Thursday, February 13, 2014

How I became a USA Today bestselling author




The Scoop: How I became a USA Today Bestselling Author


Part 1—Idea: On October 25, 2013, author Heather Horrocks (picture on the left) and I met for lunch to discuss our experiences we’ve had while self-publishing. Both Horrocks and I are hybrid authors, which means we self-publish and also traditionally publish. (I’m going to refer to her as Horrocks since we are both Heathers… to avoid some confusion.) Self-publishing projects that didn’t fit our traditional publishers' niches was giving us a lot of flexibility, especially in promotional opportunities. I’d been impressed with Horrocks’ writing as well as her marketing savvy. I had even gone so far as to invite her to contribute to my anthology series A Timeless Romance Anthology. During our conversation, Horrocks told me of a friend who had hit the USA Today bestsellers list by bundling three of her novels and selling the box set for 99 cents. I looked at Horrocks, a bit wide-eyed and said, “Let’s be USA Today bestsellers.” She smiled and said, “All right.”

Part 2—Research: Through a series of emails following our October lunch, Horrocks and I discussed what type of box set to put together. All of my novels but one was tied up with traditional publisher contracts. One of the problems was that Horrocks indie novels are contemporary cozy mysteries with a dash of romance. My indie novel was a gothic historical romance (with a ghost!). So we debated whether or not we should write new books—then team up with another author to do the same. What if we tried for a Christmas set? Horrocks had a Christmas-themed book as well as Diane Darcy—one of Horrocks writing group partners. We discussed if it should be three of us or maybe more authors involved. Researching showed that the box sets that were hitting the lists had 6 or 7, or even 10 authors. I kept coming across a box set that was on pre-order called The Scandalous Brides series. I had read one of the novels already—The Salt Bride by Lucinda Brant. I wondered if Amazon would let us do preorder, but from all that I’d heard, the KDP program didn’t allow it. I emailed Amazon anyway, and emailed them again, asking question after question. I even went so far as to apply for Amazon affiliate status, but that didn’t seem to be effective for what our goals were because we wanted to release in ebook only. I emailed several other box set authors, and the ones who replied said that BookBub had been their tipping factor (I was soon to find out that BookBub would not promote multi-author box sets, they’d only promote single-author box sets).

Part 3—Selecting the Authors: Horrocks was in, and she said that Diane Darcy would be happy to join us. With Diane on board, that would give us the possibility of 2 historical novels in the set, which would eventually lead to the title Romance through the Ages. We’d decided on 7 authors, and so I started going through names, looking for authors who had been indie publishing for a while, produced professional products (cover, design, editing), had multiple romance novels out, and were savvy marketers with tons of 4 & 5 star reviews on their novels. I had worked with Rachael Anderson on an anthology earlier in the year and she’d also done some cover work and typeset layouts for me. She had two indie novels out that were doing well, and I was impressed with her writing and her marketing. Once I talked to her about it, she had a lot of great ideas to throw into the pot. Rachael was good friends with Karey White—who I had my eye on already—and so we invited Karey. I was glad Karey was willing since only one of her books was indie published, and so that’s what we’d have to use. Next, I asked Janette Rallison, crossing my fingers. Janette is very well published, mostly in the YA market, and one of her claims to fame is having sold over 1 million books. She agreed, and the project suddenly moved up a few levels. When we invited the next author (who will remain unnamed…) she was very hesitant. Her book was selling well and the idea of putting it into our box set and cutting into her sales (we were keeping the individual novels on sale simultaneously), and splitting $0.35 royalty seven ways, wasn’t too appealing. And she didn’t know any of us personally, so how could she really know how awesome we all were. LOL. Her rejection led to landing another amazing author though. Karey White suggested Amy Harmon. I feel embarrassed I had no idea who she was, hadn’t heard of her or read any of her books. I discovered that Amy had a stellar 2013 year and hit the NY Times with her indie published novel A Different Blue (she has now hit the NY Times with Making Faces). Amy agreed! And she would put in her novel Running Barefoot. I promptly read it and fell in love with Amy’s writing. So now we had our fabulous seven with a combined total of over 800 4-5 star reviews on Amazon. I knew this set would be rock-solid.

Part 4—Cover: Researching box set covers in depth quickly told me that the box sets that were hitting the USA Today and New York Times lists were steamy romances or erotic romances. With 7 “sweet” romance novels (ie PG to PG-13), we had a monumental task ahead of us. I began to doubt, and wondered, “Are the box sets hitting the lists because they are steamy romances, or are they hitting the lists because they are 99 cent box sets?” Well, we were already moving forward and it felt too late to put on the brakes. Plus, Amy Harmon was part of the set—if all else failed, that was just cool to think about in and of itself. Rachael Anderson designed the 3-D box set image:

Pretty, huh? Obviously not steamy or erotic. So we were hoping that we’d still have a chance, that maybe the auto-buys were for the “romance” and “box set” and “99 cents”.
 

Part 5--Pre-order status: [8/14/14 update: Amazon now allows any author to put their book on pre-order status up to 90 days in advance. Details here.]After many failed stints of trying to talk Amazon into doing a pre-order status (don’t get me wrong, Amazon is great to work with, but they have policies in place), we finally caught a break. Because one of the authors in our box set was a New York Times status, Amazon was willing to give us pre-order. I was elated. And even though other box set authors I'd talked to who were also granted that status said they didn’t care for it, I still felt like it was a major step forward. About the same time BookBub turned us down. It would take a few emails to discover the “real” reason. (And don’t get me wrong here either, BookBub is fabulous and I’ve done two other successful promos with them. But again, they have their policies. I recommend BookBub hands’ down—but know that they are a paid promo service to the tune of several hundred dollars.) It was a few days before Christmas now, and we set the release date to Saturday, February 1st (which would turn out to be a mistake later on). We asked reviewers who had read at least one of the books to post on Amazon the review of that specific book, and when we had about 20 reviews posted, our ranking increased.



Part 6—Lining up Promotions: As you can imagine, trying to find and select promotions is always any authors or publishers toughest job, especially if advertising dollars are at stake. We weren’t opposed to investing money, but we wanted an ROI, of course! Read any marketing book and you’ll quickly realize it’s a bit like throwing stuff at a wall—what will stick? I knew by experience that BookBub was the real deal. But it seemed that door had been shut firmly in our faces. Was there anything that was comparable to BookBub? After email several bestselling authors who had hit various lists, I started to gather websites that offered email blasts to readers who were interested in the romance category. We also hit a few deadends, and some that seemed to do nothing—yet perhaps they helped us maintain rankings. Our focus was the two weeks leading up to release date (because we had pre-order status) and the week of release (which would be your primary focus if you don’t have pre-order status). The list I’m going to give you is what worked for our box set and I believe gave us a decent ROI, but please remember our results may not be your results. NOTE: I only tracked Amazon ranks.

ReadCheaply.com, Amazon rank jumped from #1036 to #585, FREE (They say on their website that their advertising is currently free, although you need to tweet/Facebook. Full disclosure—I hadn’t seen this much success with two other books I posted through ReadCheaply as I did the box set. I was pleasantly surprised. And it tells me that the product can make a difference, and results can widely vary. But you can’t beat free.)

eReaderNewsToday.com, Amazon rank jumped from #1521 to #161, bills 25% of “sales” according to their formula (yes, this sounds a bit vague, but you can read more on their website. I was very pleased with the results!) [August 2014 update on eReaderNewsToday, they now charge a straight fee, around $40.00]

eBookBargainUK.wordpress.com, Yes this is a UK promotion, but exposure is exposure and we did sell several hundred copies on the Amazon foreign markets. I did the week long promo where we were featured in their daily email blasts. By the time it ran, we were already ranked at #124 on Amazon. Only $25.

Awesomegang.com, This one actually didn’t help our ranks, per se. We started at #499 and dropped to #711 that day. But I really can’t complain because it was only $10.00 and it’s hard to judge if a promo might just be helping maintain your numbers. Yes, dropping 200 spaces is a drop, but we were still in the top 1000 for the day and more than a week out to release date. Only $10.

Peoplereads.com, The first day this promo ran we went from #1650 to #1424. Not a huge jump, but measurable. We did the “special feature” deal which means Peoplereads tweets the deal for two weeks. They only have 2,000 followers, but there were dozens of retweets by some who had tens of thousands of followers. Worth it? I say yes. $19.99.

eBookBooster.com, This promo acts as a broker, and they send to 50 other sites. A great way to save yourself submitting to a bunch of other places. I really can’t give you a yes or no on this, but I think it’s something to consider. $40.00 [Aug 2014 update: I recently ran this promo for another book, and eBookBooster automatically submitted to AwesomeGang and Pixel of Ink, so to submit separately to those is not needed if you use this promo.]

Bookgorilla.com, This promo had a single focused date and our ranks went from #1661 to #595. Definitely a success in my mind especially since it was about 3 days before release and we really wanted to get our ranking moving up. $50.00 [Aug 2014 update on Bookgorilla price, if you sign up for a KindleNationDaily promo for $99 or higher, then you will get a free Bookgorilla slide-over spot. A savings of $50!]

KindleNationDaily.com, Okay, this was for me the “big expectation.” This was going to replace BookBub, and the price was way up there. But it had been recommended to me by several bestselling authors and it’s one of the vehicles used by the Big Deal promos on Amazon (that are only offered by invitation only). So, biting the bullet, I emailed KND and asked for their recommendations. We put together a “power package” which has several levels of promotions built in. Results? Awesome. Ranks went from #440 to #161. You might think, well, you have those kinds of jumps with cheaper promos. You have to understand, once you are hitting the higher ranks, the differences between #400 and #150 is a lot bigger than between #1200 and #1000, if that makes sense. Cost: $349.00

BookBlast.co, [now: booksends.com] This promo ran the same day as KND, so some of the rank jumps cited above are crossovers from both promos on the same day. This was also more expensive because we selected the “bestseller list package.” As you can see, in the days leading up to the release of the box set, I was pretty much willing to take a few risks. Did this one pan out? It would only be accurate to say that I’d have to run KND and BookBlast on separate days to give you a better estimation. But for the purposes of my goals for this box set, this was the right decision. Cost: $250.00

InDTale.com, I love this website and I’ve been advertising on it for about 14 months, swapping out various books. So they were one of my go-to promo. We did a website side-bar ad (about $30.00) that stayed up for the entire month of January and then we did the “book bargain newsletter” ($25.00). Was it effective? For the price and the reputation of InD’Tale, I’d say yes. The newsletter was blasted on Feb 4, so right in the middle of many of our larger promos, so I can’t gage exact results, but I believe there were sales. Cost: $55.00 total.

Goodreads Ad, This promo also came highly recommended. I knew nothing about it, and it seems there is quite the method to it. I set our limit to $250, with $0.50 per click-through. In other words, I only get charged if there is a click-through. And I could modify any time. After creating a campaign that only had 25 views in 2 days, I emailed Goodreads “help!” They gave me instructions about how to power-up my advertising (maybe I’d just neglected to do the research) and I created 5 ad campaigns with different descriptions and reaching different markets. The most successful were the “no targeting” campaigns. By the end of the 10 days, we had 156,000 views. Not a lot of click-throughs, but the exposure was there. Total cost: $23.50.

Smaller promos:
The Fussy Librarian ($7.00)
pixelofink.com (free)
indiebookoftheday.com
addictedtoebooks.com ($15.00)
indiehousebooks.com ($15.00)
storyfinds “smashup Saturday” promo ($50.00)
Facebook ad (was paid by one of the authors, not sure on the $)
You can find a list that’s a good starting point on Anne Rallen's blog: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/11/writers-toolkit-4-how-to-sell-your.html?spref=fb 
Kindle Book Review also has a comprehensive promo list to start your research: https://www.thekindlebookreview.net/author-resources/

Organic promos:
This is what I’m calling promos done by the authors through their own networks. Like I mentioned earlier, the box set contains authors who have very strong platforms. So they have their own decent reach and marketing abilities. Some of what was done by each of us individual included: Newsletter blasts (I have 800 on my newsletter list and I’m sure the other authors have at least that or more), Facebook events, Facebook shout-outs (calling in all favors!), our own blogs and other blog shout-outs (calling in more favors!), “swapping” shout-outs with other authors on Twitter/ Facebook etc, and the authors would send me tidbits of things they were doing that I didn’t write down. It all culminated into the “big release week”. As you can see, the success of this box set wasn’t just an idea thrown together and authors grabbed and a cover put up. Each author and even each book had a viable track record, a strong readership, and a solid platform. The combination of the promos and events surrounding this box set could never be exactly duplicated again. But this will give you a good idea of the work involved and the time dedicated to one purpose.

Part 7—The Numbers: Just tell us the numbers! Remember when I said Feb 1 release date was a mistake? We found out that the New York Times counts their sales week starting on Sunday. Feb 1 was a Saturday… the absolute worse day we could release on. Thankfully, we caught it in time, and Amazon changed our pre-order date to Sunday, Feb 2. Later we read that the USA Today starts their count on a Monday, but others have blogged about it as a Sunday. So that’s very murky! If you are considering doing something crazy like me, then research this—and release on a Monday!

Pre-orders: This was incredible to watch on KDP. The pre-orders started to dump in about 500 at a time, reaching just over 3500 on release date. And then we had our two big promos running that day, KND and BookBlast. Also, the Barnes & Noble rankings started rising and on this first day, we sold about 126 on Nook—this was definitely due to KND and BookBlast. And as fate has a way of knocking you down a peg, my internet service was completely out, so I was checking rankings and sales on my phone and emailing them to myself. 

Monday: You must know that when you do larger promos, the benefits are also seen on day 2, and carry over for another day or so after that. By 5:00 pm Monday we’d sold 199 on B&N and 5381 on Amazon. Ranked #130 Amazon, #109 B&N.

Tuesday-Friday: This is where the amazing happened. Remember all of our favors for shout-outs and postings were happening in these days. And consider the ripple effect factor and once your break into higher rankings, your exposure and metadata become a giant rotating circle of regenerating algorithms. The evening of February 5 we hit the peak: #31 Amazon, #18 B&N. We had sold 839 on B&N and 7473 on Amazon. Fantastic, yes! We were also listed on Kobo, but those sales were in the 10’s. From conversations and questions of other bestselling authors, we’d heard that if we got in the range of 8k-9k, we had a chance for the USA Today list. The New York Times was a bit more touchy, but we knew authors who had hit that list with much less sales. There were so many factors and one of them was how much other books were selling. 

End result: By Sunday night (which may or may not have counted on one of the lists, not sure), we had 1595 sales on B&N, and about 9200 on Amazon. On Thursday, February 13, we found out that we'd made #127 on the USA Today list. I discovered this about 2:30 a.m. and well, didn't sleep after that.




Part 8—Would we do it again? Looking back, I see so many times of uncertainty, ups and downs, and realize it really was the perfect storm coming together. So, yes, I’d possibly do it again. But I know the work that will be involved and how crucial finding the right combination of authors/books would be.



12 comments:

Heather Horrocks said...

I'm still smiling. : )

Melanie Valderrama said...

Thanks for sharing what happened behind the scenes. I love it and am looking forward to reading more!

Melanie Valderrama said...

Okay, I wrote that comment on a previous post and have now read the "rest of the story." What an interesting process. Congrats on becoming a USA Today bestselling author! Purchasing this boxed set was a no-brainer deal for me as a reader and I hope you'll do more in the future!

Heather Moore said...

Thanks Melanie! :-)

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

This is fascinating, Heather. Thank you so much for sharing and the generosity! Can't wait to talk more at Storymakers with you.

Heather Moore said...

Can't wait to see you, Kimberley!

Cami Checketts said...

Congratulations! I'm just thrilled for you hitting the USA Today bestseller list.
Thanks for sharing your journey.
Hugs,
Cami

Angela said...

What a promotion pro, Heather! Amazing! Congratulations--you deserve it after all that work. And thank you for giving so much advice and help to the writing community!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing!

Have you heard of any similar websites to promote films?

Heather Moore said...

I'm not familiar with film promotion, but I'm sure there are things out there... I see a lot of movie trailers being tweeted.

Kristy Woodson Harvey said...

Heather, What an incredibly helpful post! I'm saving all of these book promotion sites for my release next spring. Have a great weekend!

Heather Moore said...

Kristy, congrats on your upcoming book :-)