Under Ordshaw has just hit 1,000 sales, which is amazing. Yet the thought that 1,000 people were generous enough to pay for the book both floors me and comes tinged with a little regret. It was released just over 3 years ago now and I’ve spent all that time fumbling about marketing it, which can feel disheartening: the work I’ve put in hasn’t exactly produced a reward in kind. I think it’s a journey worth talking about, not just to celebrate what is still a great milestone, but to discuss issues of expectations, practicalities and realities in self-publishing.
The Old “Plan to Succeed”
I mostly write the Ordshaw series for my own enjoyment, with the side goal of incredible commercial success, bling and fame coming second. With that in mind, I set out to write something that appealed to me personally, rather than was aimed at the market. Surprisingly, Under Ordshaw wasn’t an off-the-shelf phenomenon, and it feels like I had to fight for every one of those 1,000 sales.
Now Businessman Phil knows that any good product should be driven by numbers. You should aim to sell whatever has the greatest chance of maximising profits and quickly abandon that which isn’t working. Cookie-cutter crime thrillers, or even just more traditional fantasy, would be easier to sell than the genre-bending Ordshaw books. Writer Phil, however, has a bigger itch to scratch than producing satisfying numbers, and is very stubborn, hence Ordshaw.
That said, selling any book at all is a hard ask. Overnight success stories are the exception, not the norm, and require more than a little luck. For most books, marketing is a perpetual grind, investing in marketing systems until you can tweak them enough to eek out a profit. For any book that steps outside popular boundaries, the audience and marketing opportunities are sparser, but even commercial books don’t come with success guaranteed. Every book must find its own path to success, and while it’s tempting to say “give up and move on” from something without immediate success, in the world of books it might take years before a particular offering finds its audience (whatever traditional publishing’s emphasis on short-term success and debuts would have you believe).
For Ordshaw, I set out to produce a series of minimum 3 books, with the theory that the more books out there, the more opportunities to draw in different readers, and the more read-through to justify ad spend. A simple plan that took a long time to follow through on. It hasn’t exactly worked yet.
I got my earliest success writing English grammar guides. I was sure they would sell, as they met a specific demand; it just needed the right marketing push. Content marketing, contacting reviewers and social media sharing wasn’t doing much, so I made the huge mistake of hiring a prestigious book marketer to help. It turned out they were better at marketing themselves than my book and I lost a lot of money.
I saw that loss as a challenge and determined to make all that money back and more. After a couple of years, I did that, thanks to hitting Amazon’s new AMS ads at just the right time. As these books were quite unique, and no one else had cottoned on to this platform quite yet, I hit a real gap in the market. These books that had not been profitable for 4 years went on to pay my bills.
My fiction was another story; hitting the same platform at the same time did nothing for them. Yet my English books showed me what persistence can do; where there’s a niche, there’s a way. With that in mind, I’ve been using an awful lot of trial and error trying to find Ordshaw’s own path to an audience.
The First 1,000 Sales
When I first released Under Ordshaw, I actually thought it was a fairly commercial urban fantasy. Snarky female protagonist, modern settings, original fantasy elements, a thriller-pace and a twisty mystery. An agent even told me he thought it was too on-genre to pitch traditionally. But I quickly realised it wasn’t standard urban fantasy fare when I came to try produce ads for it. It somewhat defied comparison. I also shot myself in the foot a bit by not wanting to give away the mysteries – one of the most interesting draws, the fairies, was kept hidden from my marketing for years.
As a result, the first Ordshaw ads were poorly targeted, making them expensive, and everything I tried with adjusting audiences and blurbs made no difference. Initial sales were not encouraging.
I did get a big boost from Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO, though, where Under Ordshaw reached the semi-finals and Lynn’s Books gave it a wonderful review. Lynn put me in touch with other bloggers and was incredibly encouraging. Though this still didn’t make people buy the book, it did wonders for my enthusiasm.
The second book was hard to write, and the third even harder, because (a) the plots were super complex and (b) I was grimly aware that very few people were waiting for them. I finally completed The Violent Fae and produced the standalone The City Screams in the meantime, and neither the completion of a trilogy nor the existence of a quirky standalone led to more sales. Finally, I enlisted an incredible actress to produce the Sunken City trilogy as audiobooks, which I thought should raise the series’ visibility, seeing as they’re amazing. Also didn’t help.
That was my “add more content” side of marketing, and the bottom line is that putting out more books alone was not helping new readers get into the series. Or even necessarily drawing existing readers back.
Instead, sales came in through diverse marketing efforts that really weren’t very effective. I tried one thing after another: I changed the blurbs around, I petitioned hundreds of reviewers, I gave out free paperbacks, I wrote a whole series of short stories and did blog tours. These efforts maybe lead to one or two new readers a piece. The more dramatic splashes came from running promotions at heavy discounts, with newsletter swaps and paid mail shots to big lists. Even there, I very rarely sold more than ten to twenty copies in a day, and these would generally lead to a net loss financially. Yet in the times when I’ve done none of those things, I could go weeks without selling a single copy.
All the while, there was always one more thing to bother me – was the opening page not good enough? Was the blurb not optimal? Was the cover a marketing catastrophe? I changed all of these things and still it didn’t come together.
I saw another author doing brilliantly with a similarly unconventional series, who had found a way to get his Facebook ads working, and I asked him for advice (Mark Hayden with the King’s Watch, FYI; a lovely chap writing tremendously successful books!). He very generously gave me some insights into exactly how much work he put into his ads, and a crucial takeaway was that while some ads work straight away, or with only a little effort, others require a lot of work (and investment) to position correctly. Even then they might not sell tremendously.
With everything else in place, I decided to get relentless with the adverts. Over a period of a couple of months’ experimenting, I managed to get some Facebook ads converting well, at a good price. And the tough part is, the ads have come a long way, and I’ve seen big improvements which I can’t seem to take much further, but they’re still not profitable.
Yet by investing in this research, I managed to sell my books at a small loss, building gradually to where the ads just about break even. And that, together with all the years of scratching about with other methods, is how I clawed together the last few hundred sales I needed to finally reach 1,000. This time in the space of a few months.
I’ve not set myself on a path to the stars here, but I don’t mind spending a little money to reach an audience. It’s a small investment in building a readership, learning what’s working, and moving towards where I’ll be able to expand my fiction market. I’d known when I first released Under Ordshaw that it would need a series to sell properly, and the difference between a break-even ad and one that makes consistent profits, after all, now looks like it might be one more book. Or two.
Now, I’ll always wonder if there’s not a trick I’m missing with the blurb or my targeting that will turn everything around. Or what if I put that effort into writing something much more commercial and sent people back to Ordshaw from there. Or I could do something outrageous like organise an Ordshaw flash mob during a major sporting event. There’s a lot of possibilities. But whatever options I try, it’s tests and tweaks, looking for little indicators of progress, and bit by bit it reaches more people.
However that pans out, and especially considering that no one big shift was responsible, I’m hugely proud to have sold 1,000 copies of Under Ordshaw. I’m honoured that so many people have given the books a go. I’m even more touched that so many reviewers and readers have enjoyed the books enough to talk about them, connecting with the characters and recommending the series. Even if I start writing things readers actually already want, the Ordshaw journey has been a wonderfully rewarding (and very educational) one.
Phil Williams is an author of contemporary fantasy and dystopian fiction, including the Ordshaw urban fantasy thrillers and the post-apocalyptic Estalia series. He also writes reference books to help foreign learners master the nuances of English.
Phil lives with his wife by the coast in Sussex, UK, and spends a great deal of time walking his impossibly fluffy dog, Herbert.
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About Under Ordshaw (Ordshaw #1)
Fairies are real. And they have guns.
Pax is one rent cheque and six days away from the rough streets of Ordshaw. A big poker score should’ve settled that – but when a vagrant steals her winnings, his trail leads her to the darkest corners of the city.
Pax’s underworld connections can track people down, but it’s not just people she needs to find. The search lands Pax in the crosshairs of a shady government Ministry and the thief’s mysterious partners.
Between keeping herself alive and trying to unravel rumours of a subterranean labyrinth, Pax discovers her city hosts a whole other kind of underworld.
People have disappeared simply for discovering what’s lurking under Ordshaw.
To survive, Pax needs to go a lot further than that.