The first thing you need in order to sell your book(s) is a quality product — well-written, well-edited (not by you), and well-designed (both the ebook, the print edition, and, possible, the audiobook — not to mention the cover). But that’s not enough. If you build it, they probably will not come.
Creating books is only the first half of the job. The other half is actually making sure that you’ve created an audience who want to buy them.
Now, when I say that to new author-publishers, they immediately think I’m talking about paid ads on Facebook, Google, Amazon, BookBub, etc.
But that’s not what I mean.
You mean there’s something more important than ads?
Now, this isn’t an answer that I think is going to please anyone just starting out, but more than ads, there are two things that reliably lead to sales:
- Platform: It’s important to build presence that potential readers can be aware of so that when they come across your books you’re a) not an unknown and b) have some reasonable reputation for knowing what you’re writing about (whether that’s fiction or non-fiction). Unless your real-world reputation puts you in a position to be a familiar name/brand to your audience, the way to build those is through creating what’s become known as a platform: an online presence that can include a web page/site (ideally not primarily concerned with sharing sales links, but including those strategically and prominently), newsletter mailing list, social media, accounts on communities and other folks sites where you comment and interact (again, not saying BUY MY BOOK!!! over and over, but actually adding to the level of conversation), etc. Doing these things needn’t cost you much, but can bring a rich reward over time.
- More books: Yeah. The best way to sell one book is to have another book, so that when someone gets to the end of one you’ve given them somewhere else to go. Obviously, this is especially effective with series, but can also work well even if you’ve just got a bunch of titles connected only by theme or genre — or even just your name. (This is one of many reasons that I’m not a huge fan of using separate pen names to micro-target; you’re denying yourself and your readers the joy of synergy. There are cases where you have to use a pen name — I know an author who writes children’s books and erotic romance, for example. But I think it’s a bad strategy except in those kinds of cases.) Discoverability is the key to modern publishing, and having more titles simply allows more people to find you, and makes each marketing expenditure (whether it’s of time or money) more profitable, since by having a larger list, you’re creating economies of scale. Each title doesn’t have to be full-length work. I’ve added a series of prequel short stories to my YA historical series; not only can I use one as a reader magnet to build up my platform and freebies for my subscribers, but these stories increase the number of ways a reader might stumble across me and my books. Again, this is mostly an expenditure of your own time and energy (production costs notwithstanding) and will likely pay off — again, over time.
Ads aren’t really going to pay for themselves until you’ve created those two bits of social capital, though you can use them judiciously to help build up your platform.
So… when should I start?
Seth Godin famously said when asked when an author should start marketing a book, “Three years ago.”
There are times when I feel as if he meant that, no matter when you start, you’re already three years too late.
But I think what he was actually trying to say was that you need to plan ahead, and use those three years (or more) to create a body of work so that when your book is coming out, you’ve got an audience ready for it.