Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Guest Post by Andrea Pearson

Hi, everyone! My name is Andrea Pearson. I write mostly YA fantasy and horror with a bit of romance thrown in. (Cause kissing makes everything better. :-))

Back in 2008, I finished my very first book—a middle-grade fantasy titled The Key of Kilenya. By the end of 2009, I was picked up by an agent who landed me a contract with one of the Big Five. Exciting as that was, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I’d end up regretting the choice if I signed with them. I turned down the contract, much to the chagrin of my agent (and trad-pubbed author friends). Over the next year or so, as I tried to figure out where I needed to go that would serve my books best, I ultimately decided to self-publish.

It’s definitely been worth it. But one of the hardest things about publishing is putting out books and watching them flop or not move as fast as we hoped they would. Success, for me, has come in spurts. Some months, I’ve earned a nice four figures. Others, barely two. Even though the Kilenya Series has downloaded very well for a middle-grade fantasy series, it’s been a long, difficult road, and I learned the hard way that I’d chosen a very tough genre to sell. Things are going much better with my newer series, thank goodness.

It isn’t in most authors’ best interests to depend on one book, or even one series, to float a career. Yes, I’d planned to make a long-term career out of my writing (and I’ve been delighted at how naturally writing and being a mom go hand-in-hand), but I didn’t truly develop an eye for long-term success until recently.

Because I was impatient and couldn’t handle the thought that people weren’t finding me right now and reading me right now, I made a lot of mistakes. I tossed money at advertising (Goodreads, Google Adwords—which may have worked if I’d known what I was doing . . .) I ran pointless blog tours. Pointless, because I didn’t know what a blog tour was for and didn’t utilize them well—I expected downloads and was unhappy when that didn’t happen.

Basically, like many new writers, I was willing to take risks without anything to back those risks, and we suffered financially and emotionally. It took a long time for the business to reimburse us.

Here, I’ll share the things I’ve learned that help books be more successful over the long term and that help others develop an eye for a future of writing, rather than just a “now” of writing.

With our sights on an ultimate goal, little things when we first start, such as no reviews and low sales, are not as big a deal as we sometimes feel they are. It’s okay to take a couple years to figure out how to do things right—it’s okay to be invisible while we learn the ropes. And we can actually enjoy that invisibility while getting mistakes out of our system, because we’ll have a plan for success and if we don’t give up, we will reach that success.

Our aim is to have as many high-quality books available as possible. Everything else will be somewhat easier after that. In the meantime, there are several things we can do which will help success last longer, when we’re ready for it.

Some of the things I’ll be talking about (and feel free to skip around):

1. Setting up a newsletter list and getting subscribers

2. Collecting reviews

3. Writing more books

4. Testing out book covers and descriptions

5. Getting social media set up (and a website)

6. Testing out small promotional and marketing campaigns

Please note that a lot of these methods won’t be new to many readers of this blog. But I’m hoping there will be something for everyone and especially something for newer writers.

1. Setting up a newsletter list and getting subscribers

A robust list is arguably the most important thing you can do for your author career. If you have a good enough one in place, you won’t ever need to run BookBub (or any other) promotions—they’ll be optional, and getting that rejection email won’t derail or depress you.

Mailchimp seems to be the best newsletter service out there. I’ve recently started using it and I love how much information and control it gives. (My original list is still hosted on my dad’s server.) If you use a different service, please mention which one in the comments and tell us why you like it.

Here are a few ways to get subscribers:

a) Put an invitation to sign up at the start and end of every book.

b) Offer a free ebook in exchange for signing up. (My monthly subscribers tripled when I started doing this. I now offer one full-length novel and a boxed set of three novellas. Don’t think about these as lost sales—a loyal reader will buy most everything you write down the road. That’s more important than one book now that he or she may download.)

c) Have sign-up forms on your blog and website.

d) Post on social media every so often about your newsletter list and the opportunity to get free ebooks in exchange for signing up.

e) Encourage interested friends and family members to sign up. (As they keep up with what you’re doing, they’ll be more likely to share with others.)

f) Run targeted giveaways, with one of the entries being a newsletter sign up. (Targeted: find print books by famous authors who write in a style similar to your own and give those away.)

g) Consider calling your email list something else, such as Stephanie’s Reader’s Group. Some authors have discovered that people are more interested in signing up when the word “newsletter” isn’t mentioned.

h) Put a sign-up form on your Facebook author fan page (using your Call to Action button).

Speaking of Facebook, I’ve successfully used ads (not promoted posts, but actual ads) to gain new subscribers by offering them free ebooks for signing up. Mark Dawson, Nick Stephenson, and a few other authors have free courses that teach how to create and manage ads.

2. Collecting reviews

Only one of these methods actually costs money. I’ve got more ideas listed on my blog here, including a couple of services that find reviewers for you. (You pay the company, not the reviewer.)

a) Ask a few beta readers to be the first to post honest reviews. (This is considered taboo by some, but it works as long as the review says they were beta readers (and, if applicable, received a free copy of the ebook), and that they are posting an honest review of the published version of the book. It’s only to get you over that zero-reviews status so paying customers will feel more comfortable posting their own.)

b) Set up an email list of people (from your newsletter subscribers, etc.) who are interested in posting honest reviews in exchange for a free ebook. (When they post their review, enter them in for a giveaway for an Amazon gift card. Do this for every book you want reviews on. Make sure you instruct them to say they received the book for free.)

c) Set up a blog tour and have reviewers post on Amazon, as well as their blog. (I usually arrange these on my own by asking around for volunteers, but there are plenty of services out there that do it for a fee.)

d) Have your book be permafree for a year to gather reviews organically. (Reviews build slowly this way, but that’s fine. In the beginning, the point isn’t to sell a few books here and there, it’s to get a book attractive enough to promote and sell a lot of later.)

e) Use and other websites that list book reviewers. (Make sure to pick people who review in your genre and double check that they’re currently accepting submissions. Read their submission guidelines.)

f) Go to Goodreads, search for people who like similar books, and message them, offering a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. (People on GR tend to be a bit harsh sometimes, so keep that in mind.)

The first book in a series can be a permafree that is collecting reviews while you’re writing the next several books. Don’t worry too much about promoting it—an occasional mention or free promo will do the trick. Same goes for standalones. Choose one to be permafree that will lead readers to the rest of your work, then let it gather reviews while you write more books. Remember that this isn’t a fast path to reviews, though, and it will need time to gain traction.

3. Writing more books

Nine out of ten authors agree that the best way to success is through writing more quality books. :-)

Here’s the shocker for new writers: the first few books we write won’t be spectacular. This was very disappointing to me, actually. I learned that while The Key of Kilenya is a good book, it isn’t a great book. It reviews and downloads well and I’ve never had a young reader not like it, but it simply isn’t great. It has been out for over four years and has generated barely over 100 reviews. Seven novels later, Discern, first in my Katon University series, has been out for just over a year and it quickly and easily generated the same number of reviews, with zero promoting on my part.

Our earlier books are great teachers that will lead us to produce much better work later on. As we write more quality books, we’ll eventually have enough available where it won’t matter if each one is only making $100 or even $10 a month. The money adds up!

4. Testing book covers and descriptions

a) Create control groups, made up of people who read your genres. (Set groups up through email, Facebook, or wherever works best for you.) Post covers and descriptions and ask for feedback. Have more than one group with at least 30 members each so you can see different trends in the comments (and to avoid bandwagon jumping). Listen to these people—they may not know what is wrong or how to fix it, but they’ll know something is off. Your job is to figure out what that is.

b) Test out professional book covers too. (Tread softly, though, and be kind. You don’t need to tell the designer “so-and-so said this.” Just let them know you think something may be an issue and see if they’re willing to fix it. If there are too many problems, consider hiring another designer.)

c) Ask for comments from friends and family.

d) Ask for comments from author friends in your genre.

e) Take comments with a grain of salt, especially the outliers. (If you start noticing trends across groups, pay attention.)

f) Go in with the attitude of “This potentially sucks. Help me make it better,” and you won’t get upset so much if/when people say it does suck.

5. Getting social media set up (and a website)

a) Make sure your blog/website is professional and has all the necessary information. (Contact info, purchase links and book covers/descriptions, social media links, sign-up for newsletter, bio section, etc.)

b) Create a Facebook account and a fan page. Even if you aren’t into Facebook, this is important, since most everyone is.

c) Use Twitter—this is huge in the book world. (Use as a way to organize incoming messages. Watch #askbookbub, a Q&A held every Thursday by BookBub Partners at 3:00pm EST. Also consider setting things up so tweets from important accounts get sent as texts to your phone, enabling you to read articles at your convenience.)

d) Pick two social media sites and stick to them, rather than trying to use everything available.

Once you’ve got enough well-written books available with plenty of reviews, a newsletter list set up, social media stuff organized, and a website running, you’re ready to start gearing up for major promotions! You’re also more ready for any success that may find you down the road. But before you start throwing money on promotions, consider:

6. Testing small promotional campaigns

I’m in the middle of a huge promotion that has been over a year in the planning, with my second series, Katon University, as the target. I recommend preparing for major promotions the way I have, as it hasn’t been stressful, expensive, or time-consuming, and I’ve been reaping the benefits for several months. Here are a few steps you can follow:

a) Set up a separate book as a permafree (or use whatever price you plan to have your main book at when you start your big promotion). Have it be in a similar genre and of a similar length as the book you ultimately want to promote. (I’ve been using The Key of Kilenya as my control. Like Discern (the book I’m promoting now), it’s a permafree and is first in a series. It’s middle-grade fantasy and Discern is YA fantasy, so they’re similar enough to give me an idea for what works and what doesn’t.)

b) Create a list of websites that promote ebooks. (Ask around and search online for these sites. I’m really liking as a way to discover and keep track of websites.)

c) Put the info in a spread sheet where you’ll note sites, dates, number of downloads, costs of promotions, special information, etc.

d) Make sure you know how well your ebook does throughout any given month without specific promoting. (To avoid skewing your numbers once you start testing.)

e) Run a promotion on each website, spaced three-four days apart.

f) Where possible, always choose the free advertising option. (Which is more widely available for permafree ebooks and will help save money. If you get a good number of downloads from a particular site, consider trying their paid options.)

g) Keep track of downloads, using Book Report or Amazon (and other retailers your book is available on).

h) Don’t think setting this all up will require a lot of time. It won’t. (Take a couple of hours once a month or every other month to set up the promotions, then track results once a week. Many websites allow you to schedule well in advance.)

i) Don’t promote your main book on these sites until your big promotion. (You’ll want your book to be “fresh” to them.)

j) Don’t test more than one website at the same time. (There are sites that will send your book to multiple places for a fee, but if only one of those places actually gets a decent ROI, you won’t know. It would be easier and cheaper to approach that website separately for your main promotion and take out the middle man.)

k) When it’s time for your main promotion, decide which method you’ll use: all of the good promotions stacked on the same day (to get as high a ranking as fast as possible) or having them spaced out over a couple of days to a week (to get Amazon to notice and help push your book). There are plenty of great discussions about the pros and cons to both methods over on

The websites I’ve personally found to be useful so far are BookBub (of course), eReaderGirl, Fussy Librarian, Digital Book Today, eReader News Today, Book Gorilla, Kindle Nation Daily, BookSends, Pixel of Ink (have teamed up with BookSends now), BKnights, eBook Bargain News, and Kindle Books and Tips. A couple of these websites only produce 50-100 downloads, but even that much (especially when it’s free to promote with them) can really help a massive campaign.

I’ve also been hearing good things about StoryFinds, BookSCREAM, Midlist, My Book Cave, eBook Hunter, Kindle Book Review, and Pixel Scroll.

What other sites have worked well for you? Mention them in the comments! The more authors who use these sites, the better they’ll do for all of us.

A few additional notes about promoting and marketing in general:

What NOT to advertise:

Full-priced ebooks. (It costs a lot more to promote them and readers are less likely to download. There are exceptions, of course. Facebook ads being one of them.)

When NOT to run big marketing campaigns:

When you only have 1-3 full-length ebooks available (or less). (Most authors won’t have a significant ROI until they have around 4 books available.)

Remember, our goal is for the long-haul and to be long-term authors. Save some money, stress, emotional anxiety, money, depression, time, worry, money, unhappiness, marital angst, etc., by holding off on promoting until you have several high-quality books published with plenty of good reviews.

How to know you’re ready to start advertising and promoting:

How many books do you have available? Are they reviewing well? How many reviews do they have? How much business cash do you have? (My rule is that money used for promoting should never be personal money.) Are you in a good place, emotionally? (Running marketing campaigns is stressful when you’re already overloaded. If you’re doing it because you’re desperate, you’re more likely to make mistakes, make rash decisions, neglect plans you’ve created, and not set things up efficiently and effectively.)

How many reviews should you have?

It depends on your genre. I recommend going through previous BookBub emails and calculating the average number of reviews in your genre for previous months. Aim for that average (possibly ignoring the outliers), remembering that most books will have over 100, if not 200. If you write romance or another popular genre, you’ll probably want more.

Thank you for reading this post, and thanks to Joe for letting me share it with you. I hope you’ve found something useful that will help you get started or that will give you the encouragement to keep going.

About Andrea

Andrea Pearson graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor of science degree in Communications Disorders. She is the author of many full-length novels (the Kilenya Series and Katon University series), and several novellas. Writing is the chocolate of her life—it is, in fact, the only thing she ever craves. Being with her family and close friends is where she’s happiest, and she loves thunderstorms, the ocean, hiking, public speaking, painting, and traveling.

Andrea and her husband are expecting their second, a boy, coming October 2015. They and their two-year-old daughter live in a quaint little valley surrounded by hills.

You can learn more about Andrea by visiting her website.

Andrea was recently interviewed on the fabulous Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast. She and Simon Whistler discussed the topics mentioned in this post, along with others. Feel free to check that out by clicking here. (And consider subscribing—this is a top-notch author podcast.)

About Discern

Nicole Williams is an Arete—a fourth child with magical abilities—yet no matter how hard she tries, she can’t Channel her power. In fact, she seems to be the only student at Katon University who fails at magic.

This doesn’t stop her from competing to be included on a university-led expedition to Arches National Park. She is determined to show everyone, but mostly herself, that she does belong. Yet, to qualify for the trip, she must produce at least a speck of Wind magic, and that appears to be impossible.

Nicole turns to her best friend, Lizzie, for help, along with fellow student Austin Young, who is considered by all a magical rarity. He also happens to be the hottest guy on campus and just might be interested in her.

As the competition progresses, Nicole wonders if she’s making the right choice—especially when she learns that the strange fossils they’ll be studying in Arches might not be as dead as everyone thinks.

Readers of Lovecraft and M.R. James will recognize and enjoy themes from both authors.

Download it for free from Amazon and all other major retailers.


Jennifer O said...

Andrea, I LOVE this post. Thank you, thank you for great insights - this is exactly what a new author like myself needs to know.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Wonderful, thorough list of all the ways to boost your indie writing career. Of course, no one has the time to do ALL these things. And looking at all the possibilities can be discouraging.

It all starts with writing the best books you can. If you stop writing and publishing, you cannot succeed. If you keep putting more out there, you are still in the game.

Considering that the *publishing* part of our careers was pretty much out of our hands until the last few years, we who are writing now are very lucky. We now have the means to make modest, or even serious, money.

Thanks, Andrea, for sharing all of your insights.

J. Eliot Mason said...

This was a great little window into your world. I especially liked the little timeline to your success. This is something new writers need to keep in mind. "It takes a writer ten years to become an overnight success."

My blog;

Kevin Riley said...

Thanks for sharing the great info! As a new author I can use all the help I can get.

J. R. Tomlin said...

One of the BEST and most practical blog articles I've seen in a very long time. Thanks!

S. A. Lusher said...

Great advice and article, but there is one thing I'm confused about. You mention several times 'make your brook permafree', like it's nothing, but I've never heard a surefire way of actually making this happen. How do you do it?

Andrea said...

A couple more sites I've used since writing this post that have worked well for me include Reading Deals and Book Barbarian.

I've also heard good things about Robin Reads, though I've yet to try them.

Andrea said...

I upload to D2D or Smashwords and set it as free. Once it lands on other retailer sites, I log into my KDP account and send an email to Amazon, including links to the other sites where it's free (Nook, iTunes, Kobo), nicely asking them to price match and giving them a couple of my reasons why I'd like it to happen. They've always price matched within days, if not hours. You can also report a lower price, but it can take months for anything to happen when following that route.

I've also found it helpful to do this while running a promotion on the book. The more attention a book is getting, the faster Amazon seems to change the price.

Andrea said...

Doing them all at once is daunting and impossible, but implementing something every week or so until it's all mastered works.

And I love being a writer now - we have so many things at our hands that we didn't have previously!

S. A. Lusher said...

Okay, then it definitely must be a popularity thing and Amazon took a look at my numbers and rolled their eyes. I did exactly that, put one of titles up on Smashwords for free, sent them an e-mail and even got several other people to do the whole 'report a cheaper price' thing on the product page. The best I got from Amazon was a boilerplate response like 'We use a variety of criteria to determine when to change the price of a title...blah, blah, blah' and nothing ever came of it.

Scott Dyson said...

Thanks for a great article! It gave me a bit of a to-do list for the future of my writing career...

Bill Cokas said...

This is HUGELY helpful, Andrea! I'm going to take a while to digest it all. One note, under 2f, regarding contacting Goodreads readers in your genre, I did do that and it did work (to a degree), but I believe it's contrary to their terms of service and a couple people didn't hesitate to point that out to me when I reached out to them. Luckily, I didn't get flagged or "officially warned."

Tikiri said...

Wow. What a informative article chockful of solid advice and insight. Thank you so much for sharing. I will read this, use this diligently. Thanks so much again.

A.C. Flory said...

At last! Real, step-by-step information for complete newbies [like me]. I've shied away from the whole idea of a 'newsletter' because I can't flog a newsletter any more than I can flog my writing. Thank you, thank you for some ideas even I can try. :D

Lucy Lit said...

Thank you, Andrea. Very informative and helpful without all of the "rah rah" fluff or outright discouraging comments I've seen from some other sites. Appreciate your sharing.

David L. Shutter said...

Andrea- thanks for all the great info and congrats on everything.

LM Manifold said...

Andrea, thanks so much for this post! I like how you've laid it out in a step-by-step fashion. It helps when there are so many sites with all sorts of ideas! Definitely bookmarking for future reference. Congratulations on your success.

antares said...

@Andrea Pearson, Thank you very much for outlining the indie publishing business.

@S. A. Lusher

At Writers' Cafe, I have read that if you write Amazon and tell them that your permafree book is part of a sales strategy for your other books they will price match. Thus the purpose is not to increase the number of downloads for that volume but to increase sales across a number of volumes. (Or maybe I read this in Write. Publish. Repeat.)

One thing I found about soliciting reviews is that I need to be aware of not just genre but sub-genre. I write hard sf. The lowest review I have came from a soft sf reader. She did not like all the technical stuff. The hard sf reviewers loved it.

This may seem self-evident to others. It was not to me.

Alan Spade said...

A great blog post, on so many levels. looks like to be a great site for authors. There's one column that is missing, though: "multi-platform". For example, EReader News Today allows to promote your free or bargain book on Kobo, Google, Apple and not only on Amazon, but there's a number of sites where you can promote only on Amazon.

Andrea, did you use both D2D and Smashwords? Apart from the daily reports and more frequent payments, are there other advantages in using D2D? Which one would you recommend?

Chemist Ken said...

I've heard that it can be difficult to self-publish MG books because librarians and teachers (the main driving force for sales of MG as I understand it) tend to ignore them. Glad to see it is possible to succeed in that area, since I would like to self-publish MG in the future.

w.adam mandelbaum said...

Nice of you to put the time and effort in to create this post. I'm sure it will help many. So will a lot of luck. If your trad deal was offering a decent advance, perhaps you should have grabbed it. Could have helped you sell subsequent indie pubs. Either way, mazel tov on your success and the new baby.


Great post Andrea. Congrats on your success with this solid strategy.

Andrea said...

Alan, I use Smashwords, but only because they were the only game in town when I started. From what I can tell, D2D is a better run company that doesn't complain as much about competitors. I'll probably switch over eventually. Half of my titles are in KDP Select, though, and I love it there. I may eventually move everything over.

Andrea said...

MG is incredibly difficult to sell. Most of my readers are adults. School visits are fun and work well, but doing them is a full-time job. I wouldn't change the books I started out with, but I'm a lot more selective now and rarely write MG anymore. When I do, it's with the full knowledge that unless I do a ton of work (ie, reaching out to librarians and teachers, visiting schools, etc.), the book really won't succeed.

I haven't been ignored by librarians and teachers, but I've always reached out to them through others. Networking, basically.

Alan Spade said...

Thanks for your response, Andrea.

JM Davis said...

Helpful information, thank you, Andrea.

Geri Jeter said...

Really good article full of useful information. What is missing, however, is the importance of good copy editing and proofreading, along with good book design. These issues are cropping up in book reviews and can turn people away from your book. When writers assume the publishing mantle, they also assume the responsibility for turning out a good work product at all levels. Think of it this way -- you might use a coupon or be intrigued by the advertising for a new product. However, if the product itself isn't good, would you buy a second?

Andrea said...

Geri - readers of Joe's blog are pretty familiar with the need to have a book professionally put together - edits, proofreads, covers, etc. I didn't want to rehash what we've all read here, figuring that "Our aim is to have as many high-quality books available as possible" would be enough of a reminder to be professional on all fronts.

Thanks for your comment! Readers definitely remember when a book wasn't well edited.

Lawrence J Bookbinder said...

After reading your post, I wanted to jump out of my chair, clap my hands, and shout Bravo.
I’ve learned more from it than from many full-length books.
If you published it as an ebook, I’m certain many more self-pubbers would achieve success, and save time, energy, money.
I conclude with profound gratitude and a bow of respect.

Dan McClure said...

Love reading nuts-and-bolts stuff like this. Good stuff to keep in mind for everyone trying to carve out an audience in the online self-publishing world.

Pascal Bleval said...

Those are very intersting pieces of advice. I knew most of them but the way they are listed here, step by step, makes it that much clearer.
Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge !

Rachelle Christensen said...

Thanks, Andrea! This is awesome advice with a strong foundation for remembering to keep things in perspective. It's so hard to be patient, so thank you for the reminder!

Catherine Hudson said...

Fantastic post! Thank you for making marketing sound less daunting, with clear and concise steps to follow. Not to mention staying sane emotionally.

Anonymous said...

Totally great post. The only thing I disagree with is the advice not to bother with advertising until you have 3-4 books up. I've heard that piece of advice a lot, but if I had listened to it, I would be a very sad camper. Thankfully, I had already started marketing my first book before people told me that it was pointless. As a result, my first book had 120K freeloads and 80K paid sales before I released the second book. Now, I'm closing in on 250K sales (that's the 120k freeloads and 130K in paid sales). And that's from my first two full-length novels. I would have none of that, if I had chosen to not market my books until I had 3-4 full-length novels available. That's a lot of money and time to lose. For people who can write fast, and they can write a 3-book series in a year, that advice may work better.

Donnie Peters said...

Such good advice, both for newbie writers and those more experienced. I'm trying to launch a writing career too and am devoted to Mailchimp. But other services leave me confused. I'm really glad you wrote that about Google Adwords, it seems like every writer uses the service but I just don't get it. I'll definitely be using your advice.

Donnie Peters @ Wthree Group of Companies

Al Falah said...

awesome post, thank you

Antara man said...

Benchmark is also a very good email marketing provider and is also free for up to 2000 subscribers but it offers automation for free too. What I dislike, however, is the sign-up forms. In MC it's better.
Aweber is way to expansive. I think for fiction authors MC or benchmark are the best solutions.