If you're new to self-publishing, or if you want to revisit the basics, check out this interview with me and indie bestseller Mark Dawson.
We go through what you need to be discovered on Amazon, why print is worthwhile but ebooks are more important, when exclusivity might be a good idea, how to get started with your first book, and how to jumpstart sales on an older book if sales have dropped off.
You can watch the video below, or here on YouTube. You can also download/listen to the audio or read the transcript below.
Listen or Download the Audio
Transcription of the interview
Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today, I'm here with Mark Dawson. Hi, Mark.
Mark: Hi Joanna, how are you?
Joanna: I'm good. So just a little introduction in case people don't know Mark. Mark is an international
Mark Dawson is an international bestselling thriller author. He's sold over a million books and makes a seven figure income from his writing. He also teaches authors how to self-publish and market successfully through his summit and podcast at selfpublishingformula.com. and today, we're talking about the top five things that authors should know about self-publishing. Because Mark, both of us get emails every day, don't we, from people just starting out?
Mark: We do, and also from people who've been going for a little bit time and it's not quite working for them and they want to look into what they should be differently to improve their sales, build their careers.
Joanna: Absolutely. Okay, so I've got five questions. The first one is about discoverability. Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world so we'll just base our discussion around that to start with.
How should an author ensure that their books can reach the right kind of readers? What are the fundamentals they have to have in place?
Mark: Let's assume that the book is a good book to start with. So we'll take that as read. I don't teach craft, I teach marketing. So I'm going to start with the moment that someone has written The End on their manuscript and they're ready to go.
From that stage, you need to know when to take off your creative hat and put on your business hat. That is a shift not every author is comfortable doing, but it is a mindset that needs to be developed in order to maximize the chances of selling your book.
Even the word selling can be a little bit off-putting for some people, but the way I would look at it is, you've got your book that you've worked on for months or years. Now you're trying to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible and there are some things that you'll need to do next. Some marketing and promotional things that you'll need to do. Otherwise, the odds are against that book ever doing very much for you or other people. So you need to start with that mindset, so you're ready to actually get that book into the hands of people who'll love it.
Joanna: That's definitely an issue. Many people keep that writer hat on and forget that when we're talking about self-publishing successfully, they need to put on a publisher hat.
So let's talk about some of the basics. If people are looking at publishing in a specific category, should the cover match? What should they be thinking in terms of keywords?
Mark: It's so difficult to get the covers right, so I work with a professional. My designer used to do covers for people like Steven King and John Le Carré and he approaches it in a very professional fashion. So what he'll do, I write thrillers, so when we re-jacketed all of my books a couple of years ago, the first thing he did was to look through the bestseller lists on Amazon.
All this information is very, very easy to get hold of. It's just a question of browsing across your genre, the category where other books like yours are appearing. Then you can start to look at the kinds of tropes that are common on those covers.
So for mine, I write thrillers like Lee Child. You might have a landscape with a single figure walking off into the distance. It's a bit of a cliché but there's a reason why cliches are cliches. They're shorthand for a way to tell potential readers what your book is going to be like.
When I started out, I thought I knew best for the covers, I wanted to have this amazing cover that'll look line nothing else available. It took me a while to realize why my book wasn't selling. It's because no one knew what the book was about.
So you do need to do your research and then find someone who can put a cover together that meets all of those criteria.
[From Joanna: For great cover design, formatting and more, I recommend Reedsy.]
As you're uploading the book, there are other ways that you can increase the book's visibility when it launches. You've mentioned metadata, that's certainly something that you can look at. So getting into the right categories, for example. You don't want to throw romance into the thriller category for obvious reasons or vice versa. So you need to make sure you get into these categories.
There are some strategies that you can use to actually increase the number of categories that you're in. It is as simple as emailing Amazon support and just asking to be placed in these categories. That increases the chances of people browsing the category list finding you in other categories.
Then you also need to look at things like search terms. Imagine a customer looking for a new book to read. They go on to Amazon, to the search box at the top and type in e.g. espionage thriller.
Amazon lets you populate seven keywords when you self-publish and these should reflect the kinds of things that readers enter into that search bar.
So it could be ‘espionage thriller', it could be ‘action and adventure.' Those would be separate keyword phrases.
You can spend an awful lot of time on that kind of research, but you can go down the rabbit hole forever. It is worth spending some time, but not too much. Just do a little bit of research and trying to figure out what kinds of search terms your potential readers might be using.
Joanna: Yes, I think what we're encouraging people to do is self-publish and try and get these basics right. But both you and I have re-jacketed or re-covered our books. We've both changed categories, we've both changed keywords, we've both changed our sales descriptions.
The important point for people listening is to have a go and then as you learn more, you can change stuff.
That's one of the beauties being an indie, isn't it? I mean, we've both made mistakes.
Mark: No, no. Not me 🙂
Mark: Of course. I have made plenty of mistakes. That's a really good point. Nothing is set in stone. You can make all kinds of mistakes but fear of making mistakes shouldn't be a reason to stop you from uploading your book and getting on to the market because nothing is unrecoverable.
You can always go back, change the blurbs, change the cover, you can change the actual text if you want to. You can change the price, nothing is set in stone. It's a very, very flexible platform that enables you to make changes on the fly if you want to.
Joanna: Absolutely. So, many new authors care most about having a print book and in fact, when you start writing a book, most people have a finished print product in mind.
You and I both make the most money from ebooks, but we also care about print and audio. We're not going to cover audio right now.
What are your recommendations around ebooks and print when authors are just starting out?
Mark: The breakdown of my income from ebook to print is about 95% to 5%, perhaps even more. So it's really weighted heavily in favor of ebooks. But I do want to have print as well. There are lots of reasons for that.
Vanity is one and so I've got a shelf full of my books in print, which I can sign if I want to, to giveaway, to re-use as competition prizes. It's also a useful source of additional income. When I started using Amazon Marketing Services as another way to drive traffic, my print sales have gone up dramatically. [You can find out more on Ads for Authors here.]
I make more when it comes to the ebooks, but print sales can also be lucrative. It's certainly something that you need to do. You mentioned audio there, which is definitely more advanced. But once you've got the book and you've finished it, it becomes a product you want to sell and that product has a number of ancillary intellectual property rights that we can exploit.
So print is one, audio is one, translation is another. Film and TV rights, that's another. You want to take the benefit of all that hard work and then sell it in as many ways as you can. I hate to think that I'm leaving anything on the table, so I'm going to try and take that intellectual property and then sell it in as many different formats as I can.
[From Joanna: For more on exactly HOW to self-publish, check out my ebook, Successful Self-Publishing, free on all major self-publishing platforms.]
There are options and we should just also remind people that all these self-publishing platforms are free and that's amazing. What costs money is the cover design and editing and preparation of the book and the marketing.
Mark: Probably the most important thing I want people to take away from this conversation is that if someone asks you for money to put your book together, be careful because you don't need to spend that.
There are companies out there that will charge thousands and thousands of dollars for effectively a box full of books. You just don't need to spend that. It really annoys me when I see authors who have worked so hard, and invested so much time, being taken advantage of like that. It isn't necessary. All the self-publishing platforms we recommend are free to self-publish and they take a percentage of the sale of the book. So they make money when you make money. You don't need to pay anything in order to get those books out there. So just caveat emptor on that one.
Joanna: If people don't want to do everything themselves and are going to use a company, then there's a watchdog service by the Alliance of Independent Authors. So go there first if you are thinking of paying a company to publish.
So there are a number of platforms for authors to publish on, for example, Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Nook, and a whole load more.
When might an author consider exclusivity with Amazon and when might they consider going wide?
Mark: That's a really difficult question. In fact, it's almost an impossible question to answer because it's going to depend on the circumstances of the author and that will vary from person to person.
If I was starting out again myself, I would probably start with Amazon. I'd learn that platform first. Just concentrate on mastering the basics of self-publishing and it would be easier to do that by concentrating on one thing at a time, because all the platforms are a little bit different.
The upload process on Apple, for example, is very different than the process that Amazon uses. So you want to concentrate on getting that one right first and Amazon is probably going to be your biggest market. It certainly is for me, although Apple is closing quite fast now.
But most people will start off on Amazon and that will be where they sell the most books.
Amazon locks you in exclusively for three months if you want to be in their program called KDP Select which will give you some promotional benefits. Once you're through that three-month period, have a look at whether you're hitting your goals. That could be sales. It could be money coming in. Being exclusive with Amazon does slow you down in terms of building your email list quickly, so you might decide at some point that although you're making a bit of money, you want to accelerate the growth of your list because that will probably end up being the foundation of your business. Down the line, if this is a long-term thing for you, that will be where you get most of your income from. It's certainly the case for me.
Joanna: I tend to say that if you have fewer than three books in a series or only individual books, then going exclusive is a good idea.
Both you and I have found that we sell more on the other platforms with a series or at least multiple books targeted at the same market. So my non-fiction is not so much a series, but people buy all of them as opposed to just one.
One of the biggest questions we both get is when a new author comes along and they upload their book to Amazon. They have no reviews, no readers, no budget, no email list, no social media platform. Often they have no author friends or community either. That was both of us a few years ago.
So, how do people get their book moving if they're in that situation?
Mark: You have to be prepared to experiment with lots of different promotional tactics. A really good one is to give your book away for free. Some people will be upset by that, but some people will understand the concept of the ‘loss leader.'
Like when you're in the supermarket and try a tiny chunk of cheese, and then end up buying the rest of the packet because you like it. The principle is the same.
But some authors are concerned. They say, “I've spent two years writing this book. How dare you tell me to give it away for free?” There are no right or wrong answers here, but I can say reasonably confidently that people who are stuck in that mindset are less likely to be successful than those who are prepared to experiment.
So taking that loss leading example from the supermarket, what we do is effectively offer readers our book. They don't know who we are, they've never read us before. We've got no reviews, there is no reason for them to spend two or three dollars on that book because who are we?
But if we say, “You can have it for free, just try it out and see if you enjoy it.” Provided your book is good and we'll assume that everyone watching this has written a great book, then you can get the reader onto a mailing list in exchange for giving them that free book. Or they get it within Kindle Unlimited.
When you are ready with the next book, you have a pre-selected audience ready to buy the book and probably, more importantly, they are ready to leave early reviews which will then enable you to get promotions that require a certain threshold of reviews.
Having those reviews will also mean it's more likely that somebody who's never heard of you before, seeing those good reviews will think, “Well, those people enjoyed it. I think I will give this a chance rather than moving on to the next book.”
It's getting into that mindset of being prepared to speculate to accumulate. You've got your book, now you are going to leverage that for the benefit of your long term career.
Joanna: It's funny because I think one of the biggest issues with this type of approach is that there's this myth in the publishing industry that you write your first book, you give it to a publisher or you self-publish it, and that first book is going to make you a million and everything is going to be great.
If there is only that book, then you might do things differently but you and I are both coming from the perspective of that longer term career. Would that be right?
Mark: Yeah. I don't want to do anything else ever again. I'm very happy. I still give away hundreds of books every day. Maybe that means I'm seeding 10 sales a day that I might not have otherwise made, but I don't care about that because of those 100 readers, maybe 30 of them will read them, enjoy them and will then buy 24 other books that I've got.
So maybe I'm losing $20 or $30 on those giveaways but in the long term over the next year or two years, maybe I'm making 2 or 300 per reader. So when you look at it in that way, it makes a lot more sense to build on focus on the long-term rather than the short-term.
Joanna: For those people who don't know your story, how long ago was it when you were making zero? Back to the beginnings of your author career.
Mark: I was traditional publishing originally and did very well in advances, but the books didn't sell and I wasn't happy with how it all worked.
But when I got back into independent publishing, early 2012, I don't think I made anything. I think the first check I got from Amazon would have been six months later and around $10, nothing really to write home about.
But it was a lightbulb moment for me.
I had actually sold maybe five books that month and people seemed to enjoy them. It was slow for the first couple of years but when I started to work out how this all fits together, it's accelerated quite quickly.
Joanna: If people listening are making zero or $10 or $100 a month and they feel like they're putting in so much work, both of us have seen that curve where it bumps along the bottom for quite a long time before it starts ticking up. So I just want to encourage everyone with that.
Okay, let's then tackle the person who's a little bit further on, the person listening who has already self-published. Maybe they have two or even five books or even more than that and yet they are still bumping along the bottom and not doing very well.
What would you suggest for someone who has some books but wants to rejuvenate those sales?
Mark: First of all, look at your books dispassionately.
Check the covers out. Maybe that means you should commission a designer to do an evaluation of your covers and compare them to the market. That could be a weakness you could work on.
Maybe you need to look at your blurbs, maybe you don't have enough reviews. If you haven't gotten enough reviews, start to build your email list and then build an advance team. You can provide Advance Reader Copies and ask them to leave an honest review, and that's a good way to it to get some reviews on the page.
You've just got to look at your products dispassionately and get the basics right. Then maybe start to think about next level tactics, things like advertising.
If you are happy that your product and your series is robust, then start to send some traffic to the first book in the series. That could be by using Amazon Ads, they are very, very cheap and they're working pretty well at the time of recording this. It could be Facebook ads, which are not quite so cheap but very, very powerful. You could look at doing those.
[Mark also has a more advanced course, Advertising for Authors.]
You could look at a book promotion, or any of the other promotional sites that exist that enable you to get lots and lots of reader eyeballs on your title for a limited period of time. You could lower the prices, you could put a book to free, you could put them all to free.
There are all kinds of potential strategies that you could employ and the good news is that if you've got five books, you've got ammunition. You're in a position where you can start to experiment with different strategies that are only available to you once you've got that inventory behind you.
Joanna: Circling back to what we said at the beginning, your cover can be the most important thing to get right in terms of trying to make the reader pick up your book.
I've recently redone the cover and changed the category on my book Risen Gods which just wasn't selling.
Since we changed the cover, changed the category and I also reworded the blurb as well, the increase in sales is just ridiculous.
Sometimes you just need to take an honest dispassionate look at your book and sometimes that can take time, can't it? 18 months after I wrote that book, I can now look at it with a different eye. Often we don't know what we are writing when we're writing it, do we?
Mark: No. Also, that's an 18-month-old book. But it's not 18-months old for the new reader who bought it yesterday, it's a new book. So that's another really great thing about the industry that we are in right now. There is no limited shelf space that we need to get on.
We've got infinite shelf space which means that we can relaunch our books with new covers, with new blurbs, with new content and then push them as effectively new books.
They're fresh and new to the new readers who discover them tomorrow. It doesn't matter that they've been out for two years, it's completely irrelevant.
Joanna: Exactly. That's fantastic. Of course, some people worry that there are too many books in the world and how do they compete against all of these books, traditional and Indie?
What are your thoughts? Is this the best time to be an author or is the market saturated?
Mark: It's without question the best time to be both an author and a reader at the moment. It's never been easier to put interesting new books into the world that would otherwise, 10 years ago, have been stymied by a gatekeeper. We don't need to worry about that anymore, we can get those books into the hands of readers and we can make them visible, make them discoverable.
We don't need to worry about that anymore. We can get those books into the hands of readers and we can make them visible, make them discoverable.
There are lots of books, millions of them. That is daunting, but then there are hundreds of thousands of authors in the world, most of whom who self-publish with no quality control. They close their eyes, cross their fingers and press publish. Six months later, they've only sold a couple of books and declare that self-publishing doesn't work.
But the listeners are in the top 1%, those who are trying to educate themselves to find the kinds of resources that are available. This means that you are way ahead of your competition.
So don't worry too much about that, and when it comes to traditional competition, we can run rings around them. Indies and nimble and smart and forward thinking and we're prepared to try things that traditional publishing will eventually get around to. I'm starting to see Facebook ads now from traditional publishers and I was doing this two and a half years ago. We don't really need to worry about them. If you are watching this right now, you are in a really excellent position to get your book out there and start to find readers.
If you are watching this right now, you are in a really excellent position to get your book out there and start to find readers.
Joanna: Fantastic. I think one of the main things that you and I have also done is we have both learned from other people. So both of us have taken a lot of courses, listened to audio books, bought books. Both of us have turned our knowledge into courses to try and help other people avoid the mistakes that people make. Now you've got this super 101 course, tell us a bit about that, what's in it, who is it for?
Now you've got this super self-publishing 101 course. Tell us a bit about that, what's in it, who is it for?
So it includes all of the technical bits and pieces including things like screen flows, watching over my shoulder as we upload the book to Amazon, as we upload the book to Apple, all of the platforms.
We look at formatting, cover design, we've got a blurb writing module, we've got advertising, promotion, focus on the main email list, what one is, how you get one, the software you need to use. It's absolutely everything that I needed myself.
I tried to go back five years and think, what didn't I know? Well, I didn't know anything really. I try to imagine that I'm instructing newbie Mark with my first book with the benefit of what I know now after five years of experience.
It's for beginners and it's also for those who are intermediate. So we have plenty of students who have gone through the course and have found that it's refocused them into getting away from bad habits. Maybe open their eyes to some things that they haven't tried before. Those things that they subsequently do try and have success with. It's not for New York Times or USA bestselling authors who don't need me to tell them what to do, but it's for people below that and starting out in their author journey.
Joanna: There is this myth that self-publishing is really easy, that anyone can do it. And of course, it is in one way. Just upload a book to Amazon, but if you just do that, you are not going to sell any books.
So if people are interested in actually selling some books and making some money with self-publishing, then there are these best practices to follow.
I highly recommend Mark's 101 course and you can check it out using the button below, or join the waitlist for the next course opening date. Do you want to just tell people where to find your site and the podcast which is really useful?
Mark: You can go to selfpublishingformula.com. The podcasts are uploaded there every week. We go live on Fridays. You can also see them on YouTube, we do live-read broadcasting to our Facebook group. You should get the podcast wherever you get the podcast from iTunes and whatever you use. We'll be there.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time Mark, that was great.