I recently set up my own e-publishing imprint, Arogundade books, after 20 years working in print. Before launching, I did a lot of research into the market, and read many of the experiences of the first wave of self-published ebook money makers. Here are my top tips for ebook success:
1. Stop complaining about print publishers
You may think your writing is amazing and deserves to be published by one of the majors, and that they are all a bunch of numbskulls for overlooking your genius, treating you badly, not promoting your work properly or generally doing a terrible job. Well, get over it. The fact that you think they have failed you presents an amazing opportunity to forge an alternative path into an amazing future. So stop wasting your energy badmouthing them, hating them, etc, and instead channel that force into something good. Yourself.
2. Have talent
This sounds obvious, but the volume of badly conceived, badly written, badly designed, typo-ridden ebooks by unknown authors is incredible. Anyone with ambitions within ebooks should have at least one hard-nosed, smart book person in their life who loves them enough to read their material and be brutally honest about whether it is a work of genius or whether you need to consider a job at the post office. If you don't have any such individual in your life, paying a freelance editor to do it for you is money well spent. Anyone who self-publishes without showing his or her work to a single living soul will probably fail.
3. Be multi-skilled
The days of the writer who only knows how to write books are totally, totally over. Any budding author who wants to publish digitally needs to know how to do a range of tasks, particularly in areas such as design and marketing. Basically, all the tasks that a publisher once did for you, you now have to do yourself. The alternative is to pay for someone to do them, but who has that money when they're just starting out? Better to force yourself to learn through necessity; then you become more powerful and less dependent, which can only be good.
4. Have more than one ebook already written
Amanda Hocking, Stephen Leather, John Locke and many of the first wave of self-published eBook millionaires all had a number of titles ready to go at the same time. More ebooks means more chances to sell, and more chances for a reader who likes one of your titles to seek out the rest, thereby multiplying your revenues. "Having five books available at the same time is probably the best thing I did," said Locke in The Mail On Sunday. In fellow ebook novelist Joe Konrath's case, in January of this year he posted on his blog that he'd banked a cool $100,000 in Amazon sales for that month alone -- but this was from a total of FIFTEEN ebooks. Writing three or more ebooks before you even think about publishing is a mammoth task, which requires ninja-like patience, perseverance and planning. Most self-publishers are too eager to get their stuff out there, and so they publish too fast and without any strategy. Better to carefully plan your sequence of titles, and to take the time to write well.
5. Get the genre right
Of course, write what you love, first and foremost -- but if you have your eye on money, the most popular ebook categories are thriller, mystery and romance novels. An episodic series, with heroes or heroines that readers can follow through successive releases, is a good strategy. John Locke created the character of Donovan Creed in his series of seven best-selling crime novels. Aside from this the other categories showing rapid growth are educational and self-help eBooks.
6. Write shorter books, more often
The average novel is approximately 80,000 words long, but ebooks lend themselves to shorter formats, some even the length of extended essays. (Amazon call them Kindle Singles). The cold fact is, ebooks by definition are cheap, and however many words you write, you will only be able to charge a small amount for it online. There is little point in writing a door-stopping 200,000-word opus, if you can only charge $2.99 for it. Rather than spending a year or more producing one full-length title, it may be better to spend that time writing a sequence of three or four shorter eBooks of, say, 20,000 words each. In marketing terms, publishing four times in a year is better than publishing just once.
7. Price doesn't matter -- quality matters
Some disagree with me on this. Many sell their ebooks for as little as 99 cents or less, which means they shift in bulk. But most people who can afford 99 cents can easily afford more than that before they start to get twitchy. I have bought terrible ebooks for five and ten dollars apiece and ended up disappointed -- not at the price, but at the low quality of what I bought. In tests people tend to equate poor quality with cheap prices, so a low priced ebook may not always be the best thing.
8. Social media marketing is the only way to promote.
I have read posts by many of the first wave of ebook money-makers, and they all say the same thing -- that conventional PR and advertising didn't sell their ebooks. (Most first timers can't afford the latter anyway). It wasn't until they started blogging and doing the other forms of social media that things really took off. Lady GaGa presents an amazing example from the world of music. With 50 million Facebook fans and 20 million Twitter followers, she owns her own database of customers, and so selling becomes that much easier; crucially, she no longer relies on conventional PR. Of course, writers can't compete with GaGa's numbers, but the principal plan of action is the same.
9. Create your own selling platform
Amazon, iTunes and the like provide a good platform for independent e-publishers, but let's be clear -- as long as they provide the sole outlet for your ebooks, all the promo work you do drives traffic to their websites, not yours. More importantly, they then own whatever database of customers you create from your sweat. As far as possible today's writers need to own their own customer bases (see no. 8). For the ebook author, this means building your own blog or website and connecting with an independent digital fulfilment house, who will distribute your downloads on your behalf, and give you your database, all for around 10-15 percent, rather than 30-70 percent. This route is difficult to set up, but worth it in the end. It won't replace Amazon or Apple, but it will at least give you some skin in the game.
10. Have no social life
Make no mistake, self-publishing is seriously time-consuming. On one of Joe Konrath's recent blogs he talked about the fact that promoting his books takes even more of his time than actually writing them. "If you want to have extraordinary sales, it means devoting an extraordinary amount of time to it," he says. "That means sacrificing other aspects of your life, like leisure, sleep and family."
It's a sobering thought. But, after reading this, if you still want to take the plunge and self-publish digitally, be prepared for the long haul, for hard work, but also the joys of being autonomous. Go for it, and good luck.