Columns > Published on August 5th, 2013

Priming The Pump: Selling Your eBook On Amazon Isn't As Easy As It Seems

The current wisdom states that right now there has never been a better time to become an indie author by publishing eBooks for the Kindle and other devices. While I firmly believe this to be true, there is another reality which is also true and should sober the wide-eyed naïveté of any would be author. In truth, many more books are being released on Amazon than actually sell. When an author releases a book, they are more likely to simply watch their book's ranking plummet each day as no one buys it than they are to become a successful eBook author.

On the surface this doesn't make any sense. Yes, there are more authors than ever writing eBooks, but as any eBook author will point out, the number of devices capable of reading eBooks is growing at a faster rate than the number of authors. You would think that it would be getting easier to sell your book rather than harder, but this simply isn't the case. So what is causing the disconnect?

For one thing, even though the number of devices that can support Kindle books is still growing, the means by which you get visibility on those devices hasn't kept up. It doesn't matter how many devices can read Kindle books, if they are all showing the same titles to prospective readers, those are the only books readers will purchase. So the ugly truth is that while the audience has grown, more and more authors are fighting for a limited amount of visibility and this makes it more difficult to sell your eBook than it used to be.

Besides writing a great book, in order to sell, your book needs two other items—a great cover and a superior blurb.

Also, eBook consumers are becoming more sophisticated and picky. They are demanding quality work which matches the standards they have come to expect from traditional publishing. Today's eBook consumers are looking for a book that stands out from the crowd, even as the crowd of books for sale on Amazon grows ever larger.

To make matters worse, book marketing and book review websites have been inundated with self-published authors looking to cash in on eBooks. As they have been overwhelmed, they have responded in different ways, but the general trend has been to only feature those books which already have positive reviews on Amazon. This becomes a Catch-22 for new eBook authors. They need reviews on Amazon to get reviewed by blogs, but they cannot get the visibility and sales they need on Amazon to generate reviews without getting attention from outside sources.

In the past, Amazon provided an easy solution to this problem. Even today, authors who agree to sell their electronic books exclusively on Amazon are allowed to give their books away for free five days each quarter. When the program started, Amazon valued these giveaways highly in their recommendation engine. This algorithm controls the visibility of books and products on Amazon.

When I published my first eBook, How to Manage Your Money When You Don't Have Any, I gave it away for free on the first weekend and gave out 900 copies. That was fantastic, and at the time Amazon counted a free book sale as equal to a paid book sale in their algorithm. So giving away 900 books put me quickly on the personal finance charts and from there the title and content sustained the book. Recently, I have heard about giveaways in which the author gave out over 40,000 books but got nary a sales bump on the other side. Amazon has changed the algorithm. They don't count free books like they did in the past in their recommendation engine. In fact, some indie authors are beginning to wonder if they still count at all.

Today, a new indie author faces a daunting task when they release their first eBook. They have to prime the pump on Amazon in order to get the sales to flow, and as the eBook market matures, that task grows more difficult by the day. Priming the pump and getting your book to generate its own sales makes completing your first novel look easy.

There are many things an author can do to successfully create the visibility necessary in the Amazon system to sell their books. In fact, the path to success is varied and wide, but there are at least two steps which are essential to every successful author.

Before I go on to these two essentials, I should say, I take it for granted that you have written a great book. If you haven't, none of what I have to say after this will matter. Your book might get read to start but then it will get panned in the reviews, and that will be the end of it.

Besides writing a great book, in order to sell, your book needs two other items—a great cover and a superior blurb. Great covers usually cost a little money-- spend it. The cover is the first hook which attracts new readers to your book. If they can't get past the cover, they won't consider your words.

Once a prospective buyer looks past your cover, the success or failure of your book depends almost wholly upon your blurb. Think about that for a second. You have just put months, in some cases years, into writing your book, and all of that could be for naught if you write a poor blurb.

My book Aetna Adrift (re-titled from Aetna Rising) is currently on its fourth published blurb. I am sure that I have rewritten it at least one hundred times or more. I have talked before about blurbs and what a difference a good blurb can make with reviewers and with audiences, but I think this topic is so important I want to illustrate it again. Here is blurb number three for my book Aetna Adrift:

Jack is sure he can handle anything that comes his way. Unfortunately, he’s badly mistaken.

He can’t handle falling in love with Anna, and he has no idea what to do when a newly appointed Senior Vice President turns his backwater frozen moon upside down. When the killing starts, Jack finds himself stuck in a political nightmare the likes of which he set up his life to avoid. Now he has to stay alive, rescue his girl, and figure out who to trust. If he can’t, the consequences might just cost Jack his life.

Aetna Adrift is the first full length novel in Erik Wecks’ PAX Imperium universe. A stand alone prequel to a future series, Aetna Adrift introduces readers to the Unity—a corporate led state in which one company serves as both employer and government.

First you'll notice that I followed my own advice from a previous column and tried to write a hook at the beginning of my blurb—it's a terrible hook, but I did try to write one. Here's the thing about blurbs and advice from friends; when I put this blurb out on Facebook, it received only positive responses. They thought it worked, and as a description of the book it does, sort of. However, I wasn't writing a book description. I was writing in just a few sentences the words which declare my book to be more interesting than all the other choices on Amazon. From that perspective, that blurb is at best so-so. When I put it up on Amazon, bupkis, nada, nothing.

After whining to a writing buddy about my appalling lack of sales, he encouraged me to look at my blurb again. Ok that isn't quite the truth. He took it apart, line-by-line. Smarting, but knowing he was right, I tucked me ego between my legs and went back to the drawing board. This is the current version:

What do you do when every aspect of life is regulated by a soul-sucking bureaucracy, and constant surveillance is the norm?

You run. You find the out-of-the-way places no one watches. You make sure no one depends upon you, and you beat the system. That’s what Jack did, and it worked…until now.

It starts to go wrong when Jack breaks his rule and takes Anna home more than once. Then, Administrator Timothy Randall arrives and turns Jack’s backwater moon upside down. On a mission from the central government which no one understands, Randall and his staff do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. When the killing starts, Jack finds himself blackmailed, tortured, and enslaved to a ruthless political faction. Now he must figure out who to trust, how to escape, and decide between Anna and his freedom.

Aetna Adrift is a full length, high octane thriller in Erik Wecks’ PAX Imperium universe.

When you first start, it feels like you are shouting into the void. It's like standing at the water pump and pumping the handle as fast as you can with nothing coming out. It feels futile, useless. Keep pumping.

Better? The sales number say so. I sent the first blurb out to twelve different websites asking for book reviews and got no responses. With this blurb I am getting responses from one out of every five or six. That shows it works.

So once you have mastered the two essentials and have a professional blurb and cover, what do you do next? Here, the path of the river to eBook success turns into a wandering delta in which many paths are dead ends and many others lead to success. The way forward is almost never the same for any author, and what they do to sell a book may not work for you. Even worse, what worked yesterday may not work today. I could give you a whole long list of essential activities and tell you they are the surefire path to success, but I think I would be doing you a disservice. This is one of those places where each author needs to find their own way.

Some eBook authors are masters at giveaways. Others understand social marketing. Still others have personal networks which can launch books on their own. There are whole blogs devoted to this topic and almost every successful eBook author has told their story somewhere. The best place to start for a new author is to read the stories of those who have gone in front and then try everything that worked for them at least once. Once that is finished, try them all again and keep track of which ones move the needle. When you wrote a guest post on a blog did you sell any books that day? Do you get traffic coming to your website from your Facebook ad? Does it translate into sales?

While you're doing all these things, don't hesitate to ask questions. The vast majority of successful authors would jump up and down if you asked them a question on their blog or sent them an email—we get excited when someone talks to us. If you want to ask questions to a larger audience of authors, most indie authors of any note at least lurk at the Kindle boards, Writers Café. Make sure you sign up and then ask questions. You will get honest and mostly friendly answers in return.

When developing your own method for eBook success, some things you try will work once, others will become your staple marketing tools, and some won't work at all. When you first start, it feels like you are shouting into the void. It's like standing at the water pump and pumping the handle as fast as you can with nothing coming out. It feels futile, useless. Keep pumping. When you are about to give up you will hear a gurgle, something that will tell you that what you are doing is working. Then you will pump some more and a trickle will start and then grow. Before you know it, sales and the all-important book reviews will start rolling in. Keep pumping, and one day you will find that your book is sustaining itself, and you will have authors asking you for your secret to success.

About the author

I am a full time writer and blogger living in Vancouver, Washington. I am an author of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as a contributor to the GeekDad blog on I write on a wide range of topics. I am the author of two published pieces of Science Fiction and a best selling book on everyday personal finance. Currently I am working on my third story set in the Pax Imperium universe and a book on how to survive serving on an HOA or Condo Association board. When not waxing poetic on various aspects of fiscal responsibility, I tend toward the geeky.

When not poised over the keyboard, I love to spend time with my family. I am married to an angel, Jaylene, who has taught me more than anyone else about true mercy and compassion. We are the parents of three wonderful girls. As a group we like swimming at the local pool, gardening, reading aloud, playing piano, and beating each other soundly at whatever table top game is handy.

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