When John J. Davis set out to market his first self-published thriller Blood Line, he thought he did everything right. He hired an experienced book publicist, arranged readings at bookstores, went on a 30-day cross-country author tour. The results were dismal.
“We quickly discovered that the old-fashioned methods didn’t work for us,” says John’s wife Rebekah, who now manages the book’s marketing. “Many retailers were reluctant to carry Blood Line or schedule a reading for John, because he was an unknown self-published author. Even when we were able to have an event, readers would browse through the paper edition but then go home and buy online. When that happened, a big chain like Barnes & Noble would return our books. So none of the routine techniques were producing results.
John and Rebekah completely retooled their strategy, and in one year have sold a phenomenal 80,283 books and counting. Here in an interview with Rebekah Davis, is a rundown of exactly how they did it.
Full disclosure: I was the developmental editor for John on both Blood Line and the subsequent upcoming sequel Bloody Truth.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
We’d read in your blog how long it might take to get an agent who’d risk representing an unknown author with no track record, and didn’t want to wait a year or more for a traditional publisher.
What were your first steps to start marketing and selling the book?
John and I had both been in sales, but had no experience in the book business. So we hired a book publicist who had 20 plus years of working for large publishing houses. She was very helpful at first, but we quickly discovered that the old-school strategies didn’t work for us. After all our efforts, including readings and a cross-country road trip, we had only sold 1,000 copies, an expensive and inefficient technique that didn’t even cover our travel expenses.
We realized we needed to recalibrate our approach and find our own way, doing our own research to see what worked for us.
Many of our readers face this kind of situation. They’ve decided to self-publish but aren’t sure how to sell books. What advice can you offer?
OK. We had our own learning curve and it may be different from those of other authors, but here goes:
• Use Amazon to the fullest. Amazon makes and breaks bestsellers. I spent hours refining and updating our pages on Amazon — experimenting with the price, offering free copies of the eBook for a day or sometimes longer, researching reviewers and emailing them the book. It’s worth taking a course on how to sell using Amazon too, as there are a lot of tricks that will help you get those numbers up. Hustle Life reviews two of the most popular courses to help you decide which is best to take.
• Every book we read and person we spoke to said we needed a website and a blog. John hasn’t had time to write more than two blog posts since the launch, so that hasn’t had much impact, but our website has been crucial to our sales. Many readers who’d learned about John and the Grangers visited the website and we were able to convert them into newsletter subscribers and buyers. We went on to hire a company to analyze our site and redesign it to maximize conversions and improve our SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Working in the CBD industry has often presented a number of marketing challenges that we felt really needed professional support to address. This enabled us to develop some effective CBD marketing strategies that included tackling our SEO issues. On top of that, we wanted to target as many people in our local area as possible as well as further afield and therefore SEO became crucial. Until then we were fairly new to the concept of optimizing our website for search engines. However, after checking out useful digital marketing resources like this complete local seo checklist from Local SEO Audits it became much easier to work out what steps we needed to take to make full use of our online platforms.
• We are hoping that this will turn out to be successful so we can create even more awareness of our books. If it works, then our next step could be to potentially look at blog link agency Outreach Pete or somewhere similar so that new, fresh links can be built on other webpages that divert back to us. It’s probably one of the best things that we should consider doing if we want to get our names out there in the wider community.
• Our biggest success came from a series of contests. For three months, from January to March 2014, we ran a lottery on our website every two weeks. All a reader had to do was send us their email address. We had between 25,000 to 93,000 entries per contest. The first prize was an autographed copy, or a $15-25 gift card for either Amazon or iTunes. The total cost of our promotion was six paperbacks, two audio books, less than $150 in gift cards, and approximately $250 in promotion. But during this time we pitched to our new email list and generated enough buzz to sell 70,000 copies.
• We tried online tours and website reviews but they were a failure. My opinion is that vendors target these services to naive self-publishers and it winds up being a great way to spend a lot of money with little return.
• We also stopped using book bloggers. This goes against the grain in the self-publishing world, but we could tell within two weeks of the launch that the book bloggers had little effect on our sales.
How much time do you spend on a daily basis publicizing, marketing and selling the book?
When we got started I spent several hours a day, every day. Now that we have a formula that works, I spend a couple of hours a week on advertising and a couple more on researching new avenues and sales strategies.
Our sales started off slow, increased dramatically when we changed strategies, and has leveled off to a steady flow of traffic and sales every since.
What do you think was the single most important factor in your success?
Getting the book edited.
John never liked the first draft of the manuscript. He hadn’t written anything since college, and felt very rusty. I agreed, but thought his ideas were entertaining and unique. I felt an editor could help him shape the story into something marketable, so I started searching for one online.
I found your website and sent you the manuscript without his knowledge. You read the first draft and said you could help. John was shocked at first, but quickly found your direct approach was constructive and could fuel his fire.
We believe that our sales are directly correlated to the quality of the book. We could never have sold any copies if the book hadn’t been well edited. That’s a must for all self-published authors.
Blood Line has won the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal Winner in Fiction-Action, and the 2015 eLit Digital Book Award – Gold Medal in Popular Fiction & Silver Medal in Mystery/Thriller/Suspense.
John is about to publish Bloody Truth, the second book in his Granger Family Thriller series.
What about you?
How are your own book sales going? If you have questions for Rebekah or me, please post them here in comments.
Anna Moore says
I’ve enjoyed your tips on self publishing and as a newbie I often get overwhelmed. Is a Developemental Editor the same as a Ghost Writer?
Alan Rinzler says
No, a ghost writer is not the same thing as a developmental editor. A ghost writer creates the entire manuscript of a book — first word to last — by interviewing the author at length, often taping and transcribing the results, writing drafts for the author to approve, rewriting when requested. Ghost writers are not usually credited, so the reader may never know who actually wrote the book.
Developmental editors work with authors who have their own ideas for a memoir, autobiography, or novel and seek guidance in how to fulfill that vision. Developmental editors help with the focus, structure, literary style, suggesting dialogue, action, visual and sensory description. They may be thanked in the author’s acknowledgements…or not.
Good questions Becky. Our success with our marketing formula has led us to create a publishing company, Simon & Winter, Inc., where we actually help self-published authors market their books. I can’t say everything I would if you were to consult with us formally, but I can make a few suggestions…
Be sure your website is easy to navigate. You are trying to coax people to buy — not to explore your website. Incorporate distinct buying buttons that are easy to find.
Include a pop up with a newsletter sign-up to collect email addresses for your newsletter, and send out bi-monthly updates about your book and any special events, awards, etc.
Be sure your Amazon customer reviews are not too heavily weighted to non-purchased or free book reviews. Consumers are smart and when they don’t see the words “Verified Purchase” they assume you paid someone to write nice things about your book. A good rule of thumb is 90% verified purchase and 10% free book reviews.
Good luck, Rebekah
Thank you! I will check back for other comments and especially Rebekah’s answers.
Alan Rinzler says
Thanks for the excellent questions. I’ve forwarded them to Rebekah and she’ll be responding here in comments.
Thank you, Rebekah, but I didn’t read anything here that I didn’t already know and/or do for my memoir. I have fabulous book blurbs from best selling authors, fantastic reviews on Amazon, etc. yet my sales are almost nil. What you DIDN’T explain was HOW you managed to accomplish three of your most important sentences. They are:
“Many readers who’d learned about John and the Grangers visited the website and we were able to convert them into newsletter subscribers and buyers.” HOW did you convince them?
“All a reader had to do was send us their email address. We had between 25,000 to 93,000 entries per contest.” HOW did you receive so many entries?
“But during this time we pitched to our new email list and generated enough buzz to sell 70,000 copies.” HOW did you pitch to them, and HOW else did you generate buzz?
I don’t mean to sound skeptical, because I’m not. I just think more explanation would be highly useful. Thanks so much!