14 things you should know before you release your first book
I released my first book, Shepherds: Awakening on Amazon Kindle and paperback just over one month ago, and the last 30 days or so have been pretty hectic in learning everything that goes along with releasing and marketing a book.
And I still only feel like I've gotten my fingertips wet.
So you don't make the same mistakes that I made, here's a big ole list of Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting.
1: Get an email list set up
Marketing books is hard. Even though it's never been easier to produce and release a book, the biggest problem you will face as an author, by far, is discoverability. There's a huge amount of choice out there, and as an unknown, your chances of standing out are slim. The vast majority of sales happen on the first page of the bestsellers list, so if you can't get there, then it's incredibly hard for your book to take off with a wider audience.
So how do you get on the first page?
You have an email list of readers that you can contact directly before, during, and after your launch. This group of readers are your most important fans. These people are your launch team; the people that will get your book when it's released - driving it up the charts - and providing those crucial early reviews.
If you don't have an email list already, then stop whatever you're doing and start building on immediately. Sign up to MailChimp and they'll give you all the code necessary to put a form on your site. Every day that goes by without you doing this is a wasted opportunity.
How do you get people to sign up? Offer them something that they want, such as a pre-release copy of your book. Or all your books. Whatever it takes.
I was an idiot, as I didn't tell anyone that I was writing a book until it was finished, so my subscribers amounted to a big fat zero when I was entering into the most crucial part of my pre-release. By the time the book was edited, the cover was designed, and I was ready to pull the trigger, I was hovering around the 100 mark.
With each book release your list will grow, meaning that subsequent releases will get easier and be more successful, but only if you get started now.
2: Don't be a recluse
When you're writing your book, tell people. Tell everyone you know. Share your progress, successes, and failures.
Again, because I'm an idiot, I didn't do this until the end, partly because I didn't want to tell people then end up not following through, partly because I was wary of the reaction.
But the thing is, people are incredibly supportive. I was genuinely surprised and touched by the feedback and messages of family and friends. I should have done it sooner, as the feedback loop with every post pushed me further and further.
Think about what you're doing for a minute; you're writing a book. You're dedicating time every day to create a living, believeable world that will entertain people, capture their imagination, and make them laugh, cry, and feel.
When people see someone they know go out on a limb to offer something to the public, there's a shared sense of delight and congratulations.
So go tell people, share your progress, and as an added bonus get those early fans that will provide your foundation.
3: Have a budget
While it's possible to do everything yourself, you're going to get much better results if you're able and willing to put some money behind what you're doing.
As it's a finite resource that I'm sure you'd like to hold on to as much as possible, it's a good idea to know how much you're willing to spend and where you're willing to spend it.
My current thinking, in order of preference:
- A kickass cover that will make people want to buy your book
- Promotion - whether buying book promos or paying for ads
- Hiring a professional editor to make sure your book is up to scratch
Your cover needs to grab people's attention and make them want to buy your book, or read further. There's a ton of different resources out there to help you, from super cheap at Fiverr, to professionals on Upwork or 99designs, or even the cover creator on the Amazon website itself when you upload your book, but whatever you do, this is the single biggest thing you can do to market your book. A good cover is worth its weight in gold (once someone figures out how to convert MB to Kg).
For promotions, this can range from buying slots when your book is released on various promo sites, to buying Facebook ads targeting your prospective audience. This point can easily chew through your credit card though, so it's best to set yourself a maximum budget. Even €100 can make a huge difference if it's spent right. Note: some promos are worth it, while others are a waste of your time and money. I'm part of the Fiction Authors' Resource Group on Facebook (#FARG on Twitter), which is a very active group of authors. They'll be able to give you the lowdown on where you should be spending your precious budget.
Finally, get yourself an editor, someone to read over your book and point out everything from spelling mistakes, to continuity problems, to your main character's name changing halfway through the story (hello!). Shepherds was edited by Page Morgan, herself an author, and she did a great job. Aside from making the book better, it was a great learning experience. You can find great editors on Upwork for either a fixed budget or on a per-hour basis - I had over 90 respond to my posting.
"Hey, shouldn't hiring an editor come before buying promos?"
The thing is, having the best book in the world is no use if no-one's buying it, which is why I think promos are more important that editing, at least when you're starting out.
Hard truth time: you're probably not going to make any money on your first book. Maybe not even on your second, or third. Even the most successful indie authors can take multiple books before they "make it". Your budget needs to be money that you don't mind potentially never making back, so spend it wisely, and build on your successes for the next one.
4: Watch out for lead times for promos and reviews
Every 90 days, Kindle lets you set your book for free for 5 days, so a good release tactic is to release it for free at the start to bulid up a reader base and get reviews, before switching to paid when it's nice and high in the free charts.
To this end, you'll probably want to queue up promos for those days when you're free.
All the best promos sites will be booked out for days, sometimes weeks in advance.
If you're like me and want to book them the day before your free promo starts, this is a problem.
Research each site and figure out what their lead time is. Then, based on that, you can schedule promos for specific days during your free period. Amazon rewards consistent, increasing sales over a big blast on one day, so spread them out.
The same goes for reviews. If you want your launch to come ready-made with editorial reviews, then depending on the publication, you may need to submit it anywhere up to 4 or 5 weeks before publishing.
Delays suck :)
5: Get your Facebook fan page set up
Do this around the same time that you set up your email sign-up list, so you can direct people to both.
This was one thing that I really didn't want to do, as I'm not a huge fan of Facebook pages in general and I didn't want one more thing to have to organise and keep up to date.
So what changed?
See, when you want to run an ad on Facebook, if you're not associating it with a page, the only place you can advertise is on the right column on the desktop.
Which is absolutely worthless.
Seriously, I tried it. I got 1 - yes, that's not a typo - click on my ad the entire time it was running.
So I bit the bullet and set my page up. Which now leaves you with an interesting problem. Not having any followers on your page makes it look like you're Billy No-Mates, which has the opposite effect, as people are generally inclined to follow the crowd, and seeing an author with 2 likes on their page (Facebook actually tells you to like your own page when you create it - the second one will be your mother) equates to an author that's not very good.
So get your page set up and get people liking it, so when the time comes to run ads (and Facebook ads are probably the best type of ads you can run), it looks like you've got a bit of a following, so people are more likely to respond.
6: Have ad templates/images that are easily resizeable
Your ads are going to naturally evolve over time as you win rewards, or get a nice review that would make a good pull quote, or even as you branch out across platforms (Twitter ads trounce Facebook ads in terms of exposure, but have less engagement), being able to quickly modify and upload new images can save you a lot of time in the long run.
I personally use Photoshop, but there are a number of programs out there that let you create graphics easily, but to simplify your life:
- Keep a list of the relevant ads sizes so you're not looking them up all the time (e.g. Facebook is 1200x628)
- Keep your layers separated so you can easily swap backgrounds etc (it also allows you to use the elements separately on your book page)
- Use high-quality images and downscale - never upscale, otherwise your image will look like crud
- The goal is to entice people to click your ad, so make sure it's interesting
Also, remember, you probably won't hit on the perfect ad the first time, so don't be afraid to experiment and test. Facebook will automatically A/B different ads in the same adset to find the most effective one, so use it. Tweak, run for a day, disable what's not working, and repeat. Eventually you'll hit on an ad that gives you the best return.
7: Have a stealth period
As soon as your book is live, say nothing. This is the start of your stealth period. This is where you get a few of your early readers to leave their reviews. This serves two purposes:
- Some promos require a minimum number of reviews (usually 5) with a good rating (usually above 4.0)
- When people come to your page during your official launch period, they'll already see social proof of how good you are with the reviews currently on the page, making them more likely to actually get your book
The stealth period also allows you time to fix any potential issues that you have with your book, such as formatting, the cover not linking properly, or your categories not being right.
Don't have your stealth period last too long though, as for the first month, you have the chance to be featured in Amazon's Hot New Releases section if your book does well. Aim for a few days at most.
8: Understand the importance of reviews
Aside from sales, reviews are probably the biggest factor that Amazon takes into account when determining whether to push a book or not. Nobody understands the importance of reviews until you have a book that you want to sell :)
There are two types of reviews: verified and unverified. Verified reviews come from readers that have bought the book (getting it when it's free counts as having "bought" it), while unverified are all the rest. Only verified reviews count when it comes to Amazon's algorithms, but unverified are still useful in terms of making your look popular.
So why are they important?
- Social proof: Books with large numbers of reviews look popular, which, as logic goes, is pretty airtight. Even if the book itself is a turd, people will get it because, hey, 10,000 people can't be wrong, right? Inversely, a book with few or no reviews isn't worth getting. Talk about a catch 22. Interestingly it's not even the quality of the reviews that count, but the number
- Promos: Some promos require a minimum number of reviews and average review score before you can book it. As you'll be doing this mostly around your launch, that makes your initial reviews incredibly important. Other sites, like BookBub, take them into consideration when it comes to selecting what to showcase. While you might not necessarily need a specific number, if it comes down to a book with 10 reviews, and one with a few hundred, you're not getting chosen
- Getting the Amazon boost: No amount of promotion and ad spend is going to compete with the beast that is Amazon when they decide to push your book. A large amount of positive, verified reviews is the key. Some say the magic happens around 50, others say 100
Actually getting reviews is almost as hard as getting people to buy your book. You're probably looking at about 1% or 0.1% of people that buy it leaving a review when they finish it.
For some, they don't have the time (or haven't actually read it - it happens), for others, they don't see them as important, for others still, they don't know what to write - let's face it, it's hard to write a review on something if you're not used to it. People can also be slightly wary of writing something if they know the author - perhaps they don't like it and don't know how to say it (or don't want to).
This is why it's important to have a launch team. Those readers get the book early in return for leaving a review, so your percentages are much higher.
On a side note, I have an open-door policy when it comes to reviews - you can tell me anything, especially if you don't like it. I want to know why so I can get better. I'm a big boy, you're not going to hurt my feelings.
9: Watch out for KDP delays
KDP are pretty awesome. I've contacted them a number of times for one reason or another, and they've always came through on whatever I've asked.
With that in mind, the average response time is 24hrs, so if they ask you for anything, such as a clarification, respond as soon as you get the mail. Once they make the change, depending on what it is, it can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before it's visible on the site.
When I initially released the book, I couldn't choose the categories that I wanted (more on that later), so I left it as uncategorisable, with the intention of asking KDP to set the right ones for me.
Of course, there was a problem with the two categories that I chose (they were mutually exclusive) and because of the delay in getting back to them, for the first few days of my launch period I was in the general Non-fiction category.
Not bad for a fantasy novel.
This meant that people that would normally have found me in the top 100 for the category in question missed out, which obviously wasn't great.
10: Decide which Amazon you're going to focus on
I'm Irish, currently based in France, working with an author group that's mostly based in the US. This means that when people get my book and want to leave a review, it's either going on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, or Amazon.fr.
Reviews on Amazon.com are shown on the other sites (but don't count in the numbers), but not the other way around. This means that my reviews are spread thinner than they could be, which hurts their effectiveness.
This presents a conundrum: verified reviews are what count, but if you get the book on Amazon.co.uk and leave a review on Amazon.com, it doesn't show as verified. Previously you used to be able to post the review on both sites, but Amazon seem to have stopped that, so you need to make a choice as to what's more important to you.
There's also the question of willpower.
Already, if someone is willing to leave a review, that's a pretty big thing. If you then tell them to switch to another store, or even associate their Kindle with another store so the purchase will show up as verified, there's a pretty good chance that people will give up long before that.
I've found that for people who read a lot, and understand the importance of reviews, they'll naturally post it on as many sites as possible (including GoodReads), whereas for the more casual reader, especially those close to you that are reading because this is your book, it's better to take what you can get :)
Obviously, once you're a bit more established, this becomes less important.
11: Write out your bio/meta/description beforehand
When you're uploading your book, doing promos on different sites, or signing up as an author on sites such as GoodReads, you'll be asked to submit your author bio, book description, and meta information (e.g. keywords) a lot.
Get all this written out beforehand and save it somewhere. Have a few versions of your book description running from full length (Amazon) to 500 characters, to 250 characters. Different sites impose different limits and you're going to have enough to do without coming up with this each time.
A special point comes with your book description - if you want to use fancy text (i.e. bold or italic), then you need to edit a HTML description on Author Central and not on KDP, where you only have a plain text description. However, each time you modify your listing in KDP, it'll overwrite the fancypants description in Author Central, so having a HTML version that you can just copy and paste will save you a ton of time.
Everything in this point can also apply to the emails that you'll send out when your book is live. Write them when you have the time; it'll make things smoother when it counts.
12: Author Central isn't shared
Speaking of Author Central, this is where you create the author page that's linked to your book. This lets people look at your beautiful face and also serves as a point of reference for all of your work.
One thing that surprised me is that for all of the Central in the name, Author Central is anything but. You'll need to create an account at https://authorcentral.amazon.com, https://authorcentral.amazon.co.uk, https://authorcentral.amazon.fr etc. Think of Amazon as a number of different companies all using the same name, but are essentially standalone.
This is a huge pain and leads to a lot of duplicate content.
But you know you'll do it anyway.
This is also why you write your bio out beforehand.
13: Length (kind of) matters
The topic of the best length for a book is a bit of a interesting one. On the one hand, it doesn't really matter - a book is the length it needs to be - while on the other, it can have an impact on a lot of things.
The general consensus seems to be under 7,500 is a short story, under 17,500 is a novelette, under 40,000 is a novella, while anything over that is a novel.
So why does this matter? Well for one thing, it can mean an extra category for your book. Anything under 100 pages qualifies for the Kindle Short Reads list, and apart from that, you can also get listed in a Short Stories category. I'm not 100% sure on the criteria behind the latter, as my book is just over 41,000 words and yet has an extra category in Literature & Fiction > Short Stories.
If you'd like to take part in the Kindle Scout program, which is a program where you can get your book published by Amazon and gain all that comes with that, then know that they impose a minimum word count of 50,000 words. Which I'll keep in mind for the next time :)
As well as that, on the details page for books, you might notice that they list a page count for books. If you have a physical book, Amazon will use the page count from that once they're linked, otherwise they'll calculate their own, and they seem to work on a formula of about 300 words per page.
So why does that matter?
Some promotions, notably BookBub, impose a minimum page count on anything they promote (for fiction it's 150 pages). As BookBub is a huge one for an author to get, this is also something to keep in mind.
14: Keywords for categories
One of the most confusing things about Amazon is when you choose your categories. When you're on Amazon, the hierarchy looks something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Coming of Age.
So you think, that's the category for me!
Then you realise that that category doesn't exist in the options that KDP provide you.
This is because that list is the BISAC classification codes, which Amazon kind of approximates into the hierarchy that you see on the site. There's no direct 1-to-1 mapping, which makes it a bit of a guessing game as to what to pick.
Why they couldn't just give you the site hierarchy to choose from, then reverse map the categories, is beyond me.
When you upload your book, Amazon lets you choose 7 keyword phrases that you can associate with your book, for when people are searching for it. What's a bit hidden in the KDP help section is that you need to specify certain keywords to get into certain categories.
For example, if you want to get into Teen & Young Adult > Fantasy > Coming of Age, you need to include "coming of age" as one of your keyword phrases.
Want to get into Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Crime Fiction > Organized Crime? Include either "mob", "mafia", "organized crime", or "yakuza" as a keyword.
As an added bonus, if you targeting Children's or Teen & Young Adult (which are mutually exclusive), then you need to set the minimum recommended reading age from 0-11 for Chilidren's and 13-17 for Teen & Young Adult.
This is a pretty long post and I still don't feel like I've covered everything. There's always more information and tips to be discovered.
It's part of the reason why it's so exciting :)
Think I missed something? Get in touch.