Lessons from Kern Carter, Indie Author who has sold a few thousand books.
by Kern Carter
I didn’t want to wait. That’s really all it came down to. When I finished my first novella, I wanted to put it out into the world. I wanted people to read it, to criticize it, to sit with it in their homes and understand the story I tried to tell.
What I didn’t realize was how much effort it would take to get people’s attention. The concept of building a readership was foreign to me. I didn’t understand what it took to get a single fan from outside of my network to buy a book. But I was committed to the process and that was key. I knew in my mind that nothing would stop me from pushing towards my goals. If you’re of the same mindset, then keep reading.
Expectation fuels your preparation
Being naive was a wonderful thing. Seriously. In my mind, there was nothing stopping me from selling tens of thousands of books. I remember my friend congratulating me when Thoughts of a Fractured Soul was finally out. I asked him why he’s congratulating me when I hadn’t yet sold a single copy.
Naive or not, my expectations lead to me being prepared. I had a goal and that goal was to sell a bunch of books. While I may not have been aware of the effort, I still created a strategy to reach this goal.
It starts long before your book is released
Unless you’re John Grisham, JK Rowling or Stephen King, you can’t just release a book and expect people to buy it. There needs to be a leadup. My experience as a freelance writer working with different marketing teams and advertising agencies taught me this.
With my first book, I thought about two things:
which theme in my story would be most appealing to leverage?
which group of readers would that theme most appeal to?
After some brainstorming, I figured that high schools would be the best target. My protagonist was a teenage parent, so there was a natural connection in age to the students. There were also opportunities to teach a lesson about decision making which teachers would appreciate.
Knowing my book would be out in April, I started compiling lists of high schools in and around my city (Toronto) months prior to the launch. I also spoke with some of my teacher friends who agreed to let me present my book at their school. They were my first advocates.
It’s important to point out that my pitch wasn’t, “let me read to your class.” It was more along the lines of, “let me use my novel as a way to teach your class a lesson.” You have to understand your audience and present something that will be as beneficial to them as it is to you.
This strategy turned out to be effective, and I sold the majority of my books through the school system. But it started with asking myself those two questions. Once you find those answers, you’ll also have a chance at a successful campaign.
Find ways to make readers aware
With my second novel, I took preparation to another level. A year before my book came out, I started the buildup. I went to two different art high schools and pitched a book cover competition. I ended up with nearly 50 students (48 was the exact number, I believe) who participated.
They sent me their images and we carried out the contest on Tumblr. For three days, these students did everything they could to get people to like their pictures. The online activity for those three days was constant. Not only was it great exposure for these students, but it also helped bring awareness to my novel, which wouldn’t be out for another year.
You may be thinking that my lead time was too far out. That it didn’t make sense to run this campaign without a clear release date that was fast approaching. My response is that it’s never a bad time to gain more fans. Plus once you understand how many times you have to engage with someone for them to take action, you wouldn’t blink at a twelve-month lead time (As an aside, if you do become published, your lead time will be similar). It was also important to start this far out because it gave me a chance to introduce myself to an audience without having to sell them something. This was an awareness campaign. All they had to do was engage.
Consider offline strategies
Sticking with the same book cover contest, I took things one step further. I decided to host an event to announce the winner. I bussed all the students who participated in the contest down to Artscape, which is an art space in downtown Toronto. Some students even brought their friends, which made things even more exciting. (Teachers were in the busses with their students, just in case you’re wondering).
I got one of my artist friends to speak to the students which the teachers also enjoyed (one teacher actually booked him to speak at her school). When I announced the top five, the kids cheered and laughed and high fived each other. The energy was electric and many of those students still follow me on social to this day.
Months later, I asked the teachers if they’d be OK with me doing an art show with the top 10 pieces. They agreed, and I took that opportunity to gather people again. At this point, we’re still months away from my book even being finished, but it was important to continue pushing the awareness. I had to make sure people knew it was coming.
By the time my book launch happened, I already had multiple touchpoints with different audiences. So when over 100 people showed up and I sold over 50 books that night, I wasn’t surprised.
Readers are more important than sales, at least at first
As a self-published author, you’re playing the long game. I figured out quickly that I wouldn’t get to a point with either of my books where I’d sell enough copies to make a living. Initially, that was frustrating, but then it actually became liberating. By the time I released my second novel, my focus was more on building readership than it was on selling books.
That lead to me doing a lot of giveaways. I did online campaigns both on my own and through Goodreads. With Goodreads, you get maximum exposure. Thousands of people added my book to their shelves. The benefit of running the campaign through my own website is that I was able to collect emails. They got a free book and I got to communicate with them directly.
That liberation also sparked some creative ideas. My second novel is called Beauty Scars, so I did an online campaign called, “Love your beauty scars.” I tapped into my network again and asked them to share stories of a time in their lives when they had to heal. In about half of the stories, I even did photoshoots with contributors. It cost me a bit of money, but it was more than worth it. Those stories got solid views and the engagement help promote my novel that much more.
You can’t stop
The toughest part about self-publishing is that you can never stop promoting your book. None of us are famous. People aren’t typing our names into search engines just yet. TMZ isn’t following us around and we aren’t getting put on front covers of popular magazines.
This is where I feel many indie authors struggle. Trying to constantly find inventive ways of promoting your book without directly saying to your audience, “buy my book” takes a lot of time and energy.
I’ve done billboard campaigns, sold my books in-store at bookstores, I even made door hangers and went door to door around my neighbourhood. You have to do so much just to make people aware that you’ve written this book. It’s overwhelming at times, but I’ll leave you with these suggestions:
Work with a team — Once your book is written and you’re ready to market, don’t go it alone. Find creative people you can bounce ideas off of or even generate ideas with. They don’t even have to be marketers. Just someone or a small group of people with creative minds.
Find partners — If you paid attention to this piece, you would have noticed that nearly everything I did to promote my books involved collaborating with partners. Whether it was a high school, art students, specific friends or the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, I purposely searched for partners I thought would enhance the awareness around my book while understanding I had something to offer them, as well.
Play the long game — If your goal is to make money selling your books, you’ll need to be patient. Maybe you’ll be that rare bird who’s able to write one book that sells hundreds of thousands of copies. For the large majority of other writers, building your author platform takes time. You’ll likely need to write multiple books. At times, you’ll need to put collecting readers ahead of selling books. The point is to develop a gameplan that functions long term. Similar to how entrepreneurs will set five-year plans, you should do the same.
Don’t get discouraged — When six months go by and you don’t see your book on any best sellers list, don’t feel bad. You’re creating a brand and that takes earning the trust of your audience. That’s why it’s so important to set your goals and expectations from the very beginning. Focus on your personal milestones. Check back every month to evaluate your progress. See which campaigns have been effective and which you can either do away with, continue or improve upon.
The last thing I’ll say is probably most important: Don’t lose your passion. You’re going to be disappointed many times throughout this journey. Don’t let those down moments suck the joy out of your writing. If you’re a writer, it’s because you have no choice. You’re called to tell stories through the written word. Don’t let the other aspects around storytelling break that connection.