Web serial to ebook: mistakes I made so you don't have to!

3 years ago | Chrysalis (Member)

Some time ago I announced I'd write a post about my experiences with publishing a web serial in ebook form. I could write a book on the subject, but I'll try to keep this reasonably short. If anyone wants to know more about a particular subject, just ask me below!

I published the first Anathema book (arcs 1-3) exclusively on Amazon in early May. Book 2 (arcs 4-7) was published in early August. I'd say the publication was modestly successful; I've been making an average of a couple hundred dollars a month. But even though I spent a lot of time studying the subject of ebook publication, I made mistakes - some big, some small. Those mistakes prevented me from having a more successful launch. I'll outline the big ones here.

Mistake #1: The book covers

I was so excited about the covers that I had them made long before the books were even ready. Back then, I didn't understand how absolutely CRITICAL the right kind of cover is for a successful launch. I thought it just had to look pretty and professional and convey the genre. Let me tell you this straight away: Covers and book titles sell books on Amazon. The reason for this is that the way Amazon's ebook store is set up, the vast majority of potential buyers will see your cover and book title at thumbnail size among a bunch of other books. They don't know you or your book, and they have a short attention span, so chances that anyone will click the cover and visit your book's sales page are small - unless the cover looks right at THUMBNAIL (important) size.

I got this all wrong, and I went with a cover artist who provides pretty art but doesn't really know what sells. She also doesn't do the fonts herself, which is a huge deal. Every step of the way, she asked me what -I- wanted. She didn't make any suggestions that were in line with the market. Naturally, I was a complete newbie back then and what I wanted wasn't what works or what sells.

I've spent quite a bit of time studying first novels by unknown authors that sold well right off the bat. What did they all have in common? The cover / title conveyed the genre at a glance at thumbnail size. Let's look at this as an example: https://www.amazon.com/Super-Arca-Book-Karen-Diem-ebook/dp/B01F5MXYMI

The cover and book title scream 'superhero story with a female protagonist'. It is the author's first novel, she didn't do any real marketing, and the very first review was a 2 star. Overall reviews aren't very good. But shortly after its publication, the book suddenly started selling like hotcakes even with that one 2 star review. It continued to sell like hotcakes for months. I could quote other examples I observed (including cases that didn't sell with old covers, but started selling like crazy with new covers) but I'd like to keep this short.

To conclude this point, here's an example for a great cover: https://www.amazon.com/Gifted-Thief-Highland-Magic-Book-ebook/dp/B017EG7VLS the cover and title scream 'Fantasy YA' at thumbnail size. It fulfills all the YA Fantasy genre expectations for covers.

Other examples of book / series titles that immediately tell the reader what the book is about: Super Powereds (hi Drew!), Mage Life, End Online. Sometimes the book or series title by itself can have the effect of a great cover, but if you get both right - jackpot!

The first in my series has a great looking cover at full size, but at thumbnail it looks like a fairy with light wings. Also, 'Transition' and 'Anathema' don't tell the reader what the book is about. I think the cover / title were probably my biggest mistake.

Mistake #2: Slow paced first novel full of build-up

This kind of couldn't be helped without a complete restructuring of my web serial. Anathema is long and follows a continuous, Game of Thrones style narrative with switching POVs. However, ebook readers expect each individual book in a series to have a beginning, middle and end. The complete first 3-4 arcs of my serial are build-up for the rest of the series. Because I didn't want to publish a 250K word first novel (given the cost of editing I'd have to charge 8 dollars for it, which is too much), I split the first 7 arcs into 2 books. Problem is, Amazon readers don't know what's coming in book 2 so they give up after the first book. I'm sure many don't even finish it because they expected more action and substance and less build-up. This hurts my sales big time, especially the book 2 sales.

What I believe I did right:

-Editing. I invested quite a bit in professional editing, and I believe this paid off big time. Unfortunately the first book is still too slow-paced for the editing to be appreciated by tens of thousands of people, but I was able to avoid any reviews complaining about the editing, which is a big advantage in the long run. For instance, I was selected as a semifinalist in a huge Fantasy competition, and no book promotion service has ever turned me down - not even the nitpicky ones. Some accepted my book for a promotion even though it had less reviews than their minimum requirement. And those promoters are a huge deal for ebook marketing and visibility.

-Marketing and initial book launch. Transition (Anathema #1) launched into the top 10K on Amazon right off the bat even though my web serial doesn't have a lot of followers (less than 100 at the time). I knew that the first month of a book's 'life' in the Kindle store is the best opportunity for long term visibility, and made sure I had a good number of book promotion services lined up. As a result, I got about 500 sales and KU borrows the first month, with consistent 5-10 sales / borrows a day for a few weeks even after the promotions ended. Considering the mistakes I made with the cover and title, and that my web serial following is too small to compensate, that's pretty damn decent.

Bottom line: During the first month of its publication on Amazon, a brand new book that gets a decent amount (200+) sales in a short amount of time will rank decently high on both 'hot new releases' genre lists and poplists. After a month it will drop off the hot new releases list, but stay high on poplists if it keeps getting a good amount of sales. For that reason, the first month is critical for long term success.

If your web serial has a lot of followers who buy the book, you might not need to do any launch marketing at all. But you need either a following or marketing for the book to gain ANY sort of Amazon visibility after its publication. If it doesn't sell a decent amount right off the bat, no one will see it or know it exists, and people don't buy books they can't see.

To reiterate: on Amazon, sales = visibility. You need to sell to become visible. It's paradox, but that's how it works. Over time if you sell enough, other effects will kick in - also-boughts, word of mouth, Goodreads recommendations etc. but at the beginning you NEED sales.

Unfortunately, due to the two big mistakes mentioned above, my book started sinking after that first month. It didn't 'stick' high in the lists.

I did another big round of marketing after book 2 came out. Here's a picture to demonstrate just how powerful those ebook promotion services are: http://i64.tinypic.com/1z16wx4.jpg

Again, due to mistakes #1 and #2 the effect didn't last.

Promotion services are a topic of their own. Some are totally worth it and some are not, and results can vary greatly depending on some known and some unknown factors. Bottom line is, to get the most (or anything) out of them your Amazon sales page (blurb, cover, look inside sample) has to look professional and appealing. It's hard to write a great blurb, I know. But it matters so much.

My conclusion from all this is that instead of editing Anathema book #3 for publication, I'm going to write a well-paced standalone novel with a proper beginning, middle and end next. I'll get the cover and title right, and launch as I did before. I believe the standalone novel will get readers invested in my universe and characters and draw attention to the already published books, even though the first one is slow as molasses.

Anathema, a web serial about the effect superpowers would have on our world. http://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/

Read responses...

Page: 124


  1. Walter (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Thanks for providing all of this information man. I really appreciate it.

  2. Dary (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    How big a gap was there between the first and second books? And could that gap, combined with the story's pacing, have impacted sales? I'm not even touching Amazon until I have 3+ volumes ready to launch, to reassure potential readers that it won't be abandoned after the first one.

    As for those books you've linked to, how do you know for sure caused their spike in sales? Have you spoken to the authors?

  3. SovereignofAshes (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, your wisdom, and you insight Chrysalis.
    As a newb at all this, it's good to get some straight-to-the-point information about getting started with self-publishing.
    I guess the new colloquialism is... "Don't judge a book by it's cover. Judge it by it's thumbnail."

    I have stuff on here too! The Vorrgistadt Saga.
  4. Team Contract (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Great insights! Thanks for sharing this. My writing partner and I are struggling with the whole cover/genre concept ourselves. It's just such a weird concept that it doesn't fit neatly into anything. Since that time, and learning from your experience, have you found a cover artist who knows the business more than just knows how to draw?

  5. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    I'm glad you posted this. Very helpful for those of us who might be wanting to do something similar in the near future. It's definitely given me something to think about as far as getting things sorted out. I'm curious about those book promotion services, and what a KU borrow is, though.

  6. ClearMadness (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Thanks so much for this. I owe you one :P

    Author of The Iron Teeth, a online dark fantasy story.
  7. leoduhvinci (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Hi Chrys-

    Some quick questions to you. I'm still pretty new to the publishing scene, and while I think I have a few of my ducks in a row, I'm having some difficulties.

    Namely, I had an incredible (in my opinion) initial splash, but it's really died down quick. Days 1-2 I sold 800 or so copies through marketing, then maintained at 10-20 for a while, and now it's pretty negligible. Here's the link if you want to look: https://www.amazon.com/Til-Death-Do-Us-Part/dp/1533438633/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1476083514&sr=8-2&keywords=til+death+do+us+part

    I'm trying to understand the reasons why, and I think it might be because it's a single piece- it's not a series, so I can't really hook anyone in with the first book. My next two pieces are series, and come out this month, so maybe those will fare better. I plan on doing more marketing with my single piece, but I need to wait until my others are online to get max effect.

    Let me know if you have any suggestions! My next book (The Bridge) goes live in a week, and since it's a sci fi series, I'm hoping it will fare better. Any opinions on the cover? Personally, I think it is really well done from my designer, but from your points it may leave something to be desred from a strictly marketing perspective. http://imgur.com/4PgONSk

    I've spend a lot of time building my audience through my email, sub, and blog, so I really want to make sure I utilize it correctly when I launch.

    Thanks for the help, I really appreciate it,


    View more from author Leonard Petracci,including fantasy and fiction stories, at https://leonardpetracci.com
  8. leoduhvinci (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Also, do you have any specific promotional services that you recommend? I had some good success with Kindle Nation Daily but I had a lot scheduled on that day, so it's hard for me to pick them apart.

    View more from author Leonard Petracci,including fantasy and fiction stories, at https://leonardpetracci.com
  9. Chrysalis (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    @ Walter: I'm not a man, but you're welcome :)

    @ Dary: If we take into account that book 2 was on preorder at the same time as I launched book 2, no gap. The actual live launch happened three months after the first book. I don't think the 'gap' mattered in my case, though - due to the book being so slow paced and 95% build-up, the sell-through rate is abysmally low. It was decent for a while (probably due to word of mouth from my serial readers who told people that the build-up pays off) but now it's pretty dang bad.

    Hell, I couldn't even convince the three WFG people who volunteereed to review the first book to read the second. It makes me sad, because... they slogged through all that boring build-up only to stop RIGHT before it pays off and all that amazing, world-changing stuff and character development happens. :/ I suppose many Amazon readers feel the same. They don't trust the second book to be that much more exciting, even though it is (arc 6 doubled my web serial readership over the course of a week).

    It's true that many people don't start a new series with only one or two books in it, but still, I see first in a series from new authors sell decently well all the time.

    I don't know what caused the sales of 'Gifted Thief', I only posted that book as an example of a cover that works great at thumbnail size. I did talk to the author of 'Super'. She doesn't even know what caused her sales, and she did next to no marketing. Her social media presence is about as unimpressive as mine is. But I've been observing the superhero category for months and months, and I can say that all the cases of 'surprisingly successful first novels without great reviews' had two things in common: covers and book titles that screamed superhero at a glance.

    @ Team Contract yeah, the whole 'weird genre mix' deal is an issue for many web fiction authors. Amazon readers want their books to fit neatly into genres so they know exactly what kind of story they're getting. As for cover artists - what's your budget? The best ones who really know what they're doing naturally charge quite a bit.

    I recommend: Damon Za (pricey but worth it for an amazing book that already has a large following) https://damonza.com/
    Kerry Hynds (KLHynds on Deviantart) http://klhynds.deviantart.com/ (less pricey than Damon Za I think)
    Rebecca Frank: http://rebeccafrank.design/ (she's fabulous for Fantasy, but does other genres)

    @Psycho Gecko sorry about the confusion, I wanted this post to be reasonably short so I didn't cover the basics. Book promotion services probably deserve a thread of their own. The most well-known example is Bookbub: they have a huge mailing list of book lovers who are looking for bargain books in their favorite genre. When Bookbub accepts a book for promotion, they double check that you discounted the book (99 cent) for a short time or made it temporarily free, then feature it in a newsletter, on their homepage and on social media and send a newsletter to their hundreds of thousands of subscribers. As a result, you get a huge boost in sales or free downloads for a day or two, and Amazon's algorithms boost your visibility in the store due to all those sales.

    Basically it works like a sale on Valve's Steam platform for games. Except that someone sends an email about your temporarily discounted 'game' to a lot of players who use Steam.

    Many book promotion services aren't as big or effective as Bookbub, but they're also a lot cheaper for you (and easier to get accepted by).

    A KU borrow is a 'sale' through Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program. Basically the buyer doesn't pay anything apart from the monthly KU fee, and the author gets paid per page read instead of a fixed amount for the whole book.

    @leo: Sounds like you fell off Amazon's 30 day / 60 day / 90 day 'cliffs' which is normal for most people. Like I said in my original post, the first month after publication you appear on all those awesome lists if you sell decently well, and a lot of readers find you that way. Over time that visibility diminishes unless your book takes off on its own. As I described above, it happened to me too.

    Is it possible that many of your original sales / reviews were from Redditors? It seems your story originated there. Redditors, like web fiction readers, tend to have a taste that differs from the average Amazon customer's mass market taste.

    Looking at your sales page, I see two possible issues at a glance without having read the book.

    1) You have a cover that works great for traditionally published bestsellers like Stephen King, but does you no favors as a self-pubbed Indie. It doesn't convey the genre at a glance. Looking at the cover, I thought it was a noir thriller, but the blurb gives me the impression of an Ocean's Eleven style heist story with reincarnation added in. The problem is that people who click your cover will expect a noir thriller (or something similar) but after reading the blurb they'll go uh.... this isn't what I was interested in, and they click something else. The same is true for the book title. I can't stress enough how important it is to attract your target audience with your cover and book title.

    2) Your book is an odd (for Amazon) genre mix. As I said before, the average Amazon customer wants his books to neatly fit into categories so they know exactly what they're getting. It's harder to sell something that's 'different'.

    I have a similar problem. I write a superhero deconstruction, or, as I name it, 'superhero fiction for people who don't read superhero fiction'. The reaction from reviewers and bloggers is usually either...

    a) This isn't what I expected. It's a superhero story.
    b) This isn't what I expected. It's not a superhero story.

    I don't know what to do about this, but my next book is going to be written with more mass market appeal in mind.

    Anathema, a web serial about the effect superpowers would have on our world. http://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/
  10. Chrysalis (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    I should probably add that everything I said above is not 'the' formula that will guarantee awesome sales. Other factors including but not limited to luck and circumstance always come in. Also, at the core, 'the book' has to be loved by readers, which means it has to reach its target audience. Nothing will help you more than word of mouth.

    @leo2: It's hard to recommend specific book promotion services, because they don't always work to the same extent for everyone. Timing and circumstance can mean the difference between 80 sales and 5. So what worked for me might not work for you.

    For instance, I had high hopes for ENT (Ereader News Today) but the promo fell completely flat. Why? They send out their newsletter / Facebook post in 5 parts split across different times of the day. My book was in the very last newsletter of the day, after 50 or more other free / discounted books. Everyone who wanted something to read already found it before they found me.

    There's only a handful of promoters that I believe work reliably in almost every case:

    Bookbub (but: pricey and almost impossible to get accepted by)
    Book Barbarian for Fantasy / SF
    Bargain Booksy (for 99c) and Freebooksy (for free promos)
    Robin Reads

    There are many more but I really don't know if they'll work for you. ENT used to be so awesome and fell so completely flat for me...

    Anathema, a web serial about the effect superpowers would have on our world. http://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/
  11. leoduhvinci (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    Chrys- you're right, much of that initial fuel burst was redditors, and they do have a very different taste. Review wise, it seems like it is doing well outside of reddit too, so it makes sense that the cover and title are working against it from a marketing standpoint. I think you hit the nail on the head there, as it is much more Ocean's 11 and humor than noir. I'll keep that in mind moving forward, and I really appreciate your help.

    ENT looked legit to me too, and I used a different service (can't remember what it was), and they did the same thing to me. I think I sold 4 books total off of them, it was awful.

    Giving the ones you sent me a glance over. I'm trying to get everything out before halloween, as that's when my horror promotion is big and I'm trying to build hype, but that means a lot of these promos might have to happen a few weeks after launch.

    Quick question for you:

    I plan on dropping a significant investment and advertising my 3 published works in november, all at the same time. Do you think they would compound on each other? The genres are jumpy, so I'm not sure, and it might make more sense or me to wait until I have more in the series out.

    Looking back on my strategy, I really tried to spread my eggs, which may not have been a great idea. I've got 2 very different sci fis, a horror, and a fantasy in my author "quiver", and I'm hoping that diversity doesn't turn off fans.

    View more from author Leonard Petracci,including fantasy and fiction stories, at https://leonardpetracci.com
  12. Walter (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    @Chrysalis: Sorry, didn't do that right. I was aiming for the stoner "maaaan", like "brah", in my mind it was gender neutral.

  13. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    awesome info! Thank you!

  14. Chrysalis (Member)

    Posted 3 years ago

    @leo Honestly, I would focus on whichever genre / series has delivered the most consistent sales so far. If the books / genres are wildly different, there probably wouldn't be much in the way of reader crossover (is that the right word?)

    Ineffective marketing can be a huge money sink. :(

    Anathema, a web serial about the effect superpowers would have on our world. http://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/

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