Back in the days of typewriters and carbon copies, publishing was a riskier financial business. Books were typically printed in runs of thousands for economy of scale, and then all those copies had to be stored somewhere, requiring renting or buying warehouse space.
Authors are now Amazon sellers
Amazon changed all that, and now anyone can self-publish a book for zero cost. That’s right, zero.
Printing on demand means no print runs and no storage required, and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (or KDP, which used to publish only ebooks until it merged with Amazon’s CreateSpace print publishing platform) will even supply a free ISBN. Combine that with a free layout template and cover design software—meaning no need to hire a designer—and you’re looking at what seems like one of the easiest risk-free ways in the history of the universe to make money.
The catch is that, because anyone can now publish, “crowded market” is an understatement. By all estimates, more than 30 million print books are for sale on Amazon, not even counting those from used-book sellers, and that doesn’t include ebooks either.
Amazon is the world’s largest retail seller of digital books, accounting for about three-fourths of all the ebooks sold in the U.S, according to The Balance Small Business. So if you want to have any real success self-publishing on Amazon, which means distinguishing your book from the crowd, you’ll need to focus on these three elements:
1. Choose your keywords and categories wisely.
Put the keyword of your book’s subject in the book’s title if at all possible. If someone types in “best cupcake recipes” in the search bar and your book is titled Delicious Delicacies From Mom’s Bakery, what are the odds that it will show up in the results? (Hint: not good.)
You’ll also get a chance to enter keywords in one of the several pages of information you’ll fill out for KDP. It’s tempting to skip over many of the sections because you may not understand the questions or know the publishing terminology. Take the time to do research and figure it out. Do a Google search for keywords related to your book. Sort them by the most popular. Then use one keyword or “keyword phrase,” in your title, and use others in the keyword fields. Make sure every possible keyword is in your book’s description as well.
For categories, KDP officially lets you choose two. Many books on Amazon show more than two categories, so there’s obviously a way to game the system and choose more. Do the research. Self-publishing gives you at least hundreds of thousands of competitors. Choose the narrowest possible subgenre, because your goal is to attain a high sales ranking.
If you choose just “nonfiction,” you’re shooting yourself in the foot. If you choose “nonfiction > arts & photography,” you’re shooting yourself in the big toe. If you choose “nonfiction > arts & photography > vehicle pictorials,” now you’re stepping away from the gun and toward a high ranking.
It’s much easier to be a big fish in a small pond.
2. Work the ranking system.
Here are a few reasons why rankings are important:
• Books with the highest rankings are shown on the first page when someone clicks the category link.
• Books with the highest rankings are shown in the “Top Rated,” “Recommended for You,” “Most Wished For” sections, among others.
• When someone clicks on another book title, other books in the same category with high rankings are shown in the “Frequently bought together” and “Customers who bought this item also bought” sections.
• A high ranking makes someone more likely to purchase your book, thanks to the herd mentality and comfort in numbers.
You don’t need to sell copies to get a high ranking.
Enroll your ebook in the KDP Select program. (See the button right next to your title on your dashboard; it’s also offered during the sign-up process.) Then run a price promotion for three days and offer it for $0. FREE. This digital book that has cost you nothing, you will give away free for three days to shoot it up in the sales rankings, because Amazon considers “sales” of $0 still sales. Whatever money you think you’re losing by giving your book away will be more than earned back in increased future sales based on your higher ranking.
Once you decide the dates of your three-day giveaway, announce it everywhere you can. There are many websites that will announce it for you (for free) via newsletters and more, because people love getting free books.
Also announce it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, your author blog, your author website, and anywhere else you can think of.
Book promotion starts before you finish writing the first draft of your book.
Get those targeted accounts set up ASAP and keep the world posted on your writing progress. Share interesting photos, interviews, or whatnot as you go, to build interest.
Ideally you’ll do this giveaway on the first three days of publication, because the early days are the most important for rankings (the way Amazon’s algorithms work), but it’s never too late.
I did a giveaway two years after my first nonfiction book was published, and it was enough to get it showing up in some of the “recommended” sections.
For my second nonfiction book, I did the giveaway on the first three days of publication, and it shot to #1 on the free books list in its category.
That means I’m now a bestselling author, and the book has been reaping the ranking rewards ever since.
Only have a print book, you say, so this doesn’t apply to you? Nonsense. It’s super easy to convert most print books to digital, and both formats will be combined for certain number-crunching purposes.
The ebook ranking will affect the print book ranking.
Get as many reviews on Amazon as possible. Offer people free digital or print copies in exchange for reviews. Emailing someone a PDF of your book costs nothing and builds support—just know that you may have to follow up with people more than once to actually get them to write a review. It can be helpful to offer them talking points, as in, “I would never put words in your mouth, but please feel free to mention how this compelling romance novel pulls at the heartstrings as it questions the very nature of love.”
Three more reasons reviews are important:
1. Many book review and giveaway sites won’t review or even list your book without a minimum number in the rankings.
2. Good reviews turn people on the fence into buyers, thanks once again to the herd mentality.
3. Good reviews also build engagement on your Amazon author page, because you can add them there. Your Amazon author page should be set up even before setting up your book’s Facebook page.
With a little effort and these secrets on your side, you can go from being at the bottom of Amazon’s sales barrel to standing a real chance at sales, even without a huge marketing budget.
ELENA VAYA is a copy editor and a proofreader specializing in memoir, self-help, business, and fiction. She is a best-selling and award-winning self-published author under a pen name.