The last session I attended at the conference was this one, which was run by Mark Coker of Smashwords. He gave “16 Best Practices of Bestsellers.” Coker pointed out that reaching readers is difficult no matter what—whether published in the traditional mode or self-published—but you can find an audience if you think like a publisher and act like a professional.
1. Write a great book. Word of mouth is still the primary way for books and authors to get discovered. Don’t publish your first draft. “Babies are born ugly,” Coker said. So be sure to edit, polish, get feedback, revise. Make your book the best it can be.
2. Have a great cover. They say you shouldn’t judge books by them, but we do. Coker showed a case study in which a romance writer first had a plain cover, then a slightly better one, and then four iterations later hit the jackpot with a great cover that shot her to the top of the lists. The book was the same, but that great cover made all the difference in her sales.
3. Keep creating content. You have to keep writing and publishing to build and maintain a readership.
4. Giveaways. Every now and then make one of your books free, or at least deeply discount one. This particularly works for series. Give away the first one and, assuming it’s great, readers will buy the others.
5. Have patience. It won’t happen overnight, even though it always looks that way. Coker showed various charts of successful books that started with a “slow boil” before hitting a breakout spike. Then they would go back to boil, spike again, up and down.
6. Maximize availability. That is, don’t go exclusive to any one retailer or e-book format. Amazon is, of course, Coker’s chief complaint on this score. It lures authors with its Selects program, and because it holds the corner on sales, many do go exclusively with Amazon. Coker lauded Scribd, but I have to say I’ve had issues with them getting hold of my work and posting it without permission, so I’m not a fan.
7. Build a platform. There it is again. Connect with readers online. Coker added, “Build a platform that you control” but I’m not sure what he means by that and he didn’t have time to elaborate. I suppose he thinks authors should take charge of the conversation?
8. Architect for virality. Try different things to make your book accessible, discoverable, and widely available. Tweak as needed. Coker listed things like covers, distribution, pricing, proper categorization, and of course good writing as “viral catalysts.” Fix one thing and another until it works.
9. Pricing strategy. The sweet spot seems to be between $2.99 and $4.99. In that price range the average is to sell 4x as many books than if priced more than $7.00. (Does anyone price an e-book at $7.00?) Here is where self-publishing has the advantage; traditional publishers price their books too high. They have to because of manufacturing costs. But the reading public has been trained to expect quality for less money. They balk now at spending even $10 for a book—a physical book. And they want to pay even less for an e-book. So be wise when setting your price.
10. Don’t worry about piracy. According to Coker, if it happens, it’s usually by accident. Someone shares your work with friends and family. That’s actually good for you, since it spreads the word about your books.
11. Leverage pre-orders. Try a 4–6 week pre-order “runway.” Apple’s iBooks and Kobo counts any pre-orders as sales on the day the book launches, which helps shoot your book up the charts that day, thus making it all the more discoverable.
12. Practice partnership & positivity. Develop relationships with other authors. Share your secrets. And if you can’t say something nice . . .
13. Collaborate. Get together with other authors to create anthologies. This allows you to share each others’ fan bases and readers.
14. Think globally. Apple sells its iBooks in 51 countries. That’s another advantage of e-books: no borders. So long as the readers in those countries have an e-reader and can read in English (or you can afford a translator to publish your books in other languages), you can have readers all over the world.
15. Backmatter. Be sure to include your bio, a list of your books, and all your social media contact info in the back of every e-book. Make them links so the reader has easy access. The less work it is for them, the more likely they are to look up your books and Twitter account.
16. Pinch your pennies. Most books aren’t bestsellers. So don’t spend a ton of money on publishing. Don’t mortgage your house or go into debt. Hire an editor, a designer, but be realistic about what you can afford. Learn to do as much of it yourself as you can. Certainly, don’t fall for the “publishers” who sell you on big packages and promise to market your book for you because they won’t. They usually require you to buy a minimum of 100 to 1000 of your own title! So be careful and don’t break the bank.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage of San Francisco Writers Conference 2014. I had a great time and am only too happy to share all I learned with my fellow writers who couldn’t be there!