Indie publishing, marketing and aftercare

Before I go any further...I'm NOT an expert in marketing. In fact, like most authors, I kind of hate marketing, but I've now spent five and a half years working with other authors to get their books 'out there' as well as publishing my own books, and I have a few observations I think are worth sharing.

Note: these are my observations and reflections, not facts. Mainly, I'm going to talk about aftercare for your book: what happens after it's released.

What works?
Isn't that the million-dollar question? Who knows? There are quite a few strategies that might work, but there's also a certain amount of serendipity involved. Hitting the market with the right release at the right time...having an eye-catching cover (good or bad) and a great blurb...catching the interest of a chatty readership who will spread the away the first book in a series, video trailers...paying a PR company...

It all works - sometimes. It might work once and never again, and once might actually be enough to gain traction. But it might not work at all.

The bottom line is, I don't know what will work for you. There are hundreds of blog posts (and courses, and experts who'll charge you money for their knowledge) out there with suggestions for authors on how to get their books selling. My suggestion: try anything. Try everything you can afford. Even if you only try it once and decide it's not worth the bother or you hate it so much you'd rather give up writing than do it again, if you want to sell books, you lose nothing by giving it a go.

What I can tell you is what doesn't work, and this is a repeating pattern I've seen in the way authors go about their work. However, I'll frame it as what you should do.

The marketing happens before and after release
It's not entirely our fault that we neglect the aftercare of our books. The ebook market has borrowed from the music industry, where everything is a build-up to release day and trying to get the single into a high chart position. And, like the music industry, if our book doesn't chart highly (on Amazon), we assume we've missed our chance.

We need to remember that's only our book's first chance. So, yes, do the pre-release blitz - cover reveals, excerpts, blog tours, giveaways, spamming social networks (meaningfully - add some variety to your posts), but remember it's only step one.

Be a market trader
Then, on release day, switch to the market trader model. You've got a product to sell, right there in your (virtual) hand, and irrespective of how many people caught your exhausting pre-release marketing, there are still millions of potential readers who know nothing about you or your book.

Interact online and offline
Social networks move very quickly, and algorithms work against us. If you're tech savvy, you can probably work around these to a certain extent. If you're rich, you can buy space and prominence. But you don't need money to plug your book. You do need some time, though, and perseverance.

Share excerpts. Interview characters on your blog or podcast. Don't have those? Set them up! Talk about your book until people flee when they see you coming. Go into bookshops, talk to your local paper, radio station - anything you do is better than doing what we authors usually do, which is dropping that book like a hot spud on release day and moving on to the next one.

Love your readers
Interact with readers - positively, professionally. Reply to emails from fans. Have a friendly online persona.

(But don't engage with those who leave reviews you don't like, or bad-mouth them in 'public'.)

One of the most successful ways to sell is by word of mouth. Fans are friends, and food.

In summary:
Giving your book good aftercare and a varied diet, in my experience, increases sales.

But what if...?
However, if your book still isn't selling, you've got a few choices ahead of you.

Keep plugging away
I can't say how long is a decent time to do this before it's 'flogging a dead horse', but it can be measured in months, minimum. While social networks move at lightning speed, the users of said networks don't, and there are also other factors involved in how people use them.

Know your readership and where to find them
I check Twitter perhaps four days out of seven, LinkedIn once a month, Instagram hardly ever and I've never even logged in to WhatsApp. I do visit Facebook and Goodreads frequently, though. Meanwhile, my daughter never visits Goodreads, Twitter or LinkedIn, but she's constantly on Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp. My mum uses Facebook and nothing else. My husband is neurologically wired to Facebook (or so it seems) and watches a lot of YouTube videos.

I'm not suggesting my family reflects the typical use of the various networks by different ages and genders, but there are differences, and these are worth considering while you're plugging away. Who is your target readership? Which networks do they use and when? It's worth doing a bit of research so you can more accurately target your marketing.

(Don't) Give up
There are some authors who do give up after book one (or even further down the line), and it's not a wrong decision if it's right for you. I don't write for money, so failing to sell will never lead me to giving up, but some authors do only write in the hope of making money out of it.

To be absolutely brutal about this, the publishing market is so saturated, the chance of making even a living out of writing is slim at best. I'm not saying it's impossible, but the odds are, you won't, and even if you do hit a 'bestseller' with one release, you're still playing the market for each subsequent release.

Start over with each new book
If your book does chart well on release day, great. But don't sit back and expect it to continue. You need to keep those sales coming in, and not just for this book.

As you write more and add to your catalogue, you'll become a juggler, trying to keep all of the balls in the air. Each new book requires the same attention - before and after release - but take care not to drop the book before it.

This is where back matter...matters. Make sure your readers can find your other work via links at the end of your book. Keep your list of publications current on your website/blog. It needs to be really easy for readers to find you and your books, because you are one of millions of stars in the sky. You need to be the brightest.

Move on
Work on your next book, satisfied you have, at the very least, a back catalogue of one darned good book, because you're going to do this all over again, and again.

Final thoughts...
I'm not a bestseller. I have been a bestseller, and I'm still selling books because of that one book that happened to catch the market at the right time. It can be disheartening, both looking at my own sales and seeing other authors question if it's worth continuing. That's a decision each of us has to weigh up for ourselves. Part of that process involves being honest about whether we really gave it our best shot.

About the author
Debbie McGowan is an award-winning author of contemporary fiction that celebrates life, love and relationships in all their diversity. Since the publication in 2004 of her debut novel, Champagne - based on a stage show co-written and co-produced with her husband - she has published a further forty-plus works (novels, short stories and novellas). She is the author of two ongoing series: Hiding Behind The Couch (a literary 'soap opera' centring on the lives of nine long-term friends) and Checking Him Out (LGBTQ romance). Debbie has been a finalist in both the Rainbow Awards and the Bisexual Book Awards, and in 2016, she won the Lambda Literary Award (Lammy) for her novel, When Skies Have Fallen: a British historical romance spanning twenty-three years, from the end of WWII to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Through her independent publishing company, Debbie gives voice to other authors whose work would be deemed unprofitable by mainstream publishing houses.