Bookbub Deconstructed

A typical Bookbub deal

Just before BookExpo, I had lunch with two self-published writers to swap book marketing tips. We were trying to crack the code for getting books accepted by BookBub, the Cambridge-based company that sends out daily ebook promotions via enewsletters to millions of subscribers.

Bookbub has a reputation for selling thousands of an ebook at a pop—and easily returning revenues that exceed what they charge for a book promotion. But the problem is they’re very selective in the titles they accept for a Featured Deal promotion—and both of my writers were initially rejected by them.

But why? Was it the number of reader reviews they’d gotten on Amazon? The formats the books were published in? The editorial reviews from Publishers Weekly and the like? The discounted price points? We speculated on all these possibilities.

So when I saw the Bookbub folks at BookExpo, I pinned them down to see what I could learn. Here’s a summary of what they said, along with some ideas from those two writers in the trenches.

• Each day Bookbub gets over 300 submissions for each of its 40+ categories (thriller, mystery, self help, etc). They normally choose 2-3 to promote. Not great odds.
• Decisions are made by 15 editors who specialize in various genres. They don’t (can’t) read all the books submitted, so they make their decisions based on additional criteria submitted by writers and publishers—reviews, formats, price, topic, etc.
• Because Bookbub tracks their sales data closely, they know what’s trending among their subscribers, and they choose books with trending characteristics—themes, plots, topics.
• Bookbub does look at reader reviews on Amazon. My writers heard that you must have 35+ reviews to be considered, but Bookbub claims that no minimum number is required: decisions depend on the day your book is submitted, and the other books in the mix on that day.
• Bookbub expects all books to be discounted for the promotion. My writers tried various price points and found best results when books were $.99 (yes, they made money even at that low promotional price). Bookbub claims that they only require your book be discounted by 50%–but of course, better pricing tends to increase the likelihood of a book being chosen.
• Bookbub reaches subscribers in the US, UK, Canada, India and Australia, and books submitted for all those categories rank higher than books submitted for the US market only.
• Bookbub prefers books published on all ebook platforms. My writers heard that Bookbub wouldn’t consider books that were published only on Kindle. Bookbub says that’s not true—but ebooks published only on one platform have less of a reach than those published on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad and others.

In the end, both of my writers succeeded in getting Featured Deals. What do they attribute that to? Persistence. (You can submit your book once a month.) The Bookbub folks said the same thing: “We love our writers and root for them every time a book is resubmitted. Keep trying.”

Bookbub Demographics Charth

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What Makes a Good Book Cover?

BookExpo2016

 

That’s a question I wrestled with as I walked the aisles of BookExpo 2016. A great cover can be the secret sauce that gives a book the oomph it needs to get discovered. But how do you get there?

I never recommend authors create their own covers. Never. Your book must look as professional and polished as those created by pros—so hire a book designer. It’s worth the effort. If you’re strapped for cash, try a crowdsourcing service such as 99Designs. There are plenty of talented designers looking for work.

And once you’ve settled on a designer, learn to speak her language. In my experience, you can talk to a designer all day, but unless you show her samples of what you like, she will seem deaf as a post. Designers are right-brain people: they understand images. So go onto Amazon and find some covers you like. Use an app such as Grab to take a digital picture of your favorites, and prepare a creative brief for your designer, explaining what you like about each cover.

 

Here are some things you might discuss:

  1. The Mothers - A Novel, by Brit Bennett

     

    Show your designer the color palettes you like. Note: I didn’t say “colors”; I said “color palettes.” You want to choose a palette with several colors that go together and that capture the mood of your book. You’ve written a thriller? Maybe dark colors. A business book? Maybe jewel tones. Stay away from white covers, which look terrific in a busy bookstore, but which disappear into the background on the Amazon page.

  1. Decide whether you want the dominant element on your cover to be type (common for business books) or images (photos or graphics). Even when creating a cover that’s primarily type, look for small spot images or graphics you can use to suggest something about the content of your book.
  1. Often, an image that captures your book is hard to find. Check what your competitors have done. Then peruse Istockphoto or another stock house to see what’s possible. For a fee, your designer will do a photosearch for you, and frequently she will come up with a better idea than yours. She also knows how to manipulate photos, which can produce powerful and unique covers.
  1. Find fonts you love and show them to your designer—but let her choose the fonts to use. Poor font choice is the most common error I see on self-published books.
  1. First Snow book

     

    Make your title big—because it’s going to appear postage-stamp size on the Amazon page, your primary selling location. Check to make sure it’s still readable in that small size.

  1. Pay attention to the back cover, too. It should have a short descriptive paragraph about your book, a bio and your (professionally produced) photo. People want to see who wrote this book. Also, a barcode is necessary, and your publishing imprint with city, state, and website are helpful.
  1. If you have testimonials, add a few at the top of the back cover. If you have a great one from a crackerjack reviewer, put that one at the top of your front cover. All the rest can go in the very first page of the book.

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A Dirty Little Secret About Book Discounts

Cash register

 

Most of the writers using self-publishing techniques to reach readers know something about discounting books. They know that if you want to make your book attractive to bookstores, you must 1) offer your book to bookstores at a discount of 30% and 55%; and 2) make sure your book is returnable, because bookstores won’t buy books that aren’t returnable.

To date, the only print-on-demand (POD) vendor who’ll allow you do both those things is Ingram Spark (IS). In fact, that’s the main reason Ingram Spark has become so popular: it’s the way into bookstores.

Or so we all think.

But let me tell you a story about a book that a pair of savvy business writers published through Ingram Spark this past spring. We knew we wanted the book in bookstores, so we decided to offer the book at 40% discount. We assumed the discount would be passed down the line to bookstores.

Not so. When we went to our local indie bookstore and looked up the book in the Ingram catalog, the discount offered was not 40%–but 5%.

When I asked Ingram Spark about this at BookExpo last month, I was told that IS books were distributed by Ingram Book Company, a separate entity that took 10% and 15% before offering the book to bookstores. By the time it got to our little bookstore (which doesn’t have much clout in the distribution chain), the discount had dwindled to 5%.

What does that mean for writers? It means that you might as well not try to get your self-published book into bookstores because you’ll never be able to offer it at a discount that’s competitive. You might as well spend all your efforts finding your readers through Amazon.

Personally, I’m very surprised that Ingram has allowed this situation to exist, and that they’ve not been more transparent about how discounts are allotted. (Here’s Ingram Spark’s official statement on why you should discount your book.) As the premiere distributor of books to bookstores in this country, Ingram has a vested interest in helping independent authors sell their books into bookstores. Ingram Spark already takes 45% of your revenue for its POD services, plus an additional fee for printing your book. Does Ingram Book Company really need an extra 10% to 15% for distributing it?

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How “Influential Readers” Can Drive Book Discovery

 

The emergence of “influential readers” has changed the way books are discovered. These folks–Vine Voices on Amazon, notable readers on Goodreads, certain book bloggers–have enough clout to push a book up in popularity so that SEO algorithms are triggered.

Otis Chandler, cofounder of Goodreads recently wrote a piece for Digital Book World on who these infiuential readers are and how to find them. It’s well worth a read.

How to Publish a Book With Color Interior

 

When I work with writers, I often hear that they want to produce a book with a color interior (such as a children’s book, a cookbook or a photography book). In these cases, I often recommend an ultra-short run printer over a print-on-demand vendor (such as CreateSpace or Ingram Spark) to produce the book.

This often puzzles people. On first glance, it makes no sense to incur the upfront costs of printing, say, 50 copies of your book when you can upload your manuscript free to CreateSpace and, poof, it appears for sale on Amazon, right?

What people don’t understand (and what is often hidden from them by print-on-demand vendors until the last minute) is that the per-copy cost of producing a color book by a print-on-demand vendor is generally higher than the per-copy cost of producing, say, 50 books by a short-run printer.

And why do you care about the per-copy cost of your print-on-demand book, since your readers will be incurring that cost?

The reason is that print-on-demand vendors require that you set your book’s price above a certain minimum, based on the book’s production costs. They do that to make sure that for every book sold by you and produced by them, they get their cut. Whatever’s left comes to you. What sometimes happens when you start to get fancy with color is that the print-on-demand vendor’s minimum price becomes so high that your book is unlikely to sell at all.

So how do you get a book produced by an ultra-short run printer up for sale on Amazon? You consign it to Amazon through the Amazon Advantage program. That’s what the vendors of all those non-book items are doing. Once you complete the online “paperwork” your book is posted for sale just like any other book on the Amazon site.

P.S. Yes, you do have to store 45 copies in your garage. But if your book sells, Amazon will order more. And many writers send out a good chunk of those first copies to family, friends and reviewers, or sell them during speaking engagements.

BookExpo 2015 Connects Writers with Publishing Services

Photo by Rod Searcey

Book Expo America, the big New York show for publishers, featured several new resources for self-published writers. Here’s a roundup:

BookWorks founder Betty Sargent and BookDesigner founder Joel Friedlander have teamed up to publish The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide. The new book contains over 800 curated resources, including editors, designers, and book marketing experts by name. BookWorks also offers an online database of vetted publishing professionals, as do Bibliocrunch and Reedsy.

Publishers Weekly now offers “first reads” and “evaluations” of your manuscript by professionals in the book business. Through its Booklife site for self-published authors, PW experts will provide feedback on a treatment plus the opening 1,500 words of your manuscript for $79; or the entire manuscript for under $600.

TextCafe is one of several new companies making it easier to create samples of your book to tweet, post or email to potential readers. You control the percentage of your ebook you want to reveal and which online bookstores to show your readers. Your sample goes out with front cover intact. TextCafe is offering a free 21-day trial. Litlette is offering similar sampling services through Facebook.

BookBub, the company that offers new titles to readers at discounted prices, provided a glimpse at their own reader demographics during the Expo. Turns out they are strongest at reaching older women “empty-nesters”who are heavy readers of genre fiction (romance, mystery, thrillers, fantasy). Fifty-nine percent of their readers read over 4 books per month. You must be accepted into the BookBub program and you must pay for the promotion, but once accepted, you have a better chance of reaching the readers you want.

SelfPubBookCovers featured at BookExpo a sampling of their large collection of inexpensive pre-made book covers. Such covers (which start at $69) are becoming a bigger part of the picture for authors on a budget, especially those writing genre fiction. Once a cover is sold, it is never sold again.

Vellum offers a variety of templates to make your book interior look as though it has been professionally designed. As costs start at $29 per template, that makes Vellum’s templates less expensive than TheBookDesigner’s.

Goodreads offers authors a new way to connect with readers

Ask a Questiof of AuthorsOne of the most intriguing announcements at Book Expo 2014 was about Goodreads’ new “Ask the Author” feature. If you’re signed up as an author on Goodreads, you can now host your own Q&A sessions, thus making new connections with your readers.

Goodreads beta-tested the program with 54 well-known authors, including James Patterson, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini and Isabel Allende. Now they’re opening up the feature to all authors.

Patrick Brown, Goodreads Director of Author Marketing, offered suggestions on how to get the best out of this new feature. Among them:

• Set expectations early: Tell your readers which topics you’ll answer and when. Don’t feel as though you have to answer every question every day.

• Choose the questions you want to answer carefully, and post legitimate answers to them. You have control over which questions you want to show up on your page. Choose questions whose answers you’re happy to feature on your profile.

• Participate in the Goodreads reader community. Ask questions of other authors and review their books. You don’t have to give star ratings to every book you discuss. Just be thoughtful. Sometimes showing up with a thoughtful comment on another author’s page inspires interest in your own work.

Check out the list of bestselling authors already answering questions on Goodreads. Very impressive.

How To Approach a Bookstore: Tips for Authors

Wendy Taylor, author of No Longer Strangers, speaks at Books, Inc., Palo Alto

Author Wendy Taylor speaks at Books, Inc., Palo Alto. Photo by Rod Searcey

I’m often asked by authors how to get their books into local bookstores. I recently sat down with Tanya Landsberger, manager of Books, Inc., just off the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, to find out how they like to be approached. While her advice might not apply to all independent bookstores, it’s a good benchmark.

How often do you get approached by local authors?
In general, we hear from authors two or three times a week.

We get two kinds of authors. First is the local author whose book is nationally distributed. We may already have the book in our store. If not, we’ll order it either through the Big Seven [publishers] or through wholesalers-Ingram or Baker & Taylor.

The second is the author whose book isn’t available through traditional distribution channels. We may take that book on consignment. If we decide we want it, our consignment deal is a 50-50 split of the revenue. We keep the book on our shelves for about 2-3 months and send a check to the author at the end of that time, along with any unsold books. The only kinds of books we tend to keep in constant stock are local historical titles. They sell well on an ongoing basis.

How do you decide which books you want in your store?
We want the topic to be right for our store and for the local market. If an author who lives out of town approaches us, she has to convince us she has a tight support network in the area. The book also needs to have good design, sturdy binding and high production values-no spiral bounds, except maybe for cookbooks.

What’s the average number of titles you take on consignment?
If we’re just stocking the book, we generally take about 5. If we’re doing an event with the author, then we usually take about 20 copies, and give back all but 5-8 at the end of the event.

Does it matter to you if a book is done through CreateSpace?
It does. We don’t provide shelf space or events for books published under any Amazon imprint-including CreateSpace. We don’t appreciate their business model because we don’t think their model ultimately benefits us and the community.

What about similar self-publishing vendors? Do you feel the same way about books published through Lulu, for example?
They’re fine. We’re just hoping to open the eyes of self-published authors that there are options other than Amazon.

Such as?
Such as Ingram Spark! They’re relatively new. We’re hoping to get authors to consider their services.

How should authors approach you?
We prefer that they send us an email with a photo of the cover and a short description of the book, and then follow up with a phone call. It’s useful if they also have a sell-sheet with ISBN number, price, publication date, and so forth. And they need to let us know: Is the book available through Ingram or Baker & Taylor? Is it returnable? And what’s the discount to us if we stock the book? The average discount offered by the big distributors is 45%–so if it’s 30% or less, we hesitate to order because it may end up costing us quite a bit to stock and potentially return that title.

How important is price in your decision whether to bring in a book?
Well, if disproportionately expensive, say $25 for a tiny book, we’d think twice about bringing it in.

And returnability?
It’s got to be returnable or we’re not interested.

Does it help if the author drops off a book?
Not really: we can decide from the information they send.

What if they want to speak? How should they approach you then?
We’re pulling back on events because there are only a handful of authors who have proven successful at events. The majority, unfortunately, just don’t do very well.

Don’t do very well because they’re bad speakers, or because they don’t attract a crowd?
They don’t attract a crowd. Even the big speakers do their own marketing these days. If an author can convince us that he or she has a big network of followers in the area, we’re interested-but for most it’s hard to tell or they simply don’t have the right amount of draw.

Do you have a shelf for local authors?
We had one, but it didn’t sell particularly well. Every once in awhile we get someone who asks who are the local authors, but not too often–and many folks already know who the Stanford Stegner [Creative Writing] Fellows are.

If You Want Readers, You Have To Work At Selling

Sometimes it’s best to hear the truth from writers in the trenches.

Here’s a guest post from Marcia Kemp Sterling, who’s just self-published her first novel. She came to one of my Stanford classes looking for advice on her book project. Since she launched, she’s had good success getting her book noticed. Here’s how she did it…

 

Author Marcia Kemp Sterling portraitGuest Blog by Marcia Kemp Sterling,
author of One Summer in Arkansas

Most of us writers hate being told that we must pry ourselves away from the computer and go out into the world to promote ourselves and our work.   

But in today’s market for books, whether you are self-published or not, your story is not likely to be read outside your own circle of friends and family without a heavy investment of sweat equity.

The industry is in upheaval.    Publishers, bookstores and agents are struggling to survive. Except for Amazon and a handful of lucky “winner takes all” established Cover of One Summer in Arkansas, a novel by Marcia Kemp Sterlingwriters, nobody is making money.    Although virtually anybody can publish a book (whether they can put together a sentence or not), there are no longer effective mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff.   

You’ve written a book you’re proud of and you want it to be read.    What is a modest, scholarly, introverted writer to do?

Website and Blog:    Invest upfront in an appealing website and learn how to write a blog.    Trust me, there are plenty of bloggers who can’t write and it’s a natural platform for anyone who can.    I have become a regular blogger and continue to work at getting followers and putting up notices on Facebook and Twitter when I post a new blog.

Network:    In an Internet-connected world with traditional channels for books weakened, you need to tap into networks of friends, old business colleagues, relatives and new contacts to create momentum for your book.    I formed a new book publicity company and hired daughters-in-law, nieces and young adult children of friends to help me.       Each of them worked their connections to bloggers, to regional contacts where the book might attract interest, to people-who-knew-people.    I posted notices about any new book happenings on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and my website, always featuring images of the cover.    The publicity girls would pick up my postings and repeat them on their own social media sites.

Amazon:    Most books today are purchased from Amazon and you have to understand their system, develop an effective Amazon presence, get help to activate search engine key words, solicit reviews and guide people there through your website or otherwise.    Their system rewards success with success.

Distribution and Warehousing:    Even if you keep a stock of books to sell directly, you need a distributor for a chance at placement in bookstores and libraries.    They keep a portion of the profit, but it’s worth it.

Events:    The formula for arranging events is straightforward.    Bookstores are struggling to make a profit and you have to both (i) make it easy for them and (ii) essentially guarantee you can turn out 30 or more people for the event.    For that reason, you should work on venues in locations where you have personal contacts who will help.    Local advertising (cheap in small local papers) brings a double benefit: it gets people out to the event and publicizes the book to others who may not show up but may go to Amazon and purchase anyway.

Giveways:    If you care about readers, you need plenty of books to give away — to bookstores, to reviewers, to influencers, to bloggers, through Goodreads, etc.

This sounds daunting, but do not despair.    I am not a “people person” and have never been even remotely entrepreneurial.    But I am finding a good deal of personal satisfaction in building a business from scratch and am deeply gratified to be getting positive feedback from readers.

For a look at an excellent example of an author website–the one Marcia built to promote her book–click here.

An Author’s Guide to Amazon: 7 Tools To Help Increase Book and Author “Discoverability”

Below is a terrific summary of practical things you can do to make your book more visible on Amazon.

It comes from the enewsletter of Smith Publicity, Inc.
Kudos to Book Publicist Jennifer Tucker who put together the list.

1. Author Central
Think of Author Central as your “main hub” in the wide world that is Amazon. Beyond creating an author page, which will educate customers about you and your book and display essential information about your biography, blog posts, etc., you can also use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to set up your book for the Kindle if you own electronic rights. Also through Author Central, you can track book sales numbers across the U.S. for the past four weeks to identify sales trends, utilize the CreateSpace platform to publish your next book, and explore Kindle Direct Publishing Select, which will allow you to earn higher royalties.

   
2. Amazon Forums
Amazon offers a variety of discussion forums for authors, which can help you to network with other authors and expose your book to a new audience interested in your genre. You can also learn just by reading other posters’ questions, advice, answers, tips and tools. Feel free to reach out to other authors (who are often avid readers themselves) to ask for feedback on your book, to position yourself as an expert in your field, and to just have fun!

   
3. Amazon Keyword Tags
By using the tagging feature, you can make your book more searchable almost immediately, if done correctly. Check out tags on other books (especially top selling titles!) in your book’s genre and make your own tags accordingly. The more keywords you have tagged, the better readers will be able to find your book within a slew of other books. Fun tip — think like a reader: what keywords would you use to search your book? Also, changing tags each week or every few weeks gets your book in front of new audiences.

   
4. Amazon’s Listmania!
Listmania! is another tool that authors can utilize to reach potential book buyers. Listmania positions your book among other books in your genre by adding your book to book lists, but word to the wise: for best results, make sure to be very selective and true to your book’s genre when choosing your lists.

   
5. Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book”
Just as book excerpts    draw readers in, Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature allows readers to flip through some of your book, with the goal of making them want to read more. This feature also works to prevent negative comments because by previewing the book, the reader has a better understanding of your book’s content. Be sure to have your personal Amazon page set up before you move forward with this tool, as it can take time to be approved by Amazon.

   
6. Amazon Marketplace
Amazon Marketplace serves as a third-party online storefront where you can sell your book alongside the array of other Amazon goods. While it’s a great tool and can offer you more freedom as an author (you can choose to give autographed copies of the book, for instance), authors must be willing to carry a book inventory and must have this inventory already on hand to be set up in the Marketplace. It also requires plenty of time and patience for authors to manage their own online book sales, though many authors enjoy the control that they have over the price of their book and fulfillment of book orders.

   
7. Amazon “So you’d like to…” Guide
With the Amazon “So you’d like to…” guide, you can actually build a guide around your book topic, genre, or specialty, which will position you as the expert of your book or field. This free tool allows you to think outside the box when it comes to book promotion and gives you the option to include your book with other Amazon products, essentially creating a “bundle” of items relating to the “So you’d like to…” Guide topic. Authors can choose to write content about the subject and, within the content, mention that the book is for sale on Amazon.