Let’s talk about publishing and marketing a series today. It’s generally what you’ll hear authors recommend doing, since it can be tough to gain traction with readers when you’re doing unrelated stand-alone novels.
A series has the potential to be a bread-winner for an author, with later books in the becoming “auto buys” for fans who enjoyed the earlier books. But if you don’t see a lot of early success (or you do well with the launch, only to have sales drop off for subsequent books), you can have a love-hate relationship with your series.
Maybe you’re getting some sales, but not the kind of sales you hoped for. And maybe you’re doggedly pushing on because you keep hearing people say, “Oh, my series didn’t take off until Book 3 or 4,” or “You’ve got to have at least five books out in a series before you can expect to make it.”
If you’re on Book 5 of Your Awesome Series, and you’re wondering if it’s worth continuing, I probably can’t answer that question for you, but there are some things you might want to try before giving up. And if you’re just starting a new series, here’s a little advice based on what I’ve done in the past and I’m doing now. For the new visitor, I’ve got a number of series going, including one that I started anonymously with a pen name (I published the first four books in that one before sharing the name and managed to get it off to a good start. More on that here and here.) Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t recommend writing a bunch of series at once unless you’re super prolific, and even then I keep telling myself to finish some and streamline things! (I keep waiting for myself to listen.)
Here’s my MO for marketing a series these days:
The Book 1 Launch
I usually tell people not to put a lot of time and effort into marketing the first book, especially if you’re a new author and this is your first series. Why? Because there’s nothing else for readers to go on to buy, so you’re spending all of this time trying to sell something where you can only get one sale maximum per buyer. When you have numerous other books out, you stand to make much more per customer.
That said, everyone wants to get things off on the right foot, so why not try to get the ball rolling? Every now and then, you see a new series taking off from the beginning with a good Amazon sales ranking and lots of reviews within the first month. It can happen. I’m actually seeing it happen more often right now, thanks to Kindle Unlimited (more on the why of that here).
Note: on the chance that this happens for you, it’s a good idea to have the second book already almost ready to go; these days, I’m a fan of holding off on a release of a Book 1 until a couple more books have nearly been completed, so you can publish them a month apart or so.)
To have any hope of doing well with this first book, you’ll probably need a great cover, a great blurb, and a good book. Yeah, state the obvious, right? But let me say that by “great,” what I really mean is: this book looks exactly like the books that are selling really well in my genre, and the blurb sounds pretty close to what’s selling too.
If you have a super original story, that’s okay, but I’ve learned that it’s better to emphasize the stuff that is the same, or even generic/formulaic-sounding to you, rather than showing off how different your story is. Be honest, of course, but you’ll probably find that even in your original story, there are some common elements that appeal to the masses. I’d highlight those.
(I’m in the process of doing this for some of my older works myself–redoing the covers and the blurbs to more closely fit genre expectations. Just a couple of days ago, I put up a new cover and blurb for my Emperor’s Edge 1-3 omnibus, and the sales ranking went from well over 100,000 to under 40,000 without a price change or any marketing. That surprised me, because at that ranking, it’s not like the bundle is super visible on Amazon anywhere. The reason I made the change is that I’m hoping to snag a Bookbub ad this spring, and that will be the real test. I ran this bundle with BB in May 2014, and it didn’t have horrible results, but it didn’t do anywhere near as well as my Dragon Blood boxed set, which I advertised in mid-Jan with a typical fantasy-esque cover and a typical blurb.)
Launch price for Book 1
Even though I have readers now, I’ll often launch a new Book 1 at 99 cents, at least for the first few days.
I’m going to tell you something that probably isn’t a secret: if you can get enough momentum at Amazon, meaning enough sales spread out over the first few days of your launch, Amazon will start selling your book for you. What I mean is that your book will be appearing in your category lists, and it will appear in the also-boughts of lots of other books, so you’ll have the kind of visibility we all hope for. If your book has wide enough appeal (note stuff about typical blurb/cover), it could “stick” and continue to sell well, based on its merits and that visibility.
In addition to mailing your list (if you have one), this is the time to try and snag some ads too. Most of the big sites won’t accept books without at least 10-20 reviews, so it’s going to be hard to picked up, but there are a few advertisers who will plug new releases, and the ads usually aren’t that expensive. Fantasy author C. Gockel maintains a big list of advertisers who promote 99-cent titles. (I wouldn’t spend more than $50 on advertising at this point.)
Note: This isn’t something that can only happen at launch. For example, I dropped the price on my Dragon Blood bundle to 99 cents for that Bookbub ad back in January. It had been out for a couple of months at $7.69, and that’s the usual price, based on the individual titles being 2.99/3.99. In the past, I had always raised prices again shortly after an ad like that because the sales ranking started to rise (this is typically what happens with Bookbub–you get a big spike and then Amazon sales gradually settle back down to normal) and there wasn’t much of a perk for only making 35 cents per sale on a book that wasn’t selling heaps. Well, the DB blurb and cover must have worked for a lot of people. For the first time ever for me, the book stuck at a pretty high level, hanging out in the 300s in the overall Amazon store for almost two months (I’m waiting for it to fall off any day now, and I keep debating whether I should raise the price up to 3.99 or so — still a bargain compared to the usual price — to see if I could make more before it drops off more drastically. But, I’ve seen increased sales of Book 4 and also of my other series, so I haven’t changed it yet.)
But back to the focus of the post…
In order to have a good chance of getting a bunch of sales early on, going with a 99-cent price tag for launch (i.e. the first week) can make sense, even if you already have fans and a mailing list (I’ll often do a 99-cent Book 1 just because I know I’ll discount it later anyway, and I want to give loyal readers who are on my list a good price).
Should you keep the book at 99 cents? Probably not. The exception might be if you’re selling so many books that you’re still making money and if you’ve got Book 2 ready to go soon, so people have something full-price to go on and buy. (The new pre-order system on the various sites can help out with this; if your Book 1 release has been hot, putting the pre-order up for 2 can help you grab sales before people forget about you.)
So what happens if your book doesn’t take off?
This is much more typical than the scenario I’ve written about. Even though we all hope for that awesome early success, it’s atypical.
So if Book 1 doesn’t take off, put the price up to 2.99 or 3.99 or whatever you’ve decided your regular price will be, and then forget about it (seriously, forget about it), until you publish Book 2.
Note: I don’t recommend leaving your book at 99 cents if it’s not selling that many copies. Later, you’ll want to run sales on it, and it’s easier to get ads on a book you’re discounting, rather than one that is always inexpensive.
The Book 2 Launch Strategy
First off, as soon as you publish Book 2 and get the store links, you’ll want to update the back matter of Book 1. (Do what I say, not what I do, because I’m not sure if I’ve done this with all of my older titles; I do make sure to do it now.) It’s up to you what you want to do (include an excerpt? just a link?), but you’ll want to let the readers know that the second book is available, so that anyone who picks up the first book and finishes it can easily go right on to the second.
I’ll usually launch a Book 2 at full price, figuring the visibility on this title is less important (most people aren’t going to start at Book 2, so I feel Book 1 should still be getting most of the attention); there’s less incentive to start with a rock-bottom price. Besides, this is where I want to start earning some money by taking in the 70% earnings split from the vendors, especially if I decided to leave Book 1 at 99 cents, because it was doing well.
I’ll send out a notice to my mailing lists and plug the book on the social media sites, but I’ll probably put my focus on Book 1 again. I’ll often drop it down to 99 cents again and buy a few ads (if it’s only been a few weeks since it launched, I might not bother, especially if it’s still selling well, but if it’s been a few months, it’s time to renew interest in the series and try to get some new readers into the world).
I don’t do much on social media to seriously try and sell my books. I do know some authors who swear by their Facebook Events and Twitter links, but I find optimizing the sales page (especially on Amazon) and buying ads is a better use of my time and can get me far more noticeable results. Yes, it’s tough finding advertising where you come out ahead (make more in earnings than you spend on the ad), but this is still my preferred method, because it doesn’t take much time, and if you can sell enough to get on those lists and in those also-boughts, it can be worth taking a hit on the ads themselves, because you end up earning more in the long run. (Keep close track of this, as it’s not always the case. You have to have a plan. These days, I’ll try to line up five or six days’ worth of ads in a row to try and gain that momentum and “stick” on Amazon.)
Right now, I have more money than I have time, so time is a far more precious commodity. However, when you’re getting started, it’s often the other way around. That’s when social media and blog tours and such can make more sense. The good thing is that you’ll find it easier to use social media to plug a book that’s 99 cents rather than one that’s $4 or $5. That said, it’s even easier to plug a free book, which brings us to the next section.
Book 3 Launch
As with Book 2, update the back matter of the previous book.
This is often the time where I’ll make Book 1 free for a while. It’s up to you if you want to go with that tactic. You can try another 99-cent sale instead, but you can often get a bunch of extra visibility from bargain-watching-and-sharing blogs (I.e. Pixel of Ink) by making a book free, especially if it’s the first time it’s ever been free. Chances are, you’ll get a lot more people checking out your first book, people who might not otherwise have tried a new-to-them author even at 99 cents. (Don’t assume that the freebie seekers won’t go on to buy your other books; I’ve found that simply isn’t true. A free ebook is basically the same as a physical book checked out from the library. Haven’t you found authors whose books you went on to buy after first discovering them at the library?)
You’ll probably want to throw down some advertising to plug your free book. Even though that sounds counterintuitive (pay to advertise when the book won’t make you any money?), remember that you’ve got two more full-priced books in the series that people can go on to buy.
Note: you may briefly lower the price of Book 2 to 99 cents while you’re running ads on Book 1, especially if you get a big site like BookBub or Ereader News Today to advertise the first. If you make mention of that in the Book 1 blurb (i.e. Book 2 is also on sale for 99 cents, and here’s the link), you might get some people buying the second book at the same, or shortly after they download the first for free. I’ve definitely found that this works, and I think that if you can get more than the first book into the hands of readers, they’re more likely to get sucked into your world and become committed to the series.
To stay permafree with Book 1 or to boost it back up to full price or 99 cents?
This is up to you. My first Emperor’s Edge book has been free for three years. If people haven’t tried my stuff before, they can always try that one. It’s the library book strategy. Because I like having a free sample out there, I’ll probably continue to leave it free.
That said, with newer series, I haven’t been leaving the first books free. I had my Balanced on the Blade’s Edge free around the holidays, but after about three weeks, I put the price back up to $2.99. Part of this was to make the three-book bundle look like a better deal, but part of it is also because free downloads really drop off after a few months. You have to keep buying ads if you want that first book to stay at the top of the free lists, and with more people belonging to Kindle Unlimited (where they can get unlimited borrows a month), there seem to be fewer people surfing through the free lists overall.
If you’re not getting a lot of downloads of the freebie, you won’t be getting that many people checking out the following books in the series, so you might as well be getting paid for the sales Book 1 does get. Also, as I said before, it’s easier to get ads when you’re lowering the price of a book, as opposed to simply plugging something that’s always free. Most of these ebook sites and mailing lists want to share bargains with their readers.
David Gaughran, in his Let’s Get Visible, calls this strategy price pulsing. It’s up to you to see what works best for you, but if your Book 2 sales ranking is above 100,000 on Amazon, chances are your permafree isn’t doing much for you right now.
Book 4 and Beyond
By now, you’ve probably sensed a theme here. Every time I release a new book in a series, I’ll go back and put Book 1 on sale and buy some ads for it. Sure, I’ll plug the new book to my mailing list and social media followers (in short, the fans who have already read all of the other books), but I don’t do much else to promote the new book. It’s all about getting people into the series back at Book 1.
Now, if you have the kind of series where a person doesn’t have to read the books in order, then you might do things differently (for my pen name, any of the first four books could technically work as stand alones, so I may eventually do more advertising of books other than the first). But if your series and world will be confusing for those who don’t start at Book 1, I believe it makes sense to focus on getting people to try that.
By the time you reach Book 4, you do have a new advertising/sales strategy that’s available. You can, as I mentioned above, box up the first three books in the series into a bundle. I talked more about the whys in my 3 Reasons to Bundle the Early Books in Your Series post, but in short: it’s easier to get ads on bundles because you’re offering a big discount, such as $9.99 to 99 cents, and people who read the first three books all at once are likely to become more committed to the series than those who only read the first one. Also, it gives you the opportunity to play with covers and blurbs. Maybe you want to go a different direction, try to rank in different lists, try to target different keywords, etc. This is your chance without possibly ruining a good thing with your regular series books and sales.
Book 5 and Beyond
I only have one series (okay, two, since the pen name has five books out now) that I’ve gone this deep with, and I’ve been neglecting it (my Emperor’s Edge stuff) this last year, since it’s been finished since 2013. But I’m planning to see if I can get it some more loving this year (step 1 was redoing that boxed set, since that’s a lot cheaper/easier than redoing the covers for the entire series).
With that caveat shared, what I would recommend here is to do some evaluation. If you’re selling well enough that it makes sense to continue, keep going. Keep trying to get more people into that first book. Now and then, make it 99 cents or free and make the rounds with the advertisers. Once a year or so, make the bundle 99 cents and advertise it. I’ve even seen a few authors with big series out there make the entire 3-book bundle free, at least for a while. I’ve also seen people box up books 4-6, not with the intention of selling them at 99 cents but to give readers deals by giving them a couple of dollars off the regular price.
An idea I’m kicking around, since my entire EE series is finished (it ended up being seven books or seven and a half books, if you count a substantial novella), is boxing up the entire thing. The only reason I haven’t is because Amazon drops the cut back down to 35% if you price an ebook over 9.99, and I wouldn’t want to sell the entire series at such a low regular price.
But back to that evaluation stuff.
If you’re five books in, you should be able to tell… is this series thing working? Am I covering the costs of cover art, editing, and advertising for each new book? Am I making enough money after all of those expenses are accounted for that all of the effort is worth it?
If this is your first series, you want to come into things with realistic expectations, but at the same time, if you’re up to Book 5, and you’ve been doing all of the things I’ve talked about here, and you’re not making any money (or you’re in the hole), it may be time to either wrap things up or to put the series aside and try something else for a while. If you’re just writing it for the love of it and don’t care about money, then that’s one thing, but most people who are this committed to publishing their work (who have put this many books out) want a return on their investment.
If you’re worried that your existing readers won’t give a new series a try, that’s a valid concern, but if you stay within the same genre, maybe even the same world with some crossover between new characters, then they might just come along for the ride. You also have the opportunity to appeal to all new fans by starting over again with a Book 1.
Or… you could take what you’ve learned and try a different genre or sub-genre. A whole new world. Some authors strike gold with their first series, but your next idea might be the one that appeals to a lot of people. One thing I do know: it’s really tough to predict what’s going to be a winner ahead of time.
Final note: before scrapping anything, ask other self-publishers what they think about your covers and blurbs. We authors can be really bad at evaluating or our own stuff. But you would be surprise how much of a difference these two things can make!
Thoughts? Questions? Experiences you want to share? Please leave a comment below!