How Social Media Helps Sell Books

Let me say right from the get-go that I’m grateful for all the other indie writers out there who publicly reveal mistakes they made so that I can try to avoid them, who suggest positive outcomes they think they created (or when they attribute to luck certain results that seem to have “just happened”) so I can attempt to emulate them, and who even make educated guesses not based on personal experience because I might not have thought of it, myself! A week or two ago, Romance Author Merry Farmer shared an experience of how having the first book in her romance series go free helped the other book in the series sell and then the first book, too, when it went back to full price. This isn’t a Kindle Select story, so everyone who has a series can benefit from learning from her experience.

My own little sharing tale began when I published my book Fear of Falling in March 2012 to practically nonexistent sales. I tweeted, I made it free, I discounted, I racked up a slew of very good reviews–mostly fours and fives–and I placed in a prominent fiction contest which allowed me to plaster a very attractive gold medallion on the cover–and still the book did not sell. And then, because while I think social media is worthless for many things (like promoting your book) but is pretty darn wonderful for making friends and learning from people, I read a terrific post from Dean Wesley Smith that changed everything for me. While I must admit to having re-read the post at least four times (I knew there was wisdom there specific to me but it wasn’t obvious at the first reading what it was), it finally clicked which toe I had, effectively, blown off with Fear of Falling, and what kind of surgery would be necessary. While I’d  cranked up the size of my name on the second stab at a cover design,  the positioning of my genre was a muddle, my sales copy was flat (and ME a copywriter!), the cover–although professionally done–was selling the wrong story to the wrong reader.

Here is the book that launched in March. It looks like what I thought it was: women’s fiction. (Turns out that’s only part of what it is and maybe not the best part.) I threw this cover to the left up on my Facebook pages where I have a great group of writers hanging around and got some opinions that basically said, “Yeah, you’re good! Love it but why not add more color?”  So I created the one to the right with the woman’s face staring reflectively off into middle distance as she contemplated her fears and the world ending etc. After a month of, like five sales, I started listening to my husband when he said: “Ditch the woman’s face and the type face. It looks too literary.” Fine. I’m flexible. I hired a designer to re-do my type and my next cover looked like the one below. It was so much better especially with the cool little “L” falling, but since I was still skating down the wrong side of the wrong genre, it wasn’t going to matter. I gave  a bunch of the books away to reviewers and started getting positive reviews. Because I didn’t know who my reader for this book really was, and because I took all the sex and the profanity out of it, I targeted a Christian audience. That worked up to a point but, really, just because my main protagonist thinks more about God when the world “ends” really didn’t make it Christian fiction. (You see how confused I was?) When a friend of mine in New Zealand read it, he told me he was absolutely surprised that he ended up liking it because he thought it was about how to overcome fears with horses! Now this was in May and I should have known RIGHT THEN that I was all backward with the marketing of the thing. But, I’m stubborn and I liked the cover (that I’d paid for) and there was my husband (and how I hate it when he’s right!) saying it looks like a horseback riding manual or some kind of toffy literary fiction. “But if you read the reviews they say stuff like ‘page turner’ and ‘had me on the edge of my seat,’ ” I would say. And still the sales didn’t happen. I wrote two other books in the meanwhile, totally annoyed that this great little book about a modern woman battling to keep her family alive in a post-apocalyptic dystopic rural society wasn’t attracting any readers! And then two important things happened.  I read Dean’s post. I cogitated. I wondered. I looked at Fear of Falling on its Amazon page and I glanced down and saw all the books underneath it that other readers looked at or bought after looking at mine. And they all had flashes or explosions or bomb dust or ruined cities on the cover. And I looked at mine. Hmmmmm.

All of a sudden, it was clear that the damn title was all wrong. I immediately changed it from Fear of Falling to Free Falling. And yes, I did it because I didn’t want to lose the value I’d paid for with the cool little wonky “L” that my graphic artist had created but also because I knew as soon as I did it that it worked. Fear of Falling said it was a nonfiction book and we were going to discuss your fears.

The horse on the cover said we were going to deal with your fears about falling. Free Falling said–what happens in this book is out of control.  I republished the book across all sites–and Createspace, too, and showed it to my husband and he nodded and said: “Now, put a mushroom cloud on the horizon, and you’re done.” What? Are you kidding? Talk about heavy handed! No way! I re-wrote the blurb and description across all sites. I repositioned the genre, killed the Christian fic slant and added sci-fi and even YA (hell, it has no sex or cussing, and a hero kid in it, why not?)  Then three days later, just for fun, just to see, I checked out istock.com for a mushroom cloud, dropped it into the cover’s indesign file and ghosted it back a tad…you know, just to see.

In 36 hours it had sold 20 books.

In 72 hours, it had sold 50 books. It went from a baseline Amazon ranking of 265,000 in the paid Kindle store to 40,000 and then 15,000.

In three days.

I was wrong, the cover was way wrong, the blurb was wrong, the genre was wrong, the damn title of the book was wrong. And because I’m an Indie, I can figure out what to do by accessing my online colleagues and advisers through social media. I can then sit down at my computer and make it right. So I’m passing this little case study on to you as living proof that (well, that Dean and my husband are both very wise men) but also that sometimes tweaking and changing and learning are all a part of the epublishing experience.

And sometimes even if you take the long way round to get where you’re going, if you meet the right people along the way, you can still get there in plenty of time.

15 responses to “How Social Media Helps Sell Books

  1. Nice observations, Susan, and thanks for the shout-out!

    You know, it strikes me that those of us who are ultra serious about being self-published authors are eventually going to learn how to be effective publishers and marketers as well, through trial and error if nothing else. Especially when we learn from each other like this. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks, Merry! It’s true. We really have to nail the marketing thing b/c it’s a shame to do all that writing work and then position it to the wrong audience. :-(

      • I keep thinking that some of us *shifty eyes* need to form some sort of a self-publishers marketing club or support group. I’ll admit that I know writing, but learning how to market has been a crash course….

      • Great idea. Trial by error is expensive (take it from me). Maybe create a Facebook group? Wow, Merry. The more I think of this idea of yours, the better I love it!

  2. Great analysis. Thank you. Until you added the mushroom cloud, I would have thought the book was about horses, and would have passed by it just on the basis of the cover.

  3. I just read a book, I may not have the title correct, but How I became a More Gooder Writer (on that line) and that was one of the main things. Don’t have a crappy cover. Obvious your a More Gooder Writer now

  4. It’s that perennial problem – getting the package right. Possibly the hardest thing writers have to do. Even mainstream publishers don’t manage it every time, because it involves second-guessing the public. And that, as you’ve pointed out, is where the strength of social media is.

    • Exactly. Plus, the ability to “run it up the flag pole” by testing it on a group of people you respect. It’s not even a matter of having a modicum of design sense (or access to a good designer), it’s knowing how to DIRECT the designer to produce what you need. If, like myself with this book, you don’t know what that is, all the best design advice in the world will be useless. When I think back about what I was doing at the time I started marketing this book, I realize I had just joined an Equine Authors group on Facebook and they were all extremely friendly and helpful and I kind of got sucked into the warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging to that coterie, even though I knew, intellectually, that my book was not about horses as theirs all were! (Horses run through it, but they are not the main focus at all.) They were the wrong people to ask: Do you like my cover b/c a)they hadn’t read the book and b)they weren’t marketers. All they did was react to a pretty picture of a horse on it and somehow I took that as viable marketing confirmation. :-( So in THAT case, it was my misuse of social media that screwed me up!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this! I just pulled out the cover to my book – although it isn’t self published, it’s published by a small publisher and can get all the help it can – and am going to try to perform the same type of analysis… Or, at the very least, when I do self-publish (it’s in the works!), I will hopefully learn from this :)

  6. Thanks for posting this. It’s very enlightening for me, and I’m going to try to change up some things on my cover to see if it’ll help my sales.

  7. Thanks for sharing this one.

  8. This is such an interesting account of how your tinkering with title, cover etc. could make your book so much more successful. thanks for writing.

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