How I Pick The Books

woman on laptop

All – there are a lot of independent authors who read our posts.  While this post is primarily geared toward them, I’m sure some of you will find it a little bit interesting!

Many people have asked me how I pick the free books I tell you about on the blog – in the early days of the Kindle I used to do a lot of manual (and a little bit of automation) work with some scripts I wrote that would tell me what the new freebies were each day on Amazon.  I’d wake up pretty early and slog through it, until I finally admitted it was too much for me to do – I still have a day job – when I realized I was pretty tired some days.

Why not have the authors tell me about their freebies, then I could pick and choose which ones I thought people wanted to hear about each day?

Generally speaking, I pick books I think (a) I would like, (b) books my friends and family would like, and (c) books that wouldn’t offend my mother or make her feel embarrassed in discussions with her friends back in my hometown or at church; no matter how old you get, your parents are still your parents.

Despite numerous requests and demands from various blog readers, I refuse to promote titles in the erotica category or those of an overly sexual nature.  While my children are now adults and out of the house, as a parent I think kids have enough pornography thrown at them each and every day, and I certainly wouldn’t want a stranger / blog poster throwing it in my kids’ faces so I will return the favor.  Am I a prude? The people who actually know me and are reading this will laugh at that comment as I’m not: I’m a parent, and I feel pretty strong about it.  There’s enough free material out there without lowering standards. 

There are three things that can quickly have me not promote / tell others about your book: we will go over those in a moment. You can take what I am going to say below with a grain of salt – you’re not going to hurt my feelings if you tell me to stuff it and go back to blogging.  However, please note I’ve sold over one million books under my name as well as my pen names; if the advice below helps one of you have increased sales of what you have spent hours creating to the detriment of all else that is important to your life (i.e., that book or those books you have written), then I consider it a win.

After doing this since 2009, I believe I have a pretty good idea of what is going to work and what is not in terms of reader interest.  Most of my readers are not hesitant to tell me what they appreciate and what sucks (“suck” being a purely technical term sent to me in several emails or comments to posts by readers, often closely associated with the phrase “respected literary criticism”).  That being said, I started developing a “Top Something” list of things to avoid promoting because either (a) similar promotions tell me it won’t be that successful because few people click on it – despite a book being free, (b) my blog readers tell me what they didn’t like about a certain thing or feature, or the somewhat reliable, but not purely empirical evidence, gauge of (c) my gut tells me not to do it.

I receive 100+ notifications each week from independent authors about their books going free on Amazon.  I reject a large number of book submissions for about half a dozen reasons – if I’m rejecting them from a promotion standpoint, you can certainly bet potential readers would do the same if they saw some of the books being submitted for consideration.

Book Description

Many times I see what can be simply called a very short or just plain-ole bad and sloppy book description.

You’ve spent months – or longer – writing the next Great American Novel, avoided your friends and family, paid for an editor (maybe), paid someone to create a snappy cover to grab a potential reader’s attention (maybe), but the book’s description on the Amazon or whatever site you’re selling on is about one to three sentences long and really doesn’t provide a hook to compel someone to try out the free Kindle sample or, gasp, purchase your book.

And here’s the really sad thing – of the literal thousands of books I look at each year to see if I will promote it, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rejected books because misspelled words are in the book description, or in the description the author has simple errors like their vs. there or two vs. too (no, I didn’t go back and proof the sentences and words in this post!).  If you can’t spell or demonstrate you have a reasonable grasp of the English language in your book description, should a potential reader take that leap of faith your book will be any better?

You’ve spent a heck of a lot of time, effort, and energy into writing your book so why not do the same thing for the book’s description?  Give the draft description to someone who has read your book – not a friend or family member but someone who will tell you the truth – does it make sense to them?  Does it accurately describe your book’s contents?  Give the draft description to someone who (a) doesn’t know you, (b) hasn’t read your book, and (c) has an appreciation for your genre of writing – does it make that person want to learn more about the book and possibly read (i.e., purchase) it?  If the answers to any of those three questions is “no,” you might want to consider a revision.  If you don’t have that kind of support group or don’t feel comfortable having friends and family telling you the truth, go to one of the numerous author-support discussion boards out there and get their opinion: they will tell you!

A Bad Book Cover

I will be the absolute first to raise my hand and say any book cover I have done myself looks pathetic.

On the other hand, I disagree with the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” when it comes to marketing the unknown author. Stephen King can get away with a plain black cover with a not-so-professional font if he wanted to just because he’s Stephen King.  As an independent author trying to slug it out and rise above the noise in the various eBook stores, you need to take every step possible to get an eBookstore browser to (a) click on your book title, (b) press the “get a free sample” button, and, (c) take a chance on your book and buy it as it will put a little bit of jingle in your pocket.  Face it, people really aren’t going to click on your book because you have a snappy title – they are going to click on the book with an interesting cover that fits the genre and gets attention and makes them want to learn a little more.

For me, during my super-quick evaluation of what I am going to promote each day boils down to a couple of factors and it’s similar to when I am looking for something to read – sure, I read the book description first followed by a couple of other things, but I will also freely admit if the cover looks amateurish or just really looks bad, nine times out of ten I will pass it up and move on to something else before I even bother with the book’s description.  If it doesn’t grab my attention, it probably won’t grab a potential reader’s attention. 

It’s a lot like my day job when I am reviewing the 50 resumes we received that day alone for an individual job posting: if you don’t grab my attention quick to let me know I should hire you right now, chance are I’m going to discard your resume, never to be thought of again, as I move on to the next resume.

You could have a great-looking cover but it doesn’t fit the genre.  As extreme examples, but realistic to actual things submitted for possible inclusion on the blog: I really can’t see a science fiction book compelling me to look further if it has a lot of flowers on a random field in Kansas – I want to see a space ship and possibly a planet in the background (I could do without the goofy-looking aliens).  Mystery, thriller, and action books need something to draw me in vs. a picture of a car on a lonely highway with clouds in the distance. If you’re going to sell a romance or a book that has a hint of suggestiveness in it, give me a tease of a picture such as some long legs vs. a close-up crotch shot: leave a lot to my overly-active imagination vs. giving me an up close and personal visual that will probably make me say “gross” out loud.

All that may be fine and dandy and you say “my pictures and graphics look great!”  

Maybe they do, but you may have gone and ruined it by using a weak or “cute” font. Be bold, striking, whatever with your font – but I also need to read at least the title on that button view in the Amazon Kindle store.  We’ve all seen examples – the font is thin and weak or worse, it’s Kid Print or Comic Sans, or the colors of the font don’t agree with the book cover’s backgrounds or one of 100 other reasons that I can’t quantify right now but, like Tipper Gore used to say, I’ll know it when I see it.

To make a long story short – if you can’t beat out a good looking cover quickly, hire someone to do it!  I’ve done the same, and for those I did I have seen an uptick in sales. I can’t point to a direct correlation and say a new cover increased my sales by XX units or XX percent, but it sure looks a lot better to me and their individual ranks have maintained a higher ranking.

All that being said, I invested in new cover art because I just can’t do it nor do I have the time to sit down and learn how to do it right – that’s not my area of expertise and I am willing to bet it’s not too many of yours, either.

Promoting Anything But Book #1 of a Series

Let’s suppose you have a book series that has six volumes in it (or more than one book in a series).  Of course, you’re going to do anything you can to promote the series as, after all, you want to hook a new reader into enjoying the series and purchasing the rest of the books so they can get their fix and you can earn some royalties.

Many authors submit book #2 or #3 in the series as a free title, and it is clearly stated in the book’s description as “A continuation of the XYZ series” or “the continuing tales of the ABC thriller!”

Several years ago I quit promoting books like these.  Why?  It just seemed to bother the blog readers – heck, it bothered me, also.  I don’t know too many people who will take the time investment to start book #3 of a series as they don’t have the background of the characters, plots, themes, etc. developed in Book 1 and Book 2 unless it’s one of those rare events where the next book in a series is a standalone.

As a result, a lot of people skip over it and move on to the next deal – and the independent author doing the promotion is scratching their head wondering why their freebie promotion wasn’t “successful.”  When I try to tell that to the author who has asked me my opinion why things didn’t work out like they wanted, a lot of folks don’t believe me. The blog readers have told me what they prefer, and seeing anything but book #1 in a series as a freebie is not what they want to see.

In the majority of cases, Book #1 in a series is the best one of the whole lot: you took your time with character development and plot (among everything else).  You have laid the foundation for reader involvement – they feel attached and have a connection with the characters and want more, more, more.

My recommendation is to make the biggest push and best impression you can with Book #1: in addition to a good tale, have an outstanding cover, make sure your book description is a home run, has had the benefit of at least one editor, and, not to be overlooked, every single page of the Kindle version has been proofed for typos.

At the end of the day rather than one successful freebie run with residual sales for a day or two post-free, the name of the game is to create a bit of buzz around your work and have a long runway of book sales that last several months if not longer.  If you can hook your prospective readers into the beginning of something – rather than starting in the middle – I’d be willing to bet your overall paid sales over a period of time will increase.

We all need to find a way to get prospective browsers to turn into habitual purchasers: people will look for any excuse to not buy your offering and will move on to something else in their quest to find a new good book or favorite author.

Thanks for listening!

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