Your book can market itself with these 17 autopilot marketing tips. Part 3 of 6 in Mark Coker's six-part serialization of the new 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide.
Smashwords Style Guide - How to professionally design and format an ebook
How to add enhanced navigation to an ebook - Video tutorial and blog post
Interview with NYT bestseller RL Mathewson - Smashwords blog
Reading the Reader Tea Leaves - How to Bring Your Book Back from the Doldrums (Smashwords Blog, 2013)
Welcome to the Smart Author Podcast where you'll learn to publish new books with greater pride, professionalism, and success. I'm your host, Mark Coker. Let's get started.
In this episode, episode 12, I bring you part three of my six-part series on book marketing. I'll share 17 tips for autopilot marketing. You'll learn how to make your book market itself and you'll learn how to turn your next reader into another reader. As a reminder to listeners, you're about to hear an exclusive sneak listen of the new 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, which comes out at the end of January 2018.
This is the first major revision of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide in almost five years. I think the continued popularity of the old edition, which was last updated in 2013, speaks to the durability of my approach to book marketing. That older edition, like this new edition, focuses on evergreen book marketing ideas that will work for many years to come. If you're stumbling across this episode and haven't yet heard the first two parts of this marketing series, I encourage you to press Pause and listen to episodes 10 and 11 first. This will help you get a lot more out of what's to come in this and future episodes of this serialization.
Here we go.
The next section heading in chapter two of the Book Marketing Guide is Autopilot Marketing, How to Make Your Book Market Itself.
Most of your new readership will come from readers who weren't originally looking for your book but somehow stumbled across it. Maybe they were looking for a book like it. Maybe they weren't even looking for a book but found your book on the path to somewhere else. Now imagine your book as a stationary beacon hidden in the forest of millions of other books. How can you equip your book to continually transmit its location and attributes so that those who might enjoy it can find it even if they're not looking for it? This is what I mean by autopilot marketing. The next series of tips will teach you how to equip your book to act like a magnet to draw readers in 24 hours a day.
Tip number 24, build hyperlinks everywhere. In the old days, one advantage of getting your book traditionally published was that publishers would distribute your print book into physical bookstores where book buyers went to discover and purchase books. The broader the book's distribution, the more discoverable the book and the more it would sell. Poor-selling books lost distribution or were forced out of print.
With ebooks, distribution remains as important as ever. Every major ebook retailer wants to carry your self-published ebook. Now, let's expand your notion of digital distribution. If the roads, sidewalks, and front door to your local bookstore are the paths readers follow to discover a print book in a physical store, then the path to ebook discovery is the hyperlink. If you look in your web browser's address field, you'll see something like www.google.com or www.smashwords.com. That’s a web address.
Everything on the Internet has a web address, and this web address is also known as a hyperlink. Hyperlinks create the signposts, paths, roads, bridges, and high-speed teleports that deliver readers to your book. Prospective readers may go to Google and do a search on how to plant tulips. If that’s the book you’ve written, they're more likely to find it if you created the paths to your book. Google's database contains billions of web addresses. Every time you or your readers publish a hyperlink that points to your Smashwords book page or to your Smashwords author profile or to your personal website or to any of the many retailers that will carry your ebook, that hyperlink makes your book more findable by the billions of people on the Internet.
Many of the tips that follow in this guide help you leverage the tools of the Internet to build the digital pathways that lead readers to your doorstep. When you publish hyperlinks on your blog or website, you can link directly to your book pages at Smashwords or any other retail platform. Always link directly to your book page's unique web address rather than linking to the home page of the store. For example, if I wanted to make it easy for readers to download the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, I'd link them to the book page at www.smashwords.com/books/view/305 rather than the Smashwords home page at www.smashwords.com.
A direct link delivers your reader closer to your book so they don’t have to search for it and they're not distracted by someone else's book. Some authors who already have personal web pages may wonder, why should they work to build paths to the retailer's pages when they should be building paths to their own web pages? That’s a great question. You should build paths everywhere because readers will step onto these paths at different locations and with different objectives in mind.
Here's an example. Let's say you link to your Smashwords author profile page. Once the reader lands there, they can click hyperlinks to go directly to any of your books or they can follow the hyperlinks to your Twitter page, your Facebook page, or your personal website or blog. To the extent you're successful building paths to your Smashwords pages, you'll assist your discoverability efforts for your personal standalone website as well.
Here's why. Search engines use hundreds of algorithms to determine which web pages they believe are the most relevant to the users for a given search query. Of all the different criteria used by search engines, one of the most important is their technique for measuring relevance. The more sites that link to a website and the more sites that link to the site linking to your site, the more relevant your site becomes in the eyes of the search engine. If you have many sites linking to your Smashwords profile and your Smashwords profile links to your other destination, such as your personal web page, then that link from Smashwords becomes a positive endorsement of the pathway to your web page in the eyes of Google and other search engines.
Tip 25, don’t publish without editing. Your book is the foundation of all your marketing. If your book wows the reader, then that one reader becomes a word-of-mouth evangelist for your books and an extension of your marketing team. Your book is your product. You need to make it the best it can be, and to do this, your book needs editing. A common mistake of new self-published authors is that they’ll publish their ebooks without editing. All books need editing and preferably by a professional editor.
If you're nearing publication and you’ve got money to invest in your book and you're wondering if you should invest that money in editing or in book marketing, I vote editing. Great editing will help you realize the full potential of your book, whereas even the best marketing can't overcome the negative reader impressions that come from a poorly edited book. Negative impressions kill word of mouth. If you can afford a professional editor, hire one.
I should clarify my definition of afford. Never go into debt to hire an editor. Never use money you need to pay your mortgage or put food on your family's table. If you determine you can't afford an editor, don’t fret. I'll share lower budget alternatives in Tips 26 and 27 that follow after this tip. Editing can be expensive, up to several thousand dollars. This is a significant investment. Even if you shell out thousands of dollars to an editor, there's no guarantee your book will sell well. Even if your editor has edited dozens of New York Times best-sellers, there's no guarantee your book will earn enough to recoup your editing investment.
Let's review the different types and levels of editing. Developmental editing looks at the big picture of your book, the flow, the organization, the pacing, the story arc, the character development, and the plot. This is the most expensive form of editing, but it's also where you'll gain the greatest improvements in your book.
Copyediting, sometimes referred to as line editing, focuses on improving words, sentences, paragraphs, grammar, and punctuation so your story becomes more accessible to the reader. When most people think about editing, they probably think about copyediting or line editing, even though copyediting is not focused on the big picture like developmental editing. Proofreading is usually the final editing stage prior to publication. This is where you're checking for typographical errors, missing words, and punctuation, or missing elements such as chapter headings. Here are four tips that can help you find an editor that will work best for you.
Number one, hire an editor with direct experience in your genre or category, and preferably an editor who's edited books in your category that have gone on to sell well. Number two, always contract directly with the editor. Never hire a third party author services firm for editing because they’ll most likely farm your work out to someone else. Not only will you receive substandard editing, but you'll overpay for it. You always want to interface directly with your editor.
Tip number three, when you find an editor you want to hire, hire them for a trial project first. Pay them to edit your first 10 or 20 pages. This is your chance to learn if the two of you have chemistry and if their abilities match your needs. Chemistry is important. You want to find an editor with whom you can build a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. You're hiring an editor for critical feedback, not praise. You want your editor to be brutally honest with you. By working with a great editor, you'll find that your writing skills will improve dramatically, not just for the current project but for future books as well. If an otherwise promising editor doesn’t pan out for you, your trial project will save you both a lot of heartache.
Number four, beware of cheap editing. If you're working with a professional editor, they won't come cheap. If someone offers to edit your hundred thousand-word manuscript for $200.00, be wary. Good editors can cost 10 times that much or more, depending on their experience and the type of editing services you're asking for.
Tip 26, if you can't afford a professional editor, find an alternative. You have other options that don’t cost a dime. Consider swapping editing services with fellow writers. You can edit their book, and they’ll edit yours. Join a local writing club or critique group so you and your fellow writers can share critiques. This won't get you all of the editing that you need, but it'll get you valuable feedback that will put you in the right path. It's not necessary you agree with all critiques or even with the views of a professional editor, for that matter. If you maintain an open mind, you'll probably find nuggets of truth in every critique. These nuggets of truth will inspire you to make your next revision even better. An additional alternative to professional editing is to use volunteer beta readers. What's a beta reader, you ask? That’s the subject of our next tip.
Tip 27, use beta readers to inspire ideas for your final revision. Beta readers are test readers who read your book prior to publication and give you feedback. Beta readers don’t completely replace the myriad benefits of a professional editor, but they will get you part of the way there. The feedback from beta readers will make your book better. A well-orchestrated beta reader round where you're working with multiple beta readers at once will help you understand how readers will react to your book. You'll identify points of pleasure, disappointment, and friction.
A well-managed beta reader round can help you surface many of the same insights you'd get from a professional developmental editor. At the end of this book, in my deep dive section, you'll find detailed step-by-step instructions for how to recruit and manage beta readers. Episode five of the Smart Author Podcast is also dedicated to the subject of working with beta readers.
Tip 28, add these three essential sections to your back matter. Put yourself in your reader's shoes. The reader just finished one of your books, the first they’ve read from you. The moment they finish the last sentence of your book, they're thrilled with the ending. They love the book. They're happy they just took a chance on the book, and they feel strong affinity for your writing chops. You’ve earned their trust. Many authors make the mistake of ending their book with a period followed by nothing else. That’s a lost opportunity. Add these three sections to the end of your book.
Number one, About the Author. Add a short bio that tells the reader something personal about you. The goal is to humanize the author. Let the reader gain a sense of who you are, both as a writer and as a person. For example, here's how one imaginary bio might be, "Jane Smith is a USA Today best-selling author of romantic suspense novels. Prior to writing her first novel in 2012, Jane served as district attorney for the city of San Francisco. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in Fargo, North Dakota, where in her spare time she raises llamas and chickens." You see how this humanizes Jane. She's no longer just some nameless, faceless writer. She's a person.
The second section you want to add is Other Books by Jane Smith. Of course, other books by your pen name. List them title by title. If you write series, organize them by series in reading order. This'll make it easy for readers to decide which book of yours they want to read next. Don’t link to or mention specific retailers here because you can expect that your book is going to be distributed to multiple retailers, and you don’t want to confuse the customer of one retailer by pointing them to a different retailer.
The third section you want to add is Connect with the Author. In this case, it would be Connect with Jane Smith. Tell your readers how to connect with you via your website, blog, Smashwords author page, or your social media coordinates at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, or any other social media platforms that you use. Make it easy for your readers to form a relationship with you, even if that relationship is as simple as following you on Twitter. By providing multiple options, you make it easier for the reader to connect with you on their terms via their favorite social media tool.
For this section, start it with a personal note to the reader along the lines of, "I hope you enjoyed reading, insert book title, as much as I enjoyed writing it. I invite you to connect with me at any of the coordinates below and look forward to hearing from you." Then after that, list each social media platform you want to promote along with a direct hyperlink so that with one click, the reader can go straight to that page and start friending you or following you.
Tip 29, here's another back matter idea. Create a discussion guide for your back matter. In addition to the enhanced back matter of the previous tip, you can also add a discussion guide to the end of your book. You’ve probably seen these in print books. Publishers append short discussion guides at the end of the books to help guide discussion for reading groups and book clubs. Very few indie ebook authors do this, which means if you do it, you'll have an advantage over all those who do not. If your next reader loves your book and they see you have a discussion guide at the end and they're a member of a reading club, they're more likely to propose your book as their group's next read, and presto, one reader just helped you sell five or 10 more copies of your book.
Such discussion guides can add considerable value and enjoyment to your book by helping readers fully consider your intricately crafted characters or subject. Make it fun and easy for a book group to discuss your book. Although we enjoy reading books in private, we love talking about books with our friends. If you create a reading guide, be sure to advertise it in your book description with a simple statement such as, "Includes a discussion guide for reading groups." You'll be giving prospective readers yet another reason to click the Buy button, because the implication of a discussion guide is that your story has depth.
Tip 30, promote preorder books in the back matter of your other books. Take a look at your release schedule for the next 12 months and get everything up on preorder now. Then, in the back matter of all your other books, add a paragraph such as this. Let's say the title of your next book is Jane's Memoir. Your short paragraph could read, "Jane's Memoir is coming July 4, 2018, and is available now for preorder at select retailers. Reserve your copy today." If you write series, this is especially important. This mention of the preorder makes it easy for the reader not to miss the next book in your series. It also signals to the reader that you're committed to continuing to support the series. If they try the series starter and love it, by seeing a preorder link it tells them that they have much more to look forward to.
Tip 31, this is another back matter tip. Add sample chapters of your other books to your back matter. At the end of your book, insert sample chapters from your other books. Insert a small thumbnail image of your cover at the start of each sample. Add enough of the sample to hook the reader and leave them wanting more. At the end of each sample, invite them to purchase the book at their favorite retailer or invite them to visit your Smashwords author page for a full listing of all your titles.
Do you have a book on preorder? If so, provide a sneak peek of your upcoming release. This works great for series books as well. Imagine the reader just finished book one in the series. Book two is on preorder. At the end of the sample, add a paragraph such as, "Book title, book number five in the XYZ series is coming July 31, 2018, and is available now for preorder at select retailers. Reserve your copy today." You can do the same even if your next book is a standalone book. If the reader likes your writing, they’ll be interested in what you're working on next.
Tip number 32, yet another back matter idea. Do a sample chapter swap with another author. Other indie authors are targeting the same readers you're targeting. Partner with them on a collaborative chapter swap. For example, let's say you write Christian romance. Identify your favorite indie authors who also write Christian romance and propose a chapter swap. If you write dark fantasy, swap with another author of dark fantasy. You'll place their sample chapter in your back matter and they’ll place your sample chapter in their back matter.
Be selective. They should be an author you personally read and admire, and you need to have a high degree of confidence that your readers will love them, too. Otherwise, it will reflect poorly on you to recommend a book your readers wouldn’t enjoy. Also understand that not all authors will want to participate in the swap. Some authors never do swaps. Before you approach the other author, it's also helpful to be cognizant of the other author's sales levels compared to your own.
While it would be a huge break for you to have a New York Times best-selling indie promoting your debut work in the back of their book, such a swap could be unbalanced. Such a swap would work to your benefit more than theirs. This is not to say an unbalanced swap can't work. If the best-selling author truly loves your work and wants to leverage their readership to help you launch your career, then that’s great, but ordinarily, the idea is for two authors to collaborate toward mutual gain.
As a preface to each sample chapter, each author should write a short personal introduction such as, "I'm pleased to share with you a sample chapter of, book title, by, author name, a writer I've admired for a long time. If you enjoy her sample, please show your support by purchasing it at your favorite retailer." Of course, you'll need to personalize the endorsement to the situation and make it honest and heartfelt. If you can't honestly endorse this other author's work, then don’t swap chapters with them.
At the end of each chapter sample, add a short sentence or paragraph that shares a few of the other author's most important social media coordinates such as, "Check out Jane Smith's books at all fine retailers. Also check out Jane Smith's website at, website address, follow her on Twitter at, Twitter address, or friend her on Facebook at, Facebook address. In this way, you're each cross-promoting the other author's work to your fan base and helping them build their author brand and build their social media following.
Tip 33, add enhanced navigation to your book. One of the great benefits of an ebook is the opportunity for enhanced navigation. Think of a print book. The table of contents provides navigational signposts so that readers can turn to the page for a given chapter or section. With ebooks, you can turbocharge your table of contents by making every item clickable. In this way, your table of contents becomes a marketing tool by making all of the elements of your book, including this enhanced back matter that we've been discussing, more visible and accessible to the reader.
For example, in addition to providing direct links to your chapters or sections, you can link to other back matter sections we've discussed such as About the Author or a list of your other books or your social media coordinates or if you have a reading-group guide or sample chapters. In the print book world, tables of contents are most commonly associated with nonfiction titles and not so much with fiction because fiction is generally read serially from the first chapter onward, but with ebooks, ebooks are different. Even if you write fiction, your novel should include hyperlinked table of contents.
This enhanced navigation has marketing benefit. Your table of contents will be accessible to the reader both inside and outside the book. By inside I mean that if the reader has opened up your ebook file, you want them to see a clickable hyperlink to the table of contents. Then by outside I'm referring to items that are listed if the reader clicks on the table of contents feature of their ereading device or app. These are actually two different table of contents, and you should have them both in your ebook.
At Smashwords, if you upload your manuscript as a Microsoft Word file formatted to the specifications of the Smashwords Style Guide, the ebook file that we create for you will contain both the internal and external navigation that you need. I'll put a link in the show notes at smashwords.com/podcast to the Smashwords Style Guide and also to a short video tutorial that I created that walks you step-by-step through the process to create this enhanced navigation for your readers.
Tip 34, price at least one book at free. Every writer, even a best-selling writer, is obscure and unknown to the vast majority of their potential audience. If a reader hasn’t read you, they don't know you. They can't admire you and they don’t trust you. You earn a reader's trust by getting them to read your book. Free is one of the most powerful marketing tools in your autopilot marketing toolbox. Free can turbocharge your readership and platform-building. Free eliminates the financial risk a reader takes when they try an author who is unfamiliar to them. Free makes it easier for a reader who's unfamiliar with your work to take a chance. When they read that first book of yours, you have a chance to earn their admiration and trust. If they love your writing, they're more likely to seek out and purchase your other books that carry a price.
In the 2017 Smashwords Survey, we found that a free ebook yields on average 33 times more downloads than an ebook at any other price. That’s 33 times more readers exposed to your writing and 33 times more readers you can then funnel into your enhanced back matter of your book with its listings of your other books that carry a price and with its listing of your social media coordinates, the sign-up link for your private mailing list, or a sneak peek chapter of the next book that you have available on preorder.
If you’ve published multiple books, consider pricing at least one of them at free, either permanently or as a special short-term promotion. I realize that for many authors, this idea of giving away their valuable intellectual property for free is abhorrent to them. Some authors might worry that it devalues their brand, but deployed properly, I think the opposite is true. Free can actually increase your brand value. You build your author brand with readership. Until you get a reader to read you, your brand is essentially worthless to them.
Even if you’ve only written one book, you can still make free work for you. Try running a temporary free promotion for a few weeks. If you're a new author or if your book isn't selling well or if your book doesn’t yet have reviews at the major retailers, free is a great way to build buzz, attract your first readers, earn your first reviews, and build your social media following, especially if you implemented the other back matter tips that I mentioned, because you can point these free readers to your other books or to the second book that you have on preorder. Experiment with it. One of the great things about indie ebook publishing is that if you try something that doesn’t work, you can try something else.
Tip 35, if you write series, price the series starter at free. Series with free series starters on average earn significantly more readers and more income than series that don’t have free series starters. In the 2017 Smashwords Survey, we found that our top 100 highest-earning series ... In the 2017 Smashwords Survey, we found that out of our top 100 highest-earning series, two-thirds of them had a free series starter. When we compared the top 100 highest-earning series that had a free series starter against the top 100 highest-earning series that didn’t have a free series starter, the group with the free series starter average 50% higher sales overall.
A free series starter is powerful, because if you can hook them with the first book, they're much more likely to purchase the books that follow next in the series. If you're skeptical of the efficacy of giving your valuable work away for free, try a free series starter for a month and see if it works for you. I know many successful authors for whom a free series starter is the centerpiece of their autopilot marketing strategy. The free series starter acts like a magnet to draw readers into the series, and then once the reader is invested in the story, the book and the series markets itself.
Tip 36, practice metadata magic. Earlier, I mentioned how most of your sales will come from readers who stumble across your book by accident rather than seeking it out by name or by title. If your book is a beacon, the metadata is your beacon's transmission. Metadata is data about your book. You control this data. When you upload your self-published book to Smashwords or to Amazon, you'll enter your metadata directly into the upload page. Examples of metadata include your book's category, your book's title, price, book description, language, author name, publication date, and keyword tags. Even your cover image is a form of metadata because it communicates important information that helps the reader decide if your book is what they're looking for.
Retailers use your metadata to make your book discoverable to readers who are looking for a book just like yours. As you craft your metadata, visualize your micro-targeted reader. Who is that reader who will enjoy your book more than anyone else? Many authors make the mistake of trying to target the broadest possible audience, but this can backfire. It can dilute your message to readers who will love your book the most, and it can draw in readers who don’t particularly enjoy your type of book. The wrong reader will leave a less enthusiastic review.
For example, if a reader only reads Amish romance, you probably don’t want them reading your erotic romance. Identify the common intersection between what your micro-targeted reader desires and what your book delivers. From this will flow the metadata of your title, your book description, and your categorization. When you choose your book's categories, choose the most specific categories that best match your target reader. Think of a category as a virtual shelf upon which readers will search for your book. For example, if you write paranormal romance, don’t classify your book as general romance. Paranormal readers are looking on the paranormal shelf.
Tip 37, occupy multiple price points to appeal to more readers. If you publish multiple books, and you should, try to price them so you occupy multiple price points. This will make your books more appealing to a broader range of readers. All readers harbor pricing bias, even if they don’t consciously realize it. Some readers will only try a new author if the book is free, while others will only try the author if the book is priced less than $2.99. Other readers will avoid low-cost ebooks entirely for fear that these books are poor quality and not worth their time. These readers might only purchase books priced at $5.99 or higher.
Every reader is different. If you write fiction, try to have at least one book priced at free and then have others that are at $0.99, $2.99, $3.99, and $4.99. These are the price points that maximize readership for full-length fiction. If you write nonfiction, experiment with free and then for the rest of your titles price higher on the spectrum such as between $5.99 and $9.99. Nonfiction readers are less price sensitive than fiction readers. In fact, their bias usually leans in favor of higher-priced books.
A few years ago in the Smashwords Survey, we found evidence that as prices increased from $0.99 in the direction to $9.99, unit sales actually increased. This is because nonfiction readers are usually looking to gain valuable knowledge. This knowledge has value to the reader. Higher-priced books are more likely to be perceived as higher value. For example, if you're looking for a book to help you cook healthier meals for your family, are you more likely to trust advice that costs $0.99 or $9.99? What if you're looking for medical advice? Are you going to trust the $0.99 book or the $9.99 book? By considering pricing bias as you make your pricing decisions, you'll make it easier for first-time readers to give your work a chance. Once they read you and learn to appreciate your writing talent, their pricing bias against the price points of your other books will disappear.
Tip 38, publish more than one book to create a multiplier effect. The more books you publish and distribute, the more discoverable your author brand and books become. Thanks to metadata, all your works at the Smashwords store and at all of our retailers are cross-linked with one another via your author name. This means if a customer is viewing one of your book pages, they’ll be presented with links to all your other book pages. It's like casting multiple fishing lines into the sea to create a net rather than just relying on a single line. With each book you publish, you'll have the opportunity to reach new readers you can then introduce to your other books. With every hour the reader spends with you and with every book they read of yours, their confidence in your author brand can grow stronger.
Tip 39, refresh your cover image. Your cover image is the first impression you make on a prospective reader. A great cover image makes a promise to the reader. It tells the reader through the symbolism of the image itself, "I'm the book you're looking for." If you think about it, a letter is a symbol, and a letter is a symbol for a component of a word, and a word is a symbol for meaning. A string of words together is a symbol for a deeper meaning. Look at it another way. Words and images are simply packages of meaning, and these packages of meaning must be received by your prospective reader before the reader can unpack and interpret the meaning.
This perspective has significant implications for your ebook cover. Your cover is an image, but that image itself is made up of words and other imagery, all of which you want your prospective reader to see and process. It takes the human brain about 200 milliseconds to unpack the meaning of a word. That might seem fast until you consider that your brain unpacks an image in only 13 milliseconds. That means an image is about 15 times more efficient at conveying information and meaning. It means the reader will see and interpret the imagery of your cover image before they see and interpret your book title or your author name.
It also means the imagery of your cover image can be much more information-dense as you work to help the prospective reader self-identify as the ideal reader for this book. When a reader visits an ebook store, their senses are deluged by a cacophony of competing ebook cover images. The reader's brain processes these images quickly. The reader sees the imagery of the image before they see the author name or the book title. The images that jump off the page to the reader out of this noise are those that contain promises that match the reader's aspirations.
Click over to Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBooks Store, or Amazon and study the best-seller lists for your genre or topic. Which covers jump off the page to you? It's partly because of the imagery. Now, compare those images to your cover image. Does your cover stand toe-to-toe with these covers? Does your cover look as good or better than the cover images produced by large New York publishers? Does your cover that looked great a few years ago still look great today? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then it's time for a new cover image.
Over the years, I've observed multiple examples where an upgraded cover doubled or tripled the author's sales overnight. In one of my favorite case studies, Smashwords author R. L. Mathewson upgraded her cover image on a book that had been out on the market for several months already, and it sparked a breakout that catapulted her book all the way into the New York Times best-seller list. I'll put a link in the show notes to an interview I did with her back in 2012. Although most cover refreshes don’t have the same impact, it's a great example how one cover can discourage readers while another cover can invite them in.
Unless you're already a professional cover designer, don’t attempt to design your own cover. If your cover was homemade, most likely it's scaring your prospective readers away. Hire a professional. Great covers aren't expensive. There are hundreds of great cover designers out there on the Internet and most of them cost under $200.00. If they can create a cover that looks as good or better than what the big New York publishers are putting out, the $200.00 or less that you pay for that cover could be the lowest cost, highest-yielding investment you make in your book.
Over at Smashwords, I maintain a list of low-cost cover designers who provide covers for between $50.00 and $150.00. All of them have online portfolios and you can review the quality of the work before you hire them. The list can be found over at smashwords.com/list. These are all independent freelancers. Smashwords doesn’t earn a commission if you hire them. We don’t charge them a fee to be on the list. They're on the list because they’ve done great work for our authors in the past.
Carefully review the cover designer's online portfolio before you hire them. If you don’t love their work, don’t hire them. Look for a designer whose style you absolutely love and who has direct experience designing covers for your specific genre or category. For example, if you're looking for a cover designer for your thriller novel, don’t bother contacting a designer who only does covers for nonfiction. If you write erotica, find a professional cover designer who specializes in erotica.
Also make sure that any imagery you use is fully licensed. You can't simply download a random image off the Internet and use it for your cover. I know of one indie author who made this mistake and is now the subject of a high-profile lawsuit that I expect has already cost him thousands of dollars and it hasn’t even gone to trial yet. Such a mistake can be financially ruinous to you. As an indie author, when you upload your book to Smashwords or Amazon or anywhere else, you will certify to that platform that your book and its cover image don’t violate the rights of any other party.
Once you receive your new cover from the cover designer, click to your Smashwords dashboard, then click Settings, then click Upload New Cover. It's as simple as that. As your distributor, we'll then regenerate your ebook file and transmit the updated book and its cover back out to our retailers and library partners. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on cover design, check out episode three of the Smart Author Podcast. The title of the episode is 16 Best Practice Secrets, and there's a section in there on cover design where I talk more about covers. That episode will also help you get more out of my next tip.
Tip 40, tweak and iterate your viral catalysts. We would all love to identify the single magic bullet that helps propel our books into best-sellerdom. There's no such thing. The truth of the matter is to become a best-seller, you must do many things right while avoiding the mistakes that can undermine your long-term opportunity. In my free ebook, The Secrets of Ebook Publishing Success, I identify the most common best practices of the most successful authors. I also introduce the concept of the viral catalyst. A viral catalyst is anything that makes your book more available, more accessible, more discoverable, more desirable, more enjoyable, and more sharable.
The viral catalyst concept creates a framework through which you can identify the many magic bullets necessary to reach readers. You’ve probably heard people talk about viral videos or other things going viral. Like the common cold, these things pass from one person to another by word of mouth. You want your book to go viral. Once you reach your first reader, you want your reader to love the book so much that they buy all your other books and then they enthusiastically recommend your books to all their friends. In this way, your book starts with one reader and spreads to many.
This concept of virality has a simple but powerful math component to it. If on average each reader you earn was to convince two more readers to buy it, you would reach hundreds of thousands of readers in a matter of months. You can test this by pulling out a calculator, typing in two times two and then press the equal sign 19 times. You'll see that after 19 iterations, you’ve reached over a million readers.
I'm a big fan of the TV series Game of Thrones. I've probably personally persuaded at least five friends to watch it who previously were reluctant to watch it. I watch other shows that I enjoy for which I'm less passionate, and for those, I don’t go out of my way to recommend them to anyone. You want every reader to be transformed by your book so they become a passionate evangelist. This is how sleeper hits from previously unknown authors come out of nowhere to hit the New York Times best-seller list. It doesn’t happen for most books. For most good books, and even those that do go viral for some period of time, eventually viral decay sets in and over time, the book spreads slower and slower and slower until it stops spreading.
Maybe the book taps out its potential available market or maybe enthusiasm wanes for some reason. The viral catalyst concept is one of incrementalism. Consider the chain of what needs to happen before a reader can discover and purchase your book. First, they need to become aware of it. Then they need reason to desire it. Then they need convenient access to it. Once they find the book, their desire must stay strong and they need to be able to afford it, buy it, and read it. With every link in this chain, there's potential friction that could break the chain. A reader could hear great things about the book, search for it, but then when they see the cover, they're turned off by it or they might see a typo in the book description or the price is too high or too low or the book's not available in their favorite store.
In order for a book to go viral and spread from one reader to another, each reader's enthusiasm for the book must pass to another reader. They need to infect another reader to the point that this new reader completes the same gauntlet that starts with awareness and ends by spawning yet another, more enthusiastic word-of-mouth reader who then spreads it to the next reader and the next reader and so on and so on. If one reader becomes less than one new reader, the book dies, but if one reader becomes another reader, your book goes viral.
Think of your book as an object and attached to this object are dozens of dials you can twist, turn, and tweak to make your book more discoverable, more accessible, more desirable, and more enjoyable to readers. These dials and knobs are your viral catalysts. Many of the best practices that we've been discussing in the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide are viral catalysts. You're in control of these viral catalysts. Every decision you make will impact the virality of your book. Examples of viral catalysts could be a better cover image, a better price, better editing, broader distribution, a better book description, better categorization, or, brace yourself, a better book. There are many more that I haven't mentioned.
The opposite of a viral catalyst is anything that creates friction that breaks the chain of virality. The previous case study that I shared about R. L. Mathewson showcased how this extremely talented, five-star romance author simply by upgrading her cover image hit the New York Times best-seller list. Her previous cover image was creating unnecessary friction that prevented readers from taking a chance on her book. Once that unnecessary friction was removed and she created a cover that made the appropriate promise to her readership, her sales took off.
If you can identify and minimize all points of friction, you have a much better chance of reaching more readers, but to do this, it requires an open mind and a keen sense of self-awareness. You must be capable of recognizing where your book is falling short. If you pay special attention, your readers and prospective readers through their actions or inactions will give you clues as to whether or not your book's viral catalysts are resonating with readers.
For example, if you're averaging five-star reviews but sales are low, it's probably a problem with the cover, the book title, the description, or the price, but if your reviews average three and a half stars out of five, that’s a sign that reader satisfaction is the problem. Your readers enjoy your book, but not enough to evangelize it. The likely solution here is either a major revision of the book or possibly better categorization or maybe both and more.
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post over at the Smashwords blog that provided tips on how authors could do an honest self-assessment of your book's situation. That post is titled Six Tips to Bring Back Your Book from the Doldrums - Reading Reader Tea Leaves. I'll put a link to it in the show notes. One great characteristic of indie ebooks is that they are dynamic living creatures. As you develop your skills as an author and publisher, you have the ability to fine-tune your viral catalysis over time until you get the formula just right so that one reader becomes another. All the tips you’ve learned in this section on autopilot marketing as well as everything else covered in this book will help you get that much closer to achieving this end.
That concludes part three of my six-part series on book marketing. That also concludes my discussion on autopilot marketing. By this point in my book marketing series, I trust you’ve learned new ideas for how to leverage your book to sell more books, grow your platform faster, and spend less time on marketing and more time on writing. Coming up next in episode 13 will be part four of my book marketing series. I'll share 22 book promotion tips. Then in episodes 14 and 15, we'll view my deep dives. Episode 14 covers social media for authors. In episode 15, we'll teach you how to get free press coverage.
If you're enjoying the Smart Author Podcast, please do me a favor and recommend it to a friend. Until next time, keep writing. I'm Mark Coker.