This past weekend, author Hugh Howey posted about Liliana Hart’s self-publishing method, which she calls “5 down and 1 in the hole.” Liliana presented in several workshops at the RWA Annual Conference, and like Hugh, I was impressed by her insights.
It’s easy to look at her self-publishing success (over 2 million ebooks sold) and chalk it up to luck. However, I heard advice that complemented her technique throughout the conference, so I wanted to look at the big picture and share some of those thoughts.
What Makes Liliana’s Technique Different?
As Hugh mentioned in his post, Liliana Hart succeeded even though she didn’t have a traditional publishing history. That alone makes her unusual, but not unheard of. One of her workshops was with a panel of two other New York Times bestselling authors, each discussing how they found “Indie Success with No Publishing History.”
The workshop was enlightening, especially to see how they all succeeded despite their different methodologies. (In other words, there’s no “one right way” magic method.) To sum up Liliana’s technique, she held back several of her completed stories until she could release 5 (of a series) on the same day and have an additional story in that series ready for release within a month or so.
Why did her technique succeed? I think it worked for several reasons, which I’ll go into below, but Hugh’s takeaway of the main reason was that she essentially created an instant backlist, not to mention buzz for her work.
Why Hasn’t This Technique Been Widely Tried Before?
I’m sure Liliana isn’t the first author to try this technique. However, she’s the first one to actively teach her method to others—and have them succeed too.
Traditional publishers typically spread out releases because they believe one book’s sales might cannibalize another’s sales. While that assumption might still hold for expensive books like hardcovers (where readers might want to pace their spending), the experimentation of self-published authors has proven that cheaper ebooks are often impulse buys.
Readers typically buy a desired, appropriately-priced ebook book when presented with an opportunity. So the more books an author has out, the more likely a reader is to purchase multiple books. That’s Backlist 101.
What Can We Learn from Liliana’s Technique?
Months ago, I analyzed Beverley Kendall’s report on self-published earnings to see what worked for success. At my request, Beverley also provided the statistics for the 121 survey respondents who did everything “right”:
- Had been self-publishing for more than 1 year
- Wrote a series
- Offered one or more of their books for free
- Had 4 or more self-published books available
- Priced their work between $2.99-$7.99
- Reflected professional editing and book covers
Beverley’s stats revealed that 81.82% of those respondents earned over $10K. More intriguingly, 57.04% earned more than $50K.
These same factors are reflected in Liliana’s results. She writes series, offers the first book in each series for free, prices most of her novels at $4.99, and releases professional-looking work.
The only thing she did outside of those bullet points was release five books of the series at once. In other words, she knocked out the “4 or more self-published books available” bullet item in one fell swoop.
So Was Her Success Due to the Technique or to Doing Everything “Right”?
I think Liliana would have found success either way, although her method undoubtedly created more buzz. Whether that buzz will still exist for the 1000th author trying this method remains to be seen, but the important point is that either way, we have to be patient. It takes time to reach a tipping point.
This brings us to the “had been self-publishing for more than 1 year” bullet point. As that item is partially about allowing time to build our backlist, Liliana’s instant backlist shortened this time period (she had sales of 20K/month by month three) because she was patient at the front (pre-published) end rather than at the back (post-published) end. That shift of when she waited doesn’t change the fact that patience is required.
Author after author at the RWA Annual Conference mentioned that it takes around 5 books—usually in a series—to build sales. Once we have a backlist, our options broaden for how to increase visibility (rotating sales, etc.).
If we consider around five books a tipping point, we start to see how we can apply her technique to our writing situation. Some of us struggle to write fast or create series, while others of us might need money (small though it may be) right away to help finance the rest of the series.
There’s no wrong answer. We just need to recognize our strengths and weaknesses and adjust our expectations and goals accordingly:
- Can’t write fast? Build in more time to reach that tipping point.
- Don’t want to hold back completed books? Accept that significant sales might not occur until later books in the series.
- Don’t write series? There are many styles of book series, from cliffhangers to loosely related by settings or themes. The important aspect is to market the books as a series, with branded covers and/or series logo.
How Does Her Technique Compare to Traditional Publishing?
Some traditional publishers have experimented with faster release schedules, so I don’t want to focus on that aspect. Instead, I want to look at a common publisher attitude towards series.
We’ve probably all heard or known of book series that were canceled prematurely. Publishers look at the sales of book one, two, or three and proclaim that the readers “just aren’t there.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Every successful self-published author I’ve heard from on this topic says to not even think about analyzing sales for a series until at least three books are released. Waiting until book five or six is even better.
I’ve also heard the advice to first focus primarily on releasing books and not worry about marketing until we’ve reached that tipping point of books released. In fact, Liliana didn’t start serious promotion (paid advertising) until she had 10-12 books out.
In other words, for significant sales in a new series…
Backlist is more important than time or marketing,
so publishers that give up at book two or three or four
of a series are doing it all wrong.
Perhaps this knowledge could be integrated into publishing contracts, either with a clause for the publisher to commit to x number of books in the series or with a clause releasing rights to completed books immediately upon series cancellation. Or at the very least, authors can push for the right to self-publish novellas or short stories in the series so they can build up to that tipping point together.
Why Is Backlist So Important for Series?
Many readers have been burned by series that are abandoned early on (usually due to that “low sales” issue), so they prefer starting a series after it’s established. I know I do.
I’ve put off watching a new TV series until it’s been on long enough for me to hear of any cancellation rumors. Then I binge watch. (I can hear the screams of TV executives now, and I say get used to this idea of needing to support a full season before making renewal choices. I know I’m not the only one who does this.)
As a reader, I do the same thing with book series. When I start a new series, I like knowing I can dig in and binge read if I want. When a series has about 3-5 books released, that’s often where I pick up book one. By that point, I figure the publisher and/or author is serious about sticking with the series.
So as an author, I completely agree with the idea to be patient with a series. Be patient with sales numbers. Be patient in general. Whether we follow Liliana’s technique for a multi-book release day or not, we still need to recognize that it will take time and a backlist for our readership to build. *smile*
Had you heard of Liliana Hart’s technique? What do you think of it—would you hold completed books back? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis of why her method succeeded for her? Can you think of other ways traditionally published authors can apply this knowledge? Do you wait to start new series until several books (or TV episodes) are available?Pin It