Reaching Bestsellers Lists with a First Fiction Book: An Interview with Indie Author ML Banner
Writing is no easy thing. Most authors who end up making a living out of it actually say it’s one of the hardest professions. It takes a lot of time, dedication and energy.
If on top of writing, you also have to do all the activities associated with publishing the book, it becomes more than just “hard”. 2014 was described by hybrid author Kristine Kathryn Rusch as the year when indies say “the end of the gold rush”. If you like roaming around on Kboards, you see more and more posts from authors “quitting” indie publishing.
But now and again, you get to read about the latest awesome indie success story, and that always brings the optimism back. And who better than Hugh Howey to do that? When we read the guest post on his blog by ML Banner, bestselling author of Stone Age (his first book!), we thought we definitely had to interview him. So we did.
He’s sharing his experience, insights, and creative marketing techniques with us. “Creative marketing” is becoming a leitmotiv on the Reedsy blog – the last author we interviewed about this was Eliot Peper. Well, Michael and Eliot have one thing in common: they both come from a “tech background”, so, unlike most authors out there, they treat their books as a startup. And that works.
For the lovers of the written word, we’ve transcribed most of the interview below. However, we strongly encourage you to switch the volume on and hit play, you’ll get so much more – like a very persistent fly constantly trying to interrupt Michael!
Hi Michael, great to have you here. First, congratulations on getting your two first books out last year, and on hitting the ground running. You’ve had this idea for a book for a long time, right? What made you decide to “author publish” it in the first place?
I have to say that the primer to this, probably, was Hugh Howey. I read about him in a Wall Street Journal article in 2013: about his Wool series (that I then read and loved) and what he had done to self-publish them. So that was always in the back of my mind, but to be honest at that time I didn’t really have the intention to write any fiction.
Then I read an article one day about solar flares (I’ve always had a very keen interest in science), and what could happen if we had a similar solar storm today. So I just started doing research on it to find out that something like this actually happened once back in 1859, and that if it happened again today, it could be catastrophic. I thought: “man, this would make for a great book, I’m sure it must be on Amazon!” So I searched for it, and it wasn’t there…
So I started rumbling, and thinking: “well if I had to write that book, here’s probably how I would approach it, with this plot, these characters, etc.” And I actually started writing the book, without my wife even knowing about it!
And with that first book, you’ve actually hit the Amazon bestsellers list in your category, so you’re the perfect example of the “indie publishing dream”. But you’ve also done a lot of pre-launch work for that, and a lot of things that I don’t see many authors out there doing. Do you think that’s because you have a tech/startup background?
Sure, I know I approached it kind of differently. But first, once I knew I was going to self-publish, I really immersed myself in everything about self-publishing, reading book after book, articles, etc.
Then, the fact that I have been a founder of several companies in the past (the last one is currently running: SmallBiz.com) and have worked a lot with technology has made me approach self-publishing from the same viewpoint. I used Google+ a lot, for example, as I’m a big believer in it, trying to forge connections with other writers.
Also, I knew I had to approach the actual publishing bit as a publisher: “I have to be a publisher myself, so how can I really make this successful?”. I tried to come up with some creative ideas, the same way you’d do when starting a business: you try to do things differently to stand out in a competitive market.
For example, I had a character in the book who was a scientist and I thought: it’d be really cool if he had this research institute. So I created a persona for him online: a G+ profile, a Twitter account, and a website for the CMER Institute. The key was really to think from my character’s standpoint and see what I would do, in his place, to get the word out about this phenomenon [solar flares] that endangers the world.
The beautiful thing about eBooks is the connectivity: you can embed hyperlinks. So I linked to this CMERI website where my character actually offered a free ebook called “The Apocalypse Survival Guide”. And I actually got over 1,200 downloads of that book. Some people even seem to believe that the CMERI is real, as I got a couple of media inquiries!
I think that’s definitely something more authors should do: explore the possibilities of eBooks to create something bigger than the story.
I agree, I’ve seen only a rare few authors taking advantage of that. The thing you have to remember is that it’s so easy now to set up a web presence (for the author or for one of the characters). I have a GoDaddy unlimited account which costs around $200 a year so for the cost of a domain I can set up a professional-looking website in an hour or so, and embed your book in there. Also, if you can put some freebie stuff on your website, people usually love that. All this is really part of building a platform, which is one of the two most important things when you’re marketing your book.
And you have actually set up your website around 6 months before the launch, if I’m not mistaken. But how do you get people interested in it when you don’t have the content yet? How did you manage doing pre-launch marketing?
I did set up my author website probably 6 months before I launched, yes. But frankly, I had no one coming to it. You know, I see a lot of author websites out there and people seem to be confused about what their purpose is. My sole purpose with the website, right from the get go, was to acquire a mailing/subscriber list.
Now, I don’t want to make it seem like I had all the answers, though, because I didn’t. It was trial and error. There’s a lot of things I did for the launch of my second book that I didn’t do for the first one. I set up the platform early on because I knew I was going to need that, but until I launched the first book, I think I only had 2 or 3 subscribers (probably friends)…
Then, I set up the website for my scientist character, and a third website for the book series. I started building the platform from there because I knew it had to be there for when I launched. Also, at that time I wasn’t really worried about the launch, I was thinking: “get the book out and don’t worry too much about the marketing”. I’ve since changed my thinking on that with book two, where it was all about the launch.
To me, a big part of getting a book launched is trying to get your reviews in line. Now, most reviews are just a condition of book sales (in my experience, you get one review every 50 to 100 sales or so). But what you can do is get the people ready for pre-reviews. That’s much easier when you already have a following, of course, but to get started I would go with Google+ and Goodreads communities. I set myself up early on on Goodreads: although it’s hard to do anything there until your book is launched, I immersed myself from a reader standpoint in different communities and once I had the book ready, I asked for people to do an advanced copy review. There are plenty of people out there, so if you’re writing a book that you think lots of people will want to buy and read, then surely you can entice a dozen people or so to review it.
Amazon also does a cool thing with the pre-orders, which allows you to actually have a presence, a “product” even when your book is not necessarily ready. Just be careful not to miss the deadline, else you’ll be stuck in Amazon darkness for a year. You can set up the pre-order and then go to Goodreads and Google+ communities and tell everyone: “hey, I’ve got this book coming up, and I need some advance reviewers, who’s interested?”
When launch time comes, the big thing to me is visibility. If you’re a brand new writer with no following, this means you’ll have to do something to get the Amazon algorithms to work for you. I think it’s best to launch at $.99, even if you’re just making 35%. You need to get on the “Hot New Releases” and there are things you can do to focus on that, as I explained in the Hugh Howey post.
Another thing that worked well for me was doing giveaways (of other people’s books), just to build up my readership list within my genre. Here’s a good example.
I like this idea of “giveaways”: not only is it something that you can do before your launch, it’s also a way to build relationships with other authors within your genre, who can then help you promote your books, right?
Absolutely, I’m a big believer in the collaborating with other authors in your genre. It was in a Google+ community I think that another author told me to “befriend someone in my genre”.
I took this idea to heart: there were a couple of authors I really liked so I wrote a review of one of their books on my blog and then contacted them directly. The important thing is to build a relationship. It might take some time but it’s worth it, because once you have this relationship you can ask them if they’d like to review your book, or tell their audience about it. And likewise, when they are the ones running a countdown or launching a book, you will tell your audience!
One of my first relationships was with a UK author, and we’re actually going to co-write a book within my Stone Age world now. That is a relationship that kind of grew from almost a year of corresponding back and forth and trying to help with each other’s marketing.
This is actually something really unique and exciting in this world that we’re living in, the writers’ world. These people who are trying to sell their books in the same genre are not your competitors, they can be your best allies. On top of that, they already have developed their platform, they already have a readership (with their readers). So you just need to have them tell their readership about your book.
I agree, and when doing that I think it’s especially important, even if you’re a starting author with not much to offer, to start by offering something, right?
Oh definitely, I think it’s a mistake to approach immediately with “what can you do for me?”. The only exception to that is: “what has worked for you?”, that’s a different question that most are going to be very receptive to.
Many authors, especially those that have done well, really want to share that with other authors. Look at Hugh Howey, he’s a perfect example. And there are many like that, who are ready to welcome you, embrace you, and help you in your journey, especially if you’re willing to listen and learn. The best thing to do is to make their acquaintance, start with that first email.
Of course, you need to build the relationship, but that’s like with anything else. On your first date, you’re not going to take the girl to meet your parents! That’s important to keep in mind: learn from the person, ask questions, don’t be a bother but actually try to help when you can.
One thing that worked for me was to monitor their books. I’m kind of a data person so I’ve got spreadsheets with my book, my bestseller ranking, the number of sales, and I’ve tracked many other books in my genre the same way, to get an idea of what’s going on and how much the bestseller ranks fluctuate. So when I see one pop up and hit #1, I’ll send an email to the author just to say: “Congratulations, that’s awesome! How did you do it, did you use a promo newsletter, or just had the magic Amazon-algorithms for you?” We’ve all got a lot to learn from each other.
Hugh Howey was one of those that I was tracking, and when my book passed his in the ranking and went on to hit #1, I reached out to Hugh to say “hi” and let him know he had been a wonderful influence and the main reason why I decided to self-publish. I was rather surprised he responded back the next day, we corresponded a bit after that and the guest post on his blog was part of that.
And that’s how we all found out about you! I’d have a more specific question now on exclusivity. What made you decide to go with KDP Select and be exclusive?
Part of it was simplicity. I was still doing this as a very part-time activity, so I didn’t have the time and energy to explore the other platforms. It was also a business decision: I looked at the books in my genre that were best-sellers and hung a bit in there and found out quite a few of those were with Select.
The other part was the Countdown. The little countdown clock is just a perfect psychological tool for readers. Plus, when you do the Countdown, Amazon exposes you to a portion of the market that you would otherwise not get. Not only does it bump up your book during the countdown period, it actually keeps it there for a bit after that, in my experience.
Here’s the key thing, actually: once you can push your book to a place on Amazon where it’s visible, then there are other points of visibility that can connect you. Countdown helps you a lot with that first step. Then, when launching the second book, it was almost natural to also have it in Select.
What about Kindle Unlimited? And don’t you feel you’re “missing out” on other opportunities through other platforms?
I think that Kindle Unlimited is quite interesting, even though it’s gotten a lot of bad press and is pretty much an untested thing. There are certainly some things about KU that aggravate me, personally, but I have to admit that the borrows have really propped up my books and maintained a visibility that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Gaining visibility on the other platforms seems to be a very difficult thing. I’m actually surprised that B&N, Apple or Kobo are not mimicking some things that Amazon does and that work so well for authors to get their works in front of readers. I think they’re handicapping themselves because of that.
Of course, the market is changing every day, with new players constantly coming in, so it’s our job as independent authors to follow that and see which ones you can use in order to get our books out there.
Definitely, this is a very important idea: you have to use the tools you have out there but be careful not to be too dependent on them. For example, you used Amazon very well to gain visibility, but at the same time you put links in your books and platform to capture the readers that you got through Amazon.
Well, thanks so much for your time and advice. I look forward to seeing more indie success-stories like yours!
What creative marketing techniques do you personally use to propel your books after their launch? What’s your take on exclusivity and KDP Select? Do join the conversation, or ask Michael any question you want (even about what happened to the annoying fly after the interview) in the comments below!