OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I believe that authors need to be responsible for their own creative future.
No-one else cares about your books as much as you do, and they never will. It's well known in the content marketing world that you shouldn't rely on a third party platform for your long term marketing success – it's known as ‘digital sharecropping‘. Facebook might disappear, free blogging platforms can shut you down, and that's why I am always talking about setting up an email list on your own self-hosted site.
But the same principle applies to book distribution. Yes, we LOVE Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and all the other retailers that help us earn money as authors. But recent book removal by Kobo in the UK due to an erotica scandal was one example of lack of control over distribution. I have faith these sites will continue to support authors, but it's always good to have multiple streams of income. In today's article, Suw Charman-Anderson explains how to sell books directly from your own website.
The obvious route to market for most self-publishers is via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or distributors such as Smashwords. But if you’re not also selling your ebooks direct, you’re missing a trick. Controlling your point of sale can give you vital data that you can use to develop your marketing strategies. Most self-publishers have limited time and resources, so solid data on what marketing activities actually work for you is invaluable.
I shifted to direct sales earlier this year, after it became clear that the Amazon sales of my novella, Argleton, had permanently tanked. My newsletter subscriptions were growing very slowly, and I had no idea which promotional avenues would be worth my time. When my second novella, Queen of the May, was ready to be published I decided to leave Amazon behind and go direct. Now, with the publication of the non-fiction anthology that I edited, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, I’m even happier that I’ve gone direct.
Of course, if your ebooks are already doing well on Amazon, then a direct-only approach might not be right for you, but there’s no reason why you can’t do both.
Why Sell Direct?
Most ebook retailers provide their suppliers, whether self-publishers or traditional publishers, with only basic sales data. This makes it difficult to explicitly tie marketing activities to sales, which makes it hard to know whether a specific campaign has been successful, and if you don’t know that you won’t know where to focus your energy.
Direct sales, however, allow you to better understand the impact of your marketing work, and helps you to:
- Recruit buyers to your newsletter mailing list
- Cross-sell other books or products
- Control discounts, and use discounts to test marketing channels
- Analyse web traffic data and referrers
- A/B test book descriptions, blurbs, bios etc.
For me, the most important aspects are newsletter recruitment, discounting, and web analytics.
I have two mailing lists, one for my fiction and one for Ada Lovelace Day, an annual event celebrating women in science and technology for which A Passion for Science was published. Persuading people to subscribe to newsletters can be difficult, even with a form on your website and links in your books. Most readers don’t make that leap, so I wanted a way to increase subscriptions.
Most ecommerce platforms allow you to integrate your mailing list. I use GetDPD, which automatically sends an email to buyers asking if they’d like to opt in to my newsletter. Engaging them at a moment of enthusiasm — they have just bought a book, after all — and making it simple for them to subscribe has significantly increased sign-ups for both lists.
A Passion for Science was published on Ada Lovelace Day, 15 October, and during the remainder of the month, 44% of buyers subscribed, accounting for 27% of all sign-ups over that already very active period. The same happened in July when I released Queen of the May, with subs for my fiction newsletter jumping by 32%. Of course, you always see a spike when new work is published, but the jumps I’ve seen have been much bigger than when I had no mailing list integration at the point of sale.
The ability to discount your book on Amazon is limited, to say the least. But with direct sales, I can create as many unique discount codes, at as many levels of discount, as I like. This means I can reward mailing list subscribers with free and/or discounted books, so every fiction newsletter subscriber gets a free download code for Argleton and a short story, and another code that gives them Queen of the May for 99p, a £1.50 discount.
Discount codes are also useful for testing promotional channels. I can create unique codes for Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, my blog, my newsletter, etc, then do a big promotional push and find out, definitively, which channel produces most sales. For example, I can give you a 25% discount off A Passion for Science with the code ‘CreativePenn’, and 25% off all my fiction with ‘CreativePenn2’. Try it!
The beauty of discount codes is that the results are specific, they tell me which channels are the most effective for me. This is particularly important with social media, as one person’s best performing network might not be yours. For example, a romance writer might do better on Facebook, whilst a science fiction writer might find Twitter works best, because the demographics of these social networks align more closely with their readerships.
Understanding Your Buyers
Understanding your buyers is essential if you want to craft an effective marketing and promotion strategy. Integration with Google Analytics and other third-party stats packages such as Statcounter gives me data on, say, the country and city of my buyers, which I can then compare with website visitors, Twitter followers, and mailing list subscribers.
For example, 67% of the buyers for A Passion for Science are based in the UK, but only 23% of my mailing list subscribers and 39% of @findingada’s Twitter followers are Brits, whereas 21% of buyers, 32% of newsletter subs and 33% of twitter followers are in the US. Could this be because most of the press coverage of the book was in UK newspapers, whereas the American coverage was mostly about the day itself? It will be interesting to see how those percentages change now that the vast amount of press that we got for Ada Lovelace Day has subsided.
My fiction numbers tell a different story, however, with 46% of buyers based in the USA and 32% in the UK. Is this because American readers are more willing to take a punt on a self-published author? Or is my mailing list, which is 36% Americans and 31% Brits, more influential with my buyers than my @suw Twitter account, which is 30% USA, 46% UK?
I can use the discount code tactics outlined above to shed some light on these questions. But what is clear is that I ought to be putting more energy into courting my American fiction constituency, and must keep an eye on how my non-fiction readership develops.
It’s not all milk and honey, though, and the biggest problem with direct sales is that when you stop marketing, you stop selling. An ongoing marketing plan is therefore essential to keeping sales healthy, as they will never become self-sustaining. That said, even if you are on Amazon you still need to have do marketing, so in practical terms, direct sales is not very different.
Even when sales do tick over, as I’m seeing with A Passion for Science, selling direct just doesn’t have the reach or scale of Amazon. If you publish a book that could be a real runaway success and you’re not on Amazon you’re robbing yourself of the chance to earn a significant amount of money. However, most books are not runaway successes, and at this early stage in my career, the data I can now gather are much more useful and important than any individual sale.
How To Sell Direct
Selling direct is quite simple:
- Pick an e-commerce service provider
- Sign up
- Upload your files, cover, and description, and set your price
- Promote your books!
My ebook shop is hosted on DPD, but there’s also E-Junkie and many others. You should choose a direct sales platform that will either give you detailed traffic statistics or allow you to hook your ebook shop into third party analytics services such as Statcounter or Google Analytics.
Your provider should also allow you to connect your shop to your newsletter, which is generally made easier if you’re using a mailing list service such as Mailchimp or AWeber. With DPD, all I have to do is enter my Mailchimp key, and bingo, everything’s set up.
Make sure your shop provides the ability to create discount codes, and check in the small print that they won’t charge you for free downloads, as that will ruin the economics of giveaways.
Then it’s a matter of preparing your ebook files. If you’re used to working in Word and having your distributor convert, then this is an area where it’s worth paying someone to make sure your ebooks work properly. At the very least, you need to provide mobi and epub formats, and if your book has been typeset for printing, then it’s nice to offer a PDF too.
Once you’ve uploaded your files, just set your description, upload a cover, and decide on your price. Then it’s just like selling through any other channel — you have to promote your work! But with direct sales, you now have the flexibility to experiment with discounts and test different promotional channels. Keep a track of what you do and when, perhaps in a spreadsheet, so that you can compare campaigns.
Never Say Never
At some point, when I’ve come to understand my audience as well as I can, I may go back to Amazon. For now, though, the direct route is working well, not just in terms of sales but also for growing my mailing lists and teaching me about my buyers. But if I do go back, it will be with a clear strategy for making the most of both direct sales and Amazon’s massive retail platform.
Have you tried selling direct? Do you want to? Please do leave your comments and questions for Suw below.
Suw Charman-Anderson is an author, journalist and social technologist, and is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons cash register by Franck Blais
Angel Sefer says
This was a very interesting article!
Thank you so much for sharing.
Angel Sefer says
I shared a link to your article on my blog. You’re welcome to visit http://www.angelsefer.blogspot.com
Teena Lyons says
This is great stuff. I have been published many times as a ghostwriter and give advice to other writers on how to publish their work. It is promising to see guidance out there that should help people feel more comfortable about selling their work themselves.
Sandra Schwab says
Thanks for this great article!
What’s still holding me back from selling directly from my own website is that I need to find out about the legal issues connected to selling stuff directly. But I’ve bookmarked all the links Suw has provided – I hope they will soon come in handy!
Out of curiosity, what legal issues are concerned about, Sandra?
Joanna Penn says
I presume we’re talking about US sales tax type of issues – and this is generally handled by the shopping cart and Paypal Sandra – so not something to worry about – you just set all that up when you set the products up.
Sandra Schwab says
No, it’s not that. I’m worrying about German bureaucracy and strange German laws…
Very interesting idea, but the best thing I’ll take away from this post is the book you edited, which sounds wonderful. Thanks!
Thank you! I hope you enjoy it!
If you own a site you’ll come across a lot more professional to the reader. If any author decides to create a website i strongly recommend you focus on a good design. If the website is poorly designed it will damage your credibility and you won’t make any sales. Just remember first impressions always sell.
I have set up many ecommerce websites for self-starter authors for under £300. Should anyone be interested in a quote kindly click my name Peter.
Best of luck!
I agree that it’s important to have a good website, and if there’s one area where I feel that a lot of ecommerce stores fall over is that it can take a lot of effort to make them look good (whereas with Worpress, for example, it’s just a matter of getting a good theme). I’m hoping that improves as the tools improve.
WordPress is the way forward not only for design but also for SEO ranking. If anyone wants ecommerce using wordpress i strongly recommend a free plugin called woocommerce.
The only problem some users may have using WordPress is that it doesn’t accept .mobi, epub media uploads.. You will need to do some coding or try find a free plugin to accept these file formats in order to sell ebooks.
Mike Wells says
This was a great article, came just at at the right time for me because my Amazon sales have plummeted and I’ve been toying with this idea the past few months–I don’t like the idea of not knowing who my readers are (i.e., having a way to email them), as well as the other points you mentioned. I found out about e-junkie because Hugh Howie uses it, and I spent a lot of time researching it. How does the company you use compare? Also, I have a mailing list of about 5,000 and using Mailchimp seems awfully expensive, would have to sell a few hundred books a month just to pay for it. Right now I just use Gmail and send out 500 a day, takes 10 days but it’s free. Comments on this? It’s nice to know someone who’s already been down this path.
Cheryl Pickett says
Just thought I’d pop in and let you know that with a big list like yours, using an email service is pretty much a must do. Email delivery rates have fallen in recent years as have open rates. Using a personal email account to send to more than a handful of people at a time is not a good idea. Sending 500 bulk emails from a personal account is an easy way to get those emails landing in spam folders because that’s what spammers do-bulk email. The newsletter companies have terms of service that say their members will not send spam types of content, so some of the major email providers know this and won’t filter just based on quantity alone.
I’ve not used E-junkie, but from their website they seem very similar to DPD so I suspect it’s much of a muchness.
As for your mailing list, Mailchimp charges $50 (£31) pcm for 5,000 subscribers and AWeber is the same (for 5,001 subscribers). I would probably say that if you aren’t making that much from that many subscribers, you might want to rethink your list, and your profit margins! I would start by cleaning your list and making sure that only people who really want to be on it actually are on it. It’s not just a matter of how many people you have on your list, but how happy they are to be there and how interested they are in hearing from you. I’d rather have 2,000 very keen people than 5,000 people of whom 3,000 just bin my email when it comes in.
If you really don’t want to pay, and you’re happy to get your hands dirty with the tech, then you can use Mailman – http://www.gnu.org/software/mailman/index.html – which is free.
I would also say that using a proper mailing list service also means that you comply with the various anti-spam laws around the world which demand that you provide people a way to opt-out, provide a physical address, etc. If you aren’t doing that, then you’re on thin ice legally. You’re also more at risk of having Google shut down your Gmail account as spam, which would be inconvenient to put it mildly.
Finally, what value do you put on your time?! Your process seems very time-intensive, and that time might be better spent writing!
Joanna Penn says
Hi Mike, I use e-junkie – have done for years – it is only $5 per month for up to 10 products and then $10 a month and works through Paypal. It also has affiliate options, so in my opinion, it’s brilliant and incredible value for money. I use Aweber for my email list, which I am happy with – but I sell a lot more than just books – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/store/
IMHO, this type of business setup is much more effective if you sell higher profit margin products.
Woocommerce is the best if you have a WordPress site. It’s free, easy to use and very professional. It can be used with most payment gateways including Paypal. See more…http://vimeo.com/60440851#at=0
Nick LeVar says
Since I’ve yet to publish my first novel, I had no idea that Amazon is so limited on sales data. It’s good to know the benefits of direct sales. Thanks!
Joanna Penn says
Limited on sales data, yes, but vastly superior in terms of reach 🙂
I encourage people to add a call to action at the back of their books asking people to sign up to their email list as well, which brings people to that mailing list and grows it over time.
I have newsletter sign-up info at the back of my books, but I don’t think it’s a very efficient way of recruiting subscribers. One thing I want to do when I have a moment is change the link to a unique one that I can track so that I can see precisely who comes from the book itself. My feeling is that it’s actually very few people because it requires that they reach the end of your book at the same time as they’re online and feeling in a mood to subscribe. Hooking the mailing list into the shop definitely brings a bigger spike of new subs every time a new story or book comes out!
Heather Sunseri says
This is something I think about quite regularly. I like the idea of doing both. To at least be set up to sell directly. The process seem a little intimidating when there’s so much else to do, though. I saw another article on DPD recently. So, maybe seeing it again here is a sign. 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Yes, there’s always a lot to do! But once you’ve got your store set up, it will mostly run itself, and the promo you’d have to do anyway.
The other plus that I didn’t mention is that it’s so easy to replace files, so when someone finds a typo (and despite our best efforts, typos always slip through!) it is very easy to fix that and re-upload the new file. If it’s a major typo, then you have the email addresses of the buyers so you can send over a new file to them too. I rather like that aspect, as it means that by the time I do get round to putting my book on Amazon, I can be pretty sure that I’ve got all the typos squashed!
Mike Wells says
Thanks for your responses about Mailchimp vs. Google mail, etc. – points are well-taken.
However, there is one crucial element that seems to have been glossed over in this discussion about selling direct, and that’s technical customer support. I know from previous businesses that this can eat you alive. Suw, it appears that your customers download a zip file that contains mobi, epub and PDF format files. Perhaps your readers are more technical than mine, but if I sold my books that way to my ficiton readers, I can only imagine the amount of tech support that would have to be done. Most can barely manage sideloading ebooks to their Kindles–try explaining to someone how to get the epub copy onto, say, their Android phone from a zip file. Yes, I’m sure you send detail instructions, but you talked about time…I can guess that the customer support required for 20% of my tech-challenged customer base would eat up 80% of the profits I would earn from direct sales. Not to mention processing returns, refunds, etc.–you have to handle all that, do you not? Amazon takes 30% for all this work, and it’s significant work if your customer base is not very technical.
I’ve not had to either provide detailed instructions or deal with any tech support, so far. I do intend to look for a guide to sideloading online that I can link to, rather than putting together my own, as that’s something that other people have looked into more closely than I.
However, if you suspect your readers might not manage, why not ask them first rather than assume? They might surprise you! And if you’re running both Amazon and direct channels, then the more tech savvy can sideload, and the Kindlers can Whispernet it.
As for refunds, yes, I am responsible for those, but again, I’ve not had any requests so far. If I do, then I’ll just do it via PayPal, which is pretty easy. If I got significant numbers of refund requests, I’d be asking myself some very hard questions about the quality of my books, rather than wondering how better to process them. Indeed, I suspect that a lot of refunds through Amazon come from people who have ripped the DRM off their file, and are being cheapskates by demanding an immediate refund on a file they’ve copied to their local drive and intend to keep. People won’t do that (as much) if they have to ask you, the author, in person.
But ultimately, it’s horses for courses. If direct sales aren’t for you, or your readers, then that’s fine. Luckily, there are other channels available.
Mike Wells says
Thanks, Suw. I’m just arguing this out here, assuming worst case conditions, to see what you and other people say. I’m really glad you and Joanna posted this because I’ve been mentally chomping away at the issue for months and have not yet made a decision, I waver back and forth. But I do believe that my reader base is less technically savvy than yours–this is pretty obvious from your titles. As you say, probably the best thing to do is ask my readers, or even better yet, just try it out with my most popular book and see what happens. I can always stop it if the tech support is too heavy. Plus, I think I would offer mobi and epub files as separate products so that iPad people, for example, can just download and open direct with iBooks or their Kindle apps. That would probably eliminate some tech support problems.
The way that I’ve done it on DPD (can’t speak for E-Junkie) is to put the 2/3 different file types into a single product bundle as a way to make it easier for people. Buyers then get an email with a link to a DPD webpage from which they can download whichever file they need. If iPad owners open their email in Safari or Mail, which will open the link in Safari, they will be able to choose which app to open the files in. I’ve just tested this on my iPad, and it’s seamless. I presume anyone opening the same link on an Android or other tablet device will be able to do the same thing.
Mike Wells says
Hey, that info is very valuable, thanks! I don’t believe this is possible on e-junkie–at least, I have not found anything about this in their FAQ. It seems that if you want the customer to have all the file formats by buying with a single transaction, they have to download a zip folder and sort the files out themselves. This is far better. Thanks again for explaining!
Mike Wells says
Just to see how this all worked, I bought The Lacemaker (paid 99p because I wanted to see how the newsletter signup would work after the purchase). Worked great, just as you said. I did it all from my iPad and downloaded Kindle, epub and PDFs several times, including from the confirmation email I received. Seamless, as you said. No wonder you have little customer support! I bought one of Hugh Howie’s books only 2 weeks ago, to test e-junkie, and got a zip file. I was using my iPad then, too, and never bothered to try to get the files onto it (via dropbox, etc.)–too much trouble even for me! Also the entire interface, shopping basket, etc. looks much more 2013 on your store site than e-junkie’s.
One question though–I only saw a PayPal purchase option. Can you not accept credit cards or did I miss something?
Mike Wells says
Never mind, I went through the process again and see the “Don’t have a PayPal account? Pay with card” option during checkout.
I look forward to reading your book and thanks for all the enlightenment!
That’s very interesting to hear, Mike! A smooth user experience with file download is essential, and I think DPD does a pretty good job overall. I do think that their store could be a bit easier to manage in terms of the design, but the back end is simple as can be.
With regards to payment methods, you can usually use a credit card with PayPal as an intermediary, so when you check out and end up on PayPal, at the bottom there’s a link to “Pay with a debit or credit card” which doesn’t require having a PayPal balance.
DPD also integrates with Payza, 2Checkout, Authorize.net, Stripe, SagePay and Pin, but can “only activiate one in-cart credit card processor at at time. (Auth.net, Sage, Stripe, PayPal Pro, etc.)”. It doesn’t, as far as I can see, integrate with Amazon Payments or Google Checkout. Hope that helps!
Hope you enjoy it, Mike! It’s been interesting to dig into some of the fine detail. Do let me know if you have more questions!
I’m currently in the process of setting up a shopping cart on my site, even if it keeps taking a backseat ahead of other work I should be doing (writing being the most pressing at the moment). Since I’m a bit of a control freak, and love making extra work for myself, I’m opting to use a wordpress plug in (TheCartPress) integrated with a Paypal account. I’m yet to figure out if this works well for downloadable products though.
The big issue I see with selling direct is, Amazon (et al) is where the buyers are. So unless you already have a pretty big mailing list or social media following who will buy your new stuff and recommend your back catalog to all their friends, I wouldn’t expect direct sales to amount to much. I’m doing it in case (as referenced in the post) my work gets taken offline, which indeed Kobo has done recently. But at this point in my writing career I’d be doomed to obscurity if I had to go it alone. Readers can’t find me on my own site, if they don’t know I exist, at least on Amazon I have a shot at getting recommended to someone who reads a lot of my peers. Would be curious what everyone’s thoughts are on this point? How to go about promoting books you’re selling directly? None of the advertising services would be of help and personally I’ve not found social media to be overly helpful except for being social.
Amazon may have reach but it is, sadly, not a cure for obscurity. If you don’t have activity on your book — views, buys, reviews — it will sink like a stone. And even with those things, if they start to tail off, your book will again sink without a trace. Readers won’t accidentally stumble upon you on your own site, but they won’t stumble upon you on Amazon either, until you hit a base level of activity that gets you on to the also-bought and Top 100 lists. Even when you get on those lists, sales are not guaranteed, as I found with Argleton. I had ten or so great reviews, a couple of stinkers, but my price point — 99p for a novella seemed reasonable — was punished by Amazon who started to penalise cheap books. So sales fell off a cliff, and never recovered, even though I was on Hugh Howey’s ‘also bought’ list (which brought it’s own problems, mind).
You still have to do your promotion, no matter where you are selling. Even Neil Gaiman does promotion for his new books, so it never, ever goes away! Promotion is hard, and there are some sites that only accept Amazon book links (which annoys me no end), but everyone has to go through the same process of slowly reaching more people, building up a fanbase, building up a mailing list, and growing sales the hard way. Because there is no easy way, at least, no easy way that is predictable and reliable.
But at least direct sales allows me to test different promotional techniques and find out which ones really work. At the moment, for me, it’s Twitter and my mailing list. For you it might be different, but you won’t know until you test it.
Thanks so much for responding 🙂 You’re of course right, the competition on Amazon means it would take a miracle to break out there without any promotion at all. However, (assuming they ever accept my submission), something like Bookbub could give my work a good push. Meanwhile, having a perma-free book out there that leads into a longer work has kept things ticking over no matter what I do.
Anyway, I’m already in the process of setting the direct thing up so will see for myself if it makes sense with my relatively small following. If nothing else it’d be a useful way of offering signed copies to my most loyal readers as well.
Frances M. Thompson says
I decided to sell ebooks directly to the readers of my blog because I already had a following and an interested readership. There were two key motivating factors behind this decision:
1. I didn’t think I’d realistically break the back of an Amazon rankings (I write contemporary fiction short stories – very niche!)
2. I wanted to offer my readers a cheaper price on my blog than anywhere else and I made all three formats available (epub, mobi and pdf) for that one payment so they could choose how they wanted to read it. Plus they got a personal thank you note from me.
I had to ask a friend to set up the PayPal link for me as he could do it ten times faster than me and in launch week my direct sales pretty much matched those I got on Amazon. The sales have now reduced considerably – I only get about 1-2 direct sales a week – but I am very happy I did this as I feel it allowed a closer 1-on-1 connection to a reader and I would say almost 60% who bought from me directly went on to leave a review.
Great advice in this article and confirms that the leap I took by selling direct was probably/possibly/hopefully worth it!
PS If anyone wants to know what my direct sales page looks like it’s here – http://www.asthebirdfliesblog.com/p/my-books-and-stories.html
Angela Ackerman says
Great post. My co author and I have done both–we have our books available on all platforms, plus we offer a PDF version through Gumroad via our site. We did this originally because we knew there were people who wanted the functionality of a digital copy but didn’t have an ereader and/or were simply more comfortable with PDF documents.
I don’t have data on my two new books as far as PDF sales as they just came out, but we’ve sold over 800 PDF copies of The Emotion Thesaurus to date. That’s $4000 dollars in revenue we would have missed out on if we didn’t choose to have a direct sale option, so I am a huge supporter of having eggs in more than one basket. 😉
This was a great post, but what about DRM? Could someone explain to me how can I sell ebooks directly with drm? Thanks!
Joanna Penn says
Hi Paula, I don’t personally agree with DRM – see this info with Cory Doctorow
If you do want to add DRM to your files, there’s no reason you couldn’t sell them in the same way.