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Oct
14
2013

Lessons Learned From My First Year of Indie-Publishing -- by Kelly Walker

I don't consider myself an expert. There are lots of people who know lots more than I do both about the craft of writing ( and about where to put commas and question marks ) and about publishing. But a year into my Indie journey, I do consider myself experienced.

I've learned a lot of things along the way, and because I wouldn't have learned nearly as much as I have if other people weren't willing to share their own experiences, I wanted to take some time and talk about my year, and what I've learned.

I'm not in the top bracket of self-publishers by any means, but I've just passed my 10,000th paid sale and I'm really happy with that for my first year.

If you would truly like to learn a lot about how the amazon algorithms work, steps you should take when self publishing, and very in-depth information on how different types of advertising work allow me to point you to a few of the books I've read over the last year. Each and every one of them has enlightened me and helped me shape my goals, and my process. Let's Get Visible, by David Gaughran (An indepth analysis of what works, what doesn't and why). CC's own Victorine Lieske's How to Find Success Selling Ebooks (A great beginner's guide). The Naked Truth About Self Publishing (This one is amazing for understanding all aspects of Self Publishing and really pushing to be successful) and 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron. (This one is really great for productivity, and overcoming writer's block.)


Currently, I have four full length novels, one short story, an omnibus and a novella out. My fifth novel is almost ready to go, and will release in about a month. All but one of my titles are YA Fantasy Romance, within one series. My most recent release is NA Contemporary Romance, and it is sort of stand alone.

I published Cornerstone September 30th, 2012. I sold nicely right out of the gate, because everyone who ever knew me thought it was cool, and about half of them bought a copy.

 

SALES TRENDS: My sales trends through releasing my books, using free, and after ads.


October 2012
I sold 48 books, and gave away about 1100 through KDP Select. At this point in time I had about 5 reviews, because I'd been querying bloggers for months about my upcoming release. I used Library Thing right away to try to pick up some reviews and those trickled in over a several month period. I also signed up for a GoodReads Read to review program, but they couldn't get to me until January. I didn't advertise my free run in advance, because I did it last minute.

November 2012
I sold 26 books, and gave away 9000. I was sort of frustrated. I'd expected to start small and build. I didn't expect to have my sales drop in half. Was I doing something wrong? I came to the conclusion that 47 of the 48 the month before probably knew me. My giveaway was at the tail end of the month, right around Black Friday and there was so much competition for shoppers eyes that I think this was a bad choice of timing on my part. I kept hope that I would see some return through KDP select the following month. I did advertise this free run. POI (Pixel of Ink) picked me up, and I bought an ad on Kboards. I still had about 5 reviews.

December 2012
I released my short story mid month — It was delayed because my editor missed her deadline. I'd wanted to have it out at the end of November. I sold 20 copies of the short story, and 87 copies of Cornerstone. I was on top of the world.

January 2013
A new year, a new plan. I left KDP select on January 1st and started putting my books on Smashwords, Kobo and Barnes and Noble. I sold a handful on Barnes and Noble, and then nothing there or anywhere else but Amazon in the later part of the month. Total sales for January were 80 of Cornerstone and 13 of my short story, Gifted Stone. Not an improvement, but at least it didn't go down much. Right?

February 2013
Bookbub! This month I had bookbub, and wow, what a difference. Some of you may look at these numbers and surmise that my sales wouldn't have taken off without bookbub, but while I think it was a great tool, I think having the second book in my series was a big factor as well. The way the algorithms favor books released within the last 30 days helps drag older, more connected books up in the system, and I think that was also at work here. I released Second Stone in February, and at the end of February I had a bookbub ad. Final Sales totals were 747—591 of those were Cornerstone. I was excited. That meant I was still due lots of sales on book 2 right? I also had an ad this month on Kboards to promote the second book. I saw a handful of sales from that.

March 2013
I had the ENT BOTD at the very beginning of the month, and it helped. But still sales weren't as high as I'd hoped. It was about this time that I realized when people buy books on the sale sites the stockpile them and rarely read them right away. I wouldn't be seeing the surge of book 2 that I'd expected—this also solidified my believe that the best way to capitalize on a sale of book one, is to tie it right in the product description with an incentive to buy book 2 right then — they might as well stockpile both. I sol 295 in march, and only 66 of them were of book 2.

April 2013
In April, I sold 157 books - 88 of them were of Second Stone, and then 37 of my short stories and 32 of Cornerstone. This told me that people were starting to read and enjoy the books, and they were buying the related products, finally. I was just about to get book 3 out, and I decide it was time to make Cornerstone free to support the series. Cornerstone went free on the last week of April and I gave away 7400 books.

May 2013
I released book 3 in May— it sold 66 copies, book 2 sold 122 copies, and the short story sold 59 copies. I also sold 16 copies of Cornerstone on the channels it wasn't yet free in. Finally, things were starting to sell! I made about $450 in royalties this month, keeping it on par with the bookbub month.

June 2013
I sold 500 Books in June and gave away 3800. I also released a novella this month, but it only accrued a handful of sales. By now I was firmly a cheerleader of perma-free. I earned about $1200, and it felt amazing.

July 2013
Without the benefit of a new release, I sold 345 books in July, for $850 in royalties. This helped drive the point home to me that frequent releases are key to keeping visibility. I gave away 4000.

August 2013
In August, I released my Omnibus, and I ran a bookbub for it. I sold 1900 copies of the omnibus, 182 of book 2, 154 of book 3, and 135 total between paid sales of the free book ( yes, sometimes it happens) and the side novella and short story, making 2374 total sales for the month, with 10,000 given away. I earned $3000, because about 1100 of those Omnibus sales were at 99 cents.

September 2013
Whirlwind month! I released my first book that isn't a part of my fantasy series.
I sold 4000 books, and earned about $4000. 3000 of the sales were of the new release. (I ran a sale for 99 cents mid month for the new release)

October 2013.

I sold 1500 books in the first week of this month, but 400 the second week The difference? My most recent release is no longer 99 cents. The royalties will be better, but I'm not doing as much volume, and now that the book has been out for a month I'm okay with that.

 

The choice of what feels like success is a very personal thing, and for me it is different with each book. With my series, I feel successful because it is consistently earning me a decent income now, but also because I can see that readers are invested in the series as they go on to buy more and more titles in the series. In some ways, I get happier when the related products sell, because I think those are the true fans, the ones who want to read everything and anything about the characters, rather than being content with the main storyline.

With my NA Contemporary, I wanted volume. I would love to be on the NYT Bestseller list some day, and I wanted the sames ranking for this particular book. No One's Angel hit the top 50 in Canada, the top 300 in the UK, the top 500 in Germany and the top 400 in the US. I feel really good about this, and it justified using the 99 cent price point--but only because it was in line with my goals.

I wouldn't have been able to meet any of those goals if others hadn't generously shared information with me and although I'm just a small fish in a very, very big pond, I think my data can help others too.

For the most part, I try a lot of things and see what works. But here are a few of the things I've done:

 

PLATFORM - Readers aren't going to come to you, not at first. I think one of the common mistakes authors make is thinking that they want to only surround themselves, on social media especially, with fans. It make senses to have your fans on your fan page, right? Wrong. Well, partially wrong. Sure you want fans on your fan page, but first, you need potential fans. As you release your first titles, you need a network of people unrelated to you to subtly market to.

The way I did this was by interacting with bloggers. I joined blog hops and events and I got involved. I love books, and I love to talk books, and I read the same genres I write, so hanging out with book bloggers who specialize in my genre was a blast, and I think it was very instrumental in some of my early momentum. Now, I think it is important to point out that I wasn't cramming my upcoming book in their face. No, not at all. I interacted with them as a reader, but because I was familiar to them, when I asked them to consider featuring my book, many of them were happy to agree. I can't stress this point enough though, you have to interact with them as a reader. Build friendships and get to know them, but be sincere about it.

Another thing I've really used to build my platform is hosting giveaways — including for other people's books that are similar to mine — by attracting the readers who like those books to my page, I attract potential readers for myself.

Facebook is one of the most frustrating yet powerful tools available right now, but it doesn't do any good if you're talking to an empty room. I've found that when I focus on posting things that are a bit more personal, and that aren't marketing, my readers engage, and that can have an exponential effect because of the facebook algorithms. Some of my understanding of facebook has come from a great chapter in a book called The Naked Truth About Self Publishing. I highly recommend it.

Twitter is much the same as facebook in that you don't want to be in your face, marketing constantly. My blog auto posts my posts to twitter, but otherwise, I spend a lot more time tweeting other people's stuff and just chatting than anything else.

There aren't enough hours in the day to write and to actively participate in all Social Media, but I believe it is important to be accessible where readers are already gathering. I focus on Twitter and Facebook, but my blog auto sends my stuff to tumblr and G+ — I don't get nearly as much out of those, since I don't do them actively, but I do respond if readers message me there.

I'm also an active user of GoodReads, and while Goodreads can be a very frustrating place, if you interact as a reader, you can get a lot of benefit out of it. Don't waste your time with the groups and areas that are about " Connecting authors with readers " Regular readers avoid those areas like they are cursed, because they are. They know that in those areas they are going to be spammed and solicited. If they want to interact with you as an author, they will see you out. Instead, interact as a reader, but always remember to be professional.

A good rule of thumb is that if you are going to readers on their home turf, you should interact as a reader who also happens to be an author. If they follow you back to your turf ( your social media ) you should interact with them as both an author and a reader.

The only people you should actively seek out interactions with as an author, are other authors. Which brings me to my next point:

NETWORKING — Networking with other authors has been a giant part of my success. I learn from them, and maybe they even learn a little bit from me. But we share data, and we cross promote, and we generally support each other. I do think it is important to network from areas that are focused on building people up, and sharing, because it is far too easy to fall into the trap of tearing each other down, and being too competitive. I'm not saying to only surround yourself with successful people, or that you need to try to ride the coattails of others, just don't congregate where the struggling authors gather to vent and complain — gather where the successful authors encourage and promote each others success, because you will get far more out of it.

Which brings me to another point — Don't spread yourself too thin. You can't be everywhere at once. Pick the social media you like, and focus on those. Find the forums or communities or author's groups that appeal to you, and forget the rest. For me, I hang out here on Kboards, and on Critique Circle, and with a private author's group I'm in. That's more than enough to keep up with.

Everything I've mentioned above is stuff you can start doing before you publish.

So I've talked about where to find potential readers, but haven't said much about how to actually sell to them, so let's discuss MARKETING.

MARKETING

I've tried several different forms of marketing. Most of them didn't work for me. Before you decide to DO marketing, I think you should first define your marketing goals--Some advertisers are great about building name recognition (Banner ads, facebook posts, interviews, blog tours) and some are more focused on impulse purchases--convincing readers to snatch up a bargain--(email marketing.)

Goodreads Giveaways - For me, these have been a great way to get a small amount of traction on GR. I think they worked better pre-release when Goodreads was still sending out emails to users when a book on their To Be Read list became available for purchase. I still think they work, and I think they should be a part of most launch strategies, because it is an expensive way to tell a lot of people that your book exists.

Direct Email Marketing Sites (Bookbub, Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink, BookBlast, FreeBooksy etc)
New sites like this pop up all the time, because it is a very profitable setup for everyone, if done right. The problem is that a lot of the new sites popping up are trying to duplicate the results of the successful giant, Bookbub. And that won't work, because readers don't need a new Bookbub. They already have Bookbub. I'm hesitant to give any recommendation on any of these, because they work well for some books, and not well for other books. What I will tell you is my data in the hopes that it might give you an idea of what to expect if your book is in a similar genre to mine.

Bookbub - I've used bookbub twice - Once for the first book in my series priced at 99 cents, right when the second one came out. This worked really well, and I sold about 600 books that week, between the two books. I also timed this ad to be right after I left KDP Select, and so my books were both considered new releases on Barnes and Noble, which gave me a lot of visibility on Barnes and Noble as a new release.
The Second time I used bookbub was this past summer, and I discounted my Omnibus to 99 cents for a few days, and I sold several hundred during the 99 cent sale, but more importantly, I sold several more hundred after going back to full price from the increased visibility. While I lost a lot of direct income from reducing to 99 cents, the exposure was financially worth it because of the increased volume.

A few months after my bookbub ad, right when I released my third book in my series ( not counting my short story ) I set my first book to free on all retailers. This has been the single best thing I've done for my sales. I absolutely believe that if you have a series, and you are indie, setting your first book to perma-free is the way to go. I went from selling 30-60 a month to selling 300-600 a month when I set book one free. I did this in May, and each month has gotten progressively better.

I also think making sure it is clear to readers that my series is a series, and that the main storyline is complete helps ( and I note this on my product page ) because it helps readers know they won't be left hanging, waiting for another book to come out.

Having my first book free opened up other marketing options for me.
I've tried Bookblast for both free books and 99 cent books, and while they were great for promoting my freebie, I didn't have any success with their bargain listing.

Kboards - Each time I've used the Kboards bargain book advertising I've broken even, but not much more than that.

I've also used Bargain Booksy and Freebooksy. I like them a lot, but I'm not sure if I would use them as anything other than a launch component for a paid book. I have had great results each time I've used them for free books, but for 99 cent books the cost outweighs the direct return- BUT if you are launching a new book, and trying to use multiple sources for ranking, to get visibility, they can definitely give you a push, and I've used them for exactly that.

Ereader News Today - I only sold about 125 of my YA Fantasy when I had the ENT Book of the Day back in early March— but it was only a week after my Bookbub for that same book, and I think there is a lot of crossover audience and I believe that contaminated my results. I used them again with a bargain book recently, that is contemporary romance instead of YA Fantasy, and I sold 124 books — Both situations were profitable, and I don't think you can go wrong if you manage to get a mention by them.

Promoted Facebook Posts - I generally promote a facebook post when I launch a book, sometimes multiple posts — this helps me build up my page, and it gets my book in front of more eyes. I think to do this effectively you really need to think about who you want to target. With my most recent release, I think I managed to create the perfect storm and it was very effective.
I promoted a post on facebook that I was giving away swag if people liked and commented on the post, which lets their friends see that they are liking and commenting, which drew in a larger audience. Within that post, I linked to my release giveaway on my website, where I was giving away a $50 amazon giftcard. That funneled people onto my site, and into my giveaway — and one of the giveaway options was to share my book's info, and also to tweet about the giveaway. Using this all in tandem I created a whirlwind of circular promotion that became self-feeding, and it definitely helped my early rankings.

One thing I wish I'd done from the beginning is setting up a mailing list. I haven't figured out a great way of building my mailing list, but I have a few ideas I'm playing with that I've seen others do successfully, including offering exclusive content.
I use mailchimp to host my mailing list because while they aren't the cheapest option once you list gets big, I like that they integrate well with facebook and my website, making management easy.

Blog Tours - I don't think blog tours directly sell books, unless you are mentioned on one of the really big blogs, but I do think they help build connections and familiarity and they plant seeds for word of mouth marketing. They can also help you gather reviews.

Cover Reveals - For me, my cover reveals have given me more direct return than my blog tours, because many of the blogs revealing the cover end up emailing me asking to review the book. It also gets people excited ahead of time, and I think people are more tempted to buy if you can build a sense of anticipation.

REVIEWS —

Reviews are a struggle for many, and many of the marketing sites depend on reviews to be effective.
I have used a few methods for getting reviews.
I query bloggers who like my genre.
I have used Library Thing to giveaway ecopies in exchange for review ( I generally get about 10-15 reviews for giving away 100 copies )
I'm also a NetGalley member, and that let's reviewers request my book to review. I also average about a 15-20% completed review rate for approved requests. Romance does well on Netgalley, but reviewers tend to be a bit more cynical and harsher than your average reader, so care needs to be taken when approving requests.
I also specifically ask for reviews in the back of my book

COVER DESIGN —

I switched my covers up a few months ago, to more actively convey the magic theme that is within my books, and I definitely noticed an uptick in sales. I also switched my contemporary romance cover to show very clearly that it is contemporary romance. I loved my previous covers, but putting aside personal preference, and thinking with my business hat, I could see that my covers weren't effectively communicating what my book was about. It is a hard thing to acknowledge, but a cover does not have to 100% demonstrate the story — You have a very brief window to catch a reader's attention with a cover, and you need to convey the title, genre, and theme. That's it. A cover shouldn't tell the story. It is the book's job to tell the story. The cover is advertising. Nothing more. It was H.M. Ward's posts on switching her covers that convinced me to revisit my own, and she said essentially the same thing. It doesn't matter how well your cover represents your book if it doesn't sell your book.

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS - The truth is, Self Publishing is a ripe industry, and many scam artists are waking up to that fact. Thoroughly vet anyone you do business with. There are bad designers, bad editors, and bad tour companies--there are jealous authors who will steer you wrong intentionally, and there are vindictive reviewers who react to perceived slights. A few simple rules have helped me. 1) Always be professional. 2) When making publishing decisions ( cover art, advertising, freelancer utlization) act like a publisher, not an author.  That goes both ways--it isn't personal if a service provider declines to work with you, just as it isn't personal if you decide they aren't right for you.

In closing, let me say thank you. My writing has greatly benefited from Critique Circle, and I owe part of my success to all the amazing feedback and encouragement I've received here. I'm looking forward to another great year.

Posted by Kelly Walker 14 Oct 2013 at 06:52
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Responses to this blog

Rox 14 Oct 2013 at 19:24  
Well said Kelly and thanks for sharing the info with us. And The Naked Truth About Self Publishing was very helpful. I got it the day it hit the market because Tina Folsom is one of my favorite indie authors. She advertised it on her FB page. But it was a great book and I'd reccomend it to anyone who is trying to take on self publishing.
Lawpilot 15 Oct 2013 at 19:34  
Thank you, Kelly. I am publishing my first novel through Createspace and Kindle in a couple weeks and am trying to learn the marketing side. I will read the books you suggest. Good luck with your writing and sales. Thanks again.
Breeze 18 Oct 2013 at 05:22  
Excellent, Kelly. I've sent a link to this post to my indie author friends. Thanks for sharing!
Johnlmonk 18 Oct 2013 at 07:00  
Amazing read, thank you
Pushpaw 24 Nov 2013 at 21:13  
This is great - thanks for posting it!
Brinabrady 17 Dec 2013 at 09:18  
Thank you for all the information. I plan to self-publish so this will help me.
Silasgrey 13 Jan 2014 at 22:17  
This was very informative, thank you. Bookmarked!
Sigrun (administrator) 18 Feb 2014 at 05:31  
I really liked this article and found it very informative. I've pinned it to my board on Pinterest so I have it handy when the time comes for me to self publish my own
Fsk 18 Feb 2014 at 21:48  
Thanks, CC and Kelly! Amazing, concise and helpful! I'm heading to Amazon to check out your work now?
Mhender668 3 Mar 2014 at 07:38  
I've looked at Bookbub, but I think it's expensive, and there is no guarantee (of course) that you will so much as break even. What do you think your net was from that, not counting follow-up sales?

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