Self-publishing is about as democratic as anything else, in the sense that 1) anyone is free to try it and 2) it takes money to make money.
I have one self-published friend who recently admitted to spending over $15,000 to market her Indie novel. She's doing well and has more than tripled her investment. In addition, she has built a platform of readers who are now eagerly awaiting her next novel.
That story has a happy ending. But what if you don't have $15,000, or even $5,000, to spend on publicity? What if just getting your book published wipes out your savings, because you already had to cough up a few thousand for the cover, the design, the ISBN number and an editor, too? What do you do then?
That's the situation I was in when I published my novel Sleeping Tigers.
Fortunately, there is advice aplenty for authors on how to advertise cheaply. Check out web sites for Novel Publicity, Ereader News Today,World Literary Cafe, Digital Book World, TeleRead, and The Book Designer for useful tips. These all offer great advice on book marketing—and, yes, it's all free! Indie authors J.A. Konrath and John Locke also have helpful blogs.
Now, after three months of testing out book marketing strategies, I can honestly say that probably nothing can help you market your book more effectively than the KDP Select Program.
What is the KDP Select Program?
Read the fine print on the Kindle Direct Publishing web site, but here are the bare bones: if you agree to participate in the KDP Select Program, you sign up for a three-month exclusivity term. This means that you agree to sell your ebook only in the Kindle format, but you can continue selling your paperbacks however you wish.
In exchange for this exclusivity agreement, you are granted five free promotional days during your three-month term. Your book is also included in the lending library for Amazon Prime members; this means that people with Amazon credit cards can borrow your book for free—and Amazon will pay you a royalty for each borrow.
Many authors object to the KDP Select program. Indie authors are a crowd of wild Mustangs and we hate being reined in—that's why many of us self-publish. We object to some of Amazon's monopolistic business practices. Plus, why would anyone want to give a book away for free?
I was one of those resisters. On the other hand, despite my steady blogging and my shiny new Twitter account, I was selling very few books. The first month after publication, Sleeping Tigers sold just enough books for me to take my husband to a movie or dinner, but not both. My novel was a cross between literary fiction, chick lit, and romance—no zombies, vampires, serial killers, cowboy lovers, or psychic detectives. In other words, there wasn't the usual genre crowd to rely on for sales.
I wasn't trying to get rich on this novel—in fact, I didn't even imagine making back what I spent on publishing it. But I am a writer who longs to reach out to readers. I had tried everything but the KDP Select Program to market my novel, so I signed up for the three-month term and chose my first two promotional days. Then I sat back and waited.
Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did
That was my mistake: I sat back and did nothing.
While I did have more downloads during the first two days my book was free—the book ultimately reached a rank of #18 in Kindle's contemporary fiction and a rank of 185 in the free Kindle store—after the promotion I was still selling only one or two books per day.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked a friend who also happens to be my guru in the Indie publishing world.
“Did you advertise the fact that your book was free?” she asked.
By the next month, my book was back down in the ranks, sliding as low as 70,000 or so. I was getting desperate; I had always sold my book at $2.99, but many Indie authors who make it into the Amazon stratosphere sell their ebooks for $.99. My next experiment was to try this strategy. I decided to lower the price to $.99 to see what would happen. (This is called a “price pulse” and you can find lots of authors discussing this strategy online.) I even did a mild book pimping run on Twitter and Facebook to see if I could garner interest in a week-long $.99 promotion.
The result? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, my book rank plummeted, languishing around 134,000 or so.
“You have to do another free promotion,” my friend urged. “But advertise it this time.”
Do This Instead
For my second KDP Select Promotion, I waited until I had that magical tenth positive review on Amazon, courtesy of a generous book blogger in England. Then I set my promotion for three days, choosing the end of tax season, April 15 to 17, as my dates, figuring people would finally be finished with nasty paperwork and be ready for a fun read.
A week ahead of time, I emailed some of the big e-reader sites that my book would be free on those days, like Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today. Then, to take the “layered marketing approach,” as the saying goes, I bought a (very cheap) ad on Digital Books Today to run right after the promotion.
As I waited for April 15, I began second-guessing all of my efforts. Was I making a mistake? April 15 wasn't just tax day, it was Patriot's Day, and the day of the Boston Marathon! Who the heck would want to download books if there was a holiday to enjoy? Why didn't I wait?
Plus, even by April 14, I still couldn't bring myself to blog, tweet or Facebook about the promotion. Authors who spend their time sending out book pimping messages make my teeth hurt. Yes, everything these days is “soft” marketing, but I prefer content with my advertising. I didn't want to inflict sales spam on people I'd come to know through social media channels.
I nearly pulled out of the second free promotion for another reason as well: I was having a crisis in confidence as a writer. How many readers are left in the world? In my most pessimistic moments, I imagine everyone sitting around in sports bars or lying on the couch watching American Idol or YouTube videos. Maybe everyone who would be interested in reading my book had already downloaded it.
On April 15, I could barely bring myself to check the downloads, but bam! There they were, and they were coming fast! In the very first day of the second promotion, I had as many downloads as the first two days combined! By the last day of the promotion, my book had hit #1 in contemporary fiction and #3 among all free Kindle downloads—with twenty times as many downloads as during my first promotion.
What's more, sales have declined but have remained steady. Thanks to the KDP Select Program, I may actually make a small profit from Sleeping Tigers. More importantly, I am creating an audience of readers and book bloggers who I hope will be interested in the next novel I publish.
What the heck happened to make this possible?
The answer is easy: I took full advantage of KDP Select Program's free promotional days. You can do it, too. Here's how:
- Before joining the KDP Select Program, check your book sales. Are you selling more on Smashwords or Kindle? If the answer is Kindle, then you have nothing to lose by going with the KDP Select Program—you can opt out again after three months.
- There are two schools of thought when it comes to deciding when to go with KDP Select: one is that you should wait until you have at least ten positive Amazon reviews (4 or 5 stars). The other is to do it right away, when you launch your book. That will give your book a higher ranking from the start. However, sites like Pixel of Ink are less likely to pick up books without customer reviews, because so many authors contact them, and of course it's in their interest to publicize the best free books possible. I'd advise contacting reviewers early, before your book is out, and waiting until you have the reviews posted on Amazon before advertising your free promotion.
- Remove your book from Smashwords and other sites at least two weeks in advance. I ran into a slight snafu, because I thought that removing the book from Smashwords meant I'd successfully made my book exclusive to Kindle; however, Smashwords distributes to a number of other sites, like Barnes & Noble, and it can take 2-3 weeks for them to remove the book.
- Once you sign up for KDP Select, make use of all five free promotional days, but don't do them one at a time—spread them out between a two-day and a three-day promotion. That gives readers time to see your book and download it.
- Follow up your free promotion with some modest paid advertising.
And that, my friends, is it. Simple as can be. Will I sign up again for KDP Select? I already have. I'll let you know how the next round goes. I'd love to hear your experiences, too. What has worked for you?