Is SEO Important for Authors?

Most authors don’t know much about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). When asked how they use SEO on their websites or in their book titles, many authors answer with silence. But a basic knowledge of SEO can help authors maximize their online efforts.

In his article “Simple SEO for Authors,” The Book Designer Joel Friedlander summarizes the power and purpose of SEO. “When people are looking for information online the first thing they do is fire up a search engine toolbar and start creating searches.” The sites that show up at the top of these lists have optimized their content: “In other words, they’ve tried to make it super clear exactly what questions they are answering.” So authors who want their work to be found online can’t ignore SEO.

Search engines use so-called spiders that electronically crawl over every site on the Web. They aim to find out what each site is about—or the question it answers for readers. Then they keep an index of what they find so that when a user types a query in the search engine, the search engine can give them the most relevant results. SEO helps the search engine know what key terms a site is relevant to and how relevant it is to those terms. To delve deeper, SEOmoz offers a free Beginners Guide to SEO.

Each search engine has it’s own proprietary algorithm, so while authors can know mostly what the engines want, it’s still a bit mysterious. Google in particular is known to constantly tweak and update its formula. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, keeps a blog that often includes helpful information about changes to Google’s formula.

It used to be that the algorithms were based very heavily on key words. So site developers would stuff their pages full of the desired key word. The results were clunky page, packed with text that was minimally useful to readers.

In recent years search engines have been working to make algorithms that favor reader-centered content rather than keyword-stuffed pages. Cutts said in a recent talk at SXSW, “We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over-optimization or overly SEO versus those making great content and great sites. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter and make our relevance better. We are also looking for those who abuse it, like [those who use] too many keywords on a page or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect.”

Barry A. Densa, a freelance marketing and sales copywriter, sums up the message for writers, “Create content that appeals to people, not bots.” This is particularly comforting to self-published authors who want their quality content to get noticed.

In the midst of the complex, technical world of SEO there are simple practices authors can integrate into their sites to help them get attention from search engines—and readers.

For writers earlier on in the book process, book coach Alexa Whitten highlights strategies to help get a jump on SEO. “I always think about the title of my clients’ books, and then a relevant URL to go with it.  Then set up lead/squeeze pages, which then offer the book. Getting your titles onto sites like Amazon will always help when people search for your book on line.”

Writer Rick Daley talks about SEO on Nathan Bransford’s blog, helping authors sort through the best way to choose and use key words. “SEO is best geared toward keywords relevant to your book.  For example, my book is an origins-of-Santa story.  The keywords/phrases I chose for SEO are Christmas book for kids, history of Santa Claus, Christmas gift idea, Kindle Christmas Book, Nook Christmas Book, etc.  I’m trying to think like my target audience and determine what they are likely to search for.”

In addition, Daley adds, “Links (i.e. hyperlinks) should be used on your targeted keywords, and they should go to your site(s) when clicked.  Avoid general page titles, like ‘Home Page,’ in favor of something more specific, like ‘The Man in the Cinder Clouds—A Christmas Book.’”

In his copywriting tutorial at CopyBlogger, Brian Clark echoes Daley’s titling advice, “Headlines the most important copywriting skill.” This is apt for authors, especially those who blog. Headlines help the search engines learn what the site is about.

For many authors this feels like a lot to manage, but Daley notes, “Many website development platforms have point-and-click interfaces to add/update your page titles and META tags. If you have a webmaster who maintains your site for you, he or she should be able to update them for you.”

There are numerous site tools that can help optimize content as well. Michael Gray, owner and President of Atlas Web Service has compiled a list of SEO Plug-ins for WordPress.

Search engines don’t just look at what’s happening on a particular site. In his SEO copywriting tutorial, Clark states, “Almost 85% of the total factors that determine how a web page is ranked in a search engine is based on things that happen off the page itself.

Google treats the trust and authority of your domain, what others think about your content, and the words they use to describe it in links as an important indication of quality and relevance.”

Clark points to a powerful part of the SEO landscape (which selfmkt will discuss next week): “Thanks to blogging and social media platforms, more people than ever are able to cast their vote on what’s relevant by linking to it, bookmarking it, and tweeting it. Modern SEO is all about crafting content so compelling that other people want to promote it by linking to it or sharing it, which increases your trust and authority and helps the pages you want to rank well for certain keywords.”

As search engines become more sophisticated, SEO is becoming more and more powerful and relevant to content producers such as self-published authors. Journalist Matt McGee reports that according to a recent survey, “Social media marketers are much more likely to also use SEO in their marketing efforts than PPC.” (PPC, or pay per click, is advertising space on sites or search engines that advertisers can buy. The name is derived from the fee structure—advertisers pay each time a user clicks the ad.) Savvy self-publishers learn the tools of the social media marketing trade—selfmkt will look more at social media marketing in the next edition.

Melissa Anne Wuske is a freelance writer and editor. She is also the communications director for Stop Traffick Fashion where she writes about human trafficking.

Editing for a Product that’s Easy to Market

It’s tough truth: good marketing won’t make a bad product succeed (at least not over the long haul). The self-publishing industry is riddled with good ideas that turned into bad books. Editing can help prevent this.

Independent editor Lauren Mosko Bailey says, “The fastest way to discredit yourself as a ‘real’ writer with new readers is to sell them a book that looks and reads like a sloppy first draft.” When writers don’t self-edit and have their work edited, they trivialize their work—and self-published authors already face scrutiny, skepticism, and scorn. Conversely, a well edited book creates clarity and an aura of competence around the author and their work. Even as readers become more and more open to independently published books, they won’t let poor editing slide. Amazon reviews give readers a voice, and negative reviews are like an anchor that can sink a book to the bottom of the bookselling ocean. Even after corrections are made, the reviews remain.

The poor-editing problem is sadly prevalent. “I’ve read enough self-published books to know that most of them look like they haven’t even seen a spell-check program,” says Bailey.

The first line of editing defense is the author. Suzy Bills, Owner, President, and CEO at Editing by Suzy, says, “Most of today’s successful authors have revised and reviewed their work multiple times before submitting—even to an editor.”

But many writers don’t know what to look for when they edit. There are many approaches to take. Luckily professional editors are willing to give advice.

Copy editor Lucinda Jordaan highlights some areas to focus on. “Avoid repetition, especially of a concept or idea.”

Independent editor Elizabeth West adds that writers “should watch for repetitive words, phrases, and sentence structures.”

“Be as concise as possible,” Jordaan adds, “this need not affect your tone or phrasing, but it will sharpen its impact. Lastly, check your facts, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.”

Shannon O’Neil and Toni Tesori, the self-publishing team at Duolit, give authors this advice for editing. “First and foremost authors should inspect their grammar with a fine-tooth comb. Nothing is a bigger turn off than typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. After grammar, overall content editing is important. Authors should ask themselves if their story flows well from scene to scene, and if there are any areas where they might lose a reader’s interest. Finally, a comprehensive self-edit would not be complete without a consistency check of your whole novel. Make sure that character names and traits, locations, and other details are consistent throughout the book.”

Publishing professional Jay Heinlein gives advice on editing. Heinlein suggests nonfiction authors ask, “Does the content match your intended audience? Is your voice and style consistent throughout the book? Have you reached a completed conclusion? Will your reader take-away what you intended? Have you given your reader what you expected to give—and what they expected to receive?”

On the practical side, author, speaker, and author coach Joy DeKok says, “Use your editing software, but don’t trust it 100 percent of the time. I listen to my computer (via Natural Reader) because when I read my work, I tend to see what I meant to say. I use a secondary editing software program (WhiteSmoke) to catch errors as well. It catches what MS Word doesn’t. I work with self-publishing companies who offer galley copies and at least two opportunities to go through the book and make changes without any additional charges.”

Most independent authors and editors strongly recommend hiring an outside editor to further safeguard your work. Bills says, “Though editing is an additional cost, I’ve experienced many situations when the editing was well worth the extra money, helping writers be more successful, as well as saving themselves from potential embarrassment.”

“If you can afford to hire a freelance editor before you submit your manuscript to a self-publisher, I’d do it,” says Bailey. “There’s really no motivation for a self-publisher’s in-house editor to give your manuscript the eagle-eye treatment: You’re paying for it, so they’re going to print it no matter what. But an editor you’ve hired works for you, so their professional integrity (and their paycheck) depend on their performance.”

While some writers may resonate with Bailey’s skepticism of editing that comes as part of a self-publishing package, some writers have found it helpful. “I had positive experiences using the editors with the companies I self-published with. They were excellent,” says DeKok. She’s also hired an independent editor—and points out a key benefit of any outside set of eyes: “[My editor is] excellent at catching my redundancies.”

To find an independent editor, O’Neil and Tesori, say, “Start with Google and find a few editors who work with indie authors, then contact them for rates, availability, and other information. You should also reach out to your fellow authors for recommendations and reviews (but take everything with a grain of salt, one author’s bad experience may have been driven by a personality conflict with an editor and not reflect on an editor’s ability. The opposite scenario is also possible).” 

Bailey suggests meeting potential editors face to face at writing conference, and book editor Mike Ekunno says, “Your best bet to finding an independent editor is by approaching a reputable publisher or through recommendation from satisfied clients.”

Heinlein recommends three sources: “Your personal network, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and online freelancer sites such as elance.com, freelanceindia.com.”

Even with the best editing, errors can occur. What then? Bailey says, “Every book—even the ones published by the most prestigious traditional publishers—have an error or two in them, so if that’s all you find and it’s nothing that will get you sued or that’s horrendously embarrassing, then I’d say don’t worry—just fix it before you reprint. If you’ve paid for a self-publisher’s editorial services and you receive a book that’s riddled with errors, then you have to check your contract and see what kind of recourse you have.”

O’Neil and Tesori recommend having a designated copy of the book to mark errors as they’re found. “Don’t update your print file with every correction, but save them up for a new release (or at least make the changes to the e-book, that’s one of the advantages of that great medium!).”

Heinlein agrees, “One of the many wonderful things, about the current publishing technologies is the ability to make real-time corrections. This is especially true for e-books, but this approach can also be applied to print-on-demand titles.”

 Melissa Anne Wuske is a freelance writer and editor. She is also the communications director for Stop Traffick Fashion where she writes about human trafficking

Independent Authors Confront E-Book Pricing

 The e-book market is crucial ground for self-published authors. The era of the $0.99 e-book has opened worlds of challenges and opportunities. Authors need to pursue pricing best-practices—even though this ever-changing bazaar full of estimation, trial and error, and gamesmanship isn’t likely to stabilize any time soon.

News that the Justice Department is threatening to sue Apple and five majors publishers, alleging that they colluded to keep e-book prices high, has the publishing world and independent authors anxiously (sometimes angrily) wondering: What’s next?

Author Nathan Bransford gives background on the agency model versus wholesale model debate that’s fueling the antitrust suit. In short: In the wholesale model (that publishers use for print books), the publisher sets the suggested retail price, but each retailer can determine the actual sale price. In the agency model (that major publishers use for e-books), the publisher sets the final sale price.

Simplistically speaking, not much will change for independent authors if the agency model is gone. They’ll still have the same freedom to set prices for their books as before since they aren’t part of the agency or wholesale models.

Porter Anderson, a journalist who contributes regularly at Jane Friedman’s media hub, created a round up of much of the talk and speculation about the suit and takes a complex look at what the market might look like in the future—and what it could mean for authors.

Anderson cites Mike Shatzkin, “Over time, the biggest losers here will be the authors. The independent authors will feel the pain first. Agency pricing creates a zone of pricing they can occupy without much competition from branded merchandise. When the known authors are only available at $9.99 and up, the fledgling at $0.99–$2.99 looks very attractive and worth a try. Ending agency will have the ‘desired’ effect of bringing all e-book prices down. As the big book prices are reduced, the ability of the unknowns to use price as a discovery tool will diminish as well.”

Ash Maurya is an expert on setting a price and getting customers to want to pay it. He talks in his book Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works and the accompanying webcast about the importance of anchoring a product’s price against the competition’s. No matter the current climate, authors must know what they offer and what the competition offers and set prices accordingly. During the webcast, Maurya said, “You have to anchor [your price] against [the competition]. If you think your value is that much more. Those [advantages] are things that you have to test with your customers. If you’re in a crowded market you have to figure out how you’re different.”

Through the uncertainty, many authors are calmly embracing Anderson’s advice: “Reserving judgment is a keenly viable option in times of upheaval. It often separates publishing professionals from knee-jerking fops. Don’t let anyone push you with ‘What do you think?’ Tell them you’re watching, waiting, and learning.”

Authors are braving the question: How much should I charge for my book? And their waiting, watching, and learning is paying off.

Kristin Lindstrom, publishing consultant at Flying Pig Media, says, “You’ve got to keep pretty close track on how sales are going at each price. Otherwise you can’t make legitimate decisions on whether you should jiggle the price or not. As a self-published author, you need to keep the price low initially. People are much more willing to take a risk with an unknown author at $4.99 than they are at $11.99. Many authors find that dropping the price can make a huge difference in sales. A client of my dropped her price from $6.49 to $3.99, and her sales tripled.”

Lindstrom highlights Maurya’s price-positioning wisdom. “Everyone wants to make a profit,” she says, “but if you can increase sales by dropping the price, even though you’re bringing in less profit per book sold, you’re meeting the market where it’s willing to meet you.”

David Griffiths, author and self-publishing teacher, draws his pricing strategy from other experts. “Mark Coker of Smashwords suggested that $2.99 was the ideal price. I agree. It is the lowest price that Amazon will pay a 70 percent royalty. I priced The Misadventures of Russell Quigley at $2.99 for the Kindle and $11.95 for the paperback.”

Authors like Griffiths are working to maximize profits in Amazon’s current royalty structure: 35% royalty for e-books priced between $0.99 and $2.99 and 70% for e-books priced at $2.99 or more.

Shelagh Watkins, a children’s writer, looked for the easiest way to profit within Amazon’s structure. “To make the same profit earned from the sale of 100 e-books at $2.99, the author would have to sell 600 e-books at $0.99. Since my books had already been downloaded thousands of times, setting the price at $0.99 to increase the number of sales did not make sense. Making the most profit out of each individual sale and selling fewer books seemed to be an easier target to achieve.”

Novelist and designer Dave Bricker highlights the opportunity nonfiction authors have to be bolder in their pricing. “Fiction readers can download literally millions of books for free. Nonfiction readers are an entirely different market. For example, I’m working on a book about Master’s thesis writing for a particular academic discipline: $20 in e-book or paper form. Why? Because there aren’t any other books on that topic and twenty bucks is a pittance to pay for that kind of important guidance. Nonfiction offers a solution to a problem for a specific audience; the value of that is much easier to quantify.”

Shannon Janeczek, a promotions manager at ProQuest, explains how she helps her clients price their children’s books. “Essentially, we try to aim for a percentage of the print book price, if there’s a print book. For example, one children’s book that we list at $11.99 for print goes for $2.99 on the Kindle. Mostly because people don’t want to pay a lot for e-books, but will pay a little more than the $0.99 usually charged for adult books, because quality children’s books are still a bit of a rarity on Kindle. Now that Nook isn’t the only color game in town for e-books, I think we will see some competitive pricing between Kindle and Nook, but enhanced children’s books will keep the price a bit higher than adult books, simply for the amount of work that goes into them.”

International thriller author Jim Magwood summarizes how to determine price in a word: compare. “Get into all the sites and venues where you are considering selling and compare. Look in the same genre as your work. Compare the number of pages. Compare the quality of your cover with others in the site. Try to compare the basic writing style in the first few pages of theirs to yours. Then compare the pricing.”

Magwood sums up the waiting, watching, and learning approach: “Don’t be afraid to change your price once you’ve got it out there.”

Melissa Anne Wuske is a freelance writer and editor. She is also the communications director for Stop Traffick Fashion where she writes about human trafficking

Authors Find the Value of Free

Free has always been a staple of the marketing world: free pens, free mugs, free tote bags. In recent years, free has become a fixture for publishers and authors as well. Bestsellers like Neil Gaiman have made headlines by giving away their work for free. But in the often cash-strapped, lower-profile world of self-publishing, free can sometimes seem futile or risky.

E-books and web technology lower the cost of free merchandise and make it easier than ever to reach out to people with it; but Seth Godin, marketing expert and champion of the payoffs of giveaways, pointed out on his blog last June that the prevalence of free content makes consumers increasingly averse to paying for content. And for most writers that’s the goal—to turn freebie recipients into buyers.

Evidence shows that in the midst of these challenges, self-published authors of all stripes are seeing success from giveaways. From bookmarks to free copies, self-published authors are reaping the rewards of free. Authors are finding success by using creativity and setting manageable goals.

Young adult novelist Rebecca Rogers finds free merchandise is the linchpin of her marketing plan. “Giving away actual copies of my books has helped a tremendous amount, whether they’re free on Amazon or listed via giveaways on websites such as Goodreads and book blogs. Even including my books along with a gift card or books from a book-advertising website helps.” As a newer author, her goal is to develop a readership, “The more I put my work out there, the more readers I gain,” Rogers says. “After listing my books for free, even if it’s for a few days, I always see an increase in sales. I also tend to gain followers on my blog and social sites.”

Short story author Kat Yares publishes primarily for Kindle. “I have free days for my books while they are in the Kindle Select program,” she says. One of her main goals is to get “published reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, and Shelfari.” For her the key is knowing that “until you have established yourself and find a fan base, any uptick in sales is a successful promotion. Most readers do not leave reviews so if you get one in a hundred, I feel you are doing good.”

Book marketing expert Dana Lynn Smith highlights a powerful use of freebies: getting readers’ contact information. “As an incentive for people to sign up for my mailing list, I give away a free e-book comprised of my best how-to blog posts, arranged by category.”

Partnership is also a vital part of free promotion. Smith has created an anthology of guest posts from her blog, called Savvy Book Marketing Secrets, that she and the other contributors all use for promotion. “About 1,500 copies of the anthology e-book have been downloaded from Smashwords, BN.com, and Sony in eight months.”

“Bookmarks are my favorite promotional item,” says Lillian Brummet, author of Purple Snowflake Marketing (coauthored with her husband Dave). Their goal is “exposure—but not just for that moment. We wanted to have something that would last years and years. Something that might be left out where visitors or family members would see it.” The Brummets uses their niche in the publishing market to make her promotions more effective: as nature and ecology writers “letting people know that the bookmarks and books are printed in an ecologically sustainable way helps them feel better about us, and it builds our image.”

Jake Bussolini, author of four books about freshwater fishing, sent out postcards to friends and associates around the country announcing his first book and his new identity as an author. “I sent out about 100 of these cards and it resulted in book sales. Probably 20 percent of those who got them [bought the book].” Like the Brummets, he also uses a method unique to his subject matter: “I sponsor fishing classes free for local kids and their parents. These are a good forum to sell books.”

M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery Series, has a long history of free promotions using Kindle Direct Publishing and shows that well designed promotions can affect an author’s whole backlist.

This past December Locke did a giveaway of Maids of Misfortune to promote the book and its sequel Uneasy Spirits. “My goal was to get these two books back up to the top of their category so they would be more visible to the new batch of Kindle owners.” The promotion resulted in 15,000 free downloads in two days and 7,000 copies sold over the next month. “I also got over 23 positive reviews of Maids of Misfortune.”

Locke has since done a two-day promotion focusing on Uneasy Spirits to increase visibility and get more reviews. Since it’s the second in the series, she offered Maids of Misfortune free on the first day of the promotion too. “I really thought Maids wouldn’t do as well as it had before. Boy was I wrong. [In one day] it had over 12,000 downloads, and when it shifted to paid, it steadily rose the ranks. It broke the 100 bestseller list, settling around #61 in the Kindle Store. Uneasy Spirits also did well, but at a slower pace. It took two days to reach over 14,000 downloads, and it has been slower to make it back up the rankings after it shifted back to paid. … Whether or not it will get more reviews for Uneasy remains to be seen.”

While each author’s promotional style is unique and the ever-changing market means there are no cookie-cutter solutions, there are always universal truths. “It’s important to give away something that people will find useful or entertaining, and also to make sure that your giveaway promotes you and your book,” Smith says.

The right attitude is vital, Rogers says, “I always keep in mind that even if just one person buys my books, it’s better than none.” Yares reminds authors that failure is virtually not an option: “An unsuccessful promotion would only apply to a giveaway where there are no takers at all.”

Melissa Anne Wuske is a freelance writer and editor. She is also the communications director for Stop Traffick Fashion where she writes about human trafficking