A year before I finished my first book, Storytellers, I still had delusions that as a “real” (i.e. traditionally published) author I would sit in my log cabin in the woods producing masterpieces, then hand them to other people, who would then make me rich and famous. Once I found out that agents expected me to already have a large following on social media, marketing budgets were for important authors, and – this is a quote – the publisher’s interns might send copies of my books to reviewers, the decision made itself.
Without a publisher, I was the one who had to pay the editor, the proofreader, buy the cover photo (I designed the covers and interiors myself), create a website, and so on. The first book, I read and heard over and over, would be an investment. It wouldn’t make me rich. It probably wouldn’t break even. I set my expectations low, safe in the knowledge that I had no agent or publisher who could drop me for low sales. I said goodbye to my savings and hello to my book-baby.
When 13 months later I shared with my writing group that I broke even on the day I sold my 1000th book, they asked about my “marketing secrets”. I had no secrets. I figured things out by trial and error. Mostly error.
Here are my mistakes…
I asked my friends and family to beta-read Storytellers. One friend never spoke to me again. (I’m not joking.) The rest felt compelled to be nice. All I got out of it, except for praise, were a few very gentle, careful suggestions. One of my friends dared to admit that she had found a part of the book unclear. I tried to explain it to her directly, forgetting that I won’t be able to do so with each reader once the book is out. I decided to ignore the remark, effectively wasting my reader’s time, only to have it repeated later by my editor.
I also found a reader who was the opposite of too nice. I told them that I was very good with constructive criticism. They saw it as a challenge and punched randomly at everything, until I felt so horrible that I begged them to stop helping me. The answer I got was “I was going to say something nice at the end”. I spent months recovering from all that help. Needless to say, very little of it could have been described as “constructive”.
Wrong cover design
People absolutely judge the book by the cover. I know, because I do it myself. A possible masterpiece with a default Amazon-generated cover tells me the author doesn’t care for their book much. Why would I care then? I move on. There are literally millions of books available to me and there are only eighty-five hours in a day.
Graphic designers not specialised in book covers are not a good choice. I know that, because when I designed my original cover it was very pretty and said nothing about the book’s genre. With the second attempt, even more designer-y, I briefly killed my sales (I sold one copy, which is now a collectors’ item). When I gave up – that’s how it felt – and went with typefaces used on the covers of successful books in my genre, my sales not just returned, but tripled. The small Amazon thumbnail is now enough to make readers click through – they know what to expect.
Indie debuts don’t get press, unless we really make it big. In order to make it big, or even small, we have to find someone willing to give us exposure. The book bloggers are worth their weight in gold for us. Each of them has their requirements and preferred genres. Some have forms to fill, some – template emails. I found that contacting each blogger separately made me more anxious than finding a spider in my glass of water. All I could think of was that I must get something wrong. I needed valium once after sending an email I spent hours crafting and the moment I clicked “Send” anxiety punched me in the belly, telling me I just RUINED EVERYTHING.
A blog tour service was a lifesaver. Those services are paid, because organising that tour is work – work that I don’t have to do myself, saving me tons of time and sparing my nerves. The organiser contacted the bloggers for me and they decided whether to pick the book, because it sounded like something they might like. This didn’t mean they would like it or that their reviews would be positive. The only thing the organiser guaranteed was that if there were negative reviews, they would get posted after the tour ended. Out of 30 bloggers who took part in my tour, 29 posted on schedule. One chose to post later. I wasn’t paying for great fake reviews (there’s a name for doing that and it’s not “a blog tour”).
I thanked each blogger for their time and work, whether the review was enthusiastic, or a “well, I guess this wasn’t too bad, but…” one. Book blogging is unpaid work. If the blogger reads a book and finds it average (or worse), that’s hours or days of their life they will never get back. Just because they got a free e-book I normally sell for $4.99, it doesn’t entitle me to anything. If my book takes 10 hours to read, that’s fifty cent per hour, not counting the time the blogger will spend writing the review. The only work I can think of that pays less is unpaid internship.
The blogger reviews, or ones where the readers tag me on Twitter, are the only ones where I interact with the reviewer – to say “thank you” and either “I’m so glad you liked the book!” or “sorry the book didn’t work for you”. At the beginning I spent way too much time on Goodreads, shaking with excitement and terror, liking the positive reviews or just saying “thanks”, until I realised something. I post reviews there as well. I don’t always gush over the book. If I were to post a not- really-great review and the writer would respond, I’d freak out. I am extremely grateful to everyone who takes time to write even one sentence, even if that sentence is “did not finish, died of boredom on page 100”… and I never engage.
Blurb is not a synopsis
The original Storytellers blurb was, well, a synopsis. It took me way too long to realise what I do as a reader when I encounter a blurb like this from an author I don’t know – I go “OK” and move on. I feel sufficiently informed. (This only applies to fiction, of course.) The current blurb asks questions, starting with one addressed to the reader. (“Would you…”) It continues to sell my books as the traditional publishers complain about their income dwindling.
Amazon’s e-book pages only display the first four lines of the blurb. In order to find out more, the potential reader needs to – well – click “read more”. I have very little space to hook that reader. My original first four lines were a summary of the book’s first chapter. I, myself, wouldn’t bother clicking “read more”. I suppose that the advice here would be “read your own blurb and ask yourself if you’d buy this book”.
I recommend Adam Croft’s Writing Killer Blurbs and Hooks here. I think it paid for itself within two days.
I tried Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, my own website, and a mailing list. It turned out that the only thing I like about Instagram is looking at others’ posts. I don’t have new visuals to post even every week, much less every day or every few hours. Pinterest isn’t really my thing – I know that’s where my target audience hangs out (it’s handy to know who your ideal reader is), but I don’t. YouTube requires me to film myself and I’m allergic to my face. It shows.
Before the book came out, I had very little to say. The advice to build a mailing list before publishing anything only frustrated me, although it was really nice of ten of my friends to sign up. I posted about my progress on Facebook and my blog. I filmed a few visual newsletters about nothing much. The only thing I achieved was boring my ten friends to death.
I’m active on Twitter, and by “active” I mean “interactive”. A pinned tweet with the link to my book has proven to be a very handy marketing tool, because other writers or readers can easily click “retweet” and share it with their audience, and if someone wants to buy my book the link sends them straight where they need to be. It took me half a year and advice from a much more experienced writer to understand this.
Of course I wanted to see preorders and first day/week sales. I told all my friends. (Many times.) Unfortunately, most of them actually have very different tastes, which was how I ended up with Tina Fey, Allie Brosh, and Jenny Lawson (all of them amazing) in my Amazon recommendations. Amazon then sent emails to other Jenny Lawson readers, who had no interest in historical fiction, didn’t click, and so my book disappeared from the mailings.
It took me months of paid advertising to get those also-boughts in order. It was worth it, eventually, but I could have spared myself the work and the spending by targeting similar books and authors first.
Most of the advice I read told me not to advertise the first book, except for the advice that told me to put all of my earnings into advertising that book.
I didn’t start advertising until I understood the importance of the also boughts. I spent more on the ads than I earned in return, but my sales slowly picked up as Amazon started including my book in their mailings again and this time paired it with relevant titles. I am writing this in September 2020 and I haven’t used paid advertising in months. The book continues to sell.
I could do much better
I could send my monthly newsletters every month instead of every six months. (This is embarrassing.)
I could be a BookTuber and a Bookstagrammer and I don’t even know what else, because that’s how great I am with social media.
I could write faster and publish more books (Storytellers went through 21 rewrites over 26 months and Children, my second book, through 29 rewrites over 16 months, and apart from the money aspect I don’t think that’s healthy, but it turns out that I am a tortured Artisté after all).
I could have figured out my audience before publishing the book, and not after I noticed that out of the 50 reviews I had, 47 or so were left by women.
I could… except apparently I couldn’t. I made all the mistakes above, more I didn’t mention, and even more that I don’t even know yet I am making. Everything that worked for my first book may completely fail when it comes to the second.
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