I'm assuming that you're reading this because success for you is at least partly defined by sales and income. So, in this section we'll go through how to actually make money from books.
(1) Write more books
This might be obvious, but it's amazing how many authors assume that they can make a good living from just a couple, or even just one book.
But look at every other business out there.
Does any retailer base their business on a small number of products? Does any publisher base their income on just a couple of books?
If you look at the top earning authors in the world, they generally have huge numbers of books and they've been writing for the long term. Many write multiple books a year. If you love writing, then this shouldn't be an issue for you. This will be the fun part, and here's some more good news.
The more books you have, the LESS you have to market them because you'll have an audience ready and waiting, critical mass on the digital shelves and multiple streams of income.
If you have twenty books, and each book only sells a couple of copies a day, then you're still going to make better money over time than someone with just one book. One book with a great launch might have a spike of sales initially but over time the numbers will shrink, unless another book comes along to boost the signal.
And, of course, as you write more books, you will also become a better writer.
2. Write books that people want to buy: by genre or category
It doesn't matter how much marketing you do. If you write in a genre/category that doesn't sell, then you won't be able to make a living with your writing.
Harsh, I know. But true.
Of course, you should write the book of your heart. I certainly did with my first book and also a couple of my novels. That's important for your creative integrity. But if you're spending years writing poetry and literary short stories, don't complain if you can't make a living from your writing. Those are for love, not necessarily money, and we all need both!
If you want to know what people are buying, take a look at the top-selling books on Amazon.
Or short cut the process and go check the data on AuthorEarnings.com which shows that 70% of the top 200,000 ebooks are genre fiction, which include romance, mystery/thriller, sci-fi and fantasy.
How can you write at the intersection of what people love to read and what you love to write? That's the key.
I read a lot in multiple genres, including poetry and literary fiction. But when I was miserable in my day job, I would read thrillers to escape the misery of the day. It was the way I could forget my own life for a while and live vicariously somewhere else. That's what books are for many people. So I write
So I write those kinds of thrillers now, because I love to read them, and so do many other people. They're also a lot of fun to write. Romance is a better selling genre but I don't read romance, so I won't be writing it. You need to immerse yourself in the genre in order to write it well. You can't fool hardcore readers!
Spend some time looking at the sub-genres and how they are structured.
I know many writers hate ‘boxes,' but you have to choose two sub-categories when you self-publish a book and your agent will want to know what you're writing if you want a traditional deal. You need to know who your comparison authors are and this will help you to investigate the genres and discover what sells better.
For example, I write books that can sit within Supernatural Thriller, Conspiracy Thriller and Action Adventure. My books don't fit within Medical Thriller or Espionage. Literary fiction is also a genre and there are many sub-genres within the category these days.
Check the rankings of the top books per sub-genre to work out which ones are selling best. Have a look at the covers and the titles, as well as the sales descriptions. What are the images used? What are the expectations of the audience for these types of books? What do the top-selling books have in common?
How does your book measure up and what can you do to improve it?
3. Write books that people want to buy: by search term
People want a book for entertainment, inspiration or information. If you're not a brand-name author already, your non-fiction book is more likely to be discovered if it answers someone's question or helps them solve a problem.
So how do people find these books?
They search by category on the bookstores and they also use the search bar to try and find something relevant. They type in keywords or keyword phrases into Amazon or Google and see what comes up. Amazon is a search engine for people who are actively ready to buy, so you definitely want your book to come up in relevant searches.
Go to Amazon and change the search filter to Kindle Store so you are specifically focusing on ebooks.
Now type in ‘how to' and see what happens.
You'll get a dropdown of the top search terms that begin with these words.
Type in ‘how to market a book.' You should find my book on the first page. The title of that book was designed to help discoverability. I didn't call it something clever. I just titled it with the best search term possible to describe the contents.
I did learn this the hard way, though.
My first book back in 2008 was called How to Enjoy your Job or Find a New One. Not the most inspiring title, right! In 2012, after leaving my job, I updated the contents and re-titled the book. It's now Career Change: Stop Hating your Job, Discover what you Really Want to do with your Life and Start Doing It.
The book ranks highly for the search term ‘career change,' so people find it even though I don't do any marketing for that book and it doesn't relate to my online platform.
Try this search idea for your own topics. It's amazing what people are searching for, and this exercise might give you some more ideas for other books to write.
4. Write a series and get people hooked
There has been a shift in our consumption culture, in that people are now used to binge watching and reading. They want to watch the whole boxset over a weekend rather than watch one episode a week for months on end. When the latest series of Game of Thrones dropped, we watched it over a few days because it's an amazing show and we wanted to immerse ourselves in it. We weren’t alone in that binge behavior and the same works for books.
So if you have a series of books and people buy one and they like the characters, they are likely to buy the next one and follow you through the series. This maximizes your revenue per customer, whereas if you have standalone books with no related characters, people may read one and then not go back to the rest of your books.
Many authors talk about five in a series being a real tipping point for consistent sales. The aim is to be addictive. Romance authors in particular do this very well. Check out series by Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy and H.M.Ward to see how the real pros do this.
It also works for non-fiction, for example, S.J.Scott has lots of books within the habits niche that each tackle a specific aspect of creating better habits. People who buy one of them are likely to buy more.
You can also keep promoting the first in the series to get people hooked in. It doesn't matter if the book was published a while ago because it's always new to someone. Once they discover you, at whatever point in the series, they will likely go back and devour the whole backlist. I'm sure you've done that as a reader yourself. I certainly have.
You can also use a free ebook to introduce people to the series, as I do with Stone of Fire, ARKANE #1 which is free on all ebook stores. It's a taster that will hopefully pull people in and there are eight other full-priced books for them to move onto.
You can also write faster if you write a series. You don't have to reinvent the characters or the world, you just have to come up with a new plot, and that helps add books to the list, resulting in more income.
5. Think global, digital, mobile and long term
Most authors have a narrow view about where they want to sell their books. They consider the local physical bookstore, or nationwide sales. But the world is changing and, if you own your rights, you can sell your books all over the world.
The biggest market for ebooks is still the US, UK, Canada and Australia but I've now sold books in 84 countries and my books are available for sale in 190 countries.
Currently, the sales in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia are quite small, but a year ago those sales didn't exist. The rise of the mobile hyper-connected economy means that readers are discovering books through apps. Many of those people don't live near a bookstore, so online retail will be the way they consume entertainment, inspiration and education. Your books can be read by people all over the world – now that's exciting!
So if you're worried about the US ebook market flattening, consider that the rest of the world has barely even started. The next ten years will be extremely exciting for global sales and personally, I expect this to be a greater percentage of my income every year. Make sure you're positioned for this shift.
6. Write in multiple genres and multiple lengths
Think more widely about what you can write. Don't constrain yourself to just one genre.
This type of silo thinking comes from traditional publishing where authors needed to stay within a brand in order for the marketing team to sell their books more easily into a specific bookstore shelf. But the online sales world is more nuanced, and now there's no limit to what you can do.
Having books in different genres can also hedge against the ups and downs of the book sales roller-coaster. My non-fiction sells better some months, my action adventure other months and crime in the dark months of winter! I fully intend to embrace more genres to continue this spread effect.
I also find it easier to switch between fiction and non-fiction during the day. I can only concentrate on writing fiction for a few hours, so I can then ‘cleanse my palate' by writing non-fiction for a while. It uses a different part of my brain and this means that I can write more books over time.
You can also use multiple author names for different genres if you like. This works well if you have diverse audiences. For example, I use J.F.Penn for my thrillers and Joanna Penn for my non-fiction, as the audience crossover is quite small. If you write erotica and children's books, then using different names is also a good idea! But otherwise, there are no rules.
In terms of length, the digital world means readers are less sensitive about shorter works. You won't get a print deal for a novella (around 20,000-40,000 words) but you can definitely sell that as an ebook online. Novellas, or shorter non-fiction books like this one, are easier to consume for readers and offer great value at a cheaper price. They are also much easier and quicker to write.
7. Consider the up-sell
There is an established price point for books. It's usually anywhere between free and around $100, with most prices hovering at the lower end, under $15. People have been trained to only spend that amount on books, despite the incredible value that's inside.
If you write non-fiction in particular, consider how you could repackage that material into multimedia courses that people are happy to pay more for.
People value video and audio more highly than text, so they will pay more for the same information that is packaged in a different form.
Taking this even further, people value personal time and community more than any of these, so if you sell consulting services, events or access, you will be able to upsell even more. I'll go into these options more in Part 2.
8. Grow your own email list
There are so many options with marketing but the top-selling authors that I know, the ones who are making serious money with their books, only do a few things consistently.
They write a lot of books in popular genres and they grow their own email lists. They offer something enticing for free on their sites and they communicate with readers. They email when books are available and they can chart at the top of the bestseller lists through sales to their fans alongside paid advertising. For more detail on this, check out the webinar replay I did with Nick Stephenson: www.TheCreativePenn.com/nickjo