What I Learned about Selling Books as an Indie Writer

by Ron Vitale

Flickr: TheKellyScope

Update: I have finished adding numbers from June up through December 2013.

I know that there are many fellow indie writers out there who are in a similar situation that I once was back in 2010 so I wanted to share my publishing journey along with sales figures (August 2011 - May 2013). Yes, you have heard of Amanda Hocking's story and of John Locke's, but what about the other thousands of indie writers out there who decided to write books and put them up on Amazon? After several years of work, I have data to share with you.

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

I will be up front and as transparent as I possibly can. The self-publishing industry is volatile, difficult to predict and more time consuming than I ever anticipated. But, fear not, it's not without hope. What is truly important is to have realistic expectations. If you're looking to make it rich fast, then, yes, abandon hope. If you understand that you'll be putting in years of work and that you'll need to build your platform and brand over several years writing at least three books, then you're in the realm of reality.

Some quick back story before I get into the details: I started writing Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost back in January 2010. I published the book on Amazon on August 11, 2011. On December 29, 2011, I began writing Stolen: Cinderella's Secret Diaries and published the book (a sequel to Lost ) on November 7, 2012. And finally, on January 2, 2013, I began writing book 3 in the series, Found: Cinderella's Secret Diaries , and have recently finished the first draft of the book. Depending on my full-time job responsibilities, training for a fall marathon and my family not kicking me out of the house if I don't make time for them, I expect that the third book will be finished late this year to early next.

What Worked and What Didn't

Keep in mind that right after I published Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost Amazon's KDP Select launched and I eventually made a decision to put my books solely on Amazon. I had originally posted Cinderella's Secret Diaries: Lost  on Barnes & Noble's PubIt! platform and hardly sold any copies. I sold 0 copies on Smashwords and never made the leap to Apple's store or to Kobo. The data I share here will be solely from Amazon because, for me, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords did not produce any serious sales for me (again, Smashwords was literally none and I only used that platform to give away free books).

Book Reviewers 

I scoured the web and looked through more than 150 book reviewer sites, reading their guidelines and submitting requests, asking them to read Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost . With more than 100 requests out, I received 13 replies from book reviewers who agreed to review my book. I shipped a few physical copies (around 5) to various places in the United States, one in Europe and one in Asia. After all that work, I did receive some extremely positive reviews (many book reviewers would publish on their site and also on Goodreads and on Amazon), but did not receive any jump in sales. As of my writing of this post, I have 40 reviews on Amazon for Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost  (average of 4.2 out of 5 stars).

Goodreads 

I networked with hundreds of people on Goodreads, wrote reviews for other books, engaged with as many people as I could and tried out several promotions sending out free offers for my book to those who followed me. I never saw any increase in sales during any of these promotions. Engagement on Goodreads has been extremely low and although I'm hoping that now that Amazon will be owning the service, I'd like to see reviews on Amazon be tied into Goodreads, but that might not be happening. We shall see. Last I read, it looks as though Amazon will want to keep the service separate from them.

Social Media (Twitter, Facebook and Google+) 

Though I did not have enough tracking in place from Google+ or Facebook posts through to Amazon, any time I posted a link to my books I did not see any increase in sales. I use Hootsuite for my tweets and the click thru rate was extremely low for tweets announcing that my book was on sale, free, etc. I do not have any solid evidence to show that my books sold after any of my social media efforts. However, I found that Twitter has been a fantastic place to meet readers and to network with fellow authors.

Local Newspaper Interview

In working with a local newspaper, I was able to land an interview along with a picture of my book. However, even with a blurb on the front page of the newspaper, I saw 0 sales during the week after the newspaper article ran. Granted that the article ran four months after Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost launched, but no print or digital copies were sold during this time.

Friends, Family, Book Clubs

As would be expected, friends/family and two local book clubs came through and purchased my books. I participated in one book club event and answered questions and had a fantastic time meeting and spending time with readers. Face time with people did pay off and helped me to sell my book through word of mouth. Copies of the print and digital versions of Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost  did move from friends and family recommending the book to their friends on Facebook and from the book club experiences I had.

Indie Book Collective Blog Tour

Back in December 2011, I experimented with purchasing a spot in one of the Indie Book Collective's blog tours. The idea was simple: You lower the price of your book on Amazon to $.99 and then the entire group drives traffic to one website to promote a select number of books. Unfortunately, Amazon's KDP select launched around this time and my results were extremely poor. I spent $75 in promotions for two blog tours* and did not make my money back in book sales. Another mistake that in retrospect makes perfect sense now: I had only written book 1 of the Cinderella's Secret Diaries  series. At the end of the book, I promoted another book of mine, Dorothea's Song , but that was a different genre and wasn't a natural choice for a book that a young adult reader might choose to buy.

KDP Select

I saved the best for last. Here are some numbers for Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost .  

April 2012
Duration: Full 5 days being free on KDP Select
Books given away: 4,630
Sold: 46 (Price $2.99)
Kindle Owner's Lending Library (KOLL): 14

December 2012
Duration: Full 5 days being free on KDP Select
Books given away: 2,597
Lost (book 1): 13 (Price $1.99) and 11 (KOLL)
Stolen (book 2): 29 (Price $2.99) and 1 (KOLL)

May 2013
Duration: 3 days being free on KDP Select
Books given away: 2,824
Lost (book 1): 53 (Price $.99)
Stolen (book 2): 10 (Price $2.99)

Note: In all the numbers listed above, I am only counting data from the United States of America and have not factored in the free books or sales that I had in other countries. It's a few copies here and there, but international sales are extremely limited at this time though I did include that data in the totals I'll share below.

So to sum this section up: All the other promotions that I tried did not translate into sales. The best success I saw was friends, family, book clubs and KDP select. When I gave my book away on Amazon, its ranking jumped up tremendously and was more readily found in customer's search results. At the end of the day, I saw an increase in sales.

Social media is a great way to build my platform and to meet readers, trying to sell my books directly through those mediums did not work. 

The Full Monty: My Sales

 

Below is a full listing of my digital sales in the Amazon Kindle store from August 2011 until May 29, 2013 for book 1 and book 2 of the Cinderella's Secret Diaries  series:

Lost:

Kindle Price: $2.99
2011

August: 12 + 3 (U.K.) = 15
September: 10 
October: 10
November: 3 + 3 (U.K.) = 6
December: 45 (at $.99) + 9 ($2.99) + 5 (U.K.) + 1 (FR)= 56

2011 Yearly Paid Total: 97

2012
January:
7 (Price $.99)
21 (Price $2.99)*
6 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($2.57 US)

*KDP Select of Dorothea's Song ran during this time.

February:
16 (Price $2.99)
6 (KOLL**)

March:
8 (Price $2.99)
2 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($1.95 US)

April:
46 (Price $2.99)
4 (U.K.) ($1.95 US)
14 (KOLL**)
4,630 (FREE - KDP Select)
165 (FREE - KDP Select U.K.)
115 (FREE - KDP Select DE)
5 (FREE - KDP Select FR)
1 (FREE - KDP Select IT)
1 (FREE - KDP Select ES)

May:
25 (Price $2.99)*
3 (KOLL)
1 (U.K.) ($1.95 US)
*KDP Select of Dorothea's Song ran during this time.

June:
9 (Price $2.99)
3 (KOLL**)
3 (U.K.) ($1.95 US)

July:
14 (Price $2.99)
9 (KOLL**)
2 (U.K.) ($1.95 US)

August:
4 (Price $2.99)
2 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($2.55 US)

September:
8 (Price $3.99)
1 (KOLL**)

October:
8 (Price $3.99)
2 (KOLL**)

November:
6 (Price $1.99)
1 (Price $3.99)
1 (DE) ($1.55 US)

December:
13 (Price $1.99)
11 (KOLL**)
2 (U.K.) ($1.24 US)
2,597 (FREE - KDP Select)
69 (FREE - KDP Select U.K.)
21 (FREE - KDP Select DE)
4 (FREE - KDP Select FR)
2 (FREE - KDP Select Japan)
9 (FREE - KDP Select CA)
1 (FREE - KDP Select IT)
2 (FREE - KDP Select ES)

2012 Yearly Paid Total: 261
2012 Yearly FREE via KDP Select: 7,622

2013 

January:
53 (Price $.99)
17 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($.75 GBP)
1 (JP) (99.00 JPY)

February:
11 (Price $.99)
1 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($.75 GBP)

March:
6 (Price $.99)
1 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($.75 GBP)
1 (DE) ($.75 EUR)

April:
10 (Price $.99)
1 (U.K.) ($.75 GBP)

May:
2,824 (FREE - KDP Select)
53 (Price $.99)

June:

Jovian Gate Chronicles (at $1.99)
1 ($.70)

Lost (at 35% of $3.00 )
2 ($2.10)

Lost (at 70% of $2.99)
8 ($16.24)

Lost (KOLL)
4 ($8.95)

Stolen (at 35% of $4.01)
1 ($1.40)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
4 ($11.00)

Stolen (KOLL)
4 ($15.67)

Lost (UK at $1.98)
1 ($1.34)

July

Lost (at 35% of $2.99)
2 ($2.10)

Lost (at 70% of $2.99)
5 ($10.15)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
2 ($5.50)

Stolen (KOLL)
1 ($2.04)

Lost (DE at $2.60)
1 ($1.77)

August

Lost (at 70% of $2.99)
3 ($6.09)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
1 ($2.75)

September

Lost (at 70% of $2.99)
6 ($12.18)

Lost (KOLL)
1 ($2.42)

Lost (Free)
1,368

Stolen (at 35% of $3.99)
1 ($1.40)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
4 ($11.00)

Lost (Free in UK)
34

Lost (70% in DE at $2.60)
1 ($1.77)

Lost (Free in DE)
71

Lost (Free in JPY)
3

Lost (Free in CAD)
9

Lost (Free in IT)
2

Lost (Free in INR)
12

Lost (Free in BRL)
1

October

Lost (at 70% of $2.99)
2 ($4.06)

Lost (KOLL)
1 ($2.51)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
1 ($.275)

November

Jovian Gate Chronicles (at 35% of $1.99)
1 ($.70)

Stolen (at 35% of $3.99)
1 ($1.40)

Stolen (at 70% of $3.99)
1 ($2.75)

December

Jovian Gates (Free)
72

Lost (Free)
1,143

Lost (Matchbook at $.99)
1 ($.63)

Stolen ($3.99)
4  ($11.00)

UK

Jovian Gate Chronicles (Free)
5

Lost (Free)
28

DE

Jovian Gate Chronicles (Free)
5

Lost (Free)
7

France

Lost (Free)
2

CA

Jovian Gate Chronicles (Free)
3
Lost (Free)
14

IT

Lost (Free)
2

ES

Lost (Free)
1

AU
Lost (Free)
3

BRL

Jovian Gate Chronicles (Free)
1

Lost (Free)
3

MX

Lost (Free)
1

2013 Yearly Paid Total: 223
2013 Yearly FREE via KDP Select: 4,324

Stolen (Book 2):

2012

November:
13 ($3.99)

December:
28 (Price $2.99)
1 (KOLL**)
1 (U.K.) ($1.85 GBP)

2012 Yearly Paid Total: 43

2013

January:
12 (Price $2.99)
8 (KOLL**)
2 (U.K.) ($1.85 GBP)

February:
3 (Price $2.99)

March:
1 (Price $2.99)
2 (KOLL**)
1 (KOLL**, U.K.)
1 (DE) (2.60 EUR)

April:
2 (Price $2.99)
2 (U.K.) ($1.85 GBP)

May 1 - 29
10 (Price $2.99)

2013 Yearly Paid Total: 44

**KOLL stands for Kindle Owner's Lending Library

What It All Means

The data do not lie: Since August 2011, I have sold or had Kindle owners borrow 516 copies of Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost  and I have given away through Amazon's KDP Select: 10,446 digital copies of that book. For Stolen: Cinderella's Secret Diaries (book 2 in the series), I've sold or had Kindle owners borrow 87 copies. As I mentioned earlier on in this article, I am currently working on book 3 of the series. If you add up all the numbers, you can see that I did not make a lot of money selling books. (A quick side note: I have not sold many print copies. It's a few but nowhere near what I've sold on the Kindle.)

I have not listed the cost of my covers, proofreading fees, the cost of registering with the Library of Congress the copyright for the two books or domain name and web hosting fees. When I factor those fees in, I've spent around $1,200. These are sobering numbers. Take into consideration that I work full-time, am raising a family and that my only free time to write is from 5 a.m. - 6:30 a.m. and you have a good sense of the time constraints involved.

If I were looking to make a quick buck, I could have taken a side job at McDonald's and made a lot more money. But that is not what I chose to do and here is what I learned: 

  • Joe Konrath is right. Write more books, build your platform. Amazon works because many, many readers are there and countries are being added all the time. However, it would be wise for me to put my books out on other platforms and also consider selling the digital copies myself. Andrew Hyde has a great article on Amazon's digital delivery fees.
  • There isn't much point in marketing your first book. You'll get some reviews but there is nothing else for people to buy. You will have spent a lot of time and energy but you don't have another book for sale.  Instead, write the next one.
  • Write many books (can you sense the pattern here?). I keep reading from other authors that three or four books is the magic number that starts setting off the algorithm in Amazon's search engine. Writing series is where (at least right now in 2013) it's at. The more GOOD books you write, the better. 
  • Social media is great for networking with readers and other writers but limit your time there. Write more books (see above).  Social media builds trust and, if used right, shows that you're human and are a real person. Promotions on there, selling your book did not work for me.
  • Amazon's KDP Select did cause me to get a bump in sales each time I used it. Would I have sold more if my books were on Kobo, iBookstore, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble? I don't know. I don't have the data to prove which works better. 

All in all, I am a writer in for the long haul. I have been writing stories since I was 9 years old and decided a long time ago that I wanted to share my stories with the world. I've been working hard at writing and publishing since January 2010 and thought it was time for me to share my experience with other writers. I see myself in the early stages of my writing career and plan to keep on writing books until I can't anymore.

Although my sales numbers aren't great, I have been touched by the great responses I've received from readers. Yes, I've received some negative reviews, but reading the glowing reviews from new readers helps me know that I'm on to something with my Cinderella's Secret Diaries  series. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way, stumbled a lot, gave up hope at times, but I have picked myself up and continue to strive to be a better writer and marketer. It's not easy, but I keep trying, working hard and writing. I wish I would have spent more time writing than wasting a lot of time on promotion, but I can't turn back the clock. 

But the future is bright and day by day I learn more and am getting better at the business of writing. If there's anything I've learned, it's that writing is a business: I not only need to know how to write a great book but also need to know how to best market it. 

If you have questions, feel free to comment on this post or connect with me on Twitter @ronvitale.

And if after reading this monster of a post, you'd like to help me, please do me a solid and purchase one of my books. Thank you.  

Updates:

June 8, 2013: "I spent $75 in promotions for two blog tours." I found the correct price. I had originally thought I had spent $125. That was incorrect. $75 for the two blog tours is what I spent. Read my Indie Book Collective blog tour post.