Self-Publishing Part 11: Bestseller, best of and Other lists. Who cares?

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

The last member of the list making quadrangle are the list makers themselves. No one does this as a public service. They are trying to attract people to their publication/business, be that a newspaper, periodical, blog, bookseller or what-have-you. Now, if all the list maker did was get raw numbers, rank the top X titles and publish it, all the bestseller lists would be essentially the same, differing—if at all—only by how the numbers were grouped: broadly as fiction vs. nonfiction or more narrowly into genres like mysteries, or subgenres like drawing-room whodunits. But if this were all a list maker did, it wouldn’t matter much if a reader went to the NYT or WSJ, or this blog, or that column: Same number of books sold. Same titles. Same ranking, same old same old.

How would that attract readership? Why buy XYZ newspaper if I can find the same thing in that one, or some other one or free in a blog?

The fact is that the lists in the NYT and WSJ are in NOT the same. Certainly, there are books that appear in both of these two most important lists, but there are books that are unique to each, and much of the time the shared books show up in different order. Clearly, the list makers cannot simply be reporting straight sales numbers but must be massaging them somehow, and it’s the somehow that makes these lists different, and thus more or less attractive to specific groups of readers. This is the list’s raison dêtre, to attract specific groups of people to buy their papers to ultimately sell advertising space for access to these specific groups of people. To do this, each bestseller lists need to appeal to their own desired groups.

The same can be said of blogs or any other lists: they are honey to attract certain bees to a blog, a site, a mailing list, a FB group. Doesn’t matter. Now think about lists like “The 10 books everyone should read by 25”, and Listopia’s “Best South Asian Fiction” or “Best Woman-Authored Books.” These lists are soaked in opinion by nature and unusually have nothing to do with sales at all: As long as they’ve sold some.

“Best selling” lists aren’t, not really. None of these lists simply report straight sales figures: first, because any sales numbers have already been adulterated; and second, raw numbers are mostly useless for attracting specific groups—they reflect the tastes of the total population of whatever region. Perhaps a particular subgenre attracts a specific kind of person, and if that person is a desirable target audience, simply offering a straight sales rank list might be useful in spite of these numbers already having been manipulated. But bottom line, these lists are a business and act like a service sold.

Returning to the power lists specifically, the “bestseller” lists that can catapult a book and an author to stardom, or at least more lucrative book deals and speaking gigs, that bolster credentials as an expert and ladle on many other perks: NYT & WSJ. In addition to all the kinds of books already excluded from Neilson Book Scan by the scan itself are the specific manipulations of the numbers by the list maker. Now, why would The Times or the Journal exclude even more books than those already shunned, or nudge some upwards, and others downwards?

The answer unfolds if one takes the point of view of an author getting on one of these lists. Landing on one of these lists means money, a considerable amount more, whether directly as sales or through reputation augmentation and hence earning power in other realms. So if an author has money, and wants to snag all these perks of being a NYT bestselling author, why not buy one’s way onto it? The benefits are likely to be greater than the costs, which are one time. Benefits last a lifetime, even ending up in one’s obituary.

Thus both of these lists exclude large buys, including from big box retailers, and try to keep their eye on numbers of individual buyers. This seems a fair prophylactic against someone simply buying status. But there are places one can go to evade this protection: book launderers. A writer pays a company to pay individuals to make single purchases of books: akin to the smurfs buying pseudoephedrine medication in amounts small enough not to alert the DEA. These individual—yet coordinated and author financed—purchases end up in the Neilson Book Scan—that starting point for the manipulations of numbers. Yes indeed, book buying smurfs. The idea seems looney until one understands the value of getting on one of these lists.

So these influential Best Seller lists need to protect themselves from such fraudulent purchases as well as make their list unique and attractive to their readership. Such as for the more liberal-leaning readership of the NYT, one finds conservative-leaning books ranked lower, and falling off their list entirely more frequently than the WSJ. This makes perfect sense—they’re appealing to their readership. How they protect themselves from book buying Smurfs is mysterious.

Bottom line—bestsellers lists are not lists of books that move the most copies, but lists of books that do sell well but also appeal to the desired audience, nor are Top X books of/from/by/etc. anything more than an editor’s or writer’s opinion, possibly based on some research or other.

But what about Amazon, and their “pure” big-data model—they know every book sold on their site, by whom, to whom, when, in some cases how many pages of a book has been read, and so Amazon’s trending books/top sellers in this, that, or the other category must be, well, the actual top-selling books, right? What does Amazon say:

These lists, updated hourly, contain best-selling items in books. Here you can discover the best books in Amazon Best Sellers, and find the top 100 most popular Amazon books. What’s hot in books today? Take a look at the Amazon Best Sellers in Books list and find the best books in literature, fiction and nonfiction. Explore best sellers in books for mystery and thrillers, romance, science fiction and fantasy, biography and memoirs, art and photography, and the best books in cooking, food and wine.

The Holy Grail of true best selling lists found, right?

Not exactly. And, next time, we’ll take a deep dive into Amazon’s lists, which have plenty of their own quirks.



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Self-Publishing Part 11: Bestsellers, Best-Ofs, ​and Other lists. Who cares?

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

The launch of A Perfect Blindness has finally begun to take coherent shape, and I need to spend more time tending the momentum building. As such, these twice-a-week posts will take a necessary second-row seat in my attention, and will shift to one, perhaps two per week starting in October. Technically this began last week, as I was too busy with getting the website in shape to finish this post. This formally announces the change. Probably on Fridays, or perhaps, or as well, Mondays: Holidays are permitted to foul plans as necessary.

That said, the opacity and downright recondite nature of counting books sold warrants a deeper probe of “Bestseller/Best of” lists, what they mean to whom and how they are created.

So first, who cares about Bestseller/Best of lists and why?

Whole lots of people care, though for different reasons, most falling into one of four broad groups, each with distinct investments in and expectations of these lists: potential readers, list makers, book authors, and closely akin to them, book publishers. For the reader, hitting a Best-whatever list is an attempt to grab a good book to read (or avoid a lousy one) as well as the chance to snag some cultural creed. This random stalker of Best-whatever lists is either actively looking for a book to read, figuring if a book sells better than most right now, it’s better than most out there, or at least, it won’t be lousy: Look at all the people buying it. They might also want in on what people are going to be talking and posting about, staying dialed into what’s hot: looking well informed.

These various lists (which come in flavors like NYT Best Seller, Top 10 Whatever, Most Read X, Most Wished for Y) can be sampled in different degrees of specificity from the very general fiction or non-fiction, split up into hard and soft cover, to the more distinct genres like mystery, all the way down to strictly defined subgenres like period mysteries. Amazon offers 10 subgenres of Thrillers & Suspense, each of which is further broken down into “Bestsellers,” “Most gifted,” “Hot new releases,” “Most wished for” and “Top rated” each offering its own take of what’s best and why. Other lists include “Best New Books by Women Writers,” and so they go on.

Readers can really drill down into one of these lists to find narrow desires, in the flavor that might best satisfy them. These lists winnow down a vast array of books into a manageable number from which to pick. With the top slots appearing more desirable, readers buy more of them. Of course, online this effect is amplified, for the higher a book is listed, the more likely it appears above the fold, and require no scrolling to find it.

Higher sales mean more money of course. That’s the most straightforward outcome of getting on best of/bestseller lists: More units sold, bringing in more cash. But that’s only a part of the goodies that come with appearing on a list like these. It’s a salient fact that appearing popular can make one more popular. James Surdwiecki wrote an excellent essay that explores this idea in depth called “Paying to Play,” which I’ve used to teach Cause-and-Effect Analysis.

Because showing up on one of these lists not only makes one appear popular thus driving one become more popular, it has ripple effects that extend outwards in time. By being a #1 Best/what-have-you-list Author, it’s now easier to get interviews, reviews, speaking gigs, book placements and generally elevates the author’s value. It’s prestige in a pure form. For the future, this appendage to the author’s name will make it easier to get a next book published, as well as sell that book, blurb cooked into the author’s name. In other words, appearing here means more money and opportunities, immediately and going forward.

The book’s publisher feeds off of this as well. It means more money just as for the author. The prestige matters for them as well: Having many #1s this and feature books/writers that makes it easier for the publisher to attract higher caliber talent and better books. It means leverage too: “Look at all the #1 best-selling authors we have. You want to take our offer. They can’t give you this.”

Next time—a quick dive into the arcane mechanics of list creation, before landing back with launching a self-published novel, proper.


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Self-Publishing Part 11: What Selling 250 Copies Really Means

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

Returning to the idea that the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies: What does this say about the average author of the self-published book? That he or she knows fewer than the average number of people, or that the people they know aren’t the kind that supports writers? Or that only a few close personal friends and some family ever buy self-published books?


Sure, for some writers any one or both of the first things might be true, but the problem for many writers isn’t the quality and quantity of friends, or of strangers’ interest per se, but in how that number comes into existence at all.

Let’s interrogate that number to see what it does and does not mean.

When I first saw that number, I figured that every self-publishing company provided sales numbers for all their books to … well, to some authority someplace that then added all the sales numbers up and divided that number by the total number of titles, getting average sales per book. That this number had authority and thus is a useful benchmark to compare my own book against, based on actual sales of self-published titles on the market.

Sound familiar?

I’m sure it does. But it’s not close to reality.

First of all, there is no governing body for books, such as the RIAA for the recording industry, to whom most numbers are given from most publishing and sales sources for specific regions, and they use this to certify specific levels of sales. Simply doesn’t exist for books. This, of course, calls into question what bestsellers lists are then, but that implication will have to wait its turn.

Continuing the recording industry analogy: There are at least three different certifying bodies, each covering different kinds of artists and in different regions, and that some certifications are restricted by time, others are lifetime sales. The most important other two are IFPI and IMPALA, and to make matters murkier, each handles digital assets differently, some including ringtones, which is sort of like counting a short story sales rankings, which is factored into total sales somehow; further, they count streaming assets such as listens on Spotify or Apple Music differently, and this doesn’t necessarily include radio and other commercial uses.

This counting or not of digital sales remains true in the far more fragmented book publishing industry: is an e-book a “real” book? Does it count as a sale?

Depends on who you talk to, and in what context.

Huh? An ebook is a real book, isn’t it? We’re not talking Pinocchio here.

          Consider that for A Perfect Blindness to get the Star Designation, it needs to sell 500 physical copies OR 4,000 digital copies.


            Damned if I know. But the NYT and WSJ Best Seller lists don’t count digital sales as books sold either. And those lists get even more bizarre the deeper you look. (To take a deep dive into the alter-reality of bestseller lists, I’ve included a link at the end of the post.)

Now, whence that “fewer than 250 copies” sold per title number.

If it’s not an “official” number, what is it?

It’s a number created by whatever interested party, usually a journalist or blogger, who takes the total number of independently published titles sold—as reported by the individual publishing houses—and divides that by the total number of independently published titles—as reported by those same publishers. Some individual publishers might give out self-reported average sales numbers as well. In both cases, the numbers given are based on how the individual publishing house counts what constitutes a sale and even a title, meaning the numbers might well signify different things.

Sounds like a rather vague way to describe book sales, right?

Oh, don’t worry. It gets worse.

The numbers the journalists or bloggers and even the publishing houses start with are deeply suspect.

First, many people don’t self-publish their books to sell at all. Many titles are published as promotions, or to support some other goal, such as a speaking tour, where the book may be given away or possibly sold. Such as a ghostwritten book for a real-estate broker, which is published to give away to prospective clients: Not one copy has ever sold, nor will one ever sell. Yet, it is still counted as a title published.

If these kinds of books are sold at a speaking engagement/conference, those numbers won’t find their way into total book sales—the author has bulk ordered them, and what happens after that is anyone’s guess. How many are sold off tables in lobbies at events, or are sitting in warehouses someplace or are given away by the boxful, or get mildewed to the point of compost? I doubt the author, real or not, knows.

Since some might get sold, does the number of books sold include a faction of those bulk orders? If so, how big a fraction? Is it a sale if it’s part of a conference ticket? “A 9.95 value, included in the price of your ticket.

Regardless of how bulk sales are counted or not, the title is included in the number of titles published every year.

Other people publish merely to see “my name in print.” The author gets the 26 copies included in the package for those kinds of books and keeps them around the house and gives some away as presents, keeping a few as proof of their being a writer. Never sold, ever.

Still, these titles are ALL included as part of the divisor.

Then, there are the many books that are published to sell, but never get a quality editing and proofread, i.e., are of such poor quality that no traditional publishing house would ever consider publishing them, and will certainly never find their way on bookstore shelves. Naturally, poorly written books tend not to sell well. Their scrawny sales figures are included the dividend, just as the titles find their way into the divisor.

Think super 8 movie shot one bored afternoon, using your sister and some neighborhood friend as actors to show to other friends and family in a backyard tent with editing limited to a couple of splices where the film broke and that one scene your sister threaten to steal one canister over because she thinks you make her look like a fool on purpose, and so to save the afternoon, someone figured out how to hack that scene out with a razor blade. (If you’re too young to remember super 8s, think of something close to the quality of Zapruder’s footage of Dallas in 1963.)

Compare the quality of those films against a Bruckheimer action film. One is made for kicks and if you can get a buck or two for it from friends and family, great! The other is designed—from start to finish—to sell millions of tickets and has many eyes on it to make damned sure it does.

Now, does it make any sense to factor the few tickets sold for each of the thousands of backyard extravaganzas in with the 50.64 million tickets sold (in the US alone) for Pirates of the Caribbean? A number that further doesn’t include DVD and streaming sales.

Or how about factoring in the few thousand-odd tickets sold for each of the hundreds of limited-release, low-budget B flicks? (Which I’ve had a lot of fun with, on VHS or Chiller Theater.)

To complete the analogy, would it be fair to say the average film sells fewer than 250 tickets? Or even three-thousand worldwide? And what about DVD sales and streaming royalties? How do those fit in?

Thus a total number of self-published books sold, **which almost never includes digital sales** is divided by the total number of titles released, a number that includes books will never be sold at all, or are written as throwaway novelties, or those that are cheap, low quality and which really shouldn’t be sold as is (or possibly at all) as well as the drastically smaller number of titles that do get well edited and are up to professional quality.

So, explain to me again what “the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies” represents in the real world? Particularly for that much smaller group of well edited, professional quality books that might have been picked up by a traditional house under different circumstances.

The labyrinth of sales doesn’t end here. More on what the sales numbers you see might mean next time.

(To take a deep dive into the wonderland of bestseller lists, I’ve included a link >>>> here.)


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Self-Publishing Part 11: How Many Books are You Selling Anyway?

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

When talking book sales, the recording industry analogy provides a last insight: regional sales. Each of the three most important recording industry bodies handles international sales differently, sometimes giving some hint to that in their name: The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) handles, unsurprisingly “recorded music produced and sold in the United States.”  The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) “is the organisation that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide,” meaning some of the world’s countries: “IFPI represents the recording industry worldwide with some 1,400 members in 66 countries and affiliated industry associations in 45 countries.” Think NOT the US.

Finally Impala | The independent music companies association, which represents “ European independent music companies.” So the rest of the world’s Indy recording artists need to find shelter elsewhere.

This regionalism is true for books as well. Not faulting the industry—not all countries respect intellectual rights the same way, if at all, and not every place is transparent, so negotiating this collage of laws, numbers, products, etc. is damned difficult.

Still, I’m writing books to sell and to make some money, and so I gotta know if my book sells and how much, right?

Now, I’ve one sale that’s a complete mystery to me.

I’d been in contact with a UK based blogger (redheadedbooklover), who eventually reviewed my book. This was the first stranger to respond in writing to my book (the post lives here), and so I was rather excited, as can be expected.

As I she’d offered to post a review on, and as that verified buyer reviews count more than others, plus with the costs of posting a physical copy to her, it’s was cheaper to have her buy the book there. So I arranged for that.

After I sent the few Pounds to cover the costs of purchase, I would visit Author Central, and look at “the Sales by geography” function, and find—only a map of the US. I checked back several more times and found nothing about the UK, though her post did go up. She clearly purchased and read A Perfect Blindness.

But, where was the sale?

Not on

So where does it show up? I don’t know.

Another international oddity first: she did post a review— on the site. It doesn’t appear on the .com (US) site, and the US reviews don’t show up on the UK version. Nuisance that, but what am I gonna do?

It’s still unclear how foreign sales are counted, by anyone—I’m trusting it’s counted by iUniverse, smushed up with all other sales.

It occurred to me that I could take the total sales on iUniverse and subtract all the sales in AuthorCentral to find the book (or books.) But that doesn’t work.


This is where I can hear the rising chorus of objections to the claim there is no authority that counts book sales—“But what about Nielsen BookScan?”—grows so loud.

Well, what about it?

“They count books from all sales sources,” I hear the derision. “It’s on Amazon, right there in the Author Central page. And the NYT and WSJ both use it for their respective Bestsellers lists.”

Somewhat true. But not really.

Yes, those sales figures do appear on the Author Central page on Amazon. And yes, the NYT and WSJ start with the Nielsen BookScan numbers before massaging them according to their own secret formulae to come up with their own unique rankings. Using simple Bayesian analysis will tell you there is something about Bestsellers lists that shouts it’s not a ranking of books that sell the most units: if these lists were strictly reporting on the total number of books sold and nothing else, they would be the same. Yet they’re quite different. This shows THAT the newspapers (and Amazon) do something other than simply count the number of units sold and display that list, but it does not reveal WHAT they do.

Granted, Nielsen BookScan is the closest an author can get to a third party confirmation of what a self-publishing company reports as sales for a given book, but it’s quite far from representing all copies sold, at least for most books.

What does Nielsen BookScan actually show? Roughly 85% of retail PRINT books in the US.

Ah-ha! No wonder my UK blogger’s purchase never showed up, nor will any ex-US sale, ever, apparently.

As written right in Author Central:

“Figures are provided by Nielsen BookScan and include approximately 85% of all trade retail print book sales in the U.S., including most of Amazon print book sales.” (Emphasis mine.)

That is a lot it doesn’t report. As in ZERO digital sales, so if you have a digital-only book, you’re completely out of luck here. If it does well outside of the US: can’t check here. So, what all else DOESN’T it tell you (again taken from the Author Central page):

  • Sales to libraries
  • Purchases by wholesalers such as Ingram
  • Sales of used books
  • Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) sales
  • Pre-orders—orders for a book before the book is released

Drilling down a bit further in the Amazon caveat estimating 85% of “trade retail print book sales in the U.S.,” and all “of Amazon print book sales) one finds this further elaboration:

Sales reported depend on which retailers selling your book participate in Nielsen BookScan, and whether your book is registered with one of the companies from which Nielsen derives its list of reported ASINs. […] If your book is Print on Demand, your publishing company may not report ISBNs to Ingram and you may not see sales information.

To be reported, a book’s seller must participate in Nielsen BookScan and the book must appear in BookScan’s bibliography. This bibliography is generated from a number of third party sources including the Ingram Book Company. (Emphasis mine.)

There is one last note from Amazon of interest: “If a disproportionate number of your books are sold by stores that do not report to Nielsen, your sales information may underestimate your total sales.” Weird wording. What if it’s proportionate? Like 50% of the stores don’t report to Nielsen, and 50% do, 1:1—wouldn’t that underestimate total sales? Of course, they do use “estimate” total sales, not “report” total sales (just being peevish here).

Of course, any books that the author sells out of the back of a trunk or at signings when the author brings his or her own books aren’t included. So the Nielsen BookScan is hardly the unimpeachable source we authors would like to keep everyone honest, including our publishers and various bestseller lists.

It’s also true that some publishing houses release their own numbers for lifetime sales of self-published books, which might be useful, or not. Sarah Disabrow, a former head of Author Solutions (current owner of iUniverse), once remarked in an interview that the average book they publish sells under 200 copies in its whole lifetime. Then, in an email she sent me early in the process of submitting A Perfect Blindness, she said only 5% of the books they publish belong in bookstores. Certainly, many people don’t intend to sell, but many that do don’t invest the time, money and effort to create a high-quality book.

A friend recently read A Perfect Blindness and said he was very surprised at its quality—there were no proofreading errors; he’s read a good number of self-published books and said most are full of blunders and mistakes.

That’s what the Editor’s Choice designation from iUniverse means: a book earning that designation is of the same high quality that a Traditional Publishing house would publish, including professional quality proofreading, thus sans errors. The other 95% that don’t belong on bookstore shelves don’t usually get this attention.

If we were to average the sales of only those books that are of a high enough quality to have appeared on a Traditional Publishing house’s list, such as those that earn the Editor’s Choice designation from iUniverse, the number of titles drops dramatically. My contact at iUniverse didn’t have access to the average sales figures of every Editor’s Choice earning book, but all the books that earn Star (500 physical book, 4,000 ebook sales) MUST have the Editor’s Choice designation.

The only self-publisher that offers such a designation (that I know of) is iUnverse with its Editor’s Choice designation. Which is a precursor to A Perfect Blindness’s Rising Star designation, putting it into an even more rarefied collection of books. Those that are not only well written, but have an identifiable market, with a clear path to it, and an author that seems capable of doing what’s needed to get it there.

This then is an even more exclusive club: books that are of high quality and have a market and support to reach it. If only these titles are included, the average sales per book would likely jump upwards, especially once we then add the books the author purchase (at a discount) and eventually sells, plus other excluded categories, like the rest of the world, etc.

That doesn’t mean these high-quality books with markets will necessarily sell enough to leap onto bestsellers lists, nor bring in enough money to quit a day-job. An author still has to do the hard work of selling the book, bringing it to the identified market, and the market actually has to like it. Editors and writers do make judgment errors. A well-written book with a clearly defined market and a motivated author may well flop for myriad reasons. Many of which are beyond the author’s control. Things happen.

But, we can be sure that poorly-written books generally don’t sell, with or without a market, and well-written books that have no market don’t either. This needs be kept in mind when viewing average sales per book, as most are firmly tilted to the lower end of the range as well as the difficulty in coming by reliable numbers in the first place.


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Self-Publishing Part 11: the Book Hunts for 500 Buyers

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

Why only 500 books? Why not 5,000? Ten thousand?

The 500 copies sold is a first mile-marker, not an end goal, which also happens to come with serious benefits for books on iUniverse’s Traditional Publishing Path like A Perfect Blindness. Continue reading “Self-Publishing Part 11: the Book Hunts for 500 Buyers”

Self-Publishing Part 11: A Wobbly Platform Starts Taking Aim

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

All manner of plans still not enacted aside my site was live.

Further, I was trying out the ideas from the books I’d chosen as models albeit in a piecemeal, disorderly, catch-as-catch-can fashion.

One of my first active actions was to take every one of the early fans from the FB group and put them into the email list program, make a fancy-looking (imagine quite busy with far too many images) email announcing the book’s publication, which I then sent to all eleven of them. The results: One recipient confirmed buying my book because she got this email. That’s nearly 10% conversion, which is quite high I’ve read. More importantly, it’s proof of concept, suggesting that I’m NOT wasting my time.

Certainly, with such a tiny sample, this single email proves nothing, but it WORKED damn it!

Then, I emailed a few friends and much of my immediate family. Why not all my friends and family? Continue reading “Self-Publishing Part 11: A Wobbly Platform Starts Taking Aim”

Self-Publishing Part 11: Wobbly Platform Doesn’t Mean Empty Platform

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

To be fair to myself, I hadn’t been sitting around staring at my screen, clicking on everything else I could to avoid doing work, which would have been easy given that the 2016 presidential campaign was running parallel to the launch. Despite that distraction, I’d gotten things done, several actually, and had sold a handful of books. The blog was going, and it had gained followers not only on WordPress but also on Medium, and gathered a few readers, likes and other reactions on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. This blog lives on a website that wobbled, but held together and has been improving since, meaning my designing all of the artwork on Canva, and learning how to use WordPress better, creating and loading copy and adding links to capture emails for the mailing list: ‘Join the Adventure’ per the ideas from the books Platform and Your First 1000 Copies

Cohabitates with other websites is a better description for it, as A Perfect Blindness has its own URL and website, with its own big “join now” button in order to capture emails that live on the same WordPress site on its own page, just like the home page for them both, and actually the whole site: Continue reading “Self-Publishing Part 11: Wobbly Platform Doesn’t Mean Empty Platform”