Succeeding with Self-Published Memoir: Q&A with Ashleigh Renard

Ashleigh Renard Q&A quote

I first met author Ashleigh Renard (@ashleigh_renard) in early 2020, when we worked together on her query and synopsis for her memoir, Swing. By April, she had signed with a literary agent, but the submissions process stalled out. By January 2021, she was working on a plan to self-publish and launch her memoir during the summer.

She has now done that—and with tremendous success. This is no small achievement for someone with a memoir. Of all the categories that one might self-publish into, memoir is probably the most challenging. There is limited demand for most memoir—unless the person is a famous historical figure, a celebrity or politician, or someone generating headlines. (The example I always use is the pilot who landed a plane in the Hudson, which did result in a published memoir shortly thereafter.)

That’s not to say there aren’t hundreds or thousands of wonderful memoirs deserving of publication each year that readers would enjoy. There is just a lot of competition. So I was delighted when Ashleigh agreed to lift the veil on her marketing and promotion for Swing, and let us know how she made the magic happen.

Jane Friedman: Unlike most self-publishing debut authors I know, you focused on pushing pre-orders and trying to build word of mouth in much the same way a traditional publisher might—which can be challenging without a publisher’s support. There are two aspects of this I’d like to explore.

First, you invested in a traditional bookstore partnership and trying to get wider bookstore community support, so that pre-orders wouldn’t be exclusively through Amazon. I believe you sent stores advance review copies along with a personal note. How did this go?

Ashleigh Renard: The near impossibility of getting a self-published book onto bookstore shelves is widely reported. It’s one of the reasons that hybrid publishers have a market, because they offer that possibility. Many self-publishing blogs encourage authors to completely put to bed the dream of seeing their title on a bookstore shelf. Amazon offers higher compensation than other POD (print on demand) options and they reward authors for cutting brick and mortar stores out of the equation. Their incentives are so convincing that pushing ebook sales (often exclusively with Kindle Unlimited) have almost become synonymous with self-publishing.

I had already begun coaching traditionally published authors on building platform and connecting directly with their readers. I appreciated what I was learning about the reciprocal relationship between authors and bookstores. My own platform was growing quickly, but just because I could go direct to consumer didn’t mean I wanted to.

Taking a bookstore-centered approach felt like the most credible way to establish myself as a debut author who was committed to learning the publishing landscape and supporting the already established community of writers and booksellers.

I couldn’t accept that bookstores wouldn’t want to make money off a book just because it was independently published. I needed to show them that customers would enthusiastically open their wallets to purchase my book.

For this reason, I did not ask any bookstores to carry it. I just asked my audience to order it.

A couple years ago, I reformed my purchasing habits and instead of relying on Prime shipping from Amazon, started pre-ordering books through my local indie, Doylestown Bookshop. Each time, I posted about it in my stories, tagging the author, bookstore, and quite often the imprint and editor (often all of these accounts would re-share my story, getting more eyes on my profile while also amplifying the endorsement of the book). I shared the reasons I was excited about the book and why preorders are important.

By the time my book was available for preorder many of my audience members had started preordering books from their favorite authors and could list off these facts:

  1. Preorders help a publisher determine how much they will invest in marketing and publicity.
  2. Strong preorder numbers improve the likelihood that bookstores will carry the title in store.
  3. All preorders count for first week sales, giving a writer their best chance of making a bestseller list.

My audience also knew that buying from independent bookstores doesn’t just support small business, but also supports authors, as those sales are more heavily weighted on the curated bestseller lists (NYT and WSJ). Strong orders through an indie bookstore make it more likely that a bookseller will take a liking to a title and display it prominently or give it cover-out rather than spine-out placement.

I polled my audience on Instagram to find out their favorite independent bookstores and I sent ARCs (advance reader copies) to those stores. I chose these stores because I knew it was most likely that these stores would also be receiving preorders. I included a handwritten card, with personalization if I could find the name of the stores’ owners, and let the store know I was educating my social media following (150k at the time, now over 300k) about the importance of preorders and supporting independent booksellers.

My local indie had over 600 preorders because they agreed to be the exclusive retailer for signed copies. McNally Robinson in Winnipeg (where I went to university) also got a ton of orders, enough for my book to hit #1 on the McNally Robinson Winnipeg bestsellers list, beating out fellow Canadian author Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto (we shared a pub day), the same week Dr. Gunter made the New York Times list. McNally stocked my title in their stores across Canada and placed several reorder shipments.

You also had an interesting audiobook giveaway strategy that helped support the pre-order. Would you describe the reasoning behind this and how well it worked for you? Well enough to do it again?

I have been a performer (figure skater) and coached performers (coach and choreographer) for most of my life—also, my audience loves my video content—so narrating my own audiobook was an easy decision. My priority throughout the process was maximum print sales, not maximum profits. I was willing to give my audiobook away for free to anyone who preordered the print.

In order to get the audiobook link, readers had to send their screenshot to my assistant. Preorder numbers do not show up until about ten days before pub day, so the steady stream of emails with proof of purchase helped me gauge the effectiveness of my promotional endeavors. Bonus: Many people listening to the book in advance made the early reviews roll in quickly on Goodreads.

About a month before pub day I posted a funny video where I listed the reasons I love my Hitachi Wand (a bedroom electronic). My audience went so wild with questions that I decided I would give away a wand a day until my book released. Preorders from each day would be considered for entry. It led to a steady stream of orders. For many who were on the fence about ordering, it was a fun incentive to just buy.

Your book hit the top 10 IngramSpark bestseller list when it released, and I believe IngramSpark reached out to you. Have they been helpful or supportive in getting the book more placement or sales?

This took me completely by surprise. A week before my pub day I got a phone call from an IngramSpark representative, indicating my title was “exploding” and they wanted to move it into their wholesale distribution pipeline.

Every Friday, Ingram sales reps have a virtual meeting with booksellers from across the world. There is a “Hot New Titles” segment where the Ingram reps make booksellers aware of titles that are selling well and that their customers may soon be asking for. Ingram wanted to include my title in this initiative.

He and I took a look at my website and social media profiles to make sure they were “bookstore friendly,” which basically means linking many purchasing choices, not just Amazon. This was easy, as I had already been educating my audience on this for so long. I put together some materials, my website link, social media profile links, and a handful of videos I had made educating about ways to support authors and bookstores and he shared them with the sales team.

I don’t know for certain how many sales or orders this resulted in, but I do know some friends who ordered through established independent bookstores and received an update email letting them know the book would not be fulfilled by a warehouse, but rather fulfilled in store.

You’ve successfully used TikTok and Instagram in particular to reach your audience. How much of your sales would you credit to your own social media content and engagement with people? Is this the engine that’s driving it all?

My engagement on social media is the engine that’s driving it all—not just because my audience is big, but because I am incredibly attentive to them. I respond to every message and have an average of 80 conversations going in my DMs (direct messages) each day. I feel like I’ve hand sold every single book, either through responding to DMs, comments, or questions on livestreams.

When people come into my DMs saying they found my videos really helpful for shifting their perspective in their relationship or that watching them has opened up a new conversation with their partner, I listen like they are already my friend, because I can often tell they don’t know who else they can talk to without judgment. When they ask for more advice that I haven’t covered or only skimmed in my videos, I’ll tell them they can find more detail in the book. This has led to countless couples reading it together—something I never expected.

You paid for some advertising on social media. How much did you invest (if you’re open to saying)? Did it work? Are you still advertising?

For several weeks I forgot I was launching a book and behaved like a PhD student studying “The Engagement and Conversion Likelihood of Women 25–55 Years Old across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and Pinterest Ads.” I spent 8–12 hours a day analyzing every metric I could grab—and Jane, my goodness, there are so many damn metrics. I tested different ad creative, static images vs videos, multiple landing pages, whether I mentioned the book at the outset or let them “find” the book themselves a few steps in, what difference was made if I sent them directly to an online retailer or to my website to get to know me better. If an ad platform was performing well, like Pinterest and Snapchat consistently did, I upped my daily spend to see the increase in book sales, then matched that spend on the other advertising platforms so I could test my hypotheses for why those others were not leading to sales.

I considered the investment to mostly be about my own education—I didn’t just want to learn what worked, I wanted to learn why and why not so I could help other writers make advertising decisions. I advertised heavily ($1,000 per day) for a few weeks before launch and a few weeks after. I then stopped all advertising to see if I could move the needle on sales by simply posting great content on Instagram and TikTok and my sales climbed to their highest point.

So far you have more than 250 ratings on Amazon and close to 400 ratings on Goodreads. Did you have to work particularly hard to get that many? Any secrets to share?

Getting reviews was the easiest part of this process. I think there are two reasons for this. First, I show up for my audience every day and they truly value me sharing my time with them. They know I have a ton of conversations going in my DMs and am still quick to respond. When I ask them to do me a favor, like request the book from their library or leave a review, they jump on it.

Second, they consistently see me shouting out other writers and mentioning that I am leaving a review for a fellow author. I model how to support authors I love all the time, so when the time came they knew how to support me.

So … the big question: can you tell us your sales so far?

I am about to hit 10,000 sales, with 80% paperback and 20% ebook. I think the high print sales can be explained by two things: I chose to price the ebook at the same price as the paperback, and because my audience wanted to post about my book and print books have a nicer aesthetic than ebooks.

Is there anything that you’ve stopped doing to market and promote?

I’ve found that organic reach and word of mouth are driving the sales, so I’ve stopped all paid advertising and giveaways.

Is there something you wish you’d started doing sooner?

I wished I would have trusted that showing up with a genuine desire to support people and a curiosity to learn would bloom into a community and a purpose and even provide financially—that the incredible conversation I had with one person a day was enough, even when my followers didn’t grow.

I worked really hard on social media for years, with super slow growth, and I wondered what hacks or strategies I needed to employ to connect with more people. What I didn’t realize was that the people I was watching grow were buying followers and likes. I was comparing myself to something that wasn’t real.

It’s not about building a feed that looks good, it’s about creating and connecting in a way that feels good, that fills me up rather than stressing me out.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed Ashleigh’s insights, then you should know she is the co-host of The Writers’ Bridge biweekly Zoom Q&A for writers looking to build their platforms. You can find her on Instagram at @ashleighrenard. Join her on Sept. 22 in partnership with Lounge Writers for the online class How to Sell Books on TikTok, No Dancing Required.

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