How to Best Sell Books

I want to be an advocate for change in the writing world, particularly amongst my fellow independent authors. Not necessarily a change in what we do––though that may come––but in how we think.  Let me explain.

Since my revelation back in April and the start of my #BooksAreNeverFree thinking and initiative, I've been reading posts from fellow writers (or industry voices, anyway) with a fresh mindset.  Incidentally, I should add, since switching off my perma-free at the beginning of May (this method is often seen as the holy grail of the indie marketing approach) I had my best month ever for selling books as an author. That's right, I switched off free and actually sold more books in May 2017 than in any month of the previous 5 years as a published author. 

I hear a lot of fear around being more selective with readers. ‘Free downloads are 90 times more likely to be downloaded than paid books' some will say. ‘Perma-free is the only way for new authors to find their audience' and others, more forcefully ‘it works for me and I wouldn't change it'.  

I like to think I bring a logical mindset to this area, and the thing I don't often hear being asked is the simple question: what do you actually want? 

If it's a download figure you want (like other ultimately pointless stats such as ‘followers' on Twitter or ‘views' on YouTube) then go for it.  The higher, the better, right?  I'll point out, stats are widespread––the vast vast majority of free downloaded books are never ever read!  But if it's just this figure of total downloads you are after (like a social proof so you can blurt out ‘I’ve been downloaded 250,000 times!'), then perma-free is for you.

If, however, you are like me, maybe your actual goal is something else. Namely, an actual income. Sales.

Whilst historically, the perma-free model has led to sales in the past (the dated argument gets mentioned at this stage which goes ‘if your books are good enough, readers will buy the rest') logic dictates that this is no longer true.  If, as stated, most freebies are never read, then the logic goes that neither will this reader ever get around to buying from you, either.  Plus there is the whole argument I've made previously that even if they have read your free book, (type x) readers are now reporting that they still aren't buying, as free books are plentiful and they don't need to spend money they often can't afford (there is a huge connection between the freebie seekers and those on limited incomes). By type x readers I mean the very selective group of e-book only, free or cheap book readers. This is far from the entire market, of course, and yet so much of our advertising push is aimed at type x! 

This post was inspired by a fresh thought I had this morning while travelling early to yet another airport.  It was partly shaped by an article I skimmed the other day saying ‘please don't write 4 books a year.‘  It was suggesting whilst some take years to forge a book, the idea that indie authors can produce 4 a year is laughable.  They can't possibly be good. Whilst the points are made, it tires me to hear so many rules.  Do this, do that.  Give away. 

Here's my thought.  Imagine you have a mailing list of 3,000 readers (we won't get into it here of how you got that, or assume it's a higher number––it could well be much higher, in fact!).  Now imagine these readers (yes, all of them and every time) will buy whatever book you publish (as, actually, my fanatic readers have told me…which helps us also dodge the genre issue here, in case you cross borders occasionally).  In this scenario, and to this list (your list will not increase or decrease over the years, it'll remain fixed at 3,000––again, humour me here) tell me your frequency of books you would publish a year and at what price? 

I guess the unrealistic answer in this no-lose scenario would be dozens of books a year at several bucks each, or one book a year at £1,000 a time!  Think of the royalties…3,000x whatever you make per book! 

One approach I often have when overcoming challenges is to work backwards, sometimes.  It's how I plan my writing year (I'll have to post an article on that soon, but it's fun!), it's how I often map out my novels.  Here, in this scenario, it helps me to think realistically, as well as the big picture. 

Now, I'll come back to that central question we should be asking ourselves as an author.  What do we ultimately want?  I know what I want.  I want to be a full-time author in every sense of the word (I write nearly full-time now, though my income from that is not yet equivalent).  But I want to be someone who actually sells books.

Now, we all have our own figure of what might be deemed a full-time salary.  It no doubt differs from country to country (city to city) as well as your own personal circumstances.  For me, I think my aim would be about £2,000 a month, therefore £24,000 a year.  I'll use that figure in my following example and calculations. 

Coming back to my above example, with a 3,000 strong readership (remember they will all buy your work at some point during the year, because they are actual fans), from one book being released a year, you'd need to set the price in such a way so that your royalty (the bit you get to keep as the author) is £8 per book.  8×3,000=24,000.  A £8 royalty is quite high, of course.  Amazon limit their 70% royalty band for books up to £9.99, so you would not easily be able to earn that on the world's biggest bookseller.  You might be happy with just a £7 royalty, which would still net you an annual £21,000 from your 3,000 fans. 

A book priced at £3.99 earns a royalty of about £2.50 (I'll use this rounded number for simplicity's sake).  Your 3,000 sales would then earn you £7,500, a nice amount, but if you are relying on a full-time salary, something you'll need to see repeated.  Two books would, therefore, mean £15,000, and three would land you at £22,500, which for my goal, is near enough. 

So again, in the ideal world where all your readers will buy, that question about how often you should publish and at what price, suddenly becomes irrelevant.  Of course, every book should be carefully put together.  Getting expert help with this, for me, is an area I won't compromise in, and neither should you.  Don't publish a book full of errors.  It'll hurt you.  Get the help you need (even, maybe especially, if you think you don't need help!). 

Where does free land you in this scenario?  Penniless, for sure! Where does limiting yourself to one book a year land you, too? Short, unless, of course, your list is much larger than even a healthy 3,000. 

But what of the equally popular 0.99 launch (or promo?).  I'll cover the promo idea first, as it's easiest.  If done through someone like BookBub, you are most likely reaching new readers not currently in your world.  The exposure they offer you makes it worthwhile.  At the time of writing this (this will no doubt change, as is to be expected in our fast-moving industry) a BookBub deal is still the golden ticket.  So go for it, and watch your book sales fly (for a limited time––even their effect doesn't last forever, as maybe even BookBub readers fall into the type x box––they only buy 0.99 e-books). 

The special launch price strategy is not so clear.  In the scenario above, you have effectively reduced your royalty from £2.50 a book to around 33p!  That's because, for books under £2.99, Amazon will only give you a 35% royalty.  That means 8 sales at £0.99 is the same as one sale at £3.99.  Will a 99 cent/pence deal bring you 8x the sales?  And in our ongoing example, your 3,000 readers snapping it up on launch now only nets you £990 in royalties.  Under that model, you would have to release approaching 20 books a year to make that full-time salary we were after.  A tall order by any account! 

My last book launched on 1st August at full price, this done for the first time.  Those who want to buy will buy, regardless of discount or not.  It's too early to tell how August will look for royalties, but even if sales are similar to previous launches, maybe even lower, royalties will be higher…those didn't sell at 8x the rate that this one is. 

And here is my real point.  Think about this ideal 3,000.  Do you get there with free?  For me, it's clear––absolutely not. 

Statistically (if offering a book free) only about 30 of the 3,000 will actually have read it, and the stats are increasingly showing that even then, far from all 30 will buy from you again.  What about the 99 cents launch?  It's being called the new free (and to some degree I see this. With a cost involved, there is more likelihood that people will read the book.  That's a good start. If you're good enough they'll read more, hopefully.  But if you always launch to your list at 99 cents, that is what they will expect.  You are training them right from the off that this is what they are always to expect.  This is therefore what they are to pay.  Again, a list of 21,000 (8x 3,000 to make up for the difference in royalty) with three launches a year would get you to that magical full-time income. But that's a large list to maintain. 

My surveys have shown me that the more books my readers have read, the higher price they value them at. £4.99 was a happy price.  I'll get there sooner or later.  For now, £3.99 still represents a very reasonable price.

I might not get the 60,000+ downloads I had last year with my perma-free book, but what I want most is readers and readers who value my work.  Give me a dedicated 3,000 any day, and it's a starting point I'll happily build on. 

You see, as authors, we aren't running a supermarket, where it's cheapest goes, get the mass market in through the doors.  That model just won't work for us.  We, instead, are running a boutique, and that's a good thing.  We want to have customers who appreciate our offerings, who'll pay a little more because of what we do, and who'll stay around loyally for decades to come.  Give me the slow and steady.

If like me, you actually want to make a living from your writing, I encourage you to think likewise.  Value your work in the same way that your readers do (or your future readers will).  Don't undersell yourself.  Because, at the end of the day, #BooksAreNeverFree, of course.  But you knew that, right?