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How Do You Establish a Fan Base *Before* You Launch Your Book?

| Posted in Book Marketing, New Author Series |

28

I get a lot of variations of this question from writers who are working on their first book and are planning to self-publish (or seek an agent and a traditional deal) in a few months. Since I didn’t have much of a master plan myself (it went like this: a) release first novel and b) try everything to sell it), but things eventually worked out for me, I usually say focus on writing more books and don’t worry much about the marketing for now.

Buuut, people don’t want to hear that. Go figure.

And I get it. When it’s your first book, it’s a big deal. If you’re anything like I was, it might have taken seven years to get that book to the point where you’re ready to share it. Who knows when the next one will be ready? Also, how will you know if it’s worth doing a series or a spinoff until enough people read the first that you have a gauge as to its commercial potential? Or, if you’re seeking an agent/publisher, how do you show that you have people who will buy that first book before you start querying it? (Yes, I understand that agents/publishers do check up on a potential author’s “platform” these days.)

So let me do a what-I’d-do-if-I-were-starting-today-knowing-what-I-know-now post. I’ll pretend I’m finishing up my first book and plan to publish it (or query it) in a few months.

Establishing a Fan Base Before You’re Ready to Publish/Query Your First Book

What I wouldn’t do

I’ll start out by talking about what many people do (I did too) and why that doesn’t work very well. A few months before the book is ready to go, they start a blog (usually on writing or the writing process), get on Twitter, and get on Facebook. They try to increase traffic/comments to their blog by commenting on all the other writing blogs out there. They try to increase Twitter followers by following the other writers out there (or maybe they’ll do a little better and realize they need readers who love their genre, and they’ll follow folks who mention books, science fiction, etc. in their Twitter bios). They’ll run contests or lobby other writers for likes to their Facebook page.

This is all largely ineffective (though it can make you appear popular, which may be enough for agents/publishers, but it won’t get you anywhere with sales). Why? Very few of these people will end up being your target readers, AKA people who love your writing style, your characters, and the type of story you weave.

It’s not that establishing connections with other writers and with readers in general can’t be useful (later on, after the launch, you may want to do some guest blog posts or interviews on their sites), but as far as building a fan base ahead of time goes, it’s a lot of work and not particularly effective.

What I would do

So there’s the “what not to do” side. What should you do? First off, realize that the people you really want subscribing to your blog, following you on Twitter, and liking your author page on Facebook are those who have read your work and LIKED it. Sure, it’s okay if you have other people (because I write about self-publishing and book promotion here, I get a lot of folks signing up for my newsletter who haven’t read my books), as you never know when someone might buy something to support you or might recommend you to others, but these shouldn’t be the people you target. You want readers who enjoy your work.

So, how do you find them when you haven’t released your book yet?

Ah, finally I get to the point! As I said, here’s what I would do if I were preparing for my first release today:

Start a website/blog and start posting samples of your work

Definitely grab your URL (yourname.com) early on. You can install WordPress (free) in a few minutes (most web hosts have a one-click install, or you can pay an internet-savvy friend to do it for a few bucks), and even if you’re not planning to blog, this can provide the framework for your site (more on finding a host, buying your URL, and setting up your site here), as you can create “pages” as well as “posts” with WordPress. All the free themes out there for WordPress mean you don’t need to pay anyone to design a special author site for you either (save that for later when you’re making money and need tax write-offs).

Once that’s set up, put a newsletter signup somewhere on the site (preferably on the front page or maybe on the menu so it shows up on every page). Let folks know what they’ll get if they sign up (coupons? free stories? access to early releases?)–it’s a good idea to provide an incentive.

Now post some of your work. Maybe it’s the first three chapters of your novel. Maybe you have some snippets from favorite scenes. Maybe you want to create some character interviews. Maybe you have lots of short stories that weren’t accepted for magazines/anthologies (or maybe they were and the rights have reverted back to you).

I think you’ll find you’ll get the most mileage here if these snippets tie in with your first novel. Some of my early sales success came from putting my Ice Cracker II short story out there everywhere I could. It features the two main characters from my Emperor’s Edge series (at the time, I only had the first EE book out), and it includes an excerpt of the novel at the end. I didn’t put it up on my website, because I was busy blogging about self-publishing then and trying to build an audience that way (remember, this is a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-did post), but I did put it everywhere else (more on that coming up).

Once you have some of your work up, you have something to tweet about on Twitter. I speak from experience here: people who will roll their eyes at yet another tweet advertising an ebook for sale will be more inclined to try something for free.

Give Wattpad a try

Trying to get readers to visit your website isn’t a bad idea (it’s the one place that your newsletter signup can be displayed right next to the work, so it’s ideal), but it’s a bit like having a garage sale versus putting something up on eBay. You have to work hard to drive traffic to your site, but the traffic is already there on eBay, and it’s already searching for the types of stories you write.

Wattpad has grown quite popular, and I started posting my own work there a few months ago. I’ve heard the site is more skewed toward the YA audience, especially young folks reading the stories via their smartphones, but I’ve still had some readers find EE and enjoy it (hey, even if the heroes aren’t teenagers, it’s the sort of thing I would have liked as a teen, when I wasn’t busy reading those Forgotten Realms books over and over). Within the last month or so, I’ve started hearing from Wattpad users who said they bought others in my series after finding me there, so it works.

Now, in my case, I had a whole novel I was willing to put up there. If you’re getting ready to launch your first book, you may not be ready to release it anywhere for free (though I’ve heard of authors putting a moderately-clean-but-not-yet-polished-and-professionally-edited version up on Wattpad, doing well, and having lots of folks ready to buy the final version when it was released). As with your website, you could try short stories or sample chapters. I’m sure you’ll do better if you post the whole book (I started getting a lot more readers for EE once it was marked “complete”), but that’s up to you.

Here are a couple of interviews I’ve done with authors who found some success on Wattpad:

There are other sites like this, where readers are waiting for new stories to try, but Wattpad seems to be the big dog right now. You can also look into Scribd, Authonomy, and, if you have some Harry Potter or Star Trek fics buried on your hard drive, the various fan fiction sites. (As you’ve probably heard, there are quite a few authors doing extremely well now who got their starts and built their “tribes” on fan fiction sites.)

Even though I came late to Wattpad (I’m planning to start releasing the first book of my next series there, starting a few weeks before I publish the novel), I like these sites because you can reach a lot of people who aren’t the same folks hitting Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. and browsing for books. Don’t make the mistake of looking down upon readers who don’t do a lot of book buying. Lots of these folks are young people without a regular source of income yet — a few years down the line they could be devoted buyers of your books, and in the meantime they can do more than you can imagine to share your work with others, some of whom will buy now.

Publish something free on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple

Ice Cracker II free short fantasy storyYou’re probably sensing a theme here… give away some of your work for free so people can try it at no risk. For these sites, it’s the garage-sale-versus-eBay analogy again. The readers are already there. You need to have something out there where they’re looking.

These sites generally want completed fiction (Smashwords, in particular, works this way), so here’s where a short story can work.

When I was getting started and making next to nothing from sales yet, I invested $200 in the cover art for that Ice Cracker II story I mentioned. I wasn’t rich and really debated on this, because it was only a 6,000-word short story. But, within a month, I’d sold enough copies of EE1 (then priced at $2.99) at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords (I didn’t know how to get Amazon to make an ebook free at the time) to pay for that cover art. It was absolutely worth the investment (you’ll want a custom cover for posting your work on Wattpad too).

You can also follow the route fellow indie Moses Siregar III took and turn the first chunk of the book you’re working on into a novella. He published that several months before the novel was ready, worked on promoting it, and had a lot of fans ready to buy the whole novel when he released it.

Later on, if you’re doing a series, you may want to try making your first book free, but I didn’t do that until I had three novels out (plus a stand-alone set in the same world).

Turning these readers into fans who are ready to buy when you finally release your book

All right, you’ve got some short stories or excerpts out there and people are reading them. Mission accomplished, right? Well, you’re half way there. The last thing you need to do is find a way to keep in contact with these folks. You want to be able to tell them when the book is ready to go, or it’s all been for naught.

I’ve already mentioned mailing lists, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and blog subscriptions. These are the primary ways you’re going to be able to get in touch with folks, with the mailing list being ideal (people forget to check blogs, and it’s easy to get lost among the other people they follow on Twitter/Facebook, but everyone checks their email). Wherever you’re publishing these samples of your work, make sure to post your blog and social media links at the end. Don’t be afraid to ask people to follow you. Otherwise chances are they’ll forget about you, especially if you were using a short story — a novel may stick in their heads better, but some readers devour several novels a week. They might have to read three or four of your full-length books before you become an author that they remember to check up on now and then. Make things easy on yourself and encourage them to follow you right after they finish your story.

All right, gang, thank you for reading what’s become another monster post. If you’re trying any of these methods, or have others you’d like to share, please comment below. What did you do that worked to build a fan base before you launched your first book?

New Author Series: How Do You Build a Fan Base, Anyway?

| Posted in New Author Series |

25

It’s a foregone conclusion that it’s a good thing for an author to have an established fan base, but I’ll share some numbers from my last release for those who like concrete examples.

A couple of weeks ago, around May 17th, I released the sixth book in my Emperor’s Edge series. I priced it at $4.95, my usual price for a 100,000+ word e-novel, and I didn’t pay for any big advertising campaigns. I didn’t do guest blog posts, interviews, or spend a lot of extra time on social media sites, bugging people to buy the book. What I did do was spend a few minutes composing an email for my newsletter subscribers (people who have signed up to my mailing list because they enjoyed my other books). I also announced it via a blog post, and added a couple of notices on my own Facebook and Twitter pages. Total time invested on book promotion? Let’s say 30-45 minutes.

That weekend, I sold over a thousand copies of the novel, with its Amazon sales ranking reaching as high as 220. At this point, May 29th, the ebook has sold about 3000 copies. I’ll let you guys do the math on earnings, but you take home around $3.40 per ebook on a $4.95 ebook.

(Alas, my new releases don’t continue to sell that many copies after the first month, but I certainly have nothing to complain about here, especially given that my other titles continue to chug along with sales every day too.)

All in all, not bad for 30-45 minutes of promotion.

Of course, this all comes because I’ve spent the last two and a half years publishing books in this series and occasionally buying advertisements to encourage people to try the first book (I tried everything under the sun in the beginning, but I’ve gotten far more mileage out of making the first book free and putting it in as many places as possible).

The downsides of most types of book promotion

With most types of book promotion, it’s hit or miss, with more misses than hits. This year, I’ve done well advertising my first book with Bookbub, but most advertisements aren’t effective enough for an author to break even (I should point out, too, that BB is picky and doesn’t accept all of the authors who submit their books). A lot are a complete waste of money.

Blog tours, interviews, guest posts, etc. take a lot of time, time you could be using for writing. They’re hit-or-miss, too. Unless you appear on a popular blog, where your target audience hangs out, you’re unlikely to sell many books

Social media? It’s possible to sell some books on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc., but all of your efforts are so short-lived (a Tweet disappears from people’s radar in hours, if not minutes — a Facebook post might last in someone’s feed for a day), so you’re spending time on something that isn’t lasting, meaning you’ll end up in a never-ending cycle if that’s what you rely on to sell books.

Trying to find the latest scheme that works for gaming Amazon isn’t a long-term route to success either. (To see some of the schemes that have come and gone, check out my post on Book Promotion: What’s Working at Amazon in 2013?) I’ve only been self-publishing for two and a half years now, but I can’t tell you how many one hit wonders I’ve seen in that time. A lot. Of course, most people never even make it to the “hit” stage.

So, what does work? Well, you can probably guess from the title of the post. Building a fan base of readers.

Wait, but isn’t that what the advertising and the book promotion and the blog tours and all that stuff is about?

Yes, and no. So many authors only focus on selling the book they’re releasing right now. They may want a fan base, but they don’t take the actions they need to in order to turn that fan base into a reality.

The reason you want — no, need — a fan base is because it allows you to:

  1. not have to work so darned hard to sell your latest release, allowing you to focus on writing awesome new books instead
  2. have a predictable and reliable income, something that’s crucial if you’re thinking of making this the day job someday.

I predicted how many of the new EE books I’d sell in May (release month) almost to a T. If I were the spreadsheet/graph type (I know, I’m kind of a lame geek in my unwillingness to spend time on such things), I could show you how EE5 sold 2.5k in its release month, how EE4 sold 2k, and so on, back over the last couple of years. Keep in mind that the old titles continue to sell every month as well, and each new title I add to the catalog helps keep the income trend on an upward slope — I don’t need to be a blockbuster seller in order to make a living here; I just need to keep writing fun books that a certain segment of the reading population enjoys enough to keep buying.

Okay, blah, blah, fan base = good, but how do you get one? All right, here’s the good stuff:

1. Make sure readers who enjoy your existing books know how to find you online

There’s nothing like being part of a community to maintain and even increase your interest in a certain subject. This goes for readers too. Not everybody is going to want to seek you out and find others who enjoyed the books too, but in case some people do, make it easy for them.

Put your Twitter, Facebook, and website address at the end of your ebooks. Invite people to follow/like/subscribe to your sites. Make Twitter, Facebook, and your blog as much about interacting with and entertaining/informing current readers as you make it about selling books. I think you’ll find that the most dedicated fan will get tired of seeing you try to sell the book they’ve already bought twenty times a day on Twitter.

Once you have a certain number of active online followers, you may even try to start a forum or another type of community, giving them a place to interact with each other. Or you may get lucky and someone will start one for you.

2. Start a mailing list and encourage readers to sign up

Having the email addresses of your core fans is extra security. It means…

  • reaching a point where “book promotion” is sending out a short email to let them know you have a new release (build enough of a fan base, over time and with multiple releases, and this alone could turn you into a bestseller)
  • being able to email your fans and ask for help (i.e. Kickstarter campaign) if something dire happens (this is especially important if most of your income comes from one source — I’m sure the erotica authors, in particular, can tell you how scary it is to live at Amazon’s whims — today your’re a bestseller and tomorrow, “Sorry, your book doesn’t fit our guidelines and has been removed from the Kindle Store”)
  • not having to rely on your readers learning about new releases on Twitter or by stumbling, months down the line, across them on Amazon (with their email addresses, you can simply let them know whenever you have a new book out)

If you haven’t read it yet, I have a post on Newsletters 101: Email Marketing for Authors.

3. Be generous

You may get to a point where it’s hard to be generous with your time (I’d like to say yes to these interview requests, but I need to get the next novel out too…), but you can be generous in ways that don’t take up a lot of time and in which lots of people can benefit.

You guys all know that I have the first of my EE books available everywhere for free. I have a short story and a novella out there for free too right now. In the beginning, this was a marketing scheme (ahh, maybe I can hook them with the free ebook and they’ll buy the rest!), and it still has that element, but Amazon has made it a little harder for people to find the free ebooks of late, so I’d probably be better off selling Book 1 at 99 cents.

I’ve resisted the temptation to do this because I like the idea of people being able to try my series at no risk.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve chosen to keep my new novels at $5. Could I make more money if I sold them for $6 or $7? It’s possible. But I’ve had numerous emails from folks along the lines of, “I’m a broke student/I’m on social security/Things are tough right now, and I appreciate that you make your books affordable.”

I’m glad that, as an independent author, I can choose a price that people can afford and that allows me to make a nice living from my work. I’ve given away Smashwords coupons to people who’ve said they’re dying to read the next book but they’re strapped for cash at the moment. I’ve also shrugged and let it go when readers have reported seeing my books on such-and-such pirate site.

Now, I’m sure you can find people who are even more generous (give them all away for free — I don’t need money, just the love of adoring readers!), so I’ll just finish by saying that a little putting-yourself-in-the-readers’-shoes can go a long way in this business.

4. Be everywhere

The more places your work can be found, the more likely it is that it will be.

I know, I know, there are some arguments for Amazon’s KDP Select Program, and I’m quite fond of the paychecks Amazon sends every month, but you’re limiting yourself and your readership if your work is only available in one store. You don’t need to be in every mom-and-pop ebook store, but be in all the big ones. I’d been at this for two years before I started seeing significant income from Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, but now these sellers represent about a third of my income.

Beyond bookstores, think of ways you can be in other places where people might stumble across your work. If you’ve decided to make some of your stories free, you can put them up on Wattpad, Scribd, Feedbooks, and countless other sites. You can work those sites if you want to (try to gain readership on them), or you can “set it and forget it” with your stories. I’ve been like that with my free podiobooks (I put the first one up on iTunes and Podiobooks.com in 2011), and I often hear from people who’ve recently found them and started listening. Yes, some of those people go on to buy the ebooks or the audiobooks from Audible too.

5. Stick to one genre and write a series if you want a steady paycheck

I’m fortunate in that I never wanted to write anything except for fantasy and maybe a little science fiction on the side, and I’ve always loved series. As a reader, I’m picky about the characters I fall in love with, so you’re asking for it if you try to foist new characters on me! As an author, I enjoy spending time with characters once I’ve created them, so I don’t even start a project unless I imagine at least a 3-book story arc.

I know that not every author is like this. Some people want to write a different book every time, sometimes in a different genre every time. Hey, it’s allowed. Just realize that the price you pay is that it’s going to be harder for you to build a diehard fan base.

It’s the characters people fall for (and why, for many people, books about those characters become auto-buys, no matter what the reviews). If you create characters that people want to spend time with and regularly publish books starring them, you can start to predict how many books you’ll sell on a new release and how much income you’ll earn from month to month. As I’ve mentioned, that’s pretty darned important if you want to do this as a career!

Now that I’ve typed up a small novel about this subject, I’d better get back to writing my next novel (and let you get to yours). If you want to agree or disagree or let us know what’s working for you insofar as building a fan base goes, please comment below. Thanks!

New Author Series: How Do You Find Beta Readers?

| Posted in New Author Series |

19

I’ve received quite a few questions (more than two, I’m certain of it) from folks finishing up their first books and wondering about self-publishing. A year or two ago, the main one was “should I self-publish or seek an agent/publisher?” but there seem to be more authors these days who know they’re going to jump straight into the independent route. Given some of the impressive success stories out there (here’s a new one by an author who was losing money traditionally publishing, but who may hit seven figures in 2013 after two years of self-publishing) it’s not surprising.

So, I’m doing a series of blog posts answering basic questions for those just getting started. I hope these will be of some use to the writers in the crowd.

First up, a question I’ve  been asked to blog about by a couple of different people, where do you find beta readers?

If nobody except a couple of friends and family members have read your work, it’s a good idea to get outside feedback before assuming you’re ready to find an editor and publish that bad boy. This is especially true if we’re talking about the first novel you’ve ever written and you don’t have a track record of short story sales or any other sort of outside validation to suggest, “You’re ready, kid.”

Technically anybody can be a beta reader, but it’s wise to solicit other writers/editors who are very familiar with your genre/niche (i.e. they can spot a clunky sentence a mile away, and they’ve seen all the been-there-done-that plots, character archetypes, and cliches). Peers like these are going to be hard people to please, which is, believe it or not, a good thing. If you can get them to give your novel a thumb’s up, it might just be ready for the masses.

And where do you find these elusive souls?

If you take classes or join writing workshops, you’re going to have an opportunity to meet a lot of other writers, some of whom will specialize in your genre. Some will be serious about writing and some will already be published, independently or otherwise.

Classes and workshops will not only give you a chance to get your work critiqued, but you’ll have a chance to do the same for other people. Yes, that’s work, but it can be amazingly educational work. I’m sure I’ve learned as much from analyzing what works and what doesn’t in other people’s fiction as I have from having my stuff brutalized, erm, critiqued by others.

I have a fondness for online writing workshops myself (not only do you tend to get more honest feedback when people aren’t gazing into your hopeful eyes, but you’ll have a larger variety of folks from which to choose long-term beta readers). As a fantasy author, I’ve belonged to Critters and the Online Writing Workshop for SF, F, and H. I’m sure there are similar types of online workshops for other genres.

I’ve seen some authors pooh pooh peer-based writing workshops (blind leading the blind, grammar and sentence structure get focused on to the detriment of character/story, writing “rules” are emphasized too much, etc.), but they are, if nothing else, a good place to meet other writers. You won’t click with everybody, but you only need a couple of good beta readers to help you grow as an author and publish better stories, stories that are ready for broader audiences. I also think that if you can survive the workshop experience, you’ll feel more confident about the work you’re producing and less likely to make radical (perhaps unfounded) changes at the first sign of a negative review.

Thanks for reading, and let us know if you have any suggestions for places to find beta readers in the comments. If there are other “new author” topics you’d like to see discussed, feel free to mention those too.

 

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