Friday, July 29, 2016

Indie Publishing Success- Mailing Lists and Newsletters

If I were starting my indie publishing journey today, the first thing I would do (aside from writing, of course) would be to set up a mailing list for my newsletter. I think they're critical for the successful indie author and helpful for traditionally-published authors as well.

Benefits of Mailing Lists

Active engagement with your readership.
Opportunities to generate goodwill.
The means to reach readers without relying on Amazon or other distributors.
A nice sales boost on release day, which can help you gain visibility on bestseller charts and "Also Boughts."

Mailing List Options

There are several options for setting up automated, easy to manage mailing lists. A few of the most common are:
-Constant Contact
-Mailer Lite

-MailChimp is popular with indies who are just starting out because its "Forever Free" plan is free until you reach 2,000 subscribers. Once you exceed that threshold, you must switch over to a monthly plan.
-Mailer Lite is free for the first 1,000 subscribers. The price then goes up to $10 a month, and then goes up another $10 when you hit 5,000, 10,000 and so on.
-AWeber is significantly more expensive. The cost is $19 a month for the first 500 subscribers, jumps to $29 a month, then to $49 a month at 2,500, $69 a month at 5,000, and a whopping $149 a month at 10,000. Users who like AWeber praise its thorough data reports, large selection of templates, quality customer care, and other features.
-Constant Contact begins at $20 a month for the first 500 subscribers, then goes to $40 a month, then $60 at the 2,500 mark, and $90 a month by the time you reach 5,000 subscribers. (Modest discounts for paying six or twelve months at a time.)

I like MailChimp. It wasn't too difficult to set up and use, and there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube to help you through. I'm not quite at 2,000 subscribers, but at my current level, the monthly fees won't be prohibitive. If I were starting out, though, I'd definitely give consideration to Mailer Lite.

Best Practices for Mailing Lists

Use an Email Address from a Custom Domain
If you set up your newsletter using an email from somewhere like Yahoo or Gmail, it's likely to be filtered out as spam on many servers, and your readers won't see it. My newsletter, for example, is sent from an address.

Offer an Incentive for Subscribing
Give newsletter readers something free as a reward for subscribing. I give away a free ebook to my subscribers. The link to the free book comes in the automated "Welcome" email a subscriber receives after confirming her/his subscription.

This free book is -not- one of my "perma-free" books that's available on various ebook retailers. You don't want to insult your readers by offering a free ebook with subscription, and then giving them a book they could have gotten for free elsewhere.

I chose a book that isn't among my bestsellers, but is a good book and gives the reader a good feel for most of my other titles, but you don't have to give away a book. When I had only a few titles to choose from, I gave away an interview with the main characters of my most popular series. Later I changed it to a free short story. A free book is great, but what's most important is that it's a free reward, and it's something subscribers can't get for free (or at all) anywhere else.

For giving away a free ebook, Bookfunnel is an amazing, easy-to-use, service that automates the process. The cost for one author is $20 a year. If you don't feel you're at that point yet, you can do something as simple as uploading a pdf to your website and sharing the media link.
*When you set up your mailing list, one of the things you will set up is a "Welcome" email. A reader subscribes to your newsletter, then receives a "Click to Confirm" email. Once they click to confirm, they receive a "Welcome" email. This is where you will put the link to the free ebook. My "Welcome" email is short and simple. It's basically "Thanks for subscribing" and "Click here to receive your free ebook."

Put the Invitation to Subscribe Inside Your Ebooks
This is essential. Put the invitation to subscribe immediately after "The End." Don't put it after a page break because when the reader swipes past "The End" in certain ebooks (Kindle, in particular) a new page opens advertising other books. Therefore, they might not see your invitation if you don't put it on the last page of your book. Some authors choose to also put the invitation at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, Kindle books tend to open directly to the Prologue or Chapter 1, so the reader won't see that invite unless (s)he swipes backward. There's no harm in also putting the invite up front but I don't know how many readers will see it.

Put the Invitation on Your Website, Facebook Author Page, etc...
Make it easy to find on your website. On my website, it appears in a small box on the sidebar of every page. It's unobtrusive, but easy to see.
I also have a pop-up invitation that appears when someone visits my website. It shows up once, and once it is closed, doesn't appear again. This is particularly helpful for visitors using mobile devices. Otherwise, the mailing list invite isn't so noticeable. MailChimp (and probably the other services) provides a simple html code to enable the popup.

With a Facebook author page, you can enable an "Email Signup" tab that lets you add a subscription form.

The "What/When/How" of Newsletters

My newsletters typically include:

-New release (Book description and buy links)
-An upcoming sale, a teaser, something I want to call attention to, or a short message/reflection/essay/article.
-A Giveaway.

The sidebar contains a small "What's Coming Up" text box with a few bullet points to hopefully pique readers' interest. I also include a few images of book covers, usually ones I want to call attention to, with little or no accompanying text.

Overall, keep your newsletter clean, easy to read, and keep all the sections short enough that readers don't feel overwhelmed. 

I send out a newsletter when I release a new book. Because I work with co-authors, this means I'm typically sending out six newsletters a year. Some authors choose to send one a month. I find that "open" rates decline sharply if I'm not announcing a new release.

Here's an example:

Notes on Giveaways:
I like to give something away with every newsletter. Usually it's a signed book. With each newsletter, I include a "Signed Book Giveaway" section at the bottom. I tell what book I'm giving away and ask that they simply reply to this email with the note "Please enter me in the giveaway." When the next newsletter comes out, I announce the previous winner and ask him/her to let me know where to send it.On occasion, I'll offer a free download code from Smashwords or a limited number of audiobooks from Audible, using the free codes ACX provides. These don't get nearly the engagement that signed books do, but it's still a free reward to subscribers.

I only give away one book per newsletter and sometimes it's the same book for several months in a row. What matters is that I'm giving them something free that non-subscribers can't get. Also, a single paperback doesn't cost much to mail, especially with USPS's "media mail" option.

Some authors simply choose the winner from their entire list rather than having readers reply to enter. I prefer replies because it increases engagement and rewards the readers who actually read my newsletter.

Pay Attention to  Data and Results

Your service provider will give you results from your email campaigns, such as how many subscribers opened a given newsletter and how many clicked on a link contained within. "Open rates" and "click rates" don't tell the whole story, but pay attention to them. Do you get significantly better results on a certain day of the week or a given time of day? You can even segment your list, sending it out in sections, in order to compare times of day.

For example, one very successful author in my network has found that Saturdays and Sundays are the worst days for her list. She also gets maximum results from her list by sending one segment to her less-engaged readers in the early afternoon, and hitting her most engaged readers in the evening. Of course, every author and audience will be different, so find out what works for you and yours.

If results of a given newsletter are subpar, consider all the factors. Look at the subject line in the header. Was it compelling? What sort of content did you include? Were your entries too long? Were you promoting a series that's less popular? Was the date and time of day a factor? Analyzing results, whether it's newsletter opens, book sales, ad views, or many other things, is important for indie success.

Ideas for Reaching New Subscribers

-Immediately prior to sending out a newsletter, make an announcement through your social media that the newsletter is coming up and mention exclusive content. "Next newsletter comes out Tuesday. Subscribe for a chance to be entered in exclusive signed book giveaways."
-As mentioned above, include the invite in your ebooks and on your website and Facebook page.
-Run a contest in which everyone who subscribes  is automatically entered. (Many authors recommend creating a separate list for contest subscribers, as they tend to be much less engaged than readers who reach you organically.)
-Run a Facebook ad advertising the "free book when you subscribe." (I wouldn't recommend using this strategy if you're only giving stories or something else small. With so many authors using this strategy to give away books or even collections, giving away something less risks the first impression you make being a negative one.)

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I set up my mailing list? 
Do it now! If you haven't yet published your first book, go ahead and set it up so that you may include the invitation to subscribe when you publish your book.

How much is too much?
You'll have to figure that out for yourself and your audience, but once a month or even less frequently is my recommendation.

What if I can't write more than one book a year?
In that case, I'd send something out in between, maybe every four or six months. Be sure to make it engaging. Give an update on the work in-progress, share a little something you've learned in your research, maybe a little bit about you, give away a short story or a signed book. Keep it short, interesting, and reader-focused.

Should I set up an auto-responder on Twitter so that, when someone follows me, they immediately receive a direct message inviting them to join my mailing list?

Can you elaborate?
Sure. Twitter is most effective for engaging with other people. It can be a great place to connect with other authors, and sometimes with readers, but it's not an advertising platform. Your first contact with someone shouldn't be an advertisement, and direct messages to someone you don't know are seldom well-received. Don't be that guy (or girl).

Do I have to send everything on the same day?
Not necessarily. Because Amazon rankings take into account sales from previous days, some authors, especially those with large mailing lists, like to segment their list and sent the newsletter out over a period of two or three days in order to avoid the "spike and plummet" that sometimes comes with a single newsletter blast.

Should I periodically cull my list, removing my "least engaged" subscribers?
Probably not. Some readers see the newsletter in their inbox and immediately click over to their preferred store to buy your new book. They don't necessarily read the newsletter. Other readers open your newsletter in mobile, or don't enable images in their email, which can cause the newsletter to show as not having been opened. I don't think it's worth the risk of cutting out readers who are buying your books.

Will some readers sign up for my list just to get the free ebook and then never buy one of my books?
Some will, but those people weren't going to buy your books anyway. Don't worry about them.

My mailing list provider offers a url so people who aren't on my mailing list can view the newsletter. Should I make use of that feature?
I don't think so. It a disincentive to sign up for your mailing list and makes your exclusive newsletter content non-exclusive. If people choose not to sign up for your mailing list because they know they can see the newsletter online, you've lost an opportunity for active engagement with that reader.

That's it for now. Feel free to add questions, thoughts, tips, disagreements in the comments section. Until next time...

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Indie Publishing Success- Engaging with Readers


Someone recently posed the question, "If you were starting over in your indie publishing career, what do you know/do now that you wish you'd known/done back then?"

For me the answer was easy. I wish I had known the value of authentic engagement with my readership and taken positive steps from the get-go to do that. In fairness, options were limited then compared to now. Facebook, Twitter, and other current popular forms of social media weren't a "thing" yet (If memory serves, Xanga was just catching on. I'm old.) nor were automated newsletter services like MailChimp. Nevertheless, there were plenty of things I could have done or done better.

We'll discuss the "hows" of audience engagement in subsequent posts, but today we'll discuss the "whys".

Your Readership is Your Lifeblood

This one is obvious.

-Writing for writing's sake has its rewards, but if no one is reading your work, your book is the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it.

- If no one is buying your books, you can't make a living with your writing.

-Word of mouth is essential. Readers are often more than happy to spread the word if they enjoy your work and have had positive interactions with you.

Direct Access to Your Readership Lets You Build Advance Interest in Your Forthcoming Works

- Teaser snippets, preview chapters, cover reveals, and release date announcements are great ways to get readers excited about your work.

- In today's market, with so many great books being published, it's easy to be forgotten. Direct connections with readers helps keep you and your work in their minds.

You Can Do Your Own Promotion


- We can't always count on Amazon, for example, to send out notices of our new releases. Having reliable ways of reaching your audience allows you to get out the word on book launches, which will help you gain visibility in the stores, as well as keep readers abreast of sales and other things you'd like them to know.

A Dedicated Core Readership is Essential for Indie Success


- Reaching a wide audience can be a challenge for an indie, but the nature of indie royalties being what they are, you need only a modest core audience to support yourself and your work.

- Let's do some quick math. Suppose you have an audience of 5,000 readers who will buy your new book within the first six months of publication,  and you publish your books at $3.99. Depending on the vendor, you'll earn about $2.75 per ebook sold. Three books a year, and you'll earn $41,250. Two books a year, $27,500. Not amazing, but more than a lot of midlist traditionally-published authors are earning from much wider audiences. Of course, those books will continue to earn over time, so you can add your backlist income to income from your new releases. Also, assuming readers enjoy your books, your audience will grow.

- Not everyone will be able to produce that quickly, especially those of us who are working another job, are in school, or have other obligations. That's another reason why we should work on engaging with readers while we're progressing toward our goal.

 It Keeps You Motivated

- It wasn't that long ago that the only ways to interact with an author were to meet her/him at a book signing or write a letter and hoped it reached the addressee. Now readers can reach us in a variety of ways. There's nothing like receiving a tangible reminder that someone out there loves your work, especially on the days the words don't want to flow.

That's it for today. Next time we'll move into the nuts and bolts of engagement. Talk to you then!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Indie Publishing for Young Adults?

One of the questions I frequently get is, "I want to write for the Young Adult market. Is self publishing a good option?"

In a word, "No".

Let's begin with a couple of realities:
Indie publishing is dominated by ebooks.
Young adults and middle-graders like print books.

Yes, there are exceptions, but let's not waste one another's time with tales of our brother's sister-in-law's niece who is addicted to ebooks, or the indie author who hit it big. The reality of the market is that print is king in young adult. Heck, "king" doesn't begin to describe it. Emperor Pope Elvis, maybe?

During a recent YA literature panel at Thrillerfest, popular YA authors shared their own experiences, which are consistent with this trend. All agreed that their ebook sales make up a disproportionately low percentage compared to overall market demographics, and that their ebook readership is comprised almost entirely of adults.

This might seem strange. I mean, kids love technology. They love their phones. Many love reading on Wattpad, or will voraciously read fan fiction online. So what gives?

A few possibilities:
You need a credit card to set up an account with all the major ebook sellers.
Fanfic and Wattpad are free. For a kid with little money, borrowing from the library, receiving books as gifts, or using gift money to buy bargain books is the way to go.
School libraries, classroom libraries, and book fairs help shape reading tastes, and get kids into the habit of reading print books.
It's fun to snap a pic of your new book purchase and share it on Instagram. Not so much with your new ebook purchase.
Ebooks are great formats for story delivery, but as a memento of the reading experience, they lack something. There's something special about owning a favorite book in print, and it's even more special if it's the actual copy you read the first time. Kids, in particular, love owning a tangible reminder of the way they felt when they read a beloved story for the first time.

So what does this mean for us?

If your goal is to sell stories to the young adult market, neither self-publishing nor small/mid-size press are likely to help you achieve your goals. You aren't likely to get into school libraries without reviews in professional trade journals. Book fairs won't carry your books. You might manage to schedule some school appearances, but the barriers are much lower with an established publisher.

Many independent publishers will publish YA books, but few deliver results. If you're considering a publisher, check your local bookstores and libraries and see if their books are on the shelves. Check the Amazon rankings of their titles and see if they're selling. See if any of the teen readers you know have heard of any of their authors or titles. The answer to all of those is likely to be "No." I know this is harsh, but I know too many authors who ended up disappointed because their self/indie press-published YA/Middle Grades/New Adult book(s) didn't reach their target audience.

Many adults read and enjoy stories aimed at the YA market, so it's possible that you could succeed in selling to those readers, but if you want to sell your books to teens and young adults, the "traditional" route remains the way to go.

On the positive side, new YA authors are being signed and published all the time. Study the market, research literary agents, and follow best submission practices.

Good luck and keep writing!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review- Grave Descend by Michael Crichton

An Edgar Award-nominated mystery from the author of Jurassic Park!

The Synopsis:

To recover a sunken yacht, a diver must enter the world’s most dangerous waters.
The Grave Descend lies under more than sixty feet of clear blue Caribbean water, guarded by a coral reef and schools of hungry hammerhead sharks. Raising it would be a near-impossible task, but James McGregor is suited to the impossible. An expert diver, he makes his living exploring sunken ships. But there’s something strange about the wreck of the Grave Descend.

How did she sink? Why do none of the survivors tell the same story? And what was the cargo inside her hull? To answer these questions, McGregor will have to contend with the deadliest sharks around—both underwater and on land.

My thoughts:

This book wasn't what I expected. Based on the synopsis, I expected more action but it was heavy on characters sitting and talking.I realize it was written more than forty years ago, and since then, literary conventions and readers' tastes in the genre have changed, and the book was written early in Crichton's career (and under a pseudonym). Overall, it wasn't bad as short mysteries go, and it was interesting to try Crichton's early work.

Buy it on Google Play

Friday, July 1, 2016

Choosing Your Path to Publication


One of the first steps on the road to publication is choosing your path. Writers today have more options than ever before. Our options generally fall into three categories: Corporate Publishing, Small Press, and Independent Publishing.

Corporate Publishing 

Some call this "traditional publishing" or "The Big Five". These are the major publishing houses.

  • Corporate publishing is the avenue that is most likely to place paperback/hardcover books in bookstores,  "big box" retailers (WalMart, Target), grocery stores, airports...
  • On average, the best editing, proofreading, cover art, marketing, and widest distribution.
  • Potential to reach the most readers, especially in print.
  • Largest advances.
  • Fewer barriers of entry for awards, professional memberships, public appearances, and reviews. 
  • Greatest potential to sell foreign language rights and media rights.
  • Greatest prestige.
  • Bucket list/external validation.

  • Barriers to entry- In most instances, you must be represented by an agent in order for your manuscript to be given serious consideration. It is possible for your manuscript to make it through the "slush pile" at a given publisher, but the odds are slim.
  • There are no guarantees. Bookstore shelf space is limited and stores devote significant space to established, bestselling authors. A new author's book is likely to be on the shelves for a very short time (if at all) and will disappear just as quickly if it doesn't sell right out of the gate.
  • Publishers invest most of their marketing income into the bestselling authors who generate the revenue that supports everyone else. A new author isn't likely to receive much promo, though it will almost certainly be more than what a small press will offer.
  • While editorial support is frequently top-notch, more and more corporate houses are turning to freelance editors of varying quality.
  • Very low royalties per copy sold, especially compared to independently published authors.
  • Higher retail prices on your books.
  • Payments are few and far between for most authors. You'll typically receive a portion of your advance some time after you've signed your contract, another installment once the editor approves your manuscript, and the remainder upon publication. After that, you won't receive any money until your book has "earned out" (your royalties earned exceed your advance.) You also don't receive royalties on all books sold, at least not right away. Because bookstores may return books to the publisher, the publisher will hold back a portion of royalties against the possibility of future returns.
  • Most corporately published authors do not make a living from their published works, and either have a day job, a working spouse/partner, or supplement their income through independent publishing or crowdfunding. (Some do all of the above.) Also, if you are represented by an agent (s)he also receives a cut of your royalties.
  • Infrequent, inscrutable royalty reports.
  • Contract terms: Many publishing contracts still contain onerous terms, such as lifetime ownership of an author's work, vague "in print" clauses that prevent reversion of rights, and non-compete clauses that restrict an author's ability to make a living by working harder and faster. Some houses will negotiate on these points; others will not.
  • Compared to the other publishing options, corporate publishing moves at a glacial pace. Books must be worked into the existing schedule and publication dates are typically (though not always) spaced far apart.

Small Press 

Publishing houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are only small in comparison to the corporate publishing houses and will give you almost as much prestige and distribution as the largest houses. At the other end of the range are tiny 'micropresses', with plenty in between.

  • Fewer barriers to entry- Only the top echelon of small presses require agented submissions, and even those houses tend to offer open submission periods.
  • Every stage of the publication process typically moves faster than in corporate publishing.
  • Royalties are higher per copy sold with a small press than with corporate publishing.
  • Like a corporate publisher, a legitimate small press will cover the cost of professional editing, formatting, cover design, and associated publishing costs. Ideally, the publisher will also offer some sort of marketing.
  • Access to an established audience- Some small presses have cultivated an existing audience to whom they will market your book.
  • Brand identity- Some publishing houses have developed a 'brand', usually relating to quality and subject matter. Being published by one of these houses can afford you a degree of that brand identity.

  • Most small presses don't offer much, if anything, you can't do for yourself if you have the inclination, aptitude, and money to invest. 
  • Royalties per copy sold are lower than they would be if you independently publish your book.
  • Small presses frequently fail. Look for one that's been around for a while.
  • Many small presses are scams, fronts for high-priced vanity presses, or ebook mills that don't offer much in the way of added value. Check 'Writer Beware' and do lots of research before working with a small press.
  • Outside of the top echelon, most small presses aren't held in high regard by most professional organizations, reviewers, or awards-related organizations.

Independent Publishing

For the purposes of this article, "independent" or "indie" publishing refers to self-publishing.


  • You're in complete control.
  • You receive the largest cut of royalties. 
  • You can set a much lower price for your book than would a publishing house, yet still receive a much larger royalty.
  • Flexibility- You can change virtually anything about your book at any time: price, product description, cover... You can even rewrite and republish.
  • You can move as fast as you like. No one is slowing you down. You can publish at a rapid clip, adapt to changes in the market, and seize opportunities in a way you can't when someone else is publishing your work. 
  • Daily sales reports and monthly royalty payments.
  • Some professional organizations or reviewers will accept indie authors, and many venues are happy to have an indie author as a guest.

  • You're in complete control. Some people have no business being in charge of their own publishing careers. You'd better know what you're doing, learn fast, or surround yourself with people who can help you.
  • Meno's Paradox- "We don't know what we don't know." Many indie authors have no idea that their writing sucks, their manuscript is riddled with errors, their book cover is ugly, or that their overall practices won't help them sell books.
  • The financial burden is all on you. 
  • Indie publishing is hard work, and it isn't limited to writing and publishing. In addition to trying to be the best writer (s)he can be, a successful indie must strive to be the best at every stage of publishing, marketing, audience engagement, and all the other facets of publishing. This path requires a solid work ethic, an independent spirit, a high degree of self-awareness, and a reasonable standard of emotional/psychological well-being in order to thrive.

Finally, I'd like to note that one path does not exclude the other. Many authors are "hybrids" who publish both independently and with a publishing house. Others aim for corporate publishing and keep small press or indie as fall-backs. Fortunately for us, all of these options are valid and offer great potential. Good luck choosing the path that's right for you!