By Sharon Goldinger
Who doesn’t want to be a bestselling author? And if you can hit the New York Times or USA Today bestseller list, wouldn’t that be a dream come true?
Most of us would say absolutely. But if you’re not a household name, what do you have to do to achieve that enviable status? How much time does it take? Can anyone do it? Are there costs involved? Can someone do it alone, or does it take a facilitator like Rebecca Hamilton?
Bestselling novelist Andrea Ring became a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author this year. The author of more than twenty novels, Andrea is a busy wife, mother of four, tennis coach, and dedicated writer who has a great story to tell about her journey to become a bestselling author.
Sharon: Congratulations on becoming a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. I’m sure it was not an easy process. Let’s start at the beginning—when did you start your writing career?
Andrea: Thank you, Sharon.
I’ve always written, but I started getting serious about writing at the busiest time in my life. My husband had just been laid off and was starting his own business, we had four kids ages 13 to 4, and we had just taken my grandfather in. Grandpa had suffered a series of strokes and had dementia. He didn’t know who I was. I spent the days caring for him, helping with the new business, and parenting, and at the end of the day, I was physically exhausted.
I needed an outlet, and I needed to do something for myself, so as soon as Grandpa and the kids were in bed, I started writing.
To deal with the growing isolation I felt, I sought out a local writing group for support. I found the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC), and they fit me perfectly—no formal experience necessary, no fees, lots of encouragement. I was inspired to publish after my first meeting.
Sharon: When you started your bestselling campaign quest, how many books had you written, and what genres were they in?
Andrea: I’d written 20 books and published 15 in multiple genres. Two were young adult (YA) contemporary romance, four contemporary romance, five science fiction, three fantasy, and one erotica (it was a fun experiment!).
Sharon: How much of an author platform did you have? What did you do to build your author platform?
Andrea: At the beginning, I had very little, to be honest, in terms of an online platform. Social media and talking about myself don’t come naturally to me. So while I had all the necessary accounts, a budding email list, and a website, I wasn’t doing enough with them, and I knew I needed to step it up.
“At the beginning, I had very little, to be honest, in terms of an online platform. Social media and talking about myself don’t come naturally to me. So while I had all the necessary accounts, a budding email list, and a website, I wasn’t doing enough with them, and I knew I needed to step it up.”
Going for a bestsellers list was part of that process. I know it might seem backward, but I did this to try to gain readers.
I hired an assistant to help me with certain tasks, like posting to Instagram and Facebook, and to take a load off me so I could focus on marketing for the campaign.
We did some testing to figure out what kinds of posts got the most interaction on each platform. My Instagram following is mostly my romance readers, who are interested in my personal life, so we focused on reader memes and pictures of me and my family. We’d brainstorm weekly about upcoming posts and take any necessary photos. We post five days a week to Instagram and also take about 30 minutes a day to interact with others and Like their posts.
We also sent out swag bombs (boxes filled with goodies and books) to my readers and encouraged them to post pics on Instagram. We identified key influencers on Instagram and sent them books and goodies, too.
My Facebook presence was trickier. Many readers were already following my personal profile, but I wanted them to follow my author page. This proved to be a losing battle. My readers don’t want to follow a page—they want to follow a person.
We posted three times a week on my author page, but my personal posts always get much more engagement. Part of that, I think, is that my author page doesn’t have a lot of reach, and few people see the posts. Facebook really wants you to pay for a boosted post to reach a decent amount of your followers.
One of our required tasks for the box set I participated in was to join Facebook groups and regularly post about the box set sale using graphics our authors had created. I joined over 200 groups—reader groups, science fiction and fantasy (SFF) groups, author groups. We posted weekly to about 20 groups at a time, carefully following the rules of each group. (You can get your account banned if you don’t pay attention to the rules!)
We also posted two or three times a week to Twitter (occasional posts about the box set or my books, mostly personal comments) but saw less reader engagement there.
I started interacting regularly on social media, but only where I thought I could be authentic. I replied to every single comment I got (which I’ve always done, but I paid better attention). Where I might have only Liked a post in the past, I made a comment, shared posts I thought my readers might like, and supported my fellow authors’ posts.
“I started interacting regularly on social media, but only where I thought I could be authentic. I replied to every single comment I got … I made a comment, shared posts I thought my readers might like, and supported my fellow authors’ posts.”
I stopped censoring myself on my blog and wrote about my honest opinions. We were in the thick of election season, and this proved tricky, but controversial posts get much more attention. I also spend a lot of time on Quora, a question-and-answer site, where I feel I can actually help people.
And I made use of my real-life relationships for the first time. All the parents I know (with four kids, I spend a lot of time at school), my connections in the tennis world (I coached high school tennis), my book club, writing group, friends—many of them didn’t know I was a writer. But everyone knows now!
I did have fans going into this—a small group but mighty! They were incredibly supportive throughout the process.
Sharon: Could you describe the process and steps you took to attain the special distinction of “bestselling author”?
Andrea: Rebecca Hamilton is a New York Times bestselling author, and she organizes multiauthor box sets. She’s made the bestsellers lists multiple times, both with her own titles and with box sets. When she put a call out for authors to join an upcoming SFF set, I jumped in. Her knowledge and experience made this possible, and the dedicated group of authors we worked with made it happen.
The whole concept is that a group of authors working together, pooling resources, and sharing readers can boost each other. It’s a powerful idea, and I feel blessed that our group embraced the concept and gave everything they had to the effort.
Rebecca had contracts ready for each of us (there were 22 authors originally) to sign. We agreed to give her the rights to publish our stories for three months and a week. We were contributing a full-length book in the SFF genre to be published in ebook format only. The buy-in was $500, and it was made clear that if advertising (mostly BookBub ads) funds ran out, we could contribute more individually, which would be paid back off the top. All royalties would be disbursed evenly (after the buy-ins and extra ad funds were paid back) among the authors. The box set would be wide, meaning sold on all major platforms, and sold for $0.99 for the three-month pre-order period and for the first week it went live. After that, the set would be taken off all sites except for Amazon, the price would increase to $2.99, the set would be enrolled in KDP Select, and it would be available in Kindle Unlimited to take advantage of page reads.
We picked a name for the box set (majority ruled): Dark Humanity. Rebecca planned our deadlines and gave us a task list from the beginning. Authors signed up for tasks and carried them out. Tasks included posting on Facebook and Twitter, contacting other authors for newsletter swaps (where you and another author agree to share news about your books in each other’s newsletters, effectively sharing your readers), creating Thunderclaps and HeadTalkers (which are campaigns that allow people to support your social media posts—people sign up, and on a set day, these sites send out the same post to everyone’s social media accounts at the same time), writing blog posts, creating marketing graphics, and scheduling advertising.
We were also expected to send out newsletters advertising the box set to our own email lists at certain times. We went with a blitz approach—literally hitting up as many readers as possible at one time to reach the best rank possible on Amazon and to hopefully stay there (visibility begets visibility). It worked.
We hit the USA Today Best-Selling Books list on February 2, 2017, at #8. We hit the New York Times (NYT) Combined Print & E-Book Best Sellers list for February 12, 2017, at #5.
To make USA Today or NYT, you need maximum sales in a one-week period, and NYT requires at least three different platforms to report over 500 sales each. These platforms include Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. So we had to focus on readers at other venues besides Amazon, too.
“To make USA Today or NYT, you need maximum sales in a one-week period, and NYT requires at least three different platforms to report over 500 sales each. These platforms include Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.”
Sharon: Is the campaign still going on? If so, how long will it continue? If the campaign is over, what are your plans and goals now?
Andrea: The set was released on January 24, and we focused most of our efforts on making sales in the pre-order period so that we could make a list. But the set is still available, and now we’re trying to make some money on it. We were scheduled to take it down May 2, but Amazon offered to promote the set if we enrolled it in KDP Select for another 90 days. We are currently trying to figure out if this is a viable option for the authors involved.
I’ve published three more books in my contemporary romance serial since this started, and I have three more planned. I’m also about halfway done with three other books—a fantasy set in the Pacific Islands, a transrealism sci-fi about a man who has the ability to swap skills between two people, and a dystopian set in the United States 80 years in the future. I plan to stay in the SFF genre.
But the most surprising goal I have now is to pursue traditional publishing while continuing to self-publish. Hybrid authors seem to have the best of both worlds, and while I was always dubious about writing and marketing to someone else’s deadlines, I’ve found that I’m capable of that. I’ve come out of this much more open to all the publishing possibilities.
Sharon: What were your sales of your books before you started the campaign and what are they now? Specifically, how much of an increase in sales did you see for book 1, book 2, book 3, book 4, etc.?
Andrea: I put book 1 (Nervous System) of my five-book sci-fi series, The System Series, in the box set. Because of Amazon’s rules, that book could not be for sale on its own and also be published in a box set by a different publisher, so I had to take it down during the campaign.
Prior to January 24, I was selling a few books a week in my entire catalog, more if I advertised. As soon as the box set went on sale, sales of my other books took off. I’m now selling a couple hundred books a week.
Sell-through, meaning the percentage of readers who buy an earlier book in the series and then go on to buy the following book, has been great. I have no way of knowing how many people read my book within the box set, but I’m seeing 95 percent sell-through from book 2 to 3, 90 percent from book 3 to 4, and 95 percent from 4 to 5. My other books are selling daily, and for the ones in a series (fantasy and YA), I’m seeing 80 percent sell-through from book 1 to 2. Newsletter signups have increased twenty-fold.
Sharon: What surprises (good or bad) did you encounter along the way?
Andrea: The ingenuity and creativity of Rebecca and my fellow authors blew me away. As indie authors, we’ve had to cultivate multiple skills—graphic design, editing, marketing. This was such a talented, generous, hardworking bunch!
I was surprised at how we were held to task, which was a great thing and a necessary thing but tough. One person was removed from the set because she didn’t want to send a newsletter to her list on the chosen date, and another because the book she included in the set was found mistakenly for sale on another website. There are rules to follow or accounts could be banned, or the set could be taken down by Amazon and all our efforts ruined. You really have to be willing to go with the program.
“Prior to January 24, I was selling a few books a week in my entire catalog, more if I advertised. As soon as the box set went on sale, sales of my other books took off. I’m now selling a couple hundred books a week.”
I also became aware that there’s some stigma attached to these box-set efforts. Some organizers have failed to pay and have run off with the money earned, some use click-farms or circles of friends to buy each other’s books or gain reviews, and some people simply question the “legitimacy” of making a list with a $0.99 title and the platforms of 20 people.
Due diligence is certainly required if you’re going to join one of these efforts, and while I felt that I had done my homework, I was on guard and carefully considered every tactic we employed. I was actually surprised to find out there was no magic bullet to making a list—it was just a lot of hard work and knowing how to make the proper connections. It was about relationships.
As to the legitimacy, I worked my behind off. I put myself out there in a way I never thought possible. Making a list takes an amazing amount of effort and cooperation, and there’s nothing illegitimate about that.
Sharon: Can you identify any mistakes you made?
Andrea: I was unprepared for the amount of work and also the possible outcome. When my son got in a car accident, I spent four days away from my computer—not something you should do during this type of campaign.
And I had recently hired my assistant, and we didn’t realize that if she was logged into my social media accounts and I had notices, those notices disappeared and I didn’t see them. I missed a few things and put myself behind by relying on those notices. We all have a life, of course, and everyone experienced these bumps. With 20 people from different countries participating (different time zones!), you have to be flexible and understanding.
Sharon: Do you think this type of marketing would work for other genres?
Andrea: I think this type of marketing works for all genres. You can search for box sets on Amazon, and you’ll see them available for all kinds of themes and reader tastes.
But these sets excel in genres with voracious readers who have also become open to reading indie authors. Right now, that’s mostly romance, in all its flavors and subgenres, and science fiction and fantasy.
Also, it’s important to note that this technique is most effective when the authors have a large backlist, or at least a series of three or more books. If readers like the book in the box set, they will seek out more of the same. If you have nothing else to offer them, they will forget about you.
Sharon: In light of all the recent controversy regarding box-set organizers, how was your experience working with Rebecca Hamilton?
Andrea: I’m aware that some people have reported having bad experiences with box set organizers. That’s why I did my due diligence and made sure I knew what I was getting into. I’ve participated in only one box set and can’t vouch for Rebecca’s actions with any other set, but I personally had a good experience with her. I understand that making a list this way is not the same as making it on a single title, but I want to make clear that Rebecca personally took no money from the authors and that all the buy-in funds and extra funds contributed went to marketing (she provided screen shots throughout the process). An ungodly amount of work went into selling over 22,000 copies. We gifted about 680 copies throughout the pre-order period and release week (many of those were not claimed), and even gifting takes a lot of work because the recipients have to actually claim the book in a timely manner: you have to touch each person and get their platform-specific email.
Sharon: What would you do differently next time?
Andrea: I would assume that we will hit our goal and make a list. I would update all my book covers ahead of time to say “New York Times Bestselling Author.” I would have social media announcements, newsletters, and updated bios all ready to go.
I would also block out four months to do this. No vacations, no major interruptions. I would check my social media five times a day and assume that I’m not getting notices.
And finally, I would have written three new books in the same genre, all ready to be published right after the list announcements. You have to take advantage of the momentum.
Sharon: Would you do this type of campaign again?
Andrea: Absolutely! Even though this was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in connection with my writing, it was worth it. I would also be open to swapping newsletters with other authors in the future and to helping each other because that was the main takeaway from this experience: authors can help each other. If we cooperate, we can accomplish so much more than we can alone. It’s not a zero-sum game; readers can buy my book and love it, and they can buy your book and love it, too.
And I’ve learned more about marketing in the last six months than I did in my MBA program.
Sharon: What advice can you give to people wanting to tackle this kind of promotional/marketing campaign?
Andrea: Assume you will have success. Make sure all your ducks are in a row to take advantage of it.
Make sure everyone involved has the same goal, whether that’s making the most money, hitting a list, or building your platform. There are different strategies for each goal, and the more focused your efforts, the better the outcome.
Be prepared to work hard and to push yourself.
There are benefits to participating, whether you accomplish your ultimate goal or not. You’ll meet fellow writers, make new readers and fans, and gain awareness for your writing. You’ll learn new marketing strategies or more efficient ways to implement them. Relationships are the key to success in this business, and being in a box set is one of the most effective methods I’ve ever seen to build those relationships.
To learn more about Andrea and her books, visit www.andrearing.net.
Sharon Goldinger is the “Answer Lady” on this blog, and is also a Contributing Writer. You can find out more about her here.
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