Tessa has been published for more than half a century. She has been a ghostwriter, a scriptdoctor, a copywriter, a content writer, & author.
Why is it so Hard to Get Published?
- The publishing industry is not as profitable as it once was.
- It is easier for publishing houses to focus on celebrities and authors who are already established.
- Fewer people are reading as a result of competition from the web, TV, etc.
- Self-publishing has widened the scope for readers and Indie ebooks are doing better than recognized authors.
This is a question that many authors ask themselves. It’s a fair question. More frustrating is that when you begin to research how to self-publish and sell, you are met by a wall of sales people – all of them offering to teach you how to write better or how to sell 20,000 books.
My question to all these people who are teaching other is, “Why, if you are such a great writer and if you sell so many books, do you have to earn your money teaching others to write? Surely, if you really knew, you could have a spirit of generosity towards other writers and explain to them gratis who it is done?”
With that in mind, although I haven’t sold 20,000 books (not yet), I want to share what I have learnt about self-publishing and how to get a reasonable number of sales for your books.
With that, I first want to explain what publishing means and give you a little bit of history of the publishing industry. This will explain the difficulty of getting published.
What Does it Mean to Be Published?
To be published is not the same thing as to have one’s books printed. To be published means to be publicized. It means that the publisher has presented your book to readers in a way that makes readers want to buy it. There are different ways of doing this. Publishers ask famous authors to read advance copies and write a review on it. They send free books to critics of major newspapers, and they hope for a decent review. They pay for book tours. They seldom advertise on radio or television these days. It has simply become too expensive.
The History of Publishing
Thirty years ago, a publisher, like a bank, was a major money source. Banks still are, but publishers are not so much. This is why the sons of the aristocracy either became publishers or bankers.
The process from author to sales used to be fairly straightforward.
- Author submited book to publisher
- Publisher put book on slush pile and waited for reader (hired by publishers) to read it
- The reader read the book and made a recommendation to the commissioning editor.
- The commissioning editor took the advice of the reader. When in doubt, publishers went ahead anyway. They had nothing to lose. And the truth is nobody has yet worked out what the public will love and what they won’t love.
- The publishing company had 5000 books printed.
- The publishing company distributed these books to various book stores which paid the publisher upfront for the book.
- If the book didn’t sell, the publisher did not take a loss. The publisher always makes money – on 5000 books. It was a money mint!
Understanding the world of publishing
The Way Publishers Work Today
Then things changed.
- Book stores insisted they sell on consignment, and if the book didn’t sell, then the publisher had to take it back.
- Print on demand was invented and single books could be published very cheaply. This gave people who had previously had too little capital to start in the business the ability to do so. It also gave authors the ability to self-publish.
- Timothy Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and suddenly everybody became a writer!
It didn’t take long for publishing houses to start losing massive amounts of money. In order to stop the hemorrhaging, they changed their process.
- The marketing department made the decision whether to accept a book for publication or not. Their criteria were as follows:
- The person must already have a large following – a few million. So celebrities, politicians, and business ‘leaders’ were perfect as people were already falling at their feet.
- If these people did not write a book, the publishing house would approach them, offer them a ghostwriter (free), and then they would make some money from the sales of the book. What’s not to like? Have you noticed how every two-bit politician now has a book out?
- Approach self-published authors if they’ve sold a million or so books.
- Consider books from people who have large followings on Instagram, etc.
- Consider books submitted by agents. The slush pile no longer exists, and the agent must have a solid reputation for picking winners.
- The publishing house only did an initial print-run of 2000 copies as opposed to the glory days when they did 5000 copies.
- They were insistent that new authors take part in the marketing process and sometimes even contribute financially to it.
So if you’re your average newbie author starting out, there’s not much chance that you will get your fabulous first offerings published.
So something has had to give.
This is one of the major reason that self-publishing has taken off. The other is that most people out there confuse basic literary with the ability to write a book. The truth is that most people do not have the ability to write a book. A bit of research I read about ten years ago when living in California was that 95% of students at four year universities in California couldn’t write a grammatical sentence. I know from attending writing classes (for extra credit) in San Diego that, with the exception of one or two of the students, most of them were semi-literate.
So while there have been a good few bestsellers written by people who should go back to grade school to learn how to write, for the most part, it’s advisable to actually be a good writer.
In case you aren’t a good writer, but you are a kick-ass storyteller (the Cellestine Prophesy, 50 Shades of Grey, and Amanda Hocking), there is always hope, and a good editor with solid marketing skills will help you along the way.
The bottom line is that while people like Ellen Brock will insist it is only your quality of writing that stops you from getting published, that is far from the truth.
So how do you get your books to sell steadily? Note that I am not telling you how to be a world-famous author. I’m trying to assist in simply getting sufficient sales to make the time invested in writing a book worthwhile.
Be Proud That Youre' an Indie Author!
Current Options for New Authors
1. You can either continue to submit to publishers and hope they will publish. You might get lucky.
2. You can submit to a vanity publisher, pay for everything, and hope they sell your book. However, they don’t advertise your book either, and as they make their profit from charging you, they have no interest in your book selling.
3. You can submit to one of the small publishing houses, and they will bear half the costs. You will bear the other half. Again, it’s a financial risk.
4. You can self-publish. You can hire professional editor (which is expensive) and pay for a good cover design. You can then hire marketers to market your book for you. There are many around, but they do not give any guarantees.
5. Both Amazon and Facebook offer the author targeted advertising. The Return on Investment (ROI) appears to be 20% or 30%. So if you want to make $100,000 out of your book, you will have to invest something like $500,000 in order to sell for $600,000 and clear $100,000. I kid you not. I’ve grown tired of the number of authors who publish their ROI on investment in order to encourage other authors to pay for advertising. The most common figure I see is $270 invested in advertising to gross $380. When the $270 is subtracted from the $380, there is a profit of $110. Forgive me if I am less than thrilled.
6. You can self-publish (Smashwords, PublishDrive are about the best) and you don’t pay anything. You are a good enough editor to know your work is acceptable (you’re probably already a published writer), and you’re skilled in making book-covers. You can promote your work in various ways, and maybe you get lucky. :)
How to Self-Publish
Before we get to how to market your book, here’s a quick guide to how to publish your book. I would always advocate doing an ebook first in order to establish whether the book is going to sell or not. In addition, the ebook doesn’t cost while printing the book can.
- There is a choice between fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction is easier in terms of SEO. Fiction is impossible when it comes to SEO.
- If you’re going to choose non-fiction, make sure that there is sufficient traffic for your potential book. Use the same methodology you would if you were writing an article for a content writing site.
- If you choose fiction, check to see that it is a popular genre.
- Once the book is written, make absolutely sure your cover art is divine. I have used Pixabay for all my covers as much of the art is free for commercial use. I always provide a link back to the artist in my book as a courtesy. In order to get the book to the right size for the particular distributor (Smashwords or PublishDrive), use Paintnet. (I have provided a Paintnet tutorial.)
- Please use a professional editor to edit your book if you are not a published writer. You may be lucky and have excellent English, and if so, good enough. Still get someone with equally good English to go through it.
- There are many online publishing sites these days. Smashwords and PublishDrive get your ebooks to most sites, plus they are free, and they use Paypal to pay you. Mark Coker of Smashwords has a superb video series on how to market your book. PublishDrive offer you free assistance in marketing your book.
- Upload your book as an ebook initially to the sites of your choice. If they sell well, you can publish through either Amazon KDP or Ingram Spark. Ingram Spark is the better choice. If you have used Create Space (KDP) in the past, then you have to remove the book for a year before you can use Ingram Spark.
- While Amazon sells the most book, they can be sticky. They will not cater to free books unless you select to be part of KDP Select. Whatever you do, do not join KDP Select. You will have to withdraw all your books from other sites, and the ROI is not worth it. They give you a few days every three or four months to offer you book free, but they do nothing to promote it. Been there – done that. I found that Publish Drive (which sells my books on Amazon) had more sales than those books which I uploaded directly to KDP-Amazon.
Pay the Writer - Harlan Ellison
Formatting and Pricing Ebooks
Jack Preston King gives a solid way of pricing ebooks. He also advocates that nobody gives ebooks away. I think he's right. The problem is that it's probably the only way that one can draw attention to one's books. If nobody gave their books away, it would probably be another story. However, we're stuck in the system, so much as I agree with Jack in the things he says on this issue, I have to confess that I use free books to promote my other books.
Here's the pricing model he gives.
- Ebooks under 20,000 words to be priced at $0.99
- Ebooks between 20,000 and 39,999 words to be priced at $2.99
- Ebooks above 40,000 words between $3.99 and $5.99 depending on length and how much people are willing to pay.
The general percentage to the author is for ebooks under $2.99, the author earns a third (or less). For books $2.99 and above, the author earns two thirds.
Both Smashwords and PublishDrive ask you to format your book in the same way. The only exception is PublishDrive who ask you to include a Jpg picture of the cover on the first page of your document.
Here's how you need to format.
- You need to use the styling format and not do it manually.
- First page contains name of book and by-line.
- Insert a page break.
- Next page contains your copyright notice.
- Insert a page break.
- Next page contains a Table of Contents. Most of the booksellers will no longer accept a book without a table of contents so you do need to make one. List your chapters with the chapter number, and then do a page break. The table of contents needs to be on its own page.
- Go to each chapter heading, highlight it, click on 'insert bookmark' write which chapter it is, and then save. Each chapter heading should be in the centre of a page in bold. Always insert a page break at the end of each chapter as the table of contents won't work otherwise.
- When you have done this, go back to the table of contents, highlight each chapter, then click 'insert hyperlink,' find the bookmark, and connect the two.
- Line spacing is 1.5 and paragraphing is 8 points.
- Use the Garamond font for both the manuscript and the book cover.
- For Smashwords save in .doc and for PublishDrive save in .docx.
If you do not get this right, then your book will be declined. The reason why formatting is so specific is because the books are converted by these distributors into various other formats, e.g. e.pub or mobi.
Note that if a distributor wants to know your word count, using MS Word, go to Review, click on Word Count, see how many characters with spaces there are and divide that by 1500. That will give you the number of words in your ebook.
How to Market Your Ebooks
It is vital to market your books if you want to sell them.
If you are not going to pay for someone else to market your books, it is a slow process. If you pay for someone else to market your books, you may find you spend more on marketing than you earn from your books. And maybe you make a million!
Below I’ve listed a marketing process for authors.
- Establish an internet presence. This can be done by writing articles on hubpages, Quora, or Medium. I have selected these three sites because Google gives them posts and articles on these sites quite a high page ranking. Make sure your profile not only lists you as an author but gives the names of books you have written. Do not provide links to your books as this is frowned on by some sites. You will need to experiment to find out where you can use a link to your book and where you can’t. It is a good thing to respect the rules of the site you are on. For the record, in my first four weeks on Quora, I had 600,000 views. The norm for a month is about 2000.
- Dave Chesson has an excellent site on how to market books, some of which you pay for, and some of which you don’t. Here is a link to a list of sites that will market your book with or without payment. Each of these sites give you the option to promote your book. Some make conditions like the book must be free or not cost more than 99 cents. Also note that a good percentage of these sites only deal with Kindle Free Books. This means your books can only be on KDP Select. Not a good idea.
- Conceive a marketing plan before you start. I wrote four non-fiction books which were keyword orientated. If people search for those keywords, my books come up. I made one of them free. The free one is being used on all sites that want free books. All four books give a list of the books I have written plus an invitation to join my email list with an email address attached.
- Inkett is an excellent site if you have a throw-away book you can use just to get known.. You can upload it and they will edit it and publish it free. Readers select which books are meaningful to them. They have produced a long line of bestsellers. If you’re a kick-ass writer, and you’ve written the kind of fiction to sell, this is an excellent site. However, be very careful about any rights you sign away.
- Bookhub uses email marketing to their long list of readers. You will only pay a few bucks for this but it is worth taking the chance to get the readers. Sometimes they offer freebies.
- Reviews are essential in getting increased readership. KDP-Amazon use an algorithm to determine whether the reviews are genuine or not. They are not genuine if you have 15 reviews with fifteen purchases. That is because only one in 200 or 500 readers will give a review. The best way to get reviews is to make your book free initially. It’s a lot better deal to get a critic write about your book in the Guardian than invest in a website. Publish Drive gives you the ability to submit your book to a critic.
- Consider establishing a presence on Goodreads. They are a fair indicator to potential readers on the level of your writing. Take a lesson from me here. I took the advice of others to offer a free book in return for a review. One guy, thinking he did me a favor, faked ten reviews. I had to ask Goodreads to take them off. I was embarrassed because they were quite clearly fake reviews. Don’t do it! I confess that it has brought my ratings down to 4.3 stars with 87 ratings, but I prefer to know that the feedback is authentic. That way, I can write with confidence, and so can you.
- Mark Coker from Smashwords suggests listing your book up to a year before publishing. There is considerable evidence that books which are listed before they are published sell better. However, this only works if they are advertised because they are published.
- Consider an author website if you are going to advertise or if you are going to permit direct downloading from your website. At this point in time, there aren’t any templates that actually work for authors who want to sell directly from their sites. In the publishing industry, research shows that authors don’t really need websites in order to promote/sell their books. Use your website to give away free books with links to sale books. In this case, your site will need the ability to download the books because no online bookstore will permit links to other bookstores.
- Um. And then there’s social networking. Forget it. I had an immense presence on social networking for a time with some of my posts getting between 80,000 and 1,5 million views within 24 hours at least two or three times a week. It did not increase my sales.
- After you have got sufficient links leading to your books on various high page ranking sites, start writing a series of cliff-hangers in a popular genre. Make sure you publish a book every four to six weeks. Studies show the more books an author publishes, the more books are sold.
- Books2Read gives you the ability to have one link for your books sold on many different websites. This is great if you're going to use a link on social networks or on your own website. It's even good in your email signature.
- It's important to note that Amazon does not permit you to market your books free. In order for your books to be given away free, you need to sign up for KDP Select. That is a disaster. It means that you have to remove your books from all other sites - which do give away your books free. And provided you have a list of your books available to read at the end of your books, it's a good marketing ploy. If you have your books free on other sites, Amazon will still charge their readers for your books.
Increasing Your Sales of Books
Once your book has a reasonable number of sales, the reviews will automatically increase. It really is a numbers game. If the book is non-fiction, write articles on the topic on high ranking sites. From experience, you will probably be invited to speak on radio as a consequence. I have been asked several times.
I’m sure there are many ways that sales can be increased for Indie Authors. If I have left anything out, please feel free to comment. I will add good data here so that we can all benefit. After all, we authors are a breed apart! Why not help each other?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Tessa Schlesinger
Laura from Leicestershire on June 17, 2019:
Some really useful advise here. I've been looking into this recently and found some conflicting information out there, nothing solid. You've been very thorough though, thanks for sharing.
Doug West from Missouri on June 16, 2019:
Good article. I have over fifty books on Amazon and Smashwords and your article gave me some new ideas for marketing. I agree with your assessment of KDP Select, it doesn't seem helpful. It is a tough world for indie publishers but yet I keep writing.
Tony Lawrence from SE MA on June 16, 2019:
Probably it keyed off money and Amazon and thought I was pushing something :)
Tessa Schlesinger (author) on June 16, 2019:
Thanks, Tony. Hubpages is marking you as spam. Not sure why. I've just corrected that. Yes, it would be difficult in your field to keep books everygreen. Coding and tech move forward and change so quickly. When I chose the four books to write, I purposely checked traffic, keywords, ranking articles, etc. I also made sure they were evergreen topics.
Lady Dixon on June 16, 2019:
Really detailed article. I do appreciate the insight given on self-publishing and multiple websites which cater to indie authors. I am in the middle of uploading my first e-book, and although my first intention was to submit it directly to KDP (Amazon), I understand now that there are alternative strategies to follow. Thank you for sharing your deep understanding of the writing/publishing industry with the newcomers such as myself :)
Tony Lawrence from SE MA on June 16, 2019:
The only thing I want to add is that I have made and do make some money from KDP on Amazon. My books are free, but Amazon kicks back money for those.
In my case, I sold those books on my website first and made more than enough money to justify my efforts and then put them in KDP as they became too old (these are technical books with a limited audience, definitely not evergreen) for me to sell. It’s just a tiny trickle of money now, but it’s still money..