less guarantee. There will be those who claim books are not fungible products (e.g. you can’t substitute one for another), and thus the USP is already built in. This is not true; most books, movies and songs are generic. The ones you hear, read and see over and over, however, are not. They provide an experience that you can’t get elsewhere. This is a result of branding, and, more specifically, a well-honed unique selling proposition.

You can make good money as a pulp writer, but ultimately this makes your writing a commodity. Commodities inevitably get price squeezed; if you write generic urban fantasy, there are a hundred options on the market. The reader will go with the cheapest one, and doesn’t care which author supplies it.

There are two levels of the USP/hook:

  • Author: what do you offer that no author can? Elmore Leonard was a great author in many aspects, but his USP was his dialogue. Dan Brown’s USP is his globe-trotting, intricate plots that are somehow effortless to follow and read – despite being twisty as all hell. Your author hook doesn’t necessarily have to be craft-related, although it often is a matter of “voice.”
  • Book: the hook/concept/tagline. If you can’t come up with a snappy tagline for your book that cuts through the maelstrom of content, it is likely a commodity. Hook = your book’s USP.

A few USP examples, from TV/film:

  • iZombie (police procedural): driven woman turns into zombie slacker with ability to see visions from eating people’s brains.
  • Groundhog’s Day (romantic comedy): romantic comedy where main character is caught in an endless time loop
  • About Time (romantic comedy-drama): main character can go back in time to reexperience/change events and thus help his romantic prospects
  • The Matrix (sci-fi drama): what if reality was nothing more than an elaborate computer simulation?
  • Dexter (drama): vicious, psychotic serial killer who works for the Miami PD as cover and exclusively kills the worst criminals
  • Sopranos (prestige drama): a “real-life” mob story where the Sopranos have the same problems (trips to the shrink/issues at work/family troubles) as everyone else
  • Mad Men (prestige drama): watching the origin of modern America through the lens of its creators on Madison Avenue
  • The Expanse (space opera):  a smart, “prestige” Sci-Fi show

You need to get to the heart of what makes your writing and individual books unique. On the surface, The Sopranos is about the mob; and indeed, many peoples watched it as a sort of TV version of Goodfellas or Casino. But what makes it unique – other than commonly cited factors like great acting/writing – is how the family is familiar to viewers. After all, the show is called The Sopranos – not Jersey Gangsters or something similar.

Similarly, with Mad Men, one might be tempted to say that the hook is the 60s atmosphere or Don Draper’s brooding persona. And while those are big draws, they aren’t unique; what is unique is how that Mad Men is essentially a creation story about how advertisers created the modern world. And, in doing so, there’s a certain question being asked: is the reason we’re perpetually unhappy as a culture because we inadvertently, through consumption, anoint miserable ad-men like Don Draper as our sherpas to guide us to happiness?

Finally, both Groundhog’s Day and About Time are familiar stories if you strip away their USPs. But these time-based hooks differentiate them from their competitors, without plunging them into the science fiction genre. The mechanism is never explained; the focus is always on the relationship and development of the main character. The hook gives it enough uniqueness to not only stand out, but also breathe life into well-worn concepts.

Thus, developing a USP is not only great for your marketing materials, but it also makes sense from a craft perspective.

Here are a couple examples from the indie author world:

  • Author: CJ Lyons’ “thrillers with heart.”
  • Book: Adam Croft’s Her Last Tomorrow – “Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

You might disagree and think that I’m going way too deep. For prestige dramas and literary fiction, in particular, it’s often harder to nail the “hook” and appeal of the show down exactly. There’s a certain bit of alchemy to why a show like Mad Men became wildly popular, but a similar period drama, Halt and Catch Fire (which is also excellent), did not. But even if, for your USP hook, you only get to “great show about the mob,” or “60s period drama about an ad agency,” you’re still light years ahead of everyone else. So it’s worth reflecting on, even if you ultimately judge that I’ve traveled into the realms of literary criticism. Because having an angle is critical to standing out.

Market Realities

The Kindle audience – and fiction book market – is predominately female. This sounds like an odd statement, but only because it’s never mentioned. This is strange, given how far the numbers are skewed toward women. While Amazon itself doesn’t release demographic numbers, Facebook’s audience data indicates that 88% of those interested in”Kindle” are female. BookBub is similarly skewed: 90% of the people interested in that service are women.

Unless you write a novel version of Entourage, a substantial chunk of your audience will be female. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Facebook demographic is about 70% M/30% F. It skews toward the male demographic, as one would expect for epic fantasy – but not nearly as much as you might think. After all, epic fantasy is often stereotyped as for male “nerds” and “geeks.”  This doesn’t hold up to the data, however. On the other hand, romance novels are considered to be books exclusively for women. The data, in this case, bears this assumption out: romance author Kresley Cole’s audience is 0.4% M/99.6% F.

Does this mean all your main characters should be women, all your blurbs geared toward them and so forth? No. But it bears consideration when you’re crafting your marketing materials, particularly if you’re a male author. The same things that are important to you aren’t necessarily important to women; by excluding or including certain elements from your blurb, for example, you might turn off 50%+ off your audience. Strive to get into the mind of your target audience; even if most people want a good story, men and women are seeking different things from fiction. Thus, this influences their individual ideas of what constitutes a “good story.”

Naturally, large demographic groups like “men” and “women” are anything but homogeneous. The goal isn’t to classify all readers of the same gender as identical in taste/preference – that would be ridiculous. Rather, the question you should be asking is this: what is a man/woman who likes Epic Fantasy looking for & getting out of this type of book? Their favorite characters, plotlines and themes might vary wildly. This is important data, because by including certain elements, you can broaden the appeal of your work.

In the case of romance, this would be stupid. Reaching 1 – 2% more people doesn’t move the needle, and appealing to men might break the same elements that make certain women avid readers of the genre. But 30% is another matter entirely.

Check your audience on Facebook – similar authors, your sub-genre and so forth. Analyze the demographic breakdown is. Remember, we want product-market fit. Understanding who is in your market is the first step in designing an appealing product.

While we’ll see that narrowing our audience is critical, we don’t want to alienate huge swaths of it for no reason. Keep that in mind.

Component #1: The Power of Market/Genre Research

Note: I use the terms genre and market research interchangeably throughout this guide.

Market research sounds horribly boring, which is why most authors refuse to do it. But an hour up front can save you hundreds of hours on the back end, which I feel is a pretty good trade. Even if you already have a book available, go through these steps. You’ll often find that your book is under-performing not because it sucks, but because your cover and blurb are off-base. Or you’ve placed your work in the wrong category. Or, well, you’ve created a book that has no target market – or a tiny market.

Market research can be performed for free, right on Amazon. In short, market research entails:

  1. Research your genre on the Kindle Bestseller charts. This tells you what readers are purchasing right now: they are voting with their dollars that they want books with these covers, blurbs and tropes. This is the most unbiased form of market research, and it’s available for free.
  2. Drill down to your sub-genre (e.g., romance is a genre; paranormal romance is a sub-genre) and examine the covers, blurbs and other patterns. Note the differences – some are mere outliers (or misclassified), but others provide insight into untapped markets.
    • Exclude books riding a recent promotional wave. You can generally screen these out because they’re $0.99.
  3. Assess how well this sub-genre is selling and the level of competition/saturation. Do this by writing down the ranks of the #1 book, #5, #10, #20 & #50. Everything between 1 – 10,000? Good opportunity to carve out a full-time living. Everything between 1 – 5,000? Getting quite competitive. Between 1 – 2,000? Hyper competitive.
  4. Determine whether this sub-genre can support your financial goals (pro, part-time).
  5. Determine whether you can realistically break into the Top 20/100 given your current resources. Garnering visibility in a highly competitive sub-category like contemporary romance costs significantly more than in, say, steampunk. Of course, the latter has a much lower monthly revenue ceiling.
    • Breaking into the Top 20/Top 100 of your sub-genre is not the be-all, end-all of success. It is just a metric to analyze competitiveness. For example, if you only have the financial resources for a $50 promo push, it’s hard to gain any real visibility in contemporary romance due to the big, well-entrenched players and dozens of daily releases. Expecting immediate success, thus, would be foolish. But you can employ the principles of kaizen and compound interest to build toward the author platform/resources you need to compete.
    • Assess the sub-genre’s market dynamics: how frequently do the top authors publish? What’s the expected word count?
    • Finally, determine whether your voice and production speed are a good fit for the sub-genre. If your strength is writing hyper-snarky first person POV, then contemporary romance is probably a poor fit. But chick-lit could work well.
  6. Write down ten indie authors and ten traditionally published authors in the sub-genre.

Researching your competition up front will give you a good idea of how to best position your book. If you haven’t written it yet, it also gives you the opportunity to incorporate elements of a less-competitive sub-genre (e.g. dark fantasy) without ruining its appeal to a broader sub-genre (urban fantasy). Doing this cleverly can enhance your organic visibility on Amazon by increasing your book’s cross-genre appeal.

Note: Amazon’s charts are skewed toward the preferences of Kindle Unlimited subscribers. For new & unestablished authors, Kindle Unlimited is the best way to generate visibility (as well as money). But it’s important to understand that genre preferences vary across retailers, so if you’re going wide, then repeat this exercise with each retailer.

What’s Next?

We’ll cover how to promote your books and maximize the effects in Part II: The Ultimate Guide to Promotion. Before continuing, I’d recommend doing the Action Steps below – because using information is infinitely better than tucking it away for a rainy day.

Summary

  • Genre research is critical. If you mess up your book’s genre/sub-genre targeting, there is often no return.
  • Business comes down to two things: strategy (your system/plan) and execution (actually implementing that system)
  • The Success Trifecta: genre craft + consistent production + marketing
  • The Internet Marketing Formula: generate traffic to your Amazon page (via paid ads, mailing list, PPC and so forth), convert potential readers into buyers by having compelling covers/blurbs; later, convert readers into fans by having a compelling mailing list offer, and then evaluate the ROI (return on investment) by doubling down on things that make you money and immediately stopping activities that don’t.
  • The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + newsletter + great covers/blurbs + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words (4+/year)
    • A new release is the ultimate marketing strategy once you have the other four elements working. Until then, publishing a good, new book is not a reader acquisition strategy; it is a reader retention strategy. To acquire readers in the first place, you need to generate traffic + have compelling covers/blurbs.
  • 6 Key principles:
    • Think critically of all advice; most of it is wrong or BS
    • Evolution: try new + different things to adapt and evolve to a changing environment
    • Compound interest: consistent, small improvement (kaizen) is key to success, so be patient and get 1% better every week
    • 80/20: a few actions have much more impact on your results than anything else
    • No marketing can save a book or series that fails to meet reader expectations.
    • Implement one thing at a time. It’s far better to master the elements of the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula over the course of a couple years than be trash at 50 different marketing tactics.

Action Steps

  1. Sketch out a rough, 5-minute production schedule/release plan. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive, and it’s not set in stone. Just try to determine what you can realistically (that is the key word – realistic is not the same as optimal) publish in the next year based on your available time/money/current habits + discipline (e.g. current marketing/production/craft skills).
  2. Research your sub-genre on the Amazon bestseller charts.
    • Write down the ranks of the #1, #5, #10, #20 and #50 book in two sub-genres that fit your series.
    • Write down ten indie authors and ten traditionally published authors who represent your target market (e.g. authors who can realistically complete the statement, my book is for fans of [Author X]).
    • Write down character names instead, if the character is more recognizable than the author.
    • You’ll use this list for PPC (pay-per-click) ad targeting, the blurb, cover inspiration and more down the line, so save it.
  3. Craft 3 author branding hooks that differentiate you from the rest of the authors in your sub-genre.
  4. Craft 3 book hooks for one of your titles that differentiate it from the titles in the Top 100.