The Realities of Independent Publishing #2

By   Hannah Bickerton 6 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

In this series of blog posts we summarise a decade’s worth of wisdom from our experience on the front line of independent publishing, sharing the top trade secrets we believe every aspiring author should know.

The publishing industry presents so many wonderful options for writers today. That being said, it can be an overwhelming industry to navigate. For those looking to publish independently, there is so much practical information about the writing process, the steps to publication and how to go about it all. But what we don’t see as much of are the honest realities of independent publishing, the choices you should or shouldn’t be making, and the implications of those choices.

Over the last ten years whitefox has worked closely with over 600 independent authors, assisting them in producing their books and taking them to market. During that period we have worked on fiction, memoir, arts, culture, history, cookery, business, children’s books, and everything in between. We understand the intricacies of the process and what factors can dictate whether a book rockets or fizzles out.

#2 If you want your book to be discoverable and purchasable, the power is in the positioning

To help explain this point, firstly let’s think about how you yourself would normally go about finding a book you want to buy online. Say you want to find a new sports biography to read. To start, you might go to an online bookstore and filter for ‘sports’ or ‘biography.’ Or you might type directly into your browser ‘best sports biographies’ or ‘sports biography 2022’ and see what you results you get. What grabs your attention in the first five seconds you spend looking? Is it a dynamic image of a sports star on the cover? A sports player’s name in large capitals? Or a punchy title, maybe a sports pun or a play on words? When your interest in a title is finally piqued, you’ll likely head straight to Amazon to look at the reviews. All these actions have to happen before you click on the magic ‘Buy Now’ button.

It’s one thing to write a book, but quite another to make sure readers can discover it, and make them want to buy it. So now let’s apply this to your book. The manuscript is in fantastic shape, it’s been professionally edited, and it’s time to make it discoverable and appealing to the audience. First off, people do judge a book by its cover. A statement we hear a lot from our authors at whitefox is, ‘Don’t worry about the cover design, I’m going to do that part myself’ or ‘My niece is a designer and she’s done the cover.’ But here’s the problem. If a book jacket doesn’t look professionally designed, buyers will instantly brand the book a low-budget product—if the cover is low-budget, what about the text? And the cover not only has to be professional in design; it also needs to look genre-appropriate so that it sets the correct tone for what is inside. For example, a thriller needs to look atmospheric and mysterious whereas a self-help book needs to appear bright and empowering. When record label owner Guy Hale came to whitefox with a manuscript for his darkly comic novel Killing Me Softly, he also came with a cover design he believed was ready to go. However, the reality was that the illustration lacked clarity and the instant signifiers needed for his genre of fiction. On whitefox’s advice, Guy decided to explore some other cover options designed by the incredibly talented Peter Adlington, who has created covers for bestsellers such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Matt Haig. In the end, Guy decided that Peter’s alternative designs were stronger candidates that even helped create a vision for a future series style that set the tone for a whole trilogy.

With a direction chosen and a little extra finessing, the final Killing Me Softly cover design is a far cry from where it all began, but what a striking and impactful result. Guy was so happy with the artwork that he expanded the scope of his contract to enable its development for merchandise to be sold at gigs, and featured on the book’s accompanying record cover. As much as you think you can do this part yourself, the honest truth is that you most likely can’t, and you will be doing a disservice to your book. As with any profession, cover designers spend years learning their craft, and trust us when we say that this part is worth getting 100% right.

A less exciting part of the publishing process—but an equally important one—is how you set up your book to be discoverable. This is far more technical and requires an understanding of things like metadata and Amazon categorisation, but the basics are actually very easy to get your head around. If you think of all the information that makes up your book: the title, subtitle, description, your name, the barcode and ISBN, the publication date, format, page count, genre … that is all metadata. This is the information that separates your book from others, but also helps internet browsers and online retailers such as Amazon make sense of your book and categorise it appropriately, which is essential for making sure your book is discoverable online to your target audience. There are over 500 categories (more commonly thought of as genres) on Amazon. The categories the everyday reader is more familiar with (such as crime, biography, food and drink or comedy) are known as parent categories, and within each parent category are a number of subcategories; specific ways of categorising your book, such as doctor–patient relations, theatre & performance artist biographies, and practical & motivational self-help. Amazon ranks its books according to sales figures (with separate bestseller lists for paid books and free books), and automatically updates every hour. To become a bestseller, you simply have to outsell the other books in a particular category, and even if it is just for one hour before the system updates, your book will be number one. Realistically it’s going to be very hard to compete in the parent categories; this would involve investment in a big publicity campaign. But if you choose your subcategories carefully (bearing in mind that you can change them whenever you want) you may be able to watch your book steadily rise through the Amazon ranks to number one.

whitefox was able to steer mindset coach Dr Gary Crotaz’s book The IDEA Mindset to climb the ranks on Amazon by applying these two simple rules. In applying the right metadata for the book, potential buyers discovered it easily in their search. By sourcing a specialist cover designer for the jacket, the result was both eye-catching and undeniably self-help, with its dynamic typography and contrasting colours. Because the book was both easily discovered and appealing to its audience, the Amazon algorithm clocked on, amplifying it proudly in the top 5 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in the job-hunting category, with the ebook appearing in the top 20 Bestsellers list for careers books. Given that so much has to happen before a reader even opens a book to read the first word, make sure you don’t overlook the positioning of your book—an essential part of getting noticed.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.