Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

How to hand-sell an eBook

hand-sale: A sale made or confirmed by mutual shaking of hands.

It’s easy to imagine how an author hand-sells a physical book. If you frequent bookstores you’ve probably seen one sitting behind a table with his or her books stacked up around them along with possibly those tall pop-ups proclaiming the arrival of their latest bestseller. In those scenarios, the author attempts to engage people passing by or else is approached by a potential reader, at which point a pitch is delivered. If the author delivers a good one and the person stopping by is agreeable, a sale is made.

This obviously can’t happen quite the same way when you’re talking about an eBook or in the case of online encounters. In the latter case, there’s no face-to-face. I’m sure most salespeople will tell you how critical that component is.

So how exactly do you hand-sell an eBook?

The same way you’d sell a physical book: one at a time.

I’ll give you an example.

I’ve had two separate instances where someone has read The Hall of the Wood and enjoyed it enough to leave a review. In both cases, and so you don’t think I intrude into the lives of everyone who leaves a review for one of my novels, I had some other connection to each reader either via my web site or Goodreads. Given the generally positive review each person left, I contacted each of these readers separately, thanked them for the review, and offered to send them a copy of my other novel with no strings attached. Both readers were happy to receive the book and went on to write really nice reviews. (You can argue that I’m not really selling anything in these cases since no money changed hands, but sometimes selling can be a longer term prospect where, in this case, good reviews result in future sales. Both readers left 5 star reviews, so I'm not complaining.)

Another way to hand-sell an eBook is via forums. This one can be a little tricky because you have to be careful to follow the rules. Most forums, including those on Goodreads, Fantasy Faction, Kindleboards, and elsewhere, have fairly strict rules governing where you can post information about books for sale. But, as long as you comply, they’re one of the best ways to hand-sell. I’ve had numerous experiences where a quick post about a lowered price has resulted in one or more sales of my novels.

Regardless of how you do it, the point is to make it personal. Establish a one-on-one connection. I’ve found most readers are happy to hear from me as long as there is some previous relationship and even sometimes if there isn’t. In those cases, I’ve always approached the person with humility and courtesy. I always thank people for reviews, even if they’re unfavorable (and they don’t give away the ending of my book—not going to let that one go, sorry). I also never put any pressure on them. Readers love to read, so it’s usually an easy pitch. But I never imply any sort of obligation.

What are some of the ways NOT to hand-sell an eBook?

This should go without saying, but blasting a message of any sort to a mass, unsolicited audience is not the way to do it. That sort of practice is called spamming. Spamming doesn’t sell anything. It just annoys people.

As for Twitter… It’s a little different because most of the people who are going to see your tweet are people who follow you. However, many people go crazy with the hashtags. So if someone is watching that particular tag, they’ll see your tweet regardless of whether they follow you or not. A lot of people think selling via Twitter doesn’t work. I agree, and in fact I routinely unfollow people who do nothing but sell. But there isn’t enough evidence to give a definitive answer either way. I do know, however, that sometimes I’ll click-through on a fellow writer’s sell tweet just to see what their sales rank is and, most of the time, it isn't very good. This tells me that mass tweeting to sell something on Twitter doesn’t work. Further, you risk alienating yourself from your followers and your readers because the constant “sell” message just gets kind of annoying after a while.


Hand-selling anything is an experience where the seller must establish some personal connection with the buyer. This isn’t always easy and it most certainly isn’t a way to sell lots and lots of product, at least not right away. But cultivating a few loyal readers can balloon into more sales down the road through word of mouth. This sort of organic growth only happens through an attention to detail and perseverance on the seller’s part. I’ve found the act of hand-selling my eBooks is far more rewarding than having someone buy it anonymously. That doesn’t mean I won’t take the sale, though, either way.

Shills, Sockpuppets, and Online Reviews

First, some definitions:


A shill is "a person who publicly helps a person or organization without disclosing that he has a close relationship with that person or organization. 'Shill' typically refers to someone who purposely gives onlookers the impression that he is an enthusiastic independent customer of a seller (or marketer of ideas) for whom he is secretly working."


A sockpuppet is "an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term—a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to, or about himself while pretending to be another person."

In the writing world, a shill might be an author's friend, relative, or someone who stands to gain financially by rewarding a favorable review to their client. A sockpuppet is often the author himself. Both share a common goal: deception.

In the world of online reviews, shills and sockpuppets abound. Here is a story about a manager working for DeLonghi coffee makers who posted 12 5 star reviews of his company's products on Amazon. On eBay, shilling is a large enough problem the company has a clear policy against artificially bidding up an item. Amazon, of course, has their own policies governing reviews and the shills and sockpuppets who write them. The author Lee Goldberg calls shills and the authors who employ them 'unethical scumbags'. People on the Amazon forums have their own opinions as do people on KindleBoards.

Needless to say, it's a hot topic and one that has largely devalued whatever value online reviews once had. According to the New York Times, Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, discovered that "60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars". It's no wonder many people are beginning to ignore 5 star reviews altogether and further reinforces my decision to just ignore reviews left for my own books period.

All of which kind of leaves those of us who rely on online reviews in a bind. And I'm not talking about as an author but as someone who often reads reviews myself before purchasing a book, an electronic device, or some new tool. Online reviews have been invaluable and, now that I think about it, I don't feel I've ever been led astray. One of my saving graces: I always go straight to the 2 and 3 star reviews to see what issues or problems people have had with the product. 4-5 star reviews are nice and 1 star reviews are sometimes helpful but most often not, but what I really tend to look at more than anything else is the spread. I suppose when you get right down to it reviews are a lot like baseball: they're all about the averages.

Getting Sucked In by Marketing Efforts

Writing a book is a long, hard process. It's never-ending, too: As soon as you finish one, you really need to get started planning, outlining, and writing the next. But you also need to spend time selling and marketing. Very few writers, if any, are in it for the money. It's too much work with not enough return. Especially if you're an indie writer. Still, we try to sell our goods with the hope that one day we might support ourselves with our writing and therefore have more time to spend writing.

The biggest problem with selling: it takes a lot of time. Sure, you can release your book to the world and hope it gets traction on its own. I tried that for a while. For me, it didn't work. It wasn't until a combination of enrolling in KDP Select and implementing various engagements on Goodreads (advertising, giveaways) that my books started to get in front of people and start selling. But not only does the KDP Select rankings boost fade, Amazon also tweaked the algorithms so the whole process of going free just isn't as effective anymore. Goodreads is more of a slow, steady burn, not a bonfire. Slow and steady is a good long term strategy, but I like having a bonfire every once in a while, too.

Other marketing strategies include tweeting about your book like the world is about to end and getting others to re-tweet your tweets (how effective is this? This guy doesn't think it's very effective at all), letting every site possible know about a sale or free promotion you're running, paying for a sponsorship with Kindle Nation Daily (I've got one coming up in a couple of weeks) or other site, or hoping one of the mega-sites like Pixel of Ink will pick up your book whether it's on promotion or not. Selecting dates and coordinating all of this isn't a huge amount of effort, but when you're working a day job every hour counts. Typically when I schedule a promotion and advertising to go along with it I lose a day of writing (a day of writing for me is a couple of hours in the morning or evening before or after work). Add into the mix time spent engaging with readers (and other writers) on various forums and Goodreads, too.

The bottom line is that marketing is an ongoing process that requires time and effort that ultimately gets sucked out of the time and effort spent writing.

That's why I've decided to take a break from it all (the marketing, not the writing). Besides for an upcoming KND promo and my usual Goodreads self-serve ads, which run pretty much on auto-pilot, I'm stepping back and re-focusing on just writing. I'm about 40,000 words into the next book in The Alchemancer series. I got side-tracked a bit with a few changes in the outline. Ultimately those changes make the story much more concise and engaging, so time spent reworking that was well-spent, I think.

Hopefully if this works and I can resist the marketing temptation I should have this next book done in rough draft form within a couple of months. That's really my goal at this point: getting another book out there. I hope to have it complete by the end of the year.

Some Thoughts on eBook Pricing

Determining the "right" price for an eBook is hard to nail down. If you're a traditional publisher, then gouging the consumer with prices over $10 seems to be the way to go. If you're an indie writer, you're typically on the lower end of the scale, with bargain bin prices of $0.99 or maybe $2.99 to get the 70% royalty rate or, if you're courageous (or actually want to make a living at writing), $4.99 and up.

The problem with the $0.99 price is this:

  1. There's too many eBooks at that price, so finding the needle amidst the haystack is next to impossible.
  2. There's a growing consensus that eBooks at that price are crap. (I've read this here and there, and the noise seems to be growing)

You might as well throw free into that pile, too. By its very nature, a writer makes nothing off free, and as far as getting reviews or some other form of reciprocation, it doesn't work.

I've given up on the $0.99 price point except for promotional purposes. John Locke has found a lot of success at that price. In his words, though, he writes "breezy" novels. Say what you like, but I definitely don't write "breezy" novels.

I've also tried $1.99 – $2.99. I've had some success at this level, and I'll continue to offer one or both of my novels in this range. In fact, I just bumped The Hall of the Wood to $2.99. It's a well-written, fun, entertaining read, and I think it's worth that much. Maybe not more, but not any less.

I don't have a series loss-leader (yet), but I also think if The Hall of the Wood is worth $2.99, then The Five Elements, which is an infinitely better novel in just about every way, is worth at least $3.99. That's therefore what I've priced it at.

In general, I'm in the camp that believes a well-written novel is worth more than a latte (and way more than gas station coffee). I also think I work my tail off delivering the best experience possible for my readers. Most have thus far agreed with me on that. Last, if this is to become a viable second (or primary) source of income, 99 cents doesn't cut it.

All this being said, it doesn't really matter what I think my novels are worth. What really matters is what readers are willing to pay. That, my friends, is something I'm still trying to work out.

The Failure of Free

As an unknown writer, I adopted early on the Cory Doctorow mantra that "for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity". Doctorow gives away his novels via his web site even as they're sold through the usual retailers. Apparently, this model works well for him. I thought it was something that, for me, was at least worth a try.

Sometime after I finished writing my fantasy novel, The Hall of the Wood, and had put it up on the various online retailer sites, I decided to also start giving it away via this site. I figured while I was busying myself with my next writing project I'd be, worst case, spreading the word about my work, name, etc. Best case, I'd surely get some reviews out of it or at least some (hopefully) positive feedback. Maybe someone might even go out and buy a copy as a show of support.

What were the results?

In all, I must have given away about 2,000 copies in between the time I first made it available as a download and when I finished my next (unrelated) novel, The Five Elements. Since that time, with very little promotion, I racked up another 7-800 downloads. All told, not great, but not bad considering the audience on this blog is somewhat limited (audience is key; I'll touch on that next post). So, out of 2700-2800 downloads, how many reviews or emails with feedback do you think I received? How many sales?

I got 1 review and a handful of emails for HOTW. Sales… so miniscule not even worth mentioning.

About a year ago I did the same thing with The Five Elements, except this time I put a nice note in the front of each PDF saying something to the effect of "Thanks for downloading. I'd love it if you could give me a review." Almost 1,000 downloads later, no feedback and no reviews.


So what went wrong?

Hard to say, but I suspect people were downloading the novels and never reading. I do this myself. I have a "folder of forgotten eBooks", either in Kindle or PDF format, which I've downloaded, categorized, and then never looked at again. Some people think this sort of hoarding goes on with eBooks priced at $0.99, too. I believe them. Whether free or 99 cents, both prices are cheap enough that most people aren't going to feel guilty enough or obligated to actually read the book. Pay $2.99, $4.99, $9.99 or even more for an eBook and I think the reader is much more likely to follow up the purchase with a read (and maybe even a review). It is for this very reason that some authors will not price their work at $0.99. I have to agree with them. If you think about it, by downloading a lot of free or 99 cent eBooks, a reader has simply transferred the hoard of cheap content from Amazon to their own personal device. Picking out what to read (or to read anything at all) becomes no less easy as a result.

With this in mind, I changed my strategy. No more freebies and no more of my eBooks priced at $0.99. Given the apparent correlation between price and the quality of the reader, I mapped out a blueprint of which I will discuss next post. Believe it or not, but this plan (so far, anyway) is working and I'm making sales every day.