Marketing your book(s) and really, marketing yourself as an author, is a cumulative process. As you put out more books and grow your audience (and hopefully, your mailing list), your book sales will naturally increase. If you write more than one book, every time you release a new book, you have a “built-in” audience for it. It doesn’t mean that every book you write will appeal to all your prior readers; it just means that you will have an overlap of readers from book to book that will (hopefully) grow over time.
Is there a tipping point? Yes. I am a big fan of Kevin Kelly’s One Thousand True Fans theory, but I also think that authors, unless they are extraordinarily prolific, need more than 1,000 fans. If I put out four books a year (do-able, but not easy), and all 1,000 people bought every book, I’d make somewhere between $12,000 and $20,000. Maybe as high as $40,000, depending on whether or not people bought print or eBooks. While that’s better than a sharp stick in the eye and a very nice baseline to have on tap, it’s not enough to cover the bills. Kelly says in the article that you need to have $100 worth of stuff to sell to these 1,000 superfans every year. For a fiction author, that could be merch or some sort of paid event. For nonfiction authors, it would be backend sales for coaching, consulting, courses, supplies, memberships, etc. But if you’re just selling books, you’re going to need more people.
For authors, I think the tipping point is somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 true fans. (And I mean people on your mailing list, not on your Facebook page.) I could be wrong on this and if anyone has a good number, let me know. And while 1,000 true fans feels like (and is) a do-able number, 5,000 starts looking difficult and 20,000 impossible. It is and it isn’t, but we’ll get to that.
To be a New York Times bestselling author, you need to sell between 5,000 and 10,000 copies of your book in one week, through specific brick and mortar stores, and hope that there is not a lot of competition during that week. Most bestselling books are really pre-sold, but not in the way you are probably thinking. Yes, you can make your book available for pre-sales on Amazon, but the real reason people order your book or any book before it’s out is that the author is a known quantity to them. They have read your previous books (or are a fan of yours whether you have a blog, podcast, band, whatever) and they trust that you will put out a solid product that they will enjoy. They are pre-sold on you, not your book.
Start as Big as You Can
As someone who has built mailing lists onesy-twosies, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that this method sucks. You NEVER get there. You will die before you reach critical mass. Probably.
You want to start building your reader-base before you release your book. One way to do this is with a reader magnet—something you give away for free in return for a person’s name and email address. It has to be something of value that people want. Specifically, that your people—those people who will buy your book—want.
It took me years to build up a mailing list (still small) for my business book coaching business. Granted, my business runs on the boutique model—limited number of clients per year at premium prices. I don’t need a huge mailing list for that—almost all my business is referral. BUT as an author who wants to sell books, I need numbers. The author model is the exact opposite of my boutique business: a low price product needs a lot of buyers.
When I started a new pen name and a new genre, I ran a contest using KingSumo, giving away books from known authors in my genre as well as my own first-in-series book. I ran low-cost ads and posted in genre-specific Facebook reader groups. All in, costs were under $200 and my mailing list started with about 150 people. Not huge by any count. (Some authors are horrified at the cost per lead. Some authors are horrified at the thought of spending ANY money on marketing. Quick Reminder: Being an author is a business.) If I had it to do over, I would have spent more money and done more advertising for the contest. Fortunately, I can run that contest again and again—every time I release a new book in the series—and add more people.
And those people are a built-in audience for each new release. At no extra marketing cost.
In addition, once people are on your list, you can ask them to share your book, your newsletter, blog, whatever. You can also ask them for an unbiased review of your book. Which brings us to…
You Need Social Proof
People feel comfortable doing something if they see other people doing it first. And the more people they see, the more social proof they have that this (whatever “this” is) is a good thing.
That’s why reviews are important. But to get reviews you need readers. It’s very much a chicken and egg thing. The numbers vary, but figure you will get one organic review for every 100-150 books sold. That means you can’t count on readers—even those who liked your book—to leave a review.
Many authors build large ARC teams (Advance Review Copy) in order to quickly build their number of reviews. Others will add a page in the back matter of their books asking readers to leave an unbiased review. It is against Amazon’s terms of service to pay for a review or do “review swaps” with other authors. But you can ask people to leave an honest, unbiased review. If you join platforms like Bookbub and GoodReads, you can connect with readers who actually enjoy talking about and reviewing books. Fair Warning: Some of the reviewers on GoodReads can be brutal. Most are nice or at least want to be constructive.
The Field of Dreams Is Just That
If you build it, they won’t come… unless they know about it and it’s something they actually want. No amount of fancy marketing in the world will make me buy brussel sprouts. If I liked brussel sprouts, I probably wouldn’t need fancy marketing to entice me to buy—I’d just have to be told where to find them.
The same goes for your book. The people who want and need your book just need to know about it and how to get it. Getting that first 100, 500, even 1,000 names is the startup part of building your list. Can it happen overnight? Sometimes. Usually it is a matter of leveraging someone else’s audience. If you are very lucky or strategic, someone with a large following that matches your target audience might recommend your book or have you on their podcast or show. That is a fast way to add people to your list. (Please Chrissy Teigen, shout out my book!) For the rest of us, it’s a matter of adding people to your list every day. Three people a day will net you 1,000 people in a year. It’s an ongoing process.
Once those people are aware of you, you want to keep them close. Move them onto your mailing list with a lead magnet of some sort and keep in touch with them. Too many authors only contact their list when they have a new release. You want to give them updates and useful information in between releases. You’re building a relationship and relationships take work.
And all that work will pay off over time. I won’t lie, the more money you can put into targeted marketing, the faster your fan base (and sales) will grow. Remember: Marketing is cumulative. Think of your fanbase as a snowball rolling down hill, gathering up more and more snow and getting bigger and bigger. The bigger the snowball you start with, the faster that big snowball will grow.
Start as big as you can and don’t stop. If you are persistent and patient, you will hit that tipping point of fans. Then it’s a matter of “rinse, repeat.” Keep putting out good products, stay in touch with your people, and keep adding people using the methods that have worked for you. Newton’s First Law of Motion applies to marketing, too. Once your machine is running, it’s easy to keep it running.