As a side hustle, I’ve been dabbling with a bit of independent publishing. It's been something I've wanted to try out after chatting to authors who've done brilliantly with it. But I just never found the time as I had so many commitments on the trad side (which for now will always come first for me). Maybe the delay is also because I grew a little cynical about indie publishing too. As well as the success stories, I also began to hear less successful stories. I was worried about taking something on which might turn out to be a waste of my time.
But then late last year, I had this insane urge to write a sci-romance that's been buzzing around my head for years. Maybe it's because after a VERY tough couple of years, I needed to do something... a little different. A little out of my usual lane. So in-between writing books for my publisher, I wrote up my story. It only took a few weeks and it was such FUN! And I knew, I just knew, it would be the ideal project to test the indie waters. I mean, the chance of getting a trad publisher in this genre are slim anyway, and I'd seen other authors in this particular genre (hello Ruby Dixon!) do wonderfully.
So I used all the knowledge I've accumulated over the years to finally independently publish one of my novels. And I won't just be publishing one either... I'll be publishing two more. My learnings told me that in this genre, it really is best to have at least three novels in a series out before delving whole-heartedly into marketing them. I also decided I needed to publish them quickly. Another thing my research into indie publishing and this particular genre taught me is how successful the 'rapid release' approach can be. After all, the romance genre is dominated by what are known as 'whale readers', people who devour ebooks at a crazy speed. If they like your first book, they want the next one, stat! So the plan was to write at least the first two books quickly, and aim to release them two to three months apart. This is reasonably easy for someone like me, who can write like a demon plus earnings from my trad writing career mean I write f/t, so I've been able to juggle this hybrid career with some evening and weekend work thrown in too.
It's now been a couple of months since I self-published book one in this sci-fi romance series and soon, I'll be publishing book two. I'm not (yet) here to share the results of my indie experiment as, like I mentioned, I don't plan to really push the books marketing-wise until at least three are out. But already, I have learnt a LOT! So I thought I'd share the three things that have really been rammed home to me over the past few months...
1. I really don't have a clue
It doesn’t matter that I've had a career in PR, social media and marketing. It doesn't matter how many podcasts on indie publishing I listened to, or the courses I've done and the books I've read. Nothing could truly prepare me for what's involved in self publishing my own book. I realise the only way to truly know is just dive right in and learn as I go. Maybe this shouldn't have surprised me. I honestly (arrogantly) thought I'd done enough reading and learning for it to be a breeze. I thought I was organised enough too. But the truth is, you really have to be the king or queen of organisation. From dealing with all the different editorial rounds (hats off to editorial teams at trad publishing houses for their ninja skills on this) to the ad side of things, it's a complicated juggle of so many different parts. And I haven't even delved into the ad side properly yet! It really has made me appreciate the teams I work with in my trad published life. The fact is, in the same way we're told the first ever novel we write is a learning curve, so is the first novel you independently publish. You almost have to go in with the mindset that this is another step in your learning and appreciate it for that alone, even if you don't end up making much money with that first novel.
2. It's costly
I don't just mean in terms of money, I mean time too.
Yeah, sure, you can indie publish for peanuts. Design your own cover. Get a friend to edit your novel. But can you really do this in a way that makes it look as professional as a trad published novel? Unlikely. So the fact is, there is some initial outlay. To give you a little insight into what I've spent so far just for book one, here's a list:
Dev edit: £550
Copy / line edit: £730
Blurb advice: £25
Amazon ads: £200
Pen name email: £50
Subscriptions to tools like BookSprout and BookFunnel: £300
Marketing tools: £100
Web domain: £100
Of course, some of these items won't need to be paid again for book 2 and 3 (eg. dev edit as I've decided it won't be needed now I've got to grips with the genre, and subscriptions). But equally, I've saved money by doing things like designing my own website. Overall, I reckon I'll be spending about five thousand pounds on a three-book series, and that doesn't include advertising. I actually think this is reasonably conservative compared to some indie authors, and I've been a little more free-spirited with spend as I've been reinvesting some of what I've earned from my trad career. I mean, sure, I could save money by doing some of this myself. But if one thing is clear from the research I've done, indie published books need to look as professional as possible–from a professionally designed cover to a carefully edited manuscript–in order to have their best chance. You don't want readers to be able to distinguish your novel from a trad published novel.
And then there's the time you spend publishing your own stuff. Not just the writing, but the admin. Oh the admin! Yes, of COURSE I knew there would be a LOT involved. I don't want this post to come across as a whiny 'but nobody told me how difficult it would be' because I honestly did try to prepare myself for the hard work involved. But remember what I said in point one? Until you dive in, you can’t truly know just how much is involved. Even adding a friggin’ book to Amazon via a form can be a time suck. What has been super enlightening for me is that I now get just how much work my trad publishers do on my behalf. I mean, I’ve always known how hard they work, but until now, haven't really understood the whole process from start to finish. Editorial. Marketing. Admin. It’s a SLOG! When you're traditionally published, this is mainly handled by the publishers, allowing you more time to write. So yeah, big respect to publishing staff,
3. People can be... unreliable
This has been the biggest challenge so far. Not just for me but chatting to other indie authors, it's 100% a widespread issue: the nightmare and unpredictability of relying on others. It's easier when trad published as your editor does most of the liaising and organising of the team, such as editors, cover designers, marketing. But as an indie author, you're the boss. This can be great. You're in control. But it can also be super frustrating, especially when freelancers go MIA at crucial times which is an all-too regular occurrence from what I've heard from other indie authors (sounds harsh but it's the truth). It's not always due to pure unreliability of the freelancers' parts of course. Life can get in the way. But it still leaves you with lots of problems if, say, your final cover isn't delivered. It's so stressful!
4. It can make you even more enthusiastic about the trad publishing side of your life
For some, dabbling with indie publishing makes them want to dive right into the indie publishing world whole-heartedly. They might make lots more money with their indie stuff. They might adore the control. They might feel disillusioned with the trad publishing world, especially if their books aren't selling and / or they're not able to secure a new contract. There can be a multitude of reasons.
But for me, it's given me an even deeper appreciation for the trad publishing world. This is not at the cost of my appreciation for indie publishing. I can see the good in both and in a few months, my indie books might take off and I'll be rolling in the indie money, ha! But it's definitely shown me even more how much my publishers do for me, and also the challenges they face in shifting copies and building reviews, liaising with freelancers, and juggling the many, many balls you need to juggle to do it all properly.
5. It has taught me even more about how to help my trad published books
There are so many more things I now realise I could be doing to help shift copies of my trad published books. I thought I'd picked up lots of tips already from indie authors but being in the thick of it has given me a whole new level of insight. And yes, this is insight I will share eventually.
Overall, it's so far been a challenging, insightful and stressy experience. Will I will independently publish more books after this series? Let's see when I get book three of the series out! Watch this space in a few months to see what I think then!
I started posting videos on TikTok in earnest at the weekend after hearing more and more about how important it might become for authors, and I've learnt a few things. Whether you're a complete newbie or you're on TikTok but not sure sure what you're doing, I hope this post is useful for you. Clearly, with only a few days' worth of posting under my belt, I'm no expert. But I've done a lot of research and I've jumped in the TikTok pool, and while I'm faffing about in the training pool, I thought you might want to join me on the journey to the deep end.
A caveat: if you feel overwhelmed by the idea of this and feel like it's just another social media platform to add to your already huge To Do pile, don't feel pressured. I'm not saying you *have* to be on TikTok. But if you enjoy trying new social media features and love to experiment with creative marketing, then read on. If you're not sure, still read on. You never know, it might be the social media platform you finally end up loving and not seeing as a chore...
So here goes, just click on the headings / plus signs below to read more
(This accordion menu can be a bit glitchy on mobile devices, pushing you down the bottom of the page so just find your way back again if that happens)....
* WHY SHOULD AUTHORS BE ON TIKTOK?
I find a lot of authors, including myself, have been super reluctant to get onto TikTok until now. Hands up, I bought into the myth that it's just about teenagers dancing and pretty girls pouting. Even when I began to hear about the HUGE book-reading community on there (known as BookTok), I was reluctant to add yet another social media profile to my belt, especially because I thought the community was more skewed towards YA, fantasy and romance. Would it really be that useful for a psych suspense writer?
I still joined though just because my daughter wanted to see the dancing videos and pretty pouting girls. I didn't post anything but I had fun watching the videos with her (the creepy 'check out this haunted house' accounts, dog mishaps and every day impressions ended up being our faves!).
Then I started noticing more authors cropping up, and more bookish stuff in general. And that stuff was good. Creative. Friendly. Then my cousin told me his 15yo daughter's cosplay TikTok account had 'blown up' (aka 'gone viral') overnight, leading to her now having over 35k followers.
When I went to chat to her, she showed me a book she'd seen recommended on TikTok, saying: 'all my recommendations come via BookTok now'. Then she went on to tell me about books and authors blowing up on TikTok. They weren't all YA, fantasy and romance authors. They were all sorts of authors.
I went away and did some googling, finding articles like this and this and this. I realised I needed to get on the TikTok train stat.
It isn't just the fact more and more people are getting their books recommendations from TikTok now due to the phenomenal BookTok community. Or the fact it could just take one video to get exposure to tens of thousands of readers (I used to roll my eyes at the phrase ‘make it viral’ as it’s pretty impossible to do that in social media. But I think it’s more nuanced in TikTok. From what I can see, you have more chance for a video to 'blow up', even if that's *just* attracting 1k views. It's enough to generate lots more followers and likes). It's also that I think this is an exciting time to get involved. Yes, it's been super popular among certain groups for a while. But I feel like now is when authors are beginning to really sit up and take notice. More people are hopping on (including parents of those teens). We have a chance to get on and get some traction NOW before it becomes too saturated.
So that's what I did, I began to do some research and have now started pumping out videos at https://www.tiktok.com/@thesavvyauthor... and I'm loving it! Sure, I'm not setting the world alight with my follower numbers at the time of writing this, but it has only been a few days of proper posting. I'm excited to see what happens.
Interested to make more of TikTok too? Read on...
* 5 STEPS TO TAKE BEFORE CREATING YOUR FIRST VIDEO
1. Spend some time first exploring TikTok. If you haven't already, set up an account with a decent username, photo and profile (using the same principles you'd use on all social media: quality photo, clear username and useful profile), then use the Discover section to do just that: discover the kind of videos that work on TikTik, especially in the book world via hashtags like #authorsoftiktok and #booktok. But don't follow people you want to target yet (other authors, bookish people, readers) unless you already have a video or two up, otherwise they might not follow you back as you have nowt to offer yet. But once you have a video or two under your belt, definitely start following people who you'd like to follow you back. That's an almost guaranteed way for them to see you exist on there!
2. Do some research. Listen to a recent Self Publishing Formula podcast on TikTok. For those reading this before 15th September 2021, there will be a related webinar that day. You'll find links to it in the episode notes. I found TikTok's own guides useful too.
3. Join some Facebook groups aimed at authors wanting to utilise TikTok. For a smaller group, author Fiona Lucas has set up TikTok For Authors. There's a larger one too called Authors of TikTok. People share ideas on these and help each other out.
4. If you don't have a tripod, it's worth getting one now to avoid shaky shaky hand. I got this one from Amazon. It also includes a ring light which really helps with making your videos look more professional. To help set yourself up, I liked this guide but there are loads out there!
5. Now brainstorm all the things you could post. I don't just mean 'promote book with trailer or close ups'. Sure, these can work but try to think out of the box. Write anything and everything down. I used these titles to help focus my thinking (examples in brackets of the kind of things I wrote under them):
Videos I already have (eg. I have a video about a sense of place in writing which I can adapt)
Subjects covered by my book (eg. trees, Facebook groups - I plan to make some videos around this soon)
My tips for writing (lots!)
Other areas of expertise (grief, infertility)
Interesting home stuff (dog!)
Writing life (mood board, desk)
My reading (book I'm reading, books I've loved, TBR pile, bookshelves)
Have a think about how you can create short enticing videos using these topics. Take inspiration from what you've already seen on TikTok.
Guess what? Now you're ready to post your first video. Don't worry, it's an easy one to get you started...
* 10 STEP GUIDE TO POSTING YOUR FIRST VIDEO
1. Set up your tripod with your phone facing a decent uncluttered background. Then go get the book you're currently reading, or last read.
2. Now search for 'Tracy Buchanan Author' on TikTok and follow me. Scroll down to find a video featuring a book being held up with the closed pages facing the camera. Click on it.
3. Like and comment on my video. The more videos you like and comment on, the more TikTok will like you! And the more likes and comments you get, the more likely your videos are to get featured. Keep this in mind when scrolling through TikTok. Don't just scroll by. If you like a video, especially from a fellow author, show your support by liking and commenting, even if the comment is a simple emoji.
4. Now click on the scrolling text next to the music sign at the bottom of my video. This will take you to lots of other videos using this sound. Feel free to have a look to see how people approach this and which videos work well. But the main reason you're here is to click on the 'Use this sound' red button at the bottom of this page. So go ahead and click it!
5. You will now be ready to record with that tune in the background! Hold your book up like I did in front of the camera. There are a few options here. You can flip the image (useful for this so the text on the book goes the right way!). There's a handy timer. The enhance feature allows you to help yourself look a little more put together. But don't go crazy with this or effects. You want to be authentic and in fact, bookish TikTokkers prefer that. When you're ready, press that red button. This will record a draft but it isn't live! You can do multiple tries so don't panic. You want to time it so you turn the book to show the cover after 'now' and just as the woman sings 'This. This is what I'm reading.' (A lot of sound-focused trends like this are on TikTok. They usually work because a beat change means you can do something creative to show a change in position or video. Look out for them. Just because a model is posing to a trending sound, or a teenage boy is busting some moves to the beat doesn't mean you can't adapt it in some way for yourself without the dancing part... unless you love dancing, of course!).
6. If you mess up as you're filming, don't worry, press the red tick. It won't go live then you do this! Then click the back button in the top left, followed by the x button at the bottom right and discard. These stages can be a bit fiddly, I found it just takes time to figure it out. If you happen to post by accident (difficult to do), then just find your post in your profile, click on the three buttons on the bottom right, scroll to end of the grey button list at the bottom to find the delete option. But don't panic. Bloopers are actually super popular on TikTok!
7. Once you're happy with your recording, press the red tick. On this screen, you can add overlay text via the 'Aa' symbol at the button plus add effects and so on. I I don't always do this for reading videos as the book speaks for itself.
8. Now press next. Don't worry, you're not posting yet! Here you get to add a caption and hashtags. You don't get much space so a super brief headline then hashtags. In fact, hashtags alone are fine. I'm still researching hashtags as I do hear it's sometimes better to use the less known hashtags to avoid disappearing in the crowd. But here are some currently popular hashtags in the book / writing world:
It's also worth checking out trending hashtags in the Discover area as you might find one that's relevant to your video (hopefully goes without saying you should never use hashtags that aren't relevant!).
9. Now you can also select a headline and cover by clicking on 'Select cover' on the right. This is a really important step as it allows you to dictate what people first see when they scroll over (hopefully not by!) your video. I don't always choose a cover if doing a post about what I'm reading but in general, this is the time to choose the most enticing screen shot and a 'clickbaity' headline. You can draw inspiration from other videos to see what works. I've messed up a bit with this as I keep accidentally overlaying the headline over text from the video so it looks messy but, hey, I'm still learning!
10. Once you've done this, I like to first save to drafts so I can check what I've done. You do this by pressing 'Drafts'. You can then go find it by going to your profile page and there's a box of drafts on the left. Click on that and find your video. To edit anything, click the back button. Or you can add another clip at this point.
* WHAT TO DO AFTER POSTING YOUR FIRST VIDEO
1. The best advice I'd give now is just start experimenting. Have fun with it and see what works and what doesn't. It's super easy to see how many views each video gets from looking at your profile page. You'll begin to notice which videos work for people. Do more of them! To give you an idea, my most liked videos so far involve my dog (I mean, she is pretty) and the simple ‘this is what I'm reading right now’ vid I use as an example above. My most viewed so far is how to write about grief and my most commented is, sigh, the one with my dog again (!) plus another where I talked about becoming a full-time author using a trending Cinderella hashtag.
2. How often should you post? I keep hearing contradictory advice, some say post 2-3 times a day, others say they find videos which are posted after a few days' break get a lot of traction. So what can you take from that? Don't feel any pressure, do it as and when you want... as long as it's once or twice a week.
.3 Look at your list of ideas from your brainstorming session and create a schedule from them. If you have a launch coming up, start thinking about that (I'm not going into detail about launch tips as I haven't tried stuff out yet but will do over the next two weeks!)
4. Always be wondering if something can make a good TikTok post. Something can happen in your writing day, or a thought occurs to you, and a video idea will crop up (my dog Bronte decided to stalk me so I took a video and this was the result... yep, that's one of my most popular ones! Not planned, completely spur of the moment as I saw her little head pop up!).
5. Make it a habit of checking TikTok every day. You don't have to do this from your phone, you can scroll through on your desktop too. Remember to like and comment on videos. Gather ideas from what you see other authors doing, this is why I did a 'stitch' with Clare Mackintosh here (stitches and duets are clever ways of combining your videos with other people's videos. More on these here). Make sure you check the 'Discover' section on a regular basis as part of this too. Maybe you'll come up with a fab idea on the fly based on something that's trending, that's how I came up with the Cinderella video I mentioned. Sure, a lot of the videos featured under that sound and hashtag were of beautiful women pretending they look horrendous without makeup when they really won't before turning into beautiful Cinderellas. That didn't mean I had to do it that way. In fact, I did the reverse: suited and booted office me turning to an author wearing PJs while eating Quavers. An example of how to twist things up.
I really hope this all helps! I will be back with some updates on how videos around my book launch went and if ever I 'blow up'. But at least this gets us started! If you do get on TikTok because of this article, or up your TikTok game, please come say hi on TikTok and let me know :-)
There’s a strange conflict we writers face. On one hand, creatives are told not to sell ourselves short by producing content for free. On the other hand, it’s common practise for authors, especially debuts, to be expected to write free stuff as part of their ‘PR’ plan.
So no wonder it can be quite the dilemma when authors are asked to write for free, whether it be via their publicist or direct from a publication. I remember when I first started out, I didn’t think twice about saying yes to everything. I worked in PR for many years so know the way it works. You do stuff for free to get publicity. Any exposure is good exposure, right? I was also keen to please my publicist and publisher.
But with some experience, I'm now a lot more choosy. As a rule, I don't write free articles for book blogs or more obscure websites unless a friend is asking. But if an opportunity to write for a national publication or high traffic website comes up, I'll more than likely say yes. It's interesting that some of the more innovative digital publishers don't even bother with PR campaigns any more, believing even articles in larger publications don't ultimately sell books.
But I believe it's more nuanced than that. How do you decide whether to say yes or no? Here are some steps to take:
First, find out how many people read the publication
It’s pretty easy to get circulation figures for larger publications via a web search. For example, the Press Gazette runs articles about circulation figures of many publications. Or check a publication’s website for the area aimed at selling ads for stats. Similar Web is great for websites in particular, just do a search.
It’s not so easy to get these figures for smaller publications though, the very ones where you might be in two minds about contributing.
A way around this is to simply ask your publicist to find out, or the publication itself. You’re being asked to write for free after all, you have every right to ask (as long as you’re polite and charming when you do!). Even small bloggers should have access to stats via the platform or Google Analytics.
But how do you know if the figures are any good?
This is a difficult one to answer, especially when it comes to websites. But as a rule, over 10k unique visitors a month isn’t bad, 100k plus really good.
For comparison, here’s the traffic from the past 28 days of three of the most common websites where authors' ‘free’ articles appear:
Femalefirst.co.uk - 917.43K
Writing.ie – 50k
As for the printed press, the UK’s most popular newspaper, the Daily Mail, had a circulation of 984,043 in March 2021, and The Sunday Express was at 212,025. For what is referred to as ‘Women’s Lifestyle’, after the supermarket magazines, it’s Good Housekeeping at 410,241k.
Personally, I think 100k+ is the kind of figure I'm looking at if a publication is to perk my interest.
But you also need to ask what kind of people read the publication?
What kind of readers are you trying to attract? If you’re not sure, ask your publisher or check out your author dashboard for stats if your publisher has one.
I know, from my own author dashboard stats, for example, that my average reader is mainly female, aged 56+. There are no niche interests I need to cater for (more on that later). So while writing an article for a high circ publication like Top Gear magazine would impress my husband, it isn’t going to be a good bet for me. Whereas an article in a high circ lifestyle magazine or national newspaper could be useful.
If you’re not sure of a publication’s demographic, you can usually find out in the advertising section of the publication’s website, or just read some of the articles to get a sense. Are these people likely to be potential readers?
(As an aside, you might not always be aiming to target readers. Sometimes, you might want to raise your profile in the writing community. You might even find readers there. Are your readers the type of people who might be writers? All something to consider.)
So you know the publication's circulation figures and target readership. What now? The way I approach it is as follows:
100k+ circulation + target readership = yes
If you learn that the publication is one of the The Big Ones then it’s probably worth writing a free article. As you can see from these figures for the nationals, you can get a decent wedge of exposure for that free article you might write for them, not to mention the kudos and the fact advertising in these publications are often worth their weight in gold. Plus there’s content marketing to consider: high profile media brands are more likely to be read and shared online.
BUT... no harm asking
Seeing as they are so big, there’s no harm asking for some kind of payment anyway and certainly pushing for as decent a book plug as possible (eg. a thumbnail cover image to go with that title mention). I mean, some deem it as being unethical to ask people to work for free, so you really shouldn’t be frowned upon for simply asking the question as long as you're polite and charming when you do.
What about the smaller publications?
Should it be a default no? Now this is where it gets a little more complicated as there are caveats:
For example, does your main character have a particular hobby / job which features heavily in the narrative? In which case, it may well be worth writing an article for a niche low circulation publication because their target market are almost guaranteed to be a captive audience.
We authors love writing and sometimes, the joy of writing something for a publication is worth the effort anyway. If you have the time and enthusiasm, and maybe you want to see it as a chance to hone your writing skills even more then why not?
Take an article I did for Dog’s Monthly about writers and their canine companions. To be fair to the magazine, it does attract an average monthly readership of 80,000 so not to be sniffed at. But as an example, they were asking for 1500 words sharing the importance of canine companions for authors. Though it took a while to write and research (not to mention the at-home photoshoot I arranged for me and my dog with my husband as photographer!) I loved the fact I’d got an article into a dog magazine! Plus the book I had out at the time featured a vet as a main character.
However, I was also once asked by a website with less than 10k monthly visitors to write 2,000 words about my average writing day. Look, I love talking about writing but the day itself… in 2k words? It just felt like too much. If, say, Good Housekeeping asked me to write it then sure! But this was a request from a small website. So yeah, I turned it down.
I know many authors who are happy to contribute their time for free to publications like the Big Issue. I have contributed articles for cancer charities. I’ve also written an article or two for friends. If you feel comfortable doing it and have the time without stressing yourself, then go ahead. Speaking of time...
This is a big question and one that is a little more complicated then it first seems. You see, some articles with a long word count may not actually take so long to work on and vice versa. It also depends on your own preferences. So for me, I find Q&As super easy so they usually only take about 30 minutes. General advice which is at the tip of my tongue is similar too. But when it comes to more researched items where I need to talk to other people then that can take a few hours. Or emotional first person accounts. So it’s worth thinking about that.
They key thing is, don’t overstretch yourself. If you have a busy life and / or a looming deadline, or you’re going through something challenging. Is it really worth adding a burdensome task on top of it all if there is no monetary return and even worse, book-selling return?
So how do you say no?
Saying no can be uber difficult for authors. You feel like you're letting people down, especially if it's your publisher. But saying no in a polite, sensible and reasoned way can sometimes be what turns you from being a slave to publishing (sorry to put it bluntly) to being their equal. I often talk about the harm that comes with being a 'grateful sap'. It's important your publisher sees you as an equal. In fact, it ups your negotiating power and standing in the industry.
An example: as I said before, I said yes to everything as a debut. But I published my second book while on maternity leave. Life was crazy! During a conference call with my lovely editor and publicist at the time, I was brutally honest with them: I would only write for free for high circulation nationals, and even then, I’d take it on a case-by-case basis.
They were totally cool with it. I think if I’d said the same with my debut, that may have been a little harder. But still, I think they would have understood and in fact, respected me even more for my savviness.
And I guess this is what it always comes down to here: your savviness. As I always say, know your worth and stop being guilted into doing stuff... you’ll be respected even more for it.
And finally, many writers report being asked to take on copy-writing gigs for free. Not just for the press but for companies. ‘It’ll help raise your profile’ or ‘the exposure will help sell books’. If you find yourself in this awkward position then here are some handy responses.
If you’re a published author and would like to discuss issues like this and more, head on over to the Savvy Writers’ Snug.
Guest Post from Virtual Assistant, Sarah Garnham
Aren’t we lucky in this day and age to have such wonderful, creative apps at the tips of our fingers? As a Virtual Assistant specialising in supporting authors with their social media management, research and an array of other tasks, I’m so thankful for these resources.
So, where do you start? In a sea of apps and software designed to help you manage your workload and get creative, how do you even begin to decide which ones to use first? Well, it just so happens that I have picked out my absolute favourites that have helped me to drive forward a successful business and podcast, ensuring that I provide the most professional service, while still juggling school runs, homework and maintaining the family home (just about!)
So without further ado, here they are:
We all have so much to do and as writers, you all have your targets to meet, whether that means committing to a dedicated daily word count, a busy social media schedule, or perhaps you’re juggling a job alongside your writing journey. As a self-confessed post-it note Queen, I needed a better way of managing my time and organising my days. Enter free project management tools. I wouldn’t be without them and I highly recommend 2 specific tools that have single-handedly improved my clarity of mind and enabled me to sleep at night without the worry of forgetting something.
If you’re using social media as a promotional tool (which I highly recommend!) then there are plenty of apps available to you that can be used to create visual content. From beginners to those with an eye for graphic design, each of these apps will cater for your needs.
With the number of podcasts in circulation recently topping 1 million, it is no wonder that authors and creatives are turning to podcasting as a way of communicating with their readers and fellow authors. I, myself have a podcast called Virtually Minded and it’s a really effective medium, as well as being extremely fun! So if you’ve been thinking of doing something like this, but you’re worried it will require quite a financial commitment, fear not. There are loads of free apps and software, which make it a very cheap pursuit!
So, there we have it, my absolute favourite collection of apps and software that are fundamental assets to the running of my business. With regular use, you’ll become better and better at creating content and your confidence will grow! If you’d like to find out more about my Virtual Assistant business and how having an VA may help you with time management, then please visit www.vitruallyminded.co.uk – I’d be happy to have an informal chat to answer any questions you might have. You can also listen to my podcast here: https://anchor.fm/sarah-garnham. If you enjoy listening to inspirational stories about people who’ve risen to success (often after overcoming adversity) then this might be for you.
If you could sum up your attitude to where you want to go with your writing in 2021 with one word, what would it be?
This is the question I asked members of the Savvy Writers’ Snug I run on Facebook on New Year’s Eve. The words they chose were varied and inspiring, as you can see from the word cloud above (and yes, you'll notice the Platypus addition from one author! I mean, why not?).
I found some writers needed to enter this year carefully and take their foot off the acceleration pedal. Others were buzzing with energy and a real determination to take their writing life up a gear.
I’m usually like this. Take 2020 for example. I leapt into the year with goals galore. I even wrote a blog post about it using an array of boating metaphors, ha ha! Like previous years, I was fizzing with anticipation and expectation. I had a new book out with a new publisher. I had plans to write more than I ever had. I’d even planned an event to look forward to, the Savvy Writers’ Fest.
But then… well, you know what happened. A global pandemic hit. A global pandemic that is still here, nearly a year later (in fact, as I type this, my daughter is in the room with me as her school has been closed again).
So thank God I chose the word I did to describe my approach to 2021: healing.
Why healing? 2020 has dealt me a few blows (not just the pandemic) so this year, I want to take it slowly and softly.
Have a think. Which camp are you in? The buzzing with energy camp, or the ones that need a bit of softly, slowly approach?
If you're in the buzzing camp, then I have a host of blog posts here to help you out. But for those of us who want to go softly and slowly, here are three tips:
1. See writing as therapy
The reason I really got into writing in the first place was a form of therapy to get me through years of struggling with infertility. My debut novel The Atlas of Us was the result. I was blessed enough to have my daughter and my focus turned to making enough money with my writing to leave my day job so I could juggle family life better. As a result, I became more ‘savvy’ and looked at writing through more of a commercial lens (while still adoring the writing itself and finding comfort in it).
When the horrors of 2020 came along, I started to feel the need to write to heal again. But I had deadlines and a new book out so combined with everything else - including the need to just DO NOTHING on some days - there simply wasn’t space to be slow, to be soft.
And when I mean being slow and soft, and luxuriating in the healing process, I mean things like taking time to think, to research, to visit places and do things as a form of inspiration. Now it’s time to return to that. I will still be busy in many ways: my latest novel Circle of Doubt is out, and I have a summer deadline for the next. But I’m going to make myself play more with ideas without imposing a deadline on myself for those ideas.
How can you do this? Have a think about something you’ve been longing to write but haven’t for various reasons. Or if you don’t have an idea, spend some time inspiring yourself. This doesn’t mean you neglect your contracted deadline. I will still write my contracted novel but I will also give myself permission to luxuriate in a ‘passion project’. The difference is, I won’t aim to finish it this year. Slowly, softly isn’t about that. Instead, I’ll tell myself to enjoy the process. The research. The thinking. No deadlines. It will be written when it’s ready to be written. When I’m ready for it to be written.
Routine went out of the window in 2020, especially with school closures here in the UK. I’d become used to my weekday routine, pre-pandemic: dropping my daughter off at school, going for a walk, then writing / dealing with admin stuff until I had to pick my daughter up again and embarking on the family side of life for the rest of the day. My days were neatly compartmentalised.
But then 2020 happened. And even when my daughter returned to school in September, my mind wouldn’t let me settle back into that routine. I was all over the shop and frankly, didn’t work as much as I should have, choosing some days to just lie in bed, hiding.
I needed that. It was fine.
Now, in the original draft of this blog post, this was the past where I was going to tell you about how I was going to make sure I returned to routine because a routine means you don't have to think too much about the necessary parts of the day, you just do them, which in turns frees up headspace to be creative. But then in the UK, we were thrown into another lockdown and my daughter's school is closed. So sticking to a routine is about as likely as a me laying off the chocolate this month!
So I've had to re-think. Did you know the word 'routine' in part comes from the French word for 'road'? So I'm seeing it like this: each week is a journey and as long as I pass some regular sights along the way - a daily walk, any home learning I can manage, specific work tasks to tick off the list and some 'slowly, softly' thinking, researching, creative time, then that's enough.
But (and please let this be soon!) when lockdown eases, I've promised myself I will get some semblance of a routine back.
How can you do this? I found this blog post from the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck on using routine to guide your way through this pandemic, so insightful. While you’re there, check out another of his posts where people share their life lessons from the pandemic.
Like a lot of people I know, I have punished my body in 2020 with lethargy, over eating and over-drinking. Like so many others, I told myself I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, I needed to do all this to cope. But the truth is, by doing all that, I actually ended up doing what I wanted to avoid: I ended up being hard on myself as it made me feel naff.
So now I must remember that and I need to stop telling myself it’s fine to eat rubbish and be lazy because of what I’ve been through. I’ve had months of it. Time to change, to move more, to eat better and in turn, that’ll surely have an impact on the way I write too? I might have less work hours with my daughter being at home but by making some changes in my eating and moving habits, maybe I’ll have more energy to make the most of the writing hours I do have available?
How can you do this? Each person will have their own ways of approaching this. I’m not here to dish out health advice. But I have found Joanna Penn to be a brilliant inspiration when it comes to being a healthy writer and guess what? She wrote a whole book on it! More about it here. She also talks a lot about walking, and her experiences with lifestyle changes such as intermittent fasting. Have a listen to her podcast for more. I'd also recommend listening to the Virtually Minded podcast which my virtual assistant runs. It is so insightful, in particular her second 'Mindset' episode.
I hope this helps. Remember, we will all have our different approaches as authors to 2021. Whatever approach you take, I hope it’s a good year for you and your writing.
Watching the US presidential campaign unfold has made me think a lot about giving up.
Specifically, how do we as authors know when there’s a wrong time and a right time to give up on our writing careers?
Giving up is a topic that’s often brought up in the Savvy Writers’ Snug group that I run on Facebook. Maybe an author hasn’t been re-contracted due to low sales figures, or they can’t get a new contract.
They will post and ask the question: is it time to give up, or should I persevere regardless?
It’s tempting to tell these authors not to give up. And many people do. But it’s more nuanced than that and the two presidential candidates can give us an interesting insight into just how nuanced.
First, take the president-elect, Joe Biden. This isn’t the first time he’s tried to become president. The last two times were in 1988 and 2008, but for various reasons, he didn’t make it. That’s over 30 years riding the political rollercoaster of ups and downs, with personal tragedies in-between too.
Most people would have given up.
But not Biden and now he finally has what he’s been striving for all this time, despite all the obstacles and stumbles along the way.
Now take Donald Trump. He too sought office before becoming president in 2016, just once in 2000 when he created what he called a ‘presidential exploratory committee’. But for the purposes of this article, let’s look at right now and how he’s reacted to losing the presidency. Is he giving up? Hell no! Despite all the facts telling him otherwise, Trump is persevering by constantly insisting he won the election and launching lawsuits too.
You could say that like Biden, Trump refuses to give up.
But the truth is, Trump's form of perseverance is completely different from Biden’s. Apart from the obvious – it’s deluded and not based in fact – it is a blind kind of tenacity which refuses to bend or adapt to reach a goal. He is going down a straight road of litigation and refusing to veer off or adapt his message, which is: voter fraud and I won.
Biden, however, did veer off track, adapting to change when needed. For example, after witnessing the summer’s racial tensions in the US, he made what some deemed a controversial decision by taking on Kamala Harris as his running mate, a key figure in the civil rights movement.
He also adapted his campaign as the horror of the pandemic unfolded, running it entirely online despite all his natural instincts telling him to be out there, hand-shaking and hugging, something he's known for.
This is what makes the difference between the two types of 'not giving up'. On one hand, you have someone who is so stuck in their ways, you can pretty much guarantee they'll have the rug pulled out from beneath them eventually. Then the other version, someone with a flexible realistic approach which ultimately, will offer them the best chance of success.
How does this apply to authors?
There will come a time in most authors’ lives when they will feel a sense of hopelessness. Maybe it’s because of declining sales or they’ve been dropped by their publisher. When authors share their worries and ask their peers whether it's time to give up, the natural instinct of other authors is to always say don’t give up. Sure, take a break but persevere, it’s a long game! All it takes is one breakout book to finally get there, just as all it took was one election victory for Biden.
And I get it! I have my own story of nearly giving up after I received nearly a hundred rejections from agents. In the end, I didn’t and thank God for that! Same with Joe Biden (ha! Look at me comparing my experience with the president-elect!). Imagine if he’d given up, he would have missed out on finally achieving his dream of being president.
But blindly telling an author not to give up can do them a disservice. First, we need to question how they're dealing with any obstacles in their way. Are they just ploughing on with what they’ve always done, despite all the signs telling them it’s not going to work, as Trump is doing? Or are they willing to adapt and change like Biden is?
The truth is, if an author is not selling enough books to keep them in contract, something needs to give. They need to change, to adapt, to experiment. And yes, that can mean switching genre.
But many authors aren’t willing to do this. They argue that they must 'write from the heart' otherwise what’s the point? They tell themselves that their readers, even if there are a small number of them, love their work, after all. Plus they got a publishing deal, didn’t they? Surely, that tells them they have some talent.
Absolutely! All of this shows an author has some kind of talent. But in this business, talent alone isn't enough. It just isn't! Truth is, if an author isn't bothered about having a long-term career in writing – and by career, I mean earning enough money from their writing to focus on it part-time or full-time – then they should crack on. It might work. You hear the stories of it working when a genre suddenly takes off.
But these cases are few and far between. The truth is, a few months down the line, an author in this position will probably find themselves still struggling to keep afloat as they continue to write into the void, telling themselves it’s fine because it’s what their heart desires, when the truth is, despite telling themselves over and over as long as they're writing from the heart, they're happy, in reality they find themselves steeped in misery as their writing career stalls.
What makes me so sad as I watch this happen is they haven’t even tried another way. Not properly anyway. They’ve assumed it just won’t work. They haven’t played and experimented with genre to see if another glove might fit just as beautifully as the first. It doesn’t even have to be a complete change. I was writing women’s fiction but when sales struggled, I decided to make it a little darker That doesn’t mean I still don’t dabble with the lighter women’s fiction I once wrote in the background too.
The key is making tweaks before your refusal to give up just results in you having the choice taken from you, like no doubt Trump will find happens in the coming weeks.
So what if you're reading this and you're at that crossroads now? My advice is, don’t blindly plough on. Instead, become informed enough to twist and turn with the tide of publishing and who knows? You might not be President of the United States, but you sure as hell might be able to save your chances of the successful writing career you dream of.
Netgalley is an online platform which aims to connect publishers and authors with 'readers of influence' such as librarians, booksellers, educators, reviewers and bloggers. Unlike websites like Goodreads, you can only see reviews if you're a member, so Netgalley shouldn't be thought of as review site for ‘normal’ readers to access.
The hope from the publisher and author point of view is that by sending free review copies to these 'readers of influence', their resulting reviews can be used for blurbs, and create word of mouth. Plus they should also appear on platforms outside Netgalley, such as GoodReads and Amazon. Not to mention, it might help publishers when selling a book into retailers. Eg. '2k people requested an ARC, this book is going to be huuuuuuge!’
When it works, it can be quite useful (though as discussed in my previous post about blog tours, there can always be the risk all you’re targeting is the echo chamber).
The problem comes when it doesn't work. Specifically, when people treat Netgalley as a 'free books' website. And many people do. I call these people ‘book blaggers’. They see legitimate book reviewers receiving free books and think ‘yeah, I’ll have a piece of that.’
How do I know these people are blagging?
I’ve seen this myself in book groups on Facebook. Other authors regularly report seeing the same too. I’d love to share screen shots here but I don’t want to cross a line! So here’s how a conversation will usually go:
Blagger A: Does anyone know where I can get free books? I’m off on holiday soon and need some new books.
Blagger B: Netgalley! It’s a great website where you can request FREE books before they’re published in exchange for reviews. Just make sure you give as much info in your bio as possible for publishers.
Blagger A: Ooh, this sounds great, thanks. What sort of info should I include?
Blagger B: Mainly the kind of books you like but also where you will leave your review. It helps if you have a website too.
Blagger A: What do you mean by website?
Blagger B: Like a reviewing blog.
Blagger A: Oh, I don’t have one of those.
Blagger B: No worries, they’re easy to set up for free using a site like Wordpress.
Blagger C: Sorry to butt in, but that’s what I did. It was easy. You don’t even really need to leave a review to be honest, I don’t always leave reviews and still get freebies.
Blagger A: Awesome! Going to check it out now.
These people aren’t ‘readers of influence’. They’re purely doing it to get freebies. Even worse, they’re passing on their tips to other aspiring book blaggers! Ergh.
It’s pretty easy for book blaggers to play the system, pretending to be reviewers just so they can get their hands on a free book. As Blagger A said, anyone can set up a blog for free these days and make it seem legit. If we’re ‘lucky’, they’ll post a quick badly written review on Netgalley, maybe even duplicate it on their low traffic blog too. But most of the time, there will be no review at all.
Of course, if vetted properly, the book blaggers shouldn’t get a look in. As Netgalley states, anyone requesting a book to review should ideally have:
‘a history of providing feedback for books they’ve accessed, and can demonstrate their reach as an early influencer or reviewer. Members improve their chances of getting approved for more books by providing meaningful reviews, by connecting their accounts to verified industry organizations (ALA, ABA, Booksellers Association (UK), ALIA (AU), and others.), and linking to their blogs, social and Goodreads accounts.’
I know many publishers work super hard to vet requests via Netgalley and chase up reviewers. And yet somehow, book blaggers still manage to slip through the net. I hear it all the time from other authors who are members of the Savvy Writers’ Snug I run on Facebook. Many notice a lot of their Netgalley reviews do not end up on a website which will actually benefit readers, like Amazon.
Authors also often complain about the fact that some of the reviews on Netgalley offer no constructive or useful feedback either. The review might be less than a paragraph, or a vague plot overview with no insight at all.
I recently did a bit of an exercise on one of my own books to get a sense of how many people getting my books via Netgalley are there for the freebies or there for the love of reviewing books.
My most reviewed book on Netgalley is my sixth novel The Family Secret. This is what I discovered after a bit of research:
So a THIRD of the reviewers who posted some kind of review on Netgalley didn’t do a proper review nor did they seem to place it anywhere useful. That doesn’t include those who requested the novel and then didn’t even leave any kind of review on Netgalley itself!
I'm not alone. Many authors report a disparity between the number of free copies requested (sometimes in the hundreds) and the subsequent number of reviews received on Netgalley itself and elsewhere. Sure, life can get in the way. Plus a reviewer might absolutely hate a book and rather not post a review at all (better to say nothing at all to say something nasty, right?).
But I suspect a lot of the time, the ‘reviewer’ never intended to post a review in the first place.
That, frankly, is unethical. How would they feel if the same happened to them?
Ironically, one of the reviewers who posted a pointless review of The Family Secret on Netgalley and nowhere else actually sells products themselves from what I could gather when Googling them. Imagine me knocking on their door, asking for a free product in exchange for a review and then not publishing that review? How would they react?
The question is, how is this allowed?
The publisher I worked with on The Family Secret are one of the best when it comes to getting reviews. They offer incentives for reviewers, send reminders on publication day to encourage them to transfer their review to Amazon and try their best to vet reviews.
And yet still, blaggers have clearly slipped through the net.
I imagine when super busy, it can be tempting to just approve requests without doing too much digging, especially if it’s a digital copy. Even the cost of sending a physical copy can be negligible when you’re trying to save time.
You might argue what’s the harm in this? Publishers bulk print ARCs anyway, better getting them into the hands of readers, any readers, than have them stay in a warehouse.
But it’s the principle. Freebie grabbers do nothing for authors. They’re the same as the people who download books from piracy sites. They are undervaluing the hard work we put in. This is made even worse when they post about their freebie and encourage others to try and get one.
(And by the way, this is completely different from free books via programmes like Amazon First Reads. This helps drive books up the Amazon ranks and get it noticed.)
To sum up, I think Netgalley can be useful when utilised professionally for all the reasons I listed above. Genuine reviewers and bloggers are skilled writers who offer essential insight for readers and great blurbs.
But I worry many publishers’ focus on this platform don’t justify the benefits. Is a quote from a reviewer who's unlikely to be recognised by your readers going to stand out compared to a quote from a normal genuine reader sourced from Amazon or GoodReads?
If you struggle to get that bulk of reviews on release day on, say, Amazon, then it might be better for you or your publisher to hold their own database of reviewers and bloggers with a focus on quality over quantity.
Regardless of what your publishers do, think about taking it into your own hands. Set up your own street team of readers, create a Facebook group for readers, begin building those relationships yourself so you can ‘own’ them.
Netgalley isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to reviews.
I hope this provides some insight!
PS. Just to add some extra insight, my latest book Wall of Silence received 24 reviews on Netgalley with a 3 star average. The reason for the low number of reviews is that my publisher Lake Union don’t focus on Netgalley reviews. On Amazon UK, it has 1423 reviews with a 4.5 average, and is the most read of all my books. Interesting, hey?
A blog tour is where your book features on a different book blog every day for a week or two. Content will range from a review of your book, to a guest post from you, the author. This content will then be shared on social media.
Some publishers will run a blog tour for you, usually in the lead up to publication day. They will liaise with bloggers, get dates sorted, let you know any content you need to write, send out your book (physically or digitally) and chase bloggers.
Often your publisher's publicity team will sort this. Sometimes, they will pay a blog tour organiser to arrange it all.
If a publisher isn't doing this, authors can choose to pay a blog tour organiser to run one themselves. The cost is usually a one-off fee of under £100. You could just run one yourself but this can be a challenge without the contacts and experience.
(A note: this isn't to be confused with people who charge to do reviews of your book, something that is frowned upon and red flagged by the likes of Amazon.)
The question is, are blog tours worth it for authors? I don't just mean if you pay to have one organised, but also in terms of the time spent writing guest posts and sharing content on social media.
My answer: in terms of actual sales, probably not. In terms of brand development, yes.
Let's delve a little deeper by looking at book bloggers. I think they're great! Their enthusiasm, support, professionalism and dedication for authors is amazing. They can actually be a lifeline for authors. A community to hold onto when an author feels unloved, devalued, alone.
And damn, they work hard! Many bloggers spend a huge amount of time drafting posts, scheduling blog tours, liaising with publishers and authors, and publicising their posts. Most do this in their spare time, while holding down a job. And all for the 'payment' of a free book. Hours of work for less than a tenner, basically.
Thanks to bloggers' enthusiasm and hard work, if a blog tour is done well, it can result in a lovely buzz around your book. But even with all that online excitement, can you guarantee all those blog posts will reach beyond the publishing world bubble?
My first experience of a blog tour was when my debut novel, The Atlas of Us, was published back in 2014. It was organised by my publisher at the time and played a big part in their marketing strategy. I spent hours writing content for book blogs, doing interviews, organising a virtual book launch and more. The resulting 'buzz' on social media was amazing. Such an ego boost. Plus I got to 'e-meet' some amazing book bloggers. It made my debut experience extra special.
I was so pleasantly overwhelmed with the response, I began to dream it might be reflected in lots and lots of sales. So I was confused when it didn't go straight into, say, the Kindle top 100.
But looking back, the people who shared any blog tour content online were doing so to a follower base mainly made up of other book bloggers, publishing staff and authors… not necessarily the people who would actually end up buying my book.
Before I became a full-time author, I worked in PR and social media for many years. I learnt one of the biggest challenges publicists face is getting messages ‘outside the bubble’.
So a social media campaign can appear to be hugely successful because it gets lots of engagement and shares on, say, Twitter. Mentions of your book bounce back and forth between people, generating an exciting cycle of retweets and likes, creating a real ‘buzz’ in the air.
But the truth is, that message might never quite penetrate the walls of the echo chamber to reach the people that count… the ones who might actually buy the product you’re trying to promote.
The book world is a great example of an echo chamber. This is for the loveliest of reasons: the community is truly one of the most supportive I know on social media. But the evidence the buzz created from a blog tour converts into actual sales isn't easy to come by.
This can be because it's hard to drill down into the specifics when looking at web stats. Authors can ask bloggers to use trackable links, like bit.ly or Amazon affiliate links, to see how many people have actually visited their book product page from a blog page. Affiliate links will even show you if that visit converted into a sale. You can keep an eye on Amazon rankings and see if there's an obvious jump after a blog post is publicised. You can check your own website stats to see how many unique users were referred to you by a blog post.
Simply asking readers can be useful too. I did a poll in The Reading Snug group I run on Facebook to find out. A tiny proportion said they read book blogs but that might be because I don't engage with book blogs as much as I used to. But the authors I run the group with do so who knows?
Of course, it can depend on genre too. I think if I wrote, say, fantasy, book blog tours would be more likely to feature.
What's telling is that authors and publishers are running less blog tours. Bloggers simply don't have the time any more. Publishers aren't always seeing the sale benefits. If a publisher does run them, it's usually more an author relationship exercise to show they’re fulfilling the publicity side of the deal.
So while blog tours aren't always the best sales generating tool, book blogs themselves can be excellent for building content and connections in the community which in turn can help build brand recognition.
Remember I mentioned word of mouth as one of the main ways of drawing attention to your book? Book bloggers can play a big role on this. If a blogger loves your book, they can be your best advocate, talking about your book at reader events and to any influencers they meet. I know one author who got a film deal after a book blogger gushed about her book to a film producer she met.
Blogger reviews are a great source for blurbs too, those lovely sentences of praise that appear on your book’s product description and inside the front cover. Not to mention the fact the professional bloggers will make sure they add their reviews to platforms like Amazon and Goodreads.
Then there's that buzz of reading a great review of your book and seeing it mentioned on social media. It’s a fab ego boost!
Finally, you should never underestimate the value of content. It can be used as an asset on social media for years to come (if it’s not too dated) and the more content you as an author have online, the more likely you are to appear in searches.
They key is to weigh up the benefits against the time or money spent. I'm aware of several authors who have spent a considerable amount of time writing content for a blog tour to then feel disappointed when they don't see a notable uptick in sales as a result. If you're busy or you just don't enjoy writing anything other than novels, it's important to know you shouldn't feel you have to take part in a blog tour. There are many ways to connect with book bloggers, whether that be through offering your book for review or simply connecting on social media, ways which take up less of your writing time but still mean you can support the community and they in turn can support you.
It's all about weighing things up, asking the right questions and not saying yes to everything.
Next time, I’ll be discussing whether sending out hundreds of free books via platforms like Netgalley is worth the effort...
Today, my seventh and latest novel Wall of Silence reached the milestone of 50,000 units sold in the first two months of publication. That doesn’t include the huge number of Amazon Prime members who had the opportunity to download it for free before it was published. Overall, the number of people who have Wall of Silence on their Kindles, whether paid or downloaded for free, blows me away and is highlighted every day by the many many messages I receive from readers.
I don’t share this to boast (okay, maybe a little bit). Fact is, many will have seen much better figures than this. Many will have seen less.
I share this milestone with you because honestly, I have been on one hell of a rollercoaster the past few years and I want other authors to understand this milestone in its context, rather than just throwing it out there... and maybe you'll learn a little something along the way too.
So some background. My debut novel The Atlas of Us came out back in 2014. It got some lovely reviews and sold OK. A year later my second novel, My Sister's Secret, rocketed to the top of the overall Kindle charts and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since with foreign deals around the world. Similar for my third novel, No Turning Back.
But then my fourth novel, Her Last Breath, came out in 2017 and sales floundered. Since then, until now, sales for my books haven't been much to write home about even though I think the two books that followed Her Last Breath - The Lost Sister and The Family Secret - are the best books I've written.
Fact was, I was in book sales free fall. Many other authors who had great sales in the 2013/14 boom have also seen a slump as the bubble began to burst a little (for those who don't know, the 'boom' was when ebook sales really came in their own as some more savvy authors and publishers began to understand the value of ebook price promotions before everyone caught on). But I felt it was more than just that and was worried the decline would just continue.
But it didn't, thanks to Wall of Silence bucking that trend.
So what helped? Three things:
1. A hook
2. Changing publishers
3. Promotions that actually work
Let’s tackle these one by one.
When Her Last Breath didn’t sell as well as the last two, I thought long and hard about it until I came up with what I thought was the reason: my writing had gone too dark (I blogged about it here).
So I thought if I returned to the character and emotionally driven approach of my first two novels, I could see great sales again. But while I did see an improvement in sales for my next two novels and great reviews too, sales were still so-so. I won’t go into detail but basically, they’re the sort of sales which don’t invite an exciting milestone email from your publisher. The kind that lead to those regular sales update from your editor (if you get them) dwindling after a month.
That’s fine, it happens. But three books in a row with no clear upward trend in sales? Alarm bells went off for me. When you write commercial fiction like I do, it can mean book deals (home and overseas) are harder to come by... or not at all.
(Side note: sorry if you’re an author who's in that position now. I feel for you, I've been there, but it’s the hard truth. Read on for tips.).
So I realised something needed to change. What was selling well? I did some research and I realised what connected bestselling novels in dark women’s fiction was a strong hook.
Take the hook of Sunday Times bestseller Our House by Louise Candlish:
When Fi Lawson arrives home to find strangers moving into her house, she is plunged into terror and confusion.
Or big seller The Rumour by Lesley Kara:
When single mum Joanna hears a rumour at the school gates, she never intends to pass it on. But one casual comment leads to another and now there’s no going back...
So easy to sum up in a sentence. I realised my next novel absolutely had to do the same. It had to be summed up in a sentence that was so enticing, so thrilling, that perspective readers would just have to read it.
So that’s how I came up with the idea for Wall of Silence:
A mother comes home from work to discover her husband stabbed, their three children standing around him. Which one did it?
This didn’t mean compromising my value or ‘writing to numbers’. Great characterisation and the best writing you can muster are always just as important. But it all needs to start with the hook… the promise of a story.
What else helped?
A new publisher
Now onto publishers. My previous publishers are wonderful. I will always recommend them. They are a savvy caring professional bunch who helped me create two bestsellers and took a chance on me with my debut. They have done wonders for so many authors.
But I began to wonder when my sales started dwindling: maybe it was time for a change? Maybe getting a new publisher would be that nudge I needed.
I’d had my eye on Amazon Publishing for a while. Yep, Amazon has its own publishing arm offering many of the advantages of a trad publisher – an advance, an editorial team. More info here: https://amazonpublishing.amazon.com/
I’d seen what they’d done for authors like Imogen Clark and Teresa Driscoll, and the unparalleled success of programmes like their First Reads programme. And which other publisher could have the kind of insight they have into what makes a book sell?
I told my agent I only wanted to chat to them, plus my current UK and US publishers, about my next book.
You might wonder why I didn’t look at other publishing imprints, especially those that would give me a much better chance of being placed in supermarkets and bookstores like Waterstones. My answer? Honey, once you’ve done one shelf, you’ve done them all.
In other words, I got the whole ‘ooooohhh, there’s my book on the shelf!’ vanity trip out of my system yonks ago. Truth is though, no matter how lovely that all was, those supermarkets and physical bookstore sales hardly make me money. Whereas even before I was published by them, Amazon as a retailer was where I found the bulk of my readers. So why not be published with them and get the advantage of their insider knowledge?
I've also learnt since setting up the Savvy Writers' Snug for published authors on Facebook that the big glitzy imprints don't always treat their authors the best.
So I was delighted when the Lake Union imprint of A-Pub offered me a two-book deal... and now I’m even more delighted with how it’s gone. It’s not just the fact they’ve helped me get to 50k sales (though it does help), it’s also the fact they have…
1.Great vision for my novel (they knew exactly where and how to target my novel)
2.Encourage author collaboration with detailed pre-publication questionnaires and involvement with front covers and titles
3.They have a dedicated author relations team for any niggly questions
4.Each book goes through intense and detailed editorial round with a dedicated structural editor alongside your main editor (and this shows as my reviews have been fab)
5.Awesome programmes for promotions (First Reads is the nuts)
6.Access to live sales figures
7.Monthly royalties statements with money paid quickly (NB. I've already paid my 'very nice' advance off and learnt from my most recent April statement that I earned five figures in royalties)
8.They don’t faff about with pointless publicity
Promotion that actually works
On that last point…
I learnt the hard way that cover reveals, blog tours, hours of social media and more don’t really make a difference to the bottom line: sales. In the past, I’ve spent far too much time writing guest blog posts and getting het up about cover reveals. Sure, it doesn’t harm. You get a nice buzz off these things, other authors see your name, you accumulate content you can use for future posts. But is the time spent on it all worth the sales you get as a result?
Sorry but I don't think so.
Often with these things, you’re talking into a bubble of the same people, not your readers. Unless you get a piece in a national magazine or newspaper, or a really high traffic website, I don’t think blog tours and cover reveals sell books. Publishers seem to be cluing up on this too with less and less of these promotions around nowadays.
So now, rather than focusing my time and energy on launch publicity, I concentrate on building a long-term rapport with my readers. I guess in marketing terms, this is about creating ‘brand loyalty’. How do I do this? I run a Facebook group with two other authors and post regular engaging content on my Facebook author page. I’ve found my publicity focus – Facebook – and I stick to it.
The main thrust of my launch publicity comes from my publisher. In Amazon's case, it's using all the tools at its disposal to bring my latest novel to the attention of its vast customer base. Those tools are promotions like First Reads, Kindle Daily Deals and more.
These are things that make a real difference which you can see in actual book sales (literally... when I check in on my live data, I can see what a difference it makes when I'm on promotion and not).
Some might argue why the hell I’d want to ‘devalue’ my work by giving it away for free (First Reads) or at a reduced price (Kindle Daily and Monthly deals)?
My answer? Exposure. Huge exposure.
Let's take the First Reads programme as an example. This programme gives Prime Readers the chance to download Kindle books for free in the month before they're due out, or get the paperback at a reduced price. New novels by A-Pub authors can be put forward for this (at this stage, this isn't open to other publishers). If an author is lucky enough to be chosen, it means their ebook will be free to Prime Readers for a whole month. All readers signed up to the programme receive an email alerting them to the new deals that month. There are no figures about how many subscribe to the programme but it must be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe more, judging by the downloads I got for Wall of Silence that month.
Maybe some authors reading this feel it might devalue their work, giving their books away for free. But the truth is, as someone who's been on the programme, it has exposed me to a whole host of readers who may never have heard of me before. These readers downloaded my book, most left great reviews, many sought me out on social media and should now be hooked enough (I hope) to pay for my next novel which they will quickly learn about as they now follow my social media accounts and have signed up to my enewsletter.
It also gave me more exposure on Amazon. First Read books can appear on the main rankings so usually shoot up the charts as Wall of Silence did, hitting the overall number one spot in the UK and number 2 in the US, meaning when Wall of Silence officially published on 1 April, it remained in the top 10 for a while (you can see how consistent sales have been from the graph at the end of this article) and garnered lots of paid downloads as you can see from this 50k milestone I'm celebrating today.
It will be interesting to see what happens with my next novel, Circle of Doubt, which is due out in Jan 2021. Will these healthy sales continue? Or will this be a one hit wonder? I’m hoping the new exposure will create a sense of momentum for future books as well. Only time will tell.
But what I do know is that I’m going to make the most of this 50k milestone in a career that has been a rollercoaster of emotions so far. After all, when the good times come, as we've all learnt the hard way lately, it's important to revel in them, right?
Last week, I wrote about the worries published authors face when it comes to the impact of lockdown on sales of their books.
Another big concern for us is how this might affect book contracts, including advances.
We authors know it’s never a certainty we’ll get a new contract… and that’s in the best of times! Now we’re in the midst of one of the worst of times, the worry that hangs over our heads is compounded.
So let's address specific concerns and see what agents and editors are saying about it all:
Will editors be more cautious when offering new contracts?
All the editors I’ve spoken to have told me they absolutely want to continue seeing new book submissions from their current authors and new ones too.
As literary agent Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson pointed out: “No publishers will want to be left with publishing gaps and empty lists when things return to ‘normal’ (or the new normal).”
Editors I spoke to confirmed it's business as usual too. Sammia Hamer, my editor at Amazon Publishing imprint Lake Union, told me: "We’re still offering deals on new books and continuing to receive new submissions."
Isobel Akenhead, Associate Publisher at Bookouture said the same: 'We’re continuing to publish as normal, as well as to enthusiastically read (and indeed acquire!) submissions both via our direct submissions portal and from literary agents."
But this is an ever-changing situation. Each day seems to present a new statistic, a new challenge. While editors seem enthusiastic now, adjusting to a new world and a new economy will mean decisions made now might not be made in the coming months.
So my advice: if you're on the verge of pitching a new idea, do it as soon as possible. If you have an idea you were thinking about pitching in a few weeks, bring that forward. Do it now. Things could be very different in a few weeks.
How will this affect international deals?
While this is a global epidemic, countries are at different stages of their fight against coronavirus and this is being reflected in offers from overseas.
Rights Director at Hardman & Swainson, Thérèse Coen, confirmed this: ‘As Europe slows down, it seems that the Asian markets are slowly waking up again. We’ve had more contact with and requests for material from our co-agents there, so hopefully they will be catching up on the titles they’ve missed in the last couple of months, meaning things should balance out a little. Several publishers in Spain and Italy have paused publications for a few months, which will cause publication schedules to shift back and/or be fuller for a while, so inevitably publishers will be acquiring a little less or just acquiring for later schedules. So whereas they would now be buying for 2021, they will be buying for 2022 instead.’
Are editors still working to the same schedules and are acquisition meetings still taking place?
At the moment, it seems that publishing staff are doing all they can to keep working at the same rate. But many editors will face their own personal challenges, whether that be the presence of children and other families members at home or just the general stresses of living through these tough times. But the editors I spoke to are keen to let me know they're working hard to keep up.
Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins confirmed: "Our acquisitions meetings are held over video conference, and I’m planning to make an offer for a brilliant new novel later this week as it stands." In fact, Phoebe did make that offer, as she shared in a recent tweet:.
Isobel Akenhead agreed but was keen to point out that it goes both ways: authors might not be able to meet demands: "At this stage, we haven’t made many schedule changes, but we are also being mindful and keeping in very regular contact with our authors, to make sure they know we can be wholly flexible, and to ensure we aren’t putting them under any additional pressure at this incredibly challenging time. The publishing industry is fuelled by passion and creativity, and we believe the way to keep those fires burning is to support our authors as best we can."
So this could even mean your book release being changed as other authors struggle to reach deadlines.
Will advances be affected?
This is an area that's a real unknown and I get the impression publishers will be taking a 'wait and see' approach.
As Phoebe Morgan at HarperCollin told me: "We are progressing in exactly the same way, but we are of course having to be mindful of the retail market and the upheaval the industry is facing. For some imprints this will inevitably mean tightening their belts when it comes to advances, and in a sense every book we buy now is a leap of faith as the retailer situation is changing day by day. We very much hope that when all this is over, there will still be bookshops and supermarkets that are able to stock books but obviously there are lots of unknowns around that at this particular point in time."
I personally think authors may well see a drop in advances offered, whether this be because, as Phoebe pointed out, publishers need to tighten their belts or because (let's be honest) this crisis provides a convenient excuse to offer lower advances than usual.
This is where agents can be handy. They will be able to sense if it's just an excuse and push back, citing the fact that books bought now generally won’t be publishing for a year or so and who knows what the situation will be like then?
But brace yourself for the possibility. Just like in a 'normal' job, as we enter an inevitable recession, this will impact on how much we get paid. Get your finances in order. Now is the time to pull in the belt. Unsubscribe to tools you're not even using. Cut down on those Tassimo pods. Write harder. Write faster.
Have a look at what help you can get, from the Government's help for the self-employed to the Society of Authors who are offering emergency funding.
This isn't to scare you. This is the advice I'd give anyone in any industry in these circumstances.
Either way, we're all in this boat together. Just a case of holding on and getting support from one another as we navigate these rocky seas.
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