…and why not to fall for it.
When you look at superstar bestsellers and how well they’re doing, then look at your own sales page, it’s easy to feel despair and envy, frustration and anger. And with this comes the temptation, and the justifications. “I know it’s against the TOS, but if I do it, then I’ll have sales!” “Everybody’s doing it, why shouldn’t I?” “Oh, sure, those people say not to, but they already have good sales.” “This is necessary if I’m going to get anywhere!” “Amazon just doesn’t understand, I need the discoverability!” “Apple’s too big a company to notice one little author, so I can get away with it…”
In order to lie to others, first we must lie to ourselves. Recognize the signs!
If something seems too good to be true, it really is too good to be true. Getting ahead in life requires work, effort, and time. Money can substitute for some of this, but never all. There is no silver bullet, no magic pill, and the “hot new discoverability trick” is a usually a trick being played on you. If anyone promises they can get you instant easy discoverability in return for your credit card, be as skeptical as if they were promising exercise in a pill and looking like a Greek statue in two months with just four easy payments of $59.99, call today don’t delay!
If somethings seems not right, don’t do it. If it seems like you’re really kinda bending, stretching, okay maybe not following the rules at all… don’t. If it’s morally hinky, avoid it. I’m not going to proclaim “Cheaters never prosper.” Of course cheaters prosper; we wouldn’t be tempted to cheat otherwise. However, they rarely prosper in the long term, and open themselves up to falls even more dramatic and painful than their gains in the first place. And to be very frank, if you’re not really sharp on the marketing, you’re likely to be handing over your money and opening yourself up to consequences right as the system is cracking down on the exploit.
Beyond that, there’s a really basic consequence: if you’re getting people who didn’t want your product to buy it, you’re going to get a crop of very annoyed buyers (and returns, and bad reviews). People generally don’t buy things they don’t want, and get very annoyed at bait and switch. They also have pretty good BS detectors, and avoid anything that has a whiff of false promises – so attempts to game the system will put off savvy readers who otherwise might have been interested in your works.
Unless you read this article on the day it’s posted, then any examples will be dated. I’ll give a few anyway.
“Search engine optimization! Put your keywords in the title, and it will come up first on the Amazon search return!”
… Seriously, it may come up first, but no one’s gonna buy “Swept Away ROMANCE KILTS TIME TRAVEL SCARED SHEEP by Ina Godda DaVida”. Why? Because it looks like the worst example of the spam that clogs up your inbox.
“Put a famous author’s name in your keywords, so you appear on their search returns!”
… No. First, if I’m searching for author X, I want author X, not you. Remember, don’t piss off the reader. Second, this blatant attempt is noticed and culled by the algorithms. It may not be immediate, but I have heard the lamentations of authors who have checked their plummeting sales only to find that Amazon yanked them out of all keyword categories.
“Buy reviews on Fiverr!”
What is the purpose of a review? It’s by consumers (in this case, readers) to help other consumers decide if this product is what they want/need. False reviews may help you get into the book promo sites, but they rarely ring true. They’ll turn off and turn away buyers. In fact, even now, buyers are very suspicious when they see 10 reviews, or 50, all saying “best thing since sliced bread!” This is especially true if the reviews are content-free, or look like people only read the ad copy. (This is why you should rejoice when you get 1, 2, 3, & 4 star reviews. They help browsers go “Oh! Must be from someone other than the author’s mom and friends!”)
…Amazon just sued over 1,000 people on fiverr offering paid-for reviews. I will be completely unsurprised if they use the discovery to get the details of not only the fake review accounts, but who bought them. I do not expect them to retaliate publicly, but I do expect the inevitable hue and cry of “Evil Amazon! My sales have plummeted!” from the guilty and their hapless followers.
“Give facebook your mailing list, and they’ll create a targeted list for your ads!”
People trusted you with their contact information. Would you feel morally and ethically right to turn around and sell the information they entrusted to you to spammers? No? Good. Then WHY are you thinking it’s a good idea to give their contact information away FOR FREE! Especially to a business that WILL turn around and sell it to spammers?
“Buy 40,000 followers for $15!”
The point of social media is to connect with readers and engage them. It is better to have 15 people who are interested in you than 50,000 who are not. They make stroke your ego when you look at them number, but it’s ashes, vanity, and bad business. (And how are you going to look when people say “Twitter purged false accounts, and look! He dropped by 30,000 followers!”)
“Triple your mailing list for $25!”
No. No, and by the way, you may be breaking the law. Seriously, the CAN-SPAM act has a stupid name, but it’s the law. Go read a summary and follow the legal guidelines, which are pretty much the opposite of most “How to get lots of newsletter subscribers/opens with this one weird trick!” advice. Like above, the point of a mailing list is to engage with readers who want to hear from you. Empty spoof emails are worthless for growing your business… and if you have live ones in there, they’ll report you as a spammer. Because you are a spammer. Don’t be a spammer.
“Make your pen name Steve King or J W Rowling, or Bella Andrew! Then make similar covers to you know who!”
…Do we have to have this conversation? Seriously? If you’re seriously contemplating this, you need to go have a long talk with your priest, preacher, rabbi, imam, or therapist. Because you have issues, and they are far, far greater than your sales or lack thereof.
Now, you want to know what really works?
First, foremost, and above all: write more stories. It’s far easier to catch lightning if you have fifty lightning rods all running along a ridgeline instead of one. And if you catch a reader, they’re likely to start going through all your stuff until they get bored, distracted, too busy, or their tastes change. The bigger your backlist, the more entry points you have, and the more you can sell once they get there.
Second, set out to improve. There are many ways to do this, from taking writing courses / workshops by people making a good living as authors (not those only making a good living from workshops), to reading widely and voraciously, to having a critique circle / editor / beta readers, even to the hard-core thrashing of reading your reviews and averaging them out like a pool of beta readers. The point is to get better with every book. You may not be Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, but if you read their earliest stories, they weren’t yet, either. It takes practice, and feedback, to improve.
Third, and far distant: keep an eye on the market. Tastes change, styles change, and this is as true in covers and ad copy (blurbs) as in anything else. Plan to update your covers at least every five years, and your blurbs with them… and it may be needed only two years later. Just like stories, writing good ad copy and making good covers takes practice. The better you get, the more advisable it is to go back and update your older efforts. If you got a Jason Gurley cover, it may look at the top of the market for three years, and then slowly dated after that. If you made your own in Gimp, you’re very likely going to want to update the first cover after your skill has improved making your second, third, and fourth covers.
Fourth: if you can, engage your readers. If you think in paragraphs with footnotes, get a blog. If you think in fragments, twitter is more friendly. In pictures? Go with pinterest. Readers who feel they have a personal connection are motivated, engaged, and will promote you to anyone they think will like your work. Some authors even build street teams out of their fanbase, but that’s well beyond the scope of this post. Let me say again, If you can. If you hate people, and it feels like pulling teeth? It shows. Either learn to put on a public persona, or don’t engage. If you sink all your writing time into social media instead of the next work? Walk away, turn off your internet, and write the next work.
These four ways are tried, true, and take effort, time, and sometimes money. Unlike the tricks and scams, though, they’ll not get you into trouble, and they’ll help build a backlog and lasting fans.