The really weird tricks I use to write and publish bestselling books

Recently I realized my whole process for publishing bestselling books is completely backwards. At a party in Medellin recently, a guy said “wow, you’ve hacked publishing!” 

I don’t like being called a hack because there’s an assumption that it means I’m putting out poor quality books to trick or fool readers.  (Steven Pressfield calls anyone who writes for an audience the same thing – at least in his earlier work… he seems to have wised up to the demands of the market in his latest, Nobody Wants to Read your Sh*t).

Actually my aim is the exact opposite. I deliberately try to create books that readers enjoy and love. I just do it deliberately.

Here’s how.

#1. I start with the cover

I’m a cover designer. All my novels have begun with beautiful art that I wanted to turn into a story. I start with art I know will sell, and then I write a great book that will satisfy readers who were attracted to the art.

After the book is done, I often change the covers… but more recently I’ve been just buying amazing premade covers and saving them for the future. Here are two incredible covers I bought recently (both made by Andrei Bat).

I’m really excited about these because I wanted to write an Urban Fantasy and an Alien Invasion novel, and these covers are great (“Demon” might be better with more color, I may add blue around the back and edges).

#2. Research the bestsellers

I see what books are consistently selling crazy well in each genre and I read them.

I get a taste for the style and common elements. I understand why readers like them.

#3. I research keywords

I make a keyword map of the words that show up repeatedly in these books’ descriptions. I use KindleSpy to get a keyword-cloud of commonly used words in the genre. I use K-lytics to see the most popular subcategories for those genres. Then I use KDPRocket to see which keywords are most searched for by readers, and make a list of those.

Then I take all of those words and try to write a description that will hook readers

Keep in mind, I haven’t written the book or even plotted it out yet!

#4. I plot a trope-heavy book

Now that I have a cover and a description, I start plotting. I plot well.

For popular young adult in most categories (scifi/dystopian/fantasy/paranormal) the stories tend to follow a hero’s journey. I use the basic format I mapped out in The Plot Dot.

I add in all the common elements from YA fiction, some of which include…

  • Teenage girl, first person
  • Begins shy or weak, scared
  • Loses parents
  • Discovers she has powers or abilities
  • Meets a hot guy (who might have a best friend who hates her at first)
  • The other hot guy is probably the enemy
  • Her parents turn out to be intimately involved in some big conflict
  • Bad guys are after her because of what she can do
  • She gets to wear a fancy dress and go to a party with said hot guy
  • Something really bad happens and it’s her fault, so she feels guilty
  • She may not be able to touch anyone and keeps her feelings wrapped up tightly
  • There is probably a supernatural/technological battle or war going on, and she’s the chosen one/hero who stands up for justice
  • She takes in a younger kid (maybe little brother or sister) and protects them

These are just off the top of my head but there are more.

I generally tend to use one specific branch of world mythology and weave that in, though my newer stuff will be more speculative (mostly dystopian). In the “demon” book above, I can put my theology and philosophy background to good use.

For Urban Fantasy, things are a little different and more adult – generally a lot more action, a lot faster, so I’ll need to follow tropes that are more common with Urban Fantasy (though most of these will stay the same… a common theme in Urban Fantasy is working with the police or FBI and being a bounty-hunter or consultant to the law, but focusing on paranormal).

#5. I up the stakes

I make the story matter, by spending time developing my characters and making their loss and suffering real. My stories tend to be slower and longer, they take time to build up, the stakes are larger (almost always the fate of the world), the conflict grows bigger with each book in the series. I try to make my books real by writing believable characters and descriptive settings: movie-worthy scenery that they haven’t seen before. I read a lot of indie published fiction, and some of it is good; I read a lot of trad published fiction as well, some of it is great. I want to do better than either.

(Do my books always succeed? No – but I want to be better than the best.)

#6. I launch hard, and keep testing

Actually, I don’t launch that hard. I know some authors who spend thousands of dollars on a book launch, barely break even, and then have trouble keeping their rank sticky. I usually soft-launch…  which is easier since I’ve focused on building my email list. I give away the book for free to my readers, try to get lots of reviews, and keep watching my rank. Rather than do more promotion, I change the description or book cover. I test and tweak. The first step is getting your books rank to “stick” somewhere – that’s the normal resting rank. Then I try to boost it by improving conversions with a more gripping cover or description. Then I do another promotion and see if I can get the book to “stick” a little higher.

I don’t obsess about it, but every month or so I’ll review which books are selling and which aren’t, and see what I can do to improve them.

#7. I build long term funnels

The main problem most authors have is getting more visibility, because they don’t have a platform – which means they need to pay to access someone else’s platform or audience. Instead of doing that, I build content that attracts natural traffic (organic search results, so readers are seeing my sites and books without me needing to chase after them with advertising money).

The nice thing about this is that it’s cumulative, and I’ve only been doing it for fiction for a little over a year (and yet I still rank on the first page of Google for many of my keyword phrases… because so few fiction authors are doing anything like this, it’s really easy to get ahead.)

#8. I write more books

I’m really happy with how I’m doing already, but I’m not worried or stressed about it… I know that my income will keep going up, and it will be easier to spend more on ads and see a return once I have full series out. I’m planning 10 trilogies = 30 books. Hopefully I can get there in about 3 years (by 2020).

If things are going good, that should be around $20K a month (possibly a lot more, possibly a lot less – but that seems reasonable based on current sales). While it’s true most authors books don’t keep selling long term, my sales are less likely to dry up because my traffic will keep growing. The funnels I’m setting up with only get stronger with time.

#9. My one weird trick…

One of the things I plan to keep doing that works really well, is to put out the first 20K or so of a book as permafree for several months, while I’m writing the rest of the book. This lets me hook readers on other platforms. Then, I put the book in KU, upload the full book and update things, and switch to paid. I’ve found that permafree books switched to paid stick better on Amazon, because they have lots of reviews and more history/downloads. Authors are skeptical about doing things like this because it might piss off some readers. But I do what’s best for me and my business – you can’t please anyone anyway, and what’s the point of pleasing some people if your books aren’t earning you any money? (If readers are really upset, I usually just offer to gift them a free copy).

#10. I make friends

I don’t actually use this method, but I’m happy to have built a large and active Facebook group for authors in my genre, and we organize joint promotions and things. If anything, I prefer to feature their books on my site and get them to share: so I’m promoting them, but I reap the benefits of long term traffic. I also use book giveaways to build big email lists (and get more traffic). Organizing joint author promos is definitely powerful – I just don’t like “tradesies”. Sometimes, however, it can be really helpful to be rubbing shoulders with the other bestsellers in your genre, if only to commiserate and keep each other sane.

I should probably try a little harder and start swapping editorial reviews/blurbs for my books (though, I see plenty of books with rave reviews by NYT bestsellers that aren’t selling well. In my genre at least, I don’t think these matter much).

But mainly, I like to do my own thing and help others out as much as I can.

 

So there you have it.

Pretty much the opposite of what all the gurus will tell you. Some authors may think I’ve taken all the “art” out of it, and so my books can only be heartless bastards, ripoffs of the “real quality” books.

I think that’s bullshit, and I think my readers would agree – readers care about the reading experience and the story. How the end product made them feel. They don’t care about your beliefs in the sanctity of literature (what good is it anyway? If you’re not writing books readers love, how can they be objectively better because of the spirit in which they were written?)

There is no “right” way to write books

Use whatever process feels comfortable to you and lets you get the work done. It’s OK if you’re very fast or very slow.

BUT: there are books that are going to sell better, and writing faster lets you have more books to sell.

So there are ways of writing books that are more likely to earn money, and it’s important to use those methods if making money is one of your writing goals.

It’s much easier to make money if that’s your intention. Having the intention to make money does not equal being a hack or writing crap. For me, having the intention to make money means I intend to write books good enough that tens of thousands of people will happily spend a few bucks on them. 

But it’s easy to get stressed out about what you *should* be doing. Screw that noise.

You’re an author, and everything you do is amazing.

 

PS) I talked about some of this stuff in my first course on book marketing, Reach Your Readers, which you can now get free inside my Epic Book Design Package. Or you can wait until I finish my new course, Guerrilla Publishing, which will have all my latest tips and tricks.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me
  • Cory Reynolds

    I’m pretty sure that I will be considered the biggest hack, because I’m going to try to copy what you’re doing and hopefully not have to be a starving artist. I’m not getting any younger, and I’m responsible for my family. The only way that I can be successful as a writer (the only way I even have time to write) is if I have a good chance of earning an income from it. I like to entertain people, more that I like being an artist. If doing what it takes to produce an entertaining book, while supporting my family, makes me a hack, then so be it. The starving artist lifestyle just doesn’t appeal to me.

  • Ryan Griffin

    Derek , great post, lot of great tips here!

  • AuthZH

    This is awesome. I, too, start with the cover, and write more books (although it’s a bit hard while I’m in college).

  • Thanks for the advice, and for offering to feature my giveaway. You certainly pay it forward. I look forward to the day (it’s coming) when you’re a millionaire.

  • Hey Derek,

    I have questions regarding your #9

    1. How do you notify folks who got the free preview that their ‘preview’ is now a full fledged book?
    2. Do they have to buy it now that it ain’t free anymore?
    3. Do you say something in the blurb, book front/back matter, and cover that make it clear that it is a preview?

    I’m curious to know more about this strategy.

    Thanks,
    Piotr

    • Courtney Kenney

      Hi Derek–I love this article, thank you! I have the same questions as Piotr. Would love an article about how you do the first 20K preview and then switch to paid. Since you don’t have emails of who is buying on Amazon, how do you convert the free readers into sales?

      • I mostly use the free downloads and reviews to keep the book sticky; rather than launching from scratch, it’s much easier to launch a book that’s been on permafree for a long time and keep a higher sales rank – so most of the sales come from new readers. My fanbase/email list gets my books for free anyway.

  • Indigo Cox

    Hi Derek, I just bought and read your book “Book Marketing is dead…” As a first time author of a book that I wrote that is close to my heart and comes from real life experience, I truly appreciate you sharing your real experience as an author. I was really impressed by your authenticity, and your overall message- that really connecting to people and being helpful and sharing solutions or something that is useful is the best way to get people interested in and buying your book.

    I was so intimidated ( still am scared) about marketing my first my book. Your words really calmed me about the whole process. I do not like gimmicky marketing things. I provide care for real people that need real help, and gimmicks don’t help anybody in my business.

    Question for you: I was so intrigued by your suggestion to do group advertisements and was wondering what was the best way to get started with that as someone new to the fiction writing scene? ( I am in North Carolina)

    Thanks for your tips and books I have found them very useful,
    Indigo

  • That last point is my favorite: “There is no “right” way to write books” As authors become more experienced they learn what works and what doesn’t, for them! It’s different for everyone.

  • Celly L S

    Thank you so much!

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