If you are like most aspiring authors, you may just want to write. However (like most authors), you’ll soon realize that when you decide to self-publish your work, you become the CEO of your own startup – the business of writing, producing, and publishing your own books. And to do so successfully, you need a plan. In this post, my friend and fellow author, Laini Giles, shares her self-publishing plan for success.
It’s hard when you’re a writer and you have no idea what to do with your books, other than write them. The whole marketing business is a big mysterious deal. Why do some books seem to get a huge push and others just sit there?
After 176 rejections, I finally decided that I was going to self-publish my novel The Forgotten Flapper. But I had no idea what to do, so I created a plan.
So many self-published books I saw were badly done—badly written, typos, awful covers, and other amateurish characteristics that I didn’t want to emulate. If I was going to self-publish, I was going to kick ass at it. I was going to create my own new genre, and I was going to succeed at it.
- I would self-publish at a high standard (professional editing and covers that are indistinguishable from professionally published books at big bookstores).
- I would create a well-coordinated marketing plan.
- I would establish a solid foundation for future books.
- I would eventually earn a liveable income as a writer.
- That I was working in a relatively narrow genre.
- That I was working with limited resources.
- That I had one year to learn everything I needed to know.
I gave myself a year to learn everything I needed to know about self-publishing. But when it came to thinking about marketing, about 6 months out from the release day I’d picked, I knew I’d need to come up with a well-coordinated plan, and put it into play. Here’s what I did. Maybe it can help some of you!
My Self-Publishing Plan of Action
Since I had a series of novels planned, all about forgotten actresses of the silent and early sound periods, I wanted to tie them together with a common theme.
1 // Cover and Interior Design:
When I went to get a cover design, I did searches for “book cover designers” on Google. Now, we’re all working from limited budgets, but I specifically set aside funds for my cover (and interior) design, and also for my editing.
I wanted my book to be INDISTINGUISHABLE from those in bookstores–both in the look and in the quality of the writing. It cost a pretty penny, I won’t lie. But this cover opened numerous doors to me that would have stayed shut if I’d scrimped. It’s been worth every cent I spent for it. My guys are called The Book Designers. You can see their work here.
2 // Analyzing and Defining my Target Audience:
Who are they?
Since The Forgotten Flapper deals with old Hollywood (specifically the silent early Hollywood years from about 1916 through 1920) and also with Broadway in the Ziegfeld years (approximately 1914-1917), I decided to brainstorm my market.
The theatrical crowd (and those interested in theater) from my experience, consist of three main groups:
- Older folk who were around when Hollywood was still in its heyday and love reading true movie biographies about their favourite stars
- Ladies (and girls) who love buying vintage clothing and scan Pinterest for vintage décor and goods
- Gay men
I knew that to tap into that market right away, I’d need to put myself out there for those three groups. So then I had to figure out where my audiences congregated.
Where do they congregate?
Conveniently enough for me, they all enjoy:
- Silent/classic film festivals
- Facebook groups about old Hollywood
- Going to Hollywood
I just needed to peg where I could capture these three audiences all in one place.
What is my appeal for them?
I write biographical fiction about people they have an interest in. These novels are a way for fans to lose themselves in a fully immersive story about old Broadway or early Hollywood. They can see cameras set up on tripods, capturing the scenes they know and love. They can smell the sawdust and the California coastal sage and hear the audience applauding. They know there will be scenes of adventures during filming or melancholy ones of actresses experiencing tragedy—all the scenes they’ve visualized in their minds all these years reading nonfiction.
3 // Author Brand
Because I’m writing a series of novels about 1920s-era actresses (that aren’t necessarily related to each other), I market myself as the “Philippa Gregory of Forgotten Actresses.” She writes about various Renaissance-era queens without a direct relationship between the women. So when I say that, people get a definite idea about what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my work.
To establish a coordinated visual identity, I told The Book Designers that I wanted a design I could semi-duplicate for each book, making them instantly recognizable as mine. So for each, I’m changing the name, the color scheme and the actress photo. This is helping to create my brand visually. Here are the first two, so you can see what I mean:
For the next few books, I’m looking at colors like navy blue, dusty plum, golden wheat, pinky rose, a deep emerald…but all with the sort of sepia-flavored old-fashioned look. You get the point.
Also, I’ve divided the parts of my first book into sections, almost like a Broadway play, and I told them to have a little fun with those section dividers. Here’s what they did:
For the second book, I’ve used the titles of old 1920s jazz songs as the titles.
I can’t count the number of compliments I’ve gotten on the design of the books. Complete strangers have stopped to tell me how much they love it.
THAT is what you want!
The way I see it—splurge on the first book. If it’s well written and it looks good, you will sell lots of copies, and you can sink your sales money into your next book. Let your business keep feeding back into itself. That tactic appears to be working for me, so far.
On Twitter, I changed the top picture on my profile to the book cover. And most importantly, I didn’t ONLY tweet about the book. Followers will drop you very quickly if you do that. Post about things you like that you’re interested in. I followed other silent movie folks, and would retweet their interesting content, gorgeous old architectural pictures, funny memes, etc. Just mix it up. Figure out what works best for you as far as gaining followers and attention and retweets and keep doing it.
Make it easy for people to find you and recognize you on social media. Keep that color scheme, font, or look throughout your cover, your business cards, postcards, bookmarks, website, etc. This lets people know at a glance that it’s you, the writer of that book they liked.
My husband had originally done a nice website for me, but it was a pain to maintain it AND a blog (I had to tell him every time I wanted to change something!). What I did was combine my website and WordPress account, so my website and blog are together, and I can update it anytime I want. Plus, I was able to coordinate the look better with the new site.
4 // Social Media Strategy
Before I left for Cinecon in California (more on this below), I began spreading the word on Facebook (there are tons of silent movie Facebook groups, so I started posting there), Twitter, and my blog/website. As soon as the silent and classic movie fans found out there was going to be a novel about Olive Thomas, they were intrigued, and couldn’t wait to find out what the book was like.
Eventually, I added Pinterest to the mix as well. I posted photos of my covers, and created Pinterest boards for each book, with photos of my main characters, secondary characters, locations, and so on.
5 // Additional Formats and Distribution
In addition to selling through Amazon and Smashwords, I also made sure to sign up on Ingram. By using a distributor like Ingram or Baker and Taylor, any bookstore that uses this distributor can order books. So your books can be where you are not.
There’s a $49 setup fee, and I don’t make much money from these sales (because I have to offer them at such a huge discount), but the cache of being seen in a bookstore legitimizes my books. Customers have seen them on a shelf or table and don’t necessarily know I’m self-published, so there isn’t that stigma that often goes along with it.
6 // Marketing and Outreach
Conveniently enough, there happens to be a silent film festival in Hollywood every Labor Day called Cinecon. Since my book was coming out in August, I knew that I needed to be there. And not just as an attendee. They have a marketplace for film-related memorabilia—antique movie posters, magazines, buttons, etc. And they also have a spot for authors publicizing recent biographies and movie-related books. I contacted the person in charge (sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out who that is, but be persistent…) and managed to get a table set up.
Here I am signing books at Cinecon 2015
Also, over the next year, I attended the Surrey International Writers Conference in Surrey, British Columbia, and When Words Collide in Calgary. I participated in panels and also had an author table in both places.
At the Surrey International Writers Conference in 2015
When I’d been in Hollywood the previous year doing research, I remembered a monthly indie paper I’d picked up that was all about old movie memorabilia and films, called Classic Images. I knew this would cater to my exact market, so I contacted them to advertise for August and September (just before and during Cinecon). In the ad, I also said, “Come meet the author at Cinecon 2015!”
My husband found a gorgeous banner that we ordered with the cover on it (see above image), and we added a little blurb at the bottom with my contact information, too. This one came from a place called bannerbuzz.ca. It even collapses and comes with a cool carrying case, so I could take it places in my suitcase!
In case anyone couldn’t afford a copy at Cinecon, or wanted to buy a copy later, they would have all the information they needed to send me an email or go to my website. Especially if they grabbed a business card or postcard too (they went like hotcakes over the course of the 3-day festival!).
I ordered business cards and postcards that have information about the book and my contact information. I like postcards more than bookmarks, because I can fit the entire cover on one side with the plot on the back:
The front (left) and back (right) of my postcard format
Before heading out for Los Angeles, I joined just about every silent movie or Ziegfeld-related Facebook group and began announcing my book there. Olive Thomas is very popular among silent movie fans, so word spread fast. I was getting oodles of likes and shares immediately.
I’m friends with several folks who are tour guides in L.A. (Note: I simply took their tours, cultivated those friendships, and retweet their content often). They shared my book with their fans as well. Those helped IMMENSELY because they have movie-loving followers from all over the world!
After I’d met several tour operators in Los Angeles, and they read it and loved the book, they began posting on their Facebook pages and tweeting about it, and my sales began shooting up.
I contacted several local bookstores in Hollywood and environs with information about the book. Since a good chunk of my readers live there, I wanted to make sure I got it in front of them. Because I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket (i.e. Amazon), I put the book into several formats. I also made it available through Ingram distribution (at a massive discount) so bookstores could order it. You won’t make much in sales, but when someone finds your book IN a bookstore, this gives it cache that you might not have as only an Amazon author. In Canada, we are fortunate to be able to get free ISBNs from the government, so I used that service, and am not bound to only selling through Amazon.
With a bit of digging, I found an online list of all the independent bookstores in the US and Canada, and sent them each an email introducing myself, including my cover blurb and the book cover, and how the book was available through Ingram. At least 15 of them decided to take a chance on me. When I have more books in the series, I think it will increase the likelihood that they will want to order more.
Out and About
I give my books lips service whenever I see an opportunity. While I was in Hollywood, I sold a copy to another guest at my bed and breakfast, and left a copy for the wonderful folks that own the place. The Hollywood Bed and Breakfast is now like staying with family for me. They’ve placed a copy of my book in their living room area with all their other Hollywood related books so guests can casually pick it up and browse (and maybe buy a copy when they return home!).
When I travel, I always keep a copy or two of my books in my bag. If someone starts a conversation and asks you what you do, tell them you’re a writer. You’d be AMAZED how many people think that’s the coolest thing in the world, and will ask you about your books. The super eager ones want to buy one on the spot, and have you sign it for them. If they’re interested in checking it out later, give them a business card or postcard with your contact information on it.
I sold a copy at the San Francisco airport while waiting for a flight home on a business trip. And the nice couple who were seated next to me on the plane from Edmonton to Abbotsford were so intrigued they not only bought a copy of the book from me on the plane, they also came by the hotel in Surrey later that weekend to have me sign it!
I had recently begun listening to podcasts, so decided to see if there were any podcasts related to what I was doing. The History Author Show host, Dean Karayannis was delighted to have me on to talk about the book (and I recently made a follow-up appearance for my newest book). Dean tweets and retweets my information constantly. I owe him a drink when I get to New York!
I was also on C.P. Lesley’s podcast, New Books in Historical Fiction (a channel in the New Books Network).
If you’re into sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, whatever…look for podcasts. There’s probably one you can participate in. Contact the host and tell them you’d love to be on their show. I’m sure they’d be delighted.
If there are conferences or book festivals near you, GO. Network with other writers and readers. Join a local writers group to better your craft and to make friends. Friends support each other, and attend each other’s events.
If you think you can, participate in panels or offer to do a presentation at a local conference. If you’re not up to that, volunteer to help out. You get to sit in on some of the sessions for free, and can network with other writers! Once you get one of these under your belt, they get much easier, and you will become recognized as someone who knows your stuff.
Keep a “writers resume” of all the conferences you’ve participated in, novels you’ve written, articles you’ve had published, and get excited when you’re able to add to it. Hand out your cards and bookmarks. Chat your book up. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but use the opportunity if it comes to you. I’m partial to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, because you get to read portions of your novel to a group and get amazing feedback on it!
You may have heard about the wonders of BookBub, but are bemoaning the fact that you didn’t get picked. I did too, until a friend told me that it took another writer friend of his ELEVEN times to be selected.
You mean you can try it multiple times? Indeed you can. Keep at it. Pick one book, and every three months like clockwork, send BookBub a request. Don’t mark it down to 99 cents in the meantime or that will disqualify you.
It took me seven tries, but when I sold 3,000 copies the first day, I finally knew what all the hype was about. #1 in historical, biographical fiction for several days, and I didn’t drop out of the Top 10 for around 2 weeks. Plus I saw a residual increase in sales for a month after my deal. And now I’m up over 100 reviews on Amazon as well!
What Worked and What Didn’t
- My book cover quality + my consistent brand identity = Total win! (I implemented the look for the second in the series, which came out in late March of this year).
- BookBub stand out strategy = Total win!
- I was so focused on trying to have an event at the PERFECT spot (I thought), a Hollywood focused bookstore, Larry Edmunds, which never materialized. I also continued to phone the Silent Movie Theater there to have a big opening party (and they never returned my calls). I should have contacted all local independent bookstores to try to set something up. I didn’t. In Hollywood, that was just a wasted opportunity.
- I wish I hadn’t spent money for an ad at the Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver. No measurable bump from it at all.
- Ingram and the Historical Novel Society both had newsletters to publicize books, and I used both of these services. Never saw any result, and considered it money wasted both times.
- I began building my email list way late. I wish I’d gotten hip to the list thing way earlier, and put out sign-up sheets everywhere I appeared. Lots of missed opportunities there. I don’t send out emails often, but I try to make them full of interesting items about upcoming books, events I’ll be attending, interviews I may have done, or funny gifs of the actresses I write about. I’m experimenting with what works. But I have begun building my mailing list slowly but surely!
- I would have tried to get more advance readers to read and review to increase my sales on Amazon the first day, so my rank was higher. I didn’t quite understand yet how the numbers worked, so I let a good opportunity pass me by. But I did it for this last release. Bingo! (Note from Kim: Laini is also a Book Launch Toolkit alumna. You can find her video testimonial here.)
I now have two books in the series under my belt. As a former self-publishing cynic, I now wouldn’t do things any other way. I hope my advice can help some of you out there considering to take the plunge!
About the Author
A native of Austin, Texas, Laini Giles grew up the daughter of bookworms, and became a Nancy Drew devotee early on. When she realized there might be no escape from hairy tarantulas and bad guys with guns, she decided to write about them instead, finishing her first mystery novel with custom illustrations when she was eight. Find out more about her current work at LainiGiles.com.
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