10 secrets to success I learned during 10 years of publishing #publishinghacks #indieauthor

In July, I celebrated my tenth anniversary as a published author. Ten years ago I signed my first publishing contract. Since then, I’ve published 40 titles, switched from traditional publishing to indie, changed genres, and hit the USA Today bestseller list twice. A lot has changed in a decade. I’ve learned a lot–most of it the hard way, by trial and error. Here is what I learned about what works in publishing:

1. Write to market. This has a negative connotation with some writers who feel writing specifically for the market is pandering. To which I respond, pandering to whom? Readers who want that type of book? The readers who are your audience? The question is: how important are book sales to you? There is no easy way to sell books, but there is a hard way. The hard way is to write whatever the hell you want or something “unique” and then try to find a market for it. The easier way is to write what has an established market as demonstrated by brisk sales. Writing to market doesn’t mean you must write something you dislike. Out of all the genres, subgenres, themes, and tropes, there should be something popular that interests you.

2. Focus. When you find something that works, stick to it. Don’t genre-hop. Got a winning trope? Write more in that trope. Stick to a similar heat level. If something works for you in a big way, for goodness sake, keep doing it. This is not the time to switch gears. Every time you change, you lose readers who aren’t interested in your new gig. If you want to build a following, you have to focus.

3. Have a specific goal behind your promotional efforts. What is the desired outcome of a campaign or task? How will you measure the success? Do you want to grow your readership base? Increase sales on a specific book? Increase sell-through on other books in the series? Promotion ought to benefit you in a tangible way you can measure. (Tip: Don’t use paid advertising to gain “visibility.” What the heck is that? How do you know when you’ve achieved it? Advertising should result in SALES. Either on the book you’re advertising and/or through the sell-through of other books).

4. Give a strategy or action time to work.  If you try something once and it fails, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea. Some campaigns take time to pan out, or you haven’t learned how to execute properly. Many writers give up before their efforts have a chance to bear fruit.

5. Stop doing what isn’t working. This seems to contradict the previous point, but it’s really just at the opposite end of the spectrum. When you’ve given a strategy a strong, reasonable effort, and it’s still not yielding results, give it up, move on, and try something else. 

6. Free is your friend. Making a book free is an indie author’s most effective tool to generate sales. At first, I was extremely resistant for two reasons. One, I believed offering my work for free devalued it, and two, I suspected huge quantities of freebies flooding the market would lower the market price of books overall. I still think the latter is a valid concern, but I’ve reversed myself on the former. Offering a book for free is the best and most effective way to introduce your work to new readers and generate future sales. Frankly, with so many indies doing it, you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t do it.

7. Write a series. This conventional advice is spot on, and it’s one of the things I did right. (It’s one of the things that saved me from all my mistakes!) Series books have an advantage over stand-alones for a few reasons. One, when readers find a book they like, they want more of the same. A series offers them that.  It’s a natural segue from one book to the next. Two, when you publish later books in the series, you’ll see an uptick in sales on the earlier ones. Three, discounting or making the first one free will earn you more on the sell-through of the other books in the series.

8. Expect change. Market forces totally out of your control will affect your business. Amazon will change its policies. Publishers will fold. Advertising venues that used to work stop working. Put on your big girl panties and figure out what you need to do now. Publishing used to be traditional and stable. The new reality is it is extremely dynamic—you have to be prepared to shift gears. Whining limits your success by preventing you from fixing the problem. And, the flip side is change can be positive. Market forces outside of your control can benefit you. When that happens, be ready to capitalize on it.

9. Individual results may vary. What works for some authors may not work for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re doing is wrong (although it might). Facebook advertising works very well for some. It doesn’t work for others.  I’ve heard some authors say they get a BookBub deal every other month. I know some authors who have never gotten a BookBub deal. Many variables affect the outcome of promotional efforts: genre, trope, author’s following, series v. standalone, series v. serial, book covers, plot, reviews. Through trial and error, you’re going to have to find out what works for your books.

10. Back your winners, not your losers. Put your time, effort, and money into promoting the books that are most likely to make you money. The truth is: the market does not respond equally to all books. Some books will never achieve more than lackluster sales. It might be a well-written, good story (or it might not be), but the market does not like that book. You need to give promotional efforts time to work (see No. 4), but if promotion and advertising, repackaging (new cover and/or blurb), and other efforts fail to deliver results, that book or series is a barrier to your success. Let it go and move on. Spending time and hard cash trying to shore up the laggards can be better spent on books that will earn you money.

Lastly, I’d like to close with this thought: Success is as big or even a bigger teacher as failure. Conventional wisdom says if you learn from your mistakes, it’s not a failure. I believe that’s true. However, learning from a mistake only shows you what not to do. It doesn’t actually reveal the path to success. When you hit upon that thing that works, it truly is illuminating. It shows you what to do and makes future success come easier.

Are you an author, an indie publisher? What have you learned about how to become successful in the book biz? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Why or why not?

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20 Responses to 10 secrets to success I learned during 10 years of publishing #publishinghacks #indieauthor

  1. Lisa Medley says:

    All true. Every word. I just wish I could make myself follow it all, lol. Great advice! You’re my role model!!

  2. I can’t tell you how badly I needed to read this right now. Especially #2. Thank you for sharing your tips.

  3. Patsy says:

    Great post! Hard to figure out what to do!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Yes, it is hard to figure out what to do. There is so much trial and error, and just when you think you have things figured out, everything changes. But if you apply a strategy to what you write, the rest is easier to figure out.

  4. Selene says:

    Such good advice, perfectly distilled. Thanks, Cara!

  5. Alana Khan says:

    Thanks so much. Great advice.

  6. Suzanne says:

    I love this Cara. To the point and logical – doesn’t mean that I followed this writing road map! I’ve certainly made some mistakes and gotten off course a few times. I intend to print this out and put it above my desk – a reminder not to be side-tracked by the bright, shiny bauble that wont keep me on track.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      It’s so easy to get side-tracked especially when you DO have to try new things to keep the book engine running.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Forgot to include – I’m an indie author and also have a few books with an e-publisher and one with a traditional publisher. I also believe writing series is a good strategy. I’m still fumbling my way trying to work out what works best for me though. My main problem is I’m a multi-genre author and I need to work out which genre to focus my efforts on!

  8. Ed Hoornaert says:

    Excellent ideas from someone who’s worked hard for her success. Thanks, Cara!

  9. Day Leclaire says:

    Cara, I have two questions. First, I understand and 100% agree that writing a series is the way to go. I also understand that if that series sells, write more! But at some point, the author tends to finish a series, or it’s run it’s course, and they want to try something new. Do you have any suggestions or advice on that front? Have you any thoughts on how to springboard to a new series while still meeting reader expectation and achieving your sales goals.

    Second, when starting out, which goal would you consider most useful? Building your newsletter? Ads?

    Oh, and I thought of a third question… I totally get “free first in series.” It’s an excellent marketing ploy. How many books should you have released before putting your first book free?

    Fascinating blog. Very sound advice.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Hi, Day! Good questions!

      Regarding starting a new series, a couple of ways spring to mind. First, you could write a spin-off series, i.e. one that is related to the original one, such as a new story with new characters, but it’s set in the same world. That’s pretty common in SFR. If you’re writing mafia romance, the characters of one crime syndicate might have interactions with another syndicate, which becomes the inspiration for a new series. Or you just stick with the same genre. Write a wolf-shifter romance series, then another wolf-shifter series.

      If you’ve just starting out, start your newsletter!!! It is the one thing you have total control over. You are building your tribe, your personal followers with your newsletter.

      As far as free in series goes, it depends on how many books there are in the series, and how well they’re selling. You don’t have to make a book permafree (although that’s one way), you can just do free promotions from time to time. Certainly when a series appears to have run its course, it’s a no-brainer to make book 1 free.

      • Day Leclaire says:

        Thank you so much, Cara!
        One follow-up question, if you don’t mind. When you’re just starting out–don’t even have your first book out (I’m writing a SFR series and want to have several written before I start to release), how do you build a newsletter? Or does that question have too detailed a response? Where do you advertise to gain readers in advance of your first release??

        • Cara Bristol says:

          Not starting my newsletter soon enough was one of my biggest mistakes. What I would do is set up an account with a mail service provider, and start promoting other authors in your genre. Talk about what you’re writing. What your goals are. Be personable.

          Ryan Zee (see the link in book industry sites on my sidebar) does some great NL promos. (You generally do have to have a book to give away, and if you’re not published yet, that could be a problem).

          In your first book, be sure you have a link to sign up in your backmatter. Have a link on your website. Promote it on FB. Don’t wait to talk to your subscribers until you have a book release. Just email them and share your writing, other books. Build a relationship.

  10. Day Leclaire says:

    Lord, Cara, thank you! Great information. I appreciate your generosity in sharing. I am traditionally published in contemporary romance, but plan to create a separate “closed” pseudonym for my SFR which will be indie. This is immensely helpful. I will follow your advice!

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