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.
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?
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.
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?
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.