page links

How I sold the first 10,000 copies of my self-published book

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

For the past few months, I've been nagging my agency for a running count of my sales for Obitchuary, eager to reach 10,000. It's kind of an arbitrary number, but I thought it marked a point where I could feel accomplished with the work I'd put into the book so far.

A few weeks ago, I made it. And less than a year after the release!

And more good news: On Oct. 25, I will be speaking at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading about the process of indie publishing, sharing some of the experiences I will outline below. I'm on at 1 p.m. at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, so be sure to come by.

Until then, I thought I would offer TEN TIPS ON SELLING YOUR BOOK TO 10,000 PEOPLE OR MOAR! We love ten tips lists, don't we?

Some background on my experience:

My agents at DGLM tried to find a traditional home for Obitchuary. Some houses came frustratingly close to deals, but editors said it wasn't a category of book that was selling. It wasn't warm and feely enough. It was too salty, too "chick lit" when "women's fiction" was the thing. One editor told us it reminded her of Janet Evanovich, which you would think would be excellent. Except, the editor said, Janet Evanovich had her category "sewn up." And I was just like.

I had a couple options. I could keep trying to find a publisher forever. I could stick the book in a drawer, which is not a poor or weak choice, for the record. I could publish completely on my own. Or, my agent said, I could give their digital publishing program a try. The agency helps its clients find editors and designers, formats and uploads the manuscript, advises on search words that gel on Teh Googles. And for the normal royalty, I'd still have representation for any options that come up later, which to me was the most appealing aspect.

I decided to give it a try. Obitchuary ended up as what folks in the biz are calling a "hybrid," since I have an agency but retain all the rights, and can do anything I want with it at any time.

I have found it to be a nice balance. But an agency is not a marketing firm, and selling copies to regular folks is ultimately up to me. I had to figure out through a lot of trial and error how to do it.

The 10,000 mark seemed like a good time to reflect on what has been working or not working. Maybe it'll help some other folks quell the night terrors. I don't have all the answers by any means, but here are things I think are important:

1. Listen to other people.

Everybody has a blog and everyone wants to talk. Read. Listen. Ask questions. One of the most helpful pieces I found came from my internet amiga Felicia Ricci, who wrote the memoir Unnaturally Green. Her blog about publishing her book was picked up by the Huffington Post. She offered lots of advice  -- picking a release date, using the word "we" to sound more official, even though it is probably just you in your fuzzy pajamas drinking Two Buck Chuck.

I also read and re-read the Wall Street Journal story on Darcie Chan, the author of the Mill River Recluse, which explained how she blew up. (I also purchased and read both books, because I am not a monster.)

2. Make sure your book is ridiculously good looking

Seriously, do not even think about releasing it until you're sure it is rad. I know. I get antsy, too. But invest in an editor other than your BFF after several rounds of Tequila Sunrise. DGLM found me a great one in New York who charged a reasonable rate and was fast.

Get a great cover design. I hired Jennifer DeCamp, who I had worked with at the Tampa Bay Times. We went back and forth for at least a month on different designs, scrapping a couple different attempts until we hit just right the right note. I think the cover is divine, and so did Indie Reader, who recognized it as a boss, chill, sweet cover. Indies have gotten a bad rap in years past is because people put out subpar work. Don't do that. It's gross.

3. Get some mad money together

All that stuff I just talked about? You're paying for it. And if you want to promote the thing and get attention (which I will talk about in a minute), you're going to have to pay more. MOST of your sales will be digital, but you'll want to order a stockpile of paperbacks from whatever platform you use to handsell at book clubs, festivals and places you visit IRL.

You can spend as much or as little as you like, and you'll probably notice a correlation. I don't think it's entirely different for our traditionally published friends. A successful mystery writer I know told me he wished he had saved his advance for marketing because his publishing house wasn't doing it for him. Unless you are George R.R. Martin and have a swaggy beard and a legion of fans, it's the way things work. I did a couple of freelance writing assignments and socked the profits away just for book purposes. Find a way to get some cake up.

4. Pick a release date and get super obnox with it

This advice came from Felicia up there in tip one. Here's the secret: If you're publishing yourself, you can release your book whenever you please. But as Bridget Jones introduced Mr. Fitzherbert at the launch of Kafka's Motorbike, picking an official date lends a sense of occasion. New releases come out on Tuesday, so that's what I picked. I went with Oct. 1 because it was nice and easy to remember. Then I posted about it, like, a bunch. On the first week I sold lots and lots, which helped propel the numbers up in the Amazon categories, which helped it get in front of more browsing eyes.

5. Get reviews

Terrifying! I know! But reviews are helpful. You're not likely to get a review in the New York Times, no matter how much you think you deserve it. They don't just magically come to you. So adjust expectations.

Before you publish, start meeting book bloggers. I had relationships with folks on the web who were happy to read my stuff and post reviews when the time came. You can also go the route of straight up cold-calling (e-mailing) and asking for reviews. This worked for me in a couple places. And finally, you can pay for reviews from some reputable services (Kirkus, IndieReader, Foreword), but know they are still going to be honest, not glowing just because you gave money. If you're paying, make sure to ration the reviews. Don't do them all at once. Stagger the reviews so you stagger your sales.

Once your book starts selling, those Amazon reviews WILL magically come to you. I still get them all the time, from actual readers who are not even distant cousins. The good ones outweigh the bad tenfold, and you just have to have thick skin about the rest.

6. Advertise, weirder the better

I paid some good change for ads in fancy book publications. I put one in the New York Review of Books! LOLOLOL. I don't know that it did anything at all. I learned you can spend hundreds in a publication like that, OR you can Google, "e-book promotions" and find links to DOZENS AND DOZENS of sites that will, for a nominal fee, promote and tweet your book to thousands of subscribers who are just looking for inexpensive things to download to e-readers. This has by far been the biggest driver of my sales.

Some of the sites are, well, better looking than others. Several times I cringed and crossed my fingers hoping for no identity theft. If they use PayPal, that's a good sign. Some good sites to check out are Book Basset, The Fussy Librarian, and Ereader News Today, which I have used twice to excellent results. Darcie Chan used this one, too, which is how I found out about it (see tip one).

7. Keep the price low

You worked on this book diligently, possibly for years. You know it is worth more than $.99, and I believe you. But try to keep the price low. I have kept my digital book at $.99 for the year, simply because it was selling so well at that price. This is not based on any real data, but I think people are more likely to take a gamble on a dollar than they are on $5, or even $3. You get way less money from Amazon when you price it at $.99, as royalties shoot up when you move to $2.99. But I try to see it as being paid in readers right now, and thinking long term. When the second book comes out, I will likely keep that price low and slightly raise the price of the first. Which leads me to...

8. Don't expect to make money

I mean, you will make some money. Someone is buying something you are selling. But by all means, don't quit your day job and head down to the Bugatti dealer. A career in writing is built over time. Also...

9. Don't be surprised when people ask how much you make

I read this somewhere else, but can't remember where. Another author was noticing how comfortable people were with asking her how much money her book brought in, as if you'd walk up to someone at work and just ask what their paycheck was. I don't mind that much -- I tend to think we talk way too little about what we're paid in this country -- but just be prepared. When people assume I have made $10,000, I just laugh and laugh and then tell the truth, which is that I have made enough to 1) replace the carpet in my dining room, 2) Buy a bed frame and mattress for my guest room, 3) Paint my office, and 4) Buy a Groupon Getaway to Europe. Not a ton of money by any stretch, but a nice supplement.

10. Find time to keep writing

This is probably the toughest, most important part of all. All that stuff I mentioned up there takes time, time away from your book and your writing process. Lately I have been struggling with that the most, trying to wrap up the sequel to Obitchuary by the end of the year while also mounting various personal hurdles and still finding time to watch Chopped (important). I've made a conscious decision to cut back on promotions now and focus on writing, because you can sell one book into the grave, but there's no long-term prospects without more butt-in-chair.

I am sure I have much more to learn and would love to hear from others about your own process. Leave comments here, or make sure to come see me at the Times Festival of Reading. We can laugh, cry and high five. And if you're so inclined, you can even buy the good, old-fashioned paperback. I still sell a couple of those.


  1. Great tips! Thanks for sharing. I'm especially interested because I wrote a blog entitled "50 Reasons Why My Debut Novel Sold 10,000 Copies," but it took 2 years longer than you. I hope to cut that time for my next book.

  2. Ms. Hayes,
    I spent yesterday with you; you might recall that I was the only one in the packed house that was not writing or trying to market a book. But it was a marvelous and interesting hour. Your brilliance and bubbleality sold me on Obituary. However, Amazon says I already own it, as of Oct 27 2013. I now remember that the blurb convinced me not to start it; as I was expecting the alternative story line you gave yesterday: bored Obit writer turns serial killer in order to attract more interesting clients. However, so many reviewers cannot be wrong, I took it from Cloud to my Kindle. best wishes on your new career. Bill

  3. Very interesting and quite timely, for a two-year-old blog post (hey, on the Internet, nobody knows you're evergreen).

    Also too, how did I not know until just now that you had this blog?

  4. Obviously, you can procure a specialist with anything associated with the self-publishing bargain; in any case, you need to pay extra expenses for it. should I self publish