“Strangers to Superfans” by David Gaughran (or the evolution of self-publishing in the English-speaking market)

***** The reader’s journey


Having had the opportunity to read an ARC of this new marketing book for independent authors by David Gaughran, I thought to write a review that is a little different from the usual, which, in addition to talking about the book, could include some of my thoughts on how self-publishing has evolved in the English-speaking market and how such evolution, by its very nature, cannot currently affect smaller markets like the Italian one, for which I primarily write.

First of all, this book also confirms what I think of the author. Unlike others who publish books on self-publishing, Gaughran minimises the self-referential aspects, also bringing concrete examples of other authors and trying to take into consideration the problems of any author. Of course, this book is based on his experience, but not just as a self-publisher. In fact, later in the book we discover that he works as a consultant for another independent author (with completely different characteristics from his, like writing science fiction and publishing exclusively on Amazon), moreover he is constantly interested in receiving feedback from others, because always having new interesting content to be proposed in his newsletter is part of his strategy.

Another characteristic of his is that his books are not a schematic list of more or less known facts interspersed with attempts to motivate the other authors, in which lists, schemes, and figures that increase their length, and repetitions both in the same book that in other similar ones abound. His books are just text and are written in a discursive prose that makes them really “compelling”, without giving the impression that you are somehow fooled. He manages to develop the topics in a way that does not seem schematic at all (but of course there is a very precise outlining behind them), as if he is improvising He is concise, goes straight to the point and clearly says how things are (even when it comes to unpleasant things). For this reason his books are short, but certainly not because there is little information.

Because of this peculiarity in writing, perhaps the best way to make use of this book is take note of interesting passages while reading or perhaps put a bookmark on your Kindle and then come back later. Thus, the reader creates their personal scheme, which lists only those aspects that are useful to them, instead of having to adapt to the scheme and bulleted lists of others.

But let’s get to the content.
First of all, the title of the book: Strangers to Superfans. The book talks about this: how a stranger arrives at a book, decides to buy it, reads it (until the end, which is anything but obvious) and perhaps buys another one and/or decides to subscribe to a mailing list and/or talk to others about the book, i.e. becomes a superfan. The core of the book is not to explain how to make this happen, but to explain exactly how it happens, that is to say what the reader’s journey is and in which part of our potential readers’ journey there is a problem that can stop it.
The problem, according to Gaughran, is not discoverability, since anyone can “buy traffic” (direct advertising) to the product page of a book (he focuses mainly on Amazon), but send there the right traffic, namely to choose the right target, let them find the right welcome, the right book they want not only to buy, but also to start reading, finish reading (40% of readers abandons a book they’re reading) and induce them to do things after reading.
In fact, if we think about it, he says a whole series of things that we already know, but he does so in a way that makes us look at them from a new perspective and give all these a logical sense.

After describing the reader’s journey, he makes an analysis of the symptoms that allow us authors to understand in which phases of this journey we are mistaken.
Are we choosing a wrong advertising target? Are there any problems in the description, on the cover, in the price? Is there any problem inside the book? Or in the front or end matter?
Finally, he tries to explain us how to fix these problems. This of course is the shortest part, because he is forced to speak in general and, instead, each book is a case in itself, but still he manages to provide useful advice.
The most important one is to move backwards when fixing the problems that may block the reader’s journey: that is, starting from improving the book, then moving to the product page and finally arranging the advertisements we use to send potential readers to the book.

The basic question is that he takes for granted that we are able and willing to continually spend substantial sums in advertising, because otherwise we will never get to anything.
This is also the sad truth of the current situation. We can forget the striking cases like John Locke (do you remember him?) or more recently
Andy Weir (who is now published by a major publisher), who managed to sell so much only by writing so many books priced 99 cents (Locke) or exploiting the contacts created on his blog (Weir). These two, and others similar, have achieved success immediately, because they were among the first to do something that no one had ever done before. They were pioneers in a new market and they were thus able to make the most, almost entirely randomly, of the opportunities offered by the Amazon algorithm, which suggests new books to be bought to its customers.
Now to get high in the charts you have to spend a lot and keep doing it. If you do it wrong, you work at a loss. If you stop, sales collapse.

I fully realise that Gaughran is right, but also that this in most of our cases (mine and of most other authors I know) is not a viable route (because for example here in Italy as private individuals we cannot deduct those expenses nor can we think of founding a publishing company only for our books, because the costs would be too high, so even if we optimise the advertising it is already a utopia to avoid to work at a loss, not to mention the fact that maybe we cannot afford these costs at all) or simply there are no means to follow it (in the Italian market the only useful advertising tool is Facebook, which however is too general and not very efficient in profiling readers).
So what is reported in the book is useful almost exclusively for the English-speaking markets.

Specifically, Gaughran relies heavily on the use of Bookbub Ads (not to be confused with featured deals), which give much better results than Facebook ads and Amazon ads.
The latter are available only on the US market (of course only on Amazon), and are also the poorest in terms of results. And in fact he barely mentions them.
Those on Facebook are the only applicable to any market, including the Italian one, and it is a pity that they aren’t further explored in this book. But the point is that the author doesn’t do that precisely because he considers them to be not very effective.
Bookbub Ads instead can be used to reach any readers in USA, UK, Canada, Australia and even in India. In addition you can manually create links to any retailers or sites in general, choosing the combination country-link you prefer.

About the suggestions he gives, there are two aspects that I found interesting.
The first concerns books not unrolled in Kindle Unlimited (KU). According to Gaughran, the authors of these books don’t have to settle with Amazon, since they have no chance to climb the charts there. What matters is that at the end, adding all the sources of income, they reach an interesting total figure. For this purpose they can use Bookbub Ads directing them to smaller markets, in which there is less competition and above all there are few discounted offers (unlike what happens on Amazon), as, for example, Kobo or Apple in Australia.
The second concerns Amazon and books in KU (I remind you that to be part of it the e-book must be published exclusively on Amazon), which in fact earn good not directly through advertising, but through the wave of pages read that appear after about one week. In practice, according to him, those who are on KU must be very aggressive with advertising (spend even more money), but do it for only five days and then reap the rewards for the rest of the month. Then start again the following month, without ever stopping.

In this regard there is a half contradiction when he says that this system can be applied in part also with books not on KU, because they will earn so much more from Amazon anyway. Only that the latter don’t have the pages read, so there is the strong risk of a financial loss.
In fact, the topic is not deepened and for the non-KU only remains: the advice to make advertising on other stores and that to use the mailing list, by sending useful or interesting content to subscribers. This is what he does, but it becomes a bit difficult if you publish fiction. What should I write to readers? When should I find the time to do it? But, above all, are we sure that they care?
Moreover, if a reader is already in your mailing list, it means that he/she has completed his/her journey, so in reality this advice is not a solution to the initial problem.

In short, here is the idea I got about the whole topic.
If you have books on KU, spend a lot on advertising and use his suggestions to improve the reader’s journey.
If you don’t have books on KU, it’s a mess, unless you write non-fiction to an audience of readers looking for information, as Gaughran does.
Actually, he is also the author of several fiction books, but the fact that, like many other authors, he also publishes non-fiction and now he is even a consultant for another author highlights how difficult it is to have sufficient results exclusively with fiction, unless you offer a certain type of product (a series in certain genres, for instance) and your books are on KU (at least until you get a huge number of subscribers in your mailing list).

In any case my opinion on this book is very positive (hence the five stars), because Gaughran is honest, he doesn’t promise magic formulas and clearly says that there is so much work to do and that it isn’t at all so easy to do it. Moreover, the book actually talks about what is promised in the title, neither more nor less. And finally it’s well done, from every point of view, and very well written.
Its usefulness to improve the sales of a book is limited to the author who publishes in the English-speaking market (and preferably exclusively on Amazon), but it is certainly a very interesting tool to understand how an unknown reader becomes a fan and identify the weaknesses in your editorial products that put their journey at risk, even if you publish in a different market.
Unfortunately discoverability remains for us Italians (and authors in non-English markets) still the biggest problem, since buying traffic is not so simple, but we have the advantage that the digital publishing market in our country is still small enough to allow us to use alternative ways to let our books being discovered. It is easier to get out of the invisibility. A small market, however, also means that the return in income tends to be equally limited.
At the same time it must be considered that the phenomenon of KU also in Italy has completely cannibalised the charts and algorithms of Amazon, excluding therefore the titles that aren’t sold exclusively on this store. These have almost no chance of reaching the top of the popularity charts (which are more important than those of the bestsellers) of the most popular and crowded genres, or of benefiting, if not for very short periods, from the algorithm that suggests books to readers and that, in the past years, led to numerous sensational cases of success of which the authors themselves weren’t able to identify the causes.