Much like punching a crocodile, indie publishing is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating, because hey, you hit “publish” this morning and perhaps tomorrow the next thing you will hit is the ceiling after you discover you sold a million copies overnight. At the very least, it is exhilarating because you’ve taken control.

At the same time, it is utterly, skin-grippingly terrifying, because it’s such a big, big world, and when there are 1,504,243 titles and counting in the Kindle store alone, who the hell knows how a book ever sells a single copy in the first place.

When I put my first book out, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. Joe Konrath said I should join Kindleboards, so I did that. I posted about my book there and nothing happened. When my next books came out, I did the same thing, and more nothing continued to happen. It took me a full 12 months before all that nothing began to turn into something.

If I were starting my indie author career over right now, if I had my first book all ready to go out and conquer the world, here’s what I might do instead.

First, I would price my book at $2.99 or $3.99. This is not based on scientific research over here. But $0.99 is gaining a stigma and, from what I’ve absorbed elsewhere, $3.99 is the lowest price at which many readers will impulse-buy. When you’re just starting out, you’ve got nothing. No reviews. No also-boughts pointing back to your book. No recommendations from a reader’s trusted friend. There is nothing to break down a buyer’s resistance to buying your book, so you want to keep that resistance as low as possible with a bargain price. $2.99-3.99 seems to be low enough for that resistance to frequently be overcome by no other tools than your cover, your concept, and your sample.

Second, I would enroll my book in Amazon’s Select program.

This is a controversial decision. Well, it’s not that controversial. It’s about as controversial as all the thrillers listed on Amazon with subtitles including the word “CONTROVERSIAL,” which is to say that a few of us nerds might care, but nobody else gives a damn. Anyway, there is a mild controversy around Select. A lot of writers don’t like the idea of being exclusive to Amazon. A lot of writers think giving away your book devalues it and all books, and that it leads to temporary, inorganic gains that will soon dry up and blow away. What these authors are after is a long-term organic strategy of distributing to as many markets as possible and building up many different revenue streams that add up to a steady and sustainable income.

Well, good luck, guys.

That’s a little snarkety. But the thing is, every storefront presents you with a different set of tools to get your book in front of readers. And Amazon’s Select program is the very strongest tool of them all.

Quick aside: you should probably attach the phrase “In my opinion” to every sentence here. It will save us all a lot of time and anguish.

But here are some facts, or at least the facts as I have experienced them. If you push your book to Barnes & Noble, it will appear on the new releases list if readers sort by date, and there may be a week or two in which people see it. If you distribute to iTunes, it may not show up anywhere at all. Same with Kobo. It will be visible on Smashwords’ new releases for about a day before it’s buried, and then people are going to have to search for it to find it.

In other words, the window for your new book to take off purely organically is about 1-7 days long. If those 1-7 days pass and you haven’t sold enough to start making bestseller lists and generating also-boughts and all that–which you won’t–your book will be buried by all the new releases.

And that is where Select comes in.

For the record, I’m not an unrepentant Amazon/Select cheerleader. Of my 9 titles, only 2 are currently in Select, and I might not leave them there for another term. The program is not what it used to be. And it’s not a magic bullet. But it still has its uses.

Let us say you have hit “Publish.” Your book goes live. Shoppers can now find it by browsing the new releases or by searching for very specific terms and keywords, where your book will probably be listed as the #1,387th result. How else do you get readers to see your book?

One method, popularized widely by Amanda Hocking, is to submit your book to book bloggers. These people will review your book and then share it with their readership. This is a free and relatively simple way to get your book in front of people. But there are a lot of problems with this process. Another preface: book bloggers are great. I’ve known some spectacular people in the field who have really brightened my day with their devotion to finding new books and their enthusiasm in sharing them.

But you can’t count on book bloggers as a release strategy. They are overwhelmed with review requests. It may be weeks or months after you write to them before they can get to your book. If you’re chummy and entrepreneurial enough, maybe you can send them an ARC and schedule a review for around the time of your book’s release, but that means you have to wait to release until they’re ready, and waiting to release sucks. Anyway, that’s assuming the review will be good, which is no sure thing, even if your book is a professional product. Their opinions are highly subjective, after all. I’m a movie reviewer. A paid one who works for a newspaper. I hate all kinds of professionally-made movies that other people love dearly because reviews are nothing more than opinions, which always, always vary.

To summarize, then, reviews from blogs are likely to be slow to arrive, there’s a chance the review will hurt your book (just try selling it when it’s got a single two-star review), and even if the review is positive, the blogger’s audience probably won’t be all that big. If everything breaks right, it might be good for a few sales. Having a positive review out there may also help future shoppers decide to purchase your book. Seeking blog reviews isn’t a dumb thing to do, then, and it can help build up your long-term infrastructure, but it’s not going to do much for you on Day 1.

Anyway, things are different from when book bloggers gave Amanda Hocking the push that helped break her out. They’re all overwhelmed. You can’t hit enough of them to make much if any difference. Personally, the entire submission process feels too much like the agent hunt. I don’t submit to book bloggers anymore. Unless you write in YA, where they still seem to have some influence, I wouldn’t burn too much time on that route.

What do you do instead? It’s probably worthwhile to get your book listed on GoodReads. I am not intricately well-versed in how Goodreads runs, but if you have librarian status, or know someone who does, you should be able to add your book easily. If you can’t, it’s no big deal–someone will get to it eventually–but Goodreads seems to be a fairly important part of developing your book’s infrastructure, a concept I’ll get to in a bit.

But perhaps the most important thing you can do after hitting publish is this: make your book free. Right out of the gate. Give away the hell out if it. Schedule it for a two-day run, sit back, and see what happens.

“What happens” probably won’t be much. I think it’s vitally important to set the right expectations at this stage, and for most beginning authors, the reality is you’re going to sell very little right off the bat. In concrete terms, you’re doing very well if you’re selling 1/day. Many brand-new books from first-time authors with no platform can easily go days or weeks or even months between sales. A month from now, your sales column might consist of a number between 1-9, and that is perfectly okay.

At this phase, that means every single sale is a success. Every sale means someone stumbled over an unknown book and thought it looked interesting enough to pay money for. Do you know how hard it is to make that happen? Remember: 1,504,243 ebook titles and counting. As a brand-new book, the only place you’re showing up is in the new releases list and in keyword searches, and even then, anyone who found your book is either obsessive or almost superhumanly dedicated to finding new books, because they probably had to dig through dozens of pages before they happened upon yours. In terms of its present visibility, your book may have a “Buy” button on its page, but in many ways it still hasn’t really been published.

So cheer every day you do get a sale, but try not to be surprised or disappointed when you don’t. It’s probably going to be some time before your book starts traveling down some of the main avenues to discoverability.

And that’s why we’re going free right off the bat–to try to kickstart a couple of these avenues.

Again, don’t expect much from your first free run. A few hundred downloads on your first day is a pretty good outcome; my brand-new novels have typically pulled 200-500 on their first day free. If you’re in that range, hooray! I’d let it run free for a second day just in case it wants to catch fire, but it’ll probably give away fewer copies than it did the day before, which is perfectly normal.

Let’s address the exceptions real quick. If your book does start giving away a ton of copies–I dunno, 2000 or more–I would definitely add a third day, and keep adding days for as long as it keeps getting downloads. If it gets very few downloads–like, 50 or fewer over those two days–take a close look at your book’s presentation, its cover and blurb. If they look good, maybe you just ran into some bad luck, but this could be a sign that your book’s appeal isn’t quite there yet. One of the collateral benefits to making your book free is it can help you ballpark its overall sexiness. If you’ve got doubts about your book’s surface appeal, take this opportunity to fix it up now. Seriously. It matters.

If your book had a more middle-of-the-road outcome, though, and gave away 300-1000ish copies over its run, awesome. With a little luck, its infrastructure is about to get going. “Infrastructure” is just some crap I made up, but I think of it in terms of all the things about your book that makes it visible and makes it pretty. This includes any number of things. Reviews–onsite, on Goodreads, on blogs, wherever. Alsobots, which is our very clever slang term for the similar/related books a website will recommend to people viewing a specific title. Nice placement on lists (bestseller, popularity, new releases, whatever). And the ever-popular, ever-nebulous word of mouth.

By going free and giving away several hundred copies of your book, you’ll generate a bunch of alsobots that appear on other titles’ product pages that point back to your book. Hooray for visibility! And with a little luck, you’ll pick up a few Amazon reviews in the next few days and weeks, too. Maybe just one or two or three, but assuming they’re generally positive, these are going to help take advantage of your increased visibility by helping to convince anyone browsing your page that a living, breathing, non-you person enjoyed and recommended your book. (Because a real person did enjoy it. Don’t fake reviews. It’ll come back to bite you.) People might start reviewing your book on Goodreads, too–they’ll probably be more inclined to do so if its page already exists–which means their friends will see their reviews, which might entice them to check out your book. (More expectations-setting: Goodreads reviews are generally much harsher than Amazon. On Goodreads, 3 stars generally means they liked it. Didn’t love it, but liked it. That’s more like a 4-star review over on Amazon.)

You may wind up with a handful of sales in the first few days after your free run, too. Always an awesome feeling. These will probably slow down all too soon. But between alsobots (hopefully!) and reviews (hopefully!), maybe instead of selling 1/month, you’re selling 1/week. Or instead of 1/week, you’re up to 1/day.

These are small gains. Frustratingly small, probably. Well quit whining, whiner! Ha ha, sorry. But really, right now, every gain is a gain. And there’s a less-tangible gain going on here, too. Through this process, you are learning. At least you better be learning! Again, sorry. You’re learning how to sell books in general and how to sell this book in specific. That’s going to make this whole business much easier down the road.

For now, that’s it. I mean, if you want, you can tweet and blog and Facebook and pursue book bloggers about your book. That could help. It’s probably better than nothing. It makes me feel like a jerk, though, and it’s very time-consuming, so I don’t do any of that stuff. Except blog here. Because I enjoy it. That is the real secret to self-promotion: find what you like, and do that.

Otherwise, there’s not much more you can do for now. Watch your book for 2-4 weeks. Most of all, you’re looking for reviews. You’re going to want 5+ of them, ideally with an average of 4.0 or better. Having done a giveaway is risky at this early stage, because a couple of poor negative reviews right off the bat can turn this process into an uphill slog, but I think it’s worth the risk. Just be aware that this could happen.

Hopefully you can get these initial mostly-positive reviews just through your giveaway and through normal sales, but if they’re not coming, you may want to spend time actively pursuing them. Again: please be ethical. Sockpuppets stink. Paid reviews are against Amazon’s policy, too. Don’t fall prey to temptation. This is a game of patience. This won’t be your only book, right? Then act with the same class you’d like to be known for in a year or five or twenty, when you have many books and many fans.

While you wait, work on your next novel. Learn more about the business by reading blogs or Kindleboards or whatever. Try not to obsess. Almost everyone sucks at first. Like I said, it was a full 12 months before I started selling more than 5-20 books per month.

What you’re gearing up for here is your second giveaway. A giveaway with a much better chance to hit it big and push your book up to the next plateau.

A giveaway which–cliffhanger!–will be the subject of my next post.

Part 2 can be found here.

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I am a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, based in LA. Read More.
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