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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Things I learned as an indie.

It's all about marketing.

Well, it's a bit more than that. There's product. You have to have a novel that someone wants to read. But having that novel doesn't mean anything if no one sees it. There are a thousand ways to make that happen. I've tried quite a few. Firstly, I'm lucky that I arrived on the scene when the indie movement was just a ripple. It's grown tidal since then and I've learned from the best along the way.

Some indies are killing it, quitting day jobs, cashing six figures, sailing around the world. I've managed to carve a small slice of success, enough to pay some bills and have some fun on weekends. I'm not likely to quit my day job, so this hobby of spelunking my imagination has been a blast.

I'm a teacher first, writer second. Teaching keeps me mentally and emotionally fit. I'm mostly introverted. If you saw me at a party, you'd disagree, but I've learned to be social. When I have free time, I almost always choose to something solitary. But social interaction is essential, so employment fills that niche and teaching does so nicely. If I wrote full time, I'd never get dressed. Not good for the long term.

So the indie life suites me spot on. If you're an indie and want to compare notes, here's where I'm at.

I mean that as a reader. What do writers do that attracts me as a reader? First, it's the material. Fiction is fickle. Everyone has a genre that grabs them, or a voice, or style. Whatever it is, don't take it personally if someone doesn't like your stuff. Rowling has a theme park and not every digs the muggle trope.

So I ask myself that question a lot. What would work for me as a reader? I take that approach as a teacher, what would work for me as a student? I teach from that perspective. That doesn't mean everyone should teach like me. I don't hit the target 100% of the time. Nobody does. Same goes for writing. I get emails from readers that become hardcore fans, but there are plenty that don't get me or my writing. That's the game, those are the rules.

I tried writing romance once because I wanted to take advantage of the marketing opportunities. Romance readers are voracious and indie romance writers crushing it. I made it halfway through a romance novel. That's 40,000 words. All I could think about was writing my next scifi story. I dropped the romance story that moment and never saw it again.

I don't read romance, and I sure as hell can't write it. I've got to love what I'm writing and love reading what I'm writing. And hope others come along.

It starts there.

I'm on all platforms. Amazon, Nook, Apple, Kobo, and Google. Occasionally, I play with Kindle Select, meaning I'm only on Kindle, but I'm finding it's more lucrative to be wide. Amazon is the king, wrangling 70% to 80% of sales. Apple and Nook closely tie for second and third. Kobo (the main vendor for Canadian sales) is fourth. Dead and decisively last is Google Play.

I publish directly with Amazon, Google and Kobo, but use D2D to publish to Apple and Nook. I give up some money to use D2D but it's worth it. Apple and Nook platforms were a pain to use. I might go back to publishing directly with Nook to recoup the D2D fees, but not for now.

Get in line.

Every author wants a Bookbub. That's why it's so hard to book an advert with them. It's only getting harder. I booked six in 2016. That's pretty good. I attribute two things to my success. They were all boxed sets, so the discount was deeper ($6.99 down to $0.99). They are wide, not Kindle Select. I noticed a trend that significantly more books selected were wide, one of the reasons I continue to stay wide.

Bookbub is essential to getting sales in UK, CA, Australia and India. Also, should you book one, you have to manually change your prices in CA, AU and IN to make sure they match the Bookbub deal. For whatever reason, Amazon does not automatically make the right adjustments.

There are countless Bookbub knockoffs. Some are straight up scams. I've whittled my list down to a short set of promo sites that I only use as a lead up to a Bookbub promo, which primes sales for a bigger spike. I'll also use them when releasing a new book.

Free Kindle Books and Tips
Ereader News Today
Bargain Booksy
Book Barbarian
Book Basset 

However you can do it, write stories that funnel readers. Most of my books are part of a trilogy. Getting a reader hooked on the first book leads them to the rest. I even cross-promote between trilogies, writing elements in each one to pique interest. And then there's the Bookbub advantage. BB loves a boxed set.

It's a tad controversial. Not every author likes the idea of giving away their work. I'm a fan, though. As a reader, I've found many writers by downloading a freebie and buying their subsequent novels. In particular, I like free novellas. They're bite-sized stories that give me taste.

I have 4 free novellas, each leading into a trilogy. I've had readers tell me they bought my books because of the freebie and they never buy books. It's a loss leader, and it works.

I've been involved in several multi-author boxed sets, even coordinated one. Leading a boxed set takes a tremendous amount of effort. Most authors are happy to contribute their writing, but it can be a bit like herding squirrels.

I've been lucky to be involved with some big names. That proximity has led to discovery. One such luck shot was having Hugh Howey on board, the poster child for indie success. Most boxed sets are temporary, running for a several months.

Currently, I joined a boxed set through Rebecca Hamilton's marketing service. Twenty-two book boxed set with some potent indie writers. The buy-in was $500 per author in an effort to land on the NY Times list. I'm not as interested in the NYT title as much as I am the exposure. Dominion Rising will launch in August.

I found the Writer's Cafe to be extremely helpful. I used to read it daily. Now I'll pop in every once in a great while. Authors from various indie strata contribute advice or breaking news. I've discovered boxed set opportunities there as well as numerous marketing ideas.

Rebecca Hamilton, an indie author, has a author marketing service called Genrecrave that's worked well. I've gained quite a few subscribers there, but I think it's most effective for fantasy and romance writers.

I've shelled out some cash to jump in on a few online seminars. I got in on Mark Dawson's Facebook Advertising for Authors workshop called Self Publishing Formula. $500 at the time. While advertising on FB hasn't worked out for me (it seems to work for authors in thrillers and romance), I learned quite a bit from the videos. 

Later, I joined Nick Stephenson's Your First 10K Readers online workshop. That was pricey, too. Some of it was covered in Dawson's, but I still learned a lot.

Both workshops provided invaluable knowledge and lifetime memberships. Each time they come out with new videos, I'm automatically enrolled. If you had to do just one of them, I'd recommend Nick's since FB advertising isn't part of my plan anymore.

There are several viable opportunities. The authors that seem to be doing the best are those with a grasp on marketing (duh). By that, I mean they know you have to invest money to be visible. Quite a few are spending over $3000 a month on FB ads or Amazon's new marketing service (which I just starting dabbling in). It's the "it takes money to make money" adage.

I'm still too gun shy to jump into that well with both feet. I'm spending more on advertising, but not as much as I should. 

Dawson's workshop taught me the intrinsic value of a mailing list. Nowadays, a lot of services are focusing on acquiring subscribers. And for good reason. It's a captive audience that you can directly communicate with. I recently launched Humbug: The Unwinding of Ebenezer Scrooge. The first week, I sold nearly 1000 copies and racked up 80 Amazon reviews averaging 4.8 stars. 

That's hot.

Both workshops taught me how to attract and manage a mailing list, starting with a reader magnet. Readers that sign up will receive four novellas for free. My offer is at the end of all my books, it's on the website, everywhere I can put it. They are free samples that give a reader a taste. If they like, they buy other books in the series.

Recently, instaFreebie has been a huge avenue to gain subscribers. Readers have to subscribe to my mailing list to download a free book. Numerous promotional opportunities, most being free, can gather several hundred subscribers in a few days. They seem to be good subscribers, too. Although some argue they're still after free books and not worth the subscription.

I use Mailchimp to manage a mailing list. It's not the cheapest, but I know how to use it and like the functions. I currently have 9000 subscribers. That costs me $75 a month. Their automated feature is worth the price. When subscribers sign up, they received a pre-determined series of emails that trickle feed to the user, starting with a welcome and a thank you and here's your first free novella. It's completely hands free, I don't have to do anything for them to receive these emails. 

I give a lot of free stuff to my subscribers. It has to be of value to them. For instance, I frequently give away Amazon gift cards at Christmas. All they have to do is click on a link I set up that takes them to one of my Amazon books. It has my affiliate link attached, so any shopping they do kicks back money to me. In December, it's a lot. But I use that money to pay for the gift card. In essence, I'm giving them the money. It's a thank you and keeps them engaged and they buy books.

Reviews are hard to come by. Once upon a time, Goodreads was a good source to find reviewers. Too many fish in the pond now. While I have a presence on Goodreads, I rarely interact anymore. The vast majority of readers don't review.

I use the mailing list to garner reviews. I use Nick Stephenson's approach to running a contest to offer 10 free paperbacks to anyone that reviews the book. This falls within Amazon's parameters of fair play. Technically, subscribers don't have to review to enter, but most are happy to do so. I also encourage them to leave whatever review they want, good, bad or ugly. This is America.

The end result is healthy clump of positive reviews. I usually see a 100+ added to Amazon within a week.

A similar approach worked for the Humbug: The Unwinding of Ebenezer Scrooge release. I recruited advanced readers from my mailing list. Six hundred copies were downloaded. There are 94 Amazon reviews in the first month, 4.8 star average. So it worked.

I think blog tours have fallen out of favor for many authors. I've done a few. There are great blog organizers that get them lined up. They do all the legwork for fee. I'm sure there was some benefit from appearing on several blogs, perhaps gaining some readers, but nothing that was obvious or that I could determine.

Plus, it's a bit of work. Most blogs want to do a contest or interview, so I've spent some hours filling out questionnaires. While I'll occasionally contribute to a blog, I don't do the blog tours (multiple blogs in a short period).

I love audiobooks.

Most of my "reading" gets done in the truck on my commute, a great way to use dead time. I download them from Audible and post all of my books through the same service. The problem with audiobooks can be the influence of the narrator. A good one can make it better, a bad one can sink the story. While I've had some good ones, none of them have ever captured the characters that are in my head.

A few years ago, I started reading my own audiobooks. I make more money narrating my stories, but more importantly I enjoy it. Only I can capture the tone that's in my head. Also, it's a great way to proofread, catching those last few typos before launch.

I hunker down in my closet with a snowball microphone ($80) and laptop with free audio software and read on. A novel will take me a couple of weeks. Many reviews are not kind about my narrating skills, and I get it. I'm not a professional that does different voices. But I capture the tone, the emotion and I love it. That's important.

I take advantage of almost every opportunity. When the Self-E library came along, a digital venue that features indie titles, I threw my books into the mix. Two of them were accepted and, as a result, I've gotten a few speaking engagements.

These events were small and may lead to bigger things. More importantly, they're fun. It's another facet to the experience of writing, that is sharing it with readers in person. Since I teach for a living, talking to group is what I like to do.

I learned in the last event that my books were the most downloaded. A nice little feather. More importantly, they could get some press in the Library Journal, which could lead to more exposure. So I've got that going for me.

Some indies contract translators to get their books in foreign markets. Babelcube came along where you can split the profits with a translator. I'm experimenting with this. So far it's cool to have my books on Amazon in Spanish and Italian and Portuguese, and may give it the appearance of legitimacy. Marketing these, however, has proven impossible. I've made almost no money. Not sure how much longer I'll do this.

Not all ebook readers--Kindle, Nook, otherwise--are tech savvy. It's likely most aren't. Once they set up their ereader, it's relatively easy to purchase books from Amazon or Kobo and start reading. But sideloading a freebie takes a tad more complicated. One additional step can throw the masses into meltdown. So emailing someone an ebook or sending them to a link for downloading can be difficult.

Services such as Book Funnel take out the aggravation. An author account is very affordable. You can set up your books for readers to download and it tells them exactly how to do it. A lot of older generation readers, the bulk of book buyers, don't have a handle on side loading books. I use this for all my free novellas and occasional promos. Since I started using, almost no questions from readers.

InstaFreebie is another such service, also relatively inexpensive with the added benefit of attracting readers to my mailing list. I would cancel my Bookfunnel account if I wasn't already committed to it. InstaFreebie is more than a download service, it attracts readers looking for free downloads. And they do a great job at it. Readers have to sign up for your mailing list to download your book. I've gained 2,500 subscribers in two months. Ridiculous.

I don't get much out of Facebook. Some authors are very good at it. They're quick, they're witty. They engage with their fans. There's a skill there, I believe. I don't really have it. Or the energy.

Visibility has changed, as well. If you have 2000 readers that like your author page, 2000 readers will not see your post. Usually 200 will be shown your post, depending what's in the post. You want the other 1800 to see it? Pay up.

Many authors still do Facebook parties but I'm don't see much activity from them. Unless you're actively promoting, it's not much of a promotional tool. As I've said, many authors are having great success with paid promotions. You can spend a lot of money in hurry, so you'll have to be committed and have some knowledge. Most seem to be in a romance genre, but there are other genres having success. I'm not one of them. I also haven't committed to this approach, either. 

I still don't get twitter. But like Facebook, I'm on it. I use SocialOomph to automate my tweets. I read Advanced Twitter Strategies to learn the automation approach. Very helpful book. It makes tweeting effortless.  I have very few sales that can directly attribute to it. I still keep a presence, though. The problem is me. I'm only use it to advertise, so it's not going to be nearly as useful. Authors that use it first to be social and second to market seem to get the most out of that account. I just can't get myself to care enough to the first part. 


  1. You forgot to mention buying mailing lists and spamming people.

  2. Do you know about SMASHWORDS? (Strange name for an e-book publisher, I know.) Cost: $0, they sell directly and distribute to B&N, Kobo, Diesel, Apple, Axis 360, Scribd, etc. I get my ISBN free from them.

    1. I used Smashwords for several years with very few sales. At the time, they required formatting that was different from all the other vendors. It was easier to pull my books without losing much money.

  3. What's your take on video book trailers? They are easy to make with PowerPoint and cost nothing to post on YouTube or use with a reading.

    1. I did few book trailers early on without seeing much traction. It took too long to make at the time.