Following our recent podcast on ‘Systematised Book Marketing’ with Gabriel Mercer, we’re thrilled, (and very thankful), to be able to follow it up with a guest blog post on the topic from the man himself. As with the interview, Gabriel is happy to provide details of the various steps involved in his grand experiment to launch a successful writing career from scratch. It’s a compelling story in itself but comes with plenty of insight, resource references and actionable tips for indie authors everywhere. And with that, it’s over to Gabriel…
When the author in this study first approached me, my goal was to change her mind.
She insisted. Writing fiction was going to be how she made her living.
I tried every argument. The long odds on a successful book career. The number of hours needed to craft a compelling narrative. Even the massive scope of responsibility in marketing yourself.
When it was all said and done… she became a client.
I accepted the job under two conditions:
We would treat her novels like information products, and…
Because this was new ground, we might fail spectacularly
We started with a question.
Can a brand new fiction author launch a premium product in a competitive genre and make a living?
TL;DR – Yes, if you prioritize quality and speed… not cost.
In our case, it took 21 months of development and outreach. Combined with a launch plan that covered a 90-day window (45 days on either side of the release date).
This wasn’t growth hacking or trend riding. It was discipline and hard work. Ninety-nine percent of which was the author.
Here’s everything we did and the results from each activity.
To create a stable income of $2,000 per month from the sale of fiction.
Here are the constraints we were working under:
- The author could afford to invest up to $10,000 to get started
- The earnings had to come from royalties alone (no speaking, courses, consulting, etc.)
- There would be no products she didn’t feel comfortable putting her name on
- We had to start the entire brand from scratch
We decided to divide and conquer. I managed the technical aspects, and she focused on outreach, engagement, and writing
My responsibilities included her website, advertising, and publishing. The accounts all belonged to the author. I only had access so I could push buttons while she watched over my shoulder.
The plan was to hire my replacement when the income from her books would allow it.
This kept her from getting distracted by things that didn’t contribute to her unfair advantage.
With all our ground rules established, there were still many ways we could approach the goal.
We could have tried to engineer a story universe and introduce a new character for every sequel.
That’s the strategy that Marvel is employing, and it seems to be working just fine.
We could have flooded the market with shorter titles and developed anything readers enjoyed. It’s an effective strategy and everything can be outsourced if you’re strapped for time.
Karla Blocka uses this method, and has been so successful she built an entire service company with the income from her catalog.
None of the alternative strategies let the author do what she was passionate about. Tell great stories.
Why would anyone make the decision to write hundreds of thousands of words rather than paying someone?
This case study is about an Artist. She had all the skills of a Director and knew she didn’t want to handle that aspect of her writing career.
We needed to establish a platform that would let her focus on writing.
That meant generating an income big enough to hire for roles a traditional publisher would handle.
No small task.
Please note: This is a custom-tailored plan. We are testing these methods in genres other than romance. These results are not typical and these strategies may or may not work for other author brands.
On with the show.
STEP 1: WRITING
Time spent = 18 months.
I encouraged the author to write an entire series before she published her first book. This was for several reasons.
There would be more purchase options available for readers that enjoyed her work
With multiple titles we would have the option to bundle the books for advertising
We could stack the releases to help mitigate the Amazon 30-day cliff
Once you start releasing books, the time spent writing decreases in favor of promotion
The author could still pitch agents and editors if she changed her mind about traditional publishing
Most first novels are terrible and she could always start over if she wasn’t happy with the quality
She could use the experience to decide if working together made sense
A backlist would give her time to recover after the fast-paced launch cycle
We were 6 months away from having all 5 books completed when the author’s resolve started to crack.
Going from a 20-year creative writing hiatus to full-time writing overnight put an enormous strain on her quality of life.
She had a day job, a family, and a healthy social life. There were many sacrifices that had to be made during her writing phase.
Finishing 1 novel, let alone 5, is a tremendous achievement. After 18 months and no tangible results, we had to pause and re-evaluate.
Writing Results – The author completed 3 full-length titles. We agreed to release them early with a commitment to finish the series by the end of the year.
Revisions took much longer than expected.
With all the editorial work included, her final revision counts were 22 on book one, 9 on book two, and 6 on book three.
Each manuscript had a word count over 100,000.
STEP 2: INFLUENCER OUTREACH
Time spent = Ongoing.
From day one, we dug deep into the romance book world. A year-and-a-half before her first book had been published, she had:
Joined her local RWA chapter, and attended 10 meetings
Reached out to a list of 100 influencers sorted by audience size
Found 14 critique partners, 7 beta readers, and a mentor
Contracted a top PR company to help her with launches
Established herself in more than 9 romance reader communities
This step was the furthest from the author’s comfort zone. Building relationships is a long-term activity.
It’s particularly difficult for Artists, who tend to be introverts. Even with the right mindset and proven templates, this was still the most taxing step we took together.
For more on this, I suggest Tim Grahl’s guide on how to be “relentlessly helpful.”
Outreach Results – Outreach is difficult to quantify. Much of the work the author did will pay out over the duration of her career.
She didn’t promote herself at all during the 18 months before her book release. We had nothing to sell.
Instead, she focused on building relationship equity that we could call upon later.
In the process, she learned a great deal about the state of the market, gathered invaluable advice from those with more experience, grew her network to include some of the biggest names in the genre, and made some very good friends.
STEP 3: LIST BUILDING
Time spent = 2 months, then ongoing.
There is no substitute for email as a part of your digital strategy. As an author, this should be your primary marketing channel.
Every piece of content has a call-to-action that directs readers to a sign-up form. To kickstart the effort, we ran a giveaway using KingSumo for 7 days.
We also used interest targeting on Facebook with a modest budget of $100 to drive traffic.
The prize was designed to appeal to romance readers while driving away freebie seekers.
The offer was a Kindle Voyage (WiFi + Free 3G) loaded with 25 contemporary romance novels. We also included an origami cover and the ad-free upgrade.
The total value of the package was $493. All the books were chosen for their similarity to the author’s genre and style.
We didn’t cut any corners. The prize offer was structured as if we were buying a gift for a close friend.
List Building Results – The higher than average prize value took us from 0 subscribers to over 1,200 in a less than 7 days.
While you might expect that number to be higher given the prize value, being selective with our audience targeting gave us a retention rate of over 75% after 90 days.
We’ve repeated this tactic twice more, and each time added more than 1,000 new subscribers to the author’s mailing list.
STPE 4: BOOK LAUNCHES
Time spent = 12 weeks.
Amazon calculates pre-orders differently than most retailers. Knowing that, we put the book up for sale 3 weeks in advance.
As an unknown author, a book listing was the simplest way to demonstrate results. The added credibility went a long way with reviewers and influencers.
We attempted to avoid the 30-day “Amazon Cliff” by stacking book launches every 3 weeks. In theory, later releases would continue to feed earlier titles.
This proved to be a mistake.
We discovered that the “honeymoon period” of a new book is longer for midlist titles. If your books aren’t listed in New & Noteworthy the change is much less dramatic after 30 days.
Our data now shows a more significant drop in rankings after 3 months.
To gain as much traction as possible, we utilized two primary methods:
Launch Team of 33 people that were built through an email follow-up campaign
Facebook Advertising that used over 162 different variants to find a winning combination
Strategies for both of these tactics were mapped from the Self Publishing Formula course on Facebook Ads for Authors.
Having purchased, created, and audited hundreds of information products, I would fully endorse any content from Mark, James, and John.
Their material is so good, I won’t bother trying to summarize or re-create it here. Their training is worth 10 times what they charge.
If you’re an author, you should buy the SPF courses.
Launch Results – More than half of the 80+ positive reviews on the first 3 titles were a result of launch team activity.
The rest were a combination of verified purchases from customers and editorial reviews.
Through the entire launch window, our goal with the advertising spend was to break even. We managed to find that combination in 2 weeks with a budget of $10 per day using AdEspresso.
Since then we have scaled up slowly. We are now seeing a positive return on investment (ROI) on budgets as high as $50 per day.
Our cost-per-click (CPC) across all ads is between $0.12 and $0.19, with an average of $0.14. Hats off to Mark Dawson for cracking the code.
STEP 5: FEATURED PROMOTIONS
Time spent = 7 Days.
To push the first title in the series higher up the charts, we decided to use “Featured Deal” sites.
Our goal was to establish the book at a high enough rank to keep it on Amazon’s marketing radar.
To maintain the profit, we scheduled all the promotions to line up with a 7-day Kindle Countdown Deal. The author would earn full-list royalties, even with a discounted price point.
We needed to be in KDP Select (Amazon exclusive) and not have altered the list price on the books for at least 30 days.
Our intention was to make a beachhead in the largest market with the best distribution.
When we weighed the opportunity cost of excluding retailers such as Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and Google Play, the math was clear.
Amazon offered more potential and the commitment to their publishing platform is only 90 days.
Plus, the exclusivity applied just to digital editions. This left the door open for audio and print distribution through other marketplaces.
Compared to traditional publishing, the terms with KDP seem to overwhelmingly favor the author.
Featured Promotions Results – We launched simultaneous featured deals over a period of a 5 days for $0.99.
The sites that gave us a positive ROI were:
Sites that didn’t break even for us during this campaign:
Placements we intended to test and couldn’t for various reasons (review count, editorial, schedule, etc.):
Using the date to track sales attribution is unreliable. We will continue to work with all the providers mentioned until we can gather more information.
STEP 6: FUTURE PLANS
When all 5 titles are complete, we intend to bundle the entire series and sell it for full retail. This is to reward early supporters and discourage waiting for a completed series.
To make this appealing for new readers, the author is adding original content to the bundle. Over time, we’ll make the new stories available to list members and previous customers.
The bundle will create a single product with higher margins. The increased profit will give us more flexibility in our advertising.
Ads for the bundle should perform better with larger audiences as the cost-per-lead rises. We are targeting a return of 200% with a daily budget of $100.
Giveaways are still the fastest tactic for list building that we’ve found. The author wants to run them quarterly until we reach at least 10,000 subscribers.
Finally, we plan to replicate the campaigns and promotions in other English-speaking regions. There is a market for romance in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand which we can tap into.
Miscellaneous Results – These items were incidental or were not a determining factor in the success or failure of any initiative.
We gained efficiency by using an Amazon Associates account and a landing page for paid traffic. This allowed us to credit ourselves as an affiliate for an extra 6% of the sales from Facebook advertising.
We chose a price point of $3.99 for all the books. The target price for the bundle will be $19.95.
The plan is to test price tolerance by making promotions and discounts rare occurrences. We want to compete on value and not price.
The author gave away exactly 172 copies of both digital and softcover editions.
Pre-release copies were given to influencers, reviewers, and launch team members. Post-release copies were given as appreciation gifts or as promotional items. None were given in exchange for an email address.
All the giveaway copies were debited at full list royalties or the cost of printing.
To reach $2,000, we would need at least 717 copies sold per month. Between 3 books that seemed reasonable by the end of the year.
When we launched the first title in June, we sold 3,487.
Part of the sales were pre-orders from May. We thought it was an outlier. Something we couldn’t track, a media mention we missed, or just a fluke.
Then we sold 2,588 copies in July.
After watching the trend line stay level in August, we concluded that our goal may have been too modest. That’s when I decided to write this case study and share what we learned.
By analyzing 3 separate launches, we’ve concluded that more than 50% of the royalties came from Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP). Only 2% came from print sales.
Romance readers tend to be frequent book buyers. We believe the KENP royalties were a result of the Kindle Unlimited program. Had we not been in KDP Select our revenue would have been severely impacted.
From the beginning, we committed to avoiding “permafree” as a strategy for list building.
In over a decade of marketing, I have never seen any business give away their core product with no restrictions. Not even in publishing.
Our hope is that these experiments will turn the indie community away from practices based on conventional wisdom. We’ll continue to debunk myths about marketing tactics that are harmful, ineffective, or have viable alternatives.
How to Launch a 6-Figure Writing Career:
• Choose a commercial fiction genre and commit to premium quality products in your business
• Be willing to do 6 months of outreach and relationship building before you have anything to sell
• Spend as long as it takes to write 3 high-quality novels (preferably 5) before you publish
• Enroll all titles in KDP Select for at least the first year
• Use targeted giveaways to build a list of 1,000 subscribers before releasing a book
• Segment the subscriber list for a launch team that can give early support to new releases
• Run Facebook ads according to the strategy created by the team at SPF
• Use featured site deals in combination with Countdown Deals to spike sales
• Bundle for higher margin and scale Facebook ads to maintain sales after promotions
• In total, these 9 items took almost 2 years to produce an income that could be considered full-time.
The author in our study is on track to finish 2016 with nearly ten times her original earnings goal.
She still hasn’t quit her day job.
Many of the assumptions we made initially were based on my work in other industries.
With the data from direct experience, we can see that the entertainment industry mirrors traditional information products in many ways.
• Fundamental direct response techniques work for fiction. Marketers have spent the last 15 years figuring out how to bring successful print campaigns online. They work better now than they did 100+ years ago. Human nature is still human nature. Independent publishers should take full advantage of emerging media to stay ahead of their traditional counterparts.
• Technology barriers will continue to drop. Business-minded authors that approach their work with purpose and clarity will outperform those that blindly improvise. Take the time to weigh your publishing options at every stage, rather than trusting experts with survivor bias. Focus on the reader experience and don’t get attached to the tools or tactics.
• The market for digital fiction is still young. While there will likely be some consolidation in the near future, commercial fiction will always need new talent. Based on what we’ve seen, I’m confident there is still opportunity in even the most hyper-competitive markets for anyone that wants to become an independent publisher.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE (August 23, 2016):
Shortly after we put together this case study, we came across a presentation from the Data Guy at Author Earnings. The information in the slides for the Romance Writer’s of America (RWA) Published Author Network (PAN) supports our findings 100%.
Given how wildly variable the fiction market and the Amazon customer experience can be, we will continue to use our own results to inform our publishing methods.
That said, given the size of the data set and the extensive analysis, reports like these are invaluable to indie publishing community… and a perfect control for any experiments.