Friday, June 19, 2015

My Big Huge (Not) Self-Published eBook Launch Party!

I published by first novel, Eve's Hungry, but I'm sure you’ve already heard the internet buzzing endlessly about it. Oh, you haven’t? You haven't been reading all the coverage of my epic blog tour? You haven't seen all the tweets and retweets and retweeted retweets? How about that massive paid advertising campaign for my huge Facebook campaign packed with giveaways and incentives? No? Then surely you've run across my many viral book promotion videos on YouTube, Vimeo, vSocial and jumpcut? Or perhaps my clever Pinterest graphic poster campaign? No? All the reviews on eZines? No? My incessant email blasts? No?

Well, maybe that's because I didn't do any of that. Here's what I actually did for my big huge ebook launch: I put my book up on Kindle. That's pretty much it. I designed a cover, I wrote a sales blurb for Amazon’s listing, I plugged in the metadata as best I could and choose a sale price. I then bought one myself to double check the formatting. I send out a tweet and a quick post.  That's pretty much it.

I had been thinking about doing a lot more. In fact, I had been getting a little panicked about the idea that if I didn't do a ton of pre-launch promotion (spending a lot of time and money) I would doom my beautiful novel forever. After all, the internet is packed with advice from various bloggers saying it's critical to have a big launch and make a huge splash or your sales will never take off. Many say you have a very short window (30 days) to get your book noticed when it first gets on Amazon. If you can sell enough books in the first few days, Amazon's sales rankings will kick in and then you can mint money. Otherwise, it will disappear in the glut of ebooks and be lost for the end of time

There’s no question a well run launch campaign can work. Steven Konkoly and Bobby Akart held a launch party just last weekend for their new thriller The Loyal Nine. It was as well organized as military commando operation, with a Google hangout, Facebook launch party page, video feed, prizes, not to mention an in-depth website that fills in the background of is likely to be a series of six books. (One that screams television mini-series.) I bought a copy, checked out the live feed and watched in awe as, in a single afternoon, the novel jumped up the Amazon rankings from #25,000 to #5,000 to #1 in political thrillers.  (It's currently at #10.)

But Steven is an accomplished writer and a very experienced self-publisher with a great catalog of books and even a popular Kindle World offering. Not to mention a former active duty Naval officer who worked with elite military units. It’s only Bobby Akart’s second book, but he’s someone who had a dual bachelor's degree, masters and law degree before he was twenty three and moved onto a legal career in international banking. They completely disprove the meme that self-publishers are unemployed losers who can't get past literary agent’s slush piles.  These are two accomplished individuals who know how to get complicated things done. In college, I was trying to top John Blutarsky’s record before I dropped out to make money charging people to install Flying Toasters on their Macs. There’s no way I could pull off something like what Steven and Bobby did by myself.

But surely I could have done something more than simply publish and walk off. I couldn’t have jumped up to the top of the chart like they did, but why not at least try to make those early rankings work for you when fewer sales might take you higher?

When I started my novel, I vowed that I would see it simply as an experiment in self-expression and not worry about sales. There is a lot of competition out there in the the growing ebook world, and it bound to be tough to get my first book noticed. I promised myself to keep my expectations reasonable. I’m not looking to quit my day job and live off of ebook sales. (My day job isn’t so bad.) However, coming from a freelance business background, I couldn’t help but be interested in how to encourage sales, and wonder if there was a way to make the book profitable. Over the three years it took me to finish it, I read a lot of advice about ebook publishing, much of it contradictory. I find it fun to geek out about self-publishing strategy and have read tons of posts on the subject and several books. I’m always interested in different writer’s opinions about the best way to publish and promote.

So bear with me if I geek out a little here about my own, completely untested and possibly very unwise, strategies.

As my book neared completion, I had to get serious about exactly when I would publish it on Kindle and make choices about things like going exclusive with Amazon (which I did) and pricing strategy (my book is priced on the high end for self-published novels at $5.99). At that point, I also had to really think about whether or not I wanted special marketing efforts for the “launch.” I spent many a sleepless night worrying about what kind of ebook promotion made the most sense. What worked and what didn't work? What did it all cost and was there enough of a payoff? What was the minimum you needed to do? What was the most clever way to launch? How do you break through the clutter?

I worried about this so much it was a big distraction from the real reason I got so excited about self-publishing, which was, to PUBLISH MY NOVEL. It got in the way of me finishing my novel, and focusing on the important things like polishing, proofing, and proper formatting. Should I try to figure out how much it would cost to advertise the launch on Facebook? Or should I recheck the spelling of exotic locations and make sure I wasn't overusing adverbs?

Finally, I made a decision. I junked any thought of a big launch campaign until I was totally, completely done polishing my novel, and then, I quickly decided to junk the idea of doing any real promotion before launch. Not just because I wanted to make sure I wasn't distracted (or because I was too lazy) but the more I thought about it, the more I decided I didn't like the very idea that I had to do a lot of pre-launch publicity.

Pre-launch publicity, and a set launch window, is the fundamental marketing model in the traditional publishing industry. I know this from reading traditionally published writers who complain strongly about it. Basically, in traditional publishing, writers would have about a four week sales window when their book is launched and widely available in bookstores. If it doesn't sell well in that short window, they are screwed. It is likely their book would soon disappear from shelves and eventually go out of print. While there are some real world justifications for that business model in traditional publishing, much of is simply for the convenience of publishing executives who want to move quickly from book to book and aren’t that invested in the long term career of any specific writer, particularly a new writer.

In self-publishing, long term career advancement should be a writer’s primary concern. And the ability of a self-publisher to look at the long term, and avoid short term compromises, is a key strategic advantage of the little guy competing against big corporations. Getting sucked into a traditional publishing launch model seems to me to be philosophically wrong. So even if there might be some short term sales advantage to a big launch, I’m kind of against it in principle.

“Philosophically against big launches in principle?” Am I being too high minded here? Isn't the point to sell books? Shouldn't results be all that matters? Long term, isn’t selling more books better, regardless of how you do it? Well, no.

As someone who has done a lot of work in the entertainment industry (after my Flying Toaster days), including career consulting with various artists like filmmakers and actors, one of the biggest dangers in creative careers is burn out. There really is an argument for slow and steady wins the race. The artist who rushes into too many projects and over extends themselves trying to promote can simply get exhausted or discouraged. They can give up or lose focus and stumble. That isn’t to say that hard work isn’t necessary, but it’s best if that work is clearly productive and has measurable results. And even better if it focuses on the artist’s strengths and what they enjoy doing.

I’ve encountered the same thing working with tech startups that rush into business without being clear which direction they are heading or what is at the finish line. The good and bad thing about the internet is there is literally no end to what you can do. Back in the fifties, the owner of a brick and mortar store would have a limited number of places they could advertise: the local newspaper, the local TV station, limited signage opportunities. The owner of a factory would have a limited number of buyers to sell to, and a limited number of suppliers. Much of what worked and what didn’t work in those limited parameters was common knowledge. All of that has changed because of the internet, particularly with creative endeavors. There is no end to different ways to enhance your book, through professional covers, editors, proof readers, formatters, aggregators and no end in to all the ways you market it, with social media, paid advertising, publicity consultants and written, video and graphic promotional material. What works and what doesn’t work is constantly changing. This is why lots of creative startups end up spending a ton of money and time before finding out there is a limited market for whatever they are promoting, and end up shutting down at a big loss.

If there are unlimited creative ways I can spend money, or even just time, promoting my book, where do I concentrate my efforts? Here’s the advice I would give another artist and plan to take myself:

1. Try to focus as much time as you can on things that you enjoy doing.

2. Focus on efforts that deliver measurable results.

3. Prioritize what gives the best return for time and money spent.

4. Favor efforts that are repeatable and scalable.

So, for example, cold calling every acquaintance I know and begging them to buy my book during a launch window would probably deliver some measurable results, and might even be a good return on time and money. But I wouldn’t enjoy doing that. It’s also not very scalable. My list of acquaintances (as opposed to a real fan base) isn’t going to grow that much and might even shrink if I keep begging them to buy my books. And it might not be repeatable. How many times can I put the squeeze on people before they stop answering my calls?

What about handing out swag at a sci-fi convention? If I hand out colorful promotional stickers to the crowd, is it possible a small percentage will buy my ebooks and justify the time and cost? Let’s say it did. Let’s even say I enjoyed mixing it up with the sci-fi fan base. How repeatable and scalable is it? How many sci-fi conventions are there? How often would I be able to attend them? If two days of handing out stickers sells 50 books, do I really want to go to 10 conventions in the hopes of selling 500 books? At what point would I get burnt out and give up on that approach, even though I invested time and money testing it out and learning how it worked? Moreover, what’s the likelihood that it wouldn’t pay off in the first place? What are the chances that I would spend money on stickers and end up selling no books? Pretty good.

Much of marketing and promotion is guess work. It’s hard to know what will work. You have to assume much of what you do won’t work. But you also have to think about what will happen if it does work. Is it something you want to keep repeating? Is it something you can expand? So while, in the excitement of finishing my first book, the idea of handing out stickers to sell a few copies doesn’t seem so bad, I can’t really see it being something I want to do on a regular basis. And I can't really see how it could be something that could lead to a lot of sales.

Instead of spending a $100 on stickers, I could spend $100 on an Amazon KDP select advertising campaign. It also might not work, but if it did work, it is certainly something that is repeatable and scalable. If $100 leads to $200 in sales, then $500 might lead to $1,000 in sales. Not to mention it takes little time and effort to set up. So it seems better to test that out before heading off to a sci-fi convention.

While there are still more questions than answers about what is effective in the way of ebook promotion, many successful authors seem to agree on a few things that consistently work:

Mailing lists. If you can build up a good mailing list, it helps sells books to your fan base.

Bookbub. Bookbub seems to work more often than not, and sometimes work incredibly well. But it’s expensive and hard to get placement.

Kindle Countdowns and Free Promotions. Many argue that making your book free doesn’t work as well as it used to, but others say it’s still a great way to promote your work. Kindle countdowns are a newer development, but generally people think they can boost sales.

Finally, the thing almost everyone agrees is the best way to boost sales is:

PUBLISH ANOTHER BOOK. I’ve repeatedly heard experienced authors say that publishing another book helps boosts sales of your older books. Now, what the hell could be better than that? If you like writing, writing more sells more? Great! It’s staggering to me that with all the complaints about “too many writers” and “too many books,” successful self-publishers almost all say exactly the same thing: “more books equals more sales.”

Which brings me back to why I didn’t bother to mount a big launch for my debut novel. I don’t have a mailing list yet, and it seemed silly to hold off until I could develop one. Particularly since the best way to build your mailing list is with a link in the back of your already PUBLISHED book. Bookbub won’t accept you until you have enough reviews (and are going on sale from a previous established higher price), so you have to have already been published for some time. Kindle Countdowns and Free promotions aren’t available until a month after you publish. And finally, whatever time I spent on a debut book launch probably would be better invested in WRITING MY NEXT BOOK.

This isn’t to say that I won’t make any effort to promote my first book. I plan to and I’ve got some creative thoughts about how to do it, which I will share in future posts. (Hint: the internet likes cats.) But I prefer to test out my marketing without the gun to my head created by an arbitrary launch date.

Like Steven and Bobby, there are plenty of other writers, who are either more experienced with the process, already have good mailing lists, or enjoy engaging social media, who successfully use ebook launches to increase their intial sales. In the future, when I have a few more titles and more experience, I might also give it a try. (Though, when I read this post by David Gaughran, who literally wrote the book on self-publishing, and the struggles with his own launch, it still seems pretty stressful even for the established ebook author.)

So, now a month after my non-launch launch, what happened? Not too much. I’ve sold about ten copies, mostly to close friends. I’ve watched my Amazon best seller sales rank drop from a high of 80,000 after a couple sales in the first few days, to below 1,000,000 with no sales for the last two weeks. All of which would seem to confirm that more of an effort at launch might have helped.

Or not. It’s possible I could have spent a lot of money and time and ended up with the same amount of sales (which sure would have depressed me). And even if I had doubled or tripled my sales, I probably would have eventually ended up in the same spot today. Hard to know for sure.

But it shouldn’t matter so much since the most dependable way to boost sales is to write more books. That’s where my focus needs to be. In the meantime, I want to use this first book to learn as much about promotion as possible in a calm, collected, and inexpensive way.

What I’ve learned a lot so far, which isn't surprising, is just putting it up for sale on Amazon isn’t enough. I kind of figured that, everyone else said that, but it’s nice to know for sure.

I also probably priced my book too high. I suspected as much when I priced it at $5.99. Amazon suggests I price the book at $3.99. But I wanted to test out if a higher price made it seem more valuable to people who might check it out on Kindle Unlimited. So far, only a couple Kindle Unlimited borrows, so I’m not sure that is a good reason to keep it priced high. The other reason I priced it high, was so it would seem to be a bigger value when I did a Kindle Countdown sale. I’ve got one coming up on June 30, were it will be priced at .99 cents for seven days. (So if you’re curious about Eve’s Hungry, but think it’s too expensive, that would be a good time to buy it. See how I snuck that advertisement in here? Now, imagine a cat holding up a .99 cent sign.) If my Kindle Countdown goes well, it probably indicates the book was priced too high. Or, maybe it indicates pricing it high makes it look like a better deal.

How do I fully test a lower price? Well, I could just drop the price down, but… wouldn’t it be better to write another book (perhaps a shorter one) and price that lower? I think so.

The other thing that might be a problem is the cover. The cover I have (which I designed) is a little mysterious, perhaps more like something you’d see on a work of “literary” fiction. Not a laser battling, sword fighting, bisexual sci-fi epic geek out about a future war between Apple and Google, which is what Eve’s Hungry really is. The standard cover for a book like that is supposed to be a sexy girl with a laser pistol looking over her shoulder. Okay. Maybe some day I’ll do that. But Eve’s Hungry isn’t really a normal sci-fi space opera. It’s… a little different. So I like the idea of a different kind of cover. I can always change it later. And… maybe go with something less mysterious on my next book.

The good news is, my book is published! And, I believe at least three people I don’t know bought it. Even with little promotion, a high price and mysterious self-made cover. I also got one terrific review (thanks Ian!) and have learned a lot in the process without spending much money.

Time to get started on my next book!


  1. I can't see your cover, and your navigation doesn't have a Books tab - I was curious when you said it looks literary, but can't judge for myself. I'd like to see it!

  2. Here's a direct link to the book on Amazon:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

    But maybe in future posts I should put a picture with a link built in.