26 strategies for maximizing sales of an ebook series
1. Make your first book free on all etailers
This is crucial. Make your first book free. Not 2.99. Not .99. But free. And keep it that way, permanently. This is one of the most important things you can do. I’ve seen a huge difference in the number of downloads between a book priced at 99 cents and one at free. It is what will spark momentum and reader interest in your series, especially when you don’t have any merch. Thousands more readers all around the world, every day, are searching for free—many more than are searching for paid.
A free book is the key that will unlock the doors to a number of promotional opportunities and strategies that are simply unavailable otherwise. Without that first free book there is a limited amount you can do—it is like having your hands tied behind your back while trying to promote your series.
Consider it an investment in your future. If the idea of spending two years writing a 400 page novel and making it free does not sit well with you, then consider approaching your series with an eye for keeping the first book shorter, say 200 pages. (More on this point next.)
2. Write shorter books, if possible (while preserving artistic integrity)
In my experience, readers of Ebooks are not quite as discriminating when it comes to length, so I don’t believe you are gaining any edge with a 400 or 500 page novel anyway. See if there is any way you can keep your books shorter (while of course preserve the artistic integrity of the book). Try to plot the entire series that way before you embark. If you’ve already written a 400 or 500 page book, try to see if there is any way, preserving the artistic integrity, that you can split it into two books—thus giving you your first free book. This might entail some heavy revisions and/or new material, but it is worth it.
If each of your books is 200 pages instead of 400, it will make it much easier for you to have, for example, 8 titles in a series instead of 4. I say if artistically possible, because you don’t want to arbitrarily end a book, and you don’t want to end a book without readers being satisfied. But if you can plot it shorter, then do so. While Smashwords did release a report showing that longer books have stronger sales, I personally have not seen any evidence that a 350 page book gives you any significant sales advantage over a 250 page one—as long as the readers are able to be truly satisfied in 250 pages. Of course, you can write 550 pages and not satisfy anyone, and write 150 and satisfy everyone. It all depends on the quality of your writing and plotting. But the main point is, don’t feel obliged to stick to convention—just because everyone tells you a traditional novel must be 350 pages, you don’t need to listen. Your readers, and ultimately your, sales will dictate if you are doing something right or wrong. That is the final say, and it is they who cast the final judgment.
3. Don’t end your series too quickly
Frequently authors will do all the hard work of setting up a series—the characters, the world, etc.—and then end the series after only 2 or 3 titles. There seems to be entrenched in our society an unspoken etiquette that series should not contain more than a few titles—any author who breaks this unspoken rule is immediately accused of “milking it” or “cashing in.” There is no reason why you have to subscribe to this. It is ultimately your readers who will decide what they want, and they will speak loud and clear via your sales figures.
If your readers are still buying your books in strong numbers, then they still want more books in the series. If haters surface and attack you for having too many books, are you going to let them be the ones to dictate what you can and cannot do, what is and is not acceptable? Cater to your fans, not your haters. My experience is that fans often do not want a series to end—as long as artistically the series demands it, and each book is as fresh as the next, and you make as sincere an effort with each new book as the last. My experience also shows that once you end a successful series, those fans won’t necessarily show up to your next series. So don’t assume that they will and don’t be so quick to end it. When sitting down to plot a series as a whole, ask yourself if it can comprise many more books than you had originally intended.
4. Shorten the release time between books
My experience is that series overall tend to sell better when the release time between books is shorter. The faster the better. Push yourself to write faster without, of course, sacrificing quality. In my experience, the optimal release time between books is approximately 4 weeks—the greater the time after that, the bigger the risk of your losing momentum and readers. Especially in this day and age of binge-reading, which is especially prevalent amongst ebook buyers. Imagine a TV episode being released on January 1 and the next episode not airing until March 1. Would you tune out? Ebooks are not quite as drastic as TV episodes, but when it comes to series, they are moving in that direction. You also gain crucial momentum on sales rank by releasing books quickly that you will lose with longer release times. Of course, 4 weeks is a near impossible feat for most writers, but do the best you can.
5. End your books with genuine cliffhangers
Too many books end in a way where you are not necessarily propelled into the next book. Ask yourself if, after reading the last sentence, a reader ABSOLUTELY MUST purchase your next book immediately. Is there a driving, burning urgency? You must feel that burning feeling, that you have no choice but to buy and read it right way. If you don’t, they won’t.
Don’t take it for granted that fans will buy your next book. You should always assume they won’t and always be fighting for your life to keep them.
At the same time, the paradox is that you must, in most other ways, leave your reader with a strong feeling of resolution, so that he feels as if he’s read a complete novel and not a few chapters. This is a very fine balance and not easy to achieve—but if you do, it will make the difference.
Spend some time watching and analyzing some popular TV shows that are absolutely addictive. How do they end each episode? What is it that they do that makes you HAVE to watch the next one? There is much to be learned in this regard from TV episodes.
6. Give all the jackets a uniform look
You want your series as a whole to have an easily recognizable look, which will also make it easier for readers to find future and past books in the series, and which will make the series feel more connected and the reader thus more likely to buy subsequent books. Also, if a reader is browsing and there are multiple jackets on a screen with a similar look, you are more likely to catch his eye amongst the thousands of other titles out there.
7. Get your books up on ALL etailers
Most authors will be live on just Amazon, Google, Apple, Kobo and BN, and these do comprise the majority of sales. But there are many midsize and smaller etailers now, all around the world, and if you reach dozens of them, it can add up and become significant. You might want to reach them individually and/or use a distributor, like Smashwords, EpubDirect, Wheelers, Gardners, Overdrive or others, to name just a few.
8. Get your free ebook onto “free ebook” sites
There are a ton of websites that offer free ebooks—not just the major etailers. Do a Google search for “free ebooks” and you will be surprised at how many they are. It would be ideal to have your free ebook live for download on at least the top 10 search engine results. Many of these sites don’t sell books (they just give away free ebooks), so make sure that you put prominent links at the end of the files to all major etailers (ideally with embedded clickable links) to direct readers to buy your next book, so that you can convert new readers to buyers of your paid books.
9. Get your free ebook onto “free ebook” apps
There are many apps devoted to giving away free ebooks, and users searching apps might not necessarily be the same user searching the web. You want to reach as many readers as possible, so check the major app marketplaces for “free ebooks” and ideally get your ebooks up on at least the top 10 results. Again, make sure clickable links are included at the end.
10. Put up free excerpts on sites like Wattpad, Scribd and Feedbooks
There are some sites, like Feedbooks, that have thousands of readers searching for free excerpts or sample chapters. Post the first chapter or two of all of your books on each of these, with links at the end to buy the paid version.
11. Keep the price low on ALL ebooks in the series
Many readers will look at a free series starter, then check the prices of all the other paid books in the series. If they see the prices escalate and are too high, they might not even bother starting the series. If they see that all the books in the series are, for example, 2.99, they are more likely to give the series a try.
12. Consider that readers might discover you via ANY book in the series
Most authors assume readers will first discover their series via the first book, as the only entry point into the series. But this may not always be the case. A reader might be browsing and attracted to a particular jacket—which may happen to be book #3 in your series—and click on that. It might be his first experience of your work. He might be disoriented, landing on book #3, and you must make it obvious in the first sentence of the synopsis that this is book #3 and name the title of book #1—and let them know that it’s free. This way he doesn’t have to go wasting time searching for the title of book #1,and he knows he can start the series for free. In this day and age of instant browsing decisions, if you frustrate a reader, making him work to figure out where he is in the series and the title of the first book in the series, he may very well move on.
Also, some readers skip the synopsis, sample a book, glance at the first few pages, and make a decision. Again, if they are landing on book #3 or #4, add a sentence inside the book, upfront, naming book #1 in the series, and tell them that it’s free and offer a prominent link to it, so they don’t have to work to go find it.
13. Optimize your front and back pages
Along these lines, make sure your back pages are optimized so that, if the reader likes the book and is ready to buy #2 in the series, he can easily click or tap a link. Include a synopsis to #2, and an image of the jacket (linkable). You might even want to include the first chapter of #2. If you have audio editions, include links here.
Many authors optimize their back pages, but forget their front pages. Make sure you have prominent links to your other books and/or to your other series, in case a reader samples your book and wants to try something else (but not this book).
14. Make it easy on the reader to instantly know the series order
It always amazes me when I visit a book’s page and have no idea which number book in the series it is. It is often not in the title, not in the subtitle, not mentioned immediately in the synopsis. Often new readers are forced to waste (precious) time trying to figure it out, and they can easily get so annoyed that they click away.
Make it easy on them. Err on the side of hitting them over the head with clarity, as opposed to annoying them with lack of information. I recommend putting the series title and number right in the title itself, for maximum clarity, and then repeating it again in the first sentence of the synopsis.
15. Make subsequent books in the series free for a limited time
Often writers run promotions for the first book in a series and stop there. Often they make the first book free and never consider making any other titles in the series free, for any period of time. This is a mistake. Again, you never know which book in a series will be a reader’s entry point—it may not always be the first one. You never know which jacket/title/synopsis will make a reader finally want to pay attention to your series for the first time. Run promotions and/or advertise for subsequent books in the series, and make them free for a limited time—at least one week--as you do so.
16. Have your next books up for pre-orders
On the etailers that will allow them, get as many of your future titles up for pre-order, and as soon as possible. In fact, it is ideal to release a new book and already have the jacket, title and synopsis of the next book embedded at the end of the new release, with a link for the pre-order page, which should already be live. It takes a lot of work, but you capture more sales and you can even hit bestseller lists you would not otherwise because of the way some etailers calculate bestseller lists.
17. Make your books DRM free
There is a lot of controversy over this issue, but I personally feel that it’s better to err on the side of gaining readers than it is worrying about piracy, and I feel that to maximize sales, all books should be DRM free. The bigger danger for most authors, in my view, is not piracy but rather not having any sales. DRM free is appreciated by many readers for ease of use on devices. It will lead to greater piracy—but again, I think this is a lesser concern. I also think that greater piracy may actually be a good thing—which bring us to my next point.
18. Embrace piracy
Let’s face it: there are millions of readers browsing for pirated books on piracy sites—perhaps even more than are searching for paid. We will never stop all of them. Most are afraid of piracy—but I say EMBRACE IT! Why turn away millions of potential readers? If your first book is free anyway, then get it up yourself on all the piracy sites. Let millions of people read it. Some of those might want your next books. And those next books will be paid, on legitimate sites—and for the paid books, you definitely should fight piracy—which bring us to my next point.
19. Hire a piracy fighter, like MUSO
For a small fee, there are services that will roam the web looking for your pirated titles and take them down. Use this for all of the paid titles in your series. That will help counterbalance their being DRM free and will protect your paid books.
20. Translate your books into the major languages
Hiring translators is expensive and is by no means an easy process. Nor are sales guaranteed overseas. However, if you have the spare cash to try it, then go for it. Translate into a few of the major languages, starting with the first book, and see how it goes. If you are seeing a high volume of downloads, then you can translate the second and make it paid and see how that goes—and take it one book at a time. If they do well, over time it is possible for the income to end up matching the English language edition.
21. Create audio editions
Use a service, like ACX, to hire narrators and produce audio editions. If you choose the royalty option, then you don’t have to put up any money upfront. If your ebook sales take off and audio editions are available, it might become one more stream of income. There are also some users who ONLY want audio—and having these editions might make the difference to gaining some fans or not.
22. Create POD editions
Use a service like CreateSpace or Lightning Source to create print on demand editions. If the ebooks take off, print sales can be one more source of income. There are also some users who ONLY want print—and having these editions might make the difference to gaining some fans or not.
23. Create bundles
Some readers prefer to buy books in bundles and some may even go so far as to only buy ebooks in bundles. Having bundles give you more virtual shelf space, more jackets for readers to stumble upon when browsing. And if the prices are lower, you can attract bargain hunters that might not have bought your books otherwise. And if you do indeed have many books in a series, as you get deeper into it, many readers will prefer to have bundles rather than a dozen individual titles clogging up their ereader.
24. Be generous to your fans
Stay in constant touch with your fans and shower them with free books. Ask them to review your books, and let them know that there is no pressure to write a good review—that they are free to write any review they wish, positive or negative. Most fans who seek you out anyway will want to help support your work and will be happy to post reviews, as they want to let others know how much they like your work.
25. Constantly experiment
Don’t sit back on your heels and let everything coast, even if you’re doing well, and don’t ever think that you’ve figured it out—even if your books become bestsellers. Things are constantly changing in the incredibly fast moving ebook world and the beauty of ebooks, and of controlling your own publishing career, is that you have the freedom to instantly make changes and experiment. I’ve seen some books not sell a copy for 8 months, then suddenly sell tens of thousands. Sometimes ebooks need time and need to reach a critical mass. In other cases an ebook does not need time—it needs hands-on tweaking. It could be the jacket, the title, the series title, the synopsis, the price point—or, of course, the writing. Try to isolate each and every element and figure out what’s wrong. It could be that your experiments fail 99 times, and on the 100th time you accidentally stumble across something that changes your sales from 10 books a month to 10,000.
Also experiment with genre. If your series is not taking off, write another series in another genre. Sometimes it is the genre switch, or even the tweak to a different niche within the genre, that makes all the difference between not selling any copies and becoming a bestseller.
26. Advertise on Bookbub.
I’ve found Bookbub to be the single most effective tool for driving ebook sales, especially if you make your book free for the promotion and especially if it is first in a series. Advertise for all books in the series, too. It is a great service and well worth the money.
In what genre would you put books by David Sedaris, Nora Ephron, etc? Personal essays? Memoir? A blend of the two? And how would one query for this kind of book?
First of all, sorry for the double post. I inadvertently asked this question under an old post, and not sure if you'll see it there.
I'm a short story writer with a finished collection. I've published 6 of the 11 stories in literary journals -- reputable journals, but not the New Yorker. What is the likelihood of my landing an agent? Is it highly unlikely? I've been contacted by a few agents when my stories have appeared (a good sign) but they've lost interest when I didn't have a novel in the works. Is this more or less how it will go if I start querying agents? Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for your generous blog!