While we have discussed how to include the reader by creating user stories and personas, we have not included actual readers in our publishing process. In this chapter, we will discuss how listening to your audience can help to improve the quality of a book.
This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX, the Agile Way.
Learning from and Connecting with Your Audience
Learning from your audience can be done in various ways:
- Examine feedback from a previous similar book you have released. This is an especially relevant option if you are writing fiction books in the same genre, or if you are writing a new edition of a book on technology.
- Set up ads and examine the statistics.
- Send out copies to trusted reviewers and listen to their feedback. This is undoubtedly the gold standard of improving a book with the help of a reader. The most significant drawbacks are that the reviewer might have a lot of other books to read before yours and that the process of reviewing takes time.
- Release parts of your book for free. With the Agile method, you will be finished with the first chapters of your book long before the final release. In order to get early feedback, you could choose to release those early parts as individual articles on your website with a reference to your book. This way, you not only get feedback from early readers but also you can use those articles as an early advertising campaign for pre-ordering your book.As an alternative to publishing individual articles on your website, there is also the Leanpub project where interested readers can pre-order your book and read your work in progress before you have released the book.
If you decide to publish a chapter on your website, your advantage is that the post will already have a clear purpose (the user story!) and minimal editing is required (references and pictures). Add a featured image at the top, use the chapter title as the post title, add a small advertisement about pre-ordering the book, and you are done. If you are worried about people pirating your work, your strategy will depend on the final price of the book, the time you have invested in it, and the expected size of your audience.
First, there are niche books that required a lot of work and sell easily for more than $50. An example would be books about current technologies: they have a unique selling point given that there is not a lot of competition. In this case, you might want to limit the amount of work you publish on your website.
Second, if you are writing your book to advertise professional services, people copying your work should be a welcome situation as a means of reaching a wider audience. Think of it as people copying your advertisement and showing it to other people for free.
Third, if your book is your product—not your services—you need to weigh your options. On the one hand, if you release individual chapters on your website, people could combine them together and have a complete book to read and no longer see the need to buy the actual book. On the other hand, they might tell other people about your book, or they might not be inclined to spend the time compiling your articles and instead buy the compiled book. You could also put more advertising on your website, release only excerpts, or limit access to those articles to trusted reviewers.
Amazon Ads and Market Research
Ads are another way to connect with your readers. Start your first ads when your book is ready for pre-order—ideally, on day one! Amazon sets a maximum time limit of three months for pre-orders, so aim for releasing at least four books each year to get the most out of it. Alternatively, you can use Google Play or Leanpub which have no time limit. Have a first draft of your cover and upload that, together with your user stories (minus the names) as a description. Even though this might take extra work, any information you can get from your readers before the actual book launch will be helpful. For example, you might notice that one keyword does exceptionally well. You could use that information to improve your book’s description, pointing out that this (the keyword) is something you write about, and you could add an additional or extend an existing chapter about this topic. On Amazon, you have the following options:
- Product Display Ads: You can display your book as an ad by Interest (on Kindle), by Category (on Amazon.com), or by Product (on Amazon.com). The first type of ad is relevant to you if you write for a specific genre and have an audience using mainly Kindle to read books. The second type of ad is also recommended if you write for a specific genre but aim for people browsing on the Amazon website. The third type allows you to place your ad on the page of a specific product on Amazon. This should only be used if you know that people who are interested in that product will very likely also read your book. For example, you could advertise your gardening book on a product page of a popular gardening tool.
- Sponsored Ads: Sponsored Ads show up when a customer searches for a product. You can either set automatic targeting or manual targeting. With the former, the keywords will depend on your existing product information. If you have put relevant keywords into your description, this might be the fastest way to get an ad up and running. For more fine-grained control, manual targeting is highly recommended.
If you are (also) producing paperback editions of your book that include an index, you are at an advantage here. Creating an index for your (offline) readers is the same as creating a list of keywords for your online readers to search for. While it requires some extra formatting, you can basically copy your entire (!) index into the keyword field on Amazon. While most of the index keywords are irrelevant, you will quickly (depending on your traffic) see which keywords people click on and which they do not (Amazon provides a detailed analysis for each keyword). Over time, deactivate non-performing or low-performing keywords and increase spending on the high-performing keywords. Once you have found the core keywords that sell your book, you can then optimize your copy by setting up multiple ads with the same keyword, but different copy.
While this evolutionary approach will not revolutionize your sales (give yourself at least six to 12 months to learn the trade), it will most likely reduce your unnecessary spending and will likely increase the conversion rates of your ads. But again, ads can only do so much. Ultimately, it is your cover, your ratings and reviews, and the topic you are writing about that sells the book. A valuable side effect of running ads is certainly that you will learn more about the market and what people are searching for—invaluable information for deciding the topic of your next book. Also, you could put your top seven performing ad keywords into the book description. Free advertising!
Beyond optimizing your keywords and your ad copy, you can also optimize your product page. To accomplish this, you have to have ads running for a certain amount of time depending on your sale volume (for example, one month), then pause those ads, make changes to your product page, and create identical new ads. By comparing the conversion rate (number of sales divided by number of clicks), you can then compare both versions of your book’s product page.
If you want to rely on third parties to advertise for you, make sure you can track the conversion rate and start small. For example, someone might offer to publish your book ad to Facebook groups of 25,000 people. But that might only help you to get maybe 10 clicks because many people in those groups never see the post on their timeline. Paying $10 for this service will actually cost you $1 per click—more expensive than a Facebook ad you place.
A bestseller is properly defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” But many authors falsely call their book a “bestseller” if it was for an hour at the top of an Amazon category instead of relying on a trusted bestseller list by an established authority (e.g., New York Times). Hence, one should be cautious with people promising to make your book a bestseller.
That is the reason why, for the copy (in the ad and the product page) itself, it is best to refrain from the usual marketing buzzwords that come to your head. Sure, adding “bestseller” will create the illusion that everyone else likes your book so something about it must be special. But if it is not truly a bestseller, calling it one is dishonest and will make you and your book look cheap.
If you want to advertise in forums, write an article about your book, or create a video. The best approach is to not simply tell your audience what the book is about, but to evoke an emotional reaction; whether they love or hate your approach, at least you will get them talking about it. Then you can begin to collect early feedback.
Whatever approach you choose, keep in mind that the idea is to lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship with your audience. A quick sell can always be made at the cost of your reputation. Set as your goal to deliver on your promises with a well-researched, well-written book.