Happy New Year to you all! I don’t know about you, but I am thrilled to put 2017 behind me. I’m sure 2018 will have its share of mountains to climb, but there’s something exhilarating about the possibilities that a new year offers. I have ambitious goals for 2018 and I’m already setting them in motion.
It’s a mystery just how these grand plans will dovetail with the fact that a month ago, my family adopted an 8-week-old puppy. Little Kona and our 13-year-old dog Katie are at opposite ends of the developmental spectrum in the dog world. Kona is a rough-and-tumble toddler and Katie is basically equivalent to an 85-year-old human. As you might imagine, their worlds collide in ways both humorous and distressing. But they bring energy and hilarity into our lives, and we love them. (This is a mantra I currently repeat to myself about 67,000 times a day.)
Despite the dog mayhem, or maybe because of it, I’ve zeroed in on my writing and publishing goals for the coming year. In the process, I’ve thought a lot about 2017 and the rewards and challenges I encountered in my first year as an indie author. This is the longest blog post I’ve written, so bear with me—what I’ve learned may help you!
I have to rewind a bit more, back to September 2016, to sum up the year. That month, I published my first novel, a historical mystery called The Girl from Oto. I launched the book with both print and digital versions, and I kept the digital version exclusive to Amazon’s KDP Select program. I had a fantastic launch party, did a preorder on Amazon, and lots of family members, friends, and friends-of-friends purchased the book in the first few weeks.
Sales and ads
E-book sales on Amazon were pretty much flatlining through the end of 2016. But my print sales made me happy (meaning I had a few hundred by the winter holidays). In January 2017, I started experimenting with Amazon ads. I was astounded and over the moon when I watched my digital sales take off. Within a week of starting the ads, I went from zero sales per day to 5, 10, even more per day. Other authors were not having the same success with ads, and I had no idea why my book was selling so well. My plan had been to break even with these ads. Now I had some cash coming in. I planned to use all the proceeds for marketing and advertising expenses.
I experimented with Goodreads Giveaways (which were a free promotion tool for authors until a few weeks ago, sadly. They are now well out of my budget to utilize and I will not be participating in the program any longer). I did a few Kindle Countdown Deals under the terms of exclusivity with Amazon. My best deal was the most recent one, in December 2017. I sold about 160 books in a weekend. My takeaway from doing three Countdown Deals? I paid $10 or $15 to many promotion sites that reach fewer readers, and those did not make much of a return for me. But the larger sites that cost more to use (notably The Fussy Librarian and EReader News Today) did. So now I’ll focus exclusively on using fewer promo sites with more reach. And of course, I’ll keep applying for the Holy Grail of book promotions: BookBub.
I also worked hard to garner reviews for the book, both by offering review copies for free (remembering to ask people only to CONSIDER writing a review rather than using the dreaded words “in exchange” for a review, as per Amazon’s constantly shifting guidelines). I’m currently up to more than 60 reviews on Amazon and have about 100 ratings and reviews on Goodreads, most of them 4 and 5-star. This is slow and steady progress. I have to say one of the benefits of the Amazon ads has been all the reviews submitted by people who found my book through those ads. Just the impressions alone (when people see your ad, whether they click on it or not) means my cover and title are getting in front of millions of eyes. There’s no other ad platform equivalent to this. I’ve used Facebook ads and they are much more expensive, plus they reach far fewer people. If you read The Girl from Oto and meant to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads but didn’t get a chance yet, there’s still time! Reviews are gold to indie authors.
I set up a monthly newsletter that I send to people on my mailing list. I currently have just under 1,000 people on my list, and I did not spend much money or time in 2017 aggressively growing it. Why? Two reasons: First, after you reach a certain number of people on a list (a few thousand), you have to pay your list manager (I use MailChimp) a monthly fee. Second, I only had one book for most of 2017. I didn’t have an awesome “reader magnet” to attract people to my list, nor did I have a backlist to keep readers engaged. In December 2017, I published the digital version of The Promise, a prequel novella to The Girl from Oto. I’ll use it as a reader magnet to grow my list in 2018. And—oh, hey! If you want to join my list and download the book for free, click here!
I decided to invest some of my sales cash in professional development, and did an online writing course with the writing/publishing duo Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Their course taught me a lot about “going deep” — in other words, setting a scene in a way that hooks readers. I also invested in Vellum publishing software and the AuthorCats WordPress theme created by Nick Stephenson, whose Your First 10K Readers marketing course has been a huge influence on me since I started this journey a few years back. I’m in the process of building my new website, which I’ll unveil sometime this winter.
Bookstores and libraries
Though I had a print version of the book via CreateSpace, the print-on-demand publisher owned by Amazon), I also produced a second print version of The Girl from Oto on IngramSpark, the global book distributor used by traditional publishers, in order to get my book into stores. Currently Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon, and Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, carry The Girl from Oto, and I have my sights set on a few more bookstores in 2018. It’s tough for an indie to get in a bookstore. There is only so much shelf space and the system is set up for traditional publishers to have an easy path onto those shelves. I’m an unknown first-time author and my book was published under my own imprint, Artelan Press. That’s why I’m so grateful to these stores for taking my book on.
The IngramSpark version is also carried in a few local branches of my county library, and it’s available to order in any bookstore and library pretty much anywhere, both in the U.S. and internationally. Selling in bookstores is a great marketing tool and I’m thrilled that two bookstores are supporting me. Most people assume that if your book makes it into bookstores, you’ve “made it” as an author. And yes, psychologically it’s a big boost, but financially it makes little sense for an indie. Why do it, then? It’s great for increasing visibility, word-of-mouth buzz, and gaining respect in a world dominated by traditionally published books.
In order to protect themselves and maintain their already small profit margin, bookstores require a consignment agreement with independent authors, and their terms can be a 50-50% split of proceeds or even a 60-40% split (with the author getting the 40%). The author is responsible for purchasing and shipping the books from the distributor to the bookstore (and paying state taxes for the books if applicable…which buyers in bookstores then pay again). Any books not sold in a certain time frame must be retrieved by the author or they’ll be tossed. Depending on the location of the store, after the bookstore takes its cut of the sale, I will make anywhere from about $1 per book to less than zero. If you ever wonder why hardback and even paperback books are expensive and imagine writers collecting giant sacks of cash from sales, remember that the author is getting very little of that money—and may even be losing money.
I love to shop at independent bookstores and I will always support them. I plan to keep trying to get my book in the door at more stores and stay positive despite the inevitable rejections in 2018. It helps a lot if local folks ask bookstores to carry an independent author’s work, so if you are in your favorite bookstore (or library) and would like to see my book on its shelves, please don’t hesitate to ask the bookseller or librarian to carry it. I’ll be eternally grateful!
A big step for me in 2017 was taking my e-book out of exclusivity with Amazon and “going wide” using the e-publishing aggregator Draft2Digital. The Girl from Oto is now available on iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other e-retailers. For the moment, this means I’ve basically thrown my book into a black hole. Why? Because I’ve done absolutely no marketing or advertising on any of these other platforms yet—and I don’t expect to have sales on any of them until I do that. So there’s one of my marketing jobs for 2018.
Publishing more books
While I was doing all of these other things, I worked on the second book in The Miramonde Series, Mira’s Way. It went to an editor in the early fall. I’ve been chipping away at revisions for the past several months, and now I’m going full throttle with plans to publish the book in early spring. I am propelled by the knowledge that the biggest impediment to my success is my lack of a backlist. I need more books. It’s very difficult to get traction with just one book.
So that brings us to 2018. And guess what my top goal is for 2018? Publish more books! My other goals, in no particular order, are:
- launch my new website;
- build my mailing list with my brand-spankin’-new reader magnet and a bunch of promotions with other authors;
- keep trying for a BookBub and doing other paid promotional campaigns;
- continue my global bookstore and library juggernaut;
- publish many helpful, informative, kick-ass, or at least mildly entertaining blog posts;
- establish a solid marketing plan for all the platforms other than Amazon;
- continue fiddling with Amazon ads (which do not perform as well as they used to for me);
- pay a little more attention to social media (I have not posted on Instagram in an eon);
- keep listening to a zillion author podcasts without getting sucked into comparisonitis;
- keep dreaming about an audio version of The Girl from Oto and maybe even make one;
- use a standing desk, exercise every day, and do a daily series of stretches and strength-training moves so I can keep doing this forever.
- teach myself how to use tech things that end up wasting my time because I don’t understand how they work.
- keep reaching out to other indie authors, thanking those who have shared so much knowledge with me, and building community.
- remind myself that I’m doing this part time, I’m responsible for every aspect of writing, publishing, and marketing, and there’s only so much one person can do—so relax.
- remember that there have never been so many opportunities for writers and this is a long game.
What are your goals for 2018? May we all make great progress toward our goals this year, celebrate every small success—and when setbacks arise, learn from them and move on.