While free, this guide aims to be higher quality than any paid course on the market. This is a bold claim, but if you follow the steps, I hope you’ll find it true.
I want to be clear: there are no secrets. But while there’s no shortage of information available to indie authors, it takes time and experience to separate the myths and short-lived hacks from the timeless, repeatable strategies. This guide is all about answering a simple question: what actually sells books?
To that end, I’ve distilled the best marketing information into a step-by-step, actionable framework. Ultimately, it’s about clarity and putting this principles into a usable form.
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:
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 & and an 80/20 recap. 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, we’ll cover:
- Critical principles
- Key business metrics
- The Trifecta of Indie Success
- The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula
Here we go.
This guide assumes you will approach writing as a business. That means performing tasks (sometimes on a daily or weekly basis) that you might find grating, often for longer hours than you might like. It also demands inevitable compromises—in both what you choose to write and how you present it to readers—which you might find artistically untenable.
I cannot promise overnight success—in fact, you should expect this process to take 5 – 10 years.
I cannot promise this will be easy. On the contrary, since I have no expensive products to upsell you, I can be honest: becoming a full-time author is difficult.
Most won’t make it because most people are not willing to pay the price required. That is not a judgement; there are many areas of my own life where, upon reflection, I’ve decided the costs outweigh the benefits to me. We all must make these difficult choices, simply because there are an almost infinite number of career paths available to us. Being an author has a certain rosy appeal from the outside that, upon tasting the actual experience, quickly dissipates. Carefully study your own goals to decide whether becoming a full-time author is worth it to you.
With that said, let’s get started.
The Trifecta of Indie Success
You must develop three skills to become a successful indie author: productivity, craft, and marketing.
While productivity and craft are beyond the scope of this guide, a brief overview of why they’re important is worth covering.
Productivity is the foundation of your career. Most authors, however, never clear this first hurdle. Simply put, if you want to make a full-time living, you need to put in full-time hours. There are a few successful authors putting in less time, but most put in 40+ hours a week. Make no mistake: this is a challenging business with no shortage of competition. Without consistent work & practice habits, it is unlikely that you will develop the skills necessary to become a full-time author.
Next comes craft. Your first novel – or perhaps even your tenth – will be of professional quality. It took me about fifteen novels to write one that was decent. Most authors think they’ll be the exception (myself included), only to be are sorely disappointed by the results. Writing a good novel that other human beings will spend 6+ hours reading is hard. Honing your craft by reading craft books and consistently practicing based on feedback from your editor, reviewers, or first readers is essential.
Most people want to skip these two steps. I was guilty of this in the beginning, but trying to shortcut this process was only a waste of time.
Without productivity and craft in place, marketing will be ineffective.
Marketing is simple and relatively easy if you consistently release good books that your target audience wants. Yes, it’s possible to push a sub-par book up the charts through clever marketing. However, a long-term career is built on sellthrough – that is, readers purchasing and reading the next volumes in the series (or your backlist). If your books are not good, then they won’t buy the others. And if your backlist is nonexistent because your work habits are poor, then readers will have nothing else to purchase from you and be forced to move on to another author.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Shotgun, then narrow. The 80/20 rule is critical. However, to find the key 20%, you need to try a lot of things and discard what doesn’t work before finding what does. This guide can shortcut the trial and error process, but it can’t eliminate that factor of marketing. Trying to narrow your focus too soon, before you know what might work, can lead to mistakenly investing all your time in inconsequential matters. Try a wide array of marketing techniques, then cut everything that doesn’t work, and focus on what does.
- Simplicity trumps unnecessary complexity. Always try to streamline and ask “is this 100% necessary?”
The Foundation of All Business
When you strip away all the platitudes and buzzwords, running a successful business comes down to two core things:
- Strategy: e.g. your system/plan (what you’re gonna do to reach your target objectives). Strategy involves:
- Indie or trad: whether you’ll self-publish your work or pursue a traditional publish (or do both as a “hybrid” publisher)
- Kindle Unlimited or Wide: whether you’ll be exclusive to Amazon or publish to all retailers (or a mix of both)
- Release frequency: the number of books you’ll release per year
- Genre: will you remain in one sub-genre, or branch out into many?
- Execution of that strategy. Actually doing it (well). Most people blame poor discipline 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 simple principles hide deceptive layers of complexity.
One of the biggest sources of frustration (and failure) I see with authors is that they’re trying to write full-time, but only willing to do things their way. Their strategy is fundamentally misaligned with their goals. Unless your preferred strategy aligns with the market’s expectations, your results will generally be subpar. For most authors, however, this will not be the case; adjustments (perhaps significant ones) will be necessary.
Always design your marketing strategy in accordance with your goals, available resources (money, existing skills, people who can help you etc.) and execution capabilities. An optimal strategy that is impossible to execute is useless. Always adjust the strategy – and advice – to your personal situation.
Effective strategy is more evergreen and widely applicable than tactics. This does not mean tactics aren’t useful; most, however, have a shelf life. At one point, years ago, a free run vaulted you to the top of the paid charts after it switched over. That has long since ended. The strategy of using free books as a way to funnel new readers into a series, however, hasn’t changed.
Five Key Business Rules
This might look like boring or basic stuff, but adhering to these five rules is more important to your success (and will make you more money) than everything else in this guide combined.
- Know your numbers. Track your book sales, profits, expenses, and other critical numbers in Excel. A simple spreadsheet will suffice (no need to do intensive analysis).
- Save 20%+ of your profits for yourself. If you can’t save 20%, start with 1%, 3%, 5% etc. and work your way up. Saving is mandatory for three reasons:
- Business cash flow. Having ample cash on hand ensures you never miss prime advertising and marketing opportunities.
- Rainy days. Your month-to-month royalties will fluctuate wildly. Don’t spend freely during boom months only to be caught shorthanded during the inevitable lean ones.
- Retirement. As a self-employed individual, you’re solely responsible for funding your retirement. Those in the United States should look into tax-friendly retirement planning options designed for self-employed people like SEP IRAs and the Solo 401(k).
- Save 30%+ of your profits for taxes. Self-employed individuals in the United States are typically taxed at higher rates than regular employees. If your tax rate is higher than 30%, save more. Consult an accountant for exact numbers; a good accountant is one of the best business investments you can make.
- Never run a credit card balance. Never charge anything that won’t be paid off at the end of the month. There are zero exceptions to this rule.
- Stellar marketing cannot save an unsellable book. If you’ve exhausted your marketing options and a book still sinks like a stone, move on. Many books don’t sell. Forcing the issue won’t change that reality. Never throw good money after bad. Treat it as a sunk cost and a learning experience, then write another book.
With those basics laid out, let’s jump into the actual marketing.
The Internet Marketing Formula
Effective internet marketing involves just three steps, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
As mentioned previously, indie author success can be distilled into three components: productivity + craft + marketing + . 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. What benchmarks should an author aim for when it comes to “marketing” or “productivity”?
Enter the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula – the most consistent damn thing I’ve found in a business filled with more twists than the actual books. This heuristic is the 80/20 rule in action, highlighting the key marketing levers available to you.
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:
- 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.
- Traffic: Find three effective, targeted traffic sources that suit your marketing strengths and budget.
- Covers/Blurbs: Get eye-catching, professional covers and write compelling blurbs that clearly convey the genre.
- Newsletter: Build your mailing list.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. This formula is 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 stand a good shot at making it. How can that be, you say? Indie publishing becomes an unmanageable albatross when you try to get everything right. This formula forces you to focus on keystone tasks: the core 20% you need to nail.
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.
I cannot emphasize this enough: leverage your signature strengths. Make sure your weaknesses aren’t sabotaging you. This will maximize the impact of your strengths. I am not trying to cast you in my mold; that would be silly, as we have different life experiences, skills, talents, and approaches. The key is to understand the variables that move the needle – the signal in the endless stream of noise that we discussed earlier – and then understand how sliding those levers works. Yes, I truly believe that the formula, as written, will result in at least part-time money of $1,000+ a month if followed diligently over 5 years. Naturally, there are no guarantees, least of all in a business as volatile as this one. But I also know there are few authors willing to execute the formula exactly as written. Nor should they, because it is precisely your signature strengths which provide you with a competitive advantage over others in a crowded marketplace.
Finally, 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.
In Part II: The Ultimate Guide to Market Research, we’ll discus why product positioning and market research are the most important components of marketing. That’s right: most of marketing is done before you even write a word.
- Business comes down to two things: strategy (your system/plan) and execution (actually implementing that system)
- Two key metrics: cash flow, net income
- 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) = full time author
- 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.
- Focus on small daily wins (habits) that you can develop into quality skills and big wins over time.
- 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) and your monetary goals. Work backward until you have a 1 – 2 keystone habits you can implement today.