STARTING OUT: The Highs and Lows of Marketing Your Ebook by Rachel Abbott

Welcome to the ‘Starting Out’ series focusing on debut authors.  The first three articles open on self-publishing in the ebook market; the benefits of winning awards (in the arena of traditionally published writers); and finally, optimising opportunities in both markets when presenting your work.  These articles commence weekly from today.  We kick off with UK bestselling ebook crime author Rachel Abbott imparting her experiences of ‘going to market’ and finding success.  She has a lot of valuable information, so read on …

The day that I decided to publish my novel for the Kindle was a red-letter day. My novel had been completed about four years previously, and I had then spent a couple of years tweaking it – but with no idea what to do with it. I made a feeble and half-hearted attempt to get an agent, but in all honesty I don’t take rejection well! I’d looked at various options for self-publishing, but they all cost money and for a while it was only feasible for people living in the US to publish for the Kindle.  But some time when I wasn’t looking, it became not only possible, but easy (in theory) to do from elsewhere – so it was all systems go!

Just three months after publishing my book, it reached the number one spot on Amazon UK, and stayed there for twenty days. It’s still there as I am writing this, but a new scheme of selling books for 20p to get them to the top seems to have started, so I have a couple of books hot on my heels (until their price goes back to normal). I can’t compete with 20p!

I have been asked so many times how I got to number one that I have started a series of blog posts on the whole process – from writing tips that I picked up, to formatting and finally marketing. But for this post, I’m going to talk a little about the highs and lows of marketing.

So we’ll start with the LOWS!

I had no ‘sales platform’ at all – i.e. there was nobody champing at the bit to buy my book apart from friends and family. I had done no promotion pre-launch, and nobody knew my book existed. I had done some stuff – but at a very low level. So yes, I had created a Twitter account (I had just 9 followers!), and I had a Facebook page with probably fewer than that. I had a rough idea of a website and a blog that I’d put together in haste. And that was it. Mistake number 1.

Mistake number 2 – I told everybody to buy my book on Amazon, whether they had a Kindle or not. I thought this would increase its visibility. Absolutely not. Most people who bought my book (because they were asked to) had never bought a book for the Kindle, so my book wasn’t linked to any others. Where it usually says “customers who bought xxx also bought yyy” – mine was totally empty. So all that effort to get friends and family to buy didn’t increase visibility at all.

For a month, nothing happened. What a waste – because I missed out on that precious period of “New releases – last 30 days” when my book could really have been noticed if I’d only done some preparation. I spent hour after hour scouring the internet for ideas of what I should do. And there is a wealth of information out there, but I discovered that I wasn’t making any progress at all – I was just jumping from one fascinating website to another – trying to work out how I could get my book noticed. And that was the third and last major mistake (although I promise you, there have been plenty of minor ones too!).

It was getting out of hand – I was spending every minute of every day finding things out and achieving nothing, so I pulled together everything that I had learned, and I wrote myself a marketing plan. It was seven pages long.

The MARKETING PLAN

I identified the key ways of getting my book in front of people, and then set a series of goals for each individual part of the plan, together with the amount of time that I would spend each day or week on that particular line item. The plan was broken down into Channels, Social Networking, Web. If I had lived in the UK rather than Italy, I would probably have added a “face to face” item as well.

Channels were all my channels to market – Amazon being top of the list, but I included the other ebook channels as well. I created a separate heading for each, and listed what I could do to influence or impact upon that channel. For example, I identified the importance of Author Central, and getting information up to date there, and I recognised that the quality of the information in my Product Description was critical. I also thought that creating a few Listmania lists might have an impact. But most significant was my desire to get reviews – and hope that they would be good ones. So what was the best way to go about that?

I went into “business mode” and created a very professional review request document, which provided details of my book, a cover image, the blurb, any existing reviews, etc. It can be found here if you are interested. I have to tell you that by sending this document, I managed to leapfrog my way up quite a few TBR lists! Sending a decent review request immediately demonstrates that you are professional in your approach and gives the impression that your book will be equally impressive. But see my note at the end of this post about reviews!

Social networking had a lot of sub-headings, but I could only focus on a couple. I’m not a great fan of Facebook (I know that I am probably alone in that), so I started by concentrating on Twitter. I needed to build followers, and I wanted followers who enjoy the sort of books that I write. So I bought some software that enabled me to target people to follow in the hope they will follow back. I mainly targeted people who follow other thriller writers to start with. People say you don’t make many sales on Twitter, and that might be true. However, when you’re only selling ten books a day, every single one is vital. And if you’re selling to book lovers, your book will be linked to other books in the same genre. The one day that I couldn’t use Twitter in January (the 13th to be precise – and a Friday!) my sales dropped from an average of 10 per day to 3. I still use Twitter a lot, but I recognise that my role now is to build my brand rather than sell my books.

The other significant impact on my success came from another form of social networking – forums. Amazon and Goodreads were the two that had the most dramatic affect. I chatted to people, found places where I could legitimately talk about my writing and my book, and went back regularly. I’ve met some terrific new friends, who are incredibly supportive. One day, I suddenly had a huge leap in the charts, and I posted on one of the forums that I didn’t know what had happened. One of the lovely people who was following my discussion said “Just click this link, and you’ll see why”. It turned out that a lot of the people who I’d been chatting to had bought Only the Innocent – read it – and were now recommending it to everybody in the other forums – the ones that authors aren’t allowed to engage in.

My final marketing heading was Web – and so I created two completely separate styles of web presence. On my website it’s all about the readers. Information on the book, reading guides, how to buy, etc. And my blog is there to help indie authors who are going through the same process. Both work, both could do with more of my time – but what I love the most is that both of them result in conversations: with readers, other authors and people who have always wanted to be an author.

So my one piece of advice would be to put together a detailed plan, with how much time each day you are going to spend on each element, and then monitor the results to see what works. Give yourself an action plan, otherwise it is just so easy to flounder around.

One final point

One final piece of advice. I opened by saying that I don’t take rejection well, and I talked about getting reviews. I chose reviewers at random when I launched Only the Innocent, and didn’t know any of them from Adam, so I was delighted to get really excellent reviews. However, since reaching #1 I have started to get a few bad reviews. It came as a shock, but I now realise that as an author, you have to take these in your stride and remember that it’s the book these reviews are criticising – not you personally.

Why do I think that I only go bad reviews after reaching #1? I think there are three types of bad review:

  1. Somebody has bought the book because of its chart position, and because of its previously good reviews. They hate it. But that’s okay. It is perfectly acceptable that some people just will not like your book – the subject matter, the way you write, or any other aspect of your book. We know we don’t all like the same things. The fact that some people express this in a less than friendly way is their problem, not yours. Don’t even consider fighting back! Those that give genuine feedback in their bad reviews are actually very valuable, because if you’re an indie author there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned. Some people think the ending in my book is completely wrong. Some people applaud it. It’s controversial, and therefore disagreement is inevitable.
  2. Self promotion is a problem in negative reviews, and I’ve come across this quite a lot. Sometimes people give a one star rating, and advise customers to buy a book by another author. If Amazon can actually link the comment to the author of the other book, they will remove it. But if it’s done by a friend, they won’t. So if a review has any form of promotion for other books, I’m afraid you just have to grin and bear it.
  3. Scams are becoming an issue. I have learned from forums that people are buying positive reviews for their books, and similarly buying bad reviews for competitors’ books. There is nothing you can do but take it in your stride, because it’s difficult to prove. And don’t get drawn in.

I suggest that if you do get a bad review, you console yourself by looking at some of the best-selling books of all time, and check out their one star reviews. And when you publish, buy yourself a thick skin because you may need it.

Rachel Abbott is the author of the UK bestseller Only the Innocent which is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and in other ebook formats.

Huge thanks to Rachel for taking the time out to write for It’s a crime! and for being so open with her valuable experience.

Tune in Tuesday 3 April for my article on the benefits of winning awards (in the arena of traditionally published writers) and whether they can be a predictor of future success.

31 thoughts on “STARTING OUT: The Highs and Lows of Marketing Your Ebook by Rachel Abbott

  1. Robert P. French

    Hi Rachel,

    This is an excellent post. Just what I needed. You mentioned that you bought some software that enabled you to target people to follow on Twitter. What software was that?

    1. Rachel Abbott

      Hi Robert – I bought Tweet Adder. I’m sure there are others, though. What it allows me to do is find other authors’ Twitter handles, and then do a search on all the people that follow them. I add these to a list, and Tweet Adder will automatically follow them (in batches over however many days it takes. Many of them follow back. Tweet Adder can also be set to ‘unfollow’ those people that don’t follow you back after a certain number of days, because once you get about 2000 follows on Twitter, the ratio of followers to followed has to be maintained (I think it’s about 1.2 to 1).

      Tweet Adder does a lot of other useful stuff too – such as regular searches for hashtags to follow. I couldn’t have done without it, and I’m up to about 2600 followers now.

      Let me know if this doesn’t answer your question!

  2. Maxine

    This looks like an incredibly useful post for new self-published authors. The minutiae of Amazon are quite scary. As a reader, I tend not to put too much emphasis on Amazon reviews in my purchasing decisions, I am afraid self-published e-books are top of my “ignore the reviews” list because I suspect that many of these are from friends, family or other authors in the same position supporting each other’s books (I’ve seen some evidence of all these, so admit to extrapolating a bit, but as a reader, time is short!). However, some Amazon reviewers are excellent, eg Simon Clarke, so I’ll always pay attention when he likes a book (it is his review and her post here that made me buy/read another self-published e-book, by Anya Lipska).

    Personally I hate author marketing and ignore it – (I also hate Facebook and only have an account so I can stay in touch with a couple of close relations who use it for preference). I don’t follow authors on Twitter because it is too irritating reading all the self-promo. I like filtering. However, I’m sure I am in a minority. I am, incidentally, an editor so I am looking forward to your section on editing your books!

  3. Ellie

    Genuine twitter uses detest those auto follow things. Use of them is even mentioned under twitter guidelines of what constitutes spammy behaviour. If the twitter system identifies you as a spam user, you won’t appear in search results. I want people to follow me because they’re interested in what I have to say. Twitter is social for me and it’s off putting when people you follow do nothing but try and sell you stuff. Hence why I rarely follow back self published authors any more unless they’ve been chatting to me about something other than their book. Knowing that many of them use this software puts me off even looking at their profiles. Which is sad.

    1. Rachel Abbott

      Hi Ellie – I can quite understand your point of view about who you choose to follow. My issue was finding enough people who were interested in the sort of books that I both read and write. I deduced that if somebody follows authors that I enjoy, we might have similar interests in books. So I follow them. There is absolutely no requirement at all to follow me back. If they do, that’s a bonus. When people follow me back, I always ask something about them that could (if they answer) start a conversation. I don’t even mention my book in my response – just books in general. I’ve found that it’s a great way to get to know people.

      The vast majority of my tweets are either chatting to people, posting tweets that point to interesting blogs, or about reviews to books (including my own). My blog is set up to help other authors, and I have a lot of author followers so there are several tweets on that subject. But my aim is to engage people – hopefully in conversation. If I don’t achieve that, I would expect them not to follow.

      As somebody who just had 9 followers, and was probably only following about 5 people, it has helped me to meet some great people with shared interests – and relatively quickly.

  4. Sarah

    Really interesting post. I have a kindle and find it useful for travelling and for getting e-ARCs from publishers as I’m not always around to receive a hard copy. I have just started to explore some of the crime fic e-books out there and and I am pleasantly surprised at the quality although I do pick and choose and like Maxine ignore the reviews and Twitter feeds (sorry Rachel I haven;t got around to yours but I’m going to look it out).

    However, I’m dismayed at the fact that the last two e-books I downloaded were FREE. OK this meant that the authors then reached the top of the respective sub-genre charts and also I am guilty for downloading something for nothing that I might have hesitated for £1.99. But surely an author who has toiled away like Rachel for 4 years shouldn’t have to give their books away.

    I know there are twitter programmes out there and I do follow a fair few authors but from a reviewer/reader’s point of view there are 2 really irritating habits. One is that an author follows you, then because I’m polite I follow them back, and then they unfollow me and the next hundred tweets are promoting their books! The other is that as soon as I start to follow them they send me a direct message (computer generated) urging me to buy their books. I feel I’m being terribly English about this and perhaps need to loosen up a bit about the whole thing, The upside is that some of the writers I follow are witty and give an interesting insight into writing and their daily lives.

    Looking forward to the next posts in this series Rhian.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Thanks Sarah. I have felt that guilt too. But I suppose you can also look at it this way. It’s retail marketing and it’s a cost of promo and a cost of sale. Products don’t get front of house displays in bookshops like Waterstones or can be seen packing the ends of aisles in the supermarkets for a week without a cost involved. The promo and its cost gets the product out there with a view to a longer relationship with the product/repeat buy, and in an author’s case, word of mouth. That 24/48 hours of ‘free’ (or extremely cheap) is the cost of making a #1 spot to get the name out there and build on the ranking (still aiming at a traditional publishing deal, more often than not).

      I think we’ve all been on that twitter thing, Sarah, and I feel that authors need the feedback. Yes, it might be ‘terribly English’, but it’s amusing – before it becomes terribly annoying – when ‘terribly English’ authors try that hard sell approach too. It’s just not really them is it? And it shows.

      Next post on prizes, with third on packaging your wares… Thanks again.

      1. Maxine

        I think the difference between traditional publisher marketing and this type of author marketing is that the former is general whereas the latter is personal, ie intruding onto your private internet space. Of course trad businesses are on to this too, and use social media for marketing, but they tend to do it openly, ie under the business name, so one knows what one is getting if one subscribes. Individual authors tend to do it by “being friendly” so their victims think they are nice, then they blast them with every tiny bit of news about their books and who has reviewed them, where they are on tour etc, which as a reader/recipient I find very dull and irrelevant.

        1. Rachel Abbott

          I think it’s very interesting that Sarah thinks that authors unfollow her. I don’t really understand why they would do that – but I do know for a fact that some very strange things are happening with Twitter. There are a number of readers and other authors that I chat to regularly, and suddenly I can’t send them a direct message because they’re not following – but they don’t know it! I’ve had tweets from people to say “why have you stopped following me?” when to the best of my knowledge, I haven’t done anything of the sort. So I think that occasionally there are little quirks in Twitter that make the unexpected happen.

          So I do hope it’s not as awful as it sounds. I would never unfollow somebody who is following me, unless they were abusive!

          1. crimeficreader Post author

            Sadly, this does happen, Rachel. Caused by human behaviour and not software malfunction and not just from authors. People are simply looking for follows over anything else and may even dump their new followers within minutes. With some it’s literally what they do to build a following, with others it may arise when they cannot handle their timeline the way they want to. There are others I call ‘persistent followers’ – those who do it time and time again to try and get you to follow them back; the short timeframe to their next appearance in the ‘new followers’ stream in tweetdeck being proof of their ultimate goal. I have one who is now up to seven tries. He’s never interacted with me on twitter apart from to tweet me a link to his ebook with so little comment attached it may as well have been a grunt. It saddens me that these people appear to have no idea what they are doing on twitter.

  5. Maxine

    I’m always getting authors following me, but I never follow them back. I think they go away pretty quickly if you ignore them. I like to get my book reading recommendations from independent reviews/reviewers. But it is clear from all this marketing/Amazon special offers etc that it does work, at least for some books. I just wonder how many people who download books (some people I know have hundreds) actually read them? I don’t suppose the authors mind though! I now have a rule of only one Kindle book in the queue, as it is too easy to download them.

  6. westwoodrich

    Rachel – thanks for a great post which I think has relevance to other types of business too. I’ve picked up a few tips for my day job.

    You obviously work hard at marketing – what proportion of your time does it take up? Does it take away from your writing or is it something you can do when you’re not working at that? And whilst you’ve obviously enjoyed it when it’s worked, do you enjoy it in general or would you rather not be doing it at all?

    1. Rachel Abbott

      Thanks for the feedback Westwoodrich. I do like the marketing, and I like chatting to people and getting to know them. Some of the other comments relate to spam and auto follow, but I think that it’s about why you want to use it. I wanted to find people who enjoy books – we chat about the same things, and although I follow them there is absolutely no requirement on them to follow me back. I’ve got to know some really excellent people via the social networks (although I am also not a huge fan of Facebook) – and so I think it’s all down to how you use it.

      I have been spending a lot of time on marketing – because I had nobody else to do it for me, and I had no idea what I was doing for quite a long time. So it was a steep, and costly (from a times perspective) exercise. But because of the people I got to know, it became much more of a pleasure than a chore.

      I now spend a lot more time writing, but I have to switch Twitter off so that I can’t be dragged into conversations!

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Thanks for saying so, Merle and to everyone else who has commented. Above all, thanks to Rachel for her article and for generating this discussion.

  7. Rachel Abbott

    I would like to add my thanks too – to Crimeficreader for inviting me, and to all of you who have taken the trouble to comment. Nothing like a bit of healthy debate!

  8. martin

    hi rachel

    Wonderful to hear an amazon no 1 author speaking of these issues. Thanks very much indeed + congratulations for what you’ve achieved.

    Could I please ask: how do you handle it when you come across web forums etc providing download links to pirated copies of your work?

    Robert Jordon (Wheel of Time series) used to compare it to people withdrawing cash from his bank account!

    Thanks again.
    M.

  9. Rachel Abbott

    Hi Martin

    Thanks for the feedback, and for the congratulations. Only the Innocent is heading down the lists now, but it’s been in the top 10 for 6 weeks, so I can’t complain. And there were no less than 8 books that came off the free list yesterday, which put them straight into the best seller list (as KDP Select ‘free’ copies are counted as paid for sales). So that’s had an impact. But I am very happy with how things have gone.

    To be honest, I have never come across pirated copies. I have honestly never seen any books advertised in this way. If I did, I would be very unhappy about it. I think that as an author – particularly an indie author – you have to develop something of a tough skin. There is so much that could wind you up – my husband is continually wound up by the fact that the Amazon policy is that people can return Kindle books within 7 days (plenty of time to read them first) – and I get wound up about fake reviews (both good and bad).

    I think I might write a blog post on “things guaranteed to wind up indie authors” and certainly pirated copies would be on that list. I was going to ask you where you had found these forums, but maybe it’s best if I don’t know!

    Thanks for the feedback.

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  12. martin

    thanks rachel. re download/share forums, there’s certainly plenty about. mind you, the ebook sections usually make up a small part of the overall site (movies, tv programmes, music, software downloads etc. tend to dominate – as you might expect).

    also, the file-sharing sites themselves, as you’ll know, have taken a bit of a hit recently with the abrupt closure of some of the biggest (i.e. megaupload, filesonic).

    furthermore, many of the remaining file-sharing sites (i.e. rapidshare, mediafire) have been extremely quick to remove uploaded content suspected of breaching copyright recently.

    uk isps are now also forced (by the govt) to block access to sites like The Pirate Bay (most recently).

    so there you have a few reasons to keep your chin up rachel. also, I’ve never come across ‘Only The Innocent’ on any illegal download forum either – so you could do a lot worse I suppose.

    I’m planning to check out your blog as I’d love to hear more about your experiences – so I might see you over there.

    thanks again,
    M.
    Newcastle-upon-Tyne

    By the way, I think your man has a point re Amazon + the 7-day return policy.

    1. Rachel Abbott

      Thanks Martin – I knew that these sites existed (for films) but I’ve never been to one so it never occurred to me that they were doing books too.

      Would love to hear from you on my blog – and I love Newcastle upon Tyne too! My step daughter lives there, and we visit often when we are in England.

      And yes – the 7 day policy is a little disturbing! Maybe it’s best not to shout about it too much, though!

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