Monday, August 01, 2011

Selling a Million Books on Amazon

I heard John Locke’s story - the first self-published author to sell a million ebooks on Amazon. (And only the seventh overall.) So when I noticed his book “How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks in 5 Months!” I decided to order it. While I won’t reveal his ‘secret’ here, I did want to draw attention to two points he made in the book.

The first one is something I emphasize at every seminar I teach.

Know your audience before you start writing. He says most people do it backwards - they write a book and then try to figure out the audience. Locke approaches it like a business - if you want to succeed, know your audience and write to them.

The second one you’ll either dismiss or a light bulb will go off in your head.

When someone starts his or her own business, no one thinks twice. Investing in stocks, a business, a project, real estate, one’s financial future - those are acceptable. Then why is it investing in one’s own book and self-publishing is not? Why has the publishing industry deemed this shameful? (And yes, John advocates spending a couple thousand on professional editing, formatting, and the book cover.)

Really think about that one! If no one ever believed in his own talents and abilities, if everyone required validation before they could pursue an idea, where would we? What if Edison or Ford had felt that way? When you really think about it, the idea is ridiculous. Even the music industry has moved past that issue and independent labels are everywhere now.

There are several other points he makes, but I’ll save those for another day.

You can’t deny the facts - he sold over a million self-published ebooks on Amazon in just five months.

What do you think about these points?


  1. And then you get the guy who published a BLANK book entitled "What men think about besides Sex," and made the best-seller list and every single rule known to man goes down the toilet :o)

  2. That's true about the music industry. Between iTunes and Pandora, I've found a lot of excellent bands on small, independent lables that you'll never hear on the radio - but they do really well regardless.

  3. Alex is right about the music industry, My favourite Daniel O Donnell NEVER gets any airtime on the radio yet his concerts all sell outs all over the world.

    Enjoyed the read.
    Have a good day.

  4. I think the first point is the most crucial. So many writers I hear from think of their "art" and not about their reader (which is fine, if you're not *wanting* a reader, but...) So important to know your audience and then target what you know they'll like.

  5. Just a couple of cautions to keep in mind when studying the success of writers like Locke and Hocking.

    First, some phenomena are easily repeatable, some are not. It remains to be seen if Locke and his million-selling cohorts represent readily repeatable phenomena or not. In no way am I implying one shouldn't try; just don't expect to replicate his results by following some formula. One absolute truism about publishing today -- the rules and what works (or doesn't) keep changing.

    Second, we should be careful trying to draw parallels with the music industry. Why we listen to music and how we consume music are very different from why we read and how we consume books. That doesn't mean there are no valuable lessons; we just need to make sure we evaluate the lessons against the different criteria consumers have for books.

  6. I think that investment in making it the best presentation possible is CRITICAL. It is one of the primary problems with self-publishing, I think--it is too easy to dive in without it.

    As for audience... it is definitely easier to SELL a book for a specific audience. I think though, WRITING for a specific audience would stop me up (editing, yes, writing, no)--though the Cozy parameters are fine to work within...

  7. You and he are spot on - a book is a product and there should be investment made in it before you sell it. I am going to try getting a traditional publishing contract first when I finish my book, but I'm also saving up the money needed if I decide to self-publish.

    This is a post everyone should read!

  8. I wrote my own review on this book at but forgot to say exactly what you did here: Writers and the publishing industry in general should think about this perception of why it's a bad thing to invest in your product. Not all writers are business people, but those who are should not be dismissed because they're willing to take a chance on themselves. As Locke said, if the writer isn't willing, why should anyone else be? Thanks for posting this!

  9. I think with fiction, the first point is true, but memoir is slightly different. On the second point, I whole-heartedly agree. And I did spend thousands to hire professional editors and designers. I think it was well worth it.

  10. Jessica, that one blows everything out of the water, doesn't it?

    Alex and Yvonne, that is so true.

    Elizabeth, exactly.

    Walt, after reading the book, what he did was simple and replicable. Here's why most people will fail though - not investing in their product and putting out awful books; not putting the time into the process; and doing the whole process wrong. Those who do it correctly may never hit a million, but they'll probably sell more books.

    Hart, you're right - a $10 ISBN from Smashwords is not investing. And I think you already know your audience very well.

    Ellie, if everyone treated it like a business, they'd be more successful.

    Kristie, I'll go look for your review!

    Karen, I think you did have an audience in mind and you're certainly found them!

  11. @Jessica Bell - That's hilarious and I've no doubt it's true. LOL

    L. Diane - As for the two points, I agree wholeheartedly. It's important to make your book the best it can be.

  12. I think it would be fascinating to hear his story. He obviously knows what he's doing. I agree with his two points completely.

  13. I, too, think it's crucial to spend the money on professional editing, and getting a book cover together. Then come up with a marketing plan, and be in it for the long haul, realizing you don't have to sell a million copies to perhaps supplement your income or make a living off writing.

    How can we build an audience without being out there? I figure we have to start somewhere. If you can't afford the editing for a full-length novel, start smaller - short stories, novelettes and novellas. Just be sure to be clear that it's not a full-length novel and price accordingly.

    I should read his book. Thanks for the tips.

  14. Of your two points, I think the one least considered is "audience." I think writers write then think, okay, who should I market to? Sometimes it works out. Often it doesn't.

  15. If you approach your writing as a business then yes these are valid points. If however, you write from the heart... well the heart must have a voice. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  16. Someone selling a million copies carries a lot of credibility in what he says. I agree about knowing your audience. I'm gearing up some promotional stuff that is geared toward a few specific audiences. Better this way than the shotgun effect and hope you hit something.

  17. I think the points are valid. If you write for your craft and not who is going to read it, don't bother publishing it.

  18. At risk of being persecuted by the masses, I'm going to say I disagree a bit with the statement "know your audience."
    I think it should read "know your story, and let the story find its audience."

    Yes, it's true that we need to speak to our readers. But we do that by speaking FOR our story, relating it to the readers using all the tools of our craft. Let the story permeate the reader's soul through mastery of these same tools.

    I think when we start writing for an audience ONLY, we run the risk of formulative efforts, of trying to be who we aren't.

    Then, of course, we need to decide what our definition of success is. I commend Locke for his monetary gains. I just have a slightly different view of success.

  19. M Pax, his book is really fascinating.

    Bryce, as an author of six books, I can attest - find audience first. Fill a need. Fill a niche. We can write from the heart, but if we don't know who we are writing for, then it's a waste.

  20. I agree it's important to believe in your work and invest as much as possible in it. There are no guaranteed return, but you would have given it your best shot.

  21. I think it's important to know your audience, however I'm not really loving the idea of choosing an audience, then writing to them. It's like making yourself write in a genre you're not familiar with just 'cause it's selling really well right then. I feel more like I should just go with what I want to write. I guess it's easier for me since I write in many different genres anyway.

    I do see his point though, in some ways - if you're writing teenaged characters, keep your teen audience in mind while writing.

  22. Trisha, I don't think he means write in an unfamiliar genre, just know your audience before you write in your genre.

  23. At some point in the process, writers need to prioritize why they signed up for this gig: to sell books or to nurture their creative spirit. Of course, it's possible to do both, and of course that's the goal. But IMO, if a writer goes into a project caught up only in writing for an audience, s/he will end up turning out mediocre work that is a rehash of what's gone before. Will it sell? Very possibly, but book sales don't always equal quality.

    As to Locke's second point: absolutely right.

  24. Interesting points--and I do agree with investing in your own work.

  25. The second one was a light bulb for sure. It's a business and should be treated like one. Similarly, one of the tips I took to best from Stephen King was to work writing like a job, dedicate the time, sit at a desk with quiet, etc.

  26. Great food for thought, thanks!

  27. It's the authors who haven't gotten professional editing that give the self-published a bad name! I'm reading one now that looks like he applied the punctuation with a shotgun! There was another that had more adjectives and 10-cent-words thn an English textbook.

  28. VR, you'd be amazed how many authors write that way, too.

    Shannon, good! It really hit me, and I've always thought of speaking and writing in business terms.

    Will, did you tell him nice shootin', Tex?

  29. Thanks for all the comments, guys!

  30. I have begun to wonder as indie labels become more mainstream, if the publishing industry will move more toward the model used in the music business. I just returned from Nashville, where it's the norm for big names to start their own music labels. I even heard this week that Ellen started her own label because of a young man whose music she enjoyed.

    The biggest hurdle to indie publishers is they don't have the clout with the bookstores that the big NY publishers enjoy. But even that is changing. Who would have thought ten years ago that Waldenbooks and Borders would be gone? That Barnes & Noble would be imploding with a board who can't seem to get along? That Books-a-Million would suffer through bankruptcy?

    Things change. Maybe soon, indies will have a level playing field.