I talk a lot on this blog about my Grand Plan, but I haven’t gone into much detail about what it entails.
When I first decided to take the plunge into self-publishing about eighteen months ago, I put a lot of thought into whether I wanted to try to do it on my own, or to attempt the traditional publishing route. After a lot of consideration and pro/con lists, I opted to self-publish.
I knew that if – and that’s a big if – I managed to get an agent and a publisher and a contract, it would likely net me at least a tiny little bundle of success. Most first-time authors, even through traditional publishing, fail to strike it rich. Publishing is extremely competitive, and firms are hesitant to invest resources on unproven talent, so debut works tend to get small runs with very little active marketing support. Authors may get a decent fee for the publishing rights, and they may get a lousy fee, but typically they don’t make much – if anything – from sales or royalties. And, in the end, it could take a few years to go from finishing your book to getting signed with an agent to making a deal with a publisher to actually releasing the book.
On the other hand, as a self-publisher, I would get exactly zero dollars upfront. In fact, I’d lose money. But the book would be released immediately, and in the long run I would have total control, and any income I made would be due to sales. I knew it would probably take a few years and several books before I started to see actual results, and in the end that seemed like a much better deal to me. If both traditional and self-publishing meant that my first book saw peak interest… say, two years?… after it was completed, then I might as well spend the interim letting that interest build slowly rather than desperately sending queries and manuscripts to every decent agent I could find, only to sign with one who would indubitably be more invested in her other clients than she was in me.
See how much thought I put into this? It was all very professional and carefully researched and I’m sure you find it just as interesting as I do.
So when I outlined my Grand Plan, it was based on the idea that it would take 2-3 years before I started making enough income from book sales to actually make a measurable difference in my life. To that end, the gist of the Plan was thus:
- Don’t bother marketing at all for the first year; just write write write.
- Use whatever reviews/interest that were organically developed over the first year to leverage small marketing efforts in the second year; continue to write write write.
- At the end of the second year, have 3 books in a series released and start actively marketing the first, which will have had the most time to gain the most reviews. If people buy and like the first book, they’ll be more likely to pick up subsequent books in the series.
- Split time in the third year between marketing and writing, so that by the time I’m ready to release the fourth and final book I’ll have a good base to do intense promotion.
There are smaller subplans and steps and methods, but that’s basically what I decided to do. And for the most part, I’ve stayed on track.
The first year after I released To the North, I did pretty much no marketing whatsoever. I created this website, which currently averages an astounding 2.4 visitors per day, set up social media profiles, and ran a couple of Goodreads giveaways. I also took advantage of the free book days on KDP, but because I didn’t have a mailing list and my social media following is minuscule, I pretty much just let them happen unattended. I managed to get featured on a couple of book deal lists a few times, much to my surprise, which yielded several hundred downloads at a time, and I was pretty happy about that. The only actual marketing investment I made that year was a single Amazon ad campaign – mostly just to get an idea for how the process worked. I made a handful of sales, so I suppose it was successful.
The only part of the Plan that didn’t go the way I expected in the first year was reviews. I thought it would be pretty easy to get 20 Amazon reviews for To the North in the first year. It was not. I did not even break double digits. I ended the year with 8, and I had to draw blood for each and every one. They were overwhelmingly positive, which was nice, but the sheer number was disappointing.
There are a lot of resources out there for indie authors trying to promote their books. There’s an entire industry of “book deal” blogs, which (usually for a fee) will include a free or discounted book on their social media, website, or newsletter for a day. However, there are so many indie authors out there, all trying to do the same thing – get their books read! – that the quality and efficacy of these services varies greatly. Those that are pretty much universally acknowledged to be the best can be expensive, and they have minimum requirements for a book to be considered. Generally, that means a book must have a minimum number of reviews.
Even at the cheap end of the spectrum, a lot of these book deal services require a minimum of 10 Amazon reviews with an average rating of 3.5 or higher. When I was putting the Plan together, I assumed I’d have that by the end of the first year, easily.
I was incorrect.
My average ratings were fine, but the number of reviews just weren’t there. The disappointment of that, combined with the utter frustration of publishing To the East, meant that as the first year was drawing to a close, I was disheartened. A few times I even considered scrapping this whole thing. But I rallied and refocused, and by year’s end, with TtE well behind me, I started moving forward again. I started exploring new ways to start slowly building my marketing base for year two.
And then some things started happening.
At the end of January, after a long dry spell, I got a new Amazon review which boosted me up to 9. A few days later, I got another one, finally breaking double digits. Then a week after that, I got another. And another. In the last 31 days, I’ve had 5 new Amazon reviews, bringing my total as of writing to 13. In the same time fame, I’ve had 6 new reviews/ratings on Goodreads, bringing my total on that platform up to 17. And my average on both platforms is around 4.5 stars!
A few of those reviews came from one of the new marketing approaches I tried out in January – an eBook giveaway on LibraryThing. I mentioned this platform a few posts back, and that I was skeptical about the results but willing to give it a try. Turns out, it was alright. Of the 100 copies I offered, I had 38 takers. As of now, 23 of them have downloaded their copy (or multiple copies, in some cases), 2 have left reviews and 1 has joined my mailing list. Because the listing was free, and the books I was giving away were free, all it cost me were the few hours it took to set up the download codes and send out the emails and follow-ups. It was a little disappointing that so few people requested and downloaded the book, but it was brand new to the platform so it had no ratings yet. Maybe if I try it again, I’ll have better luck. We’ll see.
Another new thing I did was reach out to a book-of-the-month subscription box that specializes in indie authors to see if they would consider To the North for inclusion – and after a few weeks and a few emails, they read a copy and said yes! I’m leaving specifics out for now, but I can tell you that the book is slated to go out to their subscribers later this summer.
And now comes the biggest – and by that, I mean most expensive – thing I’ve tried. A couple of months ago, I submitted To the North for consideration for the Eric Hoffer Book Award.
There are a lot of indie book awards out there, and a lot of disagreement about whether or not any of them are worthwhile. Generally, even those who like them agree that winning an indie book award does nothing to help your sales or reputation, aside from the ability to call yourself an “award-winning author” or put a seal on your book cover. This is mostly because so many of them are for-profit and essentially awards-for-purchase – they charge a high entry fee and give out hundreds of awards per year. Total scams.
But, the Eric Hoffer Award is one that I saw repeatedly described as actually respectable. They don’t give out a million awards in a million categories, their fees are minimal, and the mission statement is decent. Is the award a prestigious household name, like the Pulitzer? Of course not. But would being named a winner of a finalist add some heft to a promotion package down the road and look good on my Amazon page? Sure.
So I decided, what the hell. I’ll submit my book. And wouldn’t you know it? Today I was notified that To the North is a finalist for the da Vinci Eye prize, which is a supplemental award given to books with exceptional cover art. This is a separate award than the grand prize or category prizes, whose finalists will be announced over the coming months (so I don’t know my status yet). But it’s pretty cool. Out of over thousand books sent in this year, only 36 have been named finalists for the da Vinci Eye.
The cover art for TtN (and To the East) is weird. I know. The style is very flat and sort of bizarre, just these great blocks of solid color. It doesn’t look like a typical book cover. Guess what, nerds? This was deliberate. I wanted something that looked different on a webpage alongside a bunch of other book covers, so it would stand out. I love the way it turned out (especially in hard copy – it looks way better in print than on a screen) but I knew full well it doesn’t tick the boxes a book cover is “supposed” to tick. I had no idea whether or not the Eric Hoffer judges would like it, but it seems they do!
So right now, I’m pretty stoked about where I am in this process right now. Am I making a lot of sales and bringing in the cash?
But things are definitely moving, and I still haven’t put much overall effort into marketing. This gives me hope that maybe by the time I am ready to start raining promotions all up in this place, I’ll have enough momentum and experience that it won’t be overwhelming or – worse – completely ineffective.