After entering the realm of independent self-publishing in late 2011, I focused my energies on selling my novels. Two problems:
(1) I had not a clue of what to do, and,
(2) I needed to spend time writing, and selling is very time consuming!
By Spring of 2012, I had three fiction novels in publication and one study guide (for the Great Gatsby). I managed to sell 400+ copies of those books over the course of the year. Four-hundred is an interesting number. It's not the thousands I'd like to sell, but it's also not the few dozen that many self-published authors report. The number was high enough to give me hope, and to allow me to learn some of what does and doesn't work.
So what did I learn? Here's a short list.
(1) Reviews matter. The more positive reviews I had for a novel, the more it sold.
(1a) Pay attention to the reviewer comments. They are solid gold. I learned more from a couple of critical reviews than I did from twenty positive ones. I appreciate readers who are honest enough to say "I liked it but ..." or even "Seriously?"
(2) Publish on multiple platforms, but focus on Amazon and Smashwords. I published on Amazon, Createspace (paperback), Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble. Seventy-five percent of my sales came from Amazon. Twenty percent came from Smashwords, who pushed my work to a dozen platforms that I couldn't do on my own without great difficulty (particularly Apple). Of those platforms, Apple sold the best.
(3) Be active on reader sites like Goodreads, Safari, Amazon, Yahoo Answers, Wattpad, etc. That includes having author profiles, participating in forums, and running promotions. Readers appreciate your active presence, and leave lots of helpful reviews. Goodreads alone boasts millions of readers. Yahoo Answers is a good forum for building a reputation as someone knowledgeable in your space, as long as you provide informative answers and don't try to pimp you books.
(4) Speaking of Wattpad, post your story there, particularly if you write YA. Teen readers are happy to tell you what they like (or don't like) through votes, fanning, and even comments. Wattpad has umpteen millions of readers and writers.
(5) Give away copies of your novel - the more the better. That includes Amazon (KDP Select) giveaways, and promotions on Goodreads. Probably one-third to one-half of my sales were generated in the week following giveaway promotions (I did several). I read one self-published author say "I'm not giving my novel away; it's too good for that." His comment was one of the dumbest things I've ever heard, and I've heard some dumb comments. The guy sold only a few copies of his novel last year. There are millions of readers in the U.S. alone. Even if he had given away 100,000 copies, he wouldn't have scratched the surface of potential readers, and his novel would have been famous. If I could give away a million copies of my novels, I would. My numbers tell me that one million giveaways would result in 50,000 to 100,000 sales. I can live with that!
(6) Publish multiple novels. One novel sale often generates another novel sale to the same reader.
(6a) Write in series, if it makes sense for your story. Readers who like your novel are somewhat likely to buy the second and third installment. That tactic is a bit difficult for me, because I prefer standalone novels to drawn-out, indefinite series. However, I did produce a two-volume series, and the follow-on effect was very evident.
(7) Editing matters. Mistakes, even a few, can depress the review rating a reader would have otherwise given you. It says, "I'm not a serious writer." Self-published authors can't often afford the $1200 or more to hire a competent copy editor. If that is the case for you, then give a copy to as many of your highly-literate friends as possible - other authors, your high school English teacher, your reclusive friend who reads two hundred novels a year, and the like.
(8) Blog about your area of expertise. It gives you credibility, connects you to readers, and increases your social network (i.e. potential readers of your work).
(9) Set your price either at 99 cents or $2.99. Don't mess around with anything else. A 99 cent novel can generate a larger number of sales because most readers are willing to risk 99 cents on a novel that might not be good. The $2.99 level is an Amazon-driven number. If you set your price at $2.99 on Amazon, you keep 70% of it (compared to 30% for 99-cent novels). That means one novel sale at $2.99 nets the same revenue to you as six or seven 99-cent sales. Use the 99-cent price to generate volume, and then switch to $2.99 when the sales are steady. There are lots of theories about "right-pricing" your novel. This is just my unscientific opinion, not "The Voice of God".
What should I do next year? Here are a few things I've learned from other authors and my experience.
(1) Get as many reviews as possible, especially from those who have a platform on which to share reviews with others. I tried a bit, but not nearly enough, to get professional reviews. I ended up with four reviewers promising to post a review at some point. However, they get megatons of requests for reviews, including requests from publishers. Going forward, I plan to ask for reviews from at least fifty reviewers per novel. Annie Oldham took this approach with her novel, The Burn. Lots of reviews, not all of them effusively positive. However, it got her novel noticed. As a result she enjoyed great sales, as extrapolated from her steady Amazon ranking.
(2) Create a larger social media footprint. I am limited primarily to blogging at this point. I haven't taken advantage of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to create a following. Nick Cole (The Old Man and the Wasteland) rose to the top of Amazon bestseller lists with help from his extensive media footprint.
(3) Work harder at my craft. A tiny fraction of authors sell more than a few hundred books per year. The number of sales is usually a direct result of effort. The more time I spend writing and marketing, the better I do. Simple.
(4) Find an agent to get my novel(s) into publication. It is hard to beat the marketing opportunities provided by a traditional publishing house. There are a few well-known self-published authors who describe traditional publishers as the devil, and insinuate that you would be stupid to go that route. These folks also tend to sell tens of thousands of copies per year, so it's easy for them to offer that advice. For the other 99.99% of us, publishing your novel through traditional means is a fantastic achievement.
Authors - what works for you?