Authors Need to Get a Clue: How to devise the best marketing strategy for the Holidays

Everywhere the discussion is raging among indie authors: should they sign their books up for KDP Select for the holidays or not? This is an important decision because, if last holiday is any guide, the bulk of ebook sales are going to come in the ninety days after December 25, when huge numbers of new ereaders and tablets of all sorts are found gift-wrapped under the tree. On the surface the decision should be easy.

If the vast majority of a specific ebook’s sales are on Amazon, if you have enrolled the ebook in KDP Select program before and achieved a decent number of borrows (for example, more than the total number of ebooks you were selling in non-Amazon stores), and if you held free promotions that increased your sales––then probably it would be a smart move (at least financially) to enroll that book in KDP Select for the holidays. These are all the reasons I have decided to keep my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, enrolled in KDP Select.

However, I have become increasingly frustrated with how often as part of this discussion authors say they don’t have a clue why their books sell well in certain ebookstores and not on others or why their books have done well or not on KDP Select, and therefore they don’t know what to do.

I know some of the leaders in self-publishing argue that writers should just keep writing, not spend time with promotions or worrying about what sells and what does not. However, access to data and the ability to respond to that data are two of the advantages indie authors have over traditional authors, and deciding not to try to use that information to increase sales doesn’t make good business sense. It might if you have 20 books out and already have a steady income, but not if you are trying to build enough income so you can become or stay a full time writer.

(I am not going to get into the philosophical discussion of long term versus short term effects of exclusivity or using free promotions, etc, or how best to use social media to market your books because I have made my opinion  known on these issues repeatedly.) So, this post is going to detail some of the clues authors should be looking for to help them decide whether to go with KDP Select over the holidays as the best way to maximize sales.

1) Understand that not all books are the same.

In fact, the same author may have very different patterns of success for different books they write. Non-fiction books are going to behave differently than fiction. Genre fiction is going to behave differently than literary fiction, adult from young adult, etc. So don’t compare apples to oranges. How your horror/suspense book did in KDP Select isn’t going to tell you whether or not to put your self-help book into this program or the success of another author’s tale of horror in selling on the Nook isn’t going to necessarily tell you whether your cozy mystery is going to sell well in that store. So, you very well may decide to put one book in KDP Select and not another for this holiday season.

2) Analyze what is successful

Unless your books have been out for a very short period of time, or you only have one book (or novella, or short story) out, look for clues for why one book has done better than another in selling over all, or selling in a particular estore, or gets more borrows or does better in promotions. Or, look at a book similar to your own that has been successful (we should all know our competition––the books that rank high in our categories, that have product descriptions that make them sound similar to ours, that are listed in “our customers who have bought…” lists, and that do well after a free promotion.

If you can figure out why these books are doing well (or better than others), you should be able to figure out if there is anything to do to improve the performance of your less successful books, or understand why one book should be in KDP Select and another shouldn’t. This isn’t about how to write the book so it will sell, but how to make sure it is in the best position to sell well.

For example, Maids of Misfortune, my first book, consistently sold better this year than the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, and it does better in KDP Select promotions and has more borrows. The reasons for this turn out to be pretty easy to determine (given that price, cover, product descriptions for the two books were virtually the same). In the Kindle store, Maids is in 7 categories and sub-categories, while Uneasy is in only 4, and this means that it shows up in more free browsing lists. As a result Maids breaks into the top 100 free books list during a promotion more often. Maids is the first in a series (which gives it an edge-since someone who buys it and doesn’t like it won’t buy the next book) and it has been available as a book for 2 years longer than Uneasy (having more total sales and reviews), which means the Amazon algorithms that include total sales and reviews are going to be weighted in favor of the Maids. These differences, however, aren’t something I can do anything about, so I don’t need to change my marketing strategy based on them.

Using another author’s books as an example, P.B. Ryan’s Victorian mysteries not only sell well on Amazon, but they also sell well on the Nook and other retailers. One of the reasons for this seems to be that Ryan has six books in her series, which has permitted her to make her first book a permanent loss leader (at free or 99 cents). This has resulted in persistently higher sales for all the rest of her books in all the stores. This also means that going on KDP Select for the holidays wouldn’t make sense because she would lose substantial sales for these books in the other stores. With only two books out in my series, I can’t use that strategy, but I might very well be able to do in the future.

In short, looking at whether a book is in a series, where it is in a series, how long it has been published (and the number of total sales, and total reviews), and how many categories it has, will all offer clues why that book has had success in a specific store and whether or not you can duplicate that success.

There are other clues to look for if you examine a book that is selling well in one venue or another, when compared to other books. For example, the successful book might show up in different categories (not just a different number of categories), use different key words, show up on different “customers who bought” or recommended reading lists, have a different feel to their covers, or be sold at a different price.

All of these factors are related to how well a book has been able to tap into its market and how well specific strategies (categories, keywords, price, etc.) work in the different ebookstores to make the book more visible to that market.

Again, lets look at my two books. Despite the fact that Maids sold twice the number of books as Uneasy did this year, both books have done well on overall sales––but mostly in the Kindle store. Maids sold over 21,000 books and Uneasy over 9,000 (and these figures don’t include borrows or free downloads).

I believe the reason why these books have been so successful (besides the usual caveat that I hope it is because they have good covers, good product descriptions, competitive pricing and are well written) is that I have done a good job of determining who the market for my books are and I have been able to use the tools Amazon offers independent authors to reach that market.

3) Know your potential readership for the book­­––and how best to tap into it

The success of one book versus another book in sales, borrows or promotions, or the success of a book in one store versus another, depends in part on the overall market for the book and how well you are tapping into that market. Therefore you need to consider to whom the book will appeal and why, not just who you hope will read it.

For example, you might see your book as “literary fiction,” hoping for a readership that is mainly interested in the quality of your writing, but a large number of your readers might be interested in the book because of the setting, or time period, or the profession of the protagonist, or the age of the characters, or the feeling of suspense, or the existence of explicit sex, etc. They might also be readers in other countries than your own. If you ignore these potential readers and just put your book in the category “literary fiction” (where there are over 24,000 books listed on Amazon, 13,000 listed in Kobo, and no category for this at all for the Nook), your book will have difficulty competing with the traditionally published “literary fiction” that tend to dominate this category.

This means when people are browsing for “literary fiction” your book probably won’t be high enough up on this lists to be visible, but the other readers who are looking for a book like yours––but looking in “historical fiction,” or “mystery,” or some other category, or using some other keywords, won’t find your book because you didn’t target them by using those categories or keywords. In either case, your potential readers won’t find your book.

Looking at the categories used by successful books that are like yours is one of the easiest ways to get a clue of what categories work at attracting that readership in any given ebookstore. I have written numerous posts on this, here, here, and here. But there are other clues to look for.

For example, when I published my first book, I simply thought of it as a historical mystery––and thought my market was just people who liked historical mysteries. It also had a woman sleuth, so I put it into those two categories on Amazon and Smashwords, the first two places I published. But what fans of my books said in their reviews, emails, comments on my blog, and on facebook (all places you should look to for clues) revealed much more to me about exactly who liked the book and why.

It was immediately clear from these clues that my books were attracting historical fiction readers who liked the Victorian period, and readers in general who liked books about San Francisco.

I had already included the words “San Francisco” and “Victorian Mystery” in my subtitle, which I now believe was crucial in getting Maids of Misfortune noticed at the very beginning when the book was way down in the overall browsing lists (it took me 5 months to get it on the historical mystery list on Amazon so I wasn’t even tapping into that market effectively.) But I also used these terms as key words and tags when I first published––which reinforced my effectiveness in reaching this audience, and favorable comments by readers about the setting and the time period confirmed that I was reaching that market.

Over time, however, I started to notice that fans of the books also kept mentioning that they liked my books because they were “clean,” that they could recommend them to anyone, of any age, that they were a “comfort” read, that they were “gentle,” etc. It dawned on me (head slap) that these readers were saying they liked the books because they fit the format for a cozy mystery.

The common definition of a cozy mystery is that there is an amateur female sleuth with a partner––sometimes love interest––who is in police or legal profession, a community of secondary characters––including animals, and no explicit sex or violence. My series features Annie Fuller (widowed woman supplementing her income as a clairvoyant), Nate Dawson (her romantic partner and a lawyer), a cast of interesting characters (the people living in Annie’s boarding house––including Dandy the Boston Terrier), and the murders occur off-stage while the sex stays carefully within the bounds of 19th century middle class propriety.

At the same time, the few negative reviews I got mentioned the tameness of the romance, frustration that the mystery pace wasn’t fast enough––which also seemed to suggest these readers were looking for a book with either the more explicit sex of an historical romance or the tension of a thriller. Clearly I needed to make sure that the potential audience for cozy mysteries would find my books, and those who wanted something more racy or thrilling would look elsewhere.

At this point I went back and included “cozy mystery” as one of my key words and one of my tags for each book, I started using this as a hash tag when tweeting about the books, and using it as a descriptor when talking about them on facebook, and I got my books listed on key cozy mystery sites. And, while the evidence is anecdotal, I get even more comments that praise the books for the cozy elements and fewer that complain that the books aren’t something they were never designed to be.

So, it is important that you understand who the market for your books is, and how best to reach them, if you want to maximize your sales, but it is also crucial information if you want to look for the clues that will tell you in which ebookstores provide the best potential for reaching that market, and therefore whether or not going exclusive to Amazon in order to enroll a book in KDP Select is a good move.

4) Determine which ebookstores provide the best potential for reaching your book’s market

For example, in my experience the Amazon Kindle store has the greatest potential among the ebookstores for tapping into the historical mystery market. Why? Because on Kindle this browsing category is an easily found sub-category, and it has enough books in the category to be a place where a reader would find it useful to browse (or look for free books). In contrast, while the Nook store does have a “historical mystery” category, it is hard to find, and Kobo doesn’t have this category at all. To make matters worse, Kobo doesn’t permit the author to attach keywords to their books, which is probably why when you put the keywords “historical mystery” in the Kobo store you get 80,000 books listed, most of them mis-identified! Therefore I am not surprised I sold more books in the Kindle store than either the Nook store or the Kobo store.

But that isn’t true for all categories or keywords.

For example, Kobo actually has a young adult category with nice sub-categories under it (while Nook and Kindle call their young adult category “teen,” not as useful), and the Nook store has a number of cozy mystery sub-categories, and a 19th century sub-category under historical fiction. In fact, based on the number of categories you are permitted to sign up for (5) and the specificity of the subcategories under mystery and historical fiction, the Nook should be the easiest store for me to sell in. But, as I have written elsewhere, so far I have not been able to figure out (or get the help from tech support) to get my books into these categories. If I ever do achieve this goal, it might completely change my strategy for marketing and I could see shifting away from using KDP Select.

In short, when trying to figure out why your books sell one place or another, or why KDP Select does well for some books but not others––consider the advantages and disadvantages each of the key ebookstores provide in terms of categories, keywords, and tags. Consider as well if your book might be particularly attractive to people in certain countries, and how well the different ebookstores have tapped into those national markets. For example, Kobo is a leader in opening up non-North American ebook markets, and if your books sell well outside of the US, you might not want to go exclusive with KDP Select and miss out on those markets.

In summary, indie authors have an advantage in the kinds of data they get on their books (their sales, downloads, borrows, rankings, etc.) and the degree to which they can make decisions about their books (cover, product description, price, promotions, categories, keywords, tags, and even what ebookstores to sell in.) I am advocating strongly that as an indie author you look at your books individually, compare them to other books that are similar, analyze what seems to be working and what doesn’t, make sure you know your potential market, and evaluate the relative effectiveness of the different ebookstores in terms of reaching that potential market. If you have done this, not only should you see ways where you might improve your sales, but the decision on whether or not to enroll in KDP Select for this holiday season should also become crystal clear.

I would love to know if any of you have found these clues useful, or have additional clues to recommend, so we can all learn from each other.

And, may your holiday sales be excellent no matter where you sell your books!

M. Louisa Locke

20 Replies to “Authors Need to Get a Clue: How to devise the best marketing strategy for the Holidays”

  1. I loved the fact that Maids of Misfortune was the first in the series, besides being a lovely book to read in and of itself. When the second (or later) books are offered free, but not the first, it is very frustrating. Do I pay for the first and take a chance I won’t like it…or not. Do I take a chance on the free later book and not have all the backstory.

    Your books read well as standalones, but that is not true for all series novels and I may find myself wondering what the heck is going on if I pick up one of the later in a series.

  2. Gr8 to see some straight ahead, to the point facts without all the fluff and frills of Epub. The hoard mentality of data stuffing makes one think the industry could become a bubble and burst under its own weight, Thx, AStC

  3. Good analysis. I’m going to look at my books again, to see if I can use your advice.

    On another topic; you have GOT to get rid of those annoying little white dots that slide down your site. The ones on the sides are fine, but the ones that slide through the text register the same as the “floaters” that slide down inside our vision, and make us think there’s something wrong with our eyes. I have rarely seen an effect which does more to distract me from what I’m reading.

    Don’t want to be negative, just thought you’d like feedback.

    Happy New Year,


    1. Dear Gordon,

      Glad you found the post useful. The floaters are “snowflakes” that wordpress adds during December. They will go in two days, but I will keep this in mind if they do it next year. I rather like them, and have had positive reactions from some readers, but then I am not sitting reading through my complete posts, so I can see why that would turn them into something irritating.

      M. Louisa

  4. I have read both Maids of Misfortune and Fatal Proof. I loved them both and look forward to reading more of the series. You were able to make the charactors into real people that I cared about even though the customs and behaviours are so different from today. Please keep writing.

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