How to Write an Amazon Bestseller
At the time of writing, my first book is sitting at #8 in its category, with 7 x 5* reviews (I took a screenshot to prove it). I’m thrilled! I never imagined it would get ranked at all!
Amazon sales rank is a mysterious thing. I oversimplify, but it seems to be based on the number of sales per hour, with a weighting to adjust for long-term bestsellers such as Harry Potter.
OK, so I don’t know how many other books are in the ‘sales and marketing’ category, or how long it will stay in the top 10 (it’s dipped in and out at least three times so far, to my knowledge – not that I’m tracking it incessantly!). And, to be fair, I don’t yet know if that represents sales of 2,000 books, 20 books or 2 books! My printer, Lulu, prints books on demand (minimum quantity 1), and is due to send ‘creator revenues’ into my PayPal account after 6 to 8 weeks.
That said, I think it’s still an impressive achievement. In fact, it is an underestimate, as I also sell copies direct, so they are not counted in the Amazon ranking.
‘The Little Fish Guide to DIY Marketing’ is my first venture into publishing – it’s a compilation of the tips and stories that have been issued in my newsletter over recent years. The book was available from June 2010, but people only started buying it when it ‘went live’ on Amazon in October. It’s as if it suddenly became real as soon as it was available on Amazon.
So here’s how I did it.
Let’s assume you already have a good idea, a title, a target market, some writing skill and someone to design your book for you. Although the content took me about two years to complete – fitting it around everything else that I do – I found that was the easy bit!
When selling anything, what other people say is more convincing than anything you say yourself, so I knew my book needed testimonials to be printed inside and on the back cover. I sent PDF copies to volunteers, but found less than half of them actually contributed their comments (hopefully due to lack of time not because they didn’t have anything nice to say!). Of course, it’s hard to ‘chase’ people when they’re not being paid, so it caused another delay in the process. Eventually, I collected some lovely reviews and was ready to go to print at last.
The next stage was a huge learning process, with a number of key decision points along the way.
Traditional publishing or self-publishing
First, you need to decide whether to find a publisher/agent or to self-publish.
If you want to find a traditional publisher/agent who will look after everything for you (and take a percentage), your best bet is the latest copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (available in all good bookshops) and there are lots of other resources online.
If you need help with your content, there are a number of book coaches/midwives, independent book publishers and short-run printers/publishers for you to choose, for a fee (email me for a list of recommendations).
Despite warnings all over the Internet about their deteriorating customer service, I chose to self-publish through Lulu.com. I also found an email address for someone there who was tremendously helpful (although there was always a delay exchanging messages between the UK and US time-zones).
If you do the same as me, you then need to decide whether to self-publish or let Lulu be your publisher. Being a bit of a control freak, I decided to become a publisher as well as an author.
Buying ISBN numbers (or not)
To do that, you have to buy a block of ISBN prefixes from Nielsen BookData (minimum quantity is 10 which currently cost 111.86GBP inc. VAT). You have to download, print and fill in a 4-page form, but it’s not difficult (except you have to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words like ‘title verso page’ – it’s the inside page that backs on to the title page and includes the publisher name, copyright and ISBN details).
Search “nielsen isbn” for everything you need to know.
Be warned, it takes a while for your ISBNs to be issued, so you can’t rush this part of the process. Also note that, as a publisher, you are also obliged to send a copy of the printed book to Nielsen and the British Library Legal Deposit Office within one month (they send you the instructions along with the ISBN information). If/when you make changes, you have to publish another edition of your book with a new ISBN, so make sure everything is perfect before you approve the final proof.
Top tip: If you are also producing an eBook version, it needs its own ISBN. When setting your pricing, be aware that printed books don’t attract VAT, but eBooks do.
If you don’t want to go through all this, just let Lulu be your publisher, and get your ISBN free.
Designing the cover
Next decision: Are you doing your own cover design or using Lulu’s cover design wizard? Happily, I have access to a talented graphic designer who worked with me on my own lovely book cover. Lulu automatically produces the barcode for your ISBN, which you then download to include on the back – it has to go in the bottom right hand corner with a ‘quiet zone’ around it. Between us, we designed the cover of my book (using copyright-free images of course), and uploaded the print-quality artwork to Lulu.
To do a one-piece (wraparound) cover yourself, you need to download Lulu’s front and back ‘cover image templates’ for your book size, and overlay them on the left and right sides of your design. Adjust your page size and margins to match. Use Lulu’s ‘Spine Width Calculator’ tool and add that measurement in the middle.
More information is in Lulu’s “Book Covers FAQ”.
Designing the inside pages
Compared with that, dealing with the inside pages was relatively easy – they were already designed and saved in PDF format (single pages, not spreads). I just had to make sure the title page and title verso page were included at the front (which changed all my page numbers) and upload the file. If you don’t have access to design skills, you can upload Word files instead, for Lulu to convert into PDF. Then you have to order a ‘proof’ of the book and ‘approve’ it when it is finally perfect (I did this several times, and sold the proof copies at a discount).
Top tip: Authors pay a bit less when ordering their own books, and Lulu has monthly special offers that may be worth waiting for.
Getting onto Amazon
My next decision was easy – I wanted the book on Amazon, so I paid Lulu about 50GBP for Global Reach Distribution. (If you choose Lulu as your publisher, you get free Extended Reach Distribution instead.)
Here, I hit a snag. I’d originally designed my book at A5 size, with lovely white paper, but it turns out you can only have a few sizes for distribution, and A5 is not one of them. I had to change the artwork to fit US trade size – I just added bigger margins and re-uploaded it. Trouble is, I couldn’t have that size on white paper, only cream.
I found that Lulu’s explanation of sizes is not very consistent. In some places they refer to the name of the size, in others they quote inches, and in others, centimetres.
For further information, search Lulu Help for ‘Which books are eligible for distribution’ and ‘What paper will my book have for the cover and interior?’ The information you need is scattered throughout their online Help, so please email me for my handy summary of sizes and paper colours that are eligible for Lulu’s Global Reach distribution.
Once all the size, paper and distribution is sorted out, it takes 6-8 weeks for your book to appear on Amazon. I found that almost unbelievable in this Internet age! And then, I found it also takes a while for ‘Look inside’ to be activated, even after you’ve uploaded another PDF of your whole book to Amazon. But eventually, my book was online and the sales suddenly started rolling in.
Top tip: Other sellers may offer your book as ‘used’ or ‘as new’ at a discount. If it doesn’t cut your margin too much, you could set yourself up as a discount seller too, to compete with those sales.
Marketing your book
As a self-publisher, you have to do your own marketing. I invited everyone who bought the book to review it online (happily, they have all loved it so far). I did online marketing at no cost, using social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. For example, I ran a Twitter ‘retweet’ competition that promoted it to new followers. I also did local PR and announced it in my newsletter. And finally, I keep a small stock of books to sell at events I attend (such as training courses and local networking meetings). People love the shiny cover, and sometimes even ask me to sign my book, just like a real bestselling author!
Disclaimer: Please note these instructions apply to the UK. Even if you do exactly as I did, I can’t promise that your book will actually become an Amazon bestseller.
Top tip: You can track sales at Novelrank.com (it’s fascinating, but don’t become too obsessed!)
How to Write an Amazon Bestseller
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