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?