100% of Independent Publishers Who Do This Will Sell More of Their Work

Closeup image of a book

Most independent authors and content creators aren’t thinking in terms of building product funnels when they write their books and stories.

That is a mistake.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, smart writers who know how to build their catalog around funnels will always make more money directly with their words than writers who publish their work using the old “hope and pray” business plan.

Here’s how you do it.

Be a smarter publisher

We wrote for our own sites and blogs like Copyblogger for years — about business, entrepreneurship, marketing, you name it. But we both made a major shift during 2012 and 2013, and we spent the last year writing and publishing 1.5 million words of fiction through our company Realm & Sands.

In the two years since Copyblogger ran this post about serialized fiction, Sean has also published another two million words at his other company, Collective Inkwell, with David Wright.

But none of those millions of words were left to sell based on chance.

We wanted to make our full-time livings as authors — and since have — so we opted for something more certain.

Our words are our art, yes. But once those words are scrubbed in the editing process, they became products for sale. And what do smart marketers do with products? Well, if they want to sell any of those products, they arrange them into funnels.

Each week, we host the Self Publishing Podcast. In a year and a half of our show, the most frequently visited topic is how to build funnels.

Why?

Because applying proven marketing principles to independent authorship is how successful indie publishers turn a “luck of the draw” marketplace into a sound enterprise with a stable income source.

In our opinion, putting your work into product funnels is the very best (and most important) thing an author can do to increase sales … assuming you’ve created an excellent and professional-looking family of products.

Ready to sell some books? Well then, let’s take a look at “Funnels 101,” starting with exactly what they are and why you should care.

What is a funnel and why does it matter?

Simply put, a product funnel is a way of organizing your works so that one product leads logically into another.

You do this by setting up a series of pointers (in the backs of books, in product descriptions) in order to steer readers to the places you want them to go, and to give them compelling reasons to do so.

Understand: A good funnel isn’t a straight chain, where Product A simply leads to Product B.

It’s a funnel — which, like a kitchen funnel, is wider at the top and narrower at the bottom.

You want to scoop as many people into the top of your funnel as possible, then understand that they will sift apart — some sticking with you and others deciding your stuff isn’t their cup of tea — as they move downward.

To put some labels on this, think about three products you have for sale: Products A, B, and C. These products can be books, novellas, short stories, short story collections, or other written works. If you write nonfiction and sell consulting or are available for speaking gigs, those products can also be courses, speaking, and consulting.

Now, think about something for a second: If you ultimately want to sell a big book bundle for $9.99 or consulting for $499, does it make sense for the very first thing a potential customer sees from you to be that big-ticket item?

Absolutely not.

Ten bucks is a lot to pay for an ebook by an unknown author, and $500 is a lot to pay for anything. If you want to sell those later items, you’ll need to sell them last — which, to bring this metaphor full circle, is what happens at the very bottom of your funnel. This is where a few die-hard devotees (or true fans) remain out of that huge group who entered the funnel at the top.

Let’s call your big-ticket item Product C, at the bottom of the funnel. You can’t usually sell that one right off the bat. You must prove yourself to the customer with Products A and B, which they’ve already passed by on their way down the funnel, before you can hope to earn that sale.

Remember: Products at the top of the funnel must be easy to consume.

Product A, which casts your widest net and scoops in as many prospective readers as possible, should ideally be free so that there is no barrier to entry for anyone even remotely interested in what you eventually want to sell.

Product B can be a bit more expensive. You’ll work your way down further and further until, for a certain focused segment of customers, they are invested and confident enough to pick up your Product C … or D, or F, or however deep your funnel goes.

So that’s what a funnel is. Now, here is why having one (or more than one; we have around 15 between us) is so important if you want to sell books.

It’s easier to keep a customer than to gain a new one

What do you think loyalty cards are for? What do you think “returning customer discounts” are for?

The merchants you shop with, if they’re smart, know that on average it will cost them five times as much to get a new customer as it will to keep an old one. That’s why intelligent merchants constantly bend over backward for their existing customers.

For you, with your funnel, this means it is easier to sell a customer on Product C if they have already bought and enjoyed Product B. And they’ll be much more likely to buy Product B if they have already found Product A worthy of their time and attention.

The best way to sell any product in your catalog is to sell it to someone who is already a customer. You can do that by hooking them in with the products at the top of your funnel, which are easier for them to consume because they are cheap or free.

Each time someone says “Yes,” the next “Yes” becomes more likely

Old-school vacuum cleaner salesmen asked prospects a lot of questions.

If they were classically trained and good at their craft, they would only ask questions that they knew in advance would be answered with an easy, straightforward “Yes.”

The questions didn’t even have to have anything to do with what they were selling: “Isn’t this a beautiful day?” “Don’t you love it when your house is clean?” Etc. Those questions were easy for people to answer yes to, so they tended to do so.

When the salesman finally got down to a much harder question to answer in the affirmative (“Would you like to buy this vacuum cleaner?”), the prospect’s mind would already be used to saying yes, and their likelihood of buying would be higher.

Your product funnel asks those questions for you.

Product A, which should be free, is very easy to say yes to. Product B might be a $3-$5 book. That’s a harder yes, but they already gave an affirmative to A and liked it, so they’re an easier sell.

After that yes — again, for a smaller but more ideal segment of the buying population — you’ll have an easier time getting buyers for the big bundle.

You might be thinking this sounds complicated. It isn’t.

In fact …

You already understand funnels

We both have wives who really like the sitcom Friends, so we both own the full DVD set, containing all 10 seasons’ worth of episodes.

But the process that led us to buy all those DVDs — not a cheap purchase — was a funnel.

If you were getting confused in the previous section, allow yourself to forget about it. Instead think of us with our DVDs.

At first, the networks gave that show to us for free. Sure, the show was getting paid, but we didn’t pay that price. We just sat back, with our over-the-air-with-no-digital-converter TVs, and absorbed all of that entertainment for free.

We said yes to that show over and over because there was no barrier to entry. And then in the end, we bought in — ultimately buying the DVD set — because we’d been given a taste and knew we liked it.

Want another example?

Johnny heard about the Angry Birds app and decided to see what the fuss was about. The app was free for the iPad and iPhone. He downloaded it and found it amusing.

More importantly, Johnny’s son thought it was amusing and played until he had 3-starred every level. He played Angry Birds Seasons ($0.99) to death next, then got so obsessed that they ended up buying all sorts of Angry Birds plushies.

They bought an Angry Birds birthday cake. They bought Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars, you name it.

That is a funnel.

They paid nothing, then $0.99, then more and more for merchandise.

If the first game hadn’t been free, Johnny never would have tried it. Even $0.99 cents would have been too much.

Keep that in mind.

You may reason that a few dollars (or $0.99 cents) is such a small price that no one will think twice about paying it, but that’s only partially true. It is equally true that the most casual of visitors will turn away from $0.99 cents because they are curious … but not curious enough.

Funnels require multiple products

We’ve just implied that you might consider making your book free, like the original Angry Birds game. You might think that’s a hideous idea.

Well, right. If you only have one book, that’s true.

But if you have several, it matters a lot less.

Let’s say you have two related books, and each sells one copy per day. Wouldn’t you make the first one free if, by doing so, you thought you could sell three copies a day of the other?

The more books, stories, reports, tutorials, novellas that you have, the more options you’ll have at your disposal for ways to promote and funnel.

You must be able to send readers from one book to another to another — and, if you want a really good funnel, to a bundle of many books — and that only happens after you’ve ushered plenty of products to market.

Different kinds of funnels require different structures

The more expensive the “deepest” product in your funnel, the more items you’ll need upstream.

If you’re a consultant who also writes nonfiction books and your prime consulting package costs $1,000, you’ll need a lot of stuff in the funnel ahead of that package.

The part of the funnel that the book covers will be at the very top, because books don’t generally sell for $20, and self-publishers (at least with Amazon’s current commission structure) generally want to stop at $9.99 because that’s where the 70 percent cutoff is.

But if all you have is a book and a short story, you can generally make a simple two-step funnel: an entry product (the short story) that’s free and a book for $5 or so. You could also make the short story $0.99, but that will mean a lot fewer people in your funnel.

As long as it goes from a low-barrier entry point designed to catch as many prospects as possible to a high-barrier product that will appeal to fewer people, it’s a funnel. The rest will depend on your specific situation.

Funnel sequences must be logical

Johnny has one book with no funnel: his first novel, The Bialy Pimps. Not coincidentally, it almost never sells.

The reason there is no funnel with that book is because it’s related to nothing.

Johnny says he’ll one day get to a short story featuring one of the characters from The Bialy Pimps and use that as his entry point, but he’s been working on all the successful funnels that were built smartly from the start.

He really wishes he knew then what he does now.

An average writer with a tight funnel will always beat a brilliant writer with a poor funnel.

Or no funnel whatsoever, which is the case for most indie writers.

Artist types hate to hear this, but it’s true: You can be an excellent writer who creates brilliant art, but unless you know some serious heavy hitters who can tell the world that your book is awesome, your brilliance will never be seen without a solid marketing strategy.

To be appreciated, brilliance must be seen. Have you ever heard that koan about how if a tree falls and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yeah. That.

Our best example

In July of this year, Realm & Sands published a stark sci-fi (we’re calling it “future history”) serial called The Beam. It was a hard project and took twice the time we would normally spend writing westerns with unicorns.

It was important to get our funnel right.

We wanted to charge $9.99 for the finished project — a price that the indie community loudly stated was too high for indies (to which we stated, “It sounds like you need a better funnel”). So our way of leading prospective readers into it had to be perfect.

We talk a lot about The Beam on our podcast because of its scope, and our listeners are probably more curious about The Beam than any other title.

Fortunately for us and them, the story costs nothing to try. The first book in the six-book season is free. Each book (around 25,000 words) is $2.99 after that. All six are $9.99, which is a relative bargain.

Your work must be good. If it isn’t, you won’t have buyers moving from three to 10 dollars —- it’s definitely a jump.

But if it is good, and if you have funnels gracefully leading readers from one spot to the next, then it’s entirely possible that your “free” title might make you more money than anything else you write.

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt published 1.5 million words and built full-time self-publishing careers from scratch in 2013. In their comprehensive self-publishing guide Write. Publish. Repeat. they tell you everything you need to know about how to do the same. The book is half price for launch (and comes with a bonus book) through Friday, December 6, 2014.

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Comments

  1. Hi Sean,

    This is a great post.

    I think that you’ve explained extremely well what funnels are for people like me who aren’t entirely experienced with the expression, so thank you.

    I could not agree more with regards to diversifying products – you need lots of little things around your main service. Secondary income sources are a great way to add security for publishers and reduce risk.

    Jakk

  2. What a wonderful, clear, concise, and step by step discription of a successful sales funnel. Thank You!!!

  3. yep. I agree. The thinking done is smart here.
    I particularly like the point that it is better to keep a customer than gain a new one.
    Thanks for the article.

  4. Hi,

    Outstanding article. Bookmarked!

    PS: I love the new sharing buttons. Plugin or custom work?

    Pedro

  5. Great post. I’ve not known the term funnel before but I talk to authors about this as part of building a backlist and branding themselves. Funny how one concept can help with multiple goals.

    • Right. It’s really just simple human behavior, and it’s amazing what a difference it can make.

      • But most author branding is around specific genres, whereas you guys have built funnels in multiple, diverse genres like humor and sci-fi. So I think funnels can be brand-independent, right?

        • I guess I’d say that your brand can BE about multiple genres. Our tagline is, “For readers who refuse to be defined.” Our brand specificity is about lack of specificity.

        • With so much cross-genre writing coming out or authors dabbling in multiple genres I think you just have to set fan expectations properly.

          If you look at a number of trad published authors they had pen names for their different genres and now they are moving away from that.

          Trying to determine what genre Neil Gaiman writes is tough. Ilona Andrews is also hard to categorize. Both have strong followings. No reason indies can’t set out to do that intentionally if they know (or suspect) they are going to write in more than one genre.

  6. Hey guys, great article. I picked up your book and have been fascinated by the idea of funnels. Over the past year, I published three ebooks on Amazon, and I totally agree with the write, publish, repeat mantra. One book definitely leads to another. My short term goal is to get to 10, with five being non fiction, and the others a fiction series. The Kindle marketplace is the new wild west, but like so many other things, persistence and hard work pay off over time. I like the fact that you are not pushing a get-rich scheme but an achievable strategy. One that takes hard work and a good road map. I’m looking forward to the rest of your book and to structure my funnels better.

    • I actually find no-BS approaches to be way more inspirational because you can actually BELIEVE them. How many people really believe, deep down, that you can make something from nothing?

      It’s amazing to me how much of success in anything really does seem to come down to simply doing the work.

  7. I hope you sell a million copies! You guys deserve it.

    #amwriting #amfunnelling

  8. It seems so obvious when you put it like that. The fact that I have been falling right into these funnels for years and been oblivious, shows how much tunnel vision I’ve had when it comes to my own failed attempts at marketing. Thanks for lifting the blinkers. Top drawer advice.

  9. I bought your book this morning while eating my cereal, based on John Ward’s recommendation. Then I got to work and found this Copyblogger post in my email. Sometimes the universe tries to tell you something and you really need to listen.

    Each of my books is in a different genre, and I can already see my next month needs to be spent writing a free short story that works as a teaser for each one, to get readers into my funnel. Thanks for making it painfully obvious what my next move needs to be. I hope others get their “Aha!” moment from your book, too.

  10. The Funnel 101 process is very thought-provoking. I wish you the very best with your book sales.

  11. How many works should an author give away for free? Let’s say you have 3 trilogies of books in 3 separate genres. Well, giving away Book 1 of your romance book might be a great way to find new readers, but is that going to help that cyber-punk trilogy?

    I guess you could put all the Book 1′s to free, but I think many would balk at that, especially if one book took them 6 months or longer to write.

    Certainly the old robber baron strategy is great. If you’re writing about writing copy you should write a novel about a copywriter in space, one in the old west, and another in a compromising office romance. Fiction and non-fiction authors might be surprised how quickly they can make the switch.

    • You’ll see little crossover, so yes, the #1′s should always be free. I have hundreds of thousands of free words out there, but they lead to paid ones.

      • It’s always good to have an eye on how you can bundle old blog posts into Amazon books as well.

        Even offering them for free on your site is a great incentive, and who doesn’t want to save time scrolling through the archives?

    • Write short stories as intros to each series for the intro. This is something you can go back and do if you have books already out. It should not be the same material from the books. Something around 15,000 words works well in my experience as a reader.

    • I totally agree. And yes, many would balk… but that doesn’t change the fact that in most cases, free would still be the best bet. I did a promotion recently where I sold a 4-book bundle for 99 cents. So in case you’re missing that, it’s 4 WHOLE BOOKS for 99 cents. I DEFINITELY balked at the idea. But there were 6 books in the series, so when the promotion netted me 1200 sales or so and raised my overall profile, I wasn’t thinking about the dollars lost. I was thinking of the exposure gained, and the sales of books 5 and 6 which immediately started coming after.

  12. You’re advice is timely – I’ve just launched a mystery series. One thing I thought of doing with ‘backstory’ is packaging it as short fiction (20K-ish) in order to give the reader more to read while not cluttering up the main books (60-70 words), the typical ‘book 2, book 3′ etc. Also, I have other novel-length stories not in the mystery genre. Do they all count, as for being in the funnel?

  13. This is a great post! Your thoughts here are very helpful to many minds who dream of earning from doing what they love to do. Also, this enlightens them about product funnels as a way to get bigger sales.

  14. Hey Johnny and Sean

    Thanks for the excellent writing. Great examples. Very clearly explained. Much appreciated.

    Johnny I also wanted to tell you that I’ve signed up to your everyday legendary forums. Great stuff. There’s LOTS of content there and I’m working my way through it. Thanks for leading a great tribe. :)

  15. Great article guys! If there is one thing that indie publishers aren’t familiar or comfortable with, it’s marketing. A series of works built into a funnel is a great way of catching the attention of many people and generating more sales.

  16. Thank you for an amazingly helpful post. I’ve really needed a concept like the funnel — it makes sense of what I see happening where the whole thing working for certain bloggers, writers, and speakers. And it has sparked a bunch of really good brainstorming for my own work.

    Wow!

  17. Free registration for the reference guide, eh? The funnel at work in an article on the funnel.

  18. I always update & promote my free resources to whet the appetite & then “remind” visitors to visit my store for more in-depth content.

    Thanks so much for this post!

  19. This is a terrific post… a deep example of content marketing… and perfect for Copyblogger.

    I just bought your book: Write. Publish. Repeat. and wish you all the best with it.

  20. Great article!!

    I don’t have any ebooks at present, although I’m now thinking I need to start writing :). But I was wondering if this funnel concept could work for a products based/direct sell business. Any thoughts?

    Thanks again!
    -Emily

    • We actually adapted this to fiction FROM more traditional product selling, so absolutely, yes. All you’re looking to do is to get people saying “yes” a few times before your bigger products, and smaller, less expensive, or free products are all easier to say yes to.

  21. Hi Johnny, Sean,

    Thanks for explaining the purpose of the product funnel and how it can lead to more book sales for authors. I’m thinking of buying Write. Publish. Repeat. but I’d like to hear your thoughts about how this method can apply to poetry and self-publishing poetry collections.

    Just to get this off my shoulders, a lot of the writing and publishing advice I’ve seen and consumed are targeted at either fiction or non-fiction. I’ve rarely seen anything targeted at poets who want to market their art, but I feel that your book might be a winner here.

    I’m just worried about this idea of “mass producing” in the context of poetry. I fear that if I focus on creating five to ten poetry collections, quantity could easily trump quality. I mean, I understand that it’s never going to happen if I don’t actually get my work out there, but I don’t want to sell or market anything that’s mediocre.

    Correct me if I’m wrong or misunderstood the process.

    Your thoughts would really make my day and give me some direction. Thanks!

    Stef

    • Hmm, I have my doubts about how well it would work with poetry. In theory it should be the same, but poetry is a very hard sell for most people on most platforms. There’s just not a huge readership.

      In our world, producing fast or producing a lot is not akin to “mass producing” in the way most people color that phrase, meaning lesser in quality, though. We would never deliver less than our best.

      • By “readership” you’re referring to today’s generation of readers? That’s disheartening to hear, though when visiting Goodreads, the works of famous poets like Neruda and Rumi still resonate with a lot of readers today.

        Despite this, I know that this is the genre I want to stick to. With that said, do you think self-publishing can change this? Does it have the potential to open doors to other genres aside from fiction and non-fiction? Looking through the list of poetry books sold on Amazon, you only see free versions of classics or cross-genre books that the site deems relevant to the search. This could be a gap we can fill in.

        It would be interesting if substantial research could be done on this. But whether anyone’s up for it or not, I’m willing to take the chance with my own work.

  22. A well setup autoresponder series is also a great way to automate (at least a portion) of your funnel. Start with something inexpensive (their email address) and let the autoresponder guide the reader through the funnel to your more expensive products.

  23. Micky H Corbett :

    I’ve started reading much more of Copyblogger in the last couple of months and this post echoes exactly what I’ve found in practising martketing but also just in trying to get new work in the engineering/aerospace realm (which is one of my companies)

    The biggest stumbling block is always what comes after the free gift. But if you look at it as a funnel then you concentrate more on “what will make people stay in the funnel” i.e. how to you maintain good quality material.

    As ever a great post.

  24. Always have trouble with the funnel analogy. Funnels don’t sift. They may be wider at the top than at the bottom, but pour a quart in the top, and you’ll get a quart out the bottom.

    Sieve or filter your stream.

  25. Great post. “Keeping a client is easier than gain a new one” is the sentiment that I echo often. I love your content and will be back to check out more soon.

  26. I seem to have been ricocheting from one promotional website to another like a clockwork mouse trying to market my several different genres. It’s interesting to learn that funneling can work even if you’re looking at totally different markets (humour, children’s, teen, saga, romance, short stories). If I were to offer a children’s book for free, are you saying this might eventually result in the sale of the romance title through the magical power of funneling?