Cracking the Code of Self-Publishing Success

8239759481_444b87b58f_zMY RECENT BLOG posts have focused on the self-publication of my debut novel Pathfinders.

While it’s too early to gauge its success, I’m under no illusion as to the size of the task ahead – namely getting it into the hands and digital readers of interested readers.

Despite a decade of sales experience and my most recent posting as an Inbound Marketing Specialist at Hubspot, I’ve found the rules of the game in self-publishing somewhat paradoxical.

Before entering the competitive arena, I swotted up like any good author should do to help keep expectations in check, swerving around common pitfalls that first-time authors stumble down.

My background coupled with meticulous research laid out certain assumptions which looked something like this:

  • Content is King. The cream will rise to the top eventually.
  • Provide value, especially in your marketing and promotional efforts.
  • A Professional Edit and Cover will be worth the investment and help boost your sales.
  • A lively, engaging blog with fresh content will help the readers find you.
  • Reviews, especially from Amazon Top Reviewers (even bad ones) will drive more eyes to your book.
  • A well written Amazon Book Page and Author site (with appropriate keyword placement), will widen the net and invite more eyes to your book.
  • Goodreads Giveaways (free) will drive more publicity for your book and impact on future sales.
  • KDP Select will boost sales if used on launch day and the days that follow, to build momentum

I held these assumptions going into the month of March, bolstered by what I had read from various websites and self-publishing books.

Let’s look at each in turn in the cold light of day, almost three weeks later, and whether I still retain those beliefs.

Content is King

Not necessarily. Many self-published books have become commercial successes despite being badly written.

I’ve read many of them. Novels released at the same time as my own. First-time authors shooting up the charts, leaving me languishing behind. I took the liberty to download some free copies during their promotional efforts and was less than impressed.

That’s not to say that I’m anything special – far from it. But the ability to string two sentences together should be a prerequisite for those serious about their writing, instead of using the self-publishing platform as a ploy to make a quick buck.


Should we be that surprised?

After all, in any of the creative arts it isn’t the most gifted who necessarily excel. Instead, those who are more polished in their marketing and sales efforts open more doors while it slams on those who blindly think that a well written book is the end of the process.

Does anyone really believe Britney Spears‘ longevity is due to her singing talent?

Provide Value

Value can be determined in a number of different ways.

Are you entertained/educated/moved by the author’s words?

If you’re a new novelist, it might be a leap of faith for your readers to make, given that they may not have read anything you’ve written before. One would think that a website, namely a blog with engaging, interesting content would help bridge that gap.

Picking through the Top 20 Kindle Best-Seller list for Science Fiction, I found only one author who has a blog (and it isn’t time stamped so we have no way of knowing if it’s updated). The other authors have a static web page which list their books.

I can understand why J.A. Konrath, Catherine Ryan Howard or J.F. Penn can drum up publicity ahead of their book releases – they provide value in spades on their sites in relation to marketing/sales and self-publishing information. Well written, the reader knows that the same care and attention will be translated across to their fiction.

How do people judge whether a new book is any good?

Because of reviews of the book (which can be manipulated)? Because of the author’s strong social connections? – again, something that can be easily influenced.

The number of Twitter requests I receive from fellow authors is staggering. A wall of noise – retweets/favourites and book promotions.

Where is the value in that?

Just because you have 20k followers doesn’t mean you’re a good writer. It doesn’t even make you a good marketer. Your following:follower ratio of almost 1:1 will tell you that much.

Professional Editing/Covers

A step that many authors fail to take because of the expense.

Amazon is awash with self-published titles hammered to death by one-star reviews. Like the proverbial jobby, despite being bombed with toilet roll, it still won’t flush.

pathfinders aidan j reid design for writers
Bloody Nose. Ran Out of Tissues

Some of these ‘books’ will STILL make a profit for the author.

After all, for the price of a couple of coffees, they’ll have their hastily written work online with some marketing bait or clever promotion trick to get some purchases.

Job done 😦

Engaging Blogs

My initial assertion that a new author should have a blog would seem to be falsely drawn based on my (admittedly quick) research into the Top 20 Sci-Fi list.

Instead of spending the hours creating original content to share with a carefully cultivated band of like-minded bloggers, it seems that a retweet or #amwriting mention on twitter will reach more people.

Why bother with a blog anymore?


Once the hallmark of any good product, this has been abused enormously on Amazon. A well meaning, but cunning friend recently asked me why I don’t ‘buy’ reviews – with companies offering their services to boost your star rating.

Setting aside the ethics, I intentionally seek honest reviews about what I’ve written. It’s the only way I can improve as a writer. In the great Karmic Universe, I harbour the romantic idea (rightly or wrongly), that I will get out what I put in. If I start employing devious tactics like that, I might as well give up.

The only fiction I want to create should be slipped between the book covers.

A little part of me dies inside when I skim over a book page on Amazon and see the massive disparity between the reviewer comments. Some heralding the authors work as the next ‘War and Peace‘ while a short scroll down the page, another reviewers’ screams will alert those with the sense to heed it, that the ‘brochure’ is riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes that a trained chimp could have mopped up better.

Your $20 bucks are in the post Bill!

I employed the tactic of reaching out to Power Reviewers on Amazon with the assumption that those reviews (positive or negative), would impact on the views my book page would receive.

Two such reviewers did read the book and left reviews.

It’s too early to judge the impact that will have on book sales after only two weeks, and at the very least I can use them in the Editorial Review section of the Book Page.

I can’t help but feel that if there was another filter category available to sift through books called ‘weighting‘, it would help books which have been rated highly by Amazon Power Reviewers (instead of faceless Amazon Customers) and weed out a lot of the biased books.

Presentation of Author Pages

I spent hours on this.

Amazon’s Author Central doesn’t make it easy to spruce up your page, limiting your formatting and font style. After researching online, I found some workarounds ensuring I could create a compelling blurb, jazz up my Book Description so that anyone who did stumble upon my page wouldn’t be faced with a wall of text.

Despite these efforts, the top 20 list mentioned above haven’t gone to these lengths, in some cases providing unattributed quotes, an author biography 1-line long and very little information about the book except a short blurb.

Digging deeper, classification of said books in ultra niche categories seems to be the precursor to finding placement on Top 100 Lists.

Who could have guessed that Sci-Fi/Military/Space Marine was a genre?

Goodreads Giveaways

Some seeds I planted in the promotion of Pathfinders will undoubtedly never see the light of day. I get that. It’s all about EYEBALLS PEOPLE!

I had hoped that by running a giveaway of three copies of my book in two separate instances I might move the needle when it comes to sales. Over 2,000 people entered the competitions and requested my book. I’ve received zero sales directly from that, with an outlay of $50 shipping the books to India, UK and the US.

Results Are In! Book Giveaway #1 of Pathfinders

Again, these things are far too soon to call.

I received two 5-star reviews for the books on Goodreads which probably coincided with reviewers downloading my digital version for free during the KDP Select I ran alongside the Goodreads promotion for the first four days of March.

KDP Select

Pathfinders (Kindle version) was downloaded for free over 200 times in four days. I have no idea if that is good or not.

Most people download a book because they can. Not necessarily because they are going to read it.

Some of my friends and family took advantage of this opportunity (selfish b*stards!), and I’m sure that additional reviews will trickle in over time as people finish the book.

The whole point of the exercise after all was about gathering more reviews. I had assumed though, that the downloads would shoot the book higher up the charts especially when deciding to spend four of the allotted five days for the launch. Things petered out quite quickly.

No-one said it was easy.


Overall, the past few weeks have been very insightful. It doesn’t seem that there are any sure fire ways to crack the code to become an Amazon bestseller, or if there are, they’ve eluded me until now.

I’m not gullible enough to think that one book, my debut release no less, would make as much of a mouse fart’s noise on Amazon. Most self-published authors fail. The few who have any commercial success find it after they have four or five titles listed.

No doubt, luck is a huge factor. Marketing plays a massive part too, perhaps even more important that the creation of the book itself, which is a scary thought.

This post isn’t meant to be a critique of the ability of the author’s on the Top 20 List. I have no doubt that some have worked the game to their advantage, leveraging social media and cleverly designing tags and keywords to carve a niche on Amazon.

Many will be skilled authors, devoting their life to the craft. Others, I’m sure will have picked it up recently, seeing a chance to make cash with their superior knowledge steeped in the fields of marketing.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned. Blogging for two years with the singular thought in my head that it would help raise my profile ahead of my debut novel’s release.

Having spent hundreds of hours writing my book and over $1500 shaping it into the best product I could create, it’s time to get serious and update my skill set.

The Gloves Are Off!

Pathfinders is available to buy on Amazon UK, US and other territories in paperback and digital format.

Further ReadingA Quick and Dirty Guide to Self-Publishing your First Book, Episode 1 of #Reid2Write – Interview with Self-Publishing Queen, Catherine Ryan Howard

pathfinders chapter 1

image attribution Chris Potter via CC, Sean MacEntee via CC

15 thoughts on “Cracking the Code of Self-Publishing Success

  • How could you spend 1500 dollars on an ebook? No offense, but you need to learn to edit your own work, if you don’t do it already. Half the fun of writing editing your own work. Look for a book entitled, “Getting the Words: How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise” by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. This book won’t just teach how to edit, it will also teach you how to be a better writer. I’ve learned more from it than any other book on writing, years of college, and all the writing seminars and classes I ever took combined. The book may be out of print, however, so may have to seek a used copy.

    Ray Bradbury wrote that it takes an artist (including writers) 10-15 years to make any money from their writing. So get to to. Write another novel. Try putting out two in a year, if you can. It’s my goal, but I’ve haven’t succeeded yet.

    Good Luck. (Smart Ass comment: “May the luck of the Irish be with you!)

    See you out there.


    • Thanks for your comment James. 2/3 of the $1500 would have been spent hiring a professional editor. I hear what you’re saying in relation to editing your own work – I went through 3 drafts until I decided to pass it to an editor. What was returned, post-edit, was probably 25% better than the original, and tightened the entire story arc, deleting large swathes of text that added nothing.

      Was it worth the investment?

      For me, yes. A second unbiased, professional set of eyes that point out my amateur rookie mistakes which I could correct and avoid in future novels. That is invaluable. Critique about my style, areas to improve, etc. Also, my book is available in paperback and digital – so a further cost was hiring a professional cover designer. I’d like to look back at the books on my bookshelf in years to come and tell the grandkids that I wrote that – and say in all honesty that it was the best product I could possibly have created.

      I will absolutely look up the book you suggested. Anything that can help make the story better is always welcomed. I’ve actually been busy as a bee this past year and written three further novels, earmarked for release in 2016/7 – but I want to build anticipation first and stagger their release.

      Many thanks for your message and I hope the Irish luck will rub off on you too Sir!


  • Hi mate. There seem to be a lot of frustrations in it all. I think you are right about luck playing a part but I guess maybe local press to where you are from might help (if you haven’t done so) as everyone likes the idea of the local boy done good. After that, I guess you are doing what you can by working contacts and the Internet which is so powerful these days. I didn’t realise you could pay people to write reviews…that seems really wrong to me too.


  • I agree with all of your comments. I still think content is king though. Jeff Goins, Jon Acuff and Michael Hyatt are at the top of their field not just because they’ve gotten good at self-promoting, but because they deliver good value for the time spent reading their stuff. There are a lot of “big names” that are mediocre and once burned, I don’t buy their stuff anymore.

    I liked your response about hiring an editor. I’m working my way through my own book and might ask for a reference from you later this year.

    Keep at it. Success doesn’t happen overnight, not did it for the three guys I mentioned above. All were published or in other ways established before becoming a success.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy to help where I can Nancy. I’m certainly not naive to think that one book will make much difference – Certainly got a long-term view with respect to my writing career. Couldn’t agree more with you there.

      Best of luck with your own adventures! It’s a lot of fun despite perhaps the doom and gloom of this article!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Naive would never be a word I’d apply to you. No, I think you’re being realistic about what’s going on out there. But from what I’ve known about you through your blog & the comments we leave each other, no matter what you worry about or are uncertain about, it doesn’t stop you from trying things, making changes, and improving your life. You’ve used your strengths to move forward and do whatever needs doing. For that, give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back.

        Liked by 1 person

  • I think an editor is a good idea, I’ve noticed the quality of work from some authors I like has decreased when their Star rises and they feel an edit is now somehow beneath them. There is a reason your early works were so good, its the professional editor!

    “Most self-published authors fail” – depends on the goal. I’d be happy to have one hardback copy of a book I had written for the library, that would be success for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points Mark. I went the library route too actually, mainly to spread the word and get more eyes on my book. My local libraries didn’t even have the courtesy to write back! Shame I’m in Colombia or I’d have given them short shrift in person!


  • Good insights, authentically shared. Matches the trajectory of things I learned in the indie music game. Thanks for sharing – good value. I would note that readers probably don’t give two s@@ts about the games we play to market. They care about the simple experience of turning on their reader, opening their app and letting serendipity lead them to an entertaining distraction. A longtime reader, I never even saw the tip of this iceberg until I read a business blog about Hugh Howey’s successes and 50 Shades…


    • The rules have definitely changed. Adapt or die. Exciting times but finding your target audience is very difficult with the noise out there. Hugh Howey is the posterboy for a lot of us self publishers. Loved ‘Wool’. You might have all the best marketing tactics and budget but if a book sucks, I’d like to think the market will reflect that, though ratings can be bought. Thanks for taking the time to comment Ethan.

      Liked by 1 person

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