Monday, August 15, 2011

MONDAY MARKETING Using SEO to Soft-Sell eBooks @40kbooks @smashwords @authonomy @goodreads

So the idea of using SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tricks to help sell ebooks has been a much-requested topic by you, my readers. I don't like discussing SEO--I don't even like to think about SEO--but I am finally going to discuss it. Marginally.

That is, I'm not going to talk about "buying keywords" and all of the other (in my opinion, sleazoid) tricks done by sales and marketing "gurus." They're selling blogs or banner ads or other "monetizing" of web site strategies. I'm just talking about Indie Authors selling books. So we're not turning into marketing gurus here, we're just talking, one Indie Author who hates SEO but must use it, to another (GGG).

Your Tools

You only have a limited number of tools with which to sell your book. I believe the list is as follows, in the order of priority listed below. My list definitely differs from other lists you might see online. I'm positive I have things on it which others don't see as "sales tools" and I'm just as sure that I'm missing something others think is "essential." This is my list of tools. That's all it is.
  1. Cover art
  2. Title
  3. Tag line
  4. Short and/or Long Description (the "blurb" as we call it)
  5. Reader reviews
  6. Free Sample
  7. Magic Price Spot
This list is too long to go over in today's post, so I'll cover the first 4 points today and then address the last 3 in tomorrow's Tuesday Tips post.

1. Cover art

In the last 2 weeks alone, I've read probably a dozen articles about how Indies can sell books or what to do to make your book stand out. At least half have said the cover art is irrelevant or at least unimportant and have focused on other things--to which I say a flat *pfffffft* You are so wrong. At least in the online world, and hey, what d'ya know? The traditional DTB (Dead Tree Book or printed on paper for those of you who don't like to think of the poor little trees giving up their lives for you to hold and caress the pages of your favorite novel) publishers have always focused huge amounts of money, time and effort on the cover artwork. In fact, the "packaging" is one of the most costly expenses a traditional DTB publisher spends on producing a book. They might even design a totally different package for the hardcover release than they did for the paperback.

Covers matter.

I won't go so far as to say a bad cover will kill your book. Case in point: my current cover for Dicky's Story couldn't be much worse and I'm scrambling as fast as I can to create a new one but to be frank, the book has still sold plenty of copies without my doing any marketing beyond this kind of a side mention. I haven't had time and have been so ashamed of the cover, I've deliberately tried not to market the book. It's still sold itself. Repeatedly.

At Smashwords alone, it's seen almost 450 downloads (sadly for my checkbook, only a mere fraction of those have been paying customers, but that's okay. I wouldn't pay for that cover either!) and I've even had my first international sale via Amazon's Kindle UK store. Before this awful artwork propagates to much further, I need to replace it. So how will I decide what to do instead?

I'll ask myself what makes a good cover and how does the artwork affect the SEO of your book?

Cover Art as SEO Seed

Your cover artwork might show up in image search results. That is, if someone is searching for an image even remotely related to your cover art, your book cover might be the answer to their search query. If you have an obscure or overly-generic image, it'll probably be on page 500 but if you have a really unusual image, something really relevant to the theme or topic of your book--and their search parameters--your cover might show up high in the results. In one instant, after one quick "eyeshot" as they call it on Madison Avenue, your book's cover art might just find you a new reader. That is, they might not have been looking for a book to read--until they saw your cover art and clicked through.

So how do you make it a good cover, one that is capable of hooking a web user who wasn't even looking for a book? Design is one of those "I know it when I see it" questions. Very subjective. There are certain rules, however, to graphics design and applying them will help your cover catch more eyeballs scanning pages of search results and random images. I prefer to apply the rules of CRAP.

The CRAP School of Design - Short Course

No, that's not me joking around; it's an acronym for some actual rules of design. I cannot take credit for this concept. Years ago, I read the book Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams and I've never forgotten this lesson--obviously, the mnemonic worked! Williams has released multiple editions of this book since. I highly recommend any of them. The theory is this, if you apply all four rules of CRAP design, your design won't be crap. So far, when I have remembered to be faithful (which is not all the time, or even half the time), this has definitely worked for me. My best designs were definitely CRAP designs.

C is for contrast. Oppose colors, sizes, textures - use contrast as a verb not a setting like "brightness" in the preferences of your image editor. It's something you will do in your creative process as you design your cover image. Look for elements that are just sitting on the screen. If you can delete them, do it. If you love them, make them pop out to the viewer by finding something with which they can be contrasted. Use a color wheel (use opposing colors on the color wheel) or use a texture against a solid, but separate elements, pop one up to a position of more relevance in the Big Picture by contrasting it with the background layout. Don't forget the #1 rule of all design: less is more. It's quite possible to have a lovely, well-contrasted design in black and white.

R is for repetition. Use patterns, themes, related elements in book cover design. If you have a series, always design with typography to tie your books together. If you don't have a series, at least consider using the same font for your name across designs. In fact, even if your books are not in a series, you can create a repeated effect by applying the same stylistic approach.

Some examples of similar stylistic approaches might include using sunrises in different locales, a "four-seasons" shot of one landscape for 4 books, always having a skyline shot or a person doing the same thing, with different people on each cover. You can theme all of your covers to help create a "brand" for yourself (branding for books is a multi-post series for another week!) Check out these reprints of Dashiell Hammett's classic mysteries. Totally unrelated stories -- tied together by the cover art and connected in your mind as being from the same author or at least, having the same potential to please you as any other work from this author.

Not seeing how to make that happen for your own books? Have a look at the Book Cover Archive pages for authors with multiple books (just pick an author you know) and try to figure out what the theme is. It's super obvious in this screenshot of several of  Cormac McCarthy's westerns. You can immediately notice which book covers "don't belong" can't you? This author is exceedingly well-established, has a devoted following, has no need to redesign book covers and yet, the publisher felt it was worth the considerable expense of redesigning and reissuing all of the books with a themed cover design to strengthen the brand. Several of these books were made into movies, blockbuster movies, but these covers were all designed -- redesigned -- in to sell more books. They were not timed with any specific movie release. These are covers as a book selling tool.

Repetition in design imprints on our brains whether we like it or not. Give it a try.

A is for alignment. Make sure there's some kind of vertical and horizontal relationship between elements of your cover design. There should never be more than three alignments, preferably only two, one vertical and one horizontal. Elements which align include not only typography but any "edge" or contrasting items in your design image. If you have an area of darkness and an area of light, the division between them is an area against which to align--or deliberately not align, leading into....

P is for proximity. Clusters of elements in close proximity are grouped by the human eye/brain by reflex. We associate aligned items in close proximity so by simply separating elements or by not aligning them, we make it clear they are not associated. You can use proximity for or against association of elements--but be sure to consider it when placing things in your image layout.

Last word on covers or I'll never get to the rest of the list! The typeface on your cover design won't be "read" by the search engines when someone searches for an image. The image's so-called "headers" will be read so the web browser will know what kind of file it is. A JPG or a GIF has specific data in the beginning of its encrypted and coded data specifying its file type and how to display it (or render it) in the browser window. The headers contain--or can containt--a lot of other data. You can even edit the headers if you have the coding skils and editing tools for it, but you're probably using stock art or creating your own image and unlikely to edit header code. Therefore, the last line of defense you have between your cover image and oblivion is the file name.

Many of us just name our files something that makes sense to us so we can find the file again on our local hard disk. This is nice but search engines little robots (called spiders) will actually find that book cover image by its file name and if the name makes no sense to the spider, it will be ignored or at least, low-ranked as a not relevant result.

Therefore, before you upload your image anywhere, rename it. In fact, you can even experiment with the file name and use a different one at different sites to see how the name does or does not impact your book's visibility on that store's local search capabilities. Bear in mind Amazon does not use the same search techniques as Barnes & Noble nor as Smashwords, Kobo, Diesel, etc. Every online bookstore indexes its books and cover images according to its own, internal system.

You can at least insure your book's cover image has a file name better than "cover.jpg" :-) In the Windows file-naming system you get 32 characters, case-sensitive, and are allowed to use spaces. Don't do it. Use all 32 characters if you must, and do use case if it makes it more readable to you, but understand that the spider won't distinguish upper and lower case--and they will substitute an ASCII code (%20) for the space. Your file name will "read" like crap (and not the good design kind of CRAP) if you put spaces into the name. Just use words without spaces. You can use dashes (-) or underscores (_) but you don't have to waste spaces with those either. Not for the spiders, anyway.

2. Title

I read this really great article last week when @40kbooks tweeted the link and it got me fired up to write about SEO for books at long last. I encourage you to click through and read it yourself. I shan't repeat everything she says. I would note, however, that his list of tools is a little different than mine. In fact, I'd note that book title is not on her list. I'm not sure she realized that she'd omitted it, given she introduces the list saying she wants to talk about titles *oops*

Anyway, Robin Sullivan makes some excellent points, the gist of which is that titles matter. A lot. I agree because, just like with your cover art image's file name, SEO spiders are actually going to read your book's title--or at least a part of it. Spiders  read URLs (web page addresses) and happily, book seller sites (like Amazon) tend to put the book title into the URL. Here's Coming Home (Dicky's Story) on Amazon:

Gee, lookee there, the URL actually includes the "Dicky's Story" part of my title. "But Sarah," you say, "That parenthetical isn't on your cover art, how'd you get it into the URL? Isn't it just the way you refer to your book?" Yes, I say, it is. It is also a deliberate attempt on my part to distinguish my book from the other oh, 20 or 30 books titled "Coming Home" at least 75% of which are also in the Romance genre (or subgenre and I think 50% of those are in the Inspirational subgenre of romance novels!)

Not only did I immediately start referring to my book in casual conversation as "Dicky's Story" back in November, 2010 when I started editing it and officially retitled it, but I made sure to include the parenthetical in the book's title everywhere I listed it. At Amazon, at Smashwords, at Issuu, at Barnes & Noble, even as far back as December of 2008 when, for a very brief period, I had it uploaded at Authonomy as "Dicky's Story." (In fact, Matthew Dick and I had our first words when he saw that title on my book.)

I know that "Dicky's Story" doesn't really sell the idea "Jewish Inspirational Fiction" and only in the world of double entendre does it speak to "romantic comedy" but guess what? It's #2 on the Google search results when you type in "jewish inspirational fiction" and I have to confess, it does slip a bit once you get going as is Dicky's Story in life (sorry, the puns abound in my mind now that I've started)

That is, if you keep looking for "Jewish Romantic Comedy" you'll find "Friends With Benefits" discussions before you find Dicky's Story. I hadn't seen that interview before and have to say, it is too true. Christian romantic comedies do put up external barriers while Jewish romantic comedies internalize the struggle. The reason is pretty obvious: Jewish attitudes towards sex are open while our "passion" in life seems to be to struggle internally--or angst--over life's choices while Christian attitudes towards sex are extremely closed and repressed (by comparison anyway) and struggling is frowned upon as a sign of weakness.

Okay, back from the side trip, Ms. Sullivan's point about titles remains valid. If the title doesn't help you become visible in the searches your readers are most likely to conduct, then the title is not working for you, it's working against you. Make your title work for you by considering the parentheticals and "subtitles" you can use. Ms. Sullivan had some great examples of how changing or adding just one word to a book's title can alter its SEO impact.

You don't change the title on the cover art (or DTB version if you have one). You just put the extra words into the title on the book's data entry page, such as the Dashboard at KDP or the Book Edit page at Smashwords. Most of these sites where you upload your book will allow you to use at least 32 characters for your book's title (it's that file-naming thing again!) so use them!

3. Tagline

If you have one, this can be as useful a selling tool as your title. If you don't have one, it doesn't hurt you. Depending on how short your tagline is, you could even use it as the file name for your cover art image. The tagline is not a subtitle, so don't try to use it in your title entry field. It's more like a 5-10 word "description," which is your next biggest selling tool.

4. The Blurb

The last selling tool I'll discuss today is the short and/or long descriptions, your "blurbs." First of all, these should be written as sales copy, not as "descriptions." These are not supposed to describe the book, nor summarize it. These are supposed to sell the book. In fact, you'll notice, many DTB publishers put things into the marketing blurbs on the back covers of books which don't actually happen in the story--but they sure did catch your eye and make you buy the book, didn't they?

One of the hardest things for Indie Authors to do is "misrepresent" their story in order to sell it. I don't advise you insert any "bait and switch" hooks into your blurbs, but do make sure the copy reads like a sales pitch. Also, don't allow yourself to become so tied to the fine details of your plot that you miss the point of the blurb.

It's like applying for a job. You send out a cover letter and resume and ask for an interview. You don't ask for the job in your cover letter. You ask to be considered in person and allowed to expand on why you are the perfect person for the job.

The cover letter is like your book cover--it catches the reader's eye, it makes them want to go onto the next eye shot and read the blurb.

The resume is like the blurb--it only needs to get you the interview. All your description has to accomplish is getting the book into the reader's hands. That's it. You have other tools (which we'll discuss tomorrow) to close the deal and make them buy the book.

Your blurb needs to be written as sales copy as well. You need to use emotionally-charged adjectives, ask a lot of questions, don't give too many answers and at the very end, you need to "ask for the sale." Literally.  Maybe suggest the reader "download the free sample now to find out what happens next!" as your last sentence.

As if this weren't hard enough--summarizing your book and doing so in sales-pitchy-speak--you also need to seed your word choices with keywords that are likely to be connected in your readers' minds with your book's subject.

Yes, finally, the SEO demon reappears and sticks its ugly head into the middle of your lovely description. You really do have to make sure the words you choose for your blurb not only sell the book (and okay, for your heart and soul, tell the story, too) but they have to be the keywords your target audience is likely to use to search for a book like yours. If you want to be at the top of the list of suggested reading, you need to be a relevant search result. Again, remember that each online retailer uses their own version of a search engine. Just because it might work for Google, does not mean it will work behind the walled-garden that is a bookseller's search results page.

If I were rewriting the blurb for Dicky's Story now (and I will, just as soon as I finish drawing the new cover art) I'd have to be sure the words "Jewish" and "inspirational" and "romantic" showed up more, and preferably in a phrase like "Jewish inspirational fiction so romantic it will sweep you away." The term "swept away" is such a popular romance novel search term, so maybe not.

There's definitely a balance and a juggling act to perform. As popular blogger on "how to" for Indie Publishing, J.A. Konrath, points out, your description can be changed as many times as it takes to get it right. Free of charge.

I'd go one further and point out, that spiders prefer to crawl "fresh" pages. They won't necessarily recrawl your page if your description is updated daily, but they  will begin to lower its indexed position if you fail to update your description at all. In other words, don't bother trying to fake out the system with daily tweaks (SEO sleazoids who try to fake out the system have forced search engine coders to put in trap doors -- and sometimes you get punished for trying to cheat! Coders are a vengeful bunch, we are!) You cannot, however, slap it up there and forget about it. Your description is never "done." The marketing goes on--so must the blurb-writing! If not, your book sales will simply crawl to a natural stop as soon as momentum runs out. Your goal, one would hope, is to at least maintain your sales rate and hopefully, constantly increase it.

What's Next...

Tomorrow, on Tuesday Tips, I'll discuss reviews, sampling and how to find that magic price-spot that'll get you a happy ending--that is, a book sale more often than not. Until then, start thinking about your cover art and title or rewrite your book's description. Have a great Monday, everyone!

NOTE: This week, instead of my regular Freebie Friday, I'll be running a special guest feature: Danny Gillan, author of Scratch, will be making a feature appearance. Be sure to come back then to learn more about Danny and hear him discuss his new release, Will You Love Me Tomorrow.

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