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12:25pm on Monday, 26th May, 2014:

Money from Books


If you want to make noticeable money as an author, you have to sell books. Not just a few books, though: hundreds of thousands of them. If you just sell a thousand copies a year, you'll have some nice pocket money but you won't make a living at it. You need to shift many times more than that. Ten thousand might be enough if your books have a high price and you collect a decent royalty, which could be the case for textbooks or other works of non-fiction, but if you write a novel then you can forget giving up the day job unless you can sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

Now you can sell hundreds of thousands of books in two ways: write a single book that sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year; write several books that together sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. The way the sales curve works, the former is easier than the latter: you're not going to get two books selling 50,000 copies each, or four selling 25,000 each: you're going to have to go for 1,000 selling 100 copies each; if you're lucky, one of these might be a smash hit and get you 100,000 on its own, in which case you're in clover. However, you have to write 1,000 books to find out...

So, how do you sell 100,000 copies of a novel?

Well, step one is to write a decent novel. Problem: there are many, many decent novels in the Kindle store, but you've never heard of them. That's because step two is to get people to hear about your novel. This means you need publicity. Publicity is easy if you're famous, but you're not famous. It's easy if you have a publisher or an agent, but you don't have a publisher or an agent and you're going to get neither. Therefore, publicity means money. Essentially, you will be paying to get people to read your book until enough have read it that it generates its own publicity.

Knowing you have to spend money to acquire readers isn't enough, though. Let's say you had £2,000 to spend: how should you spend it? Well you could take out Google or Facebook ads, and you will indeed sell more books that way. However, an experiment I did in 2011 showed me that you would need to spend far more than £2,000 to get noticed, as it worked out at £15 in advertising to sell one book. 133 copies sold would not spark sales of a further 99,867 copies. You can take out ads in specialist magazines, or on web pages, or send out a mailshot; all cost money and none will lead to a critical mass.


On the Kindle store, there are so many books available or free that people could spend their whole life just reading free books. Not all of these are out-of-copyright classics, either: many are books that people have written and are hoping will lead to fame and fortune once they're "discovered". The cannier authors have written series of books and made the first one free, in the hope that the people who do discover their first novel and do read it for free will be sufficiently impressed to try the second one — which isn't free. This would work, but it still means people have to find that first book. Finding your book on the Kindle store among all those being produced in National Novel-Writing Month is a long shot. You're back to having to publicise your work, except this time you're paying to get people to read something that's free in the hope that they'll then pay to read something that's not free (but isn't exactly expensive, either).

I've had an idea.

So, I have a young adult novel, Lizzie Lott's Sovereign (LL1 for short). It's the first in a series of seven, I've just finished the sixth iteration through the second in the series, Lizzie Lott's Reflection (LL2), and will be releasing that after it's had a few more visits to the operating table for surgery. At that point, I could put LL1 on Amazon for free as a loss-leader for LL2.


Why bother with Amazon and the Kindle? There are plenty of bookshops around that are struggling in the face of e-readers. Why don't I publish hard copies of LL1 and take it to bookstores and give it to them for free? The book has a retail price of £4.95, all of which would go to the bookstore. That's a good deal for just a little shelf space. It would have much higher visibility than the Kindle version, and the bookstores would have an incentive to sell it as it's all profit. If readers liked it, they could then buy LL2.

OK, so the problem with this is that it actually costs me money to publish a hard copy of the book. A quick check with the first book-printing website I Googled suggests that for about £2,000 I could get about 800 copies manufactured at about £2.50 each. Each one of those is equivalent to an ad impression on Facebook that led to a click that led to a sale — which worked out at £15 a pop in my experiment.

Now, giving away 800 copies of LL1 for free still isn't going to give me critical mass. It may get me some regular readers, but not enough to sell a hundred thousand copies of LL2. That's not the whole reason for doing this, though...

See, this isn't something that people in general do. That makes it news. That means I can write a press release to tell people about it. That means I'll get publicity. This is the publicity which may hike up the number of sales to a level where LL2 could sell a hundred thousand copies. Sure, there would still be a huge amount of luck involved, but it would at least give me enough of a boost to attempt escape velocity, even if I never reached orbit.

Might be worth a try, yes.

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