Word of mouth is one of the most effective means of getting new readers, but you already have to have readers to spread the word in the first place. It takes readers to get readers.
Indie publishing champion David Gaughran states the issues far more eloquently than I can in his post Starting from Zero.
I have two novels out now, The Pirates of Alnari, and The Grand Masquerade. Sales are almost non-existent. What reviews I do have are good, so I know that my writing isn't utter dreck. The problem is not that my writing stinks; rather it's that no one knows about my writing at all. I don’t have readers, so I can’t get readers. What to do?
Spamming social media is not an option. The goal here is to attract readers, not annoy them, and I don't have a huge following either, so there's no point.
What follows is my experience so far regarding promoting my work.
Jack Badelaire, a friend and fellow writer, started publishing novels on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) the same year that I did. He is more prolific a writer than I am, and back in early 2013 he had two novel-length titles (Killer Instincts and COMMANDO: Operation Arrowhead) available compared to a single one of my own (The Pirates of Alnari).
We had both been experimenting with KDP’s free promotions, with limited success. At this point we were still both so unknown that during a promotion we would give away a few hundred free copies, and see essentially no post-promotion sales bounce afterwards.
In the midst of this, in early April 2013 Jack did a regular KDP free promo, no different from all his previous ones...but something happened this time. Instead of the normal few hundred downloads, he got 12,000. Both of us were completely baffled (we routinely share sales data to compare notes, etc.).
And then, just as the promo came to a close, the book got a review from someone who said they found it via BookGorilla, which sent out daily newsletters to its subscribers, providing tips on books that were currently available for free. At that time BookGorilla was just getting started, trying to build a subscribership. When it could not fill all of its advertising spots, apparently ad spots were populated with free books by authors who had not taken out ads. Jack was a beneficiary of this policy.
The result was immediate. After the promo he got a boost in Amazon’s rankings and a massive sales spike. The serendipity was compounded by the fact that Jack had just just released his third novel (COMMANDO: Operation Bedlam) in the days before the promo, so his new title benefited from the subsequent boost as well.
Eager to duplicate Jack’s success, I immediately took out an ad on BookGorilla, dropping the $50 ad fee without hesitation. I was confident I would make the money back in the post sales bounce (Jack got a huge one)--if I sold a mere twenty copies in the following days and weeks, the ad would have paid for itself.
I eagerly awaited my ad date, preparing to track the downloads as they happened. When the day came, I watched my free downloads that morning, a slow trickle like usual, and then when I got the BookGorilla announcing the promotion, the downloads began to spike. As expected, they began an exponential decay, the download rate falling off with time. It was soon clear that I would achieve--by far the best promo I had ever run, but nowhere near the success that Jack had achieved. I ended the first day with 625 downloads, and the second day added 260 more, for a total of 885. A far cry from Jack’s 12,000.
The graph below shows my total number of downloads throughout the two day promotion, starting at 7am on Day One, and ending at the end of the promotion. The BookGorilla email went out about 10am, and the red dot on the graph shows when I received it. Clearly it did have a significant impact.
Once the promotion ended, I watched my sales closely, hoping but not expecting that I would see some kind of spike. All I needed was twenty sales. In the month following the promotion, I got two sales. Just how bad is that? In the month prior to the promotion, I got four sales.
Needless to say, this was disheartening. So what went wrong?
I still don’t know, but here are my theories:
- My cover wasn’t the best. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t spectacular either. Jack’s cover, on the other hand, was simple and effective--and clearly enough to get the job done.
- I had fewer reviews (9) than he did (10), but I don’t see that being enough to make a difference. Both of our ratings averages were around 4.5.
- Wrong genre? My story was Epic Fantasy, while his was Men’s Adventure. Perhaps the audience for Men’s Adventure was larger among BookGorilla subscribers.
- Jack had more titles available (3 novels) to my one. But on the other hand, his 12,000 downloads were for a standalone novel, and I find it hard to believe that our respective backlists would have such a substantial effect on the number of downloads.
- Did yet another outlet pick him up at the same time, and we only knew about Book Gorilla? We confirmed that BookBub did not run his book that day, but other than that we just don’t know.
- Bad Luck
I hoped it was just the latter. Either way, I knew that I would have to up my game before I could invest in another advertisement. In Part 2 I will talk about the planning for my next big promotion.