James Scott Bell
Ah, the book launch. The nerve-wracking bane of the author’s life. Will my baby make it out there in the big, dark, roiling tsunami of content? Will all that love and attention I’ve lavished on my project finally pay off with some actual readers?
In the traditional world it’s getting harder to launch. Publishers are stingy with marketing dollars. Unless a publisher puts some real money behind a title, it’s not likely it will register as more than a sonar blip in the ocean of books. Your single copy is likely to be shelved in a store (remember those?) spine-out. Your publisher has to pay for better placement, and that’s usually reserved for the A-listers.
Book launch parties and bookstore signings can be fun, but are often depressing. All of us who’ve been published traditionally know the feeling of sitting in a bookstore, stacks of our books on the table, watching browsers amble by with a look of pity in their eyes as they go off to find the new Stephen King. We put out bowls of candy and colorful bookmarks, and end up eating both of them ourselves.
In the new world of self-publishing, however, you have control over the launch. So what’s the best way to go about it?
Last week I came out with my newest book, How to Make a Living as a Writer. The launch was a success. The book hit #1 on Amazon’s Writing Skills list and #2 on Small Business.
Let me offer you the simple formula I use.
1. Write the best book you can
No-brainer. Every time out, do your best writing. Study the craft. Keep working at it. By far the biggest factor in a writing career is producing quality. This is the unavoidable law of all business. You can’t sell what consumers don’t like. Ford put a ton of money behind the Edsel, a famous flop named after Henry Ford’s son (even though it sounds like something you take to cure rumblings in the stomach). The public did not like it. So they did not buy it, despite all the fancy ads. Don Draper himself could not sell Edsels.
Thus, if you give your writing 90% of your concentration you’re on absolutely the right marketing track.
2. Publish your book
I favor having direct accounts with the major retailers. Others opt for a one-stop distributor like Smashwords or Bookbaby. Some use a combination of the two. For example, some go direct with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and then via a distributor for other sites. It’s up to you, of course, but the extra effort to upload directly is not onerous and in return you keep all the profit.
What about going exclusive with Amazon? You can find plenty of debate about that online. If you’re just starting out, however, you need eyeballs on your book. The Kindle Select program is one way to accomplish that. C. J. Lyons, self-publishing megastar, put it this way:
Newer authors with limited readership probably have nothing to lose by granting Amazon exclusivity while they use Select to build their audience. Select becomes a tool to build a presence on the bestseller lists, reviews, and solid sales figures, along with an income before expansion, much in the way that smaller presses can serve as a stepping stone to larger publishers.
One more note: Amazon now offers a pre-order option. I have not used it yet, but will probably try it out soon. (Any of you who’ve had experience with this option, please tells us about it in the comments).
3. Mailing list
The best way to announce a book is to an email list of fans. I’ve been building my list for at least a decade. So my message to you is…start now! Make it easy for people to sign up for your updates on your website. Use one of the services, like Vertical Response, Constant Contact, or MailChimp.
Yes, it’s slow going at first. You have to build a base by producing good book after good book. If it’s your first book, go to your family and friends. Send each person an individualized email. Don’t bcc everyone with a blanket announcement. Shape each email to the person and then ask if they wouldn’t mind spreading the word to their own circle of friends. Offer them a free copy of your book in return for this.
In the back matter of your ebooks have a link to your mailing list form. You want pleased readers to be able to sign up immediately. How do you please readers? See #1, above.
Be smart about your emails. You can’t just send out any old message and hope for the best. You are making a presentation. Every email is a chance to grow fan goodwill or … to have someone hit “unsubscribe.” Write, edit, and re-write those messages.
I use text only, because I want the message to be personal, not graphics laden. The latter strikes me as too much of a “sales” look.
I make my emails short. People don’t have time to sift through War and Peace. I try to make them fun to read. I’ll include some humor, talk about the book a little, then provide links. I try to stick to only one or two calls for action in an email. One is probably best.
I promise my email list that they will always be the first to know when I have a new book. If you want to see how I do it, feel free to sign up here.
My timing is to send a launch email on the Saturday after the book goes live, because of #4:
4. Blog post
On Sunday, my regular stint here at TKZ, I’ll do a content-heavy post about the book. What I mean by that is it’s not just a sales pitch. I want to make the post about something of value to the audience for the book. The least effective way to sell is to be only about the sale. I want to give people proof that the book is worth buying. You can check out my post on How to Make a Living as a Writer here.
This is, of course, a popular blog, one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 blogs for writers. The great bloggers here, and those who are now emeritus, have been building the brand for over six years. What if you don’t have a blog, or care to create one?
Then specialize in one social media platform. I chose Twitter. Secondarily, I have a Facebook author page.
5. Twitter and Facebook
So I will make mention of the book on FB And then plan some tweets for the week. During a launch week I’ll stick to a 90/10 ratio of real social interaction and “soft” selling. Normally I’m probably about 95/5 on Twitter. That’s really what social media is for. Build your presence around sharing good content and relational communication.
That’s it. That’s my launch plan. And I don’t have to leave home to do it.
I don’t pay for publicity services, blog tours, banner ads and so on. I’m not against these things if you want to give them a go, but for me the return hasn’t been worth the investment. Concentrating on the five items in this post is the best use of my time.
Down the line, of course, there are the deal-alert services like BookBub, BookGorilla, eBookSoda and the like. But remember your best follow-up action is writing your next book. You need to think in terms of 4 – 5 books that readers love before significant momentum starts to kick in. Keep that in mind and keep writing.
Feel free to share any other ideas you think are effective for a book launch, or marketing in general. What has worked for you, either as an author or a buyer of books?
Explained in this way it doesn’t sound so overwhelming. A lot of hard work, certainly, but not overwhelming. Thanks.
Right, BK. I see so many new writers stressing about marketing and thinking there are a million things they need to do. I reality, it’s a few things, and the writing is the most important.
Jim, great post. Thanks for the advice.
As a beginning writer, I don’t have any ideas to add. As a consumer, the most effective communication to get me to buy a new book is the newsletter/email.
I agree with BK, your approach doesn’t sound so overwhelming. Reading the books on marketing leave me depressed, because I don’t have that kind of time. But your approach is doable. I’ll save this post as an outline for the appropriate time.
Thanks, Steve. Keeping the main thing the main thing is the main thing.
Very similar rp pounding the boards in music/songwriting ~ except instead of book signings it’s the small concerts (sometimes in the same store you’re getting the pitying glances in… ), with stacks of CD’s and sometimes t-shirts in lieu of candy and bookmarks (and they don’t taste any better, I can assure you~)
T-shirts have more fiber, however.
Good round-up. And while it’s time consuming and sometimes tedious, you have to do it and do it well. This was a good point also:
“You need to think in terms of 4 – 5 books that readers love before significant momentum starts to kick in. Keep that in mind and keep writing.”
I am beginning to think that one of the keys to self-publishing success is to have ENOUGH product out there to make an impression. One book a year doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. I wonder if it’s good advice to think in terms of having 2-3 solid books ready to go and then launch the first one as you perfect and ready the next? But as you said, the no. 1 thing you can do is WRITE A GREAT BOOK. So you have to find a balance between quality and quantity.
It’s quite true, Kris, that volume plays a key role. That’s why I have long likened this new era to the pulp fiction days. Those who made a living were prolific.
Your idea about having a series pretty much lined up is an idea that has legs. I’m doing this myself, prepping it for next year.
I am writing a series of novellas, and I plan to experiment with this approach. I’ll have the first three ready to go, and then I’ll publish the first two, either at once, or a week apart. Then, a month later, I’m going to publish the third.
Since I don’t have anything published yet, I hope doing more books in quicker frequencies will help me boost sales and get some momentum.
It will certainly be a good experiment!
This method has been recommended by several writers. It helps in the algorithms and when someone likes the first one, they can have instant gratification. I am looking to have book 2 in my series ready in February and via my Kickstarter, I owe a short story with my characters by the end of the year.
Years ago I signed up for a small amount for Google ads. I forgot how to access the original place I’d signed up, so the ads just kept running. Every month I’d get a bill for an amount like $ 2.50 or less. The deal was based on keywords–my ad would appear whenever a “bid” I’d made for a certain keyword won foe that keyword. I have long since forgotten which keywords I bid for, or how much I bid. But every month I’m reminded that, somewhere out in cyberspace, someone is getting a little popup ad from me!
So that’s YOU I keep seeing when I’m Googling around? Well, frequency breeds familiarity at least!
I recently saw a post on an indie author blog advocating for having four books complete and a fifth book nearly done before launching anything. Then the author can drop something fresh every couple of weeks for the first few months.
It seems pretty risky. First, by the time the author gets that many books written and out there, they’ve lost a lot of time when they could have been building an audience and earning at least some income on the books. Second, while that might be a good strategy today, will it be as good a strategy in two or more years when the books are finished? What worked for new authors three years ago doesn’t work now. Third, what if the series doesn’t find an audience? Again, it’s a big waste of time and energy only to discover that your idea doesn’t fly with readers. You could have tried something new instead of plowing on. And finally, the author doesn’t get any feedback from readers early enough to shape the series. Imagine discovering that the character everyone loves is a minor secondary character, but oops, you killed him off in the second book, and your readers won’t forgive you for that.
The solution seems to be to write faster, and there are lots of books and blogs offering tips about how to do that. That said, I’ve also seen comments from readers complaining about the low quality of the fiction turned out by some of the ‘write faster’ advocates. Seems like writers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Kathy, you’ve hit on some major issues here. Nicely done.
First, I also don’t subscribe to the “series all at once” mantra. There’s nothing that says it can’t work, but it’s not a slam dunk, either.
Making that first book in a series quality is super important, and getting a foothold in the market with it is easier when that’s the case.
Yes, as I said, there is an advantage for those who can produce at a good clip without sacrificing quality. That’s always been the case with commercial fiction, though.
Another way to say “between the devil and the deep blue sea” is “between Erle Stanley Gardner and Marcel Proust.”
That’s an interesting take & I agree it’s wise to have time to get feedback from readers–to a certain point. I guess everybody’s writing goals are different, but if I’m writing a book, I have a specific story in mind and will use specific characters to achieve that story, so I’m not writing with the end game of having writer feedback change my subsequent stories. And I would be highly unlikely to change genres because one genre is no longer “hot”.
Using TV writing as an example–I’m sure to some extent they adapt to ebb & flow of various sorts of feedback, nevertheless, they can’t adapt quickly enough. A good example is the modern Hawaii Five-0. Season 5 has been a complete disaster and all the main characters apparently underwent an unseen lobotomy between seasons 4 and 5. Even if they were to respond to viewer feedback, if the audience doesn’t like what they’ve done, they’ve already done irreparable damage to the characters that no amount of further stories or writing is going to fix.
Jim, thanks so much for this. A friend of mine asked me just yesterday about self-publishing and I’ve now sent him a link to your post. It’s a wonderful example of completing a seemingly daunting task inch by inch. Thanks again.
Glad to help, Joe. Every writer, no matter where they want to end up, should have at least a footprint in self-publishing.
Good stuff, Jim. As you touched on in the part about cultivating an email list, the personal touch matters much. What do you think about taking that a step farther?
Here’s my thought for when my time comes: I live in a pretty cohesive, literary-minded community (Bainbridge Island, Washington, just west of Seattle). What if I made my book available on all the requisite online sites, but put my energies into being a rock star on the home front? Handsell like a lunatic, do talks to civic groups and book clubs, chat up strangers in the eggplant aisle of the local food co-op, engage on local social media (there’s a lot of Bainbridge-specific web and Facebook pages, many of which I already participate in) have an epic launch party for the public, and build up my volume and quality of Amazon and Goodreads reviews through people who know and (presumably) like me?
Is it feasible to think I can develop wider momentum by developing my fan base by way of my home base? Then, when I appear to have hit the local saturation point, start spreading myself concentrically, geographically wider?
Could that work just as well as trying from the get-go to find the right mix of online pleasure pellets that may or may not reach Joe or Jane Online Thriller Reader in Terre Haute?
Or is the idea that we live in an actual place with people in it a naive and outdated one?
I don’t think it’s outdated at all, Jim. It’s like the game of Risk. It’s a good strategy to take over Australia and New Zealand and work outward from there. Especially if you have a good local literary community.
BTW, isn’t Bainbridge Island where Darryl Ponicsan (who also writes as Anne Argula) lives?
Good grab out of the mental litter bag! Darryl maintains a part-time home here. I know him slightly in person; we are, however, everyday Words With Friends friends. (And he’s the best player I’ve ever gone up against.)
I’m semi-known here, as a native, editor to several local self-publishing authors, and a third-tier figure in the local, prestigious, and well-populated literary community (I was at the local bookstore the other night for a reading by two local luminaries; I knew most of the authors who turned out well enough to exchange pleasantries, but, dammit, not well enough to get invited to the private reception after!).
Which is to say, I have a platform in my community, and a lot of room to grow it. How about the rest of you?
If you ever chat with Darryl, mention me to him. He may remember me. When I was in college I wrote him a letter (as a writer wannabe and fan of The Last Detail). He wrote a very nice letter back. I wrote him again about 20 years later to tell him I was “in the game” and he wrote me back again.
Tell him I have both his letters stuck in my copy of The Last Detail.
Thank you thank you thank you!
I am reading a ton of books on self publishing right now, and while knowledge is great, I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and like I have to make everything perfect or I’m going to FAIL and then everyone will laugh at me, and I’ll die alone in the gutter with nothing but the taste of ash in my mouth.
So this is perfect. I think I’m going to add the step of sending out free review copies before launch day, since I’m still establishing myself.
You’re welcome, Elizabeth. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the info out there. But as I said, 90% of this is the writing itself. Then a few things done well. After you get traction you can begin adding other things as you see fit. But keep it simple and strong as you move along.
Me too. Elizabeth. Me too!
Grats on hitting #1! I read it and reviewed it, and it’s a very helpful little book. Now I’m chewing on Write, Publish, Repeat. 🙂
Thanks, Kessie. Much appreciated!
I enjoy getting emails from JSB. He always has something interesting to say — other than “Buy Me!”
Hey, Adam, thanks for that very kind confirmation.
Thanks for all your great tips, Jim. I always look forward to your Sunday articles here. One thing a lot of indie authors, especially KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) ones seem to be doing that’s working very well to increase their sales is to make the first book in your series permafree – permanently free – as a hook to readers. If they like it, they’re likely to pay for more in the series. If you don’t write in a series, maybe just make one of your shorter works permanently free, like a novella or short story, or a few articles/chapters on a specific topic. I’m planning on doing that soon. Just need to look into it to see how to go about it!
Also, with the pressure to churn out more books, why not just writer shorter ones? I think you mentioned this tactic in one of your Sunday blog posts here. An epic novel can become 3 or 4 novellas, spread out over a year. Or publish some short stories based on your main character, to keep reader interest between novels.
Oops! I meant “why not just write shorter ones?”
Also, I’ve tried Amazon’s pre-order option for my upcoming clickable e-resource, Grammar on the Go, and it’s working fine, but I haven’t really promoted the book, so haven’t garnered any advance reviews. The pre-order option worked fantastically well for Robert Dugoni’s latest book, which had hundreds of great reviews on Amazon before it even became available to the public! I’m assuming he used NetGalley and other review services to gather those reviews.
Amazon is very strict about getting the “final” completed version about 2 weeks before launch date, or you get penalized and they won’t let you use the pre-order feature for a year. They don’t want to risk disappointing customers if the book isn’t available in final form on time. That’s not a problem for me, as I uploaded a version on time that was 95% ready, and now I’m tweaking it a bit and will upload a FINAL final version tonight or tomorrow, well on time for the Nov. 12 release date.
One of the advantages to using the pre-order option is that you now have a link to add to other e-books, your website, blog, etc. and people can go and read about it on Amazon (although they can’t peek inside the book like with published ones). And they can also pre-order, and your pre-orders show up in another spot than your sales (look around for them), then turn into sales when the book is published.
If I recall, Dugoni is an Amazon author, so has the benefit of pre-reviews. That option is not available for those not working with an Amazon imprint.
Yes, Bob Dugoni is an Amazon author, with Thomas & Mercer. Still, even without the benefit of early reviews (which helped his sales hugely, I’m sure!), it’s nice to be able to get the book up there and use the URL and start gathering a bit of momentum before release day.
One thing on pre-order . . . make sure you upload your final cover when you establish the book. If you change the cover, the new cover will appear on your sales page, but every time you share the link, from day 1 to, um, forever, the link will contain the old cover. Luckily, my old cover was awesome as well and only changed in typeface and some photoshop tweaks.
Weird! One of Amazon’s many little quirks, I guess. I’m having trouble uploading a new edition of one of my books onto my Kindle, even though I deleted the old one…
One last point on the pre-order thing with Amazon: Bob Dugoni is not just a Thomas and Mercer (ie Amazon imprint) author, his latest book was chosen for their Kindle First program in which Amazon chooses to promote for all its imprints (romance, mystery, kids et al) a couple books each month to promote heavily for pre-orders and reviews. It’s Amazon’s version of co-op advertising, sorta.
Devil’s Deal has been on the cyber-shelves since 10/01/2014 and I can add my own insights as a 1st book noobish.
Pre-Order: I did pre-order. The numbers were not huge and I doubt I will do it again because of some advice I have received and forgotten.
“Tell everyone your book is available on the 1st and then drop it on the 31st. This way you can buy a copy of your own book, verify how it looks, and fix any late-appearing errors. You can also see exactly how the sales page looks and fix anything before it is generally available.”
Freebie Days: I just came off a 3-day free promo of Devil’s Deal (see how I keep working that in there?) I used only free promo sources and did not spend one penny. I had 1600 downloads in 3 days and hit all the high points in my sub-categories and #300 overall in the Kindle free store.
I had talked to Amazon and hitting the top 100 in the sub-categories is where it is at for triggering the mystic algorithms. We’ll see what, if any bounce, I see.
Social Media: I’m still a bit of a twit-wit, but I did send out the word, especially on the freebie. I’ve gotten more traction via Facebook, but that is my main platform where I have put a lot of effort into building a presence. Because of social interaction, I was able to reach out and tag a couple of high-test writers for shares of the freebie link. Again, I was quite pleased.
Reviews: I think this is where it is at. Arm twist your peeps for reviews that talk about the book, not about how awesome and talented you are. I’ve now gotten my first reviews from people that I didn’t ask and I hope it fuels future ones from those who did the free downloads. It also lets folks vote up the reviews they like. Same on Goodreads.
Those who hang out with me on FB know I suffered a kick-in-the-gut family tragedy 10 days after the book release, so I disappeared for most of October. I used the freebie to hopefully re-energize my efforts. I will get back to blogging this week and report more on my promo efforts including building the mailing list.
I can’t wait to check out the new book.
Since you’re here, check out Devil’s Deal 😉
Thanks, Terri, for the good data here.
I have heard some advice that counsels against pre-order, but I can’t remember, either. If someone knows, chime in!
Glad to hear the launch of your book went so well, Terri! And so sorry to hear about your personal loss. I have your book and Jim’s latest, and must read both of them soon! My TBR pile is staggering!
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James, these are great tips. And you’re right, they can be done from the home–stress free.
The only thing I’ve been gun shy about doing is the mailing list. I know that’s a biggie.
My latest book (from another pen name) was available as a pre-order on Amazon and it hit in the top twenty in its category before release (and has stayed in the top twenty for over a month). This was the third in a series that is doing very well. I did about ten guest blog posts and my publisher paid for a couple of ads on sites, but these were up after release, so wouldn’t have had an impact on the pre-order status, so I guess Amazon’s algorithms strike again.