Part I: The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula

Welcome to my five part guide on how to market your self-published fiction books. These five parts form a complete, step-by-step marketing system derived from personal experience and studying successful independent authors. Unlike other guides, books or courses you may have encountered, I promise not to throw a bunch of random, untested tactics (or folksy feel-good stories) at you, since I’m sure you have plenty collecting dust already.

We’ll cover everything from performing proper market research to optimizing your books’ covers, keywords and blurbs to producing better quality work, faster. I cannot promise overnight success – in fact, you should expect this process to take 3 – 5 years – but if you apply the information within, you will almost certainly see results. And, if you prefer, each section can also be read independently, so if you’re having trouble with a specific topic, feel free to skip ahead.

I want to be clear: there are no secrets within these pages. I am not going to teach you twenty-one tricks 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. Here’s the problem: you’re probably not using any of that information to sell more books. It simply exists as a collection of unorganized facts that, one day, you might apply.

Information alone is not valuable. In an era of hyper-connectivity, it’s a commodity. Translating information into results, however, remains difficult. If you’re anything like me, information tends to sit 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 marketing myths that naturally proliferate on the internet.

This guide’s objective, then, is simple: to distill the best marketing information into a step-by-step, actionable framework.

Such a framework is otherwise known as a system. A good system is a standardized blueprint that produces repeatable, consistent results. Instead of remembering what to do – or viewing facts and strategies in disconnected isolation – we can focus on execution.

As surgeon 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.

Each section of this guide concludes with a set of action exercises & summary. If you skip the exercises, you will get no results. But these exercises are just a stepping stone. 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.

In Part 1, I’ll explain:

  • Crucial mindset principles
  • Three key business metrics
  • 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.

Why Should I Listen to You?

This is a valid question, since so-called “authorities” frequently publish 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 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 books hammered by bad reviews, killing them right out of the gate.
    4. I’ve had series 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 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 limits their ability to assist others, as they haven’t experienced many of the common obstacles. 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 almost 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.

If my advice doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. 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 singles out. But reinventing the wheel every time you need to travel is not a good life strategy.

The trickiest thing about indie publishing – much like poker, or stock trading – is that optimal processes don’t always yield positive results. There is high variance in the 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 leads people to declare conventional wisdom “nonsense” and the publishing business all “luck,” after which they traipse off to follow their own ill-fated marketing “strategy.” In actuality, what they needed to do was play enough “hands” (e.g. release enough books, keep marketing) to smooth out the variance.

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

Follow a good, proven strategy. Then persist long enough to see it through.

On Tactics

Tactics are temporary; strategy is timeless.

Strategy steers the ship. It’s the engine that keeps you afloat, tells you what to do. Tactics are important, sure; keeping apprised of what’s new/what’s working for other authors currently can, and will, greatly help your success.

But a business is not built on tactics – some cool trick to get low bids on Facebook, or a few special keywords to use for your book.  This is great for clickbait, as the fundamentals are decidedly less sexy. And yes, in the short term, these things might help. But in the long term, tactics are either stamped out by the platforms or become swarmed by competitors. Ultimately, a tactic that once gave you an edge becomes either obsolete or a commodity. They can be wildly profitable in the interim, but they have a shelf life.

An example of a tactic: back in early ~2012, you could set your book to free on Amazon KDP and give away thousands of copies almost automatically. Since the free and paid charts were mixed (and a free download was counted as equivalent to a sale in their algorithm), this meant you got massive visibility – your free book would be hanging out at #12 in the entire Kindle Store. And, when it reverted to paid after its free run was over, you would make thousands of dollars from said visibility.

Many indies made 5-figures this way. A handful launched their careers, because they built actual fanbases using this source of traffic. Most, however, failed to recognize their good fortune – or thought the gold rush would never stop. Very few authors channeled this sales windfall into building their mailing lists (or another platform) where they could directly connect with their fans – and had on-demand access to them. As such, their good fortune was temporary, and their books plummeted into obscurity once Amazon separated the free and paid charts (and made a free download grant a mere 1/10 of the visibility boost of a paid sale).

This means two things for our purposes:

  1. This guide will not delve into temporary tactics. Otherwise it will be out of date in weeks or months. 95% of the information will remain relevant in 2030, since it’s based upon principles that are well over a century old. I chased tactics for the first two or three years of my career; inevitably, they either dried up before I could actually implement them (e.g. I sat on pages of notes for months) or they quickly waned in effectiveness when I did hop on the bandwagon.
  2. The end goal of your marketing efforts is to find fans. Yes, sales, page reads, downloads and so forth are all wonderful. Tactics that provide a temporary sales bump or visibility boost but don’t build your fanbase are ultimately worthless.  If you’ve found a tactical gold mine (say, a certain kind of Pinterest ad is making you a crazy amount of money), you must translate this temporary boost into fans ASAP by getting them to sign up for your email list (or engage on your platform of choice). Otherwise, once the gold rush is over, you’re left with no real business.

Tactics are useful, and have their place in marketing. But focusing on them at expense of the big picture is a fool’s errand.

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). Most advice is BS – even successful people often have a poor grasp on why they succeeded, or elements such as variance, timing and luck.
  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, uncomfortable things. 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. Initial 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. 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, as they thieve time from high impact, ultra-valuable 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. Think big, but act small: identify your main problem, break it into manageable chunks and then attack it step-by-step, making sure you execute as well as your current skills allow.

General Business Principles

Before we launch into the book-specific marketing stuff, we need to discuss a few basic business concepts. A lot of success – in this game, and in life – comes down to just not shooting yourself in the foot. 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.

Always 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.

The Two Key Metrics

There are thousands of metrics and numbers you can track. Many are deceiving – including common measures of success like sales, newsletter subscribers, review numbers, Amazon ranking or social media followers. These – and other numbers – certainly have their uses. But there are two key metrics for accurately assessing the health of your indie business:

1. Cash flow. This is the lifeblood of every business. When cash flow is negative, your business is on life support. The most basic way to calculate this:

Incoming revenue – monthly burn – one-off mandatory payments = monthly cash flow

Examples of what each of these components entails:

  • Incoming revenue: royalties from various retailers, paychecks from day job, freelancing payments
  • Monthly burn: recurring charges like health insurance, web hosting, email, cell phone, car payments, credit cards, mortgage/rent
  • One-off mandatory payments: upcoming doctor’s visit or a car inspection

People recommend not mixing business/personal accounts (and you shouldn’t if you have a corporation), but this generally doesn’t happen in the real world. Most people don’t start out with any sort of official business documentation. Your Amazon royalties tend to go into your personal bank account, and you pay designers/formatters from this same account. And, at the outset, you’re probably gonna fund your indie business with your checks from your main job.

As such, unless you maintain a strict separation of business/personal finances, your cash flow calculations should include revenue from your day job, personal payments like rent and so forth.

This is not a number calculated for tax or “official” purposes; it is a snapshot of how much money is flowing into your coffers versus how much is flowing out. When your free cash flow is negative or minimal (e.g. like $20), this constricts your growth rate (e.g. your ability to book promos, upgrade covers and so forth). Negative cash flow is a code red signal that your business is on life-support. You must fix this cash leak, or die.

Business owners will often try to patch over poor or negative cash flow with credit cards. This is a fool’s errand. If you take nothing else away from this guide, heed this: never charge anything to your cards that you cannot pay off that month. If you are paying credit card interest, you are a financial idiot. Period. This is not a lecture, but a hard-won piece of wisdom learned through unnecessary experience.

I get it – everyone thinks they’re the exception who is gonna take the credit card company for a 0% APR ride. News flash: banks are not dumb. That offer is not everywhere because they’re feeling charitable. It’s everywhere because suckers keep getting sucked in, thus making the bank loads of money. Don’t charge business expenses. You will regret it years down the line.

The best way to address immediate cash flow problems is by decreasing your monthly burn (e.g. chopping cable, cancelling a service). Recurring subscriptions look cheap on a monthly basis, but are often obscenely expensive when calculated annually. Long-term, of course, you want to increase your revenues. But your revenue growth is largely fueled by how much cash you can reinvest into your business – so focus on keeping expenditures down, and avoid tying up your cash in mediocre opportunities.

Cash flow should be calculated on a monthly basis, and done in advance. Since Amazon doesn’t pay you for 60 days, you know what your royalty deposit will be 2 months from now. This means that, after factoring in scheduling times, you often won’t see your cash (e.g. for a promo) for 120+ days. Bear this in mind when selecting uses for your money – an opportunity that makes you $15 but ties up $700 in capital for months isn’t worth it. You also know the bulk of your expenses. Plan accordingly.

2. Net income. This is just [total revenue – total expenses]. Only include numbers from your publishing business (e.g. do not include personal expenses like rent/car payments etc. unless they are also business expenses), as the taxman will want this figure, too. But net income is vital for personal use, as it gives you an instant snapshot of whether your business is generating or sucking up money. When net income is negative, you often have a problem, unless you’ve been spending a lot of money to grow (e.g. getting subscribers).

Net income should be calculated on a yearly basis. It can also be calculated quarterly. Monthly doesn’t tend to be useful, as expenditures and revenues don’t line up perfectly (e.g. you might spend $5,000 on a cover/promo/editing for a book that doesn’t launch for two months).

Money Management: The Unheralded Key to Success

One of my favorite quotes is from An Wang: “If you go for a long time without shooting yourself in the foot, other people start calling you a genius.” There’s remarkable truth in that statement – while whizbang tactics and “secrets” sell courses and encourage clicks, much of your success comes down to mastering basic things. Basics that, as adults, we feel are beneath us – such as the importance of patience, dedicated practice and perseverance.

And managing your finances correctly.

Most finance articles center around silly things, like cutting your Netflix subscription. This advice is steeped in a misguided “hustle and grind” work ethic that traces its roots back to Puritanism: there is a simple nobility to the austerity of depriving yourself of Ozark. I thought frivolous personal spending habits were the source of my money management problems – upon a bank account analysis, they weren’t.

Bad business “investments” were the culprit.

You know how every info marketer & service provider tells you that you shouldn’t be afraid to invest in your business and yourself? That it’s the most important thing? Well, most business expenditures aren’t investments. They’re giant wastes of cash. The #1 investment you can make in yourself and your business has nothing to do with money – it has everything to do with practice. Practicing the fundamentals of marketing, writing and self-discipline.

That’s not a monetizable idea, unfortunately, so you’re not going to hear it anywhere else.

Back to money pits: I’d venture to say that more businesses are scuttled by poor money management than any other problem. This is incredibly simple to get right, but most people become impatient, chase growth, fall prey to Sirens’ calls whispering impossible promises in their ears, and, like Icarus, end up drowning in the sea.

Yes, I understand I mixed my myths there. You get the point: people are trying hard to separate you from your cash. Three rules can keep you from the financial abyss.

  1. Never charge anything to your credit card that you cannot pay off that month. Nothing. Not those covers that you know are going to make your books breakout. Not the promo blitz that will push you into the Top 1000. If you cannot pay cash, you cannot afford it. And, since you’re thinking it: You are not going to pay your credit card off before the 0% APR runs out. It is always quicker to wait, save and then pay cash.
  2. Be wary of expensive paid courses. Magic bullets and secrets are tempting. They also don’t exist. I’ve spent thousands on courses, only to find that most are simply the blogger or author’s free material organized into video format. The upside is you get all this (hopefully) vetted information organized into a step-by-step progression. This organized information can be valuable, provided you actually put it to good use. In the internet age, remember, most information is a commodity – the true value lies in the execution (which a course, alas, cannot do for you).
  3. Be wary of expensive services. There are lots of web hosting options, themes, plugins and services available. Unfortunately for these companies, the internet has rendered most of these commodities, too. No longer does the classic heuristic “premium price = the best” hold true. You can get great, full-featured services for free, or remarkably low cost.

Four years ago, I would’ve laughed at those three rules and gone whateverThat won’t be my story – I’ll spend big now and be a millionaire in six monthsI’m an entrepreneur, baby. Until I felt that debt noose slip around my neck, I didn’t understand the magnitude of my stupidity. Taking unchecked risks and making unforced errors doesn’t make you bold or aggressive; it makes you a fool. And you know the saying about fools and their money. Remember how important compound interest is? I was compounding in the wrong direction. Hopefully you can internalize this lesson without the unfortunate wisdom born of experience.

I got out. I’m never going back. Money aside, I probably set myself back 2 – 3 years.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important section in the entire guide. Most will ignore it, since it’s obvious, unsexy and has nothing to do with Amazon charts or algorithms.

A Brief Note on Marketing and Advertising

Marketing and advertising (or promotion) are often used as interchangeable synonyms. However, they are not; advertising is a subset of marketing – which is a much larger beast indeed. The reason this matters is simple: many creative types harbor a severe aversion to paid advertising, thumbing their noses at it. Anything “commercial” is met with extreme disdain. This dislike bleeds over into all aspects of the marketing process, wherein the artist cleverly sabotages any chance of success through incredible marketing ineptitude.

I suspect that the real reason most people dislike marketing revolves around an uncomfortable truth: it is difficult.

But it is also a skill – and skills can be learned.

As we’ll find, marketing encompasses everything from the book’s description (called the blurb), to the market research you do to identify who would want to buy it; it involves the packaging (the cover art), building a platform of engaged fans (usually via an email list) and getting the word out to people who might buy the book. Which means that, even if you’re the most anti-commercial person in the world, if you told a single person about your book – a friend, maybe – you engaged in marketing.

Everyone, then, is a marketer. Some people are just bad at it. This is not cause for alarm, as we all struggle in the beginning. Unless you insist on never improving, that is – in which case, your chances of success plummet somewhere around zero. Which aspects of marketing you focus on is largely up to you, although this guide will strongly urge you to hone the fundamentals. Given time, you can get better, and improve bad marketing efforts into good ones.

If you have negative feelings about marketing – that it’s sleazy or smarmy, greasy or manipulative – I would suggest you reconsider them. Marketing  simply connects creators with people who want a certain type of product. Without marketing, these people will never know your book exists. In fact, if you have something important to say – or merely have penned a highly entertaining yarn – you are doing your target audience an extreme disservice by not improving your marketing skills.

If you want to be a full-time author – or, a well-compensated member of any capitalist system – it is simply a reality that you must market. And the spoils usually go to those who market their wares the best.

Fight this tide at your own peril.

Now let’s begin in earnest.

The Internet Marketing Formula

Effective internet 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. 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 in the series 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. You might have gained 3,000 email subscribers, but if only 2 of them buy, you have a problem. Assess what methods aren’t working, which series/books aren’t resonating with readers and then return to Step #1 (traffic) to 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 or fix 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. Your job as an indie author really comes down to honing these three areas through repeated practice. When one of these three elements is substantially lacking, your job becomes difficult to the point of de facto impossibility.

But this concept, while useful, isn’t an actionable strategy. How does one quantify “marketing” or “consistent production”? What should you focus on within these areas to improve your skills?

Enter the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, which I’ve seen work for authors in every genre. It’s 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 audience expectations of your sub-genre. Can your target market support your financial goals? What are your audience’s expectations? Proper research helps you craft a book that your target audience needs to read.
  2. Traffic: Find three effective, targeted traffic sources that suit your marketing strengths and budget.
  3. Covers/Blurbs: Get eye-catching, professional covers and write compelling blurbs that clearly convey the genre.
  4. Newsletter: Build your mailing list.
  5. Consistent new releases: Once you nail the first four steps, your most effective marketing tactic becomes 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. Even if you hate series, you must write them.
    2. Series allow you to spend more on marketing, because a sale of Book 1 will result in follow-up sales of Books 2, 3 and so forth (known as “sell-through”). A series otherwise is known as a “funnel” in internet marketing. Book 1 or a box set of Books 1, 2 & 3 starts your series funnel. Like its namesake, readers get sifted out as the funnel gets longer – only 50% might go on to read Book 2. But 90% (e.g. 45% of the original readers) go on to read Book 3. These numbers tend to stabilize after Book 3 (e.g. most people who read that far will continue the series), which means that, all else being equal, a longer book funnel generates more money than a shorter one for the same advertising spend/effort.
    3. Your existing fans are far more inclined to buy Book 2/3/4 etc. in a series they love than to purchase a new standalone/start a new series – even if they adore your other work.
    4. Consistent releases smooth out your earnings, making your cash flow more stable.

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). This formula is simply designed to 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 components 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?

Indie publishing becomes an unmanageable albatross when you try to get everything right. This formula forces you to focus only on keystone tasks.

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

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. A commitment to continuous improvement (kaizen) will propel you forward as other authors stagnate.

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

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

The formula doesn’t ignore the importance of writing good books. It’s vital – just not in the way most authors think. Unfortunately, “write good books” is a uselessly vague piece of advice, often proffered with a not-so-subtle undertone: if you’re not selling, your books are crap. This might be the case, but marketing shortcomings are equally common. We’ve all encountered fantastic TV shows, movies and books that died due to lack of marketing exposure.

Thus, 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 your presentation hits the correct notes. 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.

Component #1: Genre Research = Write to Market, Right?

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

Yes and no.

“Writing to market” is a dirty concept 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 this expected experience in a satisfying and delightful way. To do so, you need to understand what makes a thriller different than 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 seeking the same experience; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is a different sub-genre than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation). Study 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. In many instances, this is an emotional feeling, rather than “include tropes X, Y & Z.” You can identify these differences by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best method is reading books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Still not convinced this process is necessary?

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.

Then retire to your writing lab and execute it.

How Many Expectations Do I Need to Hit?

Too often I see writers using the “I wanna write the book of my heart” refrain as a lazy excuse to not understand their chosen genre. These same folks tend to whine about how readers don’t buy their books. You can lampshade tropes, break expectations and turn genres on their head once you understand the rules and boundaries of your chosen genre(s) – e.g. Firefly, which is a space opera western.

In the immortal words of Charlie Parker: Master the instrument, master the music and then forget all that shit and just play.

But mastery comes first.

You earn the right to “just play” by immersing yourself in your chosen genre. Some authors understand this intuitively, from having read dozens or hundreds of books in a specific category over the years. If you have mainstream tastes, you’ve often absorbed the expectations & tropes of mainstream genre fiction through osmosis because you’ve read so much of it. Others, like me, had to actively study their chosen sub-genre.

Some authors avoid doing genre research because they believe it sentences them to a slow, boring death of hackneyed tropes and formulaic writing. As we’ve already discussed, however, understanding your target market actually frees you to exercise more creativity and really stand out in your genre.

There are two basic approaches to successfully writing genre fiction:

Writing to genre/market: 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

To beat a dead horse: You must understand your genre and audience’s expectations. The most critical marketing comes before you write a single word. Marketing a weird, left-of-center book is a Sisyphean task. This is an issue of craft, too. 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 flounder. Maybe the flounder was delicious. Doesn’t matter; 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. This is often what authors envision when you mention “market research”: checklists of tropes, recycled characters and generally indistinguishable books. Such titles are generally churned out as pulp commodities to capitalize on a sudden spike in reader interest. People’s broader tastes don’t change much (romance has been around for almost two centuries), but sub-genres 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 (although hewing toward the “write to genre” end of the spectrum): 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, you should always strive to find the intersection between what you enjoy writing – and write well – and what readers will buy. Because consistent production is difficult when you dread heading over to the keyboard.

How to Do Market Research

With market research, you’re really trying to answer a single question: who is my target audience? Who’s going to buy the first ~1000 copies of this book?

This question is best answered prior to writing, as usually the answer for most first novels (or fifth novels) is “no one” or its corollary, “people who like to read.”

Market research can be performed for free, right on Amazon. Yes, it sounds boring. But it tends to be enlightening and interesting. No, even if you hate it, market research still is not optional. An hour up front can save you hundreds of frustrating 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.

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 target market 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 your book’s 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.

To beat this horse’s bones into dust: research is not optional. As an author, you are a service provider – and your job is to 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 a bad product, and your reviews will reflect as such. Some authors have done this research through years of reading their sub-genre, which means they intuitively grasp the beats, tropes and expectations of the target market. Others have to sit down and actively study it.

As already stated, I was part of the latter group. There is no shame in that; we all come to this game with different skills and experiences. You can close any deficiencies in genre knowledge merely by reading and studying what others are doing.

If you find the thought of tailoring your art to fit audience expectations/popular demand abhorrent, market research is still massively helpful. Why? The absence of certain types of fiction/characters/plots on a sub-genre’s Top 100 list can signal gaps that you and your fickle muse can fill. This is risky, as often what doesn’t appear is simply unpopular or not in demand. However, there are sub-genres with once-popular tropes/plots that have fallen out of trad-pub favor or disappeared from the marketplace (e.g. classic pulp adventures). Likewise, there are sub-genres with a few popular, breakout titles, a devoted fanbase, but very limited commercial success for the non-breakout titles (pure cyberpunk comes to mind). If you identify a way to position your novel as the next Snow Crash, Neuromancer or Ready Player One, then you can ride off into the sunset in your gold-plated Camaro.

Of course, doing that is far easier said than done.

Neither of those genres are writing suggestions; my attempt at writing a classic pulp adventure series was an abysmal commercial failure. If you’re adept, you can see opportunity in the market gaps. Most authors are better served coloring within the lines, however, at least at first.

Ultimately, the key question is this: what is my core reading demographic searching for? What do they want to feel? James Bond, Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne are all trained killers, but they feel different. The reading demographic has a ton of overlap, to be sure, but the takeaway experience from each is different. James Bond has an aristocratic, escapist elegance; Jack Reacher is an imposing physical presence and eternal wanderer; Jason Bourne is an improviser and master of his environment.

These distinctions might strike you as granular, but they’re critical – not just for selling books, but for writing good ones that resonate. Try to understand the principle behind why a hero is dark and brooding, or a wanderer, or an aristocrat – what emotional hot button that presses in your target demographic – rather than blindly copying a trope.

Important: 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. For a more general snapshot, use Facebook Audience Insights, which are free if you use Facebook Ads.

Facebook also gives you valuable demographic insights into your target audience – everything from age to gender to income. Generally, only the age and gender are useful for our purposes, although you might discover otherwise. One interesting thing you’ll find is that the Kindle audience is 88% female; BookBub’s audience is 90% female. A substantial portion of your audience, regardless of sub-genre, will be women. This is especially true in romance, where 99%+ of the readership is female.

Naturally, large demographics 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 ask in light of such data is this: what is a man/woman who likes Urban Fantasy looking for? How might their favorite characters, plotlines and themes might vary? What type of covers/blurbs/marketing do they respond to? By including certain elements (or excluding others), you can broaden the appeal of your work.

Which Market Should I Choose?

If you’ve done the exercise above, you should have some market candidates. But let’s drill into this on a more philosophical level.

This guide is designed to be somewhat paint-by-numbers. But if you can infuse the exercises with a sliver of free will and pinch of rational thought, you immediately separate yourself from the pack.

I find that many authors simply copy what others have done or gravitate toward what’s hot. I’m as guilty as anyone of this; I chose urban fantasy because a number of indie authors were breaking out in the genre. In retrospect, however, it would have been wise to comb Amazon’s charts for less saturated alternatives. This is not a moral or creative issue so much as purely a business one; there are voracious market niches with less competition than urban fantasy.

Legendary copywriter Gary Halbert once said that the most important thing in business is finding a starving crowd: a group of people who desperately want what you’re offering because no one else is giving it to them. In such instances, concerns like quality and advertising are less important – the crowd is hungry, and it will devour anything on the market.

A current example is LitRPG, a fledgling sub-genre which is trending toward saturation. Indeed, by the time you read this, it might already be over-run (such is how fast the indie landscape shifts). But, right now, one can launch a book with a substandard cover and minimal advertising into the Top 5000, simply because the readership is voracious and the supply of LitRPG is still (relatively) low. In indie author terms, this is what’s known as an “underserved niche.” There are many sub-genres that have been long ignored by traditional publishing. These have flourished in the indie world.

Of course, in broad, popular genres that are “saturated,” there are often hidden starving crowds. Many readers are sick of lame stock 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 to position yourself as an alternative to the commoditized masses (more on that below).

Positioning: How to Build an Author Brand in Your Niche

Ultimately, the goal of market research is not to create a homogeneous, cookie-cutter product. Once you understand your audience, you can craft marketing materials that position your books uniquely within your sub-genre. Thus, proper market research allows you to craft a distinct author brand. However, we don’t create our author brand using the same methods as Coca-Cola. We don’t have millions of dollars for branding campaigns that go up in Times Square or air during prime time TV. In recent years, direct marketers have started to preach the “brand advertising is dead” mantra. I wouldn’t go this far; the marketing people at Coke or Apple are not morons.

However, as indie authors, we do not have the funds for large-scale, mass-media awareness campaigns. But we can still develop our brand. What is a brand, after all? A brand is a promise of a consistent customer experience. You know exactly what you’re getting from Starbucks – whether it’s located in London, Tokyo, Sydney or Seattle.

Likewise, your name at the bottom of the cover implicitly promises 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 emotional experience (e.g. “speculative fiction that makes you think”). The heart of your brand is your unique selling proposition (USP). A classic USP example is Domino’s famous “30 minutes or less” guarantee. In the indie realm, a USP is something your books offer that no other author does.

In other words, getting to the heart of your brand is as simple (and difficult) as answering this question: what makes your books distinct?

A few ways to jumpstart the brainstorming process:

  • Analyze your favorite fiction, particularly that which has stuck in your mind for months or years. The elements drawing you to these books, movies and shows are likely present within your own work.
  • Read other books in your sub-genre. Read their reviews/comments. How do yours differ?
  • Read your reviews/comments.
  • Survey your readers.

The easiest way to convey your USP is by becoming adept at writing catchy taglines and hooks. A proper tagline will not only sell the individual book, but will also immediately signal your author brand – e.g. what to expect from your work – without a prospective buyer even looking at another title in your catalog.

We’ll discuss this in greater depth in Part III, since your USP/hook is an integral part of blurb writing. But, for now, consider what makes your books and author brand distinct. The honest answer might be nothing – in which case you’ll have to develop this uniqueness. If this is so, reflect upon what you’d like your author brand to be – and what you must do to close the gap between that destination and your current reality.

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)
  • Three key metrics: cash flow, net income, ROI
  • 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.
  • Brand: a promise of a consistent customer experience.
  • USP: what’s your book’s hook? what do you offer as an author that no one else can?

Action Steps

 

  • 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 publish in the next year based on your available time/money/current habits + discipline (e.g. current marketing/production/craft skills).
  • Research your sub-genre on the Amazon bestseller charts (nicholaserik.com/top100).
    • 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.
  • Craft 3 taglines for your author brand.