Advice for Indie Authors

As promised last month, I’m back this month with some strategies and advice for anyone considering the indie publishing route.  And a quick update before I begin–I’ve actually had a great month, sales wise.  (Thank you to any WU readers who bought copies of my books!)  Two of my titles, Susanna and the Spy and Georgiana Darcy’s Diary, climbed all the way into the top 1000 titles on Amazon!  And again–as I said last month–I’m just sharing these numbers with everyone to prove that it CAN be done.  And that you don’t need to be writing about vampires to have great success. :-)

At any rate, without furthur ado, I’d like to introduce three indie authors who have graciously agree to share some of their tips and strategies with us here at WU today.  These women are not only talented writers–and some of the nicest people I know!–they are all never-traditionally-published authors who have found tremendous success by independently publishing their books.

First, N. Gemini Sasson.  Passed over by dozens of publishers, Sasson has sold over 36,000 e-books in the past year. Her next book, The King Must Die, a sequel to her award-winning novel Isabeau, is slated for release in April of 2012.

Sarah Woodbury. With two historian parents, Sarah couldn’t help but develop an interest in the past. She went on to get more than enough education herself (in anthropology) and began writing fiction when the stories in her head overflowed and demanded she let them out.  Her interest in Wales stems from her own ancestry and the year she lived in England when she fell in love with the country, language, and people. She even convinced her husband to give all four of their children Welsh names.

 Jennifer Becton.  Jennifer has worked in the publishing industry for twelve years as a proofreader, copy editor, and freelance writer. In 2010, she accepted the challenge to self-publish her first novel. Upon discovering the possibilities of the expanding ebook market, she created Whiteley Press, an independent publishing house, and has since sold more than 50,000 books.

1.  What marketing strategies have you used?  Which do you feel were most effective (or ineffective)? 

Gemini:

 I’ve had several new writers ask me about marketing and unfortunately what I did a year or two ago probably isn’t effective today – at least not by itself.

In the beginning, I leapt at any blog interview or book feature I could get that didn’t cost me money, because I had none. I spent time on social media – commenting on others’ blogs, getting involved in Twitter, talking on forums that dealt with my genre, writing or just books in general. I rarely mentioned my own books and then only in the appropriate places. I also started my prices out low.  99 cents for the first month, then I raised them to $2.99 and kept them there. I haven’t gone ‘free’ yet, although many indies swear by it. Eventually I set up a Facebook fan page, so I could let my loyal readers know when the next book was available. The thing to keep in mind regarding social media is that it’s about being SOCIAL, which means interacting and showing your personal side. Spamming is a real turn-off.

The most effective strategy for me was advertising. Going direct to where the readers were. You have to treat self-publishing like a business, which means sometimes you need to spend money to make money. The problem now is that even getting ad space on popular blogs aimed at Kindle owners can be difficult. And prices have nearly doubled since I started, which is a testament to their demand. Not all advertising is created equal though. Some that I used early on (the affordable ones and those you could actually grab a spot on without waiting months) is very ineffective now.

Sarah:

By far the most effective marketing strategy has been to give a book away for free. I did it when I started out, via Smashwords, and my time travel romance, Daughter of Time, is free on all venues now and has been since December.  At the same time, when I started out, I never had a free book on Amazon, and yet sales of all my books took off after about 5 months of tweeting and Facebooking, joining the kindleboards and participating in the online indie writing community.  I did buy a few ads towards the end of 2011, and my books were featured on several widely recognized web sites, but those gains tended to be very short term (a day or two).

The second most effective marketing strategy didn’t start out that way at all–it’s my web page.  I started it a year before I even had a book for sale. Because I write historical fiction and fantasy, I began blogging about my research on dark age and medieval Wales.  Two years on, its potential for selling my books can’t be underestimated, as I’ve had over 130,000 visitors in that time, and typically over 300 a day most days.  I still blog three times a week about my research, I have guest posts from other authors, and it has become an avenue through which my readers can find me.  And of course, I provide information about my books.

Jennifer:

What marketing strategies have you used?  Which do you feel were most effective (or ineffective)?

Apart from my online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog, I’ve used a lot of different marketing techniques: Google AdWords, ads on various websites, ads on Goodreads, website sponsorships, ebook blog sposorships, strategic ebook pricing, swapping excerpts with other authors, and making my books free for a day on Amazon. In my experience, ads of any sort are the least effective, and dedicated ebook blog sponsorships, pricing, excerpt swaps, and Amazon freebies are the most effective. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I believe that doing something, even some of the things I’ve found less effective, is better than doing nothing. The key is to let people know your book exists.

2.  What factor (can be marketing or other) do you feel has most contributed to your success?

 Gemini:

Probably the most important factor was putting out three books in my first six months. That way, if someone read one of my books and liked it, there was another for them to purchase and read right away. For anyone who thinks I’m absurdly prolific, I’m not. I’d spent the previous decade writing book after book while doing the submission rounds with agents and then editors. I see many new writers who put out one book, market it relentlessly or expect it to magically take off while they talk about publishing and writing, and in doing so they put off writing their second one. I’d advise not to focus on marketing your first book until the second or even third one is ready. Although not impossible, it’s hard to make a living off just one book.

Also, I believe timing was a huge factor in my books getting a foothold and sales climbing. When I started in 2010, it was easier to get noticed. Indies had the advantage of competitively low pricing. Thanks to Amazon’s algorithms, my books became associated with other popular books in the genre, so if they climbed the ranks, so did mine. In that respect, I feel incredibly lucky.

Sarah: 

I think having more books for sale was a big part of the shift from selling a few books to selling many.  Readers think it’s great when an author writes a good book, but to have four, five, six and so on for them to read once they finish the first one?  I think that made a huge difference.  I’ve discovered that there is, in fact, a market for the kind of books I write:  romantic historicals and historical mysteries appropriate for readers of all ages.  Also … time travel fantasy sells ;)

Jennifer:

What factor (can be marketing or other) do you feel has most contributed to your success?

I believe that the willingness to take risk is the biggest factor that contributes to the success of anyone in any field. As if it’s not difficult enough to put your work out there for all to see (and critique), there are other risks involved, including your time and money. Writing a book is definitely a time consuming part of publishing, but once the manuscript is prepared for press, there are plenty of other things to do: blogging, marketing, bookkeeping, tweeting, etc.  In addition, indie authors can publish for very little money, but with a bit more of a financial investment, you can create a more professional product and reach more readers. Putting that much effort, time, and money into a book, which may or may not sell, is a risk indeed, but the more effort authors put into their work, the better the chances for sales and positive reader response.

3.  What advice can you give to anyone just starting out on the indie path? 

Gemini:

There’s a belief that all you have to do is write a good book, let people know it’s available and they’ll start lining up to buy it. That’s rarely the case when you’re an unknown entity. Even if you’ve written a great book, the fact is that there are a lot of good books out there. I’m not sure I have any hard and fast answers about how to get noticed these days. Some topics, stories or genres are just more commercial than others. Be grateful for every reader. My first month, I was thrilled with every sale. I never dreamed back then that tens of thousands of people would be reading my books one day.

One of the great things about being indie, besides the freedom to control your product, is the ability to be flexible. Embrace it. If something works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, abandon it and try something else. Cover or blurb not grabbing readers? Change them. Social media not your thing? Try a different tack. The main point is that you have to do something; you can’t just wait for success to fall out of the sky and land on you. Luck certainly plays into the picture, but if you truly want to make a career out of being an indie writer, it helps to be driven. Stay focused and accept that success doesn’t happen overnight.

Thanks so much, Anna, for the chance to be here on Writer Unboxed!

 Sarah:

I would suggest to anyone who has written only one book to write at least one other before you indie publish the first one. The process of writing that second book will tell you a lot about how to make your first book better. My first book will never see the light of day, but Footsteps in Time was my second, and although it took me 4 years to make it right, by writing other books, I was able to go back to it and finally create something of which I’m really proud. For the author, the difference between indie publishing and traditional publishing is that you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder and telling you hard truths. So you have to tell those truths to yourself.

Jennifer:

What advice can you give to anyone just starting out on the indie path?

The advice I always give to writers considering going the indie route is to be professional. Self- or indie publishing is more than just self-uploading. It means that the writer has chosen to take on all the responsibilities a traditional publisher would undertake: editing, proofreading, interior design, cover art, marketing, bookkeeping. Write the best book you possibly can and then put it through a professional editorial process, including a story/content editor, proofreader, and multiple cold readers. Unless you are already acquainted with graphic design software, hire a cover artist. Be serious and intentional in your work and you will better your chances for success in the indie publishing world.

Thank you so much, Gemini, Sarah, and Jennifer for some absolutely fantastic thoughts and advice!

Image by Mi-Miche.

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Gemini, Sarah and Jennifer,
    Wow! What a great post. Thanks for sharing so many great tips for indie authors. This post could not be more timely since I just self-published my first novel. Now I need to get my two works in progress in shape. Thanks again!

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  2. says

    WOW! Loaded with good advice; what worked, what didn’t work. Most germane post. Thank you, authors…and, congratulations on your well-earned successes.

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  3. says

    Thanks a gazillion for this fabulous post, Anna, Gemini, Sarah and Jennifer!

    Question for Jennifer: what do you mean by “dedicated ebook blog sponsorships”?

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    • says

      Hi Sharon,

      Sorry for being unclear. I wrote my portions of this while in the throes of a stomach virus. Yikes.

      By dedicated ebook blogs, I mean sites like Kindle Nation Daily, which posts on their blog and beams ebook suggestions directly to the Kindles of subscribers, or Pixel of Ink and the Frugal eReader, which only have blogs. For me, KND has been the most effective.

      Thanks for asking!
      J

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  4. says

    Great tips. As a reader, I do expect indie authors to do everything a publisher does especially the editing. No matter what the source, I want a pleasant reading experience.

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  5. says

    This is just excellent! I agree with Stacy about the editing. It’s been one of my biggest gripes with indy-pubbed ebooks so far. I’m hoping the bar can be raised by the professional attitude presented here.

    Big thanks to all three authors, and to you, Anna, for putting it together! It’s bookmarked.

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  6. says

    Stacy and Vaughn,

    I totally agree about editing. Having worked so long in the industry, I’m painfully aware that perfection is unattainable, but everyone who puts a book on the market should try for the cleanest text possible. And part of what makes being indie so great is that when we find errors, we can correct them immediately.

    Thanks!
    J

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  7. says

    THIS is an incredible roundup of good advice. In my own experiment (turning my web series into an ebook) I’ve learned a lot of the same hard lessons as these women, and it would have been so nice to know ahead of time, lol. (But I did that back in 2009, so… yeah, unless I talked to a fortune-teller, not possible. :P)

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  8. says

    I second Vaughn’s comment about editing–as both an indie publisher and an editor, I think lack of editing can not only cripple an indie’s first book but their “brand” as well. Thanks, Anna, for bringing these authors to WU.

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  9. says

    Thanks. This post was a great help. I was just having much of this same discussion today with a friend of mine who is self-publishing. Its always nice to hear from folks who have blazed the trail ahead of you. Their advice is invaluable. Plus, I now have some great new authors to check out. Thanks again.

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  10. says

    Thanks so much, Anna, for the gift of this fabulous post. And sincere appreciation to your author guests for so generously sharing their wisdom. There’s so much to learn in order to be a successful indie/self published (emphasis on successful), and the advice here is golden.

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  11. says

    Thanks for the great post, Anna. It was great to be included in your discussion. And congratulations on your indie successes too. I’m sure this is only the beginning!

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  12. says

    Writers have to be more entrepreneurial than ever, but it can be a scary thing. Thanks for sharing your tips, Sarah, Jennifer and Gemini. And thanks to Anna for bringing them to us!

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  13. says

    Juicy good post! I wonder too if, in terms of the concerns over editing, good editing, that the indie author is faced with what used to be the advice for sending out a manuscript. Wait till its really polished. I wonder if the Indie World has made independent developmental editors more in demand than ever?Thanks for this great post!

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  14. says

    Wonderful to see all the great responses and questions here. One thing to take away from this is that are numerous ways to market your work. It’s helpful to read about various approaches and figure out what makes the most sense to you and which approach fits you as an individual.

    In regards to editing, there are many places to find freelance editors. Sometimes they’ll be mentioned in an author’s dedication or acknowledgments. Or if you know authors already publishing, ask them who they’ve used or where to find them. Kindleboards also maintains a Yellow Pages for authors in the Writers’ Cafe listing contact info. for editors, proofreaders, cover artists, formatters, etc.

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  15. Rebecca Burke says

    I really appreciate the ideas and encouragement in this post. Like others, I’ve worked in publishing as an editor and writer for well over a decade, and my self-pubbed books are edited to a fare-thee-well. It would be nice if we had some way to indicate to readers that our books are well-edited without coming out and saying it (lame!). A “Certified Cringe-Proof” badge?! Somebody get on this, please.

    Thanks for a few new ideas, and continued good luck to all of you.

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  16. Gary Lane says

    Thanks so much for the great insights.

    I did a Kindle Select free promo a few weeks ago. I moved up in the rankings during the promo and it all ended once the promo was over.

    I have decided to try using a review service. BlueInk and Kirkus are too expensive for me, but someone told me about a new one that just started and is much cheaper: http://aliquantreview.com/

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  17. says

    Thanks for the information. I especially appreciate the suggestion to have more than one book ready right at the start. I have finished a non-fiction book and was planning on putting out some little books first and then launching my major endeavor. Do you have thoughts on that? My book is a Christian non-fiction, and the smaller booklets are 30-day prayer and meditation books. Thoughts?

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    • says

      Hi Marsha,

      That sounds like a great strategy. You might also consider offering one of your little books for free as an advertising strategy to reach more readers. Then put info. about your other books at the back of the free one. I know authors who have had HUGE success with that strategy. Good luck to you!

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  18. says

    What great advice! I’ve just e-published and am now answering the all important question: What now? Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

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  19. says

    This is a great interview for those people who are just starting out, and I’ll have to make sure I send people this way to read their experience. If anything, more need to treat this industry as a business instead of a dream.

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