**Updated February 5, 2020**
Having sold more than 1000 copies of Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling dark fantasy novel, now available on Amazon), I’d like to share some of my lessons learned about independent publishing.
Some of them will delight you. Others will disturb you. I believe many will surprise you. Beware…many an exclamation mark lurks ahead.
One of my minions at work on social networking
[Update – January 10, 2015
: This article was posted less than a month after Necromancer Awakening was published. In the interests of transparency, nine months after publication, that sales number is somewhere around 20k and climbing (not including 2.5k I gave away for free).]
Having a Platform – Every Bit as Important As You’ve Been Told It Is
A year into writing Necromancer Awakening, back in 2011, I began hearing a phrase more and more: “If you’re going to be a successful writer, you’d better have a platform.” At the time, I wouldn’t have known a platform if someone had stapled a rejection letter to one and smacked me with it.
What is a platform? In simple terms, it’s a means to reach a large number of people in a short period of time. The big traditional publishing houses have this ability already. They have connections. They have marketing departments. They have resources!
You don’t. Embrace the knowledge that a platform is going to help your writing career and get started building one. It’s not too late, even if your book is already published!
Look, this isn’t about turning the crank on a machine. It’s not about gaming some system to gain an advantage. It’s about fulfilling your passion! It’s about being you. Genuinely you! Look deep inside and discover who you really are, then share that person with the world. That’s how you’ll build your platform.
[Update – May 10, 2016:
I get questions from time to time as to why I keep pointing people to this article, given its age. For one thing, the information is just as valid today as it was then. And secondly, it’s a historic record. When the industry inevitably changes, this will be a point of reference to see how much
things have changed. As for sales of Necromancer Awakening: while sales are slower now than they were in 2014, they remain consistent in large part because of my platform.]
[Update – February 5, 2020:
You may be wondering whether or not this is still relevant nearly 6 years after I originally published the article. I’m here to report it absolutely is. While many of my author colleagues without a platform have long since fallen away, refusing to continue because they’re seeing something like 1 sale every handful of months, my sales remain slow but consistent. Why do I say “slow” like it’s a good thing? Because, relevant to launch time, it’s to be expected
. The book sales business operates on a “long tail” model, meaning you sell a lot quickly up front, but most of your sales over time come slowly. Thanks to my author platform, my sales “tail” is longer than most authors. So, again, I cannot stress enough how important an author platform is.]
Advertising is Not Your Friend
How many books have you bought as a result of seeing a commercial or a random Tweet/status update with a link? I’m willing to bet it’s not many. So what makes you think other readers are going to buy your book based on an advertisement?
Here’s some anecdotal evidence from my own experience: During the week Necromancer Awakening was published, I tweeted links to the Amazon store incessantly (ok…by “incessantly”, I mean twice per hour). That’s unusual for me. I usually only tweet links to helpful content with that kind of frequency.
And I paid for it. Sales were dismal. I mean horrible. When they struck bottom, they started digging. Other authors’ sales would follow my sales around…but only out of morbid curiosity. My sales set low personal standards, and then consistently failed to achieve them. Get the picture? 🙂
I had to slap myself. This couldn’t continue. So I took stock of what led me to writing and blogging to begin with: helping people improve their craft. Not selling books! It was never about selling books for me! As soon as I realized this, I went back to what I had been doing for two years: I went back to being a content provider, first and foremost. I slashed the number of book ads I was tweeting and went back to blogging and mentoring.
Sales rocketed. And by rocketed, I mean they leaped from 3/day to over 70/day, where they’ve remained ever since. Necromancer Awakening climbed onto three different Amazon bestseller lists and raced up to the top 10 on each.
All with minimal advertising.
If you’re going to advertise anything at all, advertise the fact that you’re providing content people may find helpful. If they find you interesting and helpful, they will seek out your work. I promise.
[UPDATE 5/3/2014] It occurred to me that it may help if I showed you all a screenshot of my KDP sales report screen for April, just to drive this point home. So here goes…
Notice the spike on April 21st? That’s the day I stopped the aggressive ad campaign!
The Power of Social Proof
The concept of “social proof” isn’t a new one, but it is interesting to consider. It’s the basis for why book reviews work. It’s the basis behind bestseller lists, hit lists, Hot 100 lists, popular deals, fan favorites, “customers who bought this item also bought…”, and on and on.
Put simply, people may not jump off a bridge if their friends tell them to, but they will jump off that bridge if their friend goes first and then talks about how much fun the fall was.
Make your audience part of your success. No…strike that. You wouldn’t have success in the first place if it weren’t for your audience. There’s no “making” to be done! Let your audience experience your success. Let them experience your happiness! Don’t be afraid to let your feelings show. If you’re giddy because your book just went from #93 to #92 on a bestseller list, share it!
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Remember those book reviews I mentioned? I started searching for advance readers months
before Necromancer Awakening
was published. I gave each of them a copy of the final edition and asked them to write a review. By the time my publication date arrived, I had 7 reviews ready to go, 6 of which were 5-star reviews, and 1 of which was a 4-star review.
Reviews matter, regardless of what the naysayers claim. I’m contacted every day
on Twitter by people who were on the fence about trying my book until they read the reviews. Reviews work.
[UPDATE 5/7/2014] I recently learned, in David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books, that not only do reviews work, they’re directly related to your position on Amazon’s various “Popularity” lists! A high position on your genre’s popularity list will lead to more sales, which leads to a higher position on your genre’s Bestseller list! So roll up your sleeves and get those reviews!
Oh, and by the way, bad reviews help too. You read that right. A bad review that is well-written will bring focus to your audience. People who probably have no chance to like your book under the best of circumstances will see the bad review and realize they almost made a mistake. Members of your core audience, however, will read the same bad review and think “well, that doesn’t really apply to me. These aren’t the types of things that would bother me.”
And bad reviews that are laced with vitriol are the best of all. You should be far more concerned about well-written reviews that tear your book apart for problems that could have been solved by an editor.
So…Traditional vs. Independent?
My answer to this question hasn’t changed since last I wrote about it
. The only right
answer to this question is your
Independent publishing was the right direction to go for me. Had I waited, I’d probably be collecting rejection slips rather than sitting high on three separate bestseller lists. But independent publishing is a full time job in and of itself. I now work two jobs. During the day, I go to an office and develop software. Every other spare moment is spent marketing, networking, blogging, organizing, and planning to market/blog/organize. Somewhere in there I manage to squeeze in a little time for writing, but not as much as I used to.
It’s a trade off, and only you can know for sure which direction is the right direction. I’ll definitely say this: If you’re in this to replace your day job’s income and benefits, you’d better be prepared to settle in for the long haul. 1000 books doesn’t translate to much money.
Which brings me to…
There Are Going To Be Bad Days
Publishing your book comes with a rush of emotions. It’s the culmination of (often) years of work. Your book represents all of your hopes and dreams, particularly if it’s your first book. Every page is filled with the sweat equity you accumulated while learning your craft.
And no one cares.
Prepare yourself for this. The world is going to keep on spinning as if nothing happened. The universe isn’t marking your publication date in the annals of history. Your 60k plus Twitter followers aren’t going to trip all over themselves hitting the “buy now with 1 click” button. When your book goes live, it’s more likely to be met by the sound of crickets than fanfare.
There are days you’re going to be tempted to stare at the KDP screen, refreshing the sales report every few seconds. Give in at first…go ahead. But be prepared to reel yourself in. There comes a point at which it’s no longer healthy curiosity or the joy of a new experience. There comes a point at which it makes you question all the hard work you did. There comes a point at which it will make you question whether you’ll ever see any success as a writer.
I’ve had days I’ve sold 100 books and days I’ve sold 3. There is going to come a time when the ride slows down (though I’m hoping that time is a long ways away 🙂 ).
Remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Spend more time writing and less time looking at the sales report screen. Refreshing those reports isn’t going to sell a single copy. Publishing new work, on the other hand, will do wonders.
Oh, and people return e-books, you know. That’s right. They spend a couple bucks, finish the book within the 7-day Amazon return window, then return the e-book for a full refund. Free book. No royalty for you. Get used to it.
The Dark Side
I saved this for last because it’s the one that surprised me most. There are writers out there who are employing a form of “blackmail” to generate reviews for their books. It goes something like this:
Writer X contacts you and tells you they’re going to write a 5-star review of your book. You thank them. They send you a link to their book.
Some time later you get another message: “I’ve written the review.” Again you thank them. More time passes. You get another message: “You have exactly 24 hours to leave a 5-star review of my book (link) or I’m deleting the review I wrote.”
Another version I’ve received is “…or I’m deleting the review and replacing it with a 1-star review.”
There’s a couple directions you can go at this point. I’ll tell you the direction I took. I did what any polite Italian living in Texas would do. I told them to piss off and shove their review up their…errm…it had something to do with the horse they rode in on. Well, you get the idea.
I don’t need those kind of reviews. And neither do you. We’re writers! We want people to read our work! Getting a review from someone who hasn’t taken the time to read it is a slap in the face to your audience. If you do this, you’re treating the most important people in your writing career as if they’re a bunch of idiots. And you’ll deserve what you get if they ever find out.
But let’s not end on that dark note! Publishing your book will be a dream come true regardless of your sales, if you approach it with the right attitude.
– This is about getting your work out into the world.
– You’re in this for the long haul.
– It wasn’t money that drew you to this (I’d hope! If not, you’ve been seriously mislead!)
– ALL reviews are good reviews if you’ve taken the time to learn your craft.
Now go forth and publish!
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.