“He’s also found that writing novels is the easy part…selling them is where the real challenge lies.”

Brian Meeks is a 47-year old writer lives in Martelle, Iowa. But he didn’t start out as a writer. He’d studied economics at Iowa State University, and went to work as a data analyst for GEICO insurance.

By Jan 2, 2010, he’d quit his job and stumbled upon his writing career. He’d just messed up a woodworking project, creating a workbench with 4 legs cut to three different lengths. While searching for researching how to fix, he found Blogger and decided to write about his misfortune.

Once he finished writing, he surfed through a woodworking forum where – like so many people do on the Web – he ended up reading what others had written as well. The forum was set up to encourage people to blog about their own stories, and since he’d just published his own post on Blogger, he cut-and-pasted it into the forum’s blog.

“The next day I returned to find 300 people had read my post (mostly on the woodworking site) and 25 had left comments,” Brian wrote about that day in January. “Most of the comments were along the lines of ‘This is hilarious…best thing I’ve read on the site EVER!’ External validation changed my position on the horrible thing called writing. I’ve written a post every day since.”

I came across Brian when I stumbled upon his May 11 post, “The Race for the New York Times List“, in which he was trying to sell 5,000 copies of his first novel, Henry Wood: Detective Agency, written in 2011. What follows is the result of several question-and-answer sessions through email, and then a co-edited version of the transcript to create a cohesive conversation.

The Q&A

One of the great benefits of independent publishing is the ability to use your back catalogue to drive sales. What made you decided to attempt to get your book, Henry Wood: Detective Agency, on the New York Times Best Seller list 3 years after it originally was published?

Brian Meeks: I believe there are 5-stages1 to novel writing success. In stage 3 one is generating nearly enough sales to live off of, but not enough to start buying Major League Baseball franchises or small tropical islands. Stage four, in my opinion, is to drive a book to the New York Times list. I chose the first book in the Henry Wood series because it had been six months since my last Bookbub ad with that book, so I was eligible to run another ad.

Getting Bookbub2 ads are a challenge. I’ve yet to succeed with any of my books when they have less than 50 reviews. So it was simply a matter of that book was the only one eligible at the time.

The 50 reviews is sort of an arbitrary number that I think of as the threshold for getting accepted with Bookbub if one is self-published. I don’t have any proof that it is true, but each time I’ve checked a book that had fewer (one even only had 2 reviews), they are published by one of the Big 5 or other well-known houses. I’ve yet to find an author friend who has been accepted with less than 50, but again, there isn’t anything official about the number.

Henry Wood Detective Agency and Time and Again both were over 50 when they finally got accepted. I was rejected many times before that. I also believe it is more difficult to land a 99 cent ad than a Free Day ad. This is also based upon my own experiences and not a statistically significant sample of submissions.

Walk me through the strategy for this attempt. For instance, we know that early momentum is important since it’s those first few days that determine whether something will grow organically. So what was your plan to kickstart sales at various points?

BM: You are right the early momentum is key. My big mistake was running the ad on a Sunday that was also a holiday. That’s a double whammy against getting sales.

For the plan to work, I would have needed 3,000-4,000 Kindle sales on the first day. That would have been enough to get my book in the top 10 on the overall list. The exposure from such a high rank will lead to additional sales over the next few days. If there are enough and one can remain in the top 100 for three days, then there is a chance that Amazon will take notice and possibly include the book in a blast on Friday or Saturday.

A lot of things have to go right to make the New York Times List. I’ve talked to an author friend of mine who’s made it several times and she says it takes 7,000 from Amazon and 3,000 from other sources to sneak onto the bottom spot. Of course, those numbers vary from week to week, but it shows how one must start the week strong.

Imagine 4,000 on Sunday or Monday, make the Top 10, and then get 1,000 the next day from list exposure on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday might bring another 800 and then if one can get picked up by Pixel-of-Ink3 or be included in an Amazon blast, the last 1200 are very much possible.

I believe that achieving those numbers will get easier for the popular genres like Mystery and Romance as the Bookbub subscriber lists continue to grow, but that also means that the number required will likely climb, too.

My Nook sales greatly outperformed what I expected, so I’m not worried about the 3,000, as I suspect that any promotion that got me 4,000 on Kindle would get 2,000 on Nook and then it would do well the rest of the week.

[Follow Up Clarification] There’s some really compelling data points in this question. I’m interested to know if you or your friends have cracked the NY TImes List, or if what you’re doing is just moving you towards that.

BM: I have not, nor have my closest Author friends. I have two friends in particular who I talk with daily. They are more successful than me and have sold 20K and 70K of their books. I would have to look up the exact number, but I’m probably at somewhere between 7 – 8K over the last 15 months (not including my one non-fiction which made it to about 1300 before I stopped caring about it.)

Of course, there are plenty of self-published authors who make the New York Times list. If one checks the list and sees the authors name in the parenthesis instead of a publisher then it means it was self-published.

As I mentioned in the post, it takes sales from multiple venues to qualify for the New York Times list. I suspect that’s a not-so-subtle dig at Amazon.

And maybe more importantly for indie writers: Is this the process that you think writers need to consider now that bookstores and other cultural institutions are struggling? In other words: We’ve seen the traditional career writer cultivation scaffolding disappear as the finances of the industry have changed. It’s harder to find houses that develop writers. Instead, you (and others) seem to be doing that part on your own.

BM: This question is interesting. As for bookstores, the last thing I read on independent bookstores is that over the last five years their numbers have been growing.

Yes Borders closed. That was a lot of bookstores lost, but it sort of misses the key element of being an author in this era: “Sales from bookstores don’t matter.”4 I’m speaking purely from a strategic standpoint. I’ll say it again, “Sales of your print book, from a bookstore, or in general, doesn’t help your cause.”

To be an author in today’s market and to take on the role of publisher, it’s important to understand that the initial goal is not to sell books, it’s to sell Kindle versions of your books. For now, let’s say, Ranking is the only thing that matters until you’ve made the New York Times list.

An author needs to think in terms of reaching the reader that’s outside their sphere of influence. That’s important. An author can have 2,786 real people (no bots or junk followers) on Twitter, 523 people on the FB author page, and 4959 followers on G+, and a blog they’ve written over 1500 posts for, and have very little ability to move the needle of a new book.

One moves the needle through advertising (such as) Bookbub, EreaderNewsToday, Booksends, FKBooksandTips, and BooksontheKnob. One advertises on those venues using the KDP Select Free day or the 99 cent sale. And with those ads there is only one goal, reaching those who have NEVER heard of the author.

Those sales then drive a book up the rankings list, the “Movers and Shakers” list5, the Countdown Deals list (if running a Countdown Deal through KDP), the various genre lists, and the most important the overall ranking list (Top 100).

A well written book needs both word of mouth from many thousands of sales (possibly tens of thousands) and exposure on these lists to have a chance of building the following needed to make a career of writing/publishing.

Does the new author training ground now include both writing books 1-3 to learn the ropes of the industry so that books 4-5 get successful enough to then build a career off the back catalogue?

BM: Book one should never stop selling, because it’s the one that will receive most of the marketing attention until it makes it. And remember, you’re the publisher, your book is being printed on demand, and so it will never go out of print.

The other reason to continue to focus on book one in the series is that it will have the most reviews. It won’t have the highest rating in most cases, as the author will improve at writing, and because people who read a first book and move on to the others will likely give them high marks, while a person who hates book one won’t continue on through the series dropping 1-star review all the way to the end.

Is it possible that my fourth book could accidentally go viral and make the New York Times list? Yes. I’ll be making every effort to get on the “Hot New List” and perhaps its wonderful cover will lead to more sales than expected, which might cause Amazon to start promoting it, and there could be a groundswell, but it is EXTREMELY unlikely. Once that book is out and I’ve launched, I’ll basically forget about it and return to marketing book one.

So, yes, indie authors are developing their fan base on their own and succeeding. The most important reason is that most of us have zero experience with traditional publishing and their outdated vision of what it takes to sell a book.((Editorial Note: For those who know the history of publishing, this section will likely draw the most response. It’s a common refrain, and has some truth, but doesn’t take into account that a great many of the most popular books came from independent and small publishers.)) In the “good old days” the New York Publishers would find an author they like and make him King. It didn’t matter if he could write, because it was THEM who decided what was good. Just look at Ernest Hemingway. One of the most awful writers to have ever written, but he came from the world of newspaper journalism, was loved by everyone that mattered, and they got him a Pulitzer to show their support. A Farewell To Arms is so bad I wouldn’t read it to a terrorist at Gitmo. I mean I’m not a monster.

How about this years Pulitzer winner: The Goldfinch. It has an average rating of 3.8 stars. A book has to be pretty awful to get that low an average. Yes, book three of the Divergent series has a 3.4 average, but that’s only because so many people hated what the author did to finish the series. The first two books are at 4.5. My point is, an author has to do something really stupid to drop below 4.0 with a book because their loyal fans will continue to give the book 4 and 5 star reviews.

The point of writing novels is to make money. Being an author is a job just like anything else, and if we don’t get paid (eventually) then we should be doing something else. It doesn’t mean chasing trends, but it does require one take their inventory seriously and strive to maximize each novels potential. It means searching for foreign rights, knowing when to leave KDP Select and make a book available to Barnes & Noble and Kobo (Sony, Apple and Google Play don’t matter yet). If one is serious, one needs to understand how it all works in this brave new world of publishing.

Back in 2002 when my first book was published, my co-author and I lived and died by the Amazon rankings. We just refreshed the page for about 3 days. Today’s metrics are far more in-depth and real-time. How do you balance what is happening right now with your overall strategy? (In other words: How do you avoid being curled up under the desk for two weeks.)

BM: I keep huge volumes of data during my promotions. The first day I typically spend about 20 hours taking a reading every 15 minutes. I program my iPhone with alarms for the entire day and keep taking the readings until I’m just too tired to go on. I’ve never tried to avoid “being curled up under my desk”. The amount of data I’ve gather over the last year has taught me a lot about how different venues perform and how their performance has changed over time.

I’m interested in more than just raw numbers. I want to know the minute a book hits the “Movers and Shakers” list. How long is the latency for sales to post during a major promotion. What sort of impact big promotions have on the review rating of a book. (People who get to book 3 of a series by starting on book 1 are more likely to give a higher rating than someone who is brought into book 3 via a promotion. It means that one needs to decide how much of a loss in rating average they can stomach when making their marketing decisions.)

Explain how your sales and marketing strategy has changed throughout the series.

BM: I wrote the first four books very quickly. I’ve published them rather slowly. I’m actually writing book 5, but I’m finishing going over the edits sent by my editor. It’s been a slow painful process because she’s young and doesn’t get many of the 1955 references. Still, I’m almost done and then it will be time to launch.

My sales and marketing strategy has changed because I’ve a better understanding of how the rankings work and the importance of a quick start. In all my other novels I did almost nothing for the launch. I just published and continued working on Henry Wood Detective Agency marketing. My focus has been almost entirely on that book. I’ve done little marketing for A Touch To Die For or Secret Doors: The Challenge.

This will change for book 4, Henry Wood: Edge of Understanding and my satire, Underwood, Scotch, and Wry. I plan on testing my launch strategy with USW because it’s a stand-alone novel. If I have poor results with it, but get data that helps me improve my launch, it’s okay, since it’s a one off. Edge of Understanding, however, has an opportunity to find new readers for the series. It will of course cause the early reviews to start out in the 4.3 range instead of the 4.8 range like on Book 3, but that’s okay with me.6 The 4.3 may be lifted if I do a good job of getting the word out to existing fans of the series, so it may not suffer as much as I predict.

The key with a launch is to try to manage 20-30 sales per day for four or five days7. If one can do that it is reasonable to expect to make the “Hot New Releases” list, which is only open to books in their first 30 days of their launch. I believe I can manage that with my FB author page and newsletter list, but I’ve also got a few ideas to help bump sales each day in the hopes of getting to that “Hot New Release” list as quickly as possible. Once on the list, the sales generated from the exposure are often enough to keep it there.

You’ve written 4 and 5, but you’ve held back the release. We’ve talked of doing that with my next book, but I’d love to hear what led you to consider that as a strategy.

BM: I finished writing the first four books in the series in about two years. I published one and didn’t have the money for editing the rest. That’s why I didn’t publish more quickly. It wasn’t a strategy. I’m in the process of writing book 5. If I’m writing everyday, I can do a novel in two months. I have three other books that are WIPs and between 10 and 30K written. Sometimes it’s nice to play with other characters.

It really wasn’t a strategy, and if I’m honest, not a very good idea. If a book is edited, been through beta readers, has a professional cover, then get it out there. The only reason to wait is if there is something you’ll be able to do in the not so distant future to guarantee 20-30 sales per day for the first five days. If that’s the case, then it’s worth the wait to make the “Hot New Releases” list.

That being said, I’ve had my satire Underwood, Scotch, and Wry done for six months and have chosen not to publish. Because it’s a one off novel (for now), I look at the book as a great thing to use in testing some strategies I have for launches. The book is about social media. Over the last four years I’ve written a lot of guest blog posts for some rather big names in the PR industry, as such, I may try to leverage this for the launch. Or I may say screw it and just publish. I haven’t decided.

I’m actually quite proud of the book and it’s rather funny, but the reality is that I’m not going to spend a lot of effort marketing it, when it doesn’t have any sequels to pull people back to my books. So I think of it as cannon fodder.


Henry Wood Detective Series

Other Books

  1. He wrote this post on the 5-stage topic in December 2013. []
  2. Bookbub is a paid advertising service that blasts books its editorial staff believes will do well. The lists are targeted, e.g. science fiction, and as such the editors don’t accept every book. They try to curate the best matches. []
  3. Pixel-of-Ink is a service that sifts through free and bargain Kindle books, and aggregates them into a list. []
  4. Book data suggests that indie authors should focus their efforts on digital sales and accept print-on-demand sales as a happy accident. []
  5. From Brian: “Movers and Shakers” is a list that is populated by books that make a quick jump into the top 300 or so. The list compares previous ranking and divides it by the current raking to get a percent improvement. It then sorts the list based upon that calculation. If one runs a Bookbub ad for 99 cents, one’s book will likely show up on this list. It means more eyeballs and more sales. It’s one of many lists on Amazon that an indie author/publisher should be familiar with. []
  6. Some interesting science on reviews: We know that aggregate reviews are less important than how community members rate particular reviews, specifically for lesser known books. In other words: higher aggregate reviews drive up sales, but good reviews marked as helpful by the community are more impactful for lesser known books. So get your community working for you as well as reviewing your work. []
  7. Editor’s Note: Two things that authors need to keep in mind: public relations can help a great deal and lead times generally take about three months, and professional reviewing services such as Kirkus and Publishers Weekly can create a good deal of interest. []