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December 24, 2012
By Alex Palmer
It’s a great time to think about leveling the playing field between established and new authors.

Self-published authors may not have the publicity and distribution apparatus of a major publishing house, but as social media has evolved they are finding more ways than ever to garner new readers. A range of new services from book-centric companies like Goodreads and Amazon, developments from Facebook and Twitter, and a handful of apps are making it easier for authors to be discovered by new readers and to grow their audience.

The book market has become increasingly competitive in recent years—350,000 new print titles were published in 2011, up about 61% from a decade before, according to research firm Bowker. This makes it difficult for any author, especially a self-published one without a publicity team, to stand out from the crowd. But by using social media tools, self-published authors are finding they can go it alone and still discover a passionate audience.

“It’s such a great time to be thinking about publishing and leveling the playing field between established authors and new authors—all those same tools are available to anyone who wants to participate in offering their content,” says Libby Johnson McKee, general manager of independent publishing for Amazon.

Few companies have worked as aggressively as Amazon to help self-published authors promote and sell their books. The retailer’s CreateSpace was the largest self-publishing company in 2011, releasing 57,602 titles (the next largest, AuthorSolutions and its various imprints, came out with 41,605 titles).

In addition to CreateSpace, Amazon has been boosting its investment in Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), its e-book publishing arm, to help self-published authors improve their discoverability. At the end of November, the company announced that it would be adding an additional $1.5 million into its KDP Select fund. The program allows authors to offer their books, or their entire catalogues, for free for a limited period, with the agreement that for 90 days thereafter they will sell their e-books exclusively on Kindle.

"With social media, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something, but the question is, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ It’s about building real relationships."
Books distributed through the Select program are also available in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where Amazon Prime members with Kindles can borrow any book for free for one month. These kinds of giveaways can be valuable to authors seeking ways to generate interest in their works and give new readers a reason to take a chance on them.

“KDP Select is good for authors,” says Anna Hess, the author of 17 e-books on homesteading, including the 12-part Weekend Homesteader series. “Using that program, I’m able to get on Amazon’s Top 100 Free list from time to time when I do book giveaways, and that really broadens my audience and brings new readers to the books that aren’t free.”

Hess and her coauthor husband had first sold their books through their Web site,, but after moving fewer than 300 copies, decided to try distributing through KDP. They soon saw results and self-published several more books the same way. The brisk sales caught the eye of Skyhorse Publishing, which is now publishing the Weekend Homesteader set, broken into monthly installments priced at 99 cents each.

“Selling books for 99 cents encourages many readers to take a chance on an unknown author, spreading my name further,” says Hess. She’s now selling about 4,000 e-books a month.

Social book recommendation site Goodreads also encourages authors to give away free copies of their books through its Author Program, in order to help generate a larger audience.

“It can just be 10 to 20 copies, but your goal is to get people reviewing the book and adding it to their shelves,” says Patrick Brown, community manager at Goodreads.

Giving a handful of books to readers interested in the same genre makes it likely they will add it to their “To Read” shelf, increasing the likelihood they will review it as well, thus giving it more exposure to Goodreads’ community of 12 million members. Brown points to the success story of Colleen Hoover’s Slammed. She self-published the novel in January 2012 to little fanfare and generated scant publicity. But in late February and early March, she began promoting the book through giveaways, gaining a few reviews.

This, combined with Hoover’s direct outreach to bloggers in her genre, led to a number of blog reviews in March. She spread the word about these reviews and kept her Goodreads fans updated on new announcements, character interviews, and teasers, and by late April, Goodreads’ Recommendation Engine had picked up the book. By August it was a New York Times e-book bestseller and was bought by Simon & Schuster, thanks in part to those initial giveaways that first gave readers a reason to take a chance on Hoover’s work.“New authors have to compete against established authors, and the only way to do that most of the time is, ‘You can try my stuff for free,’” says Scott Sigler, who had success as a self-published science fiction author and podcast pioneer, offering entire audiobooks to listeners at no cost. He now publishes under his own Dark Overlord Media publishing imprint. “It adds to the discoverability, and it takes away that fear of loss.”

Sigler sees the offering of freebies as the opening to a potentially years-long relationship with new fans. He points to Cory Doctorow and David Wellington as examples of other authors who help expand their audiences by offering free content.

“If you like it, great; if you don’t, you were going to buy Stephen King anyway so go ahead and do that,” Sigler says.

But while these types of promotions can generate a burst in readership, discoverability is about more than price. David Vyorst, cofounder of Relay Station Social Media, which works with authors to help enhance their self-marketing and social media efforts, urges authors to take what he calls a “programmatic approach” to reaching new readers. “[With] a lot of the authors we talk to, we’ve found that we have to back up and explain social media 101,” he says. “For authors, the objective is to sell more books, but also to raise their profile among an audience.”

Authors should begin with a clear understanding of whom they want to reach, according to Vyorst. He recommends listening in on what people are talking about in the markets where the authors’ books might appeal.

“Monitor blogs, know who the players are, build a Twitter list, befriend people on Facebook, connect with people on LinkedIn, to get a sense of who these people are and what they’re doing,” says Vyorst.

Vyorst has partnered with Diane Mancher, owner of One Potata Productions and cofounder of the Self-Publishing Expo, to offer a suite of social media products specifically designed for authors looking to expand their discoverability. The suite will be released in spring of next year. It will teach authors how to build their Twitter and Facebook lists and expand their social media influence.

Sometimes knowing where to look for potential readers may be obvious, but at other times it requires a little more art than science. While the author of a gardening book might reach out to other gardeners, a literary fiction writer has to get more creative in deciding whom to target, comparing the book’s themes to similarly themed fiction rather than to genre or subject matter. Dan Blank, founder of, a company dedicated to helping publishers and authors build their audiences, suggests that authors even look at which phrases are underlined most frequently in Kindle.

“What you notice when you look at that is the messages that really connect with an audience,” he says.

For authors, making themselves and the subject matter of their books easy to find is important as well. Joining the main social media platforms and ensuring that keywords and tags are used, even including the names of authors with similar sensibilities, for blog posts, as well as Instagram and Pinterest postings, will help boost an author’s chances of being stumbled upon by a Googling reader.

Amazon has been enhancing its own metadata search tools so that when a reader searches a title, category, or keyword, the search engine looks inside the book, as well as at its title and author name. This includes, of course, the “Search Inside” option, which Amazon recently enhanced to make it a discoverable part of its search results.

“It’s like SEO on steroids,” says McKee.

While authors want to think about their audiences in broad demographic or psychographic terms, Blank suggests categorizing them into specific groups, locations, and Web sites, where those readers can be found and connected with directly.

He gives the example of an exercise he did at the Self-Publishing Book Expo in midtown Manhattan, where he was getting vague answers to the question of “Who is your audience?” Blank asked the authors in attendance to instead imagine that he would give them $10,000 if, in one hour, each author could find five strangers who wanted to read the author’s book.

“You start thinking practically—‘I’m on 47th Street, do I run uptown or downtown because of the stores that are there? What lobbies would I stand in? What section of a bookstore would I stand in?’” asks Blank. The same can be done with locatability online. Adrienne Graham, the author of six self-published books about women and business, and the CEO of consultancy Empower Me! Corp., followed this approach. She has promoted her most recent book, No! You Can’t Pick My Brain, by setting up speaking engagements and webinars with women’s networking groups like Atlanta Women Entrepreneurs and 85 Broads and developing relationships with other business writers covering similar topics.

“The biggest blessing from that was that it was other people talking about my book instead of me going in and promoting it myself—I had social proof,” says Graham.

Keeping new readers engaged and reaching new ones requires an active approach to social media, with frequent updates and new content.

“It’s a way of life—posting updates on Facebook, Tweeting things. If you’re going to be part of the online community, you can’t just throw a few things out there,” says Sigler. “It’s consistently participating in those spaces, over a long period of time, that’s going to wind up producing results.”

He adds that this is not as daunting as it might sound to self-publishing authors, who have other things to worry about, such as writing more books. Using settings on social media sites and services like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, authors can reach multiple platforms and multiple accounts with tweets, status updates, and posts.

As far as the content itself, Vyorst suggests a rough ratio of 25% useful information and interesting articles; 25% reposts, reshares, and retweets; 25% replies and comments; 10% questions; and 15% shameless self-promotion.

As an author posts new content and continues these outreach efforts, he or she should also be tracking what is working and what is not—taking into account the content, the platform, and even the time a blog is posted or an e-mail sent. For a more broad social media dashboard and analytics offerings, Vyorst recommends Social Mention, Google Analytics, or Sprout Social.

This type of performance tracking has become more essential for authors who are actually spending money on self-directed ad campaigns. Facebook Pages allows authors to send out ad messages to very specific geographic and demographic groups using various promotion programs, often at modest costs. Goodreads offers something similar.

“The self-serve ads you can buy for as little as $20,” says Brown. “You can see how they do, then tweak and adjust your targeting. I recommend doing a giveaway connected to the ad and directing people to the giveaway.”

Authors can also consider the social payment program Pay with a Tweet, which gives visitors free copies of e-books when they send out tweets or write Facebook posts mentioning the books.

But while social media has proven to be a great way for authors to reach new, receptive audiences, it is also becoming so popular that a writer has to take extra steps to ensure that he or she doesn’t blend into the growing crowd. Blank believes an author would be better off finding three people and having an extensive e-mail correspondence or even an in-person lunch with them, rather than adding 200 new fans on Goodreads or Facebook.

“With social media, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something, but the question is, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’” says Blank. “It’s about building real relationships—it’s about who you align with.”

New tools and social media enhancements are appearing on the market every few weeks, but the main discoverability goal for authors hasn’t changed in decades: to create an emotional connection with readers.

“These people who are interested in your book and have questions, really answer them authentically and straightforwardly—you’re not hawking it on the street corner, you’re having a dinner conversation with them,” says McKee, pointing out that authors who have adopted this practice have had the most success with Amazon’s many customer-driven community areas.

Graham emphasizes that she has been most successful in her discoverability efforts when she first works to connect with potential readers on the topics that matter to them, then mentions her books almost as an afterthought. While at a business meeting, these topics may be leadership development and time management, whereas on Twitter and her blog, the topics can be more personal.

“You want to be personal and share a piece of you; my followers know when my son graduated high school, and about the birth of my nephew, and even my crazy dog,” she says.

Hess agrees that it is important not to just ask for something during interactions with potential buyers.

“Our blog works so well to sell our products because we’re really only asking folks to check out new books or to write reviews about 1% of the time or less,” she says. “People feel like that we’re giving them a lot with our daily educational posts and by providing a window into our lives, so they often tell their friends about my books with no nudging on my part. That’s what you want—to build up a fan base who sells your books for you.”