My Bestselling Story
How hard work turned a first-time novelist from self-published author into a #1 bestseller
The biggest mistake I made in my self-publishing efforts was thinking that the marketing could wait. But even more crucially, I had absolutely no idea how to set about marketing my novel.I remember vividly the moment I decided to become an independently, or, some would say, self-published author. I wish I could say it was a eureka moment, but it wasn’t. While browsing the Web last October, I discovered an article that said I could now publish in the Kindle Direct Publishing program. In the beginning, Amazon’s Kindle publishing program was restricted to U.S. bank account holders only, and I am a U.K. citizen now living in Italy. But with that barrier removed, I thought, “Why not?”
The experience has been life-changing. My book, Only the Innocent, has now sold more than 100,000 copies, even hitting #1 on the Amazon list for four weeks, with the vast majority of those sales priced at $2.99, with Amazon’s 70% standard royalty. And due to my novel’s success, I now have an agent, who has helped enormously with planning my future direction as an author.
When I wrote Only the Innocent, I had no real aspirations. I wrote it because the story had been in my head for years, and it was bursting to get out. But then a small number of people read it, and they encouraged me. So I made a rather feeble attempt to find an agent. I sent the synopsis and first 30 pages to about eight different agents, all unsolicited. Most sent a form rejection letter, and some didn’t even respond. Two agents, however, did respond, and asked to read the whole book. They were both very generous with their praise and encouragement. But they, too, weren’t sure that they could sell Only the Innocent to a publisher on the grounds that it didn’t precisely fit into a genre, and apparently it wasn’t what people were looking to read. Despite some positive feedback, I never got that elusive deal. Even though I never had any real ambition to be published, I was frustrated to be told that my book wasn’t what people wanted to read.
Several months later, after reading that fateful article online, I decided to publish with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, and I got to work.
I had no idea how to format a book for the Kindle, or any other e-reader, but I was pretty sure that just uploading a Word file wouldn’t give me the best result. My novel had been proofread by some really good people, and I’m not a bad proofreader myself—or so I thought. But in the weeks before I uploaded my book, I made some tweaks and introduced mistakes—I can’t blame my proofreaders for that. And this was the first lesson I learned: if I publish independently again, I will not only have my book proofread, I will use a professional editor to tell me where my novel needs further work.
At the same time, I did one thing right. Fortunately for me, I have a friend who is a brilliant graphic designer, and he offered to design my cover after seeing my rather pathetic efforts. I really think this made a major difference. The old adage says not to judge a book by its cover, but in practice, that’s not the way it works.
A reader may not buy a book because of the cover, but it could well be what attracts their interest in the first place. Think “curb appeal,” you know, the thing that everybody shouts about when buying a house. The cover is the book equivalent of curb appeal.
When everything was in place—clean copy, good design—I uploaded the book to Amazon (and several other distributors). It felt great to see my novel given the same amount of “shelf space” as the greats in my genre. There was just one small problem: who was going to buy it?
The biggest mistake I made in my self-publishing efforts was thinking that the marketing could wait. But even more crucially, I had absolutely no idea how to set about marketing my novel.
In the first week or so, I netted some sales through my network of friends and family. But after the initial enthusiasm and great joy at selling 25 copies a day for about three days, the numbers dropped to about one a day. It was a bit depressing, even though I had very low ambitions. I was hoping to sell a thousand copies in total. At this pace, this was going to take a while.
One of the great things about the Kindle Direct Publishing system is that your sales figures are constantly updated. Because I was able to check them every day, suddenly, I wanted to sell more. Something had to be done. The trouble was, I didn’t have a clue what that was.
I went into research mode, reading about ways of getting my book noticed. But weeks later, I realized a very sad fact: I was doing lots and lots of reading of advice, but I wasn’t actually doing anything at all. It was just so easy to go from one author help site to the next thinking “ooh, that’s a good idea” and bookmarking the page. My “e-book marketing bookmarks folder” grew to be enormous—but my sales were still small.
As somebody who used to run a business, I had to acknowledge that this was not a very productive way of working, and I forced myself out of “writer mode” and into “business mode.” I wrote a marketing plan—seven pages of it—and it was the single most important thing that I did.
The specific details of my plan are almost irrelevant, because a marketing plan for one book could be very different to a plan for a different type of book. But what this plan gave me was structure: a set of priorities and some specific targets. And once the plan was in place, I knew what I had to do each day and how much time to spend on each activity.
To create the plan, I started by looking at “channels” to market—in other words, the places where my book could be purchased. I looked at every relevant Web site and considered how I could influence the visibility of my novel. I tweaked the plan constantly, as I recognized which strategies were working and which were not—helped by the very current sales figures provided by Amazon.
And I prioritized. I spent more effort on those places where I thought I had the best chance for sales. Primarily, I decided that Amazon in the U.K. would be my number one target. Only the Innocent is based in London and Oxfordshire (with a bit of Venice and Positano thrown in), and there was potential word-of-mouth marketing buzz, so it seemed like the best choice.
When I launched my book, I had an unimpressive Web site, no blog, a staggering nine followers on Twitter, and about three Facebook fans. There was nobody itching to buy my book. But one thing Amazon does really well is provide lots of different opportunities for making a book visible. And one thing I’ve learned is that if people can see your book, and you’ve done everything else right, they will start to buy it.
I looked at some of the “visibility” options to see which, if any, I could influence, and I selected two: “Customers who bought this book also bought...” and “Browse Kindle Books.”
When you go to the “Browse Kindle Books” option, the default is to list books based on their popularity. This is not the same as their chart position, a fact that confused me for a long time. In fact, I still don’t understand the algorithm Amazon uses, but I figured out that if you get a few things right, you can get your book to appear on the first page of this section for a limited period.
For example, one of the options available is to view “New Releases” from either the last 30 or 90 days. Remember how I said I initially thought marketing could wait? This was a huge mistake—and this is why. With no marketing plan in place, you cannot exploit the visibility option in the first weeks after release, and after that it gets a lot tougher.
I also made another mistake. I didn’t understand how the “Categories” work. There were 22,000 fiction titles published on Amazon in the past 30 days (the U.S. and U.K. have surprisingly similar numbers). Without putting your book into a sensible category your chances of being visible are seriously diminished.But which category? My book is a psychological thriller, so I listed it under Thrillers. It made sense at the time. But there were 1,400 thrillers released in the past 30 days. What I hadn’t realized is that the thriller category has lots of sub-categories, and a listing in Suspense would only compete with 572 books, and if you’re lucky enough to have written a Legal Thriller there are just 33 titles in that list, making the odds of discovery a bit better.
With good pre-release marketing, contacts you’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, or in other forums might just decide to buy your book on day one, and that can really help, because you don’t need too many sales in that first period to gain even more precious visibility via Amazon’s popularity rankings. Through my lack of experience, however, I missed all that.
What I did do, however, was work on the “Browse by Average Review” option. As soon as my book was launched, I sent off formal review requests to as many book bloggers as I could find. I produced a professional review request that provided all the details about my book, and then I waited.
It takes effort and a lot of research (plus a fair bit of nail-biting), but it’s worth it: good reviews will make a real difference. They may take longer than 30 days, but reputable reviews (rather than the one-line positive or negative type) are worth their weight in gold, and hopefully can have an impact within the 90-day window.
When I first published my book, it was quite depressing to see the “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought...” on my book’s page, because it either doesn’t exist or it is empty. Of course, this means that your book won’t feature on any one else’s page either. So, to fix this, you need readers who love your sort of book—and there are ways to find them.
Twitter offers a great advantage here. Check out the people who follow authors in your genre that you admire, and follow them. Many people will follow you back—not everybody, but just keep at it. Use hashtags to find people who are reading books like yours, and follow them. You can do all of this before your book is even launched. You only need a few of these people to buy your book, and then the linking begins.
One of my most successful strategies was to engage with people in online forums. I used the Amazon and Goodreads forums, but there are many others. I didn’t just use forums to promote my book; I met some great people who were, and still are, very supportive. Many of them did buy my book, and some of them even reviewed it. But better still, they talked about it on other forums, and that’s when things really started to take off.
Of course, visibility is only important if people want to buy your book when they’ve discovered it—and that’s why your product description is so important. Make it count. It needs to be as good as the blurb on the back cover of a printed book, not a one-line description.
Amazon offers additional programs—such as the KDP Select program. With KDP Select, authors have to agree not to sell their book anywhere but on Amazon for a 90-day period. During that time, your book can be loaned through the library system (authors are paid for this) and can be served up as a free promotion for up to five days during that period. Some authors have had success achieving a high chart position when their book was being promoted as free, which carried forward into sales when the book reverted to its usual selling price.
I did not use this program. It did seem to me that in most cases the KDP Select books fell back down the charts quickly after coming out of the program, and I felt that building sales by creating interest from the ground up would enable me to sustain a chart position for longer.
But pricing does play an important role. I originally set the price of Only the Innocent at £1.99 and $2.99, but in mid-January I decided to drop the price to £0.99 and $1.99 as a promotion. As a new author, I wanted people to be able to buy my book without even thinking about the price, so I marketed it as a “special offer” for a “limited period.” During this time, I only took a 35% royalty. Soon, my book reached #1 in the U.K.
After hitting #1, I gave it a couple of days and then put the price back to the original level, to see what effect this would have. Surprisingly, the daily total hardly moved. I was selling over 3,000 copies a day. It is worth noting that I made all the pricing decisions—Amazon never reduced my price. The decisions I made were based on books that I was competing with in the top 100, but I think price points change from time to time and need to be considered carefully when launching a new title.
Finally, luck played its part in terms of my success, particularly in terms of timing. Thankfully, I didn’t have to compete with Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games to get to the top—although it was The Hunger Games that finally knocked me off the #1 spot.
I don’t believe that I hold the key to self-publishing success. I did some things right, some wrong, and there was a whole lot of luck and many hours of hard work involved. But I was able to prove that Only the Innocent really is the type of book people want to read.
I’m lucky to now have a terrific agent, and she has edited Only the Innocent, providing me with copious notes that have helped me to improve my writing. And at the moment, I am in the final stages of negotiation to have my book published in the U.S., and there has been a lot of interest from publishers in the U.K., too.
Working with a team of supportive, professional publishing experts is very appealing. But if nothing works out, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish again. Self-publishing has allowed me to demonstrate that I can write books that people want to read, and given me confidence to carry on writing. Whether with KDP or with a traditional publisher, it’s all about getting my book out there and hoping and praying that people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And I’ve learned some valuable lessons about marketing, which I will carry forward with my next book—whether self- or traditionally published.
What started as a “have a go” moment turned into months of hard work, and, ultimately, success. What a journey.
Rachel Abbott is the author of the psychological thriller Only the Innocent, which reached #1 on Amazon U.K. in February 2012, remained there for four weeks, and has sold more than 100,000 copies to date. She is currently working on her second novel.