This post may go against the idealist author’s idea of what sells books. As someone who has had varying levels of success, I now have a large enough sample size that I can tell you what I have observed with regard to what attracts readers to Indie Authors and their work.
The most important factor in the success of a book is the author’s group of followers. This is typically measured not by how many likes you have on your Facebook author page or by how many Twitter followers you have. This following is generated by getting people to subscribe to your content, typically through the creation of a mailing list.
At first I thought the idea of cultivating and maintaining an email list was outdated and cumbersome. I’ve since found that neither one is true. An email list is a group that can help you evaluate your ideas. It’s like your own personal focus group.
There are many ways to build a mailing list. My initial list came from giving away something related to my first book. I bought a pen that contained a video camera in it. It wasn’t that expensive (around $40) and helped me build a substantial mailing list by using it as a grand prize with a signed copy of my book as 2nd prize and an e-book as 3rd.
As for maintaining a list, MailChimp is an excellent service with many features that can be used for free. It helps you generate newsletters and easily communicate with your subscribers.
One thing you need to focus on with a mailing list is not generating emails that will be perceive as spam. This is a surefire way to lose subscribers or worse, get your email blacklisted by the major email services.
If you’re releasing your first book, you might want to spend a great deal of time building a mailing list and creating buzz before its release.
The second most important factor in gaining exposure for your book is its title. Early on, I knew that my main character’s name would be Frank. I also saw my wife voraciously purchase the Janet Evanovich books with numbers in the title (One for the money, Two for the Dough, etc.) and the Sue Grafton books with the alphabet title gimmick. I wanted to do something similar so I went with trying to put the name ‘Frank’ in the title of each. Thus, I started with Frankly Speaking, Let Me Be Frank (the result of a contest to get more subscribers on my mailing list), Frank Incensed (the one I get the most reaction to, thus far), and the new one, Frankly, My Dear.
Sometimes I think I painted myself in a corner with these titles, but it has become a fun challenge with each new one. Sometimes coming up with the title leads me into the premise for the book. At an author event, I had someone who sat through a panel that I participated in come up to me with a list of about 25 ‘Frank’ titles after listening to me talk about this in the panel.
The one exception, and this is an important lesson that I learned, is when I committed myself to what I thought was the perfect title only to have it ripped away. My book, Blood Orange, was originally going to be titled ‘March Madness’ because the opening event of the book is the men’s college basketball championship. I have a friend who is an attorney and he told me that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is very protective of the nicknames for that tournament so ‘March Madness’, ‘Final Four’ and ‘Big Dance’ were all off the table as titles. My hometown team, the Syracuse Orange, are featured in the game, so I went with the title, Blood Orange. I definitely didn’t want to achieve notoriety for the book by getting sued over the title.
The third most important factor for getting your book noticed is its cover. When you think about it, this makes sense. When you’re browsing through the Kindle Store on Amazon, the thumbnail cover images are designed to catch your attention. If that thumbnail looks homemade or unprofessional, you’ll be passed over like a generic box of wine in the liquor store. An attention grabbing cover is important, but you have to be careful about going overboard. I’ve seen some erotic and horror book covers that, while attention getting, may be garnering negative attention from Amazon.
Let me give you an example. My third book, Let Me Be Frank, has some blood spatter on the cover. The main event in the book is a murder. Unless you’re watching an old western or cop show from the 50’s or 60’s, death involves blood. Amazon approved the cover for the Kindle Store.
After the book had been out for some time, I decided to take a chance on some Amazon advertising. The book was rejected because of ‘excessive blood on the cover’. When I questioned the ad department about what I viewed as an inconsistency, they proudly told me that they are separate from the Kindle store and they have different rules and standards. That’s great for the ad departments self-esteem, but it sucked for me as an author.Professional looking covers are not that hard to come by. You can spend hundreds of dollars, but there are freelance graphic designers out there on services like fiverr.com and others that will design professional looking covers for much less.
If you can’t afford a cover, you can use Amazon’s cover creator tool. I did this for my first book and then later went back and replaced the cover, with wonderful results, when I could afford a new one.
Here are the original and the redesigned covers:
You can see that the first cover is not very attractive. The second cover, though low-resolution in this rendering, received a much more positive reaction.
The fourth most important factor in gaining exposure for a book is the number of positive reviews. When I say positive reviews, I don’t mean all five-star reviews. While this looks impressive, I believe it can actually hurt a book by calling the credibility of the reviews into question. An aspect of the reviews in Amazon that also helps is the ‘verified purchase’ flag. Many authors, myself included, give out advance copies. I ask my advance readers to indicate in the review that they were given an advance copy in exchange for an objective review. Thus far, Amazon hasn’t deleted any of my reviews, so this tactic may be working.
There are also stories of Amazon reviews being deleted when there is a clear relationship between the author and the reviewer. I would imagine if authors review each other’s books, this might get the attention of the Amazon gatekeepers.
The fifth most important factor in the success of a book is the book description (back cover copy or eBook description). Think of yourself browsing at Barnes and Noble. The title and cover have caused you to pick up the book and the next thing you do is flip it over. Do you have a tight description of the book that will grab the readers attention and cause them to look inside, or are they going to set it back down? If it’s a printed book, do you have a good picture of yourself? Also, your description on Amazon needs to be a good one.
If you’re someone who is comfortable with basic HTML (Web formatting language) you can make your Amazon book blurb stand out by using bold text and color to beef it up. There is actually a site that can help you preview what your blurb will look like on Amazon using HTML tags http://ablurb.github.io/
The sixth most important factor in the success of a book is the front matter. There are different schools of thought on this. When you purchase a print book, especially a paperback, you might see reviews of the current book or other books by the author. You also will find acknowledgments and dedications.
For eBooks, my strategy on this has shifted somewhat. With the ‘Look Inside’ feature, Amazon gives potential purchasers a chance to sample your work. My last few eBooks have jumped right into the first chapter so that the reader can potentially read an entire chapter of the book when making their decision. I feel like this is my best chance to gain their interest.
The seventh most important factor, which many of you might think should be first, is the quality of your writing. Because it’s last on my list, I am not diminishing the importance of quality in the least. Your book should be as close to perfect in terms of grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics when you publish it.
Factors one through six, if done well, may result in a consumer buying your book. This seventh factor, however, if not done well, will result in it being the last book that they purchase from you.
So what do you think? Did I leave out any factors? Would you order them differently? Before you do, those of you with Sales and Marketing backgrounds out there, think of the sequence and the hierarchy of what motivates a person to buy.
I look forward to your thoughts.