This is a guide on how to optimize your book to maximize visibility and sales. Optimization is just a fancy word for tweaking your book’s presentation: elements like covers, blurbs, pricing and so forth. We want our Amazon page (and other retailer pages, if we’re wide) to look professional and enticing to prospective readers.
This guide will show which controllable factors are critical to your book’s success—and, perhaps more importantly, which are huge wastes of time. I’ll also share personal observations from where I’ve succeeded (and failed). We finish with a step-by-step teardown of an optimization I performed on one of my titles.
Revisiting the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula and Internet Marketing Formula
Before we move on, let’s recap what we learned in Part 3, and how it fits into our book marketing formula:
Genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + consistent new series novel releases (4+ per year) = full-time author
- There are an almost infinite number of traffic options; narrow this down to three options that work with your personality, capital and time constraints. PPC and paid newsletter promo sites are recommended for 99% of authors.
- Amazon’s algorithms are the most powerful bookselling engine in the world.
- Structuring your promotion with an understanding of Amazon’s powerful recommendation engine can increase the efficacy of your promo dollars 2x, 5x or even 10x.
- There are three key factors in Amazon’s algorithms: sales volume/velocity, sales consistency, and the sample of people who purchase your book
- In practice, igniting the algorithms is best accomplished by backloading your biggest traffic sources toward the end of a promo and creating a consistently increasing sales curve using highly targeted traffic.
Our Internet Marketing Formula, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing, states that there are only three essential steps in the marketing & sales process:
- Traffic: sending buyers to your book page—e.g. via your mailing list, promos, PPC ads, ‘zon’s mysterious algorithms or word of mouth.
- Conversion: turning browsing traffic into buyers by not having your book page look like a fourteen-year-old arthritic dog hammered it out after one too many rum and cokes; later on, turning your book buyers into raving fans by enticing them to sign up to the email list.
- Determine whether you made $$ (ROI): stop or fix things that lose money and double down on things that make money, then start the cycle over with more traffic.
We’ve covered traffic in Part II. In the following two sections (optimization and email lists), we’ll be primarily discussing conversion: how to get browsers into readers, then how to turn readers into fans. Listing optimization primarily impacts conversion, but covers, and to a lesser extent, price, can impact traffic. In general, however, traffic comes first. You need eyeballs on your book before you optimize. Don’t be a premature optimizer—if you’ve never done any promotion, or your book is ranked in the six digits, a sexy new blurb or cover won’t suddenly vault you out of obscurity. You need people looking at your page first. After all, a ghost town with a fresh coat of paint is still a ghost town.
What is Optimization?
As stated in the intro, optimization is just a fancy word for enhancing your book page’s presentation by adjusting controllable factors like covers, blurbs, pricing and so forth. We’re trying to make our book pages look appealing to prospective readers. The most important of these elements (the cover and blurb) are universal to all retailers. Most of the less important strategies are universal as well. Some of the information pertaining to categories and keywords is retailer specific; this has been marked.
If you feel overwhelmed, keep the following rule in mind: your cover and blurb are the most important elements of your book’s page, and will account for 95%+ of your results.
The hierarchy of what matters: your book, the cover, the blurb, the price, categories/keywords.
For those with perfectionist tendencies convinced you can do everything correctly, I implore you to reconsider. Studies have shown that productivity and overall work quality both tend to drop as you burn the candle at both ends. An 80% cover + 80% keywords is far, far less effective than a 99% cover and 5% keywords.
This is particularly important for authors with limited time, but it’s a lesson we can all benefit from: focus your energy on what matters most.
Why You Need to Optimize
Many authors have a presentation problem: while their books are good, they package them incorrectly, using inappropriate blurbs, covers or categories that don’t target the right readers. Thus, when their book page receives a little traffic, their sales numbers – that is, the page’s conversion rate – are atrocious.
Here’s a brief breakdown with some rules of thumb (this is not actual data):
- 97% of the 3,000 – 5,000 books released daily on the Kindle Store have terrible blurbs and covers. Their presentation is so bad that they never have any chance of selling.
- About 2%+ have good, professional covers and solid blurbs. One element is often stronger than the other (e.g., great blurb, passable cover). These titles can sell, particularly with a big ad push. But you’re fighting upstream against the titles below.
- Less than 1% of the books have great blurbs and great professional covers that nail the genre and stand out in a crowded marketplace. The gap between “good” and “great” is difficult to spot at first, but this is often the difference between a book making hundreds of dollars or 5 figures.
Of course, there are exceptions, and these are often held up as gospel – look, this book had a terrible cover and it sold 10,000 copies!
What we don’t see is the hidden graveyard: the 3,000,000+ similar books which languished without a sale.
On the off-hand chance that an author with awful presentation manages to hook readers—despite their best efforts to beat them away with hideous covers and blurbs as engaging as a four hour lecture on lint—their back matter and email lists are usually a mess, and they’re unable to convert these buyers into true fans.
This second part of conversion – getting your first thousand mailing list subscribers – is covered in Part IV. If you recall from Part I, we need to acquire readers (reader acquisition) before we can can convert them into fans (reader retention). And to acquire them, we need a presentation upgrade so all our precious traffic doesn’t go to waste.
No Magic Bullets
Mythical interwebz stories abound, often tossing about ridiculous numbers with lots of zeroes. Some of these are true, most are exaggerated. None of them ever show the full picture.
Optimization is not a magic bullet.
Optimizing a decently performing book will, at best, result in a moderate lift. Apply this to your 3 top-performing titles, and you’ll see a nice boost to your bottom line.
In many ways, the points discussed within this guide are simply the price of entry. You need to be in that top 1% – and even then, the competition is fierce (there are still 30 – 50 professionally produced books of exceptional quality arriving each day). If your cover is off-genre, your book is DOA. If your blurb is boring, your book is toast. Put it in the wrong categories and you’re going to reach the wrong buyers—and so forth.
Nailing these elements is simple, but most authors completely and utterly fail. I thought I was doing it right for the first three years. I wasn’t. This was expensive and frustrating—but you can be the beneficiary of my mistakes.
Part II: Covers
For those skeptical of the cover’s importance, consider this article on how Netflix tests which thumbnail images encourage greater viewership.
Your packaging matters. A lot.
The right cover can make or break you. While a good cover isn’t free—nor may it be your definition of “cheap”—it is the single best investment you can make in your indie career.
However, there are some important myths that need to be addressed up front. A professional cover does not necessarily make for an effective one, a grave error I’ve made countless times. Indeed, there are a few covers riding high on the Kindle charts that may have been designed by 1st graders.
Why are exquisite pieces of art not dominating the charts? Because the cover’s main job is to instantly communicate the expected reading experience. You might lament the proliferation of naked torsos in certain areas of romance, but such imagery immediately screams to the target market that this book is for them. Likewise, if another reader enjoys thrillers, it signals to that reader said romance is most definitely not for them.
Your cover is not a piece of art, but a piece of packaging. If the reader cannot immediately tell what your book is about from the cover, the artwork has not done its job and needs to be replaced.
Before beginning on the cover, you need an appropriate title. Perhaps you have a beautiful one that you just can’t let go of—a song lyric, or a passage from your favorite book. You envision the story behind the title receiving its own sub-section on your book’s Wikipedia page.
If this sounds remotely like what you’re doing, stop immediately.
There are many questionable recommendations regarding the elements of a good title. Most of the advice on the topic tends to be fuzzy: “make it sing,” “metaphors are the best option,” or “follow your heart.” All such information is egregiously incorrect for genre fiction—I have some awful selling books to prove it—so I recommend this instead: as with the cover, the title should clearly signal to the reader what the book is about.
There are innumerable exceptions to this rule: Divergent, The Hunger Games, Red Rising, The Sound and The Fury, Infinite Jest and The Sun Also Rises are but a few of the titles that tell you little about the book prior to reading. To which I say: yes, you’re right. But we don’t have a big publisher who will put our book on the front table of Barnes & Noble and spring for a nice spread in Publisher’s Weekly. We will not be reviewed in the NYT. We need to create our own little marketing storm.
This doesn’t mean you title your latest romance Two People Who Fall in Love and Bang at the End.
Consider the book Killing Floor. If you didn’t recognize the title, you surely aren’t surprised to learn that it’s the first book in the Jack Reacher series. It captures the genre and subject matter perfectly, without being overtly cliché or obvious.
An example from the extensive archives of personal experience: I titled my first book Only Coyotes Die Here. Kind of cute, but it does a poor job of setting any expectations. It gives the reader no indication that it’s a time-loop novel, a la Replay or the film Source Code, set in a dystopian world.
A more effective title would’ve been Rewind. Instead, when I retitled it & rebranded it three years ago—in a feeble optimization attempt—I redubbed it The Rapture. This was incredibly stupid, not only because it still gave no indication about the content, but also because the book then attracted religious readers who were offended by the bad language, drug use and other R-rated elements.
Overly clever and artistic titles tend to confuse or mislead the reader. Remember, you have seconds (milliseconds, even), to grab their attention. Make it count, and don’t make them do more work than necessary. As one book out of thousands on Amazon, you haven’t earned the benefit of their doubt yet.
Titling your book correctly isn’t a magical fix—I released a book in 2016 called Ashes of the Fall, and it sold 148 copies in its first 30 days (and 260 for the entire year). But with zero additional information, you know that it’s a dystopian/disaster/post-apocalyptic book. If you’re interested in that genre, there’s a good chance you’ll consider clicking the cover thumbnail and giving it a closer look.
I’ll put this bluntly: You must get the cover design right.
This generally means three things:
- Get a professional cover artist—don’t design it yourself.
- Research what’s already selling.
- Don’t allow your own terrible ideas to get in the way of a good cover.
The first point is self-explanatory. While spending a few bucks on a pro cover doesn’t guarantee sales, it makes your book dramatically more competitive in a crowded landscape. That being said, as we’ve mentioned already, the most important element of your cover is not the beauty of the design, but its effectiveness at conveying the genre at a one second glance.
This is why point two—do your damn research—is critical. I consistently commissioned well-designed covers that didn’t match my sub-genre. My main concern was being unique. I suspect that other authors have similar thoughts.
If your cover is too unique in genre fiction, you are missing the point.
Case in point: my original covers for my Kip Keene series (left). These demonstrate that competent, professional covers are not enough to sell books. The designer was not at fault here; he followed my briefs and reference covers exactly. The failure and idiocy were mine alone. The end result are professional, clean covers that have no chance of selling a sci-fi adventure book:
The newer covers are clearly adventures—you’ve probably read a book featuring a similar design. That’s a deliberate choice, and it’s the right one.
One caveat, before continuing: the covers could still be better targeted. There’s zero sci-fi, which was an oversight on my part. I only told the designer about the adventure elements. Subsequently, some readers are annoyed that there’s a Star Trek element.
Remember: your cover’s sole purpose is to immediately signal the type of reading experience a prospective buyer can expect.
How to Commission a Kick Ass Cover
To avoid purchasing a beautiful piece of art that will not sell any books, here’s a repeatable process for commissioning an appropriate genre cover:
- Find 3 – 5 covers that you like on your sub-genre’s Amazon Top 100 bestseller list. Find a mix of traditionally published books and indie titles. The bestseller charts are like the ultimate focus group that definitively answers the question “what do readers want?” totally free. Readers have voted with their dollars that they prefer these covers in this genre. Money talks and bullshit walks. A million surveys, opinions and anecdotal reports pale in comparison to what customers are actually buying. Customers will often claim they prefer one product, then purchase another.
- Make sure the traditionally published books have a cover design consistent with the genre—otherwise it could be a bestseller due to a huge ad push/merchandising etc.
- Ignore books priced at $0.99 (many are on the Top 100 because of recent promo)—find indie-published books $2.99+.
- You can also choose a “classic” that’s been a perennial best-seller in the genre (e.g. Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Robb’s …in Death), but might currently be outside the top 100 (if your genre is hyper-competitive). Understand, however, that if a design is old, it could be out of style.
- Do not choose a gorgeous design dwelling in the Amazon cellar. Anything ranked 50,000+ is 100% off-limits. You’ll notice that many Top 100 covers are professional, but not necessarily “holy shit” inducing. That’s fine – remember, actual buyers have responded to these covers.
- Hire a cover artist with a portfolio matching your desired style & book genre. Like authors, designers have genres in which they excel. I especially like using a designer who has made one (or more) of the covers in the Top 100. This is irrefutable proof that they have the requisite skills to design a product that paying customers want. For a list of recommended artists, visit my indie resources.
- Send your 3 – 5 sample covers to the designer and tell them to MAKE IT LOOK LIKE THE EXAMPLES. It is crucial to provide your designer with clear visual expectations, as text can be easily misinterpreted. Be specific regarding the design elements you do or do not want. The more clearly you communicate expectations, the better your final cover will be. I’ve told talented designers to “go for it” based on a bare-bones concept, and not once have I received an effective cover. If you are unable to communicate exactly what you want, you have not done enough research.
- Avoid scenes from your book. These rarely communicate the genre well.
- Illustrated covers can be effective in sci-fi, cozies and fantasy, but I would think long and hard about whether the expense is necessary before shelling out for custom art.
- Ensure that the typography is legible at a small size and branded consistently across all books in the series. If possible, maintain the same author name typography across your backlist for branding.
This has been repeated almost ad naseum, but you are not commissioning a piece of artwork. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I see many authors doing. Your cover art is your book’s packaging. Its only purpose is to signal what’s inside. Do not package a Snickers bar in a Starburst wrapper. This will only attract the wrong customers, and make them very angry.
You will eventually get to the point in your author career where you’ll want to stand out from the crowd and really signal your author brand. This is smart, but you need a firm foundational understanding of why your readership responds to certain cover tropes/elements before “zagging” off on your own. Even slight deviations from the sub-genre formula tend to spell disaster in less experienced authors, as their “minor” deviation tends to obliterate a key trope, while not replacing it with an element that trips the same underlying psychological “feel.”
In other words, understand what the glowy hands on urban fantasy covers, or the naked man torso on certain steamy romances is doing as a signal before you go tweaking the formula.
Once you have the basics down, feel free to subvert, lampshade and omit tropes – just as you do in your novels. But this freedom to improvise is earned through a deep mastery of the fundamentals.
Special Note: Survey Data on 3D vs. 2D Boxed Set Covers
Once you have enough books in a series, you’ll likely consider putting them in a discounted box set. When that time comes, you might wonder whether a 2D or 3D cover performs best.
I don’t have a definitive answer, but here’s a little food for thought before we start talking about blurbs.
I ran some preference surveys via PickFu on the covers above (which isn’t the same thing as sales data; remember, money talks). The 3D covers trounced the 2D ones 88 votes to 12. The minor variants (e.g. whether there were thumbnails on the covers or not) didn’t matter – which is about par for the course in split-testing. Note that surveys aren’t scientific, nor are they the same as actual buyers.
But here’s why I think the conclusions carry weight: respondents repeatedly spoke about being able to tell that the 3D set was three books. The 3D image immediately signaled that this was a bundle – the flat cover, even with the thumbnails of the individual volumes on the front, didn’t make that as clear. The 2D version made them pause to figure things out.
That is bad. In a real-world buying situation, those browsers will leave – your marketing must be clear.
This is a good rule in general: be clear about your product (genre, for example) and think about that before any artistic nuances come into play. Because while I believe the 2D versions are superior, design-wise, that doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to money.
Two other notes:
- Apple doesn’t allow 3D covers for boxed sets, and will reject your book outright if you try to upload one. 2D covers only.
- I’ve seen BookBub run both 2D and 3D boxed set covers (note: I snagged a BookBub with a 2D version of the Shadow Conspiracy Trilogy box featuring thumbnails and sold 10,000 copies in around 30 days). I don’t know whether they have a preference, but using a certain style doesn’t disqualify you from consideration – the same goes for other promo sites.
Part III: Blurbs
Authors often note that writing the book description copy—colloquially referred to as the “blurb” or “jacket copy”—is more difficult than writing the actual novel. That’s not a surprise, since the blurb, as a piece of sales copy, requires a different set of writing skills: copywriting.
First, a disclaimer: I am not a master copywriter. But I’ve uncovered the common elements underpinning effective book descriptions. Actually writing an effective blurb of your own is a matter of practice and repeated revision—unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.
And yes, it is challenging.
Writing Your Blurb: Five Essential Principles
Most blurbs are not very good, even for books that sell well. In Part I, we discussed the importance of market research and proper positioning. Your cover is a huge part of positioning – but it works in tandem with your blurb. The general evaluation process goes something like this:
- Click on book because of cool, relevant cover.
- Scroll down and read the tagline/first few words of the blurb.
- Leave, click buy, or read a few reviews.
- Leave, click buy, or read the sample.
- Leave or click buy.
In other words, a strong cover and blurb can sell your book. This is key: we want our presentation to be so good that the reader has zero hesitance to purchasing. Unfortunately, even if our books are approachable and highly readable, there’s a tendency to make our blurbs as unreadable, boring and terrible as possible.
Your job is to arrest your reader’s attention and pique their curiosity in a condensed space. For a $5 eBook, the only question/objection you must answer is simple: as a fan of genre x, will this book satisfy my expectations and entertain me? This does not require that much text, just the right text.
This is the type of punch we’re aiming for (taken from a BookBub email):
“‘A Dan Brown-ian adventure’ (Kirkus Reviews) in the tradition of Indiana Jones! With more than 1,500 five-star ratings on Goodreads, this ‘thrilling and tantalizing’ (Vince Flynn) New York Times bestseller is impossible to put down.”
In 35 words, that blurb conveys everything you need to know to make a purchasing decision. While our blurbs will be longer, the same fundamentals apply: capture the right reader’s attention, and do it quickly.
Principle 1: Make Your Blurb Easy to Read
I often see huge, honkin’ paragraphs on people’s book pages. These are not your friend, as they trigger immediate resistance in the reader’s mind.
Basic formatting, however, is the cure:
- Bullets can break things up, a la Pirate Hunters: NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY CHICAGO TRIBUNE • A thrilling adventure of danger and deep-sea diving, historic mystery and suspense, by the author of Shadow Divers
- Otherwise, just hit the f’in return key every couple sentences. Short, snappy. Adding bold, italics and other formatting sparingly can also enhance readability and the appearance. Too much, though, can ruin it.
- Remember that only the first ~90 words are visible without the buyer clicking “read more” on Amazon. Don’t waste this space. And check if your snapper of a tagline/hook is being cut off by an unfortunate bit of automated formatting.
Principle 2: Most People Will Never Want to Read Your Book
Look, I know you think you wrote the most incredible book on wizards ever released. This is the book on wizards that will make everyone who hates wizards finally realize that they were depriving themselves of wizardly greatness all along.
This is not what is going to happen.
As Perry Marshall succinctly states in 80/20 Sales & Marketing: “Sales is, first and foremost, a disqualification process, not a ‘convincing people’ process!”
In short, we want everyone who will never be interested in our book to go away.
Unfortunately, I see authors constantly make the error of not putting something in the blurb because they’re terrified of scaring away prospective buyers. The chances of writing some massive cross-over success like Divergent are pretty much zero. Which means that you need to speak to your people—and your people only.
If someone hates wizards, it’s dumb to pull a fast one on them by pretending your book isn’t urban fantasy in the blurb, then springing a wizard on them on page 30. All that does is make people angry and make it harder to reach people who would actually enjoy your book. 99.999% of people will never want to read your book—so make sure your blurb hits all the right notes and expectations with your sub-genre.
The best way to connect with your ideal reader is incredibly simple: use your readers’ actual language. If the reviews of your book (or books in your genre) consistently talk about how they love the snarky protagonist or your novel’s “heart-pounding” nature, find a way to convey these elements in the tone of the blurb.
Principle 3: Limited Real Estate
You have next to no time to capture a prospective reader’s attention and get them interested in your book. This isn’t some new phenomenon on the internet—this has always been the case. Dan Kennedy wrote in one of his books that America sorts its mail over the trash can.
It can be said, then, that book browsers are looking at your page with the mouse cursor on the back button.
The blurb is the most important marketing tool you have besides the cover—but not all parts of the blurb are of equal importance. The hierarchy goes something like this: the tagline (if you have one) is most critical, followed by the first 90 – 100 words (which form what I call “the hook”).
Why that number?
This is the approximate amount of text featured before the “read more” tab on Amazon. Most readers will never read beyond these initial words, so you need to make them the best possible.
If possible, intro the main character, conflict and core of the hook in the first sentence. A good example from the book Ice: Archaeologist Leah Andrews stumbles upon something inexplicable in southwestern New Mexico: inside a dark cavern lies an undiscovered, Native American cliff dwelling abandoned for 800 years.
This violates the next rule (reasonable reading level), but we’ll let it slide.
Another good use of this limited top real estate, albeit introducing the concept/genre rather than the character: “The Passage meets Ender’s Game in an epic new series from award-winning author Rick Yancey.” (from Rick Yancy’s The 5th Wave)
If you’re heading the Book X meets Book Y route, make sure these are recognizable, relevant works to fans of the genre. E.g. writing “The Matrix meets The Notebook” in your romance blurb is not going to do anything for you.
Principle 4: Readability
Write the blurb at a reasonable reading level. I aim for 7th grade. This is not because people are stupid—it is simply because they do not want to read something Pynchonian whilst browsing their favorite bookseller (or likely when they read Pynchon, for that matter). Some of Hemingway’s best work was written at a 5th grade level, and one would be foolish to accuse him of being a poor or simplistic writer.
Principle 5: Positioning via Taglines and Hook
As discussed in Part I, a core element of what makes your book and author brand distinct is your unique selling proposition (USP). While craft is a vital component, before a reader experiences your literary masterpiece they must be enticed by the tagline and hook presented in the blurb.
If a reader is not hooked by those initial 90 words, they will certainly not bother reading 90,000 more to be dissuaded of this initial impression.
There will be those who claim books are not fungible products (e.g. you can’t substitute one for another). 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 unavailable elsewhere.
You can make good money as a pulp writer, but pursuing this path makes your writing a commodity. Churning out the same murder-of-the-week mystery may work for awhile, but at some point other enterprising authors will note your success and horn in on your action. 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.
Hooks and taglines are generally used as interchangeable terms in the indie author community. I tend to think of a tagline as short and snappy – the text at the top of the blurb, in bold. Then the hook comes after (the part of the blurb that’s visible), which can last for a sentence or two. This is purely an issue of personal semantics, although I think the distinction is helpful. A great tagline flows into a killer hook, with the latter expanding upon the curiosity/questions raised by the former.
Then, if necessary, we get into the body of the blurb, which is everything below the “read more.” Most readers won’t bother “reading more,” ever, so I’d be less concerned with this portion than what appears above the fold. Here’s what this looks like in practice, from my book Lightning Blade:
I don’t think this is the world’s greatest tagline or hook, but you can see all the principles at work: snappy sentences, clean formatting, clear identification of the sub-genre through words like “supernatural” and “necromancer.” Unfortunately, the true “hook” of the book isn’t the strange murders (these are fairly pedestrian in the realm of fiction), but the fact the book takes place in a time loop (yes, just like my ill-fated novel The Rapture). This is, however, buried after “see more.”
There’s another hook buried: that this urban fantasy has a cyberpunk-flair (it takes place in the near-future).
Which brings me to another point: showing your book’s uniqueness can be never-wracking. You will inevitably alienate parts of your audience by highlighting certain elements; you will, however, strongly attract others who would otherwise pass your book over as “generic.” This hook isn’t nearly aggressive enough in selling what is unique about Lightning Blade. While the tagline claims it’s “not your typical urban fantasy,” the first two sentences of the blurb strongly contradict this statement. They’re about as generic as they come.
Here is how you apply the unique selling proposition (USP) concept on both the author and book levels:
- Author: what do you offer that no other author can? What makes your work distinct? Elmore Leonard was a great all-around author, but his USP was his crackling 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: transforming your book’s concept into a tagline and hook. If you can’t translate your concept into a snappy tagline and killer one sentence hook, your book is likely a commodity.
These can be distinct – e.g. you can have an author brand tagline as well as individual book taglines – or you can use your book taglines/hooks to subtly signal your author brand. Most authors will do the latter: having their blurbs and covers working in tandem to subliminally convey what makes their work distinct. But it can be useful to explicitly write out your author brand USP, even if it’s just for internal use.
Here are a couple USP examples from the indie author world:
- Author: NYT Bestselling author CJ Lyons’ “thrillers with heart.” Lyons was an ER doctor prior to becoming an author; she writes medical thrillers infused with her knowledge and experience, which few authors can do.
- Book: Adam Croft’s Her Last Tomorrow – “Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”
Adam Croft sold thousands of copies of Her Last Tomorrow on the strength of that tagline.
A few USP examples from TV/film:
- The Matrix (sci-fi drama): what if reality was actually an elaborate computer simulation?
- About Time (romantic comedy-drama): main character can go back in time to reexperience/change events and thus help his romantic prospects
- Dexter (drama): vicious, psychotic serial killer works for the Miami PD as cover to exclusively kill the city’s worst criminals
These are concepts. When writing the blurb/pitching your book to readers (which we’ll cover later), you need to translate your cool concept into engaging taglines, like these official ones:
- The Matrix: Reality is a thing of the past.
- About Time: What if every moment in life came with a second chance?
- Dexter: Takes life. Seriously.
In a book context, we would segue these taglines into one or two sentence hooks (as above, in Lightning Blade) that further pique the reader’s curiosity and “preview” the reading experience.
The tagline should match your work’s tone, be that dark, tongue-in-cheek or philosophical. It can pose a question or be a statement.
Google “[TV/movie name] + tagline” to research your favorite shows and films. The taglines for video-based media can be weaker, since they have to appeal to more of a mass market – and they’re also almost always supplemented by visuals like trailers and posters, which relieves significant marketing strain from their shoulders. But these taglines are still a good starting point for generating your own ideas, since the studios spend a lot of money on those campaigns.
The goal of your unique tagline is either to get a browser to read your hook (e.g. the first part of your blurb), check out the Look Inside/reader reviews, or buy the book with one click. Optimally, it should be strong enough that an immediate purchase is a real possibility – without spending another second of deliberation. Having a unique angle is that important.
And if you don’t have a unique angle, then positioning your book with a snapper of a tagline/hook will make it unique.
Here are two formulas. I keep an updated, printable cheatsheet of blurb formulas here, which also includes ideas for Amazon AMS and Facebook Ads. The two formulas below should cover most books; exploring them should be your first priority.
For a standard book, start with a (1) hook/tagline (e.g. “The world’s burning. And only a demon can save it.”) or a hooky review quote. Then (2) introduce the main character/plot hook (e.g. he’s a demon with a conscience). This should be powerful enough to sell the book on its own – one sentence, or maybe two short ones. It must be above the fold. (3) Follow that up with the stakes/main story question. This should be a “snapper” or a cliffhanger a la what you would have at the end of a chapter. The reader should be so interested that they have no choice but to buy the book to find out the answer. (4) Then end with a sell (e.g. “for fans of Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake” or “a pulse-pounding international thriller, Spies & Lies will keep you on the edge of your seat”). Sprinkle in the tropes/themes to flesh out everything with details. The selling line/section is a great place to clearly state the genre, or allude to it (“full of bloodthirsty vampires and brooding alpha werewolves”).
Here’s a useful framework if you write books using the hero’s journey structure (think The Odyssey, Harry Potter and so forth). This is a summary of Libbie Hawker’s two-part video series, which details a five-step blurb writing formula:
Your protagonist (1) wants something (2) but an obstacle is in the way (3) causing the character to struggle against that force (4) and either succeed or fail (5 – e.g. the stakes/risk). Then add enough details to make it unique, without overloading your reader with world-building info.
There are more details in her book Gotta Read It, which I recommend. It can work for other plot structures, but I’ve found it’s easiest to apply to those using the hero’s journey (or at least character-centric). If your book is plot-driven or high-concept, use an alternative framework.
How to Practice
Okay, so it’s nice to have basic principles. Be readable, be interesting. Find out what your readers want, and then highlight those elements in your description. Be prepared to write a bunch of blurbs to get something remotely good. Position your book correctly. But how does one actually do that?
Here’s how you can find out what to put in your blurb and practice your copywriting chops, step-by-step.
- Find 5 blurbs in your sub-genre’s top 20 lists that make you want to read the actual book. As with the covers, make sure they’re not discounted $0.99 books enjoying a temporary promo surge. Try to locate indie books priced above $2.99. Read + copy them over to a document. This is known in copywriting as a “swipe file.”
- Find 5 more blurbs—not necessarily in your genre—from NYT Bestsellers. These are usually written by pro copywriters. Read them and copy them to your swipe file.
- Read the reviews for these 5 books in your genre—what did readers consistently hate/like the most? Does the blurb talk about these elements? Then read the 2 & 3 star reviews to find out what that book is missing that readers wanted. Does your book have that? Take notes about these vital elements. These are the tropes readers will expect to see mentioned in your blurb (and in your book)
- Read these effective blurbs: Brilliance, The Hunger Games, The Atlantis Gene. None of them are perfect, but they’re all damn effective. What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong?
- For more professionally written blurbs, subscribe to BookBub’s newsletter in your genre(s) of choice. Add good ones to your swipe file.
- Copy the blurbs from your swipe file out word-for-word by hand. Doing one or two a day is probably best, as otherwise your hand becomes fairly grouchy. Analyze what tropes they’re using, how the language flows, what encourages people to buy. Why did the writer use a certain word? Why did they leave another detail out? This is a classic copywriting technique and works wonders to get the feeling in your bones.
- Write your blurb according to the principles above: keep readability at a 7th grade level, make the first 90 words incredible, try to grab them from the first sentence, talk to your readers and no one else, use white space and formatting breaks to make it more readable.
- End your blurb with a “snapper” or a cliffhanger, a la what you would have at the end of a chapter. Compel the reader to continue.
Other Blurb Basics
This BookBub article has some spectacular blurb writing tips backed by actual data. There are too many to mention here, but my two favorites:
- More than 150+ 5 star reviews on Amazon mentioned: 14.1% increase in clickthrough
- “If you love thrillers, don’t miss this action packed read”: 15.8% increase in clickthrough when catering to specific genre interests
A few pitfalls to avoid:
- A summary of plot events
- Jamming lots of world building and other cool, but ultimately irrelevant details in
- Failing to express the elements your genre’s readers actually care about.
- Being too damn long. Long copy converts better than short copy in the world of direct response copywriting. This is true, with three conditions:
- The copy is good enough that the reader is compelled to read to the end
- It’s not long for the sake of being long
- The higher priced the product, generally the longer the copy needed to adequately address objections.
- Don’t write “scroll up and grab a copy.” This is a direct-response hard-sell call-to-action (CTA) that is out of place in fiction.
If you’re running a promotion, sell-through to other discounted books in the series increases when you mention it at the top of the blurb. With the same title, I got 1.88% sell-through to Book 2 w/ the link & mention at the top of the free book’s blurb (1000 copies of Book 2 @ $0.99 / 53,000 free downloads of Book 1) vs. 1.46% sell-through w/ no mention & no link (82 copies @ $0.99 / 5600 free downloads).
Practice, practice, practice! I would not recommend hiring a blurb writer—most of them are not very good, and this is an important skill that you need to learn. Becoming a better copywriter will also make you a better writer. The economy of the space forces you to use the most powerful images and words available.
Part 4: Keywords
Unlike the rest of this guide, this section mainly pertains to Amazon.
This is a summary of Evenstar’s lengthy and helpful keywords post. I’ve tested many things posited in that thread—and in various books & courses—and returned with one conclusion: keywords are, generally speaking, of minimal importance on Amazon (important note: they are useful on Google Play; I don’t have data on other retailers). This is particularly true in larger genres (e.g. post-apocalyptic, romance, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy etc. and many of their sub-genres) where the top 20 books are all ranked below 1 – 10k in the overall store.
I have used most of the popular keyword tools—Merchant Words, Kindle Inspector, Kindle Spy, Kindle Samurai, as well as the basic “enter the first letter in the Amazon search box” technique.
There are a couple exceptions to my general rule of “don’t waste time on keywords”:
- The title keyword is huge. This pertains more to non-fiction, where you can gain significant traffic from people searching for specific long-tail keyword phrases. It’s probably not a bad practice to bake-in the Amazon SEO right into your title & subtitle. Naturally, doing this at the expense of actually having a good title is not recommended.
- For fiction authors, you can get search hits from the title/subtitle, as Amazon’s search algorithm weights these far, far more than whatever keywords you plug into the box. However, this usually leads to bad practices like “The Urban Fantasy Mystery Series – Amazing Wizards – Urban Fantasy Paranormal Investigator Thriller Crime Novel of Incredible Bestselling Books Series.” I suspect that this practice will soon be eradicated on any retailers that are still stricken by it. Only put “An Urban Fantasy Novel” in the subtitle box if it appears on your cover. Otherwise you could get dinged.
Now that we have that out of the way, a little myth-busting right off the bat:
- Descriptions are not searchable. I tested this with the nonsense word “dgrzprseamp” in one of my perma-free descriptions for 6+ weeks—Amazon’s search never returned a hit for that word.
- Most keywords that would be valuable and did produce spikes in the past—e.g. “free science fiction books” or “kindle unlimited romance books” are not allowed by Amazon any more.
- Keywords that would seem to get decent search traffic—e.g. “science fiction books”—are populated by many hard-hitters. But the few smaller books that have managed to rank high for this term aren’t selling well.
- There are various studies on Google’s keyword results suggesting that the top three results likely account for as many as half the total search clicks. Getting into the top three for a competitive keyword is very difficult, and the dividends, as suggested in the point above, are minimal.
- Long tail keywords: ah, that old internet buzz word. These refer to less competitive, highly niche phrases that only small numbers of people are searching for. Yes, long tail keywords are helpful—even on Amazon—but there is a caveat: you gotta rank for a lot of them. If you can rank for hundreds of long-tail keywords on Google, you might be able to pull in lots of total traffic. Thing is, given the 350 character limit (7 boxes x 50 characters each) on ‘zon—and the fact that most people can only write a book every month, max—that’s probably not happening.
Right now, let’s say you don’t believe me. You’ve heard of the mythical, chart-topping highs you can achieve through juuuust the right keywords. You want to experience this euphoria for yourself.
So here’s how to generate more keywords than you’d ever need.
While generating keywords isn’t useful for Amazon KDP, it is useful for their pay-per-click (PPC) ads platform (called Amazon AMS). Thus, the techniques below have value, albeit not for boosting your position in organic search results.
A few technical notes for entering keywords on Amazon KDP:
- Amazon gives you seven keyword boxes; each box has a 50 character limit.
- Repeating keywords is unnecessary. E.g. vampire love story and vampire paranormal romance. You can just have vampire love story paranormal romance and Amazon will spit out your book when someone searches for either term.
- Use the full 50 characters. Don’t repeat the same word twice (e.g. paranormal romance vampire romance – second romance not necessary). Don’t use words like “free,” “best-selling,” other authors’ names or Kindle Unlimited unless you want Amazon to get angry with you.
- Keywords don’t have a lot of search uses, simply because most people don’t buy books by searching for “cool thrillers” and Amazon doesn’t seem to value the keywords you put in the little box all that much. But they can help you get into specific sub-categories, which can be useful. A full list of those special keywords can be found here.
- Plurals don’t seem to matter—e.g. the search engine treats “books” and “book” the same way.
Note that keywords are much more valuable for Amazon AMS (which is, again, their PPC platform) because you can enter author names, book names and other high volume search terms disallowed in the KDP dashboard.
Okay, now the step-by-step guide:
- OneLook (onelook.com) is actually the most useful tool I’ve found for generating keyword ideas. It’s basically a super-thesaurus that will return all terms related to a word. So if you put in “island,” you’ll get stuff like “archipelago” along with six degrees type stuff a la “cove,” “plantation,” and “reef.”
- Use the free Google Keyword Planner tool. Just type in a phrase like “science fiction” or “aliens” etc. and write down all the relevant phrases that have decent search volume. Alternatively, plug in a competitor’s book page into the “landing page” box and get keywords from there.
- Alternatively, use the free Keyword Tool (keywordtool.io), which generates suggested keywords from a number of different search engines – including Google and Amazon.
- To approximate Amazon search volume, plug in the terms you’ve come up with via OneLook & the Google Keyword Planner tool into Merchant Words (merchantwords.com; $30/month—look around the net for 1/2 off discount coupons). This is imperfect, since Amazon doesn’t share their search volume. If you use Merchant Words, you’ll find that many of your potential keyword search terms have poor search volume, or don’t appear at all.
- Do a reverse ASIN search on Keyword Inspector (keywordinspector.com; ~$3/per search) for two or three titles in your genre – one of the best-sellers, one that looks relatively keyword stuffed, one in the middle. If a title is on the cusp of the midlist (10k – 100k), this tool basically will actually let you see all the keywords that the author plugged in. The search traffic numbers are a little wonky, as are the listing position results. But it’s a good way to find what keywords other authors are ranking for and using.
AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) tools only:
You can’t use author & book names for your organic keywords; it’s against the TOS. But they’re usable – and quite useful – when you’re using Amazon’s pay-per-click platform, AMS. Here are the best sources:
- Search through the popular books and authors in your genre for the also-boughts.
- You can find book titles at bookseriesinorder.com, which is exactly what the name suggests.
- Goodreads’ Listopia (goodreads.com/search) is an excellent source of book titles, organized by theme and genre. You can find everything from strong heroines to recommended indie books in your genre.
After you’ve gathered your organic keywords, use ones from your list until you max out each 50 character string. Simple, although it’s also time-consuming.
Now on to why searching for organic keywords is probably a huge waste of time.
The most damning evidence against keywords is this: for 35+ titles on Amazon, I diligently researched, tested and entered keywords. I received no rankings boost, increased stickiness (a book consistently selling, on its own, without promotion) or sales.
Then, I reversed course completely: When I released my new urban fantasy series, I decided to enter no keywords at all as an experiment.
These two books got sticky below 5,000 in the Amazon Kindle store.
If that’s a little too anecdotal for your taste, consider the following analysis. Using the tools above—as well as monitoring the results from my own keyword efforts—I gleaned a bunch of data leading to one disheartening conclusion: my hours obsessing over keywords were wasted.
What I found is that the majority of search traffic comes to titles from three primary sources:
- A) author name searches—either their own, or other popular authors in their genre (usually that are linked to them via also-boughts)
- B) the series or book title—either their own, or other popular books in their genre (again, usually linked via also-boughts)
- C) through ranking well for terms to do with Kindle Unlimited or free books, which aren’t allowed in the keyword box.
The organic keywords—that is, stuff like “witch ebooks”—accounted for less search traffic according to my tools. Granted, the tools aren’t spot-on, so there is a lot of noise in the data. Some examples of keywords that indies have ranked in the top twenty for: gritty fantasy, witches and sorcerers, dragons and fairies, best fantasy series, books black magic, codex kindle, space fantasy, burned, sword and sorcery books. A lot of these either had the keyword in the name or series title, or were selling at such a ridiculous rate that it’s likely that they appeared high in the search results for other reasons, rather than the keywords the author chose.
I examined 12 books—not a scientific sample—and found that, out of the top 20 keywords by search volume for each, only 25.4% of them were “organic.” This figure considers common words—magic, cursed, burned etc.—that appear in the title & series info “organic.” Strip those out, and the situation plummets to around 18.8%.
Worse, most of these organic keywords had minimal search volume—many of the keyword phrases received less than 100 estimated searches a month. I don’t fully trust the estimated search data, but combined with my own efforts optimizing 35+ titles’ keywords, I think it’s safe to say that keywords are not particularly useful unless they are already baked into the title & subtitle. Even then, naming your book AN URBAN FANTASY INVESTIGATOR INVESTIGATES THRILLING MYSTERIES FOR HIS WIZARD AND MAGE FRIENDS probably isn’t an option for most of us.
For a keyword to be useful, it needs a decent amount of search traffic and you need to rank in the top three for it. The number of overlap between these areas is pitifully small.
So that means keywords are kind of useless, right?
Special Google Play Note
Keywords are critical on Google Play. There’s no specific place to add them—but if you include them at the end of the description, it dramatically bumps up downloads.
Examples (Jan 1 – March 31 data is with no keywords; April data is with keywords at bottom)
*in the interest of full disclosure, I also changed the blurbs for these titles and tweaked the categories. I don’t think that had any effect on the downloads, but it could’ve. Additionally, Paradise got a brand new cover + title, which I think did affect the results.
Shadow Memories: 26 downloads (1/1 – 3/31); 41 downloads (4/1 – 4/30)
The Emerald Elephant: 31 downloads (1/1 – 3/31); 32 downloads (4/1 – 4/30)
Paradise: 11 downloads (1/1 – 3/31); 73 downloads (4/1 – 4/30)
- Keywords are useless on Amazon unless they’re already part of the pre-existing title & subtitle.
- Keywords can be used to access special Amazon subcategories.
- Keywords are very useful on Google Play.
Part V: Categories
Most retailers allow you to put in five categories for your book. Use these as you see fit—typically the ones that, you know, actually fit what your book is about are what you should use. I am not a proponent of inserting your books into more categories just to gain more visibility to the wrong readers.
If you’re using Amazon, you can only have two categories—unless you keyword into additional ones, or email support. The keyword method was discussed before (here’s Amazon’s list of keyword-dependent sub-categories), but it’s a little hit or miss. I’m a bigger fan of just emailing them.
Category chart visibility, while less important than those praying to the mythical algo-gods would have you believe, is helpful, since readers do browse them. Thus, entering new ones can net you more exposure to a wider swath of readers. While changing your categories is one way to do this, emailing support to add more is the preferred method. Using this technique, you can usually get your book into 6 – 8 categories—three or four times more than the two you directly pick on the KDP dashboard.
Note: the category needs to be related to your existing categories. Support is not going to grant your request to add your paranormal romance to the business/money category.
This process is refreshingly easy: Email them and post the full strings in the request.
Please place my book ASHES OF THE FALL (ASIN: XX) into the following categories:
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Genetic Engineering[category 2]
This isn’t some sort of magic. I had a book ranked 19k in the free store in four categories. But it takes five minutes and can help maximize your visibility, particularly during a promo when you hit high enough on various genre lists.
Some will be tempted to abuse this—hell, some already are—and cram their book into as many categories as possible. I think this is a poor practice, as it annoys readers and doesn’t get your work in front of the right eyeballs. Also, category stuffing doesn’t generate any visibility boosts for books already languishing in the ranks.
Case in point: two perma-free books – a thriller novel and a sci-fi mystery. For thirty days prior to adding two additional, relevant categories, they averaged 8.1 and 3.7 downloads per day, respectively. For the thirty days after adding the categories? 6.3 and 2.3 downloads. There was no outside promotion during either period.
The conclusion is not that more categories decreases visibility, but rather that it does nothing to increase it when a book is already relatively invisible. If your book is hanging out in the upper echelons of Amazon, high enough to hit the Top 20 in some popular genre charts, maybe it will move the needle. Then again, Demon Rogue, which hung around 3,000 – 4,000 in the Amazon store for a month, only had two categories and outperformed my other “category optimized” titles by a hefty margin.
Part VI: Pricing
Testing your price is simple. There’s a lot of debate about whether to launch at free, go at $0.99—and whether to stick at a certain price thereafter. While I can’t answer those questions specifically, I can give you the tools so that YOU can answer them on your own. Sound like fun?
First, a single question: is your goal to maximize revenue or visibility? Typically, your revenue increases as your price goes up (to a point; then it drops again), but your total sales decrease, resulting in less overall visibility. Visibility is good if you want reviews, mailing list sign-ups, to change your also-boughts etc. Revenue is good because…well, we all like money and like eating.
A note, however: a price drop doesn’t generate visibility by itself. Even a free book will languish in the gutter without promotion.
The answer to the revenue-visibility question will dictate your pricing strategy. Answering a second question helps nail this down further: what is the optimal price for my goal (either revenue/visibility) and specific book/series?
These two questions eliminate emotional responses: The best price for your book is the one that helps you reach your current visibility and revenue goals. Period.
A newer author might want to build their list/also-boughts/reviews. More visibility makes sense—thus an extended run at $0.99 could be enticing. Or, a newer author might need to turn a profit in order to invest in their next project—more revenue and a higher price could make sense as a goal (perhaps after a period of $0.99 to spark visibility/retailer recommendation engines).
It’s not always this cut and dry, however—a boost from $0.99 to $3.99 doesn’t always result in less visibility/more revenue. A price increase could completely crater your sales, thus also generating less revenue. It could boost your sales AND revenue, thus skyrocketing your visibility. While the likeliest scenario holds to the equation above (lower price = more visibility/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/more revenue) there are enough exceptions to make testing imperative.
Other Important Pricing Tips
Your genre’s top 100 chart should give you an idea of what readers expect to pay—in romance, for example, going above $4.99 as an indie is fairly difficult. If you’re unestablished, use more successful authors’ books as benchmarks.
Don’t just price your book at free or $0.99 because “people don’t want to take a chance on unknown authors.” Basically every indie author—even those making close to seven figures—is an unknown when compared to household names like King or Vonnegut. Fact is, most authors are unknowns to 99.9999% of the population.
After you’ve settled on a starting price, track your book’s sales & revenue for two to four weeks. Note that any recent promo will skew these numbers, so wait until things die down to normal. Then change this to a different price without changing anything else. Track the results over the same period of time, and compare the total sales and revenue to the first price.
You might also want to track things like mailing list sign-ups or reviews if visibility is your goal.
If you have a series, the sell-through is important, and you’ll need to track the impact of Book 1’s price on the revenue & sales of the other titles. While the first book’s revenue will likely drop, the rest of them might explode—or do nothing at all.
Here’s what happened when I price-tested an adventure book (exclusive to Amazon), with revenue as the goal:
14 days @ $0.99 = $7.05/day – 6.2 sales a day
19 days @ $3.99 = $12.25/day – 2.3 sales a day
48 days @ $4.99 = $15.77/day – 3.4 sales a day
I decided not to test $5.99, as most of the indie books in the adventure genre cap out at around $3.99 – $4.99. Page reads increased with the price increase—readers are more likely to buy a book at $0.99 and borrow it when the price is higher.
You should try to make the comparison periods identical. But this back of the envelope type of analysis easily tells me that $4.99 is the best price for my goal. Interestingly, the book also sold slightly better at $4.99, thus increasing my visibility, as well.
How to Set up a Permafree
Permafree (a portmonteau of “permanently” and “free”) is far less effective than it was a couple years ago. Amazon excludes permafree books from appearing in the also-boughts, which is a heavy blow to organic visibility. They’ve also made it more difficult to find the Top 100 free charts. Other retailers aren’t really pushing free much these days, either.
All of which is understandable: free books don’t make them any money.
But permafree can still be a useful tool under the right circumstances – and if your book is languishing in the hundreds of thousands, you really have nothing to lose by trying it out. However, Amazon doesn’t allow you to set a book’s price to $0.00 straight from the dashboard. Instead, you have to jump through a couple of hoops, presumably because they want to preserve the “free days” you get as part of KDP exclusivity as a benefit. That being said, you can make your book permanently free through the method below.
For those considered about the “permanent” part, it’s more indefinitely free; you can raise your price back to whatever level you choose at any time. Permafree simply makes a better portmanteau than the alternative.
- publish your book on all retailers (otherwise known as “going wide”): Amazon, Nook, iBooks, Kobo & Google Play. iBooks and Google Play are the most important. Make sure the price is $0.00 everywhere. I use the aggregator D2D to publish to Nook, iBooks & Kobo. Note: Google Play isn’t currently open to registration, so if you don’t already have an account, ignore it.
- email Amazon. Go to your KDP Account, click “Help” at the top right, and then scroll down to the yellow “Contact Us” button in the bottom left corner of the screen.
- Send them an email based on this template:
“Hi, my book [title] (ASIN: XXXXX) is currently available for free on [other retailers]. I am emailing to notify you of the lower price and request a price match.
Retailer link 1:
Retailer link 2:
Thanks for your assistance![Name]
If they give you their boilerplate nonsense about not matching, just try again a few days later. And that’s it: soon enough your book will be indefinitely free, until you decide otherwise.
- Determine your price by answering two key questions:
- Is my main goal revenue or visibility?
- What is the optimal price for my goal (either revenue/visibility) given my specific book/series?
- General rule of thumb: lower price = more visibility/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/more revenue
- Sometimes this is thrown out of whack, i.e. where a book sells better at a higher price.
- Look at the indie bestsellers in your genre—what do readers expect to pay?
Part VII: Front & Back Matter
The front and back matter are both valuable marketing real estate. Too many authors waste them – either by not putting anything at all, or polluting it with hundreds of links. Much of your income will come from your backlist. If you are to make a career, you need to convert people into fans.
Effective front and back matter can do this.
It’s critical to understand a few basic principles of conversion before we go ahead. First and foremost, the more actions/choices a person has, the less likely they are to take any action. You want to cut down the number of calls-to-actions (CTAs) to a minimum. Make sure you’re only asking folks to take actions that will move the needle. Note that, once you have someone on your mailing list, you can send them other links: social media, backlist and so forth.
Two, you need to make a specific ask. The easier (e.g. by including a link) and clearer you make this, the more action readers will take.
For your front matter, here’s what you need:
- A sign-up to your mailing list. Preferably with a free book/novella related to the book in question. About 5x as many people will click on the link at the beginning as the end.
- Optional: copyright, also-by, table of contents. I have these in the front of my books; many authors place them in the back. I’m not convinced it matters, since the Kindle will automatically open to the first chapter. Make sure the also-by contains links to your other books. Links directly to the retailer in question usually work best, but that makes for tons of administrative task work if you’re wide. I link each title to a landing page for the series, which allows me to also collect an affiliate income.
For your back matter, here’s the basic template. For the record, this converts at 2.52% – 2.8%+, even without the free novella sign-up. That means that 2.8% of people either left a review or signed-up for a mailing list (without any incentive offer). Those #s will vary based on your read-through stats, but I’ve tested a few variations and this has been a clear winner thus far across my titles.
This is the actual back matter, taken from the KDP Kindle Previewer for my book Demon Rogue. The copy could be better (particularly for the free book), but you see that it contains only three things 1) a review ask, 2) a mailing list sign-up offer, and 3) a link to the next book.
That’s the absolute maximum; I would love to include less, but I haven’t found an effective way of doing so. The fewer actions there are to take, the more people will interact with what’s left. If your main goal was selling the book, stripping away everything else and just including the link to Book 2 would be the way to go.
Of course, you sacrifice reviews and mailing list sign-ups in that instance.
Note that everything is on the same page as THE END, which is critical, since Amazon’s automated CTAs often pop up once the buyer flips past the last page. They’ll suggest another book, or books the reader might like – titles which sometimes are yours, but oftentimes aren’t. Thus, you have a limited window to maintain your reader’s attention.
A few things you’ll notice – the review ask has slightly strange wording, starting with “because.” This is a trick from the book Influence, wherein people were more likely to take action if given a reason starting with “because.” I don’t know if it’s helping. There should be a link directly to the review form on Amazon; I also think the reference to Goodreads should be removed.
If you’re wide, you’ll have to say something like “bookseller of choice” instead of specific retailers, unless you upload retailer-specific versions. I have the general feeling that a specific retailer works better than the generic.
You’ll see that I call the novella a “free book” in the bold text. This is on purpose; novellas actually don’t convert as well as offers as the hype might have you expect (more on that in the email part of the guide). Book is an attempt to side-step this. The burning question/hook is not good in the example above, and should be improved.
Finally, we have a link to Book 2, with a brief description. That’s effective, and the bit.ly link allows me to track how many people are clicking through.
Untested and perhaps unknowable is whether it’s better to include the full URL, as I’ve done above, or link the words. The latter will look cleaner, but if one is reading on an e-Ink Kindle, it renders the links pretty useless (since the browser is terrible). One can sign-up for a mailing list on their e-Ink Kindle, but it’s a miserable process.
By giving these people the full URL, they can enter it into a device that’s more conducive to web browsing.
However, judging from Book Funnel stats, the majority of readers are actually not using an e-Ink Kindle. Of course, these numbers are skewed by my mailing list, and aren’t meant to be taken as anything more than anecdotal, but the results are fairly shocking. Many people read on an iOS or Android device (e.g. their phone or tablet). Kindle Fires, too.
Only 2 – 3% of my readers download the book to their e-Ink Kindle. 40 – 50% download it to their PC, after which they might sideload it onto their device.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t give us any definitive answers on the link question. It’s unlikely to make a huge difference; just make sure the links are present, instead of forcing people to do the lifting themselves.
And what of the sections after these three critical points?
- About the author/note from the author etc.
- Optional: also-by, copyright, table of contents.
- Optional: excerpt.
I’ve seen a number of successful authors write about the author sections or notes on the book. This is a good way to connect with readers, particularly if you have a strong, entertaining voice or interesting story behind the book. I don’t personally include such a section, or an excerpt when I’m writing a series book that had a sequel available – most of my books end right after the page displayed in the previous image, because I want Amazon’s automated CTAs to trigger. These pop-ups automatically sell the next book in your series, complete with a buy button. That’s powerful.
Excerpts for books in a series (e.g. including Book 2’s excerpt at the end of Book 1) aren’t particularly powerful in the age of Kindle and instantly available samples. Further, readers have already made up their mind at the end of Book 1 whether or not they want to continue; an extra sample is unlikely to sway them. In a test, 0.16% of readers clicked the upsell link after the Book 2 excerpt, whereas 0.67% of readers clicked the upsell link on the “THE END” page. When I included no excerpt at all, 1.46% of readers clicked on the upsell link on “THE END” page.
That’s not an apples-to-apples test; I changed the intro/corrected some typos in the book the second go round (and the sample sizes are different).
You might argue that there’s no reason not to include one – after all, your print costs don’t go up. But downfalls of including too much back matter are changing where Amazon’s automated CTAs appear (they might appear at the end of the excerpt, not the main book). And, if your story is short, an excerpt can skew the length and lead to complaints in the reviews.
That’s not to say excerpts are useless; far from it, as these four instances show:
- You write standalones. Include an excerpt/upsell to a similar book, with links. I’ve seen an author hit the Top 100 with a standalone, and then have the excerpted book ride into the Top 1000 on the strength of those sales. Also valid when you write standalone “series” (e.g. romances) that are set in the same world, but might not star the same main characters.
- You wrote a spinoff series. Include an excerpt at the back of the final book in the main series for the new spinoff.
- You wrote a new series in the same genre. E.g. you finish Series A, and in its last volume, you might include an excerpt of similar series B.
- In your reader magnet book. If you offer readers a free starter library, prequel novella, story or book for signing up to your newsletter, include an excerpt to a paid work (with a link) in the back. Granted, this is less important if you only offer the magnet book in your front/back matter (as presumably then only paid customers will be downloading it). But once you start advertising a free novella on say, Facebook, or joining Instafreebie cross-promos, you’ll be giving that magnet book to a ton of people who have zero exposure to your work. Make it easy for them to buy something if they liked the freebie!
All four of these deal with unknown properties – the reader has no preconceived notion or awareness about the excerpted book. They might be interested or not. Including an excerpt is a way to reduce friction – they won’t have to go download the sample to test drive the new series or book. You should always include an excerpt in these instances. They are an excellent backlist selling tool – perhaps the strongest at your disposal, other than your newsletter. And you’re not forgoing Amazon’s automated upselling, since you have no further books in the series to sell.
Part 8: A Walk Through Paradise
This is where I put my money where my mouth is, and show you the results of my optimization efforts. For the record, I updated my entire catalog—around 35 titles—using the techniques in this guide.
Mostly, the changes did a whole lot of nothing.
This isn’t unexpected—none of the things we discussed are particularly effective (or effective at all) for generating traffic to book pages. Still, the results were a little discouraging, and suggested to me that, despite all the information suggesting otherwise, optimization wasn’t as important as I thought.
In fact, the results of one test—which I’ll discuss in detail below—illustrated that there were really on four things that could be changed after the book was written that made a significant difference:
- Book title
- Book cover
- Book blurb
- Keywords on Google Play.
Back in March 2014, I released my second book ever—an apocalyptic book about a group of vacationers stranded on an island paradise after their yacht runs aground. A virus rampages across the mainland, leaving them in an idyllic environment filled with dangerous secrets.
I called it Island Daze, and released it as a kind of serial.
It’s not the best book ever written: the ending is admittedly weak, a lot of the characters are unlikable, and the story doesn’t have a lot of depth. In short, it’s a second novel. Despite the issues, there’s some cool stuff going on—I pitch it as Lost meets Contagion—and a couple readers really enjoyed it.
Enter: the complete optimization revamp. Whereas the other titles in my catalog merely received new keywords, blurbs and so forth—e.g. things that don’t require money—Island Daze was completely overhauled.
I’ll walk you through what I did, step-by-step, in the order of this guide. This should serve as a Cliff’s Notes version of the guide.
Results, you say? The permafree downloads went up by a factor of about 3x:
Island Daze, Jan 1 – Mar 31: 147 downloads (Amazon) + 159 (Others)
Paradise, April 1 – 30: 336 downloads (Amazon) + 55 downloads (D2D) + 73 (Gplay)
So yeah, it was worth it. If the book was better—and this was the first book in a series—it probably could’ve made a significant impact on my bottom line.
Let’s talk about what I did to get there.
From Serial to Novel
The first thing I did with Island Daze was throw out the serial branding. The novel was written using a four-act narrative structure. Originally, the first act was permafree. To find out what happened next, you had to buy the full-length novel.
This idea was bolted-on at the last minute: permafree was hot in 2014, serials were too, and I wanted to try it out. Problem was, I didn’t really know that a serial is structured differently than a traditional novel. In retrospect, the decision to make a couple last-second changes to shoehorn it into the serial/permafree arena was sub-optimal. But I was impatient, and convinced that, with two books out, I should definitely be minting millions.
Luckily, the book still worked perfectly fine as a complete, standalone novel—which is what it was originally intended to be—so selling it as such presented no problems. I made no edits to the content of the book.
Next up, I needed a title change. Island Daze has a goofy, whimsical tone. This isn’t the darkest apocalyptic book, but it isn’t particularly funny, either. So I came up with a new title: Paradise.
There are still some issues—it does have slight religious connotations, and I don’t write religious fiction in the slightest—but, overall, it captures the mood well. Especially in conjunction with the cover, which dispels any notions that this has anything to do with religion.
Yes, there are other books with the same name. I wasn’t concerned about that. Paradise: An Apocalyptic Novel (as it appears in the stores), sets clear expectations. Island Daze was a “WTF?” kind of thing—not in a good way. It set no expectations.
This was the biggest change. I was extremely hesitant to shell out money for a book that had, in two years, sold 99 copies. But, truth be told, I never gave it a decent chance. The presentation was so off-base that readers interested in apocalyptic novels would have never given it a second glance.
Enter a new cover from Rebecca Frank. After perusing a number of artists’ work, I saw hers continually pop up on bestseller lists. It was clear that, in addition to being a tremendous artist, she also understood the apocalyptic market and what sold.
So I emailed her 3 – 5 covers that I liked from the apocalyptic bestseller list and told her to give them a jungle theme. I also noted elements from her own covers that I liked. Then I got this, which blew away my lofty expectations:
The one on the left is the original. It was a pre-made. The design is fine, but I chose the completely wrong cover for the book. Not only that, but the text was even wrong: this book might be many things, but “a serial survival thriller” it is not.
The simple subtitle “An Apocalyptic Novel” is much better, and also nails the genre. It’s a little unusual to have an apocalyptic story set on a lush island—this book is not remotely written to market, because I didn’t even realize a market existed at the time—but this cover captures that effect.
This is actually the one part that I think got worse during the revamp. The short, punchy opening lines draw the reader into the story better than the block of text I have in the new version. Although I think the second one’s imagery (“violent storm” and “spreading like wildfire”) better captures the apocalyptic tenor of the story. The second one also has a better focus on the apocalyptic elements, rather than the partying. Definitely needs to be retooled to enhance readability and the overall formatting.
A global pandemic…
A mysterious millionaire…
A sinister secret.
When Maverick, CEO of Elevation Industries, invites some of his closest staff to his personal island, everyone knows what to expect.
A non-stop, raucous, debauched party on a sun-soaked island paradise. It’s known as The Hideaway for good reason.
But, a day into their vacation, news trickles down from the mainland, carrying word of a mysterious virus. And not everything on the picturesque locale in the South Pacific is as wonderful as it seems. There are strange noises in the night. But the most dangerous people of all might be those who they once thought of as friends and colleagues.
Island Daze: The Complete Series is the complete 4 episode series of the post-apocalyptic pulp thriller.
When the world ends, what happens to paradise?
After their yacht is damaged by a violent storm, a group of vacationers are stranded on an idyllic private island. But real panic only sets in when the group radios the mainland for assistance, receiving a harrowing message. A deadly virus is spreading like wildfire across the world, plunging cities into chaos. Cut off from the outside world, the group must find another way off the island in order to survive.
But strange wildlife and a mysterious band of settlers lurk deep in the island’s dense jungles – and neither are fond of outsiders. And the true source of the viral outbreak might be closer than anyone realizes…
Note that the keyword “apocalyptic” is now in the subtitle. That probably helps.This didn’t make a difference (except on Google Play, where the # of downloads went up 7x), but here are all the keywords I used:
Old keywords: pandemic apocalypse, end of world novels, virus outbreak fiction, post apocalyptic serial, genetic engineering thriller, dystopian novels, genetic engineering science fiction books
New: apocalypse pandemic Armageddon doom cataclysm disaster calamity ruin corporations destruction downfall fall of civilization storm havoc end of the world gritty chaos survival society safety paradise lush sanctuary beach private island ocean earth landscape battle genetic engineering experiments illness virus, third person dystopian post apocalyptic science fiction sci-fi sf kindle ebooks, genes
The old Island Daze was actually in five categories, I believe. Whatever I changed with the keywords and so forth reduced the number to four for the Paradise reboot. It didn’t seem to matter. I might email Amazon and add more when I’m feeling less lazy.
As an aside, I added two categories to my book, Shadow Memories. Download numbers for May 1 – 17 (pre-add) were 3.2 copies a day. Download numbers for May 18 – 22 were…3.2 copies a day. No promo involved, so that could shift the numbers dramatically. And this does not even remotely qualify as anything more than “interesting anecdotal information.” But I’m skeptical about the impact of categories.
This actually didn’t change. Island Daze: The Complete Series was originally $4.99 when I was still using the permafree serial model. About six to eight months before I decided to optimize, I took the first episode down and made the entire novel permafree. This didn’t do anything for downloads—I would get one or two a day, if I was lucky. I netted a whopping 426 downloads in all of 2015.
The completely revamped Paradise stayed permafree. Its intention was simply to get people interested in my work and get people to sign up for my mailing list. Neither of those have happened, probably because the novel itself has issues that prevent it.
Here are the results again, for the curious (or forgetful):
Island Daze, Jan 1 – Mar 31: 147 downloads (Amazon) + 159 (Others)
Paradise, April 1 – 30: 336 downloads (Amazon) + 55 downloads (D2D) + 73 (Gplay)
Also the results up to May 21, including a $70 Freebooksy ad:
3118 downloads on Amazon + 516 (other)
Did it make me money? No. But I think the process is sound, provided the book—it’s always, always, always about the book—satisfies reader expectations and hooks them for the long haul.
Part 9: The 80/20 Summary & What Really Matters
To reiterate my findings from the Paradise optimization: your title, cover and blurb matter most of all. Your price can be a big factor (it wasn’t in that test, simply because you can’t go lower than free), too.
But, more importantly, visibility and optimization aren’t the secret sauce. The most important thing in marketing, contrary to popular belief, is to have a product people want. If no one wants your book, no amount of promotion, optimization or magic will bring it up from the depths. When you’ve exhausted all such opportunities, and the book still acts as if it is held down by rocks, the book is the likely culprit.
People don’t really want Paradise. I tried really hard to create a great book that people would like, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. The best marketing in the world can’t outrun a product that most readers don’t really connect with.
For many, my conclusions that your book, title, cover and blurb are critical won’t come as a surprise. However, I hope that my analysis has at least provided more concrete evidence that, in fact, these are the right paths to go down. Too often we get attracted to new and shiny things, while declaring the fundamentals old hat. Look at all those people making cash with their stupid keyword stuffed titles, you might think. Most of them, however, are actually making peanuts, because the core elements of a solid book are absent.
99% of the time, when you put together a decent book listing, run some promo, and your book sinks like a rock, it means you’ve written something no one wants. I’ve had the privilege of doing this a whopping fourteen times. Thus, before you optimize until you’re seeing keywords in your alphabet soup, know this:
Most of the time, the answer to “why is my book not selling?” is because you’ve written an unsellable book.
This isn’t meant to end this guide on a discouraging note. Instead, it should be liberating: I see too many authors obsess over the Sisyphean task of propping their non-selling books up with continued revision, promo and never-ending-tweaks. After a certain point, it’s better to marshal your resources to other ends—like studying what readers want, and then delivering a book that satisfies their expectations.
Nothing will ever trump that. But before you write off a poor-selling book, see if there’s anything you can do to improve its chances of success. You probably won’t launch up the best-seller lists, but if you have an extensive backlist, you can generate a comfortable bump in revenue.
I’ve mentioned the importance of the mailing list a number of times throughout this guide, and Part IV: How to Get Your First 1,000 Subscribers covers the topic in depth. As the title might suggest, it shows you how to build your list step-by-step to 1,000 subs in just 30 days.
And it covers a ton of other email related stuff, too, along the way. It’s the best piece of the series and will have the biggest impact on your career. You don’t want to miss it.
But first, choose one element of your book page that needs optimization, and then break it apart using the instructions below.
The 80/20 Summary
- Cover = packaging, not artwork.
- Make sure your title clearly signals the genre. Don’t go for metaphors or esoteric imagery.
- You want a cover that is professional, clean, readable and instantly signals the genre/expectations at a small size.
- Browse Amazon’s top 100 bestseller list in your sub-genre. Note the trends in terms of titles, covers and other elements (e.g. is the typography usually distressed? Is it a sans-serif or a serif?).
- Find a designer with a portfolio that indicates they can pull your genre off well.
- Send your 3 – 5 examples to your designer with very clear instructions.
- Answers this reader question: as a fan of genre x, will this book satisfy my expectations and entertain me?
- Five principles to keep in mind: make the formatting eye friendly, direct the book towards your target audience—not towards everyone, the first 90 – 100 words of your blurb are the most important, aim for a 7th grade reading level to maximize readability and make sure your hook/tagline distinguish your book from the legions of others – e.g. form a unique selling proposition (USP).
- Practice and research: find 5 blurbs that make you want to read the book in your sub-genre’s top 20. Find 5 blurbs from NYT Bestsellers. Subscribe to BookBub’s newsletter in your genre. Copy your favorite blurbs into a “swipe file” document on your computer. Then write them out, by hand, and analyze what’s effective and why.
- Craft 3 taglines for your book.
- Read your blurb out loud when it’s done. I see this recommendation for full manuscripts (seriously, who has time for that?), but it’s actually feasible to go through your description word-by-word and check for awkwardness/flow.
- Keywords are useless on Amazon unless they’re already part of the pre-existing title & subtitle.
- Keywords can be used to access special Amazon subcategories.
- Keywords are very useful on Google Play.
- Plug in keywords to get into the categories you want
- Alternatively, email KDP support and ask them nicely to put your book in other categories.
- Determine your price by answering two key questions:
- Is my main goal revenue or visibility?
- What is the optimal price for my goal (either revenue/visibility) given my specific book/series?
- General rule of thumb: lower price = more visibility/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/more revenue
- Sometimes this is thrown out of whack, i.e. where a book sells better at a higher price.
- Look at the indie bestsellers in your genre—what do readers expect to pay?
Takeaways from the Paradise optimization
- Title, cover, blurb and keywords on Google Play are the main elements that move the needle. Price, too, if your book isn’t free.
- Optimization can’t save a book that people don’t want or like. A sustainable career is built on read-through, and people buying your next book. Getting them to download one book is just the first step in a longer chain.
- Getting a new cover, title and blurb bumped up downloads of the permafree from 306 (Jan 1 – Mar 31) to 664 (Apr 1 – Apr 30).