Indie writers, eh? We’ve all been there, we’ve put the finishing touches to our first novel, our veritable masterpiece, we’ve uploaded the files and ticked the boxes to complete the self-publishing process, we’ve converted the files for Kindle and now … now we sit back, checking our Amazon reports every 5 minutes, rubbing our hands together as we wait for the sales to start flooding in. Which they don’t.
Don’t be disheartened. This is how we all begin. We’re one among millions and nobody knows who we are or why they should risk their hard-earned cash and time on us. We have to learn how to make our book noticed, how to make people willing to take a chance on reading our work. It takes time and effort.
I’m not pretending to have all the answers, because I simply don’t. Seven years on from the publishing of Rampant Damsels, my first novel, I still wish I sold many more books than I do. Having said that, I’ve progressed from being someone who sells 3 or 4 books per month to someone who sells about 300 books, with royalties of £600 – £700 per month. So I guess I’m doing something right and that it may prove worthwhile for me to share a few observations from my experience here.
Forget the Mega-Bucks
Don’t be fooled by the stories of people publishing their first book on Kindle and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It it happens at all, it happens to one person in a million, by sheer fluke or by having huge industry connections in the first place. Progress will be slow – very slow to start with – and as long as you realise that this is perfectly normal, you won’t become so downcast about it. In time (and I’m talking years, not weeks) you may earn enough from your writing to cut the day job back to part time hours, as I have, with a view to becoming a full time writer just another couple of years down the line. You’re unlikely to get wealthy, or even comfortably well off, but with persistence and determination you may eventually be able to make a modest living doing what you love: writing. Be realistic and you’ll keep going and be able to avoid disillusionment.
You’ll read all sorts of marketing tips and be exposed to all sorts of advice which once worked wonders. But my experience is that most of this advice is hogwash. It probably worked once, but has become over-saturated and doesn’t work any more. Twitter is a case in point. When Twitter was new and fresh, tweeting the details of your new book could bring in a flood of responses, I’ve no doubt. These days it’s clogged solid; anyone who subscribes to one of these book-tweeting services is going to find their Twitter feed choked and – just like me – they’re going to scroll rapidly through without pausing to look at any of them. Sad, but true. So if you see those ads promising that for a small fee they’ll tweet your book details to a guaranteed 250,000 followers, nab a sales-related money back guarantee before you try it, because the results are likely to be zilch.
The same goes for Facebook groups which promote authors and their titles. You’ll find that the only members of these groups are other authors, who are each only interested in plugging their own babies and won’t spare a second glance for anyone else’s. You’ll find precious few readers there. Maybe once, but not any more, it’s glutted, loud and ugly. Be honest with yourself and assess how you’d use such a group and you can be sure that others will be using it exactly the same way. You may dutifully browse a couple of other posts for the first day or two, but after that you’ll simply post your own then move on without a second glance. You won’t have time to do anything else.
The truth is, there’s precious little that works except for paid advertising (and I’m not talking about Twitter, I mean proper ads on genre websites (not writing websites!) or in printed magazines) or the much better and more cost effective (i.e. free) method of connecting with your readers and encouraging them to stay in touch with you. Sure, you’ll probably have an author’s page on Facebook, but encourage people to friend you on your personal page. Let them get to know you as a person, and you can also share your writing progress and projects on your personal page. Don’t ram it down anyone’s throats. Don’t ceaselessly spam ads, just give updates every few days among your personal news and funnies, with maybe a direct book link when a new title is published, or promoting an old one once a week or so, sharing a particularly good review or some such. Less can indeed be more. Keep people engaged with you in a broad sense and they’re far more likely to pay attention when you post about your books.
Engaging with people in this way (which has formed the majority of my own marketing to date) will enormously enhance the next and crucial type of marketing:
Word of Mouth
Engaging with readers, having them like you and what you do, will result in them sharing the links that you do post, spreading the word far further than you could yourself. They will enthusiastically talk about your writings to others. Make sure you’re grateful and try to thank them for it when they do, because this is the type of marketing that money can’t buy.
Book reviews are very important. Every positive book review (4 or 5 star) on Amazon is worth its weight in gold. Readers are far more likely to buy a book which has a few reviews under its belt instead of being an unknown quantity. Here’s where I give a plug to the only Facebook writers’ group I bother with: Writers Who Review. They’re a fantastically friendly and helpful bunch and if you’re an indie writer, you should go take a look the very next time you log into Facebook and be sure to participate. Be sure to read the group instructions first. Take my word for it, you’ll love ’em!
You’ve written a book, so you know you can do it. Now write another! And another! And another! Nothing gains momentum to your sales like an ever increasing number of titles. Every time someone buys one of your books and likes it, they have others to try. The more books you have out there, the better you will do, your sales increase exponentially.
Sequels are a special case. Some of my novels are standalone, others (such as the Damsels series – currently 5 books) are linked. With sequels, you’re playing a long game, one with short term bitter disappointment but long term rewards. This is easily understood. If you have only sold 50 copies so far of your first book, this effectively limits the potential market for the sequel to a mere 50 people, and only a small fraction of them will buy it (at least in the short term; some may add it to their list of ‘stuff to read’, but not get round to picking a copy up till two or three years from now). So you spend all of that time writing a book that you know in advance that hardly anyone is going to buy (or at least not until the reader base of the original title has significantly increased). But by the same token, if a sequel is planned or promised, you can’t hold it back for years till the first novel sells more, because those early readers will get mightily fed up and view you as ‘the person who doesn’t deliver’. Your sequels are an investment for the future. As word of mouth spreads and reviews come in and you start to attract more readers, if you have later volumes in the series already written and available, you’re going to make a lot of new readers very happy and very loyal, they’re likely to devour them all with relish.
It’s a simple equation and probably the biggest factor to take into account: more books = more sales.
I learned very early on to intersperse my fiction titles with non-fiction. Everybody knows a lot about something. Write about the things you’re passionate about. Consider a ‘How To’ manual. It doesn’t necessarily have to be long. I’m fascinated by runes, ogham and the occult arts and have written large series of books on these subjects alongside my fiction.
The truth is that non-fiction titles sell far, far better than fiction and at higher prices. This is simply because the market is nowhere near so saturated. You may, like me, adore writing your novels and wish to be best known for them, but you may nonetheless find that it’s your non-fiction that ends up financing your novel-writing, at least in the early years. It’s something you really should bear in mind as a few good non-fiction titles can give you an enormous step-up. I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction titles, the latter outselling the former by a ratio of at least 10:1.
Use the KDP Select Programme
You’re going to read differing opinions on this, but you should make the ebook editions of your titles exclusive to Amazon and enroll them in the KDP Select programme. This means that people who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Lending Library will be able to freely borrow your books as part of their subscription and you will be paid for every page that they read. With full length novels, the KDP Select royalties are generally higher than the value of an actual sale, given the prices most ebooks have to be sold at to be competitive (.99 to 2.99).
The arguments you’ll hear against enrolling with KDP Select revolve around “not putting all your eggs in one basket”, or not wanting to alienate those readers who don’t use Amazon. Come off it. Amazon rules online book sales by a huge margin. My ebooks used to feature in other stores and less than 1% of my sales ever came from non-Amazon sources. The royalties I get from KDP Select make a huge difference to my monthly income and you’d be crazy to miss out on this revenue stream. It also allows you to promote your books as ‘free to read’ for folks who subscribe to the service. If someone can legitimately read your book without paying for it – and you still get paid! – that’s a powerful incentive. “Come on!” you can say. “Give my novel a go. What have you got to lose?”
The cover art for your book is enormously important and I’ve learned the hard way how vital it is to create a professional, eye-catching image. I’ve tried to ‘do it myself’ in the past and have suffered with lack-lustre sales in consequence. A lot of people tell me that my horror novel Earth Mother is one of my very best novels. But its sales have remained dismal and the only reason this should be so is that its cover is dull and uninteresting. I’m having it redone in a couple of weeks’ time and will share the results here then.
Good covers can cost money, and sometimes (as with the recent Damsels and the Dark Arts title) I’ll pay full price to get a really good artist to produce a work precisely to my specifications. But if the cover image has some room to manoeuvre, there are a great many artists offering their services on Fiverr, who will produce a very decent cover at a great price. A good cover will pay for itself, and these days you don’t need to pay through the nose for one.
Ultimately, there appear to be no secrets to writing success (provided you can write to begin with, of course) beyond hard work, perseverance and productivity. There’s no pot of gold to be found here as far as I can see, but I have managed to cut my day job back to a three day week (which is a good reward in itself) and face the very real prospect of becoming a full time writer in the not too distant future. My sales keep slowly but steadily rising and I keep producing new books.
I hope that this may have helped with some of the things to avoid, some of the things to do, and finding the best way forward.