Two years ago, after a long period of rejection from agents and publishers alike, I took the decision to self-publish my first novel, Dance with the Enemy. My life has changed immeasurably since. I’ve given up a high-flying career to pursue my dream of being a full time author (and a more recent dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter!). My Enemy series books have won critical acclaim from readers and bloggers across the world, and sales of those three books flew past 150,000 recently following the release of the third book in the series, Hunt for the Enemy, in February 2016.
I’m not sure whether I’d say I’ve ‘made it’ - for starters there are plenty of self-published authors who have sold WAY more books than I have - but I’m undoubtedly pleased with the steps I’ve made so far. As every self-published author knows; writing the book is one thing, getting it into the hands of readers is an altogether different beast.
So is there a winning formula for success? No. I don’t think so. But there are some tried and tested routes that can give you an edge. The biggest single piece of advice for any author is simple: NEVER GIVE UP.
But then it’s that tenacious quality that led many of us to self-publish in the first place, right? In any case, here are some of my own thoughts and snippets of advice as to how I went from 3,000 sales in April 2015, prior to my second book being published, to over 150,000 by April 2016:
Everyone knows that social media is important for indie authors, but few can really explain why, or how to use it to maximum effect. I’m certainly not suggesting that my approach has been perfect or without problems but it has made a difference. The key advice: Be interesting. Be personal. Be bold... I post on twitter every day but these days I only occasionally do directly promotional tweets. That said, when I was first building my social media profiles I was a big fan of direct messaging potential readers. Many authors think this is too ‘in your face’. Spamming. I don’t. Because I only ever messaged people who had already followed me, and I always personalised such messages.
Over a period of twelve months I built over 50,000 twitter followers by seeking out people who were already following other established authors. To every single one of the over 50,000 who followed me back I sent a personalised direct message. I made thousands of sales this way and I’m still in regular contact with many of these followers, and continue to send messages out to those I know are interested in my work whenever promotions come around. I say again, it’s a very personal approach, that showed direct results. The big problem? This method of building my follower base and generating interest in my work was taking anywhere from 3-5 hours every single day! Not sustainable long term, but for me I found it to be a great way of building early interest in my work when I really had no other sources of sales. When Dance with the Enemy was first published, I think the vast majority of my sales in those early weeks and months came from my tireless promotional work on social media. And you have to start somewhere. Plus I’ve got a great group of followers and readers now who I might otherwise never have met and who have already stuck with me through two further book releases.
Bloggers and reviewers
Everyone who has published an ebook knows of the importance of online book reviewers and bloggers. Not only do good reviews on websites such as Amazon help to boost your book’s visibility but many reviewers are influential in their own right. A positive post about your book on their website can lead to a ton of direct sales.
It takes time and effort and patience to build a list of reviewers for your books, though. In the build-up to the recent release of my third book, I felt I’d got a solid list of reviewers who I know liked my first two books and who received advance copies of the new book to help generate early interest. With hindsight, I think next time I need to try to get that list significantly bigger still. What I’ve realised is that some people will be tied up. Some may just have lost interest. Some may not actually like the new book! And really you’re up against big publishing houses who have people working full time on marketing and probably get hundreds of reviewers together for a new release. Even though I think my list of reviewers was too small to compete with that, it’s still taken me until book three to even get the level of contacts I have. And it’s certainly a time consuming process bringing all those people together at the same time.
How do you find reviewers? Twitter, Facebook, Google. They’re out there, you just have to find them and contact them. Many who I’ve contacted over the last two years have declined to review my books - too busy or not interested in my style of writing or simply they hadn’t heard of me. That’s fine. But there’s no harm in asking. Offering to do guest blogs is also a great way to get their interest and helps to broaden the reach further.
For a number of years a tried and tested method for boosting ebook sales (both for self-publishers and the big traditional publishing houses too) has been a price promotion; reducing an ebook to 99p or even offering it for free.
But simply dropping the price won’t do much on its own. Key to success is in marketing the price drop. If done right this can lead to a huge boost in sales. There are many websites set up for this very purpose (not to mention paid advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Google, which is a subject deserving of a blog in itself!). Bookbub is the most well known price promotion website, with the biggest audience, but also the hardest to get selected for.
It was through running two Bookbub-led promotions, where I reduced the price of Dance with the Enemy and then Rise of the Enemy to free, over one weekend each, that my sales in the US jumped from about 5 copies a week to 300 copies a DAY! Not only does this get you high up in the online charts (hence more visibility), but you also get linked to other high volume books due to the way Amazon’s algorithms work, (e.g. via the ‘also bought’ functions). Because of this my sales (particularly in the US) have stayed at a level way above those pre-Bookbub days even some months after, and I now regularly schedule promotions for my books, working many weeks in advance to make sure they are set up for properly for maximum impact.
The real holy grail for authors looking to build a career is making sure readers stick with you in the long term. This is where the email list comes in, allowing direct marketing of promotions and new releases to subscribers. But building that list, converting readers to email subscribers, can be very hard to do.
Advertising the list inside books and on my website is just the start, helping build the list organically. These people are my core fans. But offering incentives gets others to join too. Free content (teasers of new material, short stories, or even a full ebook for free) and giveaways are the most common method to achieve this and I’ve tried all of those with some moderate success.
I see building a list as being all about the future - growing an audience over time with each new release. But then, in order for it to count, there is one very important thing to remember: you have to keep writing and publishing books! And with all the time a self-published author spends marketing and promoting, just when the hell are you supposed to do that?!
But then as one famous author said: ’Nobody has time to write a book. Some people just do it anyhow.’
This post - now updated - was originally developed for Clink Street Publishing’s March 2016 New Edition magazine. Take a look here for further information on this publication.