My first published book, May Day, was released in March 2006. In the intervening twelve years, I’ve released ten more books in that series, watched glowing reviews come in, made an average of $6,000 a year off them (less than minimum wage), and grumbled to myself that if I had only self-pubbed the series, I’d be rolling in the hay by now.
Fast forward to June 2018.
I got my rights back to the first ten books in that series. I hired a cover designer, bought book layout software and the computer I’d need to run it, and took a quick and dirty dip in the marketing pool. It’s too soon for me to provide sweeping data on what works best, but one thing I know for sure: successfully publishing a book is a hundred times harder than I’d imagined (apologies to my original publisher for my negative thoughts).
Read on for the lessons I’ve learned. Use it as a checklist for your repackaging your own backlist, a behind-the-curtain peek at the life of a hybrid writer, or a cautionary tale.
Getting Your Rights Reverted
When I signed the contract for May Day back in 2004, ebooks were barely a spark in Jeff Bezos’ eye. As such, the rights reversion language in my contract didn’t mention them. That meant that as long as my Murder by Month Mysteries were available to buy—which they would be forever as long as my publisher had a digital copy available—that I couldn’t get the rights back.
When my publisher offered me a contract for the eleventh book in the series, I took a cut in my normal advance in exchange for updating the rights reversion language in my older contracts. Happily, my publisher agreed. The new language gave me back my rights after the books sold fewer than 300 copies a period over two sales periods (a year total).
That gave me my rights back this past June. Moving forward, in future book negotiations with traditional publishers, I’ll make sure to check my rights reversion language. If your book isn’t selling and has been relegated to the dreaded backlist, you want the chance to revive it.
Note from Jane: The SFWA has some helpful advice for those of you seeking rights reversion. Also, the Authors Alliance offers a free guide on the topic.
Starting Your Business
A few years ago, I filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State to create my own LLC. It cost less than $100. I also set up a post office box and a business checking account under that LLC, and I use that name, account, and address on all the paperwork I fill out for my self-publishing distribution and sales accounts. Privacy is mostly an illusion these days, but it seems like common sense to keep my business address and income separate from my personal life and finances.
Editing, Designing, and Distributing Your Backlist
Suddenly, I had my books, ten of them, in PDF form. I’m a writer and an English professor, not a book designer. How to turn these PDFs into books?
- Editorial changes. First, I checked the market to see if I wanted to update my books. For example, romances sell fantastic, and romance readers are loyal. Did I want to add more sexy scenes? In the end, I decided to merely proofread all the books, eliminating scenes and words that younger-me didn’t know were filler, and tightening what remained.
- I used Kindle Rocket to check out what was selling and found it easy to use and informative.
- I added a series-long secret to book one (a mysterious “open in case of emergency” box that the protagonist finds but holds off on opening). It gets opened in book ten. My goal was to increase series read-through.
- Cover design. Once I decided on the market I was writing to—comic caper mysteries—and researched what those readers expect in a cover (Kindle Rocket was good for this, too), I hired a cover designer named Steven Novak. He did great work at a reasonable price.
- Interior design. I’d heard that Vellum, a Mac-specific formatting software, was the only way to go, so I bought a Mac, and I bought Vellum. It lived up to the hype, making it incredibly easy to format paperback as well as ebooks across platforms. It also allows intelligent links, so when you list other books in the series in your front or back matter, your reader can click on them and be brought to their preferred bookstore.
- A golden tip I received from a successful romance writer: the line after “The End” is the most important real estate in your book. If your reader has read that far, they’re going to want to buy the next book immediately, so format your book so there is only an ornamental break after the end of one book and before the buy link/teaser for the next book.
- Distributors. I set up publishing accounts with IngramSpark (paperbacks for libraries and bookstores), Kindle Direct Publishing (ebooks and paperbacks for Amazon), iBooks (this one took over a month to set up because of loops on their end), Nook, and Kobo.
- I had a choice between going with KU (Kindle Unlimited) for my ebooks, or going wide (Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo, etc). I chose KU because, several years ago, I saw a dramatic benefit to that path. That hasn’t been my experience this time, though, and I regret not going wide with my mysteries. I’m locked into a 90-day contract with KU and will publish wide after that.
- Affiliate accounts. Next, I created affiliate accounts with iBooks and Amazon. What that means is that if someone finishes reading May Day, for example, and clicks on my affiliate-coded link to buy June Bug, I get a percentage of anything they spend in the Amazon store within the next 24 hours. It doesn’t cost them anything, and I am not told what any specific person bought; I just get a check. I made $27.66 last month. Not enough to retire on, but it’s free money.
- ISBNs. I went to Bowker and bought 100 ISBNs. Because there are ten books in my series, I matched up ISBNs with series number. So, May Day as the first book has a print and ebook ISBN that end in 1, June Bug as the second book has a print and an ebook ISBN that end in 2, etc. This has saved me time and stress in quickly proofing to make sure I’m using the correct ISBN.
- I didn’t buy bar codes for my paperbacks from Bowker at $25 a pop. Instead, I used Bookow’s free generator and donated to their business.
- Book description. I rewrote my book description so it was zingier and shorter.
- Administration. I created a master document for all ten books. Each page in the document is devoted to a single book: its updated title, subtitle, page count in print (Vellum makes this easy to generate), description, blurbs, and ebook and print ISBNs. I estimate having this all on one document has saved me at least twenty hours this past month.
- I also started using Genius Links. There are a lot of benefits, but the biggest is that if I need to update a URL—say Kobo’s version of May Day moves—I can change the URL a single time in Genius Links, and it’ll update the May Day link in the back of all my books.
Marketing Your Backlist
Uff da. When I started this indie pubbing process, the thought of marketing gave me huge hives. I’ve since acquired a mountain of information. Now, the thought of marketing only gives me small hives. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- Reviews. If you’ve really overhauled your books, you’ll need new reviews. I recommend BookFunnel for sending out Advance Review Copies (ARCs) as well as building a newsletter list.
- Email newsletters. The romance community—which I am not currently a part of but have found to be a wise and generous group—is genius at this. I have a friend who is a full-time, successful indie writer who has over 16,000 newsletter subscribers. That’s a whole slew of people who can’t wait to hear about her next book. Authors often set up newsletter swaps. That is: readers love to hear about new books from authors they respect, and so why not cross-promote?
- Reader magnets. This traditionally means, make your first book low-priced (99 cebts) or free to entice new readers to check out your series. I tried making May Day 99 cents and running promotions on it, but I didn’t see a lot of downloads. What I plan to do with May Day is raise it to $2.99 but have it be a free download for anyone who signs up for my newsletter. If you do price one book low, or run sales, here is a helpful list of sites to help you spread the word. I found some of them to be repetitive (same company, different fronts), but it was a good starting point. (Note from Jane: Here is another good resource list of promo sites.)
- BookBub Feature Deal. These are hard to get but the Holy Grail of book marketing. I wasn’t able to land one for May Day, but my indie-pubbed magical realism novel, The Catalain Book of Secrets, was selected for a 7/21/18 BookBub Feature Deal. The week leading up to the BookBub, I ad-stacked, running Amazon and Facebook ads. On the day the BookBub ran:
- Catalain reached #48 in all of the Amazon paid books, #1 in magical realism, #1 in alchemy, and #2 in sagas.
- It sold 2106 copies in Amazon, 376 in iBooks, 337 in Nook, and 168 in Kobo. The sales remained elevated the next day.
- Facebook ads. I mentioned above that I ran Facebook ads, which many successful writers do. To create a Facebook ad, you craft your ad image (Canva lets you do it for free), create your ad text (make it short, sweet, and full of the feels), select your audience (successful writers in the genre you write in), then select your budget (I cap my total ad spend at $10 a day). Then, submit the ads for review; if Facebook approves them, they’ll start running immediately. You’ll be charged every time someone clicks on your ad until your daily budget is exhausted. I’m getting better at making Facebook ads, mostly because I use AdEspresso (the Facebook ad manager page is incomprehensible to me). AdEspresso allows me to test which variables (image, text, audience) are working and which aren’t. I set a personal threshold of thirty cents per click for each ad; if it costs more than that for someone to click on my ad and be brought to my Facebook page, it’s not worth it to me.
- For a more in-depth look at Facebook and Amazon ads, I’ve heard wonderful things about Mark Dawson’s Ads for Authors course.
- I found this free Amazon ads course to be helpful. And personally, I prefer Amazon ads to Facebook ads because I can see whether someone bought my book based on the Amazon ad. It feels less like I’m throwing money in a fire that way.
- Traditional marketing. Some of the common marketing methods work here, too, like setting up an online book launch (I didn’t have the energy), setting up signings, and/or arranging a blog tour to spread the word (I have one coming up).
- Get a budget and stick to it. (I should do this one.)
- I’m naturally gifted in this area, but here’s the thing: becoming your own publisher, if you do it right, is a financial and emotional investment. It’s intimidating. Find a good support group, preferably people who know more than you do about indie pubbing.
- Stay dynamic. For example, I repackaged my Murder by Month Mysteries as the Mira James Mysteries: Hot and Hilarious. When they didn’t sell as well as I would have liked, I swapped out Hot and Hilarious for Humor and Hijinks. The sales immediately shot up. Being your own publisher means you can be more responsive. This is a good thing.
- Finally, do everything you can, and then surrender. It’ll work itself out. I bet I tell myself that ten times a day, and every time, it’s true.
Jess Lourey (rhymes with “dowry”) is a bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author known for her critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.” Jess also writes nonfiction, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, magical realism, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft’s Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel). When not teaching, reading, or dorking out with her family in Minneapolis, you can find her dreaming of her next story.