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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.