In less than six months, Derrick Smythe’s 636-page, 182,000-word fantasy novel The Other Magic has accumulated 80 reviews, with an average 4.4 of 5 rating. He has sold more than 2500 copies, secured an audiobook publishing deal with an award-winning narrator and premier audio publisher, and has built his mailing list from 0 to more than 700 subscribers.
How did he do it?
In this interview, Derrick shares his journey from his initial dream of publishing, to an unprepared launch, to the eve of his audiobook release. He got his hands dirty in the details and just kept moving forward—all this while holding down a full-time job and caring for his young family.
Here’s how Derrick did it.
David: How did you prepare to self-publish?
Derrick: Once I made the determination that indie publishing was the route I wished to take, I began trying to learn as much as I could about the process. The first book I read on the subject was APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book. APE provided a solid foundation from which to build.
Once I knew my manuscript was close to completion, I began lining up the various stages of publication, which for me took around 18 months while I continued the cycle of beta-reader feedback and manuscript revision needed before copyediting and eventually proofing.
One of the first things I learned about indie publishing was that if you want your book to compete with those turned out by professional publishers, every aspect of your publication has to be done at a professional level; otherwise, you’re perpetuating the sub-quality stereotype that indie authors need to evade if they hope to see success. Therefore, when I started preparing each stage of publication, I made certain that every aspect of preparing the book was completed by someone who was an expert in that area.
I am an author, and while I do have other skills and the ability to learn more, I did not trust myself with something as vital as, for instance, interior book design or formatting. That’s how I met David at AuthorImprints, which proved to be one of the best moves I made along the way.
It would be more than a year and a half after our initial contact that I was finally ready to send him the final documents for formatting and upload to Amazon. I first needed to finish revising my manuscript, find a professional copy editor, find a professional cover artist, design an author website, create my own imprint, set up a social media page, hire a cartographer (every fantasy book needs a good map), and line up a proofreader.
All of these cost money and required special attention to ensure that I found the best person for each job while also being responsible with my finances. Cost was a large part of why it took me so long to complete this first launch. But this restriction gave me more time to learn along the way as opposed to rushing into publication totally blind. I still only know a fraction of what there is to know about this process, but compared with my former state of total ignorance, I felt like I was ready.
What was something you wish you had done better regarding the launch?
Preparing the launch itself. In all this preparation, I never built up a mailing list. I also had no short-story reader magnet to share in order to build one, and I had no idea how to convince bloggers or book reviewers to read a book written by an author whom they had never read or heard anything about.
I ended up finding a very helpful resource called The Indie View, a database of bloggers and book reviewers. Each reviewer listed has their own specifications, genres, and limited availability. Once I had a release date set, I rushed to send out queries to these bloggers in hopes that I might get some ARC reviews ahead of the release. I wish I had backed up this process about six to eight months. I ended up with about six weeks. I sent out over one hundred individualized queries to potential reviewers of my genre.
Of these, six agreed to review, and of those, four actually did so. I also selected four paid editorial review services, though by this time my budget had been significantly drained, so I could not opt for the big names with big price tags like Kirkus or Clarion. I chose these:
- Readers’ Favorite ($129)
- The Book Review Directory ($120)
- Midwest Book Review (Free or $50)
- Indies Today (Free)
I posted snippets of these in the editorial reviews section of my Amazon book description and the reviews section of my author website, and I shared links to these reviews on social media to create some early buzz.
As much as I had prepared for this launch, my resources were limited and my reach was short. I made no bestseller lists. One month after the release, I had eleven Amazon reviews, which I thought was great. However, I did not expect this to continue as it has, a slow but steady trickle, a little over ten per month since publication.
Derrick, considering your investment in this book, why did you decide to launch at 99 cents and join KDP Select?
I did a lot of hemming and hawing over the release price, but at the end of the day, David presented me with a philosophy that made a great deal of sense and I trusted his expertise over my own lack thereof. He said to me,
“Right now, your main goal should be to get this book into the hands of as many readers as possible, regardless of initial royalties.”
Without a following of any kind, and with a multi-book series planned, this first book would need to be more about establishing a fan base.
This is like the challenge of investing time and effort into sowing seeds, versus just going to the grocery store with all available cash. One needs to eat, but you should also be looking for long-term sustainability. The biggest challenge in the seed-planting analogy is actually sowing these seeds.
The goal is to get the book into as many hands as possible, but that is not as easy as it may sound. This is where the eBook and KDP Select become so vital. While there is some investment in creating the eBook files, once it’s made, the cost to sell or even give away the book is almost zero, so in this sense, it’s okay to give it away to anyone who is willing to read it.
I have also kept my eBook at 99 cents for most of the time since publishing. Some authors would argue that this degrades the book’s value and diminishes the perceived quality, and while I can agree with this in part, I think there is something to be said about having to earn the right to charge more.
As a debut indie author, I didn’t feel like I was in a position to charge the same as Stephen King or Brandon Sanderson. I needed to earn the respect of my readers. If readers enjoy the first book, they’ll buy the second book at full price, and the third, and the fourth.
Plus, I’ve made enough to keep me going by having my eBook enrolled in KDP Select, which makes your book available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. You earn money for every page read, and no small amount. I would say that somewhere around 85% of my royalties have come from Kindle Unlimited pages read.
With Amazon controlling such a large chunk of the market share of online book sales, it didn’t make sense to bother sacrificing this revenue by making the book available to a broader market. Without significant advertising, the eBook would not sell anyway. KDP Select also provides authors, for every 90 days you are enrolled in KDP Select, with five days where you can offer your eBook for free. More on this below.
AuthorImprints note: For more advice about how to price books, see our free guide: How Much to Charge When Pricing a Self-Published Book to Sell on Amazon.
Let’s talk about book reviews. Can you share some of your tactics and the results? What worked, and what didn’t?
Book reviews are a chicken-and-egg problem for indie authors. For one, many of the worthwhile promotions that help authors connect with readers and reviewers require a minimum number of reviews as well as a minimum level of rating.
The very thing you need to obtain reviews is the thing you can’t get until you have them.
So, if this is your first-ever book launch, this is really difficult unless you’ve done the groundwork with ARCs ahead of the launch, which I did not do a great job with. Once you have reviews, they lend credibility to whatever star rating you accumulate.
A book with six reviews and an Amazon star rating of five is not going to sell as well as a book with a star rating of 4.5 or even 4 that has hundreds of reviews.
So how does one get the momentum going for reviews? Asking friends and family to do so is risky, and most simply won’t do it anyway and you’ll become frustrated with them and yourself.
Worse yet, if Amazon suspects that your reviews do not comply with their standards (because the person knows you, or you paid them to write the review), they’ll start pulling down reviews, and that will likely include more than just the ones from people you knew. This is not worth the risk.
That leaves you trying to get Amazon reviews from total strangers. Bloggers and reviewers are good because they have followings; however, they tend to be harsher, so you need to also get your book into the hands of everyday readers who enjoy your genre and hopefully your book. This is where giving away copies of your book can help.
Being enrolled in KDP Select is probably the best means of accomplishing this. You can go into KDP and select whichever five days you want to offer your book free, click the button, and you’re done. Except, no one will know your book is free. You need to align these dates with book-promotion services that alert readers that your book is free on these dates.
One of the best places to start for new authors is Freebooksy, who has done very well by me. A few other popular ones that have worked well are The Fussy Librarian and Kindle Nation Daily. Robin Reads and Book Barbarian are genre specific and more selective, but I did manage to land promotions with them most recently and found both to be well worth it.
I should also mention BookBub, as their reach exceeds that of all of the others combined. But they are considered to be the holy grail of indie book promotion, and as such, it’s very difficult to convince them to promote your book. They are on my list of goals not yet achieved.
As far as the particulars, I split my five free days up into three- and two-day chunks, about one month apart. By the end of my first ninety-day KDP Select term, more than 5,000 people had claimed my free book and I hit the number 1 spot for free Kindle books in three categories.
After my second ninety-day term, I had given away over 12,000 copies. The other neat thing about this is that when your book reaches the top of the charts for free Amazon Kindle sales, you end up riding a wave of Kindle Unlimited pages read as well, which for me lasted several weeks, then continued steady until the next promotion.
The two distinct increases seen in the above graph come a few days after my KDP free days, one in mid-December and the next in mid-January.
Right before COVID-19 put many peoples’ finances in question, I had three weeks where I was averaging 7,000 pages read per day. I’ve since dropped back to around 4-5,000 per day, but when you calculate the number of pages in my book (636) and number of pages read per day, being enrolled in KDP Select has doubled my overall book sales and generated enough in royalties to prove to me that this profession can be lucrative.
As far as converting sales or giveaways to reviews is concerned, only a very small fraction of these 12,000 free books, or the 2,500 books sold (sales + KU Pages book equivalent), will ever convert to an Amazon review or future sales, but some will, and to me that’s worth it.
One additional mechanism that has worked well for acquiring Amazon customer reviews is a service called kbookpromotions. I have not utilized any of their other promotional services, but I have used their express reviews program (light option, three times) and unlike a few others I had tried, I actually saw a notable increase in Amazon reviews.
They advertise your book to a limited number of subscribers who enjoy reading your specific genre. Those people go out and buy your book and then write reviews. The number of subscribers targeted depends on which package you select. There are many other services that claim this same outcome, but for some reason, every other one I have tried just took my money and didn’t deliver. kbookpromotions has been by far the most effective for me. There are more expensive promotions out there that may also be effective, but I have not tried them.
I have already done a couple of LibraryThing giveaways, and while I did have quite a few people claim free books, few took the time to actually write a review when they had finished reading.
I still count these as worth the time, but don’t expect miracles. Most people just want their free book and don’t care to help out authors or readers by providing feedback. That’s something you have to be willing to live with or you’ll go mad.
How did you build your email mailing list? What are you continuing to do?
I have found BookFunnel newsletter builders to be the most successful method for building a mailing list. Not all BookFunnel promotions are created equal, but in three newsletter builder promotions, I have netted 623 subscribers. About two percent will unsubscribe after the first newsletter, but that’s to be expected.
To help collect email addresses, I also have a pop-up form on my website, and that has gained me another 130 organic subscribers over the six months since publication.
I have been hearing a lot of good things from other authors about StoryOrigin and just recently completed a couple of newsletter swaps with authors there. It’s too early to say how effective these efforts will be in the long run, but the first two swaps netted around fifty subscribers, so I’m hopeful. They appear to run similar group promotions as BookFunnel, so I may test those waters as well.
Do you do any marketing outside of Amazon? Social media, bookstores, libraries, Goodreads, book awards, genre-specific outreach?
I tried Amazon Advertising, but until I raise the price of my book, the return on investment did not make this worthwhile. However, I will admit that I have not studied Amazon Ads enough to say that I have a full knowledge of how they function. I would like to do a little more fidgeting with Amazon Ads and eBook pricing to see how these interact with KU pages read and book sales.
I did enter the book into several awards contests, and although most of them have not released results yet, four of them have, and The Other Magic was recognized in three of those. However, not all book awards are created equal or carry the same level of clout.
I found that the “IPPY” Awards (Independent Publisher Book Awards) and the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards have earned a fair amount of respect in the indie publishing world, and they do a lot more to promote their winners than, say, Pinnacle.
But any recognition you can gain increases the likelihood of securing a sale when someone clicks on your book.
I know you had a big win getting your book into audiobook format. How did you make that happen?
Yes, one of my dream audiobook publishers, Podium Audio, agreed to take on my entire Passage to Dawn series. I believe that this was only made possible by a combination of forces that go well beyond anything I did on my own.
Backing up a few months, I had the ear of a pretty big indie author who works with Podium Audio, so I asked him what I needed to do in order to convince someone like Podium to take on my books. He basically told me that authors don’t approach audio publishers, they approach you if they are interested.
With that discouraging reality in mind, I decided that I would likely not hear my book in audio form for several years, perhaps not until my second or third book came out, and that’s if they did well.
After a little more research, I discovered that Amazon does have their own platform for freelance narrators and indie authors to connect called ACX. There are options similar to this, like Findaway Voices, but I decided to start with ACX.
As an avid audiobook listener, I’m extremely picky about narrator voices, accents, etc., so I was adamant that I would not settle for a narrator who wasn’t of a very high quality. For this reason, I was not particularly optimistic that I would actually find one on my own.
Another factor I had to consider was that in order to produce a twenty-hour audiobook like mine, I would need approximately $6,000 just for the narrator. This was money that I did not have at the time to pay up front.
So the other options available included a royalty share, where the narrator and author agree to split royalties for the length of the seven-year contract. The problem with this is that convincing a quality narrator to complete $6,000 worth of work on the promise that they might someday earn that or more in royalties is a difficult thing to do if you are a new author whose work has never been tested in the market.
For this reason, I chose another option, called a royalty-share-plus contract. This means the author agrees to pay a portion of the production cost up front while the rest of the narration fee would be waived in exchange for a 50/50 royalty split thereafter. This provides the narrator some guaranteed money for their time spent, while the rest is left to time and sales. This was the best I could do, in my position, to incentivize a narrator to consider working with me.
When I found Greg Patmore on ACX, I absolutely loved his samples. Then I saw that he had won several awards, including the coveted Audie Award, and I decided, “This guy is amazing. He’ll probably say no, but what the heck?”
At this time, I had been published for 6 weeks and had 13 Amazon reviews. As it turned out, Greg Patmore just happened to be in the market for a royalty-share-plus contract and liked my book samples. I was ecstatic. I now had a fantastic, award-winning narrator ready to bring my characters to life.
The next few weeks saw the largest spike in my book’s Amazon reviews to date, and four weeks later, I was contacted by an acquisitions agent at a fairly major audio publisher. This forced me into a difficult position, since this could eliminate all production costs for me, but I might lose control over the choice of narration.
In the end, I was not willing to give up Greg’s voice, so I told them I would only consider their offer if they agreed to take on Greg at his full per-hour rate. To my shock, they agreed, but I was still not convinced that this was the best option for my book at the time.
I resigned myself to retaining my audio rights and walking away from the offer.
By this time, I had surpassed thirty Amazon reviews, and that same week, my dream publisher, Podium, entered the scene and offered to take on the entire series. They allowed me to keep Greg, and here we are a few months later, ready to launch.
I could not be happier with how things worked out, but it is my understanding that this was all highly irregular. However, if you’re an indie author looking to enter the audio world, it’s a ripe market, so I recommend finding a way to do it. Just don’t necessarily settle for the first offer you receive or for sub-standard narration. Do your research and set your sights high.
What’s next? I know you are working on book two in the series. What are you doing now to help make that launch a success?
Right now my biggest focus, aside from writing the second book itself, is building a quality mailing list. However, I’m selective with newsletter swaps and BookFunnel promos because I don’t wish to inundate my mailing list with what are essentially advertisements.
I also reserved a Hidden Gems ARC promotion back in October when I was preparing to launch my first book. At that time, the earliest opening they had was eight months out, but I decided to book the slot anyhow; we haven’t yet reached that date. I have heard very good things about Hidden Gems, so I want to see how well I like their ARC review service so I can determine whether or not to book a slot ahead of my next release.
This will need to be done close to one year in advance, but once that date is set with Hidden Gems, I will have to ensure that my book is ready for readers by that time.
I’m also preparing a hardcover edition of my book. There is little marketing value in this, and I’ll likely not see a return on this until the release of the second book, when I hope to sell enough print copies to cover the cost. But it’s something I really wish to see available to readers and especially to libraries, where wear and tear occur quite quickly.
Other than that, I will play around with Amazon ads and continue other small marketing promotions here and there to try to keep the first book moving, but not enough so that I’m unable to spend time writing. I do still have a full-time job, a wife, and two daughters, so I have to be purposeful with every second of time I have available.
Questions for Derrick? Want to get in touch?
AuthorImprints thanks Derrick for this opportunity to help him publish his book using his own publishing imprint.
Drop your questions in the comments field below and Derrick or David will reply.
To reach Derrick, please visit https://derricksmythe.com/.