I am currently somewhere off the coast of Cuba with intermittent internet access, so I’d like to thank Michael for taking over my blog today. Michael’s story is the real story of self-publishing. Yes, the vast majority of self-published works never sell in great numbers — just as the vast majority of queried works never sell a single copy (they never get the chance).
But there is a middle range of self-publishing success that gets almost no press. Michael’s story is one I could have written several years ago to describe what happened to me. I find these stories inspiring. And I understand that success is not a given, that it isn’t easy, that it requires a healthy dose of luck or the benevolent forces of the Great Algorithmic Unknown, but for me it helps to know that you don’t have to be the one in a million to make the hard work worthwhile. And it helps to know that writers with no prior following are still seeing results if they tell great stories.
Now I turn it over to Mr. Banner.
Best-Selling AND Unknown
by M.L. Banner
Nine months ago, I self-published my first book on Amazon. I won’t lie to you; this exercise was purely a flight of fancy for me. I really wasn’t planning a career in writing; only later did I find out I love to write. Then, something remarkable happened, an epochal event that changed everything for me: my book sold really well. Okay, maybe not Hugh-Howey-well, but still pretty darn good: over 2000 the first 30 days and over 6000 in 60 days. Just so there is no confusion, I had no following (maybe 15 people I know personally bought my book), and I had never written anything longer than an article (I’ve written many of these) before this. I certainly never expected to have a #1 bestseller in my two genres. However, I can’t take the credit for this any more than I can attribute it to luck. I know I had to write a good enough book, with a professional cover, a captivating blurb and all that. Yet, there was something else at work here.
I was a newbie author when I hit the “Save and Publish” button, but I’ve also been an entrepreneur for many years, having run businesses in lots of different markets. I have to tell you, I was absolutely blown away at the effortless and cost-free nature of self-publishing a novel and releasing it within hours to the book-buying-public. There is simply no other business with almost no barrier to entry and the ability to sell your product immediately. No doubt, it is this simplification and lack of barriers that has drawn thousands of new authors like me into self-publishing. Also true with more authors comes more bad books, but it means many more great books too. And because the book market is not static, as indie cheerleaders like Hugh have pointed out, I believe the number of readers is expanding; add to the equation, low pricing and ease of purchase, brought on by clever self-publishing platforms, and that means the market is buying more and more books. My over-loaded Kindle and iPad can attest to this.
Okay, I know the big question is, “How did you do it?” A better question would be, “What was it that made your book sell so well?” In full disclosure, when I started, I didn’t know any of the other publishing platforms, and I didn’t spend much time researching them either. I chose KDP Select not because of any specific love for the company, it just sounded the easiest, and I knew Amazon held the largest share of the eBook market: It was a business decision.
When I published Stone Age (http://bit.ly/stone-age) in April, I had few expectations that I would peddle more than a dozen copies. A couple of days later, a few of my friends nibbled, then a few stalwart strangers bought, and then Amazon’s algorithms kicked in. My little tome made it onto Hot New Releases for both my chosen genres, giving it astounding instant visibility: As if a clerk plucked my novel from some vague pile and placed it in the front window of his book store—only this was the largest book store on the planet. And that was it. Three weeks later, Stone Age became a #1 best seller in both its categories, and has remained in the top hundred ever since.
Understand this, I am a bit of a tech guy and very process oriented—I still run several internet-based companies—so I wanted to find out why this happened and not leave anything to chance with the next one. On Halloween, I released my second book, a sequel to the first. Taking the knowledge gained from self-publishing Stone Age, I was much more purposeful in this launch, and the results were equally fruitful: it became an Amazon top ten Best Seller on the first day, #2 on the second day, and it remained in the top twenty through the New Year. Did lightning strike twice? No! Everything I did from writing to my audience, the professional cover, the editing and proof reading, the blurbs from fellow authors, advanced copy readers giving early reviews, cross-promoting my first book, and emailing my growing reader list, all contributed to my second book’s achievements and my first book’s resurgence. However, it was the Amazon structure that ensured my good fortune. Speaking of which, my November earnings from both books hit five figures.
This made something else plain to me: It turns out that self-publishing is far more lucrative than convincing a publisher to take your work for a minuscule royalty, just so you can say, “I’m published!” Don’t get me wrong, there are times when selling to a publisher may become a strategically wise move, but that doesn’t have to be the end game. I’ve met several authors who are “published” with large presses but haven’t sold very many books. I’m not bragging, just pointing out that making money as a self-published author, even quit-your-job-kind-of-money, is still very much possible by folks like me with practically no following.
To this end, Amazon’s brilliance shines. They’ve created the distribution network and the algorithms that give unknown authors’ books visibility in front of scores of readers who are looking for books in similar sub-genres. Understanding this and a few other things I’ll share, I know that if you write a good enough book, one that hits some of the hot buttons your readers expect, it will sell well. In my case, Amazon’s network made my two books visible enough that almost thirty thousand people have found them. Without this structure, one word comes to mind: obscurity!
I’ve had an mind-numbing crash course in writing and publishing this past year. Yet, there are several things I’ve learned (both good and bad) that I wish my present-self could go back in time and warn my past-self about. Hopefully, you will benefit from my top mistakes and recommendations, and avoid the need for time travel.
My Top Five Mistakes that you’ll want to avoid:
1. Don’t be cheap on editing – I went with the cheapest editor I could find. I just didn’t think anyone would buy my first book and so I didn’t want to invest that much in it. Big mistake! I am quite sure I would have sold thousands more copies of my first book had I not initially published with so many errors. Now I employ an editor and proofreader, and I get help from many wonderful volunteer beta readers.
2. Don’t rush your book to the marketplace – Hold off clicking that “publish” button, no matter how tired you are of rereading it. Again, editors and betas can help you with this.
3. Don’t think of other authors in your genre as competitors – Quite the opposite. Reach out to other authors, especially those who have had success in your genre. Read their books and post reviews on your platforms and then tell them about it. That’s how relationships start.
4. Don’t be cheap on your own platform – Buy a domain and set up a website (you can do so with GoDaddy for less than $100 per year). Then, make sure your site’s focus is on building your subscriber list: These will be your future advanced copy reviewers and fan base that will push your next book onto the Hot New Releases list.
5. Keep writing – Your most important activity is to write. Don’t stop. Make it a habit and write every day. Then when it’s ready (see #2), release your next book. Each book you publish (if it gains visibility) lifts the sales of your other books, especially those in the same series.
My top five recommendations to improve your chances of success:
1. Take as much time to write your best book possible – I cannot stress enough how important this is. Again, get it right the first time. I lost many potential readers, perhaps permanently because I wasn’t careful with my first book.
2. Publish to Kindle Select – I know this is a powder-keg issue right now because you’re reluctant to give into Amazon’s exclusively requirement (even though it’s only for 90 days), but this will absolutely help you in their algorithms and therefore their Best Seller Rankings. Remember, a higher ranking leads to more visibility, which leads to more sales. Married to exclusivity is anxiety over KU, but my KU borrows continue to boost my books’ rankings over those that are not in Select. Certainly if you have a big readership base you’ll need to examine this point more closely. But if you do not have many followers, this action is practically a necessity these days.
3. Choose the right sub-genre – For your next book, choose the two sub-genres (fitting to your readership and the book’s storyline), with the lowest number of books in it. Check the bottom 100 of the Hot New Releases (in that sub-genre) and see what it would take to make it there. Use http://kdpcalculator.com/index.php to help you translate Best Seller Rank (BSR#) into the approximate number of daily sales you’ll need.
4. First goal: Make the Hot New Releases in at least one sub-genre – To do this, you’ll need to sell a progressive amount for the first five to eight days after launch. In most sub-genres, this is not a big number, but something like one sale the first day and maybe eight sales by the eighth day ought to be more than enough: That’s 42 books total. Do that and you should make it on the Hot New Releases list for your sub-genre(s). Boom, instant visibility! I’ve known other authors who set their book price at $0.99 for the first ten days or so, just to give it the added boost to make the HNR. Once you’re there, you’ll have up to 30 days of best-selling fun ahead of you.
5. Use Countdown + promotions to build audience & visibility – With Kindle Select, you can run a Countdown (after your first 30 days) to get your book in front of another group of readers who haven’t tried you out yet. Then run a few promotions during those days. A $100 to $200 budget should be sufficient.
I truly feel blessed to write this. After some initial luck, lots of hard work, marvelous people who have helped (including betas, editors, artists, other authors, etc.), and a little skill–hopefully improving daily–I have found an endeavor that has brought joy to me and to tens of thousands of people I can now call my readers.
This is an amazing age we live in where anyone can invest some time and a little money and be entrusted with almost complete power by platforms like Amazon to release a book to their immense customer base. More amazing still is that today, a complete unknown can complete head-to-head with big publishers and well-known authors and sell a lot of books.
For more from or about Michael, visit him at,