What I Learned After Launching My First Book

In May 2021, I set out on a mission to edit one of my oldest short stories so I could release it on Amazon later that year.

The idea was to give it minor edits and make sure it found a home beyond the tiny confinements of my blog. Little did I know that the seemingly straightforward plan would turn that 7K story into a 26K novella and a discrete launch into one of the craziest rides of my journey as an author.

Today, about 3 weeks after releasing the paperback and 2 weeks after releasing the eBook, the book launched with 18 pre-orders, sold a total of 81 copies, and amassed over 40 ratings on Goodreads.

These numbers are by no means impressive. But I learned a lot from this launch and that’s what today’s post is all about. How an unknown and non-native author with a tiny marketing budget managed to sell 81 copies of her first self-published English-written book!

A little disclaimer before we dive into this post

I owe the success of this book largely to my online platform, which I’ve been building since 2018. I started my bookstagram page in November 2018 and became more active on Twitter around April 2020. I doubt any of this would have happened if I hadn’t spent the past years building long-lasting and meaningful connections in the book-loving community.

Also, as a white woman with a good income and a solid day job, I have to say I’m probably more privileged than most indie authors. My job in communication and marketing allowed me to save enough money to invest in professional copy edits and cover design. As a professional in the communication section, I’m also privileged in the sense that I have the practical knowledge of how to use a lot of essential tools that very few newbie authors know how to use.

For this reason, some of the ideas I’ll explore in this article will resonate with you and some won’t. These ideas consist of the things I wish I’d known when I started and the things I actually did right (most out of sheer dumb luck). But you might find some of these unhelpful and that’s okay.

There’s no universal recipe for book marketing. What works for one book under particular circumstances might not work for another.
By breaking down what I’ve learned, I can only hope to provide some guidance that could help you navigate the ups and downs of this journey.

The key points

Look, I get it, life is complicated so you might not want to read a 3K rambling about book marketing and that’s completely valid. Here’s the summarized version in case you’re in a hurry:

  • Invest in a good professional-looking cover
  • Invest in professional editing and/or proofreading (you can also trade services with other authors to save some money)
  • Make sure you set up your pre-order links and Goodreads page early so you can share those links during the cover reveal
  • Be strategic about the distribution of Advanced Reader Copies (ARC)
  • Special book launch promotions work because they reward your early readers and help you create buzz and generate more sales during the release
  • Giving away your book for free (i.e., free days on Amazon) is generally a bad idea
  • Book launches are overrated (yes, I know I’m contradicting myself – but you’ll have to read the whole article if you want to find out more), what really matters are the long term sales
  • Some decisions might lead to short term losses but you have to start thinking about long term gains
  • Early negative reviews won’t impact your sales but they might lower your confidence and hurt your ability to promote your book

Cover & cover reveals can help set the tone for your book launch

One of the best decisions I’ve made for my book was making sure I had both the pre-order link and Goodreads page ready to share during the cover reveal.

The cover I commissioned for The Summoner’s Cry wasn’t only beautiful, it portrayed and captured with extreme precision the tone of this story.

I was gonna go for a simple cover reveal without any pre-order link. But I changed my mind at the last possible minute and uploaded the cover and blurb to Amazon just a few hours before the launch. Luckily for me, the book was approved in time for the big release and I had my first 10 pre-orders that very same day.

You may be unimpressed by the engagement I got from my cover reveal posts or by the number of pre-orders – but these numbers are pretty huge for me.

I spent a lot of time looking for the perfect designer for my cover and it was perhaps the single best investment I made.

ARCs can give you the social proof you need

The distribution of Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) is perhaps the single most basic and crucial marketing strategy that can be used by authors to generate some pre-release buzz.

You can either distribute the ARCs to your own list of early readers (StoryOrigin and Bookfunnel) or reach out to new readers via ARC distribution services such as NetGalley, Edelweiss, Booksprout, Booksirens, etc.

I used two different services to distribute my ARCs (mostly for testing purposes): Booksirens, where you pay $10 for the setup fee and then $2 for every reader who downloads the book (if you bring in your own readers, it’s free!); and StoryOrigin where you access a lot of different features including review copy distribution, newsletter swaps, reader magnet distribution, beta copy distribution, among others for $100/year.

I got most of my ARC readers from Instagram, which I directed to StoryOrigin (32 downloads to be exact of the more than 40 people who initially requested the ARC – I think half of these readers left a review so far). I also got a small portion of ARC readers from Booksirens (8 readers which resulted in 5 reviews and 1 DNF). At the moment, 40 readers have rated and/or reviewed the book.

I’m very happy with the overall result! I’m not sure if I’ll use Booksirens again in the future, just because I had a feeling my target audience wasn’t on this platform.

The good thing about enrolling my book on Booksirens was the opportunity to reach readers who had no prior knowledge of me or my work and to specifically request them to post their reviews on Amazon. This led to some unbiased reviews which I think ended up being very positive for this launch (yes, I’m including the negative reviews in the equation as well!).

The real cost of negative reviews – it’s not what you think

Like every writer, I had my share of negative reviews and had to learn how to live with them. Despite feeling discouraged, frustrated, and sad for a while, this did not rob me of the joy I get from writing a story. In fact, I started plotting book 2 of the series after getting that first negative review. So, kudos to the person who made book 2 possible!

What I don’t do is engage with negative reviews, not even if the author of the review tags me (this has happened as well, unfortunately). I know my limits as a human being and nothing good would ever come out of this interaction. This was the choice I made for the sake of my sanity and due to the firm belief that authors shouldn’t express their feelings in reader or public spaces. Feelings are for sharing with friends and family alone.

What I’m doing now is reading all the reviews and taking note of the general criticism (not from a single person but from the trends among several reviews), I’ll discuss these trends with other writers and learn what I can from them in order to become better at this craft.

Criticism early on can have two positive effects on your author journey: it teaches you who your audience isn’t (do yourself a favor, don’t go chasing after people who only point out the negative because they are probably not part of your target audience), and it shows you, very specifically, what skills you still need to improve or refine.

The downside of reading the negative reviews during the launch is that they will, most likely, affect your ability and motivation to market your book.

This happened to me, unfortunately.

I had so many things planned out for the release but I lost all my motivation after those first negative reviews. I also got very sick around that time – which was probably due to the crippling anxiety I felt during those weeks.

What am I gonna do next time? I’ll prepare the marketing posts in advance. In this way, I won’t have an excuse not to post.

Price promotions can help you market your new release!

Discounting your book during the pre-order period and launch week was a great strategy that I will be applying to all my future releases. You shouldn’t see it as a way of “selling yourself cheap.” For me, setting a special price during this period was a way of rewarding early readers for taking a chance on this story.

Unlike many other authors, I didn’t price my eBook at $0.99. Most authors will swear this is the only way to go when you’re an unknown author, but I disagreed.

Thus, I priced my novella at $1.99 and then raised the price to $2.99 after the release week. Would I have sold more books if I’d priced it at $0.99? Maybe yes. Maybe no. The only thing I’m certain of is that I would have to sell a ton more books to recover the investment I’ve made.

If you think in the short term, of course, pricing your book at $0.99 will maximize the number of downloads. But will those downloads be made by your target audience? Probably not.

People who truly want to support you will buy the book either way. And setting your price too low will do you a disservice because, unconsciously, readers associate $0.99 with low-quality books. Also, anything that falls below $2.99 reduces your royalty rates from 70% to 35%, which makes it even harder to recover what you’ve invested into the production of your book.

Does it mean you should never discount your book?

It’s important to understand that this type of promotion only works in very specific circumstances such as when you’re setting up book 2 of a series for pre-order and want to increase your readership by discounting book 1 (which should have the pre-order link for book 2 on its back matter).

Another circumstance where discounts may work is during holiday seasons. But make sure you only run these promotions at least a few months after the release date. Make them short & sweet and be sure you advertise them in the right places such as Freebooksy.

Read David Gaughran’s post to learn more: Best Book Promotion Sites

A long-term strategy always pays off

Having a strong launch is great, especially for your ego and motivation, but that’s just about it.

I was lucky enough to sell 81 copies of The Summoner’s Cry during its first month. These numbers are pretty small compared to many other writers, but they’re huge for me. In comparison, it took me 10 months to sell that many copies of my previous book (a Portuguese-written short story priced at $0.99).

One thing I learned from the previous release is that the success of a book is measured in the long term. I only sold 15 copies of that book during release month and I had no marketing plan to keep promoting it post-launch.

Suffice to say that I learned my lesson! The only thing that helps sustain a book in the long term is a consistent effort to reach new readers – one at a time if necessary.

For me, this translates into learning how to run successful ads for this book, first on Amazon and then on Facebook.

I’ve recently completed Bryan Cohen’s 5-Day Amazon Ad Profit Challenge and had a blast learning how to create compelling copy and low-cost ads on Amazon. I’ll be spending the next few months optimizing these campaigns and learning as much as I can. Learn more from his blogs: Best Page Forward.

My other strategy involves pitching my book to book bloggers. This is something I already started doing and, so far, I’m incredibly happy with the result.

Quick note: I read several reviews from each blogger before pitching my book to them so I could personalize each request. I NEVER send a pitch without familiarizing myself with each blogger’s work. Don’t be the person who spams reviewers with generic emails. They deserve your appreciation for all the hard work they put into promoting your book.

Some decisions may reduce your short term gains and that’s okay

Since the beginning of my journey as an author, I decided going wide was the best decision (wide = selling beyond Amazon).

The general advice for new authors is to go exclusively with Amazon and enroll in KDP Select (your book will be on Kindle Unlimited and you can be paid by page reads in addition to your book sales). While going wide is typically recommended to authors with a large following and/or catalog.

I decided to go wide out of the bat for two reasons: I don’t like keeping all my eggs in the same basket, and I plan on writing and publishing for the rest of my life. Plus, many of my readers asked me if my book would be available on Kobo. This made me realize that my job was to increase accessibility, not force readers to change their habits just because of me.

You might feel differently and that’s okay. In fact, we could argue that my book could have garnered a lot of page reads on Kindle Unlimited by now, instead, it’s spread across two retailers (soon to be more). I know I’m probably reducing my gains in the short term, but this is something I hope will pay off in the end.

Also, keep in mind that success in KU is heavily genre-dependent. Erotica, romance, and horror typically do very well on KU. Fantasy a little less so. But nothing is set in stone. All this could change in a heartbeat.

Things I enjoyed doing but probably had no impact on sales or visibility

  • Book launch giveaway

All readers who bought the book during the launch period were invited to submit their receipts to join the book launch giveaway where they could win one of three bookish boxes containing a journal from my shop, a bookmark, a tote bag, and stickers.

I’ll admit, the giveaway was a bit too much and it put a giant financial strain on me. I’m not sure I’ll do this type of giveaway again at this scale. Book 2 of the series will be much more expensive to produce and I honestly have no idea if I’m ever going to recover all I’ve invested in the production of The Summoner’s Cry (just to give you an idea, with 81 sales I barely recovered all I’ve spent with this giveaway).

The giveaway probably had little to no impact on the visibility of the book. Why? Because I don’t have a large following.

If I did, the result would probably be much different.

  • Book launch party

The virtual book launch party (+ paperback giveaway) probably also had little to no impact on sales or visibility. Because, once again, I don’t have a large following and I’m an unknown author.

Why did I do it then? Because I wanted to spend that day in the company of the people who contributed to the development and success of this book and, for that alone, it was worth it.

I had tons of fun during our live virtual event and will likely do it again for my next release. It helped keep my sanity when things got darker than I expected.

Takeaway message

Book releases are messy and complex businesses. Plus, a bad book launch doesn’t necessarily mean your book won’t sell well in the long term. The reverse is also true, making a huge splash during launch week doesn’t guarantee sales in the long term.

There were so many other things I could have done to promote this book such as blog or bookstagram tours and paid newsletter promotions. But to be honest, I only invested what I could afford to lose at this point, and all those paid promotions were just out of my reach.

I prefer to keep promoting this book using low-cost methods such as Amazon ads (which can cost as little as $0.15-$0.40 per click) and book reviewer outreach.

It’s better to build a reputation little by little because long-term strategies always pay off in the end.

I hope this post was useful! Have you used any of these strategies to launch your book? Were you happy with the results? Let me know in the comments down below.

Photo credits: cottonbro in Pexels

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