Three years ago this month, the first edition of Book Design Made Simple rolled off the press. We expected book sales to start strong and increase immediately, but that didn’t happen. In this article we share with you our successes and failures, how plans can go awry, and about winging it. We hope you can skip some of the book marketing mistakes we made and go straight to success with your book as a self-published author.
We won’t bore you with every detail, but here’s a more or less chronological description of our book sales story.
- Professional product
- Book launch
- Book reviews
- Email campaigns
- Library purchase requests
- Book awards
- Social media
- Paid promotions
- What we haven’t tried
First, a professional product contributes to book sales
This is an absolute must for everyone (and is exactly what our book is all about). Fiona designed the book and the cover, and then we both worked continually to perfect the layout of each page, of course. But also we hired a copy editor, a proofreader, and an indexer to increase our accuracy and impact. We labored long and hard on our copyright page. We paid for the best paper and offset printing we could afford. The result is that our book can compete with books from major publishers.
Fiona set up our site. Then we purchased a template to help us with something we knew nothing about: how to produce a professional media kit. We closely followed their example and you can see the result on our Media pages. This gave us lots of confidence—something every new book marketer needs. At the very least, nobody is going to be turned off from buying our book because of a shoddy website.
The official launch was going to be a huge deal for us. We planned and practiced for weeks. Glenna flew 3000 miles to Vancouver for it. The Vancouver Public Library (VPL) printed posters and put notices in the newspaper, online, and all over the library. We brought boxes of books for people to purchase. And then only a dozen people attended, and we sold no books at all.
Fiona developed a workshop on ebook cover design that the VPL librarians could present to their patrons in the future, and she premiered the workshop in person during the book launch weekend. It was a huge success and continues to be taught periodically at the VPL. We hope some attendees have bought copies of the book because all five of the library’s copies are in use almost all of the time. So working up that presentation was definitely worth the extra effort.
Glenna has presented several programs and participated in workshops on book design since then. Each one has been sparsely attended and has resulted in exactly one book sale, total. This approach has not worked, probably because of the specialized topic, which doesn’t seem to attract adoring crowds. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for you and your topic, though.
If you’re reading this, you know that we write about book design, Adobe InDesign, and publishing—and we enjoy it because we still have plenty to say beyond what’s in the book. Gradually our subscriber list has grown to more than 900 readers, some of whom write in with questions and comments. We think of the blog as indirect marketing.
There are basically three kinds of book reviews: solicited reviews to put on your website and in your book, Amazon (or other online) reviews, and editorial reviews. We have all three.
- Before going to press, we requested reviews and blurbs from people in publishing, and then we printed them in the front pages of the book and posted them on our website. They build legitimacy for sure and have probably led to some sales in bookstores.
- Amazon reviews definitely lead to purchases. Luckily almost all of our reviewers have given us 5 stars. After the book came out we sent copies to two prominent bloggers and got outstanding online endorsements from both Joel Friedlander (The Book Designer) and Roger C. Parker of the Content Marketing Institute. We highly recommend this general approach for you.
- We held off on getting an editorial review for a couple of years, but then we learned that many librarians are not permitted to order books that do not have one. What is an editorial review? It’s one that’s written by a book review magazine or organization, such as Publishers Weekly or Kirkus. We purchased a Clarion review for Book Design Made Simple.
We tried a few print ads. Wouldn’t folks attending writing workshops be interested in self-publishing and book design? Of course, we thought, and put ads in writing conference catalogs and magazines. But no—apparently the writers were focused only on their writing. However, we do continue to advertise in the annual catalog of a local indie publishers group (IPNE.org) because its readers are our target audience.
We haven’t tried social media ads yet. It’s on the to-do list, and we suspect we should have started long ago.
Email campaigns are a major part of our marketing scheme. Here’s what we’ve tried and discovered.
- University libraries are the perfect place for Book Design Made Simple. We wrote to librarians at every school that offers a graphic design major in Canada and the U.S. We found out, though, that libraries normally order books only if a professor requests them, so we were wasting our time in approaching librarians directly.
- After this discovery, we wrote to the professors, offering about 150 of them a free copy of the book if they would consider using it in the classroom. We were thrilled that 30 of them took us up on it, and we gleefully sent out the books. We now notice spikes in Amazon book sales at the beginning of fall or spring semesters in the geographic areas of some of these colleges. This is very gratifying. How do we know where the books are being sold? Amazon’s Author Central shows weekly retail sales totals and maps (example below).
- Since universities usually hold copies of each required textbook in their collections, we are certain that our book is now on the library shelves of the schools that use our book.
- Using a list we got from the Independent Book Publishers Association (see “Paid promotions” below), we also wrote to public librarians. We did notice a slight uptick in sales to Baker & Taylor and Ingram, but it was impossible to tell exactly which libraries were buying copies.
For each message we sent out, we waited a decent interval (1–2 weeks) before following up with a reminder. The subject line of any sales email is very, very important. We labored for days over each one.
So we have five bits of advice about email campaigns:
- Develop a well-aimed recipient list.
- Target your message directly at the reader’s needs (because this is not storytelling or literature—it’s advertising), and then shorten it, edit, and proofread numerous times.
- Devise a punchy email subject line. If you have a large enough recipient list, you can even come up with two contending subject lines and set up A/B testing in your email marketing program to see which one is more effective.
- Send an abbreviated followup message.
- Time your messages appropriately; for professors, for instance, do not wait until May, when they’re leaving for the summer and have already planned the entire next year. For public librarians, be aware that their fiscal year probably begins July 1; they might be out of funds by winter.
We know that we need to be very careful (and you do, too) to make it obvious that our message is commercial in nature. We do this in our email subject line. Plus we include an Unsubscribe button (and honor those requests immediately), and we include our physical address. These steps put us in compliance with CAN-SPAM guidelines and keep us out of trouble with the FTC in the U.S. and the Canadian Competition Bureau.
Though small in scale, our most successful method has been asking all of our friends to request our book at their local libraries. We’ve already detailed how you can work this scheme yourself.
In 2016 we won 2 regional and 3 national book awards. Naturally we were thrilled and have displayed the medals on our second edition cover and on our website. We expanded on the topic of book awards in a blog post, concluding that winning awards don’t increase sales immediately, though having official endorsements to show off probably does influence potential readers.
We have a Facebook page but we don’t add content as often as we should and it doesn’t see a lot of traffic. We use LinkedIn, where we contribute to relevant conversations and try to be voices of reason there. Several years ago we joined Twitter (@BookDesignBook), where we add content regularly and retweet when appropriate. None of these methods directly result in sales, but we hope that all are alerting new people to our website and book, and adding to our reputation as experts in the field.
On a whim, we posted 25 instructional videos on our own YouTube channel, and some of them have become popular. We occasionally get messages from viewers that they’ve bought our book. If you have how-to content to share, simple videos might be just the way to reach your potential audience.
We’ve participated in a few promotions. Reluctant to part with our money, we’ve been very selective, trying the following:
- The Independent Book Publisher Association (IBPA) displayed Book Design Made Simple along with other books at the American Library Association’s annual meeting one year. Our biggest benefit was receiving a list of visitors to the booth. We used this list of 1200 librarians to build our public library email campaign (see above).
- New Shelves Books sends email promotions to thousands of librarians who have requested them. We participated in this recently. Because our book is especially suited to libraries and because only 23 other books were included with ours in the campaign, we thought it would be perfect for us. We needed to sell 20 books to break even on the deal. It’s impossible to tell which orders through Baker & Taylor and Ingram are the result of the campaign, but we estimate that we sold a disappointing 12 copies. Other indie authors have claimed better results, so don’t write off this tactic, but do explore your options before plunking down your cash.
- Each year since 2015 we’ve paid to include our book with others published by members of the Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE) at the New England Library Association’s annual conference. The 3-day meeting is actually fun to attend, and of course we love librarians. They show a lot of interest in our book.
There are still more ways to increase book sales, and we will pursue some of them as time permits. Here are a few for you to consider:
- paying for Twitter and Facebook ads
- guest blogging
- appearing in college alumni(ae) publications or videos
- joining associations whose members are your target audience
- presenting at professional conferences
- podcasting on your own or with a partner
- book festivals
- interviews on TV, radio, in the newspaper, podcasts, and/or online
- in-person book readings
Book marketing can take up a lot of your time, but your book sales will depend on it. We’ve tried many methods, dropped some, and repeated others. We continue to use social media and our blog regularly, especially when we’re between big campaigns, so the effort is constantly on our minds.
Not every method is right for every author or every topic or genre, of course. Don’t make yourself miserable by going too far outside your comfort zone, or by trying to do too many things at once.
We hope that this article sparks some ideas that you can adapt to your book marketing plan.What's YOUR book marketing plan? Learn from our 3-year history of hits and misses in #book sales. buff.ly/2x1ZXuR Click To Tweet
Just about all of our blog posts are aimed at helping you produce a professional product and then sell it. But here are a few specific suggestions for further reading:
Read more: Your copyright page » (includes a template you can use to complete the most accurate and professional copyright page possible)
Read more: Your author website 101 » (shows all the steps to setting up your own website and blog)
Read more: It’s YouTube time » (a humorous look at producing our own how-to videos)
Book Design Made Simple. You can do it yourself.