- Learned how to write a book first. I had to put this one here, because I think it's the most important. I had over ten years' experience struggling through first drafts and revising and rewriting and working with critique partners, beta readers and editors. I knew how to put a story together, and that knowledge was half the battle (and the reason I wrote the series so fast). I'm not Shakespeare, and I've had my fair share of bad reviews, but I always try my hardest to put out my best work.
- Wrote in a series and published consistently, constantly re-evaluating my goals and brainstorming new ideas. I made a plan and readjusted it as I went along, and ultimately planned to play the long game.
- Paid for professional covers and editing. I made sure my first venture into indie publishing was one I could be proud of.
- Had realistic expectations. I didn't expect to sell a million copies. It probably helped that I'd had a different series published with a small press, so I knew what to expect from the first few months (and was pleasantly surprised with the results).
- Used 99c sales (with advertising), cross-promotion and newsletters, rather than spending money on other promotional services which haven't worked for me in the past.
- Ignored spam emails from marketing companies. Seriously.
- Quit Goodreads (as an author). I love the site as a reader, but I'm so much happier not reading reviews...
- Used trackable links (smarturls) to figure out which promotional methods actually lead to sales. (Spoiler: not much, aside from ads.)
What I did wrong
- Wrote cross-genre. You can have a truly amazing premise, but if it doesn't fit into a recognisable sub-category, readers will struggle to find it unless you're already established. Of course, there's a chance it might be a runaway hit regardless, but given my track record, I'll be sticking to clear sub-genres in future.
- Wrote novellas and short stories. Prequel novellas have worked very well for some authors, but for me, they've been my worst-selling titles to date. Because I charge less for them, it's impossible to break even on a novella unless you do your own cover art, which I really should have considered beforehand.
- As for short stories, they work as an incentive to get people to sign up to my newsletter... possibly. I've only had one person contact me to say they enjoyed the story, out of over a thousand subscribers, and based on my trackable links, nobody who downloaded the story went on to buy any of my books. I find short stories more time-consuming to write than novels, so I probably won't be doing this again.
- Published widely and only moved to KDP Select later on. I wanted my books to be widely available, but ultimately, most of my sales came through Amazon. Based on my time in KDP Select, I could have done much better if I'd opted in from the start, especially with Countdown Deals.
- Committed to a long series without breaking even. This is a tricky one. I love the Alliance series, but the fact is, if I wasn't still living with my parents and didn't have any disposable income to invest in publishing once my setup budget ran out, I couldn't have afforded to publish six books in a series that was never going to make back the initial costs. However much I love a story, I never want to be put in the position where I'm forced to let fans down. Publishing is a harsh business.
- Publish shorter series. I'm writing an urban fantasy trilogy which I plan to publish in 2016-17. If it does well, I have outlines for two follow-up trilogies set in the same world and ideas for other spinoffs, too. If it doesn't do well... I'll move onto something else.
- Pay more attention to the market. Enough said.
- I'll only be doing paperback versions of books if there's strong reader interest. (Partly because of extra costs for paperback covers, partly because of the time formatting takes. None of my books have sold more than ten paperback copies in a lifetime.)
- If a marketing strategy or promotion doesn't work, I won't try it again with the same series. (This means things like pre-orders, paid advertising, etc.)
- Looking at my current sales figures and the amount of time I have available, there's a strong chance I won't be putting out all three remaining books in the Alliance series next year. Naturally, each subsequent book in a series sells fewer copies than the previous volumes, and I'm already finishing one series next year (the Darkworld series). Production costs are high, and most promotional tactics aren't having the effect they might have done a couple of years ago. (Even sales and freebies.) The remaining books will be published, because it's only fair to the readers who want to finish the series, but unless the books dramatically take off, I'll be putting other series first.
I'm sharing this because I read a lot of posts from self-published authors who are doing really well, which is great -- except it can seem to the rest of us like we're doing something wrong, even after following tips that have worked for other authors. Publishing isn't easy, and neither is building a fanbase. It's possible that some of these methods might actually work for authors who have fans who'd happily buy their grocery list, but after two and a half years of working overtime on promotion and making entirely too many sacrifices, I'm rethinking my strategy.
There are a lot of reasons books don't sell, and I can't pretend to know all of them, but I do know that luck is a major factor in a book's success. A lot of advice says "write what you love", but it tends to come from people who wrote something they loved that happened to be commercial. That isn't the case for all of us. And though a lot of factors can affect a book's success, once you've hooked a large number of readers on one book, it's much easier to sell future books to that audience, especially in the same sub-genre. On the other hand -- and this is from direct experience -- if a book isn't selling, it's extremely difficult to revive sales on a consistent basis without pouring more money into advertising and digging an even deeper hole.
Right now, my focus is on hitting the tipping point where my books sell themselves -- not necessarily in huge volumes, but enough that I don't feel like I'm throwing money away when I publish more sequels. So I'm putting my more commercially viable ideas first (though I admit all my ideas are pretty weird, and it's impossible to judge beforehand which book might inexplicably take off). I do have some other experiments in the works, too, so 2016 is set to be an interesting year. We'll see how it goes!