The biggest story in publishing is the shift of ebooks to indie authors while maintaining an emphasis on print books for traditional publishers. In each of the last two years the sales of ebooks in traditional publishing has gone down while print books have remained steady. Traditional publishers are also publishing significantly less genre fiction, again ceding that to indie authors.
In the indie space the discoverability problem continues to be magnified as competition has catapulted. In a world where over one million new self-published titles are created every year, and traditional publishers but out another 750,000 books, publishers and authors are left to the algorithms and bots that make a book visible or not. Traditional publishers have chosen to make visibility key by primarily publishing celebrities, experts with a platform, and those who have already proven their sales records. In other words, they are counting on the visibility of the author knowing that visibility of the book will follow.
If you don’t have celebrity, expert status, or a big network, then visibility is something you grow. There are three intertwined ways that have become critical in today’s publishing environment: good SEO; a combination of advertising and reader engagement; and product diversification.
SEO Helps Tame the Bots
I know that no author wants to hear this, but its true. In a world of algorithms your best friend is search engine optimization (SEO). In addition to the biggest discoverability search engine in the world, Google, all distributors use search engines now with different capabilities and weighting of information prior to display. That means keywords, categories, content description, product linking, targeted markets, and good calls to action.
Search engines are no longer simply matching a string of characters to produce a result. They are now AI (artificial intelligence) directed, meaning they learn and get better based on comparing millions of search results. For example, just in the search of a name—Maggie Lynch—there are a number of possibilities. What makes me show up above all the other Maggie Lynch people in the world? First my consistent use of SEO across all platforms from my website to my books on all distributors and in all blog posts. Second whenever someone types in Maggie Lynch and recognizes it as me they click to go to whatever that link is (whether it’s my website, Amazon, Kobo, Medium, etc.). If more people click because it’s me than any other Maggie Lynch in the world, then Google will assume that anytime someone wants a Maggie Lynch it is most likely they want me.
What you can’t control is the individual search engine weighting of the algorithm. For example, Amazon puts the most weight on sales but ultimately they want to deliver what the reader expects. That means if someone types in Maggie Lynch and there is another Maggie Lynch with more book sales than me, that person will come up first. Amazon also tracks the reader through web browser cookies. If that reader has most recently looked at or bought horror stories and then puts in my name (I haven’t written in horror stories), it is most likely Amazon will show them horror stories that has the name “maggie” in them.
In the end understanding the basics of SEO and putting time into making sure it is working for you as much as possible is the number one thing you can do where the only cost is your time.
Pay-to-Play vs Engagement
How does a book or author get “discovered” among over 1.7 million new books every year? There is the faster way and the slower way. Both are viable and both have pros and cons and are dependent upon both time and financial resources.
Pay-to-Play means advertising. Advertising is designed to find people who don’t know you and bring them to your product—your book. If you have zero people (outside of family and close friends) on your mailing list and a similar following on social media, then it is certainly efficient to invest in advertising to get discovered. However, the investment in dollars is pretty substantial with the current suggested average being $100 per day on Facebook or $3,000 per month. You can do advertising for less with something to giveaway (first in series book or a novella related to a series) but it takes longer. I did that at $150 per month over six months to get 6K people on a mailing list. That’s about two cents per name. The more you spend the more people you bring in faster.
In addition to Facebook, there are good advertising opportunities with several companies—Amazon, Kobo, BookBub, and Google are among the top. Again, depending on how many books you have and where you want to get pushed, the expense can be equal to or more than the Facebook expense mentioned above.
The downside of advertising based on a giveaway, besides the expense, is that only 10-20% of the people who download your free book or sign up for your mailing list will actually read the book. So, at best with that new mailing list of 6,000 I can expect 120 to have read the book and, one assumes, be excited to read the next one. Except that, close to half of those who read the book are possibly freebie seekers. Meaning they only read free books unless or until you have become important enough they are willing to spend money on your books. As you can see this method of discoverability really is a numbers game. Once you hit about 25K people on your list the numbers start working more in your favor.
For advertising on platforms like Amazon, BookBub, Kobo, etc. on most books it is difficult to get a consistent return on investment (ROI) unless you have read-through to other books (like in a series) or you have multiple book products (ebook, print, and audiobook).
Engagement is a more organic way to build your fans, but it also takes a longer time. You build fans by word of mouth, by publishing a lot of content on social media and on blogs with good SEO. It requires you to be working hard to be seen everywhere—in person, at workshops, with other authors who are selling well, and especially online delivering content your readers want.
The upside of this method is that if people come to you because they are engaged in what you have to offer they are more likely to be real buyers and truly interested in you and your books. The time and effort you are able to put into this is what determines how quickly that will happen. For me, I post nearly every day on six platforms, write blogs at least two to three times per week, remind people of my backlist at least once per week and am gaining somewhere around 70-80 new followers per month. That means to reach the same 6K numbers that I accomplished in six months of advertising and a $900 spend, will take me approximately 6 years. And getting 25K (assuming the same rate of organic list building) would be 26 years. Now that’s depressing.
Most authors do some combination of paid advertising and organic, depending on their specific desire and need to sell books for income.
Ebook and Print. The more different product types you have for a book, the more opportunities for people to find it because you are appealing to different reader types. Most authors do ebook and print, at least for books of a certain size. Though ebooks far outsell print for most authors, there is still a significant number of people who want print and you cut out that audience if you don’t offer it. If you have a series, be sure to put together a boxed set (another product type) for those who are looking for a deal and prefer to binge a series. If it is a long series it can be several boxset combinations. For example, a series of 7 books can be three boxsets: a boxset of the first three; a boxset of the final four; and a boxset of all seven. Depending on the length of your books, you can do this in both print as well. Think of how traditional publishers have often put together three short novels (or novellas) into a compendium book.
Audio. Though audiobooks still haven’t proven their sales efficacy for the majority of indie authors, it is a different way for readers to consume your book and brings in a completely different audience. In addition, audiobooks continue to rise by double figures each year, which means that more people are getting them. In audiobooks you can also do boxsets at no additional cost to you, other than time. If you can’t afford to do audiobooks—either narrating them yourself or paying for a narrator—then consider other audio options just to bring in that group of people who primarily consume content through audio. That could be through sample readings, through a podcast where you discuss your books regularly, or by participating in other people’s podcasts, or regularly reading excerpts and making them available online. The point is to have audio available in some form for bringing new readers to your books.
Other Book-Related Content. Nonfiction writers have long used the idea of worksheets, summaries of primary points, or a lead magnet instruction video to bring in new readers and show their expertise. Many authors are diversifying to offer courses in their areas of expertise. Fiction writers can do this as well. An article or course on the world building involved in your fantasy novel can peak a person’s interest in checking out the book. An article or course on the most common problems plaguing romantic relationships can be a way to interest romance readers. Science articles related to your science fiction world or a course on how to do science research for fiction works similarly. The more you are seen as someone who is not only a writer, but also has done some cool research or has an interesting background the more likely people are to look up your books.
Visibility aka Discoverability will continue to be the number one hurdle for publishing—whether it is traditional or indie. Competition will continue to be magnified because there is no longer a time by which books disappear from online distributors. In the past, creating something new was most important and writers were urged to write fast and put out as many books as possible every year. Generating a lot of books does create backlist—one part of discoverability.
Today, discoverability is reliant on the three parts of the stool to stand up in the long run: name recognition; backlist; and product diversity.
SEO drives discovery once you’ve built a fan base (name recognition), have a good backlist of product, and reach different reader needs with product diversity (print, ebook, audio, and others). You can have 100 products in the market, but if they don’t have the right keywords, the right categories—a way to be easily found by the majority of people searching for that kind of product—then you won’t be visible.
About Maggie Lynch:
As an idealistic nerd with a romantic streak that surpasses any scientific explanation, Maggie writes nonfiction to help authors master the business side of writing. Her character-driven fiction reinforces that life is about making heroic choices one messy moment at a time.
You can read all about her and her books at . She also blogs regularly about writing, life, and topics that catch her fancy on .