Why All Self-Publishers Should Sell Direct

Posted filed under Opinion, Resource.

The self-publishing process has become pretty well established by now, a received wisdom that shapes every entrepreneurial writer’s secret dreams:

1. Write book

2. ???

3. Profit!

Amazon is the secret sauce that many self-publishers rely on to propel them to the authorial stratosphere, hoping that they will become the next breakout bestseller. But for the other 99.9% of us for whom the lightning doesn’t strike, Amazon turns out to be a double-edged sword. Whilst it gives you access to vast numbers of readers, it cuts you off from them too, divorcing you from your fanbase in a singularly unhelpful way.

Amazon provides its suppliers, whether self-publishers or traditional publishers, with no more than basic sales data. This makes it very difficult to explicitly tie marketing activities to sales, which in turn makes it hard to know whether a specific campaign has been successful. If you want to know which other websites or links sent readers your way, Amazon won’t tell you. If you’d like to know which country they come from, Amazon won’t tell you that either. And if you want to hook your email newsletter sign-up procedure into your point of sale, well, Amazon says no. Using a direct sales platform, however, gives you all this and more.

There are many hosted direct sales solutions that allow you to sell both digital and physical goods, although it’s probably easier to start off selling just ebooks. I have focused on the most common formats such as epub and mobi, and only provide a pdf when I have properly typeset a book. My ebook shop is hosted on DPD, but there’s also E-Junkie and many others. When choosing a direct sales platform you should look for one that will either give you detailed traffic statistics or allow you to hook your ebook shop into third party analytics services such as Statcounter or Google Analytics. This will allow you to find out where your buyers come from, which will help you with your marketing. If a lot of your buyers come from America, for example, when most of your Twitter followers and blog readers come from the UK, that might indicate that you should more often tweet late in the British night, perhaps scheduling your tweets, to develop your readership in the States.

You should also be able to connect your shop to your mailing list software. I have a monthly newsletter which I run through Mailchimp, and everyone who purchases something from my ebook shop is given the opportunity to sign up to it. When I released a short story through my store in April, sign-ups to my newsletter jumped. When I released my latest novella, Queen of the May, two weeks ago, I saw another surge in sign-ups, far more than when I was relying on just the sign-up form on my site and a link in my ebooks.

Most online shops also allow you to create discount codes. Every person who signs up to my newsletter, for example, gets a code that allows them to download a previous novella and short story for free, and another code that gives them Queen of the May for 99p, a £1.50 discount. I can use these codes to run marketing experiments, or I can create a unique discount code and seed it on social media to see how effective it is. For example, I can have different codes that I release on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Linked in, and then I can see which one produces more sales. That gives me insight into which platform is most effective at reaching my book buyers.

Selling direct doesn’t mean that you have to leave Amazon or other outlets — you can just as easily run your ebook shop in parallel to your other sales channels. I chose to keep Queen of the May off Amazon so that my experiment would be as complete as possible, with every buyer going through my shop. By only selling direct, the actual relationship between marketing activity and sales is illuminated through discount codes and traffic referral data. In a way, this novella is a sacrificial lamb, but the data it’s already giving me is well worth any lost sales.

I’m sure I’ll go back to Amazon again at some point in the future because it really does give you access to readers on a scale that is hard to achieve on your own. But in the meantime, I am learning more about what actually works for me, for my books and for my readers than I ever could from Amazon. When you self-publish, you are your only resource, so you have to use your time carefully. By investing some time in setting up your direct sales platforms and hooking it up to your newsletter and web analytics tools, you can save a lot of time in the long run through focusing only on activities you know, empirically, will work for you.

Photo © Alexandra a Noz

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social technologistjournalist and writer.



9 Responses to “Why All Self-Publishers Should Sell Direct”

  1. David Haywood Young

    Y’know, you make a lot of good points. I used to sell directly via my website, then got all bothered by trying to coordinate that while messing around with KDP exclusivity issues. I only sold a few copies anyway, and it was a pain to deal with, so I turned it off.

    But it’s not as if I’ve been struck by lightning on Amazon either. And my blog readership has been growing lately. A lot of whom, basing this on the results from a recent giveaway and direct downloads of freebies vs. clicks to retailers, have no kind of e-reader at all but are happy with a PDF. Hmm.

    Okay. You’ve convinced me. I’ll add getting my store back online to the list of things I need to do instead of writing. {8′>

    • Suw Charman-Anderson

      Good point about KDP, David. The exclusivity clause does mean that anyone who has signed up to the KDP Select program can’t sell direct whilst their book is still enrolled. I tried Select with my first novella and I got absolutely no benefit from it at all. I now wouldn’t sign up with it for any future novel, no matter how attractive it looked as I’ll always want to be able to sell direct.

      Also, it’s interesting that your readers are requesting PDFs. I think that illustrates that we need to give people options so that we can learn what they need. If people want to read in PDF format, we should enable that!

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    I keep a few books around for readers who want autographed copies, but prefer that readers buy from booksellers — not from me.

    I’d rather spend my time writing and promoting, not being a stock clerk, package-sealer, postage calculator and credit-card charger. I also don’t want to deal with complaints about delayed shipments and wrong items, and returns and refunds.

    Amazon and B&N get many more millions of visitors per day than my sites do, and I am pleased to let them sell my books.

    • Suw Charman-Anderson

      I wouldn’t advocate that people start selling physical books direct, except for signed copies or special editions, unless you think you’re going to start selling at volume. Selling just a few physical books will be, as you say, a drain on your time and energy that can be better spent elsewhere.

      If, however, you’re going to be selling a lot, then you can hire a fulfilment company to do all your mailing for you. (I wrote about fulfilment here on Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2013/07/18/crowdfunding-nuts-and-bolts-tackling-fulfilment/

      This article, though, is focused on digital sales and there’s no reason not to sell digital products direct. Once you have your shop set up, you don’t need to do anything. Returns are rare and refunds (within, say, Paypal’s allotted timeframe) easy to initiate. And the benefit to you in terms of building your mailing list and gathering marketing data easily make up for the time you have to spend uploading files and setting up your shop.

      However, as with everything, it’s horses for courses. Ultimately, we must each do what we think is best for our own career.

  3. Michelle Louring

    Thanks for taking a hit in order to provide us with this information!
    I have always known that direct selling is a good idea, but I have been thinking in terms of less third-party fees and not info-tracking. This shred light on a lot of new advantages!

  4. Seeley James

    Suw, Once again, you have written a brilliant, timely and useful post. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read your work off-Forbes, thanks to Ben Galley of ALLi.)

    Several months ago, after reading one of your posts, I tried Ganxy but never pursued it. I am currently publishing a serial thriller that would be a perfect fit for DPD.

    Peace, Seeley

  5. Peter Turner

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Suw. Selling to your readers is a powerful “touch” point in building your audience, as is gathering email addresses. But you have to continue to keep the relationship up or the value of that connection is diminished or lost.

    • Suw Charman-Anderson

      Yes, you do have to keep your relationship up. That’s one reason that I sent out a newsletter to my mailing list once a month – it’s as much about reminding them that I’m here as it is about telling them what I’m up to.

      However, I did recently send out an update about my new novella to my two Kickstarter projects (one was successful, one wasn’t) and had a very positive response from that, so people do have long memories!


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