The Case Study series dives into marketing strategies and tactics I’ve tested over my years of indie publishing. I’ll break down what worked, what didn’t, and offer some ideas about how to use them effectively on your own books.
In this Case Study, let’s take a journey back to 2015, when I was testing two common marketing strategies for the first time: writing to market and rapid releasing.
I’ll outline the strategies, my thought process/approach at the time, and some takeaways that you can use to avoid these problems in your own marketing efforts.
THE STRATEGIES: AN OVERVIEW
We’ll start by defining some common terms, as much of the confusion about writing to market comes from authors misinterpreting what it means.
- Write to market: writing in a popular, evergreen genre/sub-genre. While there will be natural fluctuation in demand/popularity, these genres & sub-genres have been read for years and are likely to still be read long after we’re all long gone. Examples: cozy mysteries, contemporary romance, space opera.
- Write to trend: a very specific type of writing to market where one writes in a tightly focused sub-genre that’s currently hot and in-demand, but might only have a lifespan of a few months or a year. Note that sometimes “trends” become evergreen and evolve into well-established, evergreen markets. Many, however, spike up quickly, are saturated with releases as authors rush to fill the untapped demand, then decline in popularity. Examples: LitRPG, reverse harem.
- Rapid releasing: there are a couple popular variants on this.
- Variant A: Releasing a full-length novel (or more) a month. This has been proven to be very effective (particularly if you’re in Kindle Unlimited), provided you nail your market research. Rapid releases that miss the market won’t do much.
- Variant B: Releasing multiple novels in a series simultaneously on the same day, with one or more to be released 14 – 30 days later. This is colloquially known as the “Liliana Nirvana Technique,” after a popular 2014 blog post written by Hugh Howey. The strategy outlined in that post is to release five novels simultaneously, with a sixth coming one month later. The multi-release strategy will also work fine with 2 – 4 novels at once, which is easier to pull off since it requires stockpiling fewer books.
REASONS TO USE THESE STRATEGIES
Essentially all successful authors write to market: publishing books in popular genres with well-established conventions. Some do so without consciously trying, since their personal tastes are more mainstream or already align with a specific sub-genre’s. Authors with esoteric tastes or literary backgrounds often have to do significant market research to understand key tropes and expectations.
Authors pursuing a write to market strategy must understand the tropes and expectations of their sub-genre. Writing to market also involves getting a cover that conveys the book’s genre at a glance and penning a blurb that will entice avid readers of said genre to buy your book. Provided they nail the books and the packaging, an author’s backlist can produce good income for years after publication (provided they market it). The downside is that this tends to be a slower build, and often the competition is more entrenched (e.g. popular indies and established traditional authors).
Those using a write to trend strategy must be able to quickly analyze a sub-genre and write quickly (a book every two months minimum; preferably a book a month). Writing rapidly is a necessity because a trend author’s backlist is unlikely to make much money. This strategy requires hopping from trend-to-trend (and often pen name to pen name, if the trends are in wildly different genres with no overlap). The upshot? An author with good storytelling chops can jump in and start making excellent money almost out of the gate, since hot trends have voracious demand and a lack of books (trad or indie) to compete against for visibility.
Rapid releasing is used for two reasons: one, Amazon likes new releases and rewards them with more visibility. And even if you aren’t exclusive to Amazon, voracious readers also like rapid releases from their favorite authors. While it might take you a month or two to write a book, it takes a reader only five or ten hours to read it.
Two, is upside. Releasing multiple books in short succession – or, most aggressively, on the same day – can almost immediately launch your earnings into the stratosphere if you ignite Amazon’s algorithms. Publishing multiple books on the same day has a ridiculously high ceiling – well into the five figures if you hit things right – and has the ability to completely launch your author career overnight. There are no launch strategies that match the upside of releasing multiple books on the same day, although it should be noted that this strategy also has the lowest floor – if your multi-book launch flops, you’re usually out a lot of money and a lot of writing time. As the old adage goes, more risk, more reward.
THE STRATEGIES: MY (POOR) IMPLEMENTATION
This is how I applied the above strategies.
- WRITING TO MARKET: I wrote a series of six novels called the Astonishing Adventures of Kip Keene (later shortened to The Adventures of Kip Keene)—a throwback, pulpy blend of adventure, science fiction, and treasure hunting.
- RAPID RELEASING: I published two volumes on the same day (twice).
The schedule looked like this:
- Book 1: May 2015
- Books 2 & 3: November 29, 2015
- Book 4 & 1, 2, 3 Box Set: December 29, 2015
And how did this go? Ultimately, this project that started with grand commercial aspirations flopped mightily. I sold around four copies of Books 2/3/4 on launch.
Why did this go so spectacularly wrong?
Let’s break it down, starting with the most glaring problem: a lack of actual market research.
ERROR 1: NO MARKET RESEARCH
The main problem here is one of misinterpretation: I essentially took what I wanted to hear and do, and convinced myself that I was writing to market. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you know your target market, or that you’re writing a commercial book. But the only way to really know is to check Amazon’s charts. This is completely free, and takes about 15 minutes.
Market research is one of those things that’s very easy to do.
Alas, market research is also one of those things that’s very easy not to do. And I didn’t do it here.
Had I given even a cursory glance at Amazon’s sci-fi adventure bestseller list, I would have noticed something obvious: what I was about to write didn’t fit. The books on the list represent a wide-range of sci-fi. Indeed, the whole gamut of sub-genres is represented, from apocalyptic to space opera to philosophical.
Except for one: straight-up adventures.
Indeed, the adventure genre at large – once extremely popular – is now essentially dormant. Common explanations for its fall include ubiquitous, cheap air travel or the rise of films showing all manners of exotic locations in full, moving glory, thus making printed descriptions of previously far-off lands obsolete. Whatever the reason, the straight-up adventure novel—once a fixture on bookshelves—is no longer all that popular.
Ultimately, I nailed what I set out to do: write a throwback, 1930s-style pulp adventure series. I even read a couple old pulp novels. But I hit the wrong target. My key mistake was not performing current market research. What was popular seventy years ago—or even seven months ago—is not necessarily indicative of what is currently popular.
This lack of market research spilled over into the packaging, compounding my marketing woes.
Getting a professional cover is an almost universally repeated piece of advice. Ant it’s very good advice indeed, but it comes with an important caveat: a beautiful professional cover that hits the wrong the genre notes won’t help you sell a single book.
For the Kip Keene series, I wanted my covers to have a bestseller feel: large typography with sweeping landscapes. And, much like I did with the actual stories, I hit this mark.
But this didn’t help me sell books. Had I checked Amazon’s sci-fi adventure bestseller list prior to commissioning my covers, I would have noticed that my concepts didn’t match the genre’s conventions. They simply don’t signal sci-fi at all. Ultimately, I got a pro cover designer to create six well-designed, pro-looking covers that didn’t hit my target market (my mistake, not his; the artist followed my directions perfectly):
The final problem? The titles of the books are confusing, and don’t tell you anything about the genre or what to expect from the story (what’s an Emerald Elephant?). Further, the series name – the Adventures of Kip Keene – sounds like a YA series or a comic book. These books, however, had four letter words in them, which was jarring for readers.
TAKEAWAY: study Amazon’s sub-genre bestseller lists to check if your idea is commercially viable before writing the books. Make sure your covers and titles clearly communicate genre expectations. Clarity trumps cleverness. Titles, in particular, are an oft-overlooked, but critical element of effective marketing.
PROBLEM 2: RAPID RELEASING WHEN IT MADE NO SENSE
Let’s take a look at the launch schedule again:
- Book 1: May 2015
- Books 2 & 3: November 29, 2015
- Book 4 & 1, 2, 3 Box Set: December 29, 2015
See the problem?
Book 1 was released six months before.
This is problematic, because Amazon’s algorithms reward new releases. These books were ostensibly standalone, but many readers will still start with Book 1. By the time the other books were released, any of Amazon’s visibility boosts to Book 1 were long gone. Since you’ll typically focus your promotion on Book 1, this muted the impact of the launch.
Publishing multiple books on the same day is not recommended for later volumes if Book 1 has already been published. Book 1 must be one of the titles being simultaneously published. It does not help to release Books 2 & 3 on the same day. They must be accompanied by Book 1, otherwise it’s better to space out the releases.
Book 1 was also permafree, while the other books launched into Kindle Unlimited. I don’t recommended mixing KU with permafree in the same series. It works poorly.
Finally, I had little money to advertise. Three years on, it’s hard to sift through my records for exact figures, but my budget for launching three books and a box set was less than $200. Keep in mind that the covers were $500+ each. When you’re launching multiple books at the same time, you need to be aggressive with your marketing. The reason? You’re putting a lot of eggs in the same basket. You can maximize its chances of succeeding by giving it a good advertising push.
If you can’t support your simultaneous releases with a decent ad spend, then you should put off the release until you’ve saved some money. Otherwise you risk burning three or four books and a lot of work.
TAKEAWAY: if you’re releasing multiple books at the same time, make sure Book 1 is one of them. And budget enough money for advertising.
PROBLEM 3: CRAFT ISSUES
The core of most genre fiction is a likeable (or at least sympathetic) protagonist. Readers didn’t particularly like Kip Keene, or his tendency to be less than heroic (and make ill-fated decisions).
There were also problems with Book 1’s structure (both scene/sequel and the actual framework of the story itself) and opening, which takes too long to get going. These problems mean readers set the book down, which then kills sellthrough.
Finally, the mash-up of elements (adventure, sci-fi, treasure hunting) wasn’t as seamless as I would have liked. There’s something to be said about originality and inventiveness, and there were some cool (if not fully realized) ideas in this series that I’ve expanded upon for later novel in a completely different genre. In this series, however, the elements didn’t quite come together. The genres didn’t coalesce, and the tone shifted too much to be a consistent reading experience. Readers like being pleasantly surprised, but you need to give them solid structure and some convention to hold things together. These novels weren’t cohesive enough to provide a satisfying experience.
If you’re going to mash up sub-genres, it makes senses to make one the backbone, rather than trying to blend them in equal parts. This grounds the reader.
In short, I was still learning how to write novels (still am, naturally; this shit is hard), and these books weren’t great.
TAKEAWAY: make sure your main character is likable and the book is structurally sound. Read books in your sub-genre prior to writing your own series.
ARE THESE STRATEGIES EFFECTIVE?
As mentioned earlier, most successful authors write to market – whether consciously or not. Giving readers what they want is the foundation of a successful author career. It is very hard to buck established genre expectations that have been around for decades (if not hundreds of years). A skilled writer understands their sub-genre’s tropes and what their target audience wants, and delivers it in fresh, exciting ways – by subverting some tropes, highlighting others, and perhaps even skillfully bringing in elements from other genres/mediums to provide a completely new flavor to an otherwise well-worn narrative.
Rapidly releasing – either by releasing multiple novels at once, or doing so at a one-per-month clip – is also effective, but it’s much less universal.
If you cannot write quickly (e.g. a book a month) and stockpile your books for simultaneous release, you’re increasing your risk. A single release that flops is a setback, but a half year’s or a year’s worth of writing met by tepid response can be backbreaking (both mentally and financially). By saving up your titles for a single launch, you’re forgoing reader feedback and chances to course correct problems with your packaging and books along the way. One way to avoid this is to test your covers (via PPC) and employ beta readers (on Book 1) to iron out potential problem areas prior to launch.
The main problem with any rapid release strategy is ultimately adherence. Most authors simply can’t write fast enough to stockpile books without a huge gap in their publishing schedule. As their revenue charts go down, their patience wanes, and they decide to press publish. And writing a book a month proves unsustainable for many, as authors either succumb to burnout or boredom.
That is not to say rapidly releasing is impossible – just more difficult than most would anticipate. It is easy to estimate how many words you can write in an hour, then extrapolate that to how many books you could write in a year if you sat down and just did the work. Reality, however, is often different.
Rather than listen to anyone who says you must rapidly release to survive (or, conversely, that it can’t be done – or that quickly written books are destined to be crap) I would recommend testing your own production capabilities and assessing whether these are viable strategies for you. And note that while releasing a book a month or launching three titles in a month might not be possible now, that doesn’t put it out of the realm of future possibility. This, of course, might require building up your productivity skills (something I continue to work on).
Three years on, I’m still in the red on the Kip Keene series. Books five and six did ever so slightly better (released in 2016), but didn’t move the needle much. The series has since been unpublished, as these novels don’t really reflect my author brand, and retooling them, craft-wise, would be a time-consuming endeavor. Despite that, I don’t regret writing or publishing them, although naturally it would have been nice for the series to be successful (or, you know, at least make money).
Truth is, however, most writers go through various setbacks in order to A) write good novels and B) understand marketing well enough to sell books consistently. These skills are developed through practice. Some authors learn in months; others, like me, need to be presented with the same lesson a few times over the years before things really sink in.
In light of this, I’ll leave you with what I hope is a helpful way of reframing these setbacks. It’s easy to get down when you think of a book as a failure or marketing efforts that generated a negative ROI. It can be a massive weight off your shoulders to view your early endeavors through the lens of education or apprenticeship. There’s zero expectation for a student attending college to suddenly make thousands of dollars; they are there to learn, correct mistakes, and get better at their craft. While a few authors enjoy precocious success, it often takes significant time – and a few false starts – to produce good results.
Instead of viewing these as false starts or failures, then, you can see these efforts as practice. That strips away negative connotations which might block you from making progress. Maintaining this mindset is helpful even as your career grows, because errors and failures are inevitable no matter your current skill level. And you’ve gotta find a way to persevere when the chips don’t fall your way.
That’s it. Go sell some books.