Preparing for 2017: South of Forever Series

In my last post, I mentioned that I was re-designing the South of Forever series covers, starting my annual year-end inventory, and getting ready to write my 2017 business plan. Since all of these things kind of tie into my “Preparing for 2017” plan, I thought I’d split them up into three posts. Today I’d like to talk about my South of Forever series.

The Problem

Plain and simple, the series just hasn’t been selling like it should. With three books out, it should be moving—especially when the first in the series was permafree. Even with ads, that free first-in-series just wasn’t moving like it should.

Without getting too mushy, I’m damn proud of this series. These books were where I really found my writing voice. I know with every book I write I’m getting better and better, but this series for me is a hallmark in my career. It survived my small press publisher going under. Its small but loyal tribe of readers love it. I couldn’t just let it die a slow death.

I sat down and thought really hard about this series.

The Covers

Ultimately, I realized my lack of sales is probably because of the covers. The original covers weren’t bad. They were stunning! But they didn’t appropriately reflect the series genre—rockstar romance (RR). They also looked like a YA series. My husband Mike, a mixed media artist, pointed all of these things out and I couldn’t agree more. I want to stress that I really loved the original designs and think the cover designer who did them is rad, but business is business. I had to try something new.

But… I couldn’t afford to hire anyone to redesign the covers. There was a new designer I was eyeing, who was offering super low prices to build up her portfolio, but just as I was ready to purchase, her prices went up. Just as I was about to give up, Mike asked me if I was really going to let a little thing like a book cover get in my way. I was annoyed at the time—and also super sleep-deprived—but his words sunk in. He was right.

A week or so later, I forced asked him to sit down with me and look at stock photos for the new covers. I’d redesigned the cover for Just One More Minute; with his help, there was no reason I couldn’t do the same for the SOF series. (I would not recommend the average indie do this; I have an A.S. in Multimedia/Web Authoring and years of graphic design experience. Even still, I much more prefer hiring a designer to handle covers.) I stressed to him that I really needed him to be 100% honest—no worrying about hurting my feelings. This is business, and there’s no room for artist’s ego. 😉 Together we selected some photos, then I spent hours studying RR covers on Amazon. Using the watermarked comps, I made some mockups that I then made asked him to critique. After we discussed them and I made some tweaks, I slept on the designs.

After about another week, I purchased the stock photos I needed for about $10 each, fired up my dinosaur Gateway, and got to work. Even after re-doing the JOMM cover, I was still rusty on my Photoshop skills. Plus I only have CS4, which is so not what I’m used to. (For about a year, I had CC on my Mac, which is the monthly subscription with the latest updates. I got spoiled.) Still, as the Celine Dion song goes, “It’s all coming back to me now.” Mostly.

I spent hours looking at typography and trying to find fonts that most suited the series. The ones I chose weren’t exactly what I had in mind, and I still kind of want to change them, but I had to “be done with it,” as artist Skye Taylor advises in his videos. Once I finished, I forced asked Mike to critique them. I also begged sent them to my photographer friend. The consensus is that SOF2 is the least strong of the three. While Mike chose that stock photo for her moody expression and kick-ass dark lipstick, my photographer thought that cover looks more like a suspense novel. She’s right, but finding a stock photo to represent my Boricua/Mexican-American Savannah and express the mood of the story was really difficult. SOF2 is the most suspenseful of the three in the series, so the new cover will do for now.

Check out the new covers! What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Update, 12/11/2016: Since I hit publish on this post, I’ve actually tweaked the covers again. (Yup—I changed the series title typography. Couldn’t help myself! I also changed the stock photo for SOF2. Much better!) See the updated versions below!

Getting More Eyeballs

New covers alone wouldn’t refresh the series, though. I needed a fast way to get it back on track—and I needed it to be at little or no cost.

Enter Kindle Unlimited.

I’ve long avoided Kindle exclusivity. Oh, I’ve played with it a little—with mixed results—but never for long. I have a strong aversion to putting all my eggs in one basket (especially since I do well at other retailers like Kobo).

But the consensus among indies seems to be that KU is a fantastic short-term business plan for new or new-ish authors. The key word being “short-term.” It’s not smart to rely entirely on Amazon for your business’s long-term income. I won’t get into details here on why exactly KU is good for authors; you can find plenty of information about KU pros/cons on the Kboards Writers’ Cafe and Google.

I’m using KU as a tool to refresh the SOF series and give it a boost. All three books in the series are now enrolled in KU for the next 90 days—until March 8th, 2017, to be precise. When that term is up, I’ll make them wide again. Then I’ll release the last book in the series at all retailers.

Refresh, reset, renew!

Another perk of being in KU is that it gives me a small pool to test those new covers in. Rather than having to tweak and re-upload to half a dozen retailers, I can make changes to the covers—and other meta data—and test again in KU.

The Prequel

Moving copies wasn’t my only problem. The series actually spun off from a series of novelettes I released in 2014: the ESX series. Originally, ESX was supposed to be a comedy about a boy band singer named Koty who desperately wanted to be a rockstar. Then Jett stomped onstage in her boots and stole Koty’s heart—and the show. It wasn’t supposed to be a romance, but those two fell in love, and I fell in love with writing romance. And, once Jett and Koty achieved their personal goals, I realized there was a whole new story arc to write about them: the South of Forever series.

However, ESX didn’t have a happily ever after (HEA) or even happy for now (HFN) ending that is a requirement of romance. It sold well as a series of six in the comedy category, but when I gave it a new title (Playing for You) and made it the official prequel to SOF, it didn’t quite work. Readers expected a HEA/HFN ending for ESX/Playing for You, which they didn’t get, and weren’t thrilled when they found out there was another series—or at least Diving Into Him—to read to get the satisfying ending they wanted.

Even if I made the prequel free and then SOF1 free, most readers didn’t realize there was a prequel. Amazon and the other retailers have no system for prequels in a series; you can mark a book as #0, but it won’t show up on your retailer series page. Their setups just don’t work that way. So most readers were picking up SOF1 and then scratching their heads, because it felt like there was something they were missing.

I thought about changing the ending to the prequel to make it a HEA/HFN, but then I’d have to change the beginning of SOF1 and that still wouldn’t solve my series order problem. The only solution was to get rid of the prequel as a separate novel; I decided to include it in SOF1 as a free bonus right in the file—no jumping through email list hoops.

Now readers who buy SOF1 will get ESX for free. It kills several birds with one stone, and there’s a benefit I hadn’t even considered: SOF1 is now twice as long, which equals more page reads in KU. This totally wasn’t on purpose, but it’s a nice bonus for me. And it’s completely legit. Score!

Pricing

Another difficult decision lay ahead: to change my prices or not? Before my re-launch, my price points were:

  • SOF1: free
  • SOF2: $2.99
  • SOF3: $2.99

Upon some research, I discovered the majority of rockstar romances are $3.99 each or more. Sometimes the first in series is free or $0.99. Sometimes it’s the same price as the rest of the series.

I wrestled with this.

I’d like to keep SOF1 permafree, but KU doesn’t allow permafree titles (at least, as far as I’m aware). KU subscribers can binge-read the entire series at little risk, but non-KU Kindle readers are paying out of pocket. I’m still a relatively new author, which will always make a reader hesitate before one-clicking. The books have good reviews, which helps, but I worried a $3.99 price point for a first in series would make readers hesitate even more and pass over the book.

If I made SOF1 $0.99 though, I risked not getting into Bookbub.

Ah, yes. Bookbub.

The other piece of my plan—assuming December results in lots of SOF sales and KU reads—is applying for a Bookbub in January. Bookbub is more likely to accept deeply discounted books. For example, a book that’s regularly $3.99 but on sale for $0.99 or free will really appeal to Bookbub’s audience of hungry readers. I plan on running a free sale for SOF1 in February to get the series up in the Amazon charts right before I drop SOF4 in March. If I get rejected by Bookbub—which is likely, considering the volume of submissions they receive—I’ll go with another advertiser with good ROI, like ENT.

In the end, I made the choice to raise the price of all three books to $3.99 each. I’ll use my Kindle Countdown days to run my free promo of SOF1 and, when the series comes out of KU in March—provided it does well in the interim—I’ll make SOF1 permafree again.

But I’ve got to try something new. Right now, permafree SOF1 is averaging two downloads a day. That’s pretty poor for a subgenre with a large audience of voracious readers. I just know it’s the cover making people hesitate, because it doesn’t look like rockstar romance. I’m hoping with the new cover, non-KU Kindle readers won’t hesitate—even with the $3.99 price point. And if they do, I’ll try again with them in a couple months with my free promo.

Keywords

The only thing I haven’t changed for the SOF series are the keywords. My last round of keyword research was in September. The series was ranking well in Amazon search results for things like “rockstar romance,” so I decided not to change any keywords at this time. It’s still ranking well, but I think readers are passing it over because, again, the covers don’t look like RR. My experiment is to see how well the new covers perform; I didn’t want to change keywords that are already doing their job.

I’ll revisit keywords again in the new year, once I’m sure the covers are performing well, if sales are still slow.

The Official South of Forever Newsletter

Finally, I updated the SOF series back-matter. This included a more current “also by” list, with the Just One More Minute novel and upcoming Christmas novelette buy links. It also included a dedicated SOF email list, rather than the general email list I’ve been using.

The problem was, with a low budget, I couldn’t afford to set up autoresponders. Ordinarily, I’d create a segment for my email list and lead SOF readers through a chain of emails with exclusive series extras, excerpts from subsequent books in the series, and more. So I had to figure out a workaround.

It’s going to take a bit more time, but I ended up setting up a completely new email list. I did this for Just One More Minute, promising readers I’d send them a free story set six months after JOMM if they signed up. (This is the Christmas novelette I mentioned; it’ll be free just for my email list and $0.99 everywhere else. Perks for my readers!) This is also what Nick Stephenson refers to as a reader magnet. The JOMM list has already generated more signups in a couple weeks than my generic “get updates” list has in the past month.

For SOF1, I promised readers exclusive bonus content. I wasn’t specific, which I need to change. My plan is to send them “Where Are They Now?”-themed stories about the ESX members (Dev, Johnny Z, and Benny), plus some other fun extras that answer burning questions not addressed in SOF1. One of these questions is “Why did Perry leave King Riley?” but since that’s part of the series arc and going to be answered in SOF4, I have to think of something else. This is also known as the Kobayashi Technique.

In the meantime, readers get instant access to the first five chapters of SOF2. My hope is to ensure read-through of the rest of the series. I know read-through rates are never 100%, but I’d like to get as close as possible.

I’ll also send them book recs, promo notifications, and give them first dibs on SOF4 ARCs.

I’ve thought about this whole thing a lot, and though most of it had already been kicking around in my brain, I was able to create a solid marketing plan for the series after reading David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital. Basically, this re-launch plan is the culmination of five years of mistakes—mistakes I’m not at all bummed about, because they taught me much.

I’m an arrow shooting forward!

Into the Unknown

As I write this, the SOF series is down from all wide retailers and updates are publishing in my KDP dashboard. Changes are slowly flipping on the books’ pages. SOF2 and SOF3 are advertised as KU books. SOF1 is still permafree.

SOF1 has been averaging two downloads a day on Amazon, with a tiny handful of sell-through on SOF2 and SOF3. My goal is to generate a part-time income of $500 a month; I know I can anticipate this, because authors writing similar series are reporting much higher incomes. Still, I’m not expecting an overnight miracle.

My new covers might not be as genre-appropriate as I think. The women on the covers might throw off RR readers who are used to covers featuring male rockstars with tight abs and electric guitars. Designing for this series is tough, because the main characters are the bad-ass belles of the band—the women who are really the force of nature behind the music.

Jett, the vocalist who doesn’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the band for the feelings she has for guitarist Koty.

Savannah, the artist who gave up her own career so that keyboardist Max could move to Boston and join the band.

Poppy, the band manager who sort of kind of lied about her experience so that she could get the gig—and drummer Griff.

Krista, the music journalist who desperately wants her own column and tortured, distant bassist Perry.

It’s not your typical RR, but the sex is just as steamy and the band plays just as hard.

With a little luck and the elbow grease I’ve applied, I’m hoping readers will find it refreshing, devour it, and tell other RR readers to “dive into this book now,” as one of my reviewers wrote.

Post-Launch Inventory: Just One More Minute

Just a little over two weeks ago, I released my 10th novel, Just One More Minute. It’s a contemporary NA small town bakery romance, and it’s my first ever written-to-market novel. By “written-to-market,” I mean I intentionally wrote it using romance tropes, or themes, rather than letting my creativity run wild and using tropes by accident. For example, some of the tropes I wrote with were “enemies to lovers” and “second chance.”

I also looked at bakery romances. They’re fun and lighthearted; I was challenged by my therapist to write something on the lighter side back when I was in PTSD recovery. However, I am who I am, and needed to include my own flavor: gritty, steamy romances led by strong belles, focusing on social issues. I baked all of those things into Just One More Minute, but kept it lighthearted, which made it a lot of fun to write and a lot easier to market. It’s also making me a lot more money than my most recent releases have—and more money is always a good thing, since that means I can pay my bills and write more books.

Since I’m trying to get better at comparing the state of my business before and after each book launch, I’d like to dive into what I learned from Just One More Minute. If you’d like to follow along, here are my pre-launch numbers.

The Cover Reveal

The cover reveal I did on Instagram went really well! For some reason, I didn’t note how many followers I had before the cover reveal 🙄, but I now have 375 followers on Instagram. I do know I gained quite a few with every piece of the cover I posted. Using relevant hashtags—like #bookstagram and #bibliophile, for example—really helped me reach a new audience. It also drew in some weird bot accounts. 😂

My followers really seemed to like the piece-by-piece reveal, and new-to-me readers thought it was cool, too. The beard piece got the most likes! 😍 Mind you, before I started this particular cover reveal, my average likes were maybe 10 per post. Now I’m averaging 20-50 likes per post; I’ve also been trying to post several times a week, to keep that momentum going. Even now that I’m technically unplugged, I’m still posting to Instagram—I’m just not checking notifications.

A note on the cover: A few days before release, I noticed that the title on the original design was really hard to see at thumbnail size. My designer couldn’t fix it right away, so I launched with the original cover. However, I ran some ads the week after release—which are basically thumbnail-size covers in newsletters like Bookbub—and those ads failed epically. I suspect it was because the title was hard to read, and customers just passed it by while scrolling through their email.

However, sales from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, etc are doing great, because their thumbnail size is a bit bigger. I’ve since redesigned the cover to make the title pop more.

I still love the original design—it’s so glow-y and swoon-y—but the typography was just way too light. I ended up dusting off my dinosaur Gateway—which still has Photoshop CS4 on it—and cleaning it out—viruses galore!—to redo the cover from scratch. I couldn’t find the fonts my designer used, and she was unavailable, so I had to make due. I think it came out okay. Not great, but okay. And now the title really stands out!

I was, however, successfully able to repeat the glowy overlay. It’s not exact, but it’s close. I did it with the gradient tool in multiple layers, with multiple colors at different opacities. I still don’t love the new look, but I had to be done with it and move forward.

I just want to stress here that I noticed the thumbnail issue super late in the game and life threw some curveballs at my poor designer. Ordinarily the fix could’ve waited, but with ads running and the price about to go back up, I had to do something myself—nothing personal.

On the bright side, this got me out of design retirement! I’ve been working on some other cover redesigns that I can’t wait to share. 😊

Getting back on track, during my piece-by-piece reveal, I collected email addresses to send a five-chapter preview to. The pre-order went live on October 31st with the final piece, and I emailed my list that preview.

I got 11 pre-orders on Amazon and 1 on iBooks; I don’t know about the other retailers because they don’t display pre-orders separately. It wasn’t my best pre-order run (which was 36), but it also wasn’t my worst (which was 0)! I suspect if I’d done a longer pre-order (I only did 18 days), it would’ve beat out my best (which was a three-month run).

Sales Numbers

I’m slightly nervous to share these numbers. I’m still relatively unknown even after five years, so try not to judge me too harshly. So far, Just One More Minute is my second best-selling book in its first month.

A note on pricing: Originally, when I did the $0.99 pre-order, my plan was to bring the price back up to $2.99 on release day. Mostly because I didn’t have the budget to run ads for a sale. But thanks to my GoFundMe—which is really helping me get caught up on bills—I had a bit extra. I thought of that old parable.

Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you’ll feed him for life.

never thought I’d be quoting the bible to help me with my business, but it’s true. I figured I could set aside $20-40 and run some ads with smaller newsletters (I so can’t swing a Bookbub right now), which would help me make more money in the long run. I’m still an unknown author, and I have an autoimmune disease that is, quite frankly, kicking my ass and preventing me from working a normal job. So in this position, I have to be agile and smart. Which isn’t always easy, because the brain fog struggle is real. Chronic illness jokes! 😂

Dark humor aside, I thought I’d use some bill money to try and make more money, and extended my $0.99 promo to two weeks after release. The ads didn’t work out (see my cover notes above). Thankfully I only spent about $20 on ads. I ran them on Monday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so the proximity of the holiday could’ve had an effect on them, too.

Fortunately, the book is selling really well on its own on iBooks and Amazon. On Kobo, it’s doing moderately well. And it’s moving, albeit slowly, on the other retailers. Without further ado (and mind you, this is in its first two weeks, on sale, so please be gentle and don’t judge me too harshly)…

  • iBooks: 33
  • Amazon: 31
  • Kobo: 11
  • Google Play: 7
  • Smashwords: 3
  • Draft2Digital/Nook: 2

A note on Nook: Oh Nook, why you gotta do me wrong… Unfortunately, something is glitched out on their end and I haven’t been able to reliably get into my NookPress account for months. I’ve been in touch with support multiple times and the issue doesn’t seem to be being resolved, which is a shame. Honestly, at this point, the second I can log in again, I’m yanking all my titles and re-publishing them through Draft2Digital, because this has sucked up a lot of time and caused me a lot of headache. Not to mention I’ve started my annual end-of-year inventory and can’t touch a single title I’ve published through NookPress… 😱

I’ve since bumped the price up to $3.99. Now, originally I’d planned on making $2.99 my regular price. However, after doing a lot of thinking, talking with other indies on Kboards, and market research, I’ve determined that the majority of books in the NA category are priced $3.99 and above across all retailers. This is a bit of a test balloon, and I’m a little worried that it’ll bring my good sales to a screeching halt, but I really need to start making money again so I can feed myself, my husband, and our overlord the cat. She’s a tyrant, I tell you.

Five-chapter Preview (Newsletter, Blog, Wattpad)

I did an early cover reveal for my email list and Facebook reader group a few days before posting the final piece on Instagram. I also sent my email list a five-chapter preview before anyone else got it. After that, I posted all five chapters on Wattpad in one shot, then scheduled weekly chapters to post to my blog. My goal here was to drive pre-orders. And obviously it worked—but I should’ve done a longer pre-order period.

Here are some Wattpad numbers…

  • Followers Before Launch: 206
  • Followers After Launch: 238
  • Total JOMM Reads: 61
  • Total JOMM Votes: 9

This isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but my bar was set pretty high in the wake of the roaring success of Sandpaper Fidelity (which has over 75,000 reads and 2,100 votes to date). However, Wattpad is a fickle beast. For one, it’s hard to gain traction on works that are only excerpts. Wattpad readers love full-length works. Also, Wattpad will only promote full-length works. Still, my bar on excerpts was pretty high too, since The Nanny with the Skull Tattoos has over 13,900 reads and 250 votes to date. I’m hoping that, given some time, JOMM will see similar success. That said, TNWTST is a force of nature on its own: it still moves on retailers (albeit much more slowly now, almost a year after release), people either really love it or really hate it, and it consistently draws in eyeballs. It’s my breakout hit, my best-selling title. It’s what put me on the part-time earnings map when it released ($500/month)—a place I’d really like to get back to!

Blogging

I have to admit, I’ve really slacked on this. My intention was to post topic-related blogs—posts about depression, grief, etc—leading up to and for a short time after release, to draw in an audience. They’re things I write about anyway. I also wanted to write more specific posts, like my experience as a culinary student at a tech school and how that influenced this book. But time, health, and life haven’t been on my side, so this piece of my marketing plan got lost in the mix.

Advanced Review Copies

This is another area I failed miserably in. I contacted 11 book bloggers about an excerpt and ARC (if they wanted it), but I think I reached out too close to release. I also contacted 15 readers about ARCs. Some had won them during Facebook takeovers I did, and others won them from giveaways in one of my two reader groups (Barone’s Belles and Romance Readers Anonymous). In the past, for TNWTST, I reached out to everyone I knew and asked if they wanted an ARC in exchange for a review; this time, I didn’t have quite enough time. Only a handful of readers responded. So far, JOMM has four reviews on Amazon, with a 4.5 average rating. I’ll be doing a major review push in December with incentives.

I screwed a few things up, unfortunately.

I should have kept in touch with the winners from various takeovers; months later, they probably didn’t remember who the heck I was and simply deleted my email about their ARC.

I also dropped the ball and forgot to send the packet to one of the two bloggers who did sign up for my excerpt!

I’m extremely upset with myself. This is part of the reason why I’m taking a break from social media. I’ve just got way too much on my plate, and I’m forgetting important things. Brain fog aside, I think I’m simply overloaded.

Lesson learned.

Release Party

Speaking of overload, my personal life has been a marathon of family emergencies: my sweet great-grandmother passed away, my great-aunt had a severe stroke, and then another family member had an emergency I can’t discuss on the afternoon of my Facebook release party.

I’d dropped the ball on promoting the party—which is another thing I’m bummed about—and then canceled it last-minute in order to be there for my family. My readers, thankfully, were so understanding and sweet. That took off a lot of pressure. But I’d been looking forward to it! Admittedly, I had thought about canceling it, but decided to do it anyway. I always enjoy those parties, even though they can be a lot of work to organize and pull off. That reader interaction is so important to me, and fun! But my work wife J.C. Hannigan saved the day and threw a giveaway that evening while I was stress-cleaning my house waiting for news.

I know I absolutely made the right decision—I was essentially on standby and didn’t want to end up having to leave midway through the party—but it’s just another example of how even the most organized marketing plans can go off the rails.

For my next book, I’d like to A) give myself more time to execute things and B) come up with some backup plans in case of life being life-y. And dear dog, life likes to throw curveballs at me. At least I’m really good at bouncing back. 🙃

Social Media

This time, I’ll make sure I include my Instagram numbers. 😂

  • Newsletter: 252 to 267
  • Twitter: 1,428 to 1,464
  • Facebook: 511 to 528
  • Instagram: ??? to 275
  • Barone’s Belles reader group: 93 to 96
  • Romance Readers Anonymous reader group: 135 to 153
  • Wattpad: 206 to 238

Not bad at all. I’d really like to get Facebook, Instagram, and Wattpad into the 1000s, but I can’t complain considering I don’t put a whole lot of effort into growing them. I’m a little concerned as to how Twitter, etc will fare while I’m unplugged, but I can’t let that strong-arm me back into a social media frenzy.

I desperately need to get caught up on my production schedule and get inventory done for 2017 so that I can start the new year off strong (and finally get back into that part-time earnings bracket). I’ll be writing up a whole other post on that very soon, because while I don’t think many people read this blog, I think it’s helpful information for other indies and I tend to see business-y things more clearly after explaining them to others. So it’ll be extra helpful for me!

The Gist

All told, I think this was a pretty successful launch. I’m curious to see how JOMM does with the new cover and $3.99 price point. I also need to play with keywords over on Amazon, now that it’s been live for a couple weeks. (Speaking of pricing, I’ll be raising all of my novels to $3.99. More on that in my upcoming “Preparing for 2017” post!)

I’ve been slowly working on formatting JOMM for print on demand. It’s horribly tedious, since I’m doing it in Pages (which requires a lot of workarounds), but it’s getting there.

After two hours of formatting...
After two hours of formatting…

Since this screenshot, I’ve added the alternating author and title headers. Those and page numbers I have to do by hand with text boxes, since the newer Pages is a hot mess and doesn’t allow much customization for headers and footers. I haven’t even started on widows, orphans, and all that craziness. But I did start, and it’s going better than I expected. Just slow! It’s also not my priority, so I don’t have a paperback release date (yet). However, one of my goals for 2017 is to get all of my books back into print. I’m determined! I want to do signings and readings and festivals again.

All right, I think that’s enough burbling.

If you’ve read all 2,700+ words of this, thanks for sticking with me! I hope it was helpful.