10,000 Copies of My Book Sold in One Year. How the Heck Did That Happen?
A year ago, I published my first science fiction novel, Where the Hell is Tesla? I had the high hopes of selling a thousand copies, though I secretly wondered if I’d ever get past a few hundred. And today, I stand at 10,000 copies sold in the first year. Depending on your measure, that’s a bestseller book. Whew!
So how the heck did that happen?
To answer that question, I’d first like to introduce you to Tim Grahl. He’s a book marketing expert who’s helped New York Times bestselling authors for years, and has published a couple of books of his own to guide authors like myself: Your First 1,000 Copies, and Book Launch Blueprint. I’d have to say that other than making sure the quality of my work was its absolute best (which I’d hoped readers would respond to), the key to my book’s success were following the advice from Tim’s books, blog posts, and online classes.
Okay, on to the nitty-gritty. Here are the steps, in mostly chronological order, that I took. (Three quick notes: 1. This was a LOT of work, so don’t imagine me clicking some checkboxes, sitting back cashing checks, and smoking cigars. Imagine me working my ass off, mornings or evenings after my full-time job, keeping detailed spreadsheets, reaching out endlessly, hunting down– well, you get the picture; 2. This is my story, very specific to my own experiences, not necessarily a how-to that will cover any author’s journey; and 3. If you read this and get the idea “hey, everything this guy did worked,” you’re wrong. Most of what I tried didn’t work. Some did.)
1. I wrote the book. (And edited, and edited, and edited, and edited it.)
Sounds obvious, I know. But I think it’s important to list this because: you have to really believe in your work, believe that you really know how to write a book, in order to email, sell, pitch, beg, harangue, and constantly reach out to people for a solid year on its behalf. Where the Hell is Tesla? took me the entire previous year to write, and I poured my soul into its creation. And a note about editing: I originally released the first two parts as serial stories, like Hugh Howey originally did with the Wool series. And lots of the feedback I got was about little editing errors. So I learned a huge lesson before selling even one copy of the full novel – the product itself has to be bulletproof. Editing, spell-checking, formatting, consistency, everything. I believe all the marketing in the world won’t help a product that’s not ready to launch.
2. I set up my “platform:” website(s), social media, Amazon pages, and email list.
Tim Grahl defines your platform as whatever plan and method you use to connect with readers and sell books. In my case, considering the nature of my job, I couldn’t consider traveling or touring, and simply didn’t have the patience to find a publicist that would actually respond to this first-time author, so I chose the online-only path.
- The website: I’d tell you all about how to build your own in an hour, but Tim Grahl has already done that. So if you need to, check out his post and go to town. For my book, I use Goldfinch Publishing and RobDircks.com to help promote it, both WordPress sites.
- Social media: I’ve heard many people advise this and I’ll tell you the same thing: don’t overdo it. With a full-time job, and writing and publishing on the side, this book promotion thing was at times testing my productivity limits. So I stuck with just Facebook and Twitter, and I’d say go with the one or two that feel right for you. For example, if you’re creating a graphic novel — very visual — maybe Facebook and Pinterest would be your thing. Journalist writing non-fiction? Twitter. Try them all out and see what feels right for you.
- Amazon author and book pages: I could get very detailed, but here’s the quick: Use every space Amazon gives you. Don’t leave things blank. Put plenty of key phrases in your book description and keywords list on your book sales page on Amazon. Hook up your author page to show your latest blog posts and tweets. Use what they give you.
- Email list: I’m having a tough time with this one. As a new author, getting people interested enough to take the ride with you through emails it an uphill battle. But I’ve started blogging, posting, tweeting, and emailing, and my list is slowly growing. I use MailChimp to manage the email list and campaigns. It’s an excellent tool at an excellent price: free.
3. I got more active on Goodreads.
Goodreads.com is a great site for authors and readers to connect. I joined new groups, contributed more often, and as you’ll see below, shared copies with groups, including print, digital, and audiobooks in exchange for even more reviews.
4. I lined up 25 Amazon reviews before launch.
- Contact 75 people you know and offer them a free advance digital copy of your book in exchange for an Amazon review.
- Remind the people who say “yes” a couple of times, giving them time to finish reading it if they’ve procrastinated.
- On launch day, send these people your book page link with instructions. If it works, you’ll get 25 reviews. I did.
- Get a few close friends to upvote (honestly) some of your favorite reviews, so they stay on the book’s sales page as “most helpful,” not buried.
5. I published my book.
I may still post a crash-course on how to publish a book, to self publish your book for print and digital editions, but there are a million resources out there that explain how to do it already, so I may never add my own to the heap. Of course, if you’re not the self-publishing type, that’s sort of the reason for Goldfinch Publishing. Contact me and I can help you edit, publish, and promote your book. Even if you want to do it completely on your own, I’m here to help.
Another note about Goldfinch Publishing. It’s surprisingly easy to set up your own “imprint,” if you desire. For me, I LOVE the production/promotion end of self publishing, so I decided to create Goldfinch Publishing not only to give my own books a credible publisher name, but to offer other authors help in publishing their books and selling their books. It’s in the infancy stage still, but I’m having fun, and we’ve already got some books and media out there selling!
6. I enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select to take advantage of Countdown Deals and KU/KOLL.
Amazon’s KDP Select (the KDP stands for Kindle Direct Publishing) incentivizes you to sell the digital version of your book exclusively through Amazon, in exchange for the ability to run their free promotions and Countdown Deals. From my first book, Unleash the Sloth!, I learned that 95% of my sales were coming from Amazon. So for this book, I decided to go exclusive with them (meaning I couldn’t sell the digital version of my book anywhere else) and take advantage of the KDP Countdown Deals. Here’s what those promotions looked like:
• Timing and pricing: Every three months, your KDP Select agreement renews, allowing you one Countdown Deal during that term. So within this first year, I was able to run four of them. Each time, I took my normal price, $3.99, and discounted it to $0.99.
• Email promotions (paid and free): Coinciding with these Countdown Deals, I ran ebook promotions through book promotion sites that list deals, and send out daily emails to their subscribers. (Some post to social media as well.) They included:
- BookBub (actually, I haven’t been able to get on this one yet. They only send out a small number of books in each email, and they’re very selective. Boo-hoo. I’ll keep trying.)
- Free Kindle Books
- Books that Buzz (free)
- Ereader News Today
• Online advertising (paid): All the major online services offer advertising. So at one point or another in these promotions, I’ve tried all of them. Overall? I’d say if you’ve got the stomach to spend money that isn’t returning as high a value as the email blast promotions listed above, but want to boost your exposure temporarily, then go for it (in an affordable way). For each of these, you can set a daily budget not to exceed, a start and end date, and live monitoring of response. I set my daily budgets at between $5 and $20 per day for a week.
- Facebook/Instagram ads
- Google ads
- Amazon ads
- Twitter ads
- LinkedIn ads
- StumbleUpon ads
• Social Media: As a matter of course, during each of these promotions, I got the word out as much as possible through Facebook and Twitter.
For costs and timing of all the above, I organized and followed it with a Google Sheets document. It’s available here:
Promotion Spreadsheet for Where the Hell is Tesla?
Unsurprisingly, the four largest spikes were during these Kindle Countdown Deals.
7. I gave copies to motivated readers and high-value reviewers.
My goal this year wasn’t to give away free copies, and mostly I’m not sure what they do for me, as a free copy of anything, in my view, has very little value to the recipient. But the Goodreads Giveaways are great. The site is for serious readers and authors, and you will get thoughtful reviews, likes, friends, and even enough of a rapport to get some fans onto your email list. And when one of these Goodreads members posts a review, all their friends see it.
In addition to the official Goodreads Giveaways, I’ve offered both free ebooks and free audiobook codes to the folks on Goodreads, inside groups. Posting a free offer in exchange for a review (in the appropriate places, not spamming the whole site) has worked wonderfully in getting reviews, and has definitely helped sell copies (even more so for the audiobook).
8. I relentlessly pursued book reviews and exposure.
- As noted above, for launch I contacted 75 people I know to provide advance reviews on Amazon.com (25 eventually did).
- At the end of the book and audiobook, I have a clear call to action, asking specifically for a review on Amazon or Audible, noting that it’s the best way for independent authors and authors with small publishers to gain exposure and help sales.
- I looked up reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, and Audible on an ongoing basis, and actively reached out to these individuals to provide a review in exchange for a complimentary copy of the book. Many people took me up on this offer.
- Amazon.com = 316 reviews with a 4.3-star average
- Audible.com (audiobook) = 2,675 reviews and ratings with a 4.2-star average
9. As soon as I was eligible, I joined the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).
When I realized my book was actually selling, I immediately looked up the requirements to join the SFWA. And the moment I was eligible, I submitted my application, and was eventually approved. This is important for two reasons:
- I’m now able to say I’m a SFWA member (and believe me, I put it everywhere). In the science fiction community at least, membership to this organization lends a certain amount of credibility. One needs to be a professional author with a baseline amount of financial success to be a member, so for a reader it cuts down the risk of trying me as a new author if you know I’ve already passed some form of test.
- The organization is incredibly helpful with things like: identifying opportunities to get interviewed; how and where to sell short stories; contracts for authors; and answers to so many questions on their very active forums.
10. I created an audiobook.
This one’s kind of funny. I really created the audio book just to see if I could do it, and to make my Amazon book page look more complete. But boy was I surprised! It has sold way more than I expected, with no direct promotion at all. (Although I did offer free audiobook codes on Goodreads.com and got a terrific response. Have I mentioned that Goodreads is great?) If you’re interested, here’s my post about how you can produce your own audiobook.
Why is the audiobook performing? It turns out that audiobooks are on the rise, big time. And readers over at Audible are some serious readers. Check out these reviews:
“★★★★★ Buckle in and prepare to laugh out loud! I listened to it both in the car and at home and I’m sure passing motorists thought I was crazy driving with a big fat smile on my face.”
“★★★★★ By far the most amusing, funniest and laugh-out-loud audiobook I have ever listened to!”
“★★★★★ Immensely enjoyable! I absolutely loved this story. I need more books by this author.”
“★★★★★ Hysterical and Sweet – The narration was fantastic! It made me laugh out loud on several occasions but it was surprisingly sweet too. I just adored it!
“★★★★★ You Need This Book. Witty, well written, and completely enchanting. Dricks balances mad-cap crazy with a sincerely and honesty that tire the story together. I was sad to say goodbye when it ended. A very special book and the author’s narration is fantastic. Listen. Listen now.
“★★★★★ Coolest story & performance – Unlike any book I’ve ever heard- this one is crazy nuts pure entertainment….brilliant beyond the beyond!
“★★★★★ Brilliant, Hardcore Sci-Fi For Any Reader. Five hours spent right can feel like an eternity, but in a good way. Go read this book.
Then, seven months after I released the audiobook, an amazing thing happened: Audible.com selected Where the Hell is Tesla? for their “Hidden Gems” sale for November. This was HUGE, accounting for the single biggest spike in sales for the entire year, (I can’t overstate how important this was to overall sales of my book) and garnering me hundreds more positive reviews for the audiobook. Now, before you think “well, that was just dumb luck,” I’d offer that without all the teeny-tiny little steps I took leading up to that moment, without all that integrated work of the previous seven months, it’s likely that the person at Audible who included me in that sale would never even have known my book existed. I’m learning: every little thing you do for your book counts, and you never know how it might manifest. And if enough small things come together, you could have a bestseller book.
And that’s it. (As I said above – Whew!) I’m about halfway done with my next novel, and am now learning how to juggle writing and promoting simultaneously. I’ll let you know how it works out.
I hope you find this post helpful. If you have ANY questions at all, or input to make it better or more accurate, feel free to contact me.
Super useful. Do your offer coaching on Skype? I need a couple of hours of your time to help set up my plan of actions. This is great. Hervé Da Costa
What exactly do you give to your advance readers— a print book, a pdf file, an ebook file or something else? Thanks for sharing your success tips, Rob.
I try to keep it to digital, offering three file types: .MOBI, .EPUB, and .PDF. (Most people from my experience wind up using the .MOBI). I also have a handful of proof copies of the paperback handy, and send those out only to people who specifically do NOT want a digital file. (For my two novels, I gave out around 50 digital copies of each, and maybe 4 or 5 print copies of each.)
How much have you sold now? (27 Feb 2020) and how much profit have you made minus the promotion costs etc?
Hi Jay! As of Feb 2020, 30,000 copies (almost exactly!) I don’t share specific money figures, but I will say that the audiobook version is the bestselling format, and also the highest royalty per unit. And my promotion costs have been maybe 5% of my earnings? Maybe a little more? — Rob