How do I sell successfully, as a self-published author?

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All self-published writers know that the hardest part of the whole process is not the writing, which is creative and challenging and satisfying. The bit we struggle with is getting our books into the hands of readers, and having those readers pay a price commensurate with the effort and energy that’s gone in to the book.

Obviously, much will depend on the mode of publication you choose. With an ebook there’s no physical product, but readers still have to know where to find your book, and choose it over the masses of others that are available, especially in the crowded market of genre-fiction. Some ebook authors use price as the come-on, but that quickly turns into a race to the bottom and the pressure to charge a derisory amount or nothing at all.

If you choose, as I did, to create a physical book as well as an ebook, there are more routes to sales, but most of them still fundamentally depend on ‘visibility’. I advertise my books on my website and on all the flyers and bookmarks I have printed. I also get orders through Amazon, and through the major book distributors such as Gardners Books in Eastbourne. In Cumbria, where I live and the books are set, distribution is handled by Hills Books of Workington, which supplies almost all Cumbrian bookshops and other outlets, but beyond this region getting my books onto bookshop shelves is almost impossible. Readers can order them of course, and do so, but the supply chain is long with discounts at every stage.

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The bookshop contacts their wholesaler, who contacts me, who posts off the requested amount, which then goes back to the wholesaler, then to the bookshop, and finally into the hands of the reader. With postal charges rising all the time, any supply chain that relies on the self-published author fulfilling such orders by post means precious little profit.

An efficient and profitable selling route for me is via my website direct to the reader, using Paypal for payment. I could invest in a card reader, but that in turn relies on a good mobile signal which can never be assumed either in my home or when I’m out on the road meeting potential readers. Maybe it’s something I need to investigate again.

The main problem is the very slow traffic to my website and how to increase the website’s ‘attractiveness’, a task so far from my original passion for writing that I constantly put it off. Everything I know about the internet and how to use it I’ve had to learn in the last twenty years, and much of it still frustrates me. I have a Twitter account with over a thousand followers, but won’t play some of the games that seem to required to grow that number. I use FB too, but am wary of it and share only with a limited number of people already known to me. The key issue may be that the generation that reads and loves my books is, like me, a pre-internet generation. Why else would people sometimes tell me that my books are ‘hard to find’ when a ten second online search using just my name would give them all the information they need?

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Why do they go to a bookshop and order, when they could go straight to my website and its online ‘bookshop’ in half the time? Of course I’m keen to preserve local bookshops, but I wish more of them would stock good self-published books like mine.

Fortunately, I really enjoy doing presentations about my books to groups large and small, meeting readers and potential readers. Almost all of these are in Cumbria, but that’s where my books are already known. Without a publisher or an agent, it’s well-nigh unheard-of to be asked to present self-published work at any of the major events and book festivals, unless you’re very well-connected, which I am not. For me, an added frustration is that after thirty years as a professional presenter I know I could do as good a job as most of the authors I hear talking about their work, and better than some. Even with a restricted field for selling, however, direct sales account for a major part of my sales every year, and the most profitable.

Of course I’m contacted regularly by people offering to improve my website’s effectiveness, at a price. Is it worth it, in terms of time as well as cost? Life’s too short to spend too much time on things I really don’t enjoy. My problem is patience: I couldn’t be bothered trying to find an agent after the first few generic rejections. Nor, I fear, can I be bothered to spend precious hours growing my website traffic when I could be crafting another story. So, I’m a bit stuck. My books sell, but not as well as they should!

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To sell or not to sell

When I published my first non-fiction books about education, many years ago, we sold through old-fashioned mail order, and directly to clients when I was working with them. Then I started writing fiction, and set up a website where customers could buy my novels as well as the non-fiction books, using Paypal. I thought we would sell more that way than any other, but that has proved to be quite mistaken. The majority of my paperback novel sales have been through retailers around Cumbria, to local people and to some of the millions of visitors to the Lake District every year who enjoy – as I do – reading about where they are. Ebook sales have been quite good, but again seasonal, with the winter time being slower than the summer, reflecting the number of people who are visiting and seeing my books on sale. We sell through Amazon, and through other bookshops that use distributors such as Neilsen, but not many compared to the actual bookshop sales.

Looking ahead, my hope is to reach more readers, within and beyond the Cumbria region, and that the larger bookshop chains will then be encouraged to stock the books. I need to publicise more, and that’s a goal for when the full trilogy is finished and out there, by early summer 2014. The publication of Part 2, Forgiven, boosted the sales of Part 1, A Good Liar, and the third one ‘Fallout’ could have the same effect. I hope so. But setting up this new WordPress blog has prompted me to consider whether I want to sell books through this website. I think not. To do so would mean an upgrade to allow me to use the site commercially, and is it worth it for the proportion of sales that have come via that route? Instead, I think I’ll use this site to blog about the writing process, use the written word to clarify my own thinking, and engage with other writers and readers too.

If people want to buy my books, they have various opportunities to do so, in both paperback and ebook form. Sales will not be spectacular, but there’s no sell-by date on historical fiction and sales should be steady year by year. Already we’re re-printing ‘A Good Liar’ as stocks of the first 1500 print run are almost finished. Word of mouth and a little local publicity seem to be working. Now if I could just persuade people to buy the books rather than lend their own copy to every friend and relation who wants to read it, that would be good!