My Thoughts on Indie Publishing ~~pt.1~~

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Here are some brief notes on my experiences as a very new indie author. I have one book currently published (Officer of the Watch http://amzn.com/B00TYYW7M2) and it has been up since 2-23-15. To date, I’ve sold more than 7,000 copies with another roughly 1500 downloaded on my first 2-day free promo period. I’ve been approached by several fellow indie authors and asked to share my thoughts on a few key points. Here I discuss pricing, cover design, and advertising. I’m not sure how much help this will be, but I’ll do anything I can to try and help fellow indie authors and prospective authors who are debating putting their work out on the market. As indie authors, we are our own best support mechanism for each other.

1) Pricing
Okay, we all want to be the next Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling. We want to write full time, crank out #1 Best Sellers every single time, and rake in millions of dollars. I mean, honestly, that’s why we do what we do. Yes, we love writing, we love the process and the creation of new stories, people, and whole worlds that our own to play with…. But, when you get right down to it, it’s all about dollars and cents.

That being said, proper pricing on a book can mean all the difference between selling it and watching it sit. Here’s the hard truth: If you’re an indie author, and this is your first book, no one knows who you are, they don’t know if you can write anything worth reading, and they have absolutely no incentive to check out your work other than curiosity. That’s tough to hear because we all think that out work is outstanding and should be bought simply because of its inherent awesomeness. The problem as an indie author, though, is that your perspective audience has absolutely zero incentive to believe this. When a publisher puts tons of money behind an author through editing, graphics design, marketing, advertising, and book distribution (electronic and physical), it sends a clear message to potential readers that whoever this person is, they are worth the investment. That means the product they deliver is probably worth examination as well, so people buy the books.

Indie authors don’t get that benefit. We’re on our own, and we have to blaze our own trail as best we can. The most powerful incentive I have found for people to read my work is money. I want to make it, and the reader doesn’t really want to spend it. Remember, readers are giving you their spending money….money that could go to a date night, a new BlueRay DVD player, or a twelve pack of their favorite barley-based beverage. As an unknown author, you have to give the reader a reason to pick up your work and start going through it, and the best way to do that is to make it easy for them to say “Yes” to your work over someone else’s.

I priced my first book, Officer of the Watch, at $0.99 right out of the gate, and haven’t had any regrets yet. With Amazon’s royalties structure, that means I pull in roughly $0.35 per copy that is sold. That’s not breaking the bank, but it does add up, believe it or not. And what’s more important, the book has been selling like crazy. In my first 90 days on Amazon, I have over 7,000 copies that were sold or downloaded through Kindle Unlimited (KU: we’ll get to that). For a first time book from a completely unknown author with 0 name recognition in the industry, that’s not too shabby. And one of the biggest reasons so many people picked up a copy is that it was so easy to do so. You want to start your reader’s experience with an open invitation, and short of offering your work for free, $0.99 is about as open as you can get. If this is your first published work, even if it isn’t a part of a series like my novel, I would strongly suggest pricing your first book at this price point.
Remember, you have no credibility in this business yet, and that’s what you’re trying to build. You don’t have the marketing and advertising power behind you that a publisher like TOR or Harper Collins brings to the table, so you have to make up for that somehow. This first book, even if it really is the next great American novel is really about building a base of readers rather than building your bank account. That will come later.

2) Cover

This is an area where a lot of indie authors (myself included) struggle a great deal. I am not a graphics design specialist, and I’m certainly no artist. If you give me a sketch pad and a set of charcoal pencils, you’ll be lucky to get stick figures that are recognizable as people out of my best efforts. But, since the cover of your book is the first thing people will see, and undoubtedly what most of them will judge your book by, it simply cannot be ignored.

The first step to designing your cover should be investigation. Figure out what categories/genre your book fits best, and browse through Amazon’s listings to see examples of what either is or is not working for your fellow authors. Make sure you check out both independent and contracted authors. It’s also a good idea to check out what some of the NYT best sellers are doing for their ebook covers. That will give you a good idea what the industry’s idea of “effective” design standards are and it will give you a place to start your own design project. I would not recommend purchasing a professional design yet. Some of those services can be very expensive and to be blunt, unless you have stacks of cash, this could be a waste of a good bit of money and it really isn’t necessary.

Once you know what the other books in your categories/genre are doing, then you have a decision to make… Do you try and build a similar cover, or do you go against the grain and make your own radically different design? For me, one thing I noticed in the thriller/action genre of ebooks is that indie authors tended to have covers that were packed with multiple graphics layers, colors, and different fonts. Some of those combinations were effective, but many were simply jarring and confusing. I decided I wanted my book to stand out as much as possible so I went as far the opposite direction as I could. I created a cover using no graphics and only black and white for a color scheme. The cover had the title of the book, my name, and the name of the series and nothing else. I got part of my inspiration from looking at several Tom Clancy ebook covers and noticing that they were much simpler in their design than most of the indie author creations.

I have since updated the cover to a simple black background with white lettering and one graphic depicting a military officer (Air Force in this case) presenting a folded American flag. This was meant to symbolize the death of the nation from the EMP attack. The back cover of the paperback has a synopsis, a brief author bio, and a small picture of me.

My advice on the cover design is less really is more. Make it clean, visually striking, and keep it as simple as you can. Don’t try to tell the story of the book on the cover, or the reader won’t have any reason to open it.  Below are the two covers I have used so far for comparison

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3) Advertising

Ask ten different indie authors about advertising, and you’ll get at least fifteen different opinions. This is my take on it, but in the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself what your best investment and strategy is.

When I first published my book, I decided I would allocate myself $200 for advertising, and not one penny more. I wasn’t sure what this would buy, but I was determined not to break the bank advertising a book that may or may not ever sell a single copy. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to sit on my hands and not spread the word as much as possible (while staying within my limited means). So, I pulled a random number out of the air, and stuck with it as my “marketing money.”

Most internet ad systems out there worth their salt operate on what they call a “cost per click” (cpc) basis. The idea is you set a bid amount and compete with other bidders for available ad space on a website. Whoever is up for that spot, the top bidder gets it. However, you aren’t actually charged anything until someone clicks on your ad. So, as long as no one clicks, you can get free advertising by setting a ridiculously high cpc maximum. However, if someone does click on your ad, then you get hit for that large sum whether they buy your book or not. Like most swords, this one can cut both ways. Also, if your competitors’ cpc maximum is below yours, then all you do is outbid them and it doesn’t necessarily have to go up to your full max cpc every time.

Here are some brief notes on some popular formats:

Google Adwords: Google has a monstrous reach and has managed to infiltrate just about every aspect of the web, so it is an attractive avenue for advertising. Unfortunately, that also means it is insanely competitive on the cpc maximums to obtain ad space. So, unless you’re willing to shell out some serious cash (like $5-10 per click to hit 1st page status) I wouldn’t suggest wasting your time. I had an ad up with a $0.50 cpc maximum for two months and had less than 100 impressions (that’s times this ad is viewed on a page) and all of them were on page 10 of a search or higher. Not worth the time, money, or effort.

Goodreads: This system requires you to post a payment up front for your ad campaign. However, the ad runs until your cash pool is completely used up, which is a huge positive. So you set a total budget, decide on a daily price cap that your ad can’t go over in a 24 hr. period, and set a cpc maximum bid for your ad, then you’re ready to get off and running. Now, these numbers are all important, so let’s look at them in detail a bit. The overall budget is the maximum amount your campaign can cost you, and your ad will run until this money is exhausted by the cpc accumulation. I set my Goodreads ad maximum at $20.00 to start with to see how the program worked. The cpc is your bid, which will determine whether your ad or a competitor’s is posted on a page. I set this price at $0.25, which was about $0.10 above the average for ads similar to mine, giving me a clear edge. And finally, my maximum daily cost was set at $5.00. I figured this would give me 20 clicks per day for 4 days, which would allow me to gauge whether this ad had any impact on my overall sales or not.

I started my ad on 3-31-15, and as of writing this on 5-28-15, I have spent a grand total of $0.25 of my original $20.00 cash pool and the solitary click my ad has accumulated. That doesn’t sound impressive, but over the life of the ad it has been viewed a total of 9,507 times to date!! That means each impression of this ad has cost me $0.0000262, and more than nine thousand times that ad has been shown to people who might not otherwise have known about my book. Now, that’s not bad exposure purchased for the cost of a gumball out of a vending machine, and this ad apparently has a TON of life left in it with $19.75 still waiting to be spent.

Amazon KDP ads: This system is similar to the Goodreads, but without an upfront cost. When you set your maximum campaign cost, that money isn’t charged to your account until it is actually spent due to clicks accumulating your cpc. That’s a definite bonus if you’re not flush with extra cash (and who is these days?). For my Amazon ad campaign, I set the lowest maximum cost you can set, which is an even $100. I have run 3 ads at this point with various cpc maximums ranging from $0.02 all the way up to $0.70 (twice the take home royalty of my Kindle book). Overall, I have accumulated 3955 impressions and 2 clicks. The two clicks cost $0.32 each, so my total expenditure is still lower than my maximum cpc value.

Twitter Ads: I have used this service to promote tweets, and it works like a charm! I spent $60.00 total on the ad campaign, which is the most of any single campaign that I’ve signed up for. But the extra cost was well worth the money. This is probably the most complex of the systems I’ve used so far. You can set campaign maximum, daily budget maximum, and cpc maximum values. You can also target specific groups of people by targeting interests or followers, locations, etc. The best idea is to take some time and go through the tutorials that explain each aspect in depth.

My results for this $60.00 were pretty impressive. I accumulated 11,605 impressions by promoting 7 individual Tweets related to my book. I had 150 engagements where people actually clicked on either my link or my profile, resulting in an overall cost of $0.40 per engagement. In three days, this ad campaign tripled my followers list on Twitter, vastly expanding my audience and reach. I also saw a 60% increase in Kindle sales in the two days following the peak of this campaign. So, overall, this has been my most effective advertising by far.

So far, I have spent just a tad over $80.00 on advertising for my first book. That money has purchased me 25,067 impressions, and several of my ad campaigns are still far from their completion. My cost per impression so far is a staggeringly small $0.0032 across all campaigns to date. So for roughly 1/3 of a penny per view, ads pertaining to my book have been viewed more than 25,000 times! I don’t know if any of those people saw my ad, then typed the title or author into a search bar and circumvented the cpc expenditure, but I sure hope they did. Regardless, though, the fact is that 25,000 times people saw an ad about my book that may have never seen it otherwise, and to me that is money WELL spent.

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