How does an unknown author become a Kindle bestseller?
We asked novelist Elisa Lorello to share some of her insight in how her first novel,
Faking It, peaked to number 6 on the Kindle Bestseller list during the last week of January with her second book, Ordinary World, positioning well around number 40.
By Elisa Lorello
I wish I could give you a formula for my recent success as an Amazon Kindle bestseller. I've been going back, trying to re-trace my steps, and the best I can say is that all the pieces fell into place at the right time. I can, however, give you the pieces. They're the four Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.
I had written my novel, Faking It, from 2004 to 2006. I spent much of 2007 querying literary agents, and while each query resulted in rejection, some agents requested the manuscript and gave me feedback that prompted me to revise the novel further. In late 2008, I decided to independently publish through Lulu.com. Despite the rejection from agents, I believed in my novel, believed in its quality and appeal, and believed a readership existed, waiting for it. Approximately six months later, in June 2009, I published it on the Amazon Kindle.
But I also have to talk about the Kindle itself as a product. My sales numbers began to skyrocket Christmas week, as I had predicted they would, and kept going up. With the Kindle being Amazon's best-selling product of all time, I knew that excited new Kindle owners (my sister being one of them) were going to want to use them, and they were going to want to buy as many books as they could. Which leads me to the second P…
Pricing, especially for e-books, has been under some scrutiny. Most Kindle users refuse to pay anything over $9.99 for an e-book. And although Amazon lost the recent pricing battle with Macmillan, read the discussion forums to get a sense of what Kindle owners want. Reading those Kindle discussion threads significantly played a role in my decision to price Faking It at 99 cents. (I had originally priced it at $1.99, with Amazon discounting it to $1.19 before they stopped discounting Kindle books.) Many indie (independently published) authors price their books under two bucks in order to entice readers who otherwise wouldn't give an unknown author a chance.
But doesn't that devalue my work and deprive me of royalties? Well, yes and no. Of course I would love to charge at least five dollars for my e-book. My book is worth that, and more. But the question is more about priority. Do you want royalties, or do you want a readership? And can you get one without the other? I wanted a readership. Thus, I lowered my price to 99 cents in September. With each month, sales numbers rose. And, as previously mentioned, by Christmas week my sales really skyrocketed.
Because I had independently published Faking It through Lulu.com prior to publishing on Kindle, I had a head start on getting out the word. I made bookstore appearances, gave a local Raleigh, NC television show interview, and jumped on the online social networking bandwagon, taking advantage of Facebook and Twitter. In conjunction to publishing on Kindle, I launched a 30-day blog tour. I also found the aforementioned discussion forums on Kindle (and learned when it was and was not appropriate to give my novel a plug).
Pretty soon, the word of mouth took on a life of its own, and I didn't have to work so hard. By late fall, reader reviews came in, and the majority were four and five stars. (By this time I had also released Ordinary World, the sequel to Faking It; in fact, I launched it on Kindle before paperback!)
I had also become a regular participant on a Facebook discussion forum for Aaron Sorkin fans (the page was created by Sorkin when he started writing The Social Network, but was deleted shortly after filming wrapped). I rarely, if ever, talked about Faking It (except to let Mr. Sorkin know that I had mentioned him in my acknowledgements as one of my favorite writers). But as the other regulars got to know me, they purchased my novel and kindly mentioned it on the forum, offering praise and promotion of their own.
Part of promoting yourself means knowing when not to give your book a plug, but rather just relax and have fun and take pleasure in the interests of others. I've stopped following authors who tweet the same message about their book (and nothing else) day after day, or only use their Facebook page to talk about their good reviews. I have more fun tweeting about things that have nothing to do with my novel, and I find that when I do get around to plugging Faking It or Ordinary World, the results are much more effective. More importantly, I support other authors - especially indie authors - as much as I can, either by hosting them on my blog, re-tweeting their messages, or recommending their book on Facebook or the Kindle forums.
This is probably where timing came in. I was able to ride the wave of social networking, and the readers did the rest. Likewise, as mentioned, with the Kindle being the number one Christmas gift, I now had access to the very readership I sought. Every time I appeared on a blog or posted a message on a discussion board, my exposure increased. Twitter followers re-tweeted my messages, and Faking It appeared on Kindle book review blogs recommended as a good book at a good price. E-book distribution has really opened up thanks to sites like Scribd and Smashwords, not to mention Kindle and Barnes & Noble allowing free e-reader software downloads, and Kindle now being accessible on Black Berry, iPhone, iPod Touch, etc.
For every recommendation and positive review, my books rose in the ranks. From there it became a spiral reaction: The higher the ranking, the more people downloaded the book. The more they downloaded the book, the higher the ranking rose. To my utter shock and delight, Faking It peaked at number 6 on the Kindle Bestseller list during the last week of January with Ordinary World positioning well around number 40. (At the time of this writing, Faking It is number 50, and Ordinary World
is number 176. Both are in the Top 100 in Genre Fiction and the Top 20 in Contemporary Romance.) I had gone from getting 50 downloads in one month back in September 2009, to 50 downloads a day in late December, to 50 downloads an hour (it peaked at 150 an hour at one point!).
There's an X-factor to all of this. No one knows how or when all these things align - believe me, I wish I did. I've tried to pinpoint the exact moment these four Ps converged, and who or what made the difference, but I really don't know why it skyrocketed as quickly as it did at the time it did. I also have no idea how long this success will last.
My numbers have dipped quite a bit in the last two weeks (this could be because people are watching the Olympics rather than reading books, so I'm curious to see if the numbers change in the coming weeks). However, some doors are opened now that weren't previously, and it'll be interesting to see what happens in the coming months. I also plan to start experimenting with pricing, especially as Amazon's author royalty rates are scheduled to increase dramatically in June.
If there's any advice I can give you, it's to start with your product - that is, make your book the best it can be. A readership is waiting to embrace indie authors, but they are holding those authors to high standards. They want to read books that are challenging, entertaining, and, most of all, well-written and well-edited. Pricing your book cheaply doesn't give you permission to publish a cheap book. Above all, work on your craft.
Also, be persistent. My success didn't happen overnight, even though it sometimes feels like it did. I spend a lot of time following up on promotion, reading blogs and discussion forums, responding to readers, etc. It's just as much work as writing the book itself. Some days it doesn't pay off. Other days it pays off in ways I'd never dreamed. Get the word "can't" out of your language. If you believe something can't be done, if you believe you are limited, then your biggest limitation is you.
Faking It and Ordinary World are currently available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords for 99 cents, and at Lulu.com in paperback (Faking It is also available in paperback on BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com in paperback). You can follow Elisa Lorello on Twitter @elisalorello, Faking It Fans on Facebook, or "I'll Have What She's Having": The Official Blog of Elisa Lorello.