Seven Tips on how to sell books on Kindle

This post was originally a guest post over on Patty Henderson’s blog, The Henderson Files, entitled 7 Tips on how to sell books on Kindle. I am reprinting it here.

First of all, why should you listen to me, an unknown author, tell you how to sell your book on Kindle? A little more than a year ago, I was a semi-retired professor of U.S. Women’s history who, besides a few academic articles, had never published a thing. What I did have was a manuscript of an historical mystery I had written 20 years earlier, based on my doctoral research on working women in the late nineteenth century. In the 20 years after writing the first draft, while I pursued my teaching career, I found an agent, collected rejections, lost an agent, published briefly with a small Print on Demand (POD) press, rewrote the manuscript several times, and I was now giving the book one more chance. I also owned a Kindle, which I loved. After serious investigation, I decided to publish my book, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco, as an ebook with Amazon and Smashwords, and in print through CreateSpace. I paid for a cover design, but put the book up on Kindle myself. That was December of 2009.

Since then, I have sold over 9000 books, the vast majority of them from the Kindle store. I now average 55 books sold a day, and I am making enough money that I have retired completely to work on the sequel, Uneasy Spirits. When I started, I had no particular expertise and no fan base, but I did have access to a world of advice being put out daily on blogs and websites hosted by indie authors, designers, editors, and marketers. I found that when I put their advice to work, was patient, and persistent, it paid off. Here are some of my tips distilled from what I learned from others and my own experience.

Tip #1: Think about selling from the buyer’s perspective. When a reader goes to buy a book in a traditional bookstore, they either go to the store looking for a specific book because they have heard about it, or they browse the shelves and tables in the store and discover a book. Then they either buy it or they don’t. As an author of an ebook, you need to figure out how readers are going to find out about your book or find it among all the more than 800,000 books in the Kindle store. Then you are going to have to do everything to make sure that once they have found it, they buy it.

Tip #2: Hang out where readers of Kindle books hang out. While you can promote your book through traditional means (print reviews, book tours and signings, mailed postcards, conventions, business cards), increasingly this is a world where potential readers hang out in cyberspace. They find book reviews on blogs like Mysteries and My Musings that specialize in reviewing the genre they, they look for lists on line (Cozy Mystery List or Historical Mystery Fiction), they “like” the facebook pages of their favorite author or favorite subgenre (Mystery Most Cozy), they follow twitter #tags, they join reader sites like GoodReads, and they subscribe to blogs and groups that cater to Kindle owners like KindleBoards, Kindle Forum, Kindlechat, or Kindle Nation Daily.

As an author you need to go to these sites, sign up, become active, and participate in the conversations. Most of these sites let you put up a profile picture, and if people begin to see your face, they will begin to feel like they know you. Your voice in a comment or a guest blog post or a Goodreads review will tell a potential reader if they think they will like your perspective on the world. Your customized signature, with links back to your author website and or blog, and small pictures of your book covers, linked to your Amazon product page, play the role of your business card. The more times a potential reader runs across your name and your book titles, the more likely they will decide to put that name and book title into their search bar when they are looking for new books to download.

Tip #3: Besides having a well-written and edited book, your cover design, interior design and formatting are the most crucial elements to success. If you are going to shell out any money out front-this is where to spend it. If the cover looks home made, or you can’t read the title and author in a small thumbnail, or if the cover doesn’t convey the type of book it is (thriller, cozy, etc), then the reader isn’t going to make the effort to find it, look at, it or buy it. If the book is hard to read and has lots of formatting errors in the excerpt, they will also take a pass. If you have the technological expertise or design experience, you can do this yourself, but if you don’t, this isn’t where to skimp. There are lots of freelancers out there with reasonable rates. See a recent post on do’s and don’ts of cover designs or the blog by Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer

Tip #4: Make sure your book is ready for prime time before you start to promote. Your product description needs to be well-written, your excerpt must be available, and you should have at least 4-5 reviews written by professional reviewers (not just friends and family members). There are more and more websites, blogs, and enewsletters that are willing to review ebooks, and with Kindle gift certificates you can easily send a free copy to a reviewer. Most professional reviewers will then go on and put their reviews on Amazon. However, it is a good idea to have a print edition (POD) to send to those reviewers who insist on this.

Tip #5: Make your pricing competitive. Go to the specific categories in which your book will show up and look at prices of your competitors. If you aren’t a big name with a new release, $2.99-3.99 is probably the safest price point for genre fiction. While 99 cents is ok for an initial offering, in order to get a bump in sales to send you up the rankings, you really have to sell a lot to make up for the loss of the 70% royalty Amazon gives for books between $2.99-9.99. For example, if you look at the vast majority of other books in the historical mystery category, they are $6 and above, often for books that have been out for five or more years. This means there is a good chance they have either already been read by the buyer, or simply seem too expensive for an ebook, when the paperback or hard cover book may be only a few dollars more (or sometimes even the same or a lower price than the ebook. What are those traditional publishers thinking???) No wonder I am out-selling those books.

Tip #6: Don’t make your big promotional push prematurely. Banners on Kindle sites, promotional packages on Kindle Nation Daily, paying for an ad blitz, or promotional contests, can cause a temporary bump in sales. But only if everything else is in place (see tip #4. If the book ranking is too far away from them top 100s in the rankings of any sub-category, a temporary bump isn’t going get the book up high enough in the rankings to self-perpetuate the sales. One of the wonderful things about self-publishing is that you have time. Time to tweak your cover or book blurb, time to get those book reviews, time to correct errors in the text, time to build your readership and your rankings. Then spend the time and money on the big promotional push.

Tip #7: Use Amazon’s browsing capabilities effectively. If you were selling your book in a traditional bookstore, you would hope that the buyer would find your book by browsing the bookshelves. They would have the best chance of finding your book if it was on one of the bestseller or bargain tables at the front of the store, or had a little “staff recommends tag” on the book on the shelf. What would be awful would be if your book wasn’t shelved in the right place, so the potential reader looking for a good mystery to read, didn’t find your book there because it was shelved in general fiction, or romance.

What is truly wonderful about publishing on Kindle, is that your book will be recommended or find its way to the bestseller table along side the traditionally published books at no additional cost or personal contact with the bookstore.

First, when a buyer goes to the Kindle store, if they have purchased book in your category, your book may show up in the list that says “Recommended for you.” Or, your book can show up on the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list at the bottom of the screen. I’ll never forget when I went to look for an Anne Perry book–the star of Victorian mysteries—and found my book on that list!! If you sell enough books, Amazon will actually send out little emails to targeted customers saying that they think they might like your book. Talk about free promotional support!

Finally, if your book sells enough and has good enough reviews, your book can make the over all top 100 ranked books on Kindle (I have made it to the 200s, so I have hope) or more likely, it will make it to the top 100 in a sub-category (as I have in historical mysteries) and be called a best seller. Readers browse through those best sellers looking for books to buy. If you make it into the top 10-20 books in a specific sub-category, this means if someone browses in that category that your book will pop right up on the screen, ready and waiting for an impulse buy.

But none of the above is likely happen if your book can’t be found in the right browsing categories. As an indie author, this is your responsibility. When you upload your book you have five choices of browsing paths. Think carefully, but inventively. If I had just listed my novel in the main category, “mystery & thriller,” Maids of Misfortune would be competing against 32,000 other books in the Kindle store. But if I instead chose the sub-category of “mystery,” my book would then be competing in a group of 8000. Better odds, but still not great. When I went even further, and chose an additional sub-category, “women sleuths,” my book now is in a category with 5300 other books, giving it even better odds of being found. However, when I put in the right tags on my book as well, for example the tag “historical,” and the buyer puts that tag into the search box, because 5300 books is still too much to for them to browse though, my book becomes one of only 446 books listed. Bingo! In fact if you do that today, Maids of Misfortune comes up number one.

Check to make sure that your combination of five browsing categories and sub-categories and the tags you have listed gives you the most competitive advantage. Initially, because of a computer glitch, Maids of Misfortune didn’t show up in the historical mysteries sub-category. I still sold books, but not that many of them. Once I got this fixed and got my reviews in place (tip #4) and lowered my price (tip #5), I did my one big promotional push-got my short story on Kindle Nation Daily shorts (tip #6), and Maids of Misfortune ran to the top of the historical mysteries category, where it has been ever since, my sales success began.

So, time, patience, persistence, attention to my 7 tips, and, of course a well-written book, and the Kindle store can be a great place for indie authors to sell books.

12 thoughts on “Seven Tips on how to sell books on Kindle

  1. A very nice post! One thing that confused me, though, was the mention of 5 categories. I can set 5 categories/subcategories over at Barnes & Noble, but at Amazon I’m limited to only 2. Or am I missing something somewhere?

    • Dear J.A.,

      When I uploaded my files on Kindle and CreateSpace in December 2009 you were given 5 categories to choose from. I went on the community forums yesterday because you weren’t the only one who mentioned the 2 categories-and saw that Amazon had made the change-supposedly because people were putting their books in categories that didn’t fit. Evidently if you started with the 5, you get to keep the 5 (I don’t know what would happen if I took the book down and republished. )

      The narrower range of choices make it even more important to think through were your book best fits as well as to use the tag option, which permits you to narrow down even more.

      M. Louisa

      • Well, phooey. I was hoping I missed something. Some of my novels do cross genres, and 2 is just too few. If they were going to cut it down, why did they do it to such a harsh degree? Even 3 would have been better.

        Then the other part I haven’t quite figured out: Some of the subcategories on the backside do not line up with anything on the front end. For instance, there is a subcategory of Scifi: Short Stories. But, if you browse in the front end there is no such subcategory. Very strange. So, if you put your work in one of those subcategories, does your work disappear?

        I haven’t found an answer to that one yet.

        Anyway, thanks for answering my question. Now I won’t be hunting like crazy to find a way to use more than 2 categories. ;)

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  5. Excellent advice here. I admit that I came across this in a general google search on sales tips and went to the authors Kindle page to check her stats – which lent much credence to this article! , The tips are still very valid, even if a couple years old. I just published several books myself, although of the much different genre of Pagan Spiritualism and Energy Magic and am VERY frustrated with the difference between category selection that the author chooses and the front end customer selections. I can only imagine the purpose for the disparity. Amazon does not part with this information.

    In the beginning, only let your friends and relatives review your work before doing any heavy promotion – quintessential advise…don’t let strangers find you errors! Good luck to all Kindle authors!!

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