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How to Sell E-Books without Falling into The No-Value, Time-Sucking Vortex Of Blogging, Tweeting, And FaceBooking by Michael Alvear

You can’t swing a cat without hitting a Kindle marketing article that tells you to use social media to promote your books. Well, that cat needs to be put to sleep. There’s one and only one situation in which blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media can sell books: If you’re already a successful author with a bazillion followers.
Before I show you the convincing evidence that social media cannot sell an unknown author’s book to save its life, I want to clarify a misconception. Despite what you hear, building a social media network isn’t easy or fun. I run five blogs (for PDF ebook downloads) and four Twitter and Facebook accounts (for various non-book clients). I also teach blogging workshops. So when I tell you that social media is the most frustrating, time-consuming, energy-sucking, life-draining, stick-a-spoon-up-your-bum experience you can think of, I am saying it from a position of expertise.
First, you’re going to experience so many technical problems you will contemplate one of two options: Murder or suicide. You will pay lots of money to strange people who tell you things you don’t understand and don’t want to know.
Blogs are particularly difficult to start and maintain. You don’t get a lot of visitors by writing crap. Popular blogs feature well-researched, well-written posts. And that, as every writer knows, takes time. Lots of it. Time you are not getting paid for.
Don’t be deluded into thinking it’s easy to get followers to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube accounts or to get people to subscribe to your email list. Let’s take blogging for example. You have to know the principles of SEO (search engine optimization) and how to integrate them into the copy, headlines, title tags and architecture of the site or your audience will always be family and friends.
You also have to learn a fair amount of technology to operate your blog. You will have to learn basic HTML coding, how to search for, install and update plugins and widgets and how to back up the blog’s database (or risk losing years of work). You will have to learn where to get royalty-free photographs and how to wrap text around them. It will take you a minimum of one to two hours to write an effective blog post and you’ll have to do it at least three times a week to get on Google’s radar. A lot of things will go wrong and after months of being held hostage to $70 an hour tech support specialists, you will develop Stockholm Syndrome. You will become a victim of learned helplessness. You will walk through your house in a catatonic state, thinking about your last will and testament as you practice tying knots.
Even small companies realize that getting critical mass on blogs and other social media takes full-time, dedicated employees to make it work. And those companies will be more than glad to tell you that it’s almost impossible to sell through social media networks. They’re wonderful to achieve communication and brand objectives, but sales? Not so much.
Let me give you an example that will put you off social media forever. I’ve been selling ebooks off my blogs for years now (they download as PDF files). After three years of intense work, the biggest blog in my portfolio attracts 25,000 unique visitors a month. That would be great if every one of those visitors were there to buy my books. But they aren’t. They go to my blog to get information and be entertained. Do you know how many of those visitors actually go from my blog posts to the book page? About 5,000 a month. And that’s only because I was smart enough to create a landing page with 3,000 words of ad copy. Let’s do the math.
Unique Visitors to my blog: 25,000 per month
(after three years of hard work, mind you!)
Blog visitors clicking over to my book’s landing page: 5,000 per month
(about 25% of all visitors to my blog)
Unit sales: 50 per month
(or 1% conversion)
Read it and weep. After three years of hard work I sell 50 PDF ebooks a month off my blog. That’s less than two a day. But it would be even worse if, instead of selling PDFs, I sold my Kindle books. Why? Because only 8-10% of the U.S. population owns a Kindle e-reader. That means 90% of the people who go to my blog DON’T OWN A KINDLE AND COULDN’T BUY MY BOOKS EVEN IF THEY WANTED TO.
In other words, all those Kindle marketing books and articles are asking you to spend an eternity of blood, sweat and tears building a blog and getting Facebook and Twitter followers to attract people who don’t own a Kindle e-reader. OMG!
Now, it’s true that you don’t need the e-reader to read Kindle books—you can just download the Kindle For PC/Mac application. But come on. How many people want to curl up with their desktop and read a good book? Before I bought an e-reader I downloaded the Kindle For Mac, thinking I could save money. It sucked. Yes, I saved money and yes, I could read the ebook I bought, but the user experience was worse than getting stuck in a conversation with a Kardashian. I bought the e-reader a week later. I suspect Kindle offers the PC/Mac download just so you can have a terrible enough experience to buy the Kindle Fire.
Which reminds me, don’t do what I did when I published my first few ebooks on Kindle—save money by avoiding the expense of an e-reader. Huge mistake. It was only by immersing myself in the e-reader experie
nce that I could truly understand how to sell in the Kindle ecosystem.
But What About All Those Authors Who Got Book Deals From Their Blogs?
What about them? Self-publishing isn’t about getting a book deal; it’s about by-passing the gatekeepers, striking off on your own and selling thousands of books a month. But if you’re still secretly hoping that a blog will attract an agent that will land you a book deal, you should know there are only two types of bloggers publishers look at: The type that have a massive following (in other words, celebrities like Jennifer Lawson), or the type that have a well-defined niche expertise. Take one of my blogging workshop alums, Christal Presley, as an example. She started a blog about her relationship with her father, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. In addition to her own musings she developed an extensive resource for children of Vietnam War veterans. She got an agent and a book deal within a year of starting her blog, which at its height only got a few thousand followers. By focusing on a deeply personal subject—how to relate to a father with war-time PTSD—and creating an extensive resource that helped people like her, she became the kind of niche expert publishers love.
I don’t discourage anybody from using a blog to showcase their writing. But selling a book deal is different than selling books. A blog can do the former but not the latter.
Do Email Lists Sell Books?
Yes. After two years of creating incentives to subscribe, managing and operating the email application system, and producing the kind of content that make subscribers want to open your emails, you will sell dozens of books a month! Yes, dozens!
Like all your marketing efforts, email list income has to be weighed against the effort it takes to generate it. Don’t kid yourself—setting up and maintaining an email list is a difficult, time-consuming task. And there are costs involved. Most email services start at $30 a month and go up as your subscriber list grows.
Here’s what you need to know about email lists: Nobody subscribes so they can be sold to. They’re on it because you promised them information, wisdom or entertainment. If you don’t produce consistently great content your subscribers will stop opening your eblasts. I don’t know about you, but it takes me a long time to produce good content—time I could spend writing my next book.
As it is, industry “open rates” (the percent of people in subscriber lists who receive and open your emails) hover around 30-34%, according to Constant Contact, the largest provide of email services. That means up to 70% of your subscribers don’t open your emails!Take it from somebody who’s been there—it will take you years to build a list big enough to generate substantial sales. Years. Add to that the fact that only 10% of your readers will have a Kindle e-reader (okay, maybe 20-30% if they’re big book buyers) and there you go again, getting sucked into a time-killing, no-value vortex of traditional marketing.
I’m not saying email lists aren’t profitable. They are the golden goose for certain products and services. For example, the one I run for my blogging workshop is extremely profitable. Some people who sell their books in PDF download formats get stellar results from email lists. I have one for my PDF downloads and it does less than okay. In fact, I’m a pubic hair away from cancelling the email service. I’ve experimented with using my list to drive Kindle sales and the results were horrible, as I knew they would be. Selling Kindle books outside of Kindle violates a central principle of online selling: Do not EVER force people to leave your site to buy something. You’ll confuse them and provide an opportunity to change their minds. This is compounded by the fact that 90% of your audience won’t have a Kindle e-reader.
Don’t Get Screwed By Social Media.
I’d like to share an interesting tale from a Sufi philosopher that helped guide me away from author platforms and social media:
A man was walking past the home of the Sufi rascal-sage Nasrudin one evening when he saw Nasrudin on his hands and knees searching for something under a streetlight. “Did you lose something?” asked the passerby.
“My house keys,” answered Nasrudin, distraught.
Being a good Samaritan, the man got down on his knees and began patting the grass along with Nasrudin.
A few minutes later another neighbor came by and joined in the search. Then another friend, and another, until a whole group of people were scouring the area.
After a long search, no one had any success. Finally someone asked Nasrudin, “Do you remember where you were standing when you dropped your keys?”
“Yes,” answered Nasrudin. “I was standing over there,” he explained, pointing to a darkened area quite far from where everyone was searching. “Then why are you looking over here?” asked one of his helpers.
“It was easier to look under the streetlight,” answered Nasrudin.
Too many authors are bedazzled by the brightness of the social media streetlights when they should be looking in the darkened areas of the Kindle ecosyst
em. Forget about social media. It won’t do squat to sell your book. I only recommend it AFTER your book hits it big. Then, it will be easy to get followers, Likes, Fans, and subscribers. But even then it will only serve as an effective sales tool for your next book.Not this one, the next one. Getting a lot of followers from your first book’s success won’t help with current sales because, well, think about it. Your first book produced all those followers! They’re following you because they’ve already bought it and now they want what we all want when we follow somebody—free information, an entertaining experience or a few choice words of wisdom.
To review:
1. It will take you YEARS of incredibly hard work, a lot of money, and frequent urges to throw yourself off a bridge in order to get your social media properties to any kind of decent-sized audience.
2. The vast majority of the people who visit your social media properties or subscribe to your email list are not interested in your book. They’re looking for free information and entertainment.
3. Ninety percent of your social media’s audience won’t own a Kindle e-reader.
4. Of the 10% who do, about 4% of them will “convert” to a sale.
Take it from somebody who teaches workshops on the subject: Social media gets you closer to sales the way jumping gets you closer to the sun.
So if social media and blogging won’t sell books (unless you have the scale of a celebrity), what will?  Building strategies around the nine critical decision points that almost every book buyer faces when they’re shopping at the Kindle store.  At each junction the potential buyer either moves toward a purchase or away from it.  And it is at each of these junctions that you can influence the decision to buy.  Let’s take a look:
Decision Point #1:  To Use Or Not Use The Search Engine.*
If they do, consumers type in a keyword phrase like “young adult historical fiction” into Amazon’s search box.  The searchbots fan out and look for this phrase and phrases like it in four different areas of every book on the website.  Amazon picks out the books that contain these keywords (along with other factors like sales) and displays them in the search engine results.
*  There are many other ways people search for a book (through categories, scouring through best seller lists, etc.), but the search engine is the only place you can exert some level of control. 
Decision Point #2:  To Click Or Not Click On Your Book?
The person who typed into the search box sees that Amazon suggested your book (among many others) as a potential purchase.  Does he or she click on your book?  That depends on whether your cover and title evoke the kind of experience they’re looking for in a novel. 
Decision Point #3:  To Read The Book Description Or Navigate Elsewhere?
Once they click the cover or title of your book, most people will scan the book description.  Do they like it enough to stop scanning and start reading?  Does it keep their interest?  Pique their curiosity?  Move their purchase intent forward?
Decision Point #4:  How Much Weight To Give Reviews?
A lot?  A little?  Does the section look empty, full or in-between?  Did reviewers like or dislike the book?  Are there enough reviews to make an impression?  Are they written well enough to persuade either way?  How much stock should be put in them?
Decision Point #5:  To Click Or Not Click On Books Advertised In The “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”?
Are the components of your book page (cover, title, book description, reviews, etc.) strong enough to withstand the competitive threat that the books in the “Customers Who Bought” section represent?
Decision Point #6:  To Click Or Not Click On “Look Inside?”
If they do, how fast do they get to your writing?  Do they have to click endlessly through “front matter” like copyright and dedications, or can they get immediate access?
Decision Point #7:  Do They Like Your Writing?
Do they keep clicking to read more?  Are they convinced that the writing delivers on the Book Description’s promise?  Does the story line intrigue?  Does your style of writing appeal? 
Decision Point #8:  Is The Price Right?
Is it so low that it makes them question the quality?  Is it more expensive than other books like it?  Does the quality of the writing justify the price?
Decision Threshold #9:  To Click Or Not Click The Buy Button?
Do you get the sale or does the buyer click on any of the dozens of links in your book page (a competitive book in the “Customers Who Bought” section, a category link, etc.).  Or do they leave Amazon altogether to surf another site? 
You are so much better off building strategies that address these decision points than toiling in the social media fields to sell a handful of books to acquaintances.  Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you.  Please feel free to email me with questions at [email protected].
Here’s to your success!

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This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Michael,

    Your points for authors to check are all good, but when you say “Forget about social media. It won’t do squat to sell your book,” you are simply, and totally, wrong.

    Social media can help a book long before it becomes a hit.

    Can I ask how long you have been on Twitter?

    I don’t see your Twitter handle here, so I was just wondering what you based your knowledge of the power of Twitter for authors on?

    I personally follow what Guy Kawaski famously said, “never take advice about social media from someone with less followers than you, who can’t make it work.”

    I expect you can’t make it work, and now want to denigrate social media, as you put forward the oft-repeated notion, by people who don’t get results on Twitter, that Twiter doesn’t sell books, but you might consider looking at the evidence of someone who gets book sales from Twitter every day before spreading this false news in such a confident manner.

    On this post at the link below are screen-shots of a mix of Tweets, at various times of the year. for real Tweets that sold books. Please, take a look to see how real authors are getting real sales from Twitter:

    Twitter For Writers – More Proof That It Works – Updated http://bit.ly/2x9s6xf

    I am surprised to see ALLi providing a platform for the notion that authors should “forget about” social media.

  2. I just published my first book. I’m unknown. First thing I did, and any author does, is address your “Decision Points.” Only then was I ready to market my book. Had I just ended there, as implied by your article (as an alternative to social media marketing) I doubt I’d have half the sales I do. It’s mind-boggling that a so-called marketing specialist would basically tell people to do not much more than nothing!

    Note that point 4 and 5 and to some extent, 1, 6 and 8, are not in full control of the author. So really, there are four things left the author has control over. Two, if the book isn’t to the reader’s taste, even if it’s the best book in the world.

    I spent maybe a total of three days setting up a nice blog, and I was terrified of it because I’m not tech-savvy. But everything is a template these days and all I did was put in some pictures and text. I started my first Twitter account the week after the book published, as a bit of an afterthought. Then I linked both to my Amazon Author page and the blog to my FB Author page. Each blog post I wrote took about half a day.

    Every time I posted on the blog, my sales shot up.

    People I didn’t know started to follow me on Twitter and retweet my posts, pretty much all book-related, and most related to my specialized genre. Many had hundreds of followers.

    I’m limited on FB because I use a pen name on a “page” and can’t post in FB groups. I belong to a half-dozen FB groups where authors who use their real name are able to post about their books to a market specifically interested in that particular sub-genre. It’s kind of like point two of your “Targeted Decision” list except that every hit is an engaged person. Even so, my FB page gets more hits than the blog, and the days I’ve put a new post on the blog get the most FB hits (remember, the blog posts repost to FB–it’s just a matter of filling in your FB page in a box on the template!).

    Now I have to admit my numbers are negative magnitudes of yours, because I’m new, and the very small niche market of my book. Oh, sorry, I forgot. The way you use statistics demonstrates you’ve never taken a stats course in your life. For example: you repeatedly say that 90% of whomever doesn’t have a Kindle. You can’t apply a global statistic to a specific situation so recklessly, particularly where technology is concerned! Kindle users are far more likely to be significantly more engaged in technology (and social media) than non-Kindle users. What is the real percentage of Kindle users who follow FB groups set up for readers of their favourite type of book? I couldn’t say. But that doesn’t matter, because what matters is not the number of Kindle users, but the number that buy the book. Besides, people who don’t own a Kindle still follow those FB pages, and they buy books, too!

    You admit your client expertise with blogs, Twitter and FB is not book-related. So you’ve based this solely on your own experience. That means I’m just as much of an expert as you are on this topic.

    I say these are all just tools, yet I truly believe that unless you truly can’t manage them, they are a must for book marketing these days. If a blog is beyond you, okay, maybe you need to do something else. But to say the end is that “Decision Point” list, when it should just be the beginning is a disservice.

  3. Author website: absolutely yes, updated when necessary, 1-2x a month maybe.

    Blogging: yes, when I feel like it and think of an interesting topic. Not 3x a week.

    Social media: 15 minutes a day, 2-3x a week, mostly connecting with friends and current fans.

    The best way to make book/eBook sales grow is to write MORE BOOKS (good ones, of course) and (by considering the points above) raise the chances that any given book browser will see any one of them, buy it, love it, and then buy everything else you’ve ever written.

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve always been frustrated with how much time I’ve put into social media when I saw little to no returns, but I always told myself that everyone else is doing it, I’m probably just doing it wrong. I still see value in having my identity up there, but it still feels good to know that if I’d rather work on my book than claw my way through social media, then I’m making a better use of my time. After reading so many articles about how you will never sell books if you aren’t a social media whiz kid, it is so refreshing to read another side of the story. Thank you!

  5. Hi Michael.

    I agree that we as Indie authors shouldn’t waste too much time on social networking sites. It is a bottomless pit where we can find ourselves stuck for hours.

    However, I do think we should be introducing ourselves. I have a website, which only needs updating when I have any relevant news. I also have a blog, which I post to 3-4 times a week, but I link those posts to twitter and facebook so that I don’t have to post to different medias.

    Also, what is the point of writing a book and being anonymous? For me personally, I like to see if an author has a blog or website before I choose whether or not to buy their book. Okay, their author page on Amazon will tell me a little about who they are. But for me, I like to know if they have an actual interest in their readers. After all, it is the readers that count and not our own self-importance, right?

    That said, your points are valid, we should spend time on what is important, and that is writing. If we don’t, then what would we offer the reader.

    I enjoyed reading your post, thank you for sharing with us.

  6. LOVE this post! I’ve been an indie author for almost three years now. In the beginning, I believed every ‘expert’ who shoved social media and building a platform down my throat. After about three months, I was so burned out, I said enough. For a while, I just focused on my writing and blog posts (which I don’t spend much time on as a rule). I don’t ‘do’ Twitter, Linkedin, forums, or anything else like them. I can’t get much into the site where you pin pictures. But about a year ago, I did start paying a little attention to my author page, and I do send a newsletter out from time to time. Mostly though, I just work on my books…and interacting with readers who take the time to contact me.

    I only have so many hours in my day…and I prefer to spend the majority of them doing what I love the most, and that’s writing stories.

    So thank you…and I mean it sincerely…for putting my feelings out there in black and white.

  7. Wonderful post and so true! Finding the best possible method is always an evading process as it’s different for almost every book. I wish amazon would sell advertising spots because it seems for me, I purchase books that they push at me first.

  8. There’s lots of good stuff here … for every point you’ve made, there’s someone out there who will contest them, but that’s OK, because there is no one-size-fits-all answer in this business. I’ll start the ball rolling with blogs …

    Actually, it costs a writer nothing to start and operate a blog, and no, you don’t have to learn html coding or deal with plug-ins, etc. You can if you want to, but it’s not necessary to have a great looking, easy to navigate blog.

    A simple Google search will result in a lot of photo sharing sites, most of which do have free options or better yet take your own photos and use them – also not hard to learn how to do. The true cost is time, but again, no more and no less than the writer is prepared to put into it.

    Blog hosting platforms, like WordPress, have a well established forum for asking for all sorts of help. As for losing content, what author doesn’t create backups of their work? Blog posts are no different.

    I like the nine decision points theory, but I think they would be most useful for a first time purchase. i.e. discovering an author/book/series for the first time. Once a reader knows and likes your work, they will, having heard your new book is now available (through some form of social media) will simply head to the retailer of choice, perhaps read the blurb, and buy the book.

    So … no, social media by itself will never sell books, but it is a necessary part of an overall strategy that every author needs to develop if they do want to sell their work.

    1. This made much more sense that the post. Social Media only takes as much time as you put into it. It is a support to your writing and it really doesn’t cost much or anything at all. Spend time writing you next book and have someplace for folks to find out more about you and a way to contact you.

  9. Wow thanks Michael. A good swift kick in the arse is what we all need sometimes. I already knew my social media wasn’t selling my books, but I still want to be visible. If you look at it as a basic networking op, then it makes sense. I’d have missed many ops by not being on social media. But actual selling of books? yeah, it’s been minimal. Learning to tweak Amazon pages is prolly the most helpful advice I’ve received.

  10. This helps me more than you think! The idea of blogging two or three times/week puts my mind into a dead freeze. I’m working on learning other ways of creating “buzz”about my book.

    But your decision points really resonate with me! They are everything I’ve seen (and kind of passed my eyes over as I uploaded my two books on Kindle).

    Things came to al slow halt when I lost two major clients last year. I find I am now in a better position to order and buy book covers for the books I have ready to upload as well as those I have planned.

    I will be using what you said about decision points as I do so. (I’ve bookmarked your post). Thank you!

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