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August 5, 2014

Lessons from RWA14: Techniques for Sales Success

Looking down a funnel of dollar bills with text: The Keys to Sales Success

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?

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What do you think?

57 Comments on "Lessons from RWA14: Techniques for Sales Success"

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Jennifer Jensen

Hi, Jami. I think you’re spot on, and I appreciate the balanced look you give to the subject. I liked Hugh Howie’s post and it got me thinking, but I agree, there are different ways to hit the tipping point – I just hadn’t been able to clarify them. I especially like this point of yours:

“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.”

Which means I can write as many stand-alone novels about Ireland or horses or time-travel as I want, but as long as I market them as a connected group, I’ll benefit from the “series effect.” And that’s really good to hear!

BTW – I’ve just gotten into binge watching certain shows, but I don’t usually wait to find out if something’s going to be continued before I start in. If it looks good, I’m in. And I like being able to brag that I watched it from the beginning!

Karalee Greer

Hi Jami,
As writers the more we learn about publishing whether traditional or self-publishing the more likely we will be successful. If one way isn’t working, there are different paths one can take. Thanks for the information. Happy writing!

Leslie Bird Nuccio
Leslie Bird Nuccio

Great article Jami. I was at the Liliana, et al, workshop panel. I was the runner! That was my first self-publishing workshop and I learned so much. I have a 12 book series I’m working on, and while I can understand waiting until you have 5 books to upload, I’ll probably release the 1st three together. Perhaps write novellas in between as tie ins that I can offer for free.
It’s an interesting time to be a writer. What do you think about the Google+ platform? I don’t know anything about it. Any article suggestions? Thank you!

Anne R. Allen

I think Liliana’s technique is very smart. My publisher did sort of the same thing for me, only backwards. That is, I had three books in a series that were almost ready and he pressured me to get them polished and ready to launch asap after launching my first book with them, so I could release a book a month for four months. Then two more in the following year, along with a boxed set of the first three. The boxed set hit the bestseller list and stayed for almost 8 months. Now all the books in the series are steady sellers. So it’s been working, although it took its toll on my health 🙂

Carole Beckham
Carole Beckham

I’m so glad you wrote this article, Jami. I told a writing consultant friend several years ago that this is how I plan to approach my own fiction. One of the best things about this approach is you don’t have to worry about selling your work until late in the process, when you have established more confidence with your writing and ideas. It places the focus on writing, where it belongs, rather than stressing about sales.

Christina Hawthorne
An excellent post, Jami, that brings together some pointers I’ve seen hinted elsewhere and adds much more. New ideas are starting to surface when it comes to publishing because so much has changed. Long ago (as in 5-10 years) people thought in terms of shelf life. Your book went up (if you were lucky) and then it came down. That was pretty much it. Now, though, someone visits your site on Amazon or elsewhere and there’s your entire backlist. Too, a book can be a year or two old, but if you start marketing it now it might as well be new. The rules are changing and authors are innovating at a fantastic rate. I applaud RWA for being at the forefront. Series are my delight and that’s been the direction I was going since my first fantasy world ideas surfaced. My present thinking is to have two different story classifications, but the stories all take place in the same world. There are the shorter stories (Tales of Ontyre) and the novels (Ontyre Chronicles). Protagonists will change, but all the books will share the world (of course) and characters. If I write any short stories pertaining to Ontyre I’ll eventually gather them together and they’ll fall under the “Tales” category. My online story, which is completed and I’m editing now on its way to publication, is about 60,000 words and will be the first of the Tales of Ontyre. It’ll also be a free ebook. My novel, Where Light Devours,… Read more »
K.B. Owen

Jami, fab post! I read Hugh Howey’s description of Liliana’s technique and despaired of it ever, EVER applying to me. I am sloooowww. Some of it is because I’m researching historical stuff, and writing mysteries which require alot of plot outlining and adjustment (false suspects, red herrings, etc), but mostly I’m just a SLOW writer. I just laughed out loud when they were talking about writing and editing a book in two months. For me, you might as well say I should put my laptop on the moon and write there in order to be successful. Equally unattainable for me, though kudos to those writers who can do it!

Amanda
The interesting thing is, Liliana’s technique is pretty much what editor Adrien-Luc Sanders warns against in this post: http://kowloonbynight.com/2012/10/12/diluting-your-author-brand-or-getting-all-up-in-your-kool-aid/ I think Adrien-Luc has some valid points, particularly the one about readers only buying one book. For my own reading habits, I’ll buy a book if it’s free…but then it’ll sit on my Kindle for months before I get around to reading it, so I may never get around to buying the remaining books available. On the other hand, if I really enjoy a series, I like knowing I can go on to the next one right away – because cliffhangers, yo. Cliffhangers are Kindle-throwing inducing. I remember racing my way through the first four books of Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series and almost screaming in agony when I got to the end and book 5 wasn’t due out for another six months. Honestly, I think a lot of it is pure dumb luck. An author can invest their time and energy into putting out a quality book, from the story to the editing to the packaging, even the marketing campaign, but there are plenty of those books that never take off. I made a similar comment about Brenna Aubrey’s debut (At Any Price, which I thoroughly enjoyed) and I think she got offended :/ Brenna wrote a great story, took the time to have it professionally edited, it has a lovely cover…and she did almost no marketing for it. Yet she made 20k the first month of release. Luck. A… Read more »
Autumn Macarthur

Great points, but I think Brenna DID market, very cleverly. She got so much buzz about her decision to turn down a trad pub contract to go indie, that everyone wanted to read or at least look at the book. It wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t a good book, of course, but I do think there was a marketing strategy there in how the book was blogged up ahead of release.

Julie Glover

Very interesting stuff, Jami. I didn’t hear this at the conference (missed it!). But now I’m wondering if my plan to release short stories a month or two apart was such a great idea… Perhaps I can squish my timeline a bit.

Thanks for the information! I definitely agreed that you can’t judge a whole career by a book or two, so I was happy to hear that advice repeated from different people at RWA14.

Christa Wojo

Thanks for sharing this strategy, Jami!

Every author is itching to get there work out there and I understand how tempting it can be to publish books as they are written. That is the big pay-off writers workso hard for and sometimes you just really don’t want to look at the book anymore. You want to set it free!

When I completed my first novel in what would be a series of three, I couldn’t wait to self-publish it and see what happened. But I am also lucky enough to be a digital marketer for authors, and have watched what happens to other authors on their self-pub journeys.

I see many authors release the first book of a series and take months to a year or more to get the second one finished! Not because they didn’t pan to get it out sooner, but because life gets in the way. By then the readers have long forgotten the story and have probably forgotten the author as well.

That’s why I was planning something similar to this Lillian method. I didn’t even think of the other reasons you listed above. I’m not that Amazon savvy yet. I simply wanted to make sure that when my reader finished one book, the next would be there available for purchase. I think this strategy just makes sense.

Mary Anders
Mary Anders

Great post Jami! I think this strategy works particularly well for authors who write quickly and for novellas given the shorter amount of time it takes to churn them out (authors don’t have to be quite as patient). I can’t imagine waiting two years or more to publish the first in a series of full length novels. Furthermore, if you chasing a trend, it might be over and done with by the time you finalize that last book and are ready to publish. I think your analysis that there is more than one recipe for success is spot on.

Carradee
Accept that significant sales might not occur until later books in the series. This is actually me, right now. With my one series with titles being drafted on Wattpad, I actually started getting moderately popular once book 3 and especially 4 were being drafted. Volunteers are reading over book 3 now for release, and book 1—which hasn’t had an update in over a year—just now hit #190 on Wattpad’s “Fantasy” list. I’m cautiously optimistic that the Wattpad precedent bodes well for when I finish them and have them for sale. All that aside, I do have some projects that will likely follow more of Liliana’s method than not. An urban fantasy thriller story to-be-serialized that I just over the weekend realized might actually be the third in a trilogy. I have an in-progress sci-fi story that would probably be best held back until I have 5-ish written before I have the formal release for any of them (just from how it all interconnects). Also that story you’ve expressed interest in, before. I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 3 written in that series before the first one comes out. I’ll still be writing and releasing until SOMETHING sells solidly, even if it takes a decade. Because I’m stubborn like that. But I am praying that the series I’m drafting on Wattpad—and which I’m scheduling to, Lord willing, finish next year—will end up working fine. It gets fantastic comments and compliments, and the series will have at least 5 novels in… Read more »
Emerald
Emerald

I’d never heard of Liliana’s method, but this has been a very informative post. I can totally understand why this method works, but as others said, the question is for how long?

I’m currently writing my third book (the beginning of a series), and you’ve got me thinking about trying this method out. I haven’t finished it yet, but each book I write takes a little less time than the last, so I could have three books ready for release just before 2016. I’m wondering if it would be worth the wait?

You’ve given me something to think about, that’s for sure.

Patricia Sands

Thanks for this succinct analysis, Jami. It puts things into more of an acceptable perspective for me and is a good reminder that there are options as to how we approach publishing. The bottom line as I see it from this post is to keep writing, be patient, and love what we’re doing. Onward!

Michael Christopher Carter

Hi Jami,
I have thoroughly enjoyed your time at rwa!! This post excited me because it’s so easy to become despondent with low sales volume. I don’t write series but do write to a theme, paranormal thriller, generally set in Wales. I have found that simply having three books has seriously increased interest. I am taking the advice to make sure they all follow a similar cover design, to be my brand.
Thank you for this post and for giving me hope.

Michael Christopher Carter, Author

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
First, I need to speak to television, and I have mixed feelings on this “binge” ideology. I know many authors (such as my writer friend, Kelly Hashway, who like you, writes paranormal fiction, but also picture books and her middle grade series is debuting this year and I’m so psyched for that!) who like to wait and binge on series, and I do that with television and movies, too, but with books I really try to be in there from the start. Part of that might be because I used to come to things late (Didn’t touch the HP books until I was 16, when at that time the 3rd movie first came out, and the 6th book was soon to be published, and I’m proud that I discovered musician Esperanza Spalding LONG before she won her first Grammy Award, and rightly so, IMHO), but I also get where you’re coming from, Jami. That said, as I mentioned in a previous post you did regarding soap operas, don’t let the “powers that be” of ANY television network or movie studio have power over what you love. Especially since I’m an author myself now, I know how hard won early sales are, particularly for those of us who don’t have decades in the field yet, and the fact is we need some emergent readership at the start, not just for proof of sales for business reasons, but I don’t mean that in an egomaniac way. Even the most disciplined authors I… Read more »
Roni Loren

Great post, Jami! I didn’t get to make it to this workshop, so I appreciate the recap. As you know, my career so far has been in traditional publishing. And I can say that backlist is definitely key there, too. I’m five books into my series (over 2.5 years), but even with releases roughly every six months, I’ve also put out novellas and a serial in between to keep books out there. Readers want content. And as soon as they are finished one book, they want the next (well, if it’s good, lol.) You have to learn to write fast to keep up. I didn’t start making can-support-my-household money until the end of year two and that was definitely all about backlist. So yes, writers shouldn’t pin their hopes on one or two books making enough money to support them.

Also, I’m with you on the binge TV watching. They cancel shows so quickly that I’ve been burned too many times. Now I just DVR stuff to see if it will last before diving in.

Tricia
Tricia

Hi Jami,
A friend of mine recommended you to me. So I came to your site to get to know about you and your books. But when I looked for your books, it says you have 4 ready for release. So am I to take it that you have no books published?

If you have written 4 books and have won awards for them, then I seem to be missing something. How can you win awards on books that are not published? When your books are pulished does all 4 get published at once?

They do seem like my type of stories and can’t wait to read them! When are these books going to be publised? I am also subscribed to your newsletter.

Thanks for any calcification you can give me!
Tricia

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

FASCINATING!!!!!!
Thank you, thank you for this intriguing post, Jami! I was mesmerized by Liliana’s technique and wonder if I can somehow, even agented be as successful.
Have a great day,
Tamara

Alina K. Field

Thanks, Jami, for this post. I missed this workshop at nationals, but I’ve heard of this technique–though not the business of releasing four books in one day! Good for Liliana that it worked. There are so many options for authors now, it’s marvelous.

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[…] how to make the Amazon search engine work for you, Jami Gold examines Liliana Hart’s keys to self-publishing success, and Joanna Penn explores the best ways to sell directly to your readers through your […]

Julie Musil

I’d heard that traditional publishers are starting to think this way, but I’d never heard her five and one in the hole technique. That’s one of the things I love about indie publishing. You can try what you want…see what works…see what doesn’t. No one is breathing down your back while you patiently wait to build a backlist, or buzz, or whatever.

If we patiently put out a quality backlist, the numbers will work in our favor.

Now I’m off to read the posts you linked to. Thanks, Jami!

Mike

Something that interests me is the longevity of higher sales figures.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to make $20K in one month, but is it sustainable for five to ten, or more, years? In short, can a real, high-paying career be built on writing novels?

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[…] of a year ago, I’d completed three novels in my series and one short story. I could have gone the route of Liliana Hart and put them all up for sale at the same time. Ta-da! Instant backlist—like one of those other bullet […]

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