- Overview of the Five Secrets Every Indie Author Should Know
- Top Craft Reasons That Get a Book Bad Reviews or Not Even a Look
- Think Like a Publisher
- Distribute Widely
It takes Time
This section is excerpted from DIY Publishing by Maggie Lynch, Chapter 1
Many first time authors have the mistaken belief that once their novel or non-fiction book is published readers will flock to buy it. This is a natural expectation because authors spend months, or even years, creating their book. Frequently, authors have received positive feedback on the book. Sometimes the book has finaled in or won writing competitions. All of these are nice, but do not guarantee sales.
Literary and publishing news articles extol the virtues of those few authors who made it big with their first book: Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, John Locke and a few others. This leads to new authors entering the self-publishing arena with high expectations of sales.
When the expected high sales don’t appear within the first two to three months, the new author becomes despondent. She adds up the sales and realizes all the copies were likely sold to family and friends. In other words, sales did not go beyond her immediate network. I often hear from authors at this point who had set high expectations not only for themselves, but for those in that network. This leads to several uncomfortable conversations similar to the fictionalized scenario below.
“How is your book doing?”
She pastes a smile on her face. “Fine. Not as well as I hoped, but it’s doing fine.”
“That’s great. When do we see it made into a movie?”
She struggles not to choke on her strained chuckle. “It won’t be made into a movie. I’m not popular enough for that.”
“Oh.” The friend backs up a step. “When will the next book be out? Have you started it yet?”
“I’m not quite sure when it will be out. It’s moving along.”
It isn’t exactly a lie. She knows what the next book is about…mostly. She has the characters in her head. Just because she hasn’t actually started writing doesn’t mean she’s lying. Right? She’ll start it after she finishes with all this promotion. She’s certain that one more ad, or getting a few more likes on her Facebook page will make a difference. How can she write when she has to do all this selling?
In the mean time desperation grows. That is when some writers begin investing in advertising, blog tours, nagging friends and other authors for Facebook likes and Amazon reviews. When that fails, the author plans special events that relate to her book. Instead of writing that next book, every writing hour is spent in desperate promotion, or with a nice tub of ice cream and chocolate cake to soothe the depression.
I know one author who spent over a thousand dollars to set up a cooking demonstration in hopes that it would draw people to purchase her unique mystery novel that had a sous chef as the protagonist. It did help her sell approximately eleven print books that day, among the forty people who attended the demonstration. Her profit for the day was approximately $40. However, her expenses were over a thousand dollars to rent the room for several hours, and to purchase all the ingredients needed for the cooking demonstration. In other words, the return on investment was not good.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual occurrence. I have seen authors expend an entire year, or more, trying to sell their first book. When I would ask the author about the next book, the response would usually be: “I’m not going to start the next book until the sales on this one are better. I don’t want to waste my time if my books aren’t going to make money.” This author is counting on that first book to make money and build their audience so that the second book’s sales cycle will be easier.
These same authors spend money on advertising in major magazines and websites, do blog tours, plan special events, and spend all their writing time on social media trying to gain more Twitter friends or Pinterest followers, or any number of other types of fans. By the end of the year they still have only one book written, and find that perhaps they made another $100 for all this effort and expense.
Please do not become one of these authors. This new world of publishing is based on your long game, not your short game. It is one of building word-of-mouth and creating a readership for your next book and your next. It is not unusual to take three or four years to build a substantial readership and backlist to create the engine you need for making money consistently.
Certainly, some small amount of promotion is needed. However, you cannot promote yourself onto bestseller lists. As an unknown person, without a platform—meaning you are not a celebrity or an expert in the field and already have a following—the odds are stacked against you making it big on your first book or your third or your eighth. This has always been the case. It is not new to self-publishing. Ask the hundreds of mid-list authors in traditional publishing how long it took to make enough money to sustain themselves.
Whether traditionally published or self-published, every new book provides another opportunity for readers to find you and for the word-of-mouth to grow. If readers like one of your books they go back and look at what else you have written and buy those too. In series, some readers won’t buy the books until the entire series is done. With every new book you publish, the totality of sales is higher. With only one book, or even two, you are leaving your career to the one thing you have no control over—luck.
I correspond with a lot of authors who had been published by large New York publishing companies in the past and have now turned to self-publishing. Some have been self-publishing for only a year, others for three or four years. The majority of those authors indicate that it is somewhere between their fifth and eighth published book where they begin to see significant money. That is especially true if the author is writing in a single genre; and may happen even faster when the author completes a series. The best thing you can do with your limited time is to write and publish another book, and another, and another.
If your book doesn’t sell, it could be due to a lot of things: the quality of the writing, the quality of the editing, the price, the cover, the category, the metadata, the time of year it was released. Or it could be none of these.
Just as with traditional publishing, some very good books don’t get discovered or don’t sell well. Every editor in New York has books she acquired that she was certain would sell well and didn’t. No one knows why. It just happens. On the other hand, every editor also has at least one book that got away. The one she did not acquire because she thought it was too generic, not well written, or the genre was dead. A few of those books became bestsellers. In the same way a self-published book occasionally becomes a bestseller and surprises everyone, including the author.
What makes a book sell well that everyone turned down? Why did J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel get turned down by so many publishers? Why does a book that every editor loves not sell well? Most people say the answer is luck and timing. Two things you can’t control.
In self-publishing, the things you can control prior to making your book available are the writing, editing, price, cover, metadata, and release schedule of additional books. I will talk about all of these throughout this book. Once a book is published and the public can buy it, the best thing an author can do is to move on and give it time to find its readers. Control what you can, but don’t try to buy luck.
My Sweetwater Canyon series—contemporary romance that borders on women’s fiction—is one example of the time it takes to find a readership. In 2012 I published the first book in the series, Undertones. I already had two other romance novels in my backlist. Their sales were paltry in spite of ads, book tours, and social media promotion. Each was a stand-alone novel. Undertones had won several writing awards prior to publication. In spite of wide distribution, I failed to get many reviews. Though the few reviews I did get were good, there simply were not enough for anyone to take notice. When the second book in the series, Healing Notes, came out in 2013, I again did a blog tour and this time half the ads I did before. The second book garnered more reviews, but still not a lot. The reviews were all good. Interestingly, I began to see more sales, even though I was not doing as much social networking or advertising.
I noticed that when people did purchase the second book they went back and purchased the first in the series as well. On top of that, some of them also purchased one or both of the previous two titles. My sales from year-to-year tripled. This year, the final two titles in the series are coming out, Heart Strings and Two Voices. Based on what happened with the second book I anticipate sales to be significant for these. However, note that by the time these are released, I will have published a total of six romance titles.
Over the past two years there have been a number of studies undertaken (RWA, Bowker, and Smashwords are some of the most recent studies) to uncover the most lucrative devices to propel a book into higher sales. Everyone wants to know the secret, including major publishing companies. Making it free? Using Amazon KDP Select? Getting more Facebook likes or Twitter followers? Creating a great book trailer to post on YouTube? Getting pull quotes from your friend, who happens to be a NYT bestselling author? Hiring a public relations firm?
It turns out all of these options have little correlation to sales, and only one (free books downloaded by thousands of readers) had any correlation to discoverability. The only method that has shown any direct correlation to actual book sales is writing and publishing more books—particularly more books within a series or at least in the same genre. New York Publishers have known this for decades. That is why they have always advised authors to stick to one genre. That is why they like to sign series contracts. In the past three years, that is also why they will often hold a series back from publication until you have the entire trilogy, or the first three books in the series completed. Then it can be released back-to-back, one a month. This has proven lucrative and gains readers faster.
This is not to say you can only write in one genre, or that you should only write series. However, each decision you make about what to write, how many books to write each year, how many books to release, and how many pen names you use has a potential impact on sales. Each time you release another title it increases your chances for more readers to discover your books. Every time you release a new title, and someone likes that book, the reader will tell her friends and go back and look for all the other books you have written. Each time that new reader finds books in the genres and styles she likes, it keeps you on her radar for more books. She might even sign up for your newsletter to make sure she always knows what you write next.
If you wrote a book last year, and have spent all your time on promotion, what happens when that reader goes to find another book from you? The answer is NOTHING happens. And when/if you finally get around to writing that next book a year or two away, that reader has forgotten you and needs to wade through the plethora of available books to find you again.
How many titles do you need to make it big? There is no hard and fast rule. I’ve heard numbers such as eight books or twelve books, but there is no guarantee. I’ve watched some savvy authors not put up any books until they have three or more. This guarantees an instant backlist. Other authors will put up books one at a time, but only a few months apart. These authors often do not expend any energy on promotion until they have three or more books available. They do not follow the next big idea for how to increase sales. Doing only print? Doing only ebooks? Bundling them together? What about a new social media platform? Tumblr? Instagram? Group blogs? Single blogs? You can drive yourself crazy with this stuff.
Yes! The good news is you don’t have to be a New York Times or USA Today bestseller to make decent money. If you have enough books, and each one is selling a little bit every month, it adds up to good money. If you can capitalize on reusing the same work—selling print and ebook and audiobook, perhaps a short story too—then the returns are even greater.
I ran a recent forecast spreadsheet for a ten year period with what I considered were very conservative numbers. I looked at an author producing three novels per year at an average word count of 65,000 words. I ran the spreadsheet first with ebook only sales. Then added print sales to the ebook sales, and finally audiobook sales to the ebook sales. It is very encouraging.
Ebook Only. In this scenario, the assumptions are the author is publishing three new ebooks every year for ten years. The spreadsheet assumed the author was selling one ebook per month in the first year. In each subsequent year, the author is selling one ebook per month for each title. The retail price per book is $4.99, and the commission is figured at 65%. This takes into account all the different venues that are lower than Amazon’s current 70% payment.
I can already hear someone saying: “But one of my books doesn’t sell an ebook every month.” Yes, that does happen, but then a different book will sell two or three books that month. The one book per month, per title, is a starting point, and certainly nowhere near bestseller status.
At the end of ten years, this author will have published 30 titles and made a cumulative income of $133,920. At the ten-year mark, if the author is still only averaging one sale per month for each of those 30 titles her annual income in year ten is $36,781.
Now that is a decent income, and among those thirty titles the author has many more chances for one or more to break out and make even more money. Be aware that under this scenario, the author needed to sell 28 titles before crossing my $30,000 per year threshold.
Ebooks and Print Books. Now let’s capitalize on those same three books per month by not limiting the author to ebook sales only. In the second scenario, the author is selling one ebook per month and one print book per month. This assumes a print book retail price of $15. But after costs to the author, the sales commission averages $3 per book. At the end of ten years, the author has a cumulative income of $257,806 without writing any additional words. And she is is making $70,801 as her annual income in year ten. That should be enough to convince you to always have a print book and an ebook for sale. With this scenario the author crosses over the $30,000 per year mark at 23 books in inventory. That is part way through year seven.
Ebooks, Print Books, and Audio Books. This is maximizing income opportunities with the same number of words. The author is still writing only three books per year. But now she is selling those three books in three different ways. With the same assumptions, each book is selling only one ebook, one print book, and one audio book per month. Now, at ten years the total cumulative income is $367,933. At the ten-year mark, the annual income is $101,419. The author crosses over the $30,000 threshold part way through year six at about the 19th book.
This is the long game. This is patience. This is choosing production over promotion. Want to make money faster? Up your production and resell the same words in different formats.
I end here with a great quote from Diana Love, a New York Times bestselling author with both traditionally published books and self-published books. She was responding to an article by Barbara Vey for Publisher’s Weekly, about what happens after the first book is published.