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December 9, 2013
By Alex Palmer
Self-published author Maya Cross successfully navigated blogs and reviewers to gain her fan base.

Among self-published authors’ major advantages over published big-names is often a more personal connection with readers. Whether exchanging comments on Twitter, posting updates to their blog, or taking other steps, these writers tend to ingratiate themselves with readers in a more direct way than a formal marketing blitz it likely to accomplish.

That has been part of the reason that Australian author Maya Cross has seen each installment of her three-part erotic romance Alpha Series become a bestseller. But while an unimpeded connection with readers has been key to Cross’s success, also important has been maintaining a certain privacy.

For one thing, “Maya Cross” is not the author’s actual name, but a pseudonym taken on to add allure to the Alpha books.

“It seemed like a logical choice to publish under a pseudonym,” says Cross. “I like the idea of having a layer of protection between myself and the people who are reading my writing.”

Still relatively new to self-publishing (her first novel, Locked, was published in March of this year), Cross sees a pseudonym as a way to maintain the freedom to try on different roles as an author—exploring new genres and styles under different names—without alienating readers expecting a particular type of book from “Maya Cross.”

But besides the assumed name, Cross has tried to be open and transparent with her fans about her writing and the Alpha Series that they have come to love. She discussed the price of her books and her choice to release them as a trilogy. But before Cross got to that point, it was a free-flowing discussion with romance fans and authors that first sparked the idea of self-publishing at all.

With Both Feet

The idea of self-publishing came to Cross when she was writing on an author’s forum about having manuscripts in her drawers that she never expected to publish, in part because it would be difficult to get interest from a major publisher. The writers in the conversation urged her to consider self-publishing.

"If you’re doing it right, you’re only putting one click between you and your reader."
“Self-publishing had quite a large stigma, though that stigma is disappearing enough that I gave it more than a passing thought,” says Cross.

Thanks to savings she had accumulated, Cross took a break from freelance writing gigs and dedicated herself full-time to self-publishing a novel. But to make the jump into professional fiction writing, Cross knew she had to balance her artistic and economic needs. Though she had dabbled in a wide range of genres, including horror and science fiction, Cross settled on erotic romance as an area that she was not only interested in writing, but that also seemed more marketable, thanks to the community of fans that fuels the category. “They read voraciously and they absolutely want to spread the word about their favorite books and authors,” says Cross.

After a lengthy period of working out the design of the story and learning the business, beginning in November of 2012 Cross set to writing. As the manuscript grew, she sensed that she might need to rethink its structure. Rather than a hefty one-volume work of about 125,000 words, she realized it might make more sense to publish in three installments.

Cross opted to publish through Amazon Digital Services and charge 99 cents for the first, shortest book (making it “kind of my loss leader,” Cross says), and $2.99 for each of the two subsequent books. Sensitive to concerns that this might come across as a way to squeeze more money from readers, Cross posted a lengthy note on her author blog shortly after the publication of Locked, explaining the decision.

“I told people how long the books would be, and how expensive they would be, because I want them to understand my decisions and why I made them,” says Cross. “They appreciated knowing that going in to the series there would be cliffhangers.”

Of course, there are readers who dislike cliffhangers as a rule—who take to Amazon to denounce a book if they bought it only to realize at the end that it wasn’t the complete story. On her blog, Cross urged these readers to wait until the final installment is out before picking up any of them.

“I don’t want to be getting sales through deception,” says Cross. “They should know what they’re buying when they buy it.”

Stepping Stones

By releasing the book in three parts, Cross was also able to learn from each book’s release. When the first one came out in March 2013, Cross had only a rudimentary marketing plan. She arranged for an eye-catching cover from a graphic designer friend, and thought her book’s description would entice readers. But she had done little other outreach by the time Locked was set to publish. She spent a few late nights going over blogs and compiling a list of those that might have an interest in Locked.

“This is me doing this the day before it’s scheduled to go live, and I realized that it was just far too late,” she says. “I’d finished writing and editing, and didn’t see any reason to wait, but in retrospect, I realize you should wait as part of a deliberate marketing plan.”

Several blogs did review the book, however, and other reviewers agreed to give it a review at some later time. The book began to gain some momentum as more readers liked it and told their communities. Readers responded to the sharp-witted heroine and handsome and wealthy leading man, and Cross’s last-minute marketing efforts and low price-point paid off. For at least one day, Locked cracked the top 100 on Amazon, convincing Cross that she was on the right track.

For Lockout, the second book in the series, Cross studied what other successful romance authors were doing and created a longer-term marketing plan. Cultivating the blogger and reviewer contacts she had made after the release of Locked, Cross coordinated a cover reveal across several blogs on the same day, about three weeks before the book’s release.

Review copies then went out to bloggers, with many reviewers eager to cover the second part of the story, having positively reviewed the first. Cross promoted the book through giveaways on Goodreads and used the site Rafflecopter, which facilitates giveaways of books and other products to entrants who take specific actions, such as Liking an author on Facebook, following them on Twitter, or subscribing to an e-mail newsletter.

Cross used Rafflecopter to generate Likes on Facebook, which has been her main platform for interacting with readers ever since. She confesses, “[I don’t] really get Twitter. Some people use it to great effect, but to me it’s just too quick and disposable.”

Applying the Lessons

Cross followed the same path for her third book, Unlocked, with the cover reveal, review copies, and giveaways. But this time, in addition to the usual blogs, she also reached out to Facebook fan pages for 50 Shades of Grey and other books with large fan bases whose readers were likely to overlap with those of the Alpha Series. Managers of pages such as the Christian Grey Fan Page (with more than 500,000 fans) as well as Totally Booked, Aestas Book Blog, and Natasha is a Book Junkie proved willing to promote a fellow erotic romance writer.

“Basically, you just need to think about where people who would want to read your book are congregating and find a way to approach them,” says Cross.

In combination with that, she put out Facebook ads, which she has also found enormously successful, thanks to the ease of downloading an e-book from the site.

“If you’re doing it right, you’re only putting one click between you and your reader,” says Cross. “And people who are likely to read e-books are slightly more tech-savvy than average. You’re kind of shooting directly to your target market when you’re advertising via Facebook.”

Two days before the book came out, Cross ran a flash sale, posting it on Amazon for 99 cents. It helped push the book higher on the Amazon bestseller list and sold about 1,000 copies in the week.

Cross knew she had to front-load her marketing effort to get fans buying the book within the first day or two of its release. In her studies of the business side of self-publishing, the author had learned that Amazon’s algorithms make it difficult to be very successful outside of the initial launch window, and that about six months ago the company had made some modifications in its system to favor new titles.

The coordinated marketing effort paid off. Unlocked was a massive hit, rising to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, hitting #24 on its first day, then rising to #1 shortly after that. The sales landed it on the New York Times and USA Today bestselling e-books lists as well.

But while Cross credits her study of the business side of self-publishing with helping to generate the burst of sales, she adds that, in the long run, it is her open dialogue with readers that will sustain her as an author.

“Market every book and try to make it a success, but at the same time don’t expect every book to take off,” says Cross. “For most writers, success is a slow build, but what is going to keep it going is making sure you are generating those exchanges with readers and keeping them interested.”

Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist and the author of Weird-o-pedia.