Fact: 1/3rd of all self-published authors earn less than $500 a year from their publishing efforts.
Take that in for a moment…
That’s not even enough money to pay for a single month’s rent in most major cities.
This makes sense when you consider that 80% of books tracked by Nielson Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies in 2004.
In other words, 4 out of 5 books won’t even hit triple digit sales in a year.
The correlation is pretty clear: if you can't sell 100 copies of your book in a year, you probably won't be cracking $500 in annual income from your writing, either.
If you’re a self-publisher, time to throw in the towel then, right?
Well, maybe not…
How to Make a
Living Killing from Self-Publishing
Making money from your writing is not impossible.
I do it, as do many of the authors I work with and publish. Many make decent incomes this way, too (from $20,000 to $100,000+ per year).
The reason they're successful where most authors fail is because of two reasons:
- They have a book worth selling
- They have a way to get their book worth selling in front of people who want to read it, a way to sell it to them at a price they're capable of paying and at a price that doesn't put them in the red
The first part of this is a personal issue - are you capable of writing a book worth reading? For the purposes of this guide, I'm going to assume you are.
The second part is all about developing the right marketing and sales channels.
Book Marketing and Sales Channels Defined
A marketing channel is any avenue or outlet that lets you promote a message to your target market.
Podcast, radio, tv or magazine advertising; blogging or guest posting; billboards, sponsors, etc. Any of these can be used to market a product. Done the right way, they put the appropriate product in front of the appropriate audience (this is a billion dollar industry, so you can be sure they're getting better at this every day).
A sales channel lets you turn this awareness into a sale. So you might pay for advertising on a podcast, but you won't sell the product on the podcast. Instead, the advertising, if done right, will point the listener to the right place to purchase.
This could be Amazon, or your website if you’re selling via Gumroad, or a third party website where you can buy the product. In this case, any one of these outlets would actually complete the sale.
Here’s how one Quora user defined marketing vs. sales channel:
"Marketing channels create demand. Sales channels harvest demand."
Why Amazon is Not a Sales Strategy
So back to you, the author with a book worth selling...
How do you sell your book?
If the answer is Amazon, you're missing half the equation (and you’re probably one of those unfortunate people selling less than 100 copies of your book a year).
With very few exceptions, Amazon is a sales channel, not a marketing channel. Putting a book on Amazon allows you to "harvest demand" but it doesn't create it.
You've probably heard the philosophical question: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?"
For self-published authors, it's more like "If a book is published on Amazon and nobody knows about it, is it really for sale?"
By itself, Amazon is not a sales strategy.
So if you can't use Amazon to market your books, what can you use?
The Ultimate Book Marketing Channel
The answer is an email list.
With an email list, you can promote and share new ideas, products, and services and then direct readers to a place where they can make the purchase (Paypal, Gumroad or Amazon).
Moreover, email is the fastest, cheapest, most powerful way to engage with your readers at scale.
No other service (not even social media) is as personal as email, and if done right, you'll sell way more books through email than you could any other way.
Proof in the Pudding...
I started this blog in late 2012. I wrote and published my first book, The Art of Instigating, shortly thereafter. I had no audience, so I decided to give the book away free in exchange for people signing up for my newsletter.
In 2013, I released my second book, Notes From Seth Godin’s Revolution Conference. I made this book free as well but with a twist – I let people contribute as much or as little as they want to my creative work. I shared this with 166 subscribers and made $492 in the first month.
Over the course of the next year, I experimented with many small guides, ebooks, and resources – all pay what you want.
In the fall of 2013, I released my third book, The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing (all the experimenting did not go to waste). This time I shared it with an email list of 467 subscribers and generated $954 in the first month (including presales).
In 2014, I launched my fourth book, Collaborate, via a crowdfunding campaign. This book raised $12,979 in 30 days from an email list of 1559 people.
If we break this down into a chart, here’s what that looks like:
As you can see, there is a very real correlation between subscribers (list size) and revenue. While the crowdfunded book is an outlier because I was selling more than just the book (consulting packages, for example), the results are still relevant.
If you have an email list, you will sell books.
If you don’t, you might, but you might not.
Therefore, your best effort is spent building an email list so you can sell more books.
8 Steps to Building an Author's Email List so You Can Sell More Books
Note: In order to sell more books, you're going to have to invest in a few tools (sorry, sometimes you have to pay money to make money).
That said, I'm a bootstrapper by heart. So if there's a faster, better, and/or cheaper product or service available that does what I need it to do so I can focus on bigger picture stuff, then I'm going to jump on it.
In this guide, I’m going to share tools, software, and technology I use to market and sell books, my own and those that I publish or market through Insurgent Publishing. You can use them or find alternative solutions for your situation. I’m affiliated with several of these items, so if you do buy through me, I get paid a fraction of the price as a finder’s fee, which does not come out of your wallet, but helps me operate and pay for expenses around this free blog so I can keep making content like this for you.
Step 1. Build Your Author’s Website
#1. Choose your Content Management System
A Content Management System is what you use to create and manage your website.
It's basically the backend piece you'll interact with on a daily or weekly basis to post new blogs, create book sales pages, reply to comments, etc. There are lots of options out there for your CMS, but I like to keep things simple, cheap, and proven, so I recommend WordPress (www.wordpress.org).
If you're just building a simple author's platform, WordPress will have everything you need and then some. Because WordPress is one of the most popular CMSs, they also have thousands of plugins available to tweak your site to your hearts content. Plus, you'll never find yourself without a designer or engineer to fix whatever problems you have because there are so many options available.
#2. Purchase your Domain and Hosting
If you want to be taken seriously as an author, you should have a website and you should own the url. Some big name authors can get away with a .blogspot, but if you're an unknown author, this will detract from your credibility.
Another option is www.newrainmaker.com, which is like the Lamborghini of WordPress frameworks and is an all-in-one solution (hosting, podcast hosting, SSL, ecommerce solution, Learning Management System, etc.). A lot of successful bloggers and authors are choosing Newrainmaker for their all-in-one solution, like Chris Ducker, Chris Brogan and yours truly, among others. That said, it costs a pretty penny, so if you're just starting out, you may want to start generating enough monthly revenue from book sales before switching over (at least $1,000 in revenue per month would be my recommendation).
#3. Pick a Compelling Theme
A theme is the skin of your WordPress site. You get professional looking themes for as cheap as $50 (sometimes less) through Themeforest. Don’t worry too much about flashy design. What matters is structuring your website the right way, which we’ll talk about later in this guide.
#4. Decide on Service Support
Every now and then you might run into some issues with your website. If you're not technically inclined, you should either invest in something like www.newrainmaker.com, which comes with unparalleled support (literally anything I need they either do for me or show me how - it's incredible) or go with a service like www.wpcurve.com, which allows you to make unlimited small fixes to your WordPress website for a fraction of the cost it would take to hire a developer.
This is particularly important if you’d rather spend time writing and selling books, and not fixing widgets on your site.
Step 2. Invest in the Right Email Marketing Service
An Email Marketing Service (EMS) is something that allows you to send bulk emails to people who have given you permission to stay in touch.
Remember, one of the keys to selling more books is engaging with readers. To do this, you're going to need an EMS so you can stay in contact, share updates about your book, or otherwise provide useful, valuable, relevant content your readers would like.
I started Tommorkes.com with Mailchimp, but after two years of pulling out my hair (and I have very little left) trying to do the most basic things, I switched to www.convertkit.com. I haven't looked back.
ConvertKit is the new EMS on the block and it does everything an author could want his or her EMS to do and more, with none of the headache of other platforms like Mailchimp, Aweber, nor the restrictive cost of Infusionsoft.
A lot of the Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures I'm sharing with you today are possible because ConvertKit makes them so easy, so while you don't have to invest in ConvertKit, it will surely make your life easier. Up to you.
Step 3. Choose Your Ecommerce Solution
Most authors immediately think Amazon is the only place to sell a book. Amazon is great, but it’s by no means the only place to sell your book, especially if you’d like to capture more revenue than the paltry 30 – 70% Amazon gives you.
As an author and blogger, my personal favorite ecommerce solution is www.gumroad.com. With Gumroad, I can easily setup a new product, in this case a book, and start selling it within minutes. The process is painless, simple, and fast. And while Amazon will take 30 – 70% of your profit (plus hidden charges, depending on how big your book is), Gumroad only charges 5% plus $.25 per paid transaction.
Paid transaction is the key word, because I use Pay What You Want pricing and this makes Gumroad a very, very powerful tool for building an author’s email list and selling books – I’ll touch on this later in the guide…
Step 4. Create a Compelling Optin Gift for Your Readers
In order to build a list, you need to give people a good reason to sign up and pay attention to you. One of the best ways to do this is through an optin gift (some sort of bonus you give the reader for subscribing). Here are a few examples:
#1. Free Chapter
The simplest way to encourage potential readers to sign up to your email list or to buy your book is to offer them the chance to read part of it.
Giving away part of your book, whether a chapter or the first 20% of your book, is a simple, fast way to start building your list. Not everyone is going to sign up for this, but you can bet that those who do are your target readership, which means you should make sure you have an autoresponder set up to email them several times after they receive the free sample to encourage them to buy (more on this later).
#2. Free Book or Guide
A more compelling option than a free chapter is a free copy of an entire book.
I did this with The Art of Instigating, which you can see above. It’s by no means the most compelling gift – after all, if you don’t know me, why would you care about my book? – but the act of getting a full book for free, especially if it has a price tag in the Amazon book store for $10, for example, makes it a much more compelling incentive and increases the perceived value of the gift (which is important to encourage email optins).
#3. Free Email Course
Hands down, the most effective way I’ve been able to get new subscribers and sell more books is through creating free email courses.
I’ve done this for The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing by creating a free course: Pay What You Want Pricing 7 Day Email Crash Course, which leads people through a series of training emails on how to use PWYW pricing. At the end of the ecourse, I share my book and ask people if they want to contribute. This generates several hundred dollars a month for me, completely on autopilot.
Case Study: How One Author Leverages Free Gifts to Build an Email List
“I giveaway all my books for free to subscribers: no matter how big my list is, I want their support in the form of downloads and reviews, not money.
But that won't matter if they haven't read the books yet, so I also leave really long excerpts and have some perma-free books for visibility.
But that's not enough either... so I send out special gifts for each book, as a thank you for followers who review - silver mermaid charms, postcards of the cover art, appreciation mail... that works great for engagement, but only for readers who liked the books.
For strangers, it's harder to get them to sign up, but an expensive prize and raffle is great for list building before a book launch. Maybe a special mermaid vacation/party or a vampire-hunting set. Something over $100; worth signing up for and having a chance at winning; something that only appeals to target readers of the genre. Then I can warm them up with some cool genre-related trivia, or history, or fun news, and finally launch the book, with another chance to win what they signed up for in the first place.” – Derek Murphy
Step 5. Put Your Optin Gift Front and Center
If you take a look at the analytics of most websites, you’re probably going to find that most readers land on a few select pages. These are usually the home page, about page, and the resources page.
Here’s what Tommorkes.com looks like:
As you can see, my top pages are my home page (www.tommorkes.com), my about page (www.tommorkes.com/about), and my books and resources page (www.tommorkes.com/cache).
Knowing this, these are three pages you should make sure are optimized to get subscribers.
#1. Home Page Optin
A strong home page is one where the experience is tailored to the type of reader you want.
The most effective home pages are clear, compelling, and make people want to sign up for your email list because they're getting something of value immediately.
My current home page is entirely geared toward building an email list. If someone doesn’t want to subscribe to my newsletter, I don’t really care if they hang around. On the other hand, I want to over-deliver for the people who want more writing / books / etc. from me. That’s why I create so many free and Pay What You Want products – to hopefully delight my readers and give them an incentive to keep coming back and to keep supporting my creative work.
#2. About Page Optin
The about page is usually the second most visited page on any website after the home page. This makes it an ideal place to turn readers into happy subscribers. Yet so many authors miss the boat on this one by making their about page about them, instead of the reader. Mistake!
For my about page, I tried to make it about my target reader – someone who has just stumbled over to my website via word of mouth referral (where most people come from). I try to hook the reader in a few sentences and then give him or her a lot of opportunities to sign up for my newsletter or one of my email lists, either directly, or by sending readers to my books (where their purchase will lead to becoming a subscriber), or by sending readers to particular blog posts with blog-specific optin incentives.
#3. Resources Page Optin
This is another commonly accessed page on a website or blog: the free resources / books / guides / whatever page. You should make sure this page delivers and gives away some compelling stuff to get people to optin.
Every book I sell is Pay What You Want and I set it up to automatically subscribe downloads to my “Gumroad” list, which is something I set up directly inside ConvertKit. Because of this, every book sale builds my email list – which is way better for my platform than selling on Amazon (one of the reasons I personally avoid selling most of my books on the platform).
Note: every reader can easily opt out of my email list after purchase, which means not every single sale leads to a new email subscriber (some opt out), but it's still incredibly effectiv.
#4. Blog Post Optins
Just like your home page, every blog post is an opportunity to build your email list.
The way I was able to go from 500 to 3,000+ subscribers in less than 12 months was from creating blog-specific optin gifts. This works the exact same way as creating a free chapter or book giveaway, but instead focusing on creating something specific for individual blog posts. This is incredibly effective because people reading a particular blog post might be interested in a certain subject, but not everything else you write. So if you sell lots of books in different genres, this gives you the opportunity to properly segment your email list.
Here’s a guest post I wrote that shows how to create blog-specific optins for your website.
Case Study: How One Fiction Author is Building a Massive Email List before Launching His Book
I find that a lot of fiction authors have trouble applying what seems like non-fiction-specific advice to their book marketing and author platform building. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I have a feeling it’s because there simply aren’t enough good examples to reference.
That’s why I connected with Toby Downton, author of Solaversia, who is building a huge email list before the hard launch of his book this fall.
“Here are some quick facts:
- Started writing book in June 2014
- Created website and mailing list at the end of September 2014
- I send people to the About page (as you can see, it's had 4.9k shares!)
- Currently have 1905 subs (so over 10 months that equals 190 subs per month)
- 800 Twitter followers at start, up to 4,600 now (increase of 3,800, or 380 per month)
- Soft launched on 22nd June when digital copy of the book went out to 1700 people
- Official launch on Amazon on 31st Aug (which means Monday 27th July is halfway point through the soft launch - soft launch is 10 weeks in total)
- Book has a rating of roughly 4.1 stars out of 5 on Goodreads from 18 reviews so far
I knew right from the start that I faced a monumental challenge as a first-time self-published author; nobody knew who I was, yet I was asking for the most precious a person can give - their attention. And not just a few seconds of it either, like when you're asking for a retweet or a like, but 10-15 hours of time. That's a huge ask.
I'm building my platform by getting readers invested in the bigger picture - the aim is to create Solarversia (the virtual world the book takes it name from) for real, to launch in 2020 so that people can play it. I use the word "Solo" to identify players of the game in the book and people have already started to call themselves Solos when I talk to them on Twitter (I've also encouraged people to use the #Solarversia hashtag). In this way, readers are slowly connecting with each other and getting collectively excited.
Finally, I've created a promotional game that is themed to the book. Every one of the 100 million players of Solarversia has a number from 1 to 100 million, located in the Player's Grid. It's a central concept within the book, acting like a giant scoreboard, and it's even used in one of the later rounds. I've selected a 10x10 section of it, called the Golden Grid, and will assign the 100 numbers via a series of competitions starting on the launch date. A competition will run every month or so, meaning that the "story about the story" provides ongoing exposure." – Toby Downton
Step 6. Drive Traffic to Your Website
According to Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, there are 19 traction channels (i.e. 19 marketing channels to find and acquire users). Not all of these are relevant for authors (billboards, for example, is only relevant if you have a lot of money to spend toward your promotional efforts, which I assume you don’t), so I just want to focus on a few high-impact, low-cost ways to acquire new potential readers or your books.
Note: for a full list of all traction channels, check out this great post on Zapier: How to Acquire Customers
#1. Content Marketing
This is a fancy term for writing blogs or creating other content that encourages people to come to your site. If you’re writing in a particular genre, writing about that genre is one way to drive readers to your site (in such a way that they may want to buy your book).
For example, I sometimes write about Pay What You Want pricing, which is the perfect content to attract my ideal reader (someone who would be interested in buying my book on the subject).
For a great example of a fiction author killing it with content marketing, check out Solarversia by Toby Downton. He is building a universe around his writing, and it’s captivating to say the least.
Advanced Strategy: Webinars
Ryan Hanley is the author of Content Warfare. He uses a combination of free webinars and an email autoresponder to automate book sales. Here’s what he says:
"Webinars are incredible. I use WebinarJam to run interactive webinars with my audience. Attendees must register for the webinar with their email address. The last two webinars have added over 100 new subscribers each. These were pure education. I want to break the audience in with 100% value and then add CTAs as we go. All are soft sells for the book. I do have an autoresponder set up which sends new subscribers emails directing them to old posts that are still popular. They get one post each Sunday and the 4th Sunday is a pitch for the book." – Ryan Hanley
Bottom line, your book should encourage word-of-mouth referrals. But your website and your sales funnel should also be optimized to draw in new readers.
A simple way to do this is by adding book-specific thank you pages that encourage your readers to share your book, free resources, free courses, etc.
Advanced Strategy: Viral Lead Magnets in Your Books
One of the best ways an author can drive email subscribers is to add a Call to Action inside their book. After all, if someone enjoyed your book, they probably want more books from you, right?
Here's how Rebecca Howard gets readers to join her email list:
“I just released a new book. In the book (a paranormal mystery) a minor character refers to something scary that happened to her a long time ago. At the end of the book, I put a little blurb "want to know what Susan REALLY saw all those years ago?" and then offered a free companion story download from "Susan's" perspective. Yes, it's free, but it’s not made for the masses-only for those who purchased the book. And I wrote it specifically for that purpose. I sent it out into the world 2 weeks ago and am now up to 200 subscribers on that list. These are just readers who have downloaded the short story. They're already fans of the series because they bought the original book and most have already read the first 3 books in the series. There are about 6 overlaps from my other, regular list, so I gained lots of new subscribers.”Rebecca Howard
#3. Blog and Podcast Outreach
Here’s the deal – nobody is going to buy your book if they don’t know you. Yes, there’s the potential that a captivating cover, title, and description can encourage a stranger to part with their time and money, but it’s unlikely.
The most successful authors have readers that buy all their books. That’s why a sequel makes so much more money than the first book in a series – repeat customers (aka happy readers).
So the point is, you need a referral from someone your reader trusts, or you need an introduction to your reader if you want the best shot at building a relationship with your readers.
The fastest, cheapest way to do this is through guest posting or getting featured on podcast interviews.
Step 6. Engage with Your Readers
Once someone signs up to your email list, then what?
This is where a lot of people differ, so I'll keep it simple: you need to stay in contact just often enough so people don't forget you exist...and when you do get in contact, you need to offer something extremely valuable so people will allow you to keep sending them stuff. On that note - extreme value is relative. It doesn't mean you need to give out free gifts all the time, but you do have to provide useful or relevant content to your readers, otherwise, they will unsubscribe.
As you build your list, remember a couple things:
- An email list is not static. People will subscribe (if you do what I've told you here in this article) but people will unsubscribe. This is called "churn" and can turn a big list into a small list if it gets too high (i.e. people unsubscribing surpass people subscribing). This is unfortunate because I know a lot of authors who don't mind doing hard work...for a time - but then would rather coast on their 500 subscribers. Doesn't work that way. If you're not building, you're decaying. It's uncomfortable, but it's true.
- Eventually, you're going to pitch and sell your book to your audience. This is okay. And you should. And don't be worried if people unsubscribe...the unfortunate side effect of giving away free stuff in exchange for an email address is that there are freeloaders out there who only want stuff for free. Don't worry about them. Cater to your biggest fans and do your best to over-deliver. They'll respect you (and thank you) for it.
Step 7. Measure Results
What good is doing all this if you don’t know what’s happening?
Most people would create these types of optin gift incentives, then simply look at how many people sign up for their website every day. This is a good start, but generally useless. After all, how do you know whether the problem is the optin gift itself, driving people to the wrong page, or something else entirely.
The key here is to make sure you’re tracking the right statistics.
For example, if you create an optin gift, you’ll want to know how many people look at it and how many people subscribe. If you just look at total subscribers, you’ll have no idea what your conversion rate is (how many people view versus sign up), which means you’ll have no idea whether you should try a new one, or keep going with what you have.
Here are a few ways to track and measure results:
#1. Google Analytics
Google Analytics will give you a basic overview of traffic to certain pages on your website. You can learn a lot more from it, but honestly, I’ve lost too many brain cells from getting punched in the face, so figuring out Google Analytics just isn’t happening for me.
Luckily, my friend Dave Chesson, founder of Kindlepreneur, is really good at these things (and has more brain cells than me), so I asked him for advice. This is what he recommends authors do to best utilize Google Analytics:
"I use Analytics to tell me what pages or posts are getting the outside traffic (through either SEO, referral, or other means). To me, this traffic is the "initial views" - the people who are there for the first time. Therefore it is imperative to me that I get a second chance with them, which is through email.
So to ensure I get that, I will create blog post-specific optins. The way I see it, if they came to that post from an outside source, then they are super interested in that subject. So giving them an extra bonus on that subject really captures them.
In Google Analytics:
- Choose "Acquisition"
- Click "Overview"
- Then click "Organic" or "Referral" or "Other"
- Then at the top you will see a tab that says "Landing Page"
This will let you know which blog posts are getting the most readers. Systematically create an optin bonus for each of these blog posts and you’ll start increasing conversion right away.” – Dave Chesson
Here's what my Google Analytics told me:
According to this, I should be creating optin gifts for these top posts. This will lead directly to more email list signups with minimal effort (a great place to start).
#2. ConvertKit Analytics
ConvertKit has incredibly powerful analytics baked into the software (not to mention, very easy to use and understand).
As a point of comparison, with Mailchimp or Aweber, I can see how many people receive my email, open my email, and click through a link in my email. This is a good start, but it doesn’t tell me anything about what or why people are signing up in the first place. That’s why I spent the better part of 30 hours and hundreds of dollars on education to figure out how to track conversion rates on signup pages on my website via Google Analytics and Mailchimp.
To no avail.
Luckily, ConvertKit tracks this information right out of the box.
The reason tracking this is so important is so that you know what people are responding to, positively and negatively. If one of my forms only converts at 5%, and a similar form but with different sales copy and images, converts at 55%, which do you think I should use?
With ConvertKit, I know what's working and what’s not. This allows me to fix, modify, and optimize my site to achieve my goal (more readers, more subscribers).
Note: It is essential to measure conversion rate properly because this is the start of your sale funnel. Eventually, as an author, you’re going to sell your books. But before you can do that, you need to see if the message you’re spreading is resonating with anyone to begin with. ConvertKit will let you do that out of the box very easily, which means a more lucrative sales funnel down the road (i.e. you will sell more books with a better optin form).
#3. Leadpages Analytics
Leadpages offers built in analytics as well. Not only can you see which pages and which Leadboxes (double optin subscription forms) are performing, but you can do A/B split testing with them to improve their performance even more.
Here’s what that looks like for me:
Knowing this information, I can test out new optin forms, new headlines, new images, etc. in order to optimize and improve optins. For smaller authors like myself who are not driving millions of visitors to our websites, it is essential that we improve conversion as much as possible to capture the smaller amount of traffic we do get. Leadpages offers simple A/B split testing which helps dramatically, and makes optimization possible on a very limited budget.
Step 8. Modify, Improve, Optimize
Unfortunately, the stuff I sharing with you today is not static.
Even once you have everything setup, you still need to put time and effort into improving your platform. This means taking the time to act on the results you’ve been measuring in the last step.
- Does your home page need improvement? Fix it. Then measure the results for 30 days to see if it helped.
- Are you getting a lot of traffic on a new blog post? Add a compelling optin gift, unique to that sales page.
- Are you having trouble getting people to come to your website in the first place? Try guest posting, or webinars, or engage in forums, or try out paid advertising...
But whatever you do, make sure to measure the results so you can act on the information in a deliberate, calculated way.
This is the only way to improve your author's platform, build your email list, and ultimately sell a LOT more books.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I'm going to break down author's websites, show you how I would improve them to increase email signups, as well as show you how to create free gift optins, how to create free ecourses, and much more.
For now, though, leave a comment below and let me know what your biggest takeaway is from this.
Have you written a book? Is it selling more than 100 copies a year?
What could you implement today from this article that would have the biggest impact on your success as an author?
Share below and let's get the conversation started!