Starting From Zero Marketing Writing

lets_get_digital_amazonSuccess can seem unattainable to those starting out. It’s easy to forget that even the biggest sellers started from zero.

Amanda Hocking didn’t arrive on the scene as a fully formed sales machine. She didn’t have a platform which she had been diligently building up for years, nor did she come from trade publishing. She was unable to convince an agent to take her on and decided to self-publish instead, and then sold a million e-books in nine months!

Detractors tried to paint Hocking as an anomaly — and she was, in the sense that anyone who is phenomenally successful at anything is an anomaly.

But that missed the point: she was able to sell as much as the biggest names in publishing without the help of a publisher.

Soon, others followed suit. Authors like Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, HM Ward, Liliana Hart, and Barbara Freethy have sold millions of e-books on their own. Michael Wallace, Deanna Chase, Ed Robertson, Monique Martin, Chris Culver, BV Larson, Russell Blake, David Dalglish, Marie Hall, and Ryk Brown are just some of the many, many authors who have sold hundreds of thousands of e-books on their own. Without the help of a publisher.

Further down the food chain, hundreds of authors (possibly thousands), myself included, are making a living from book sales. Many of them, like me, were authors who couldn’t get out of the slushpile.

In other words, most of us started from zero. No readers, no platform, nothing.

A lot has changed in the three years since self-publishing went mainstream. In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier too. Competition has increased. More importantly, the general savviness of self-publishers has improved. But the tools we have for reaching readers are much more sophisticated, and the prizes have swelled along with the market.

But it’s definitely different than it was three years ago, and, as such, the route to success has changed somewhat too. Beginners might get frustrated trying to follow in the footsteps of the authors named above because of that.

I see some of that frustration any time I share marketing tips. When those starting out read a post like this one on how to boost your mailing list, there’s always a comment which says something like “All that is great, but what do you do if you don’t have any readers?”

I get it. I really do. It can seem like a chicken-egg situation. You need ads to get sales, sales to get mailing list sign-ups, reviews to get ads, fans to get reviews, ads to get fans… pretty soon you’re all tied up in knots and see no way out.

The underlying question is “how do I get the ball rolling?” The short answer is step-by-step. And here’s the long answer.

If you are starting from zero today (like I did 3 years ago), I suggest the following plan:

  1. Get 10 sales as soon as you can. Get those algorithms moving. Also Boughts only appear after 10 sales, and they are central to the Amazon recommendation engine in ways we only partly understand.
  1. Get 10-20 reviews as soon as you can. This will take a while, but it opens up a world of possibilities in advertising and adds social proof. Don’t buy any, obviously. There are lots of legit places to get reviews such as Goodreads and LibraryThing. Be willing to give anyone a free book in exchange for a review. Only ever request an honest review, and don’t offer anything other than a free book in exchange for same. Also don’t worry about cannibalizing your sales; you are building something much bigger. Finally, don’t let overblown fears of piracy prevent you from giving away copies of your work.
  1. Apply to BookBub once you have 20 reviews. They don’t have a minimum, but a new author probably needs that many before they’ll look at it seriously. If they reject, don’t worry. Happens often (to all of us). Reapply further down the line when you have even more reviews, and have padded out your blurb with some juicy pull quotes. Instead, book an ad at ENT, BookSends, or Kindle Books & Tips. Also submit to Pixel of Ink and The Midlist, both of which are free.
  1. Once you get an ad at any of those, build something around it. Put another ad the day after, or before. Or both, if you can.
  1. Drop the price to 99¢ for the ad. Don’t be tempted to run at $1.99, even if you are normally priced quite high. 99¢ always brings way better results at the deal sites.
  1. Before the ad runs, make sure you are in the best categories to get maximum exposure. Also make sure your mailing list sign-up is the first thing readers see when they reach the end of your book.
  1. When the ad runs, enjoy the sales burst and the increase in mailing list sign-ups. Don’t panic when sales decay afterwards. That’s inevitable (and usually unavoidable).
  1. While all this is going on, write another book. When that’s ready for the world, you’ll have a bigger list to launch to, and you will throw the book higher in the charts, and have a longer tail of nice sales after launch. This will also increase mailing list sign-ups, so the next one goes even higher again.
  1. It starts becoming a virtuous circle at this point. With more titles, you have more promotional opportunities, more ads you can take out, more launches, all of which result in more sales, more spill-over to other titles, more mailing list sign-ups, and then bigger launches the next time around.
  1. Don’t give up. Books have a million lives. It doesn’t matter if no one has read it yet and it has been out a while. It’s always new to the reader encountering it for the first time. And be patient. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Expecting it to will only lead to disappointment.

When you get a little more experienced, there are various things you can add, as well as increasing levels of sophistication to all of this, but you won’t go too far wrong by starting off with this basic template.

* * *

This is just a glimpse at some of the stuff I’ll be covering in the revised, expanded, and updated second edition of Let’s Get Digital.

I’ve finally locked down a release date, and I’ll be launching it here on the blog on September 17 — later than expected, but the delay is for good reasons. I ended up adding way more new content than originally planned.

I’ll be uploading Digital 2 directly over Digital 1. This means that if you purchased the original, you will get the second edition free. I’ll be blogging about that in more detail over the next couple of weeks.

As always, my mailing list peeps will get an exclusive for a couple of days, so if you want to hear about the new release before anyone else, sign up here.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.