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Mar
7
2016

Indie Publishing: My Success Came Slowly -- by Carol Ervin

I never thought success would happen to me, and to be truthful, I just wanted to see my book in print. When I decided to publish on my own, I thought I’d learned enough from forums, blogs, and books to equal a bachelor’s degree in independent publishing. Still, I felt I was exposing myself as an idiot, that day in 2012 when I hit the “publish” button on the Kindle Direct Publishing website. Three years later, I think I’ve surely accumulated enough knocks to equal a Ph.D.

The decision to do it myself

The Girl on the Mountain had been through several rounds of critiques in public and private queues here on CC. I had excellent crit partners and acquired a helpful editor. I wasn’t getting any younger (in 2012 I was 72) and didn’t think I could wait years for agents and publishers to decide the book wasn’t right for them. I thought it might be right for somebody. Turned out it was, but not immediately, at least not for significant numbers of readers.

Early approval kept me going

However, a few early signs of approval meant a lot, first from Hugh Howey, to whom I sent a link to the first chapter on my blog. (To be clear, I don’t know Hugh, but we’d exchanged a few emails about writing.) I got the shakes when he responded enthusiastically. He asked if I wanted him to tell his agent about it and I actually said “No, I’m having too much fun doing this myself.” He said he’d try to “put some eyes on it.” He mentioned it to some of his fans and that day my webpage had more than 200 hits. That night I had a hard time sleeping. Could my little story really be a success?

The second wave of encouragement came from friends and family who rushed to buy ebooks and the print version after I placed copies in local stores. I got a few nice notes and calls from acquaintances I hadn’t seen in years, and later messages from people I didn’t know.

No money for two years

That was all exciting, though the first full year I probably earned less than $500 and did not begin to repay the editing and cover expenses. I’d initially priced the ebook at $4.99, but when sales slumped after the initial rush, I lowered the price to $0.99 for the summer. Even at that price, I sold almost no copies. 

Meanwhile, sharing ideas about marketing with other indie authors like CC’s tiaclare (Rachelle Ayala) lindymoon (Lindy Moone), rwemad (Bob Summer) and other indies kept life interesting. When I shared the cover on a CC forum, comments led me to a new designer, Victorine E. Lieske.

Creating the series took less time

I hadn’t intended to make this novel the start of a series, but because it ended without telling how everyone lived happily ever after, I was encouraged to continue. The Girl on the Mountain is historical fiction, set in 1900 in a mountain logging town, and does not feature significant events or important historical persons. I think of it as “period fiction” because it shows how people were affected by the economy, culture and setting of the time. It is both a character and plot-driven story, and judging from reader responses, those features and the historical setting are responsible for its appeal.

Though the first book was about five years in the making, I published a sequel (Cold Comfort) the next year. Then in 2014 I published the third in the series (Midwinter Sun) plus something different, a science/fiction dystopian novel (Dell Zero). My fifth publication was Ridgetop, the remake of a story that had been in the drawer for about ten years.

The sequels were easier to write since I had already established the characters and to some extent, the historical setting. I also bundled the series and made an audiobook of The Girl on the Mountain. Writing was my full-time job.

When sales took off

Selling books is all about visibility. Someone has to see your book to buy it, and it’s hard to be seen in the ocean of books without money spent for advertising. Amazon, however, has a few tools that help. For one, you get visibility when Amazon shows another book with the phrase “people who bought this (title) also bought (your title).”

Except for a few early trials on other sales channels, I have kept most of my ebooks exclusively at Amazon in order to be part of the Select (Amazon Prime and later Kindle Unlimited) program. Select initially offered authors the opportunity to make their books free for up to five days. In the early days, offering free ebooks was the best way to earn Amazon visibility and reviews.

In December of 2013 I decided to take advantage of a new promotion available to authors in Select, the Countdown Deal. In my first three-day promotion I sold 200 copies of The Girl on the Mountain with no email ads, and the next month (January 2014) my royalties jumped to $221. Throughout 2014 I scheduled a Countdown Deal each quarter and saw sales rise after each promotion.

A Perfect Storm

In July of 2014, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited (KU), a subscription service that allowed readers to borrow an unlimited number of ebooks from the titles enrolled in Select. KU readers doubled my numbers, which also meant increased visibility. I was excited to see earnings of $1,000 a month!

For me, the Countdown Deals plus Kindle Unlimited and the fact that I now had a series combined to create a perfect storm of visibility.

My sales for January 2015 totaled more than $6,000 (January of the previous year totaled $221). I couldn’t believe it. In March of 2015 I promoted The Girl on the Mountain with a BookBub (email advertising) feature. The monthly income thereafter was exciting, then slowed over the summer. I’m now trying to rebuild with a variety of promotions. 

Results may not be typical

As they say in the weight-loss ads, these results may not be typical. I know a number of fine writers who have tried the same tactics without lasting effect. I know that free promotions no longer create visibility or boosts your book’s Amazon rank, though it is useful for getting reviews. Recently my Countdown Deals have not resulted in a higher trail of sales. Other forces must be at work.

The ebook industry is more crowded and competitive than ever, with many taking advantage of the easy path to publishing offered by Amazon. Traditionally-published authors are now using the promotions that were previously dominated by indie authors. It’s harder and harder to get accepted for a BookBub feature, for example.

The one that’s not selling

I have one book that may be typical of the works of many indie authors, meaning it doesn't sell as well, in spite of the fact that it had a couple of promotions, good podcast and e-zine reviews, and early readers predicted it would be the one to make me a best-selling author!

When I wrote the dystopian Dell Zero I hoped readers of my historical series would “cross over,” because Dell Zero is not hard-core science fiction. That didn't happen. Recently I changed the cover and title and took it out of Amazon Select in order to make it available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble and other sales channels. I’ve advertised this book more than any other, and maybe it will gain traction over time. Recently Lindy Moone created a more appealing cover, and I've been encouraged to make this the start of another series. 

Looking back, I should have written a fourth and fifth in the historical series instead of breaking away to try different genres and styles, but hey, I'm an "independent" author, and I've enjoyed every step. I've been blessed to find CC and my brilliant and faithful indie author friends. 

As so many say at the end of CC critiques, I hope something here will be helpful to you. Good luck in your publishing endeavors, and thanks for reading!

My Author Page on Amazon

Posted by Carol Ervin 7 Mar 2016 at 02:53
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Responses to this blog

Demonqueen 7 Mar 2016 at 05:25  
That's a really great insight, Carol. Thanks for sharing. And it re-iterates the fact that success doesn't happen in a bang, but perseverence and belief in your product can win out.
Breeze 7 Mar 2016 at 07:09  
Thanks, Demonqueen. I've also learned (from stories of others) that traditional publishing has its ups and downs. You're right, perseverance is key.
Carlobos 7 Mar 2016 at 07:18  
Carol -sounds like me, except without the success. Otherwise, everything you said applies. I've just joined CC, so hoping that I might get feedback on the second of my series. Yes, like you, I never intended to write a series and here I am. I have saved your post as I will be rereading it over the next months. Meanwhile, my bank account drains as fast as I put words on the page (screen). Looking forward to hearing more about you.
Tolumike 7 Mar 2016 at 13:22  

Sorennield 7 Mar 2016 at 14:30  
awesome

Dorice 7 Mar 2016 at 15:51  
Thank you for sharing this information. I am a newbie but blogs like this can help me learn a lot about the industry.
Congrats on your success.
Cheers

Breeze 7 Mar 2016 at 15:55  
Carlobos - As I said in the piece, CC was a wonderful training ground. You'll find varied styles and opinions, and will sometimes you will have to decide which ones are appropriate to your work. It's like the real world—not everybody likes the same things. So keep at it, and best of luck.
Kikitsa 7 Mar 2016 at 18:46  
Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights here with us! I love this behind-the-scenes glimpse into the realities of self-publishing and delighted to hear of your success after a slow start. I'm early in writing a series myself and far from making decisions about publishing right now, but it's a tough call for me to decide whether to pursue the traditional vs self publishing route. There's pros and cons to each, and both are really valuable. Your information here helps paint the realities of self publishing as well as its potential.

Happy writing!
Trevose 7 Mar 2016 at 21:37  
Good info. Thanks for sharing!
__________________
Zintrigue 8 Mar 2016 at 18:55  

Zintrigue 8 Mar 2016 at 19:12  
This is an interesting blog to me. I'd been considering the best way to get published for some time. Sure, income would be nice, but like every other starry eyed writer I want to hold my finished book in my hand. I want to connect with people.

Kindle was an option I was considering if none of the publishers I query are interested. I'll bookmark this and use your wisdom wisely. thank you.

-Zin
Alexandra 10 Mar 2016 at 22:21  
Thanks for sharing your story. It's interesting, realistic and inspires hope (in me, at least). I hope Dell Zero breaks for you, but if it doesn't, you have plenty to be proud of.
Breeze 11 Mar 2016 at 06:38  
Alexandra — thanks for that star! Good luck to you.
Vkkerji 14 Mar 2016 at 07:05  
Thank you for sharing this vital information. Most of us have read about Kindle Unlimited subscription and Author's Select option of enrollment, but haven't come across any practical benefits associated with it. Your suggestion to write series and try out different genres is quite motivating. Thank you again!
Breeze 14 Mar 2016 at 11:52  

Jkang 14 Mar 2016 at 14:28  
Thanks for sharing this info!
Cheeno 14 Mar 2016 at 16:12  
You're a fine example, Carol, of what it takes to not only get yourself out there, but to persevere and continue to push your work through the smoggy haze of indie publishing. It continues to delight me to see you doing so well.
Breeze 15 Mar 2016 at 03:31  
Thanks Cheeno, for being my crit partner through all those early drafts. You're the best.
Captnandy 8 Apr 2016 at 00:02  
I'm another late bloomer at 72. When I retired from my 4th career in 2010, I dusted off a novel I started in 1990. I had gone through an initial attempt to find an agent in 94 & was discouraged by the scammers who were sure they could get it published, assuming I would front the cash for some necessary actions that only they could provide. One reputable agent did read it & liked it, but since I was an unpublished author, not a sports figure or an entertainer, or otherwise not famous, it would not be worth his time to attempt to sell it to a reputable publisher. The book, BB-39 went back on the shelf. When I pulled it off the shelf, the ability to self publish was a reality, & I published BB-39 in July of 2011. Since then I have self-published a 5 SF novella series, a POD collection of that series (Coastal Event Memories), POD & audio versions of BB-39, & an eBook SF novel. I have been reluctant to spend the time & money in promotion of my books instead of continuing writing, & sales have been scattered. This January I have reached my goal of writing a million words, and my craft is much improved. I took the less than glowing reviews to heart and revised where needed and issued second editions. I also recognized that unless I spent more money & time, my work will likely never get to critical mass in the marketplace. I plan to attempt to use an agent to sell the next three books I have in the pipeline.
This blog, and others I have recently uncovered have encouraged me that is an achievable goal. I understand that previously published work is a hard sell, but those books do provide a reference. If a future book is a success, then that publisher may a want to pick up some of the self-published books.

Thanks again for this blog.

A,G, Kimbrough

Breeze 9 Apr 2016 at 01:01  
captnandy,

Good for you (taking reviews to heart). I've found many levels of readers and reviews, like the one I received that said "My five year old could of wrote a better book"—but each review is nevertheless a reader's reaction, and some of them are helpful. I also think that writers who haven't had the benefit of a professional editor might have greater success if they unpublished and hired an editor for a tune-up. A well-edited book could also have a better chance with an agent. Best of luck to you - Carol
Chrissygra 18 Aug 2016 at 11:58  
Your story is my story. But us indies can do it!

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