What should you do with the novels you published early in your career?
If your old novels are languishing in the dusty corners of Amazon, are they dead? Can they be resurrected? Is there any money left to be made?
To answer these questions, James L. Rubart and I interviewed bestselling author Chris Fox, author of Relaunch Your Novel: Breathe Life Into Your Backlist (Affiliate Link).
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Many novelists have discovered that their early books were not as great as they thought they were at the time. After they’ve written several books, they may look back on their first novel and realize that it could be improved, but they aren’t sure where to start.
James L. Rubart (Jim): A Novel Marketing Patron asked this question:
“I’ve written 60 books, and my first one was not very good. What should I do?”Novel Marketing Patron
Why should someone consider relaunching their book?
Chris Fox: Perhaps your sales were strong when you launched the book, but three years later, sales have dried up. Or you may have had a weak launch to begin with, and sales have never been good. Either way, you may be wondering what to do with that book now.
On Amazon, your novel is tied to an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). When you relaunch your book, you can often get a new ASIN. With a new ASIN, Amazon treats your book as a new product, and they will promote it as a new book even though it’s the same book. So a new ASIN gives you a second chance at discoverability.
Thomas: If you have bad reviews, a new ASIN will reset the review counter, which could be a good thing.
Chris: Yes. By default, if you unpublish a book and then republish under a different ASIN, you’ll lose all your reviews. However, if you’re attached to your good reviews, you can contact Amazon to explain that you’ve published a new edition of the same book. In some cases, they’ll attach those old reviews to your new edition. Some authors have been able to salvage their reviews, but it’s not a guarantee. You have to approach Amazon with your hat in your hand and ask them to help you.
Jim: Chris, in your book, Relaunch Your Novel: Breathe Life into Your Backlist (Affiliate Link), you talk about the different levels of relaunch. Can you give us an overview of that?
Should I relaunch?
Chris: The first question is whether you should relaunch your book. If the novel was poorly written, if the marketing material was terrible, if that book is in a genre you no longer write, you need to assess whether it is worth relaunching.
If it is worth relaunching, take inventory of your time and resources. How much time and money can you devote to the relaunch? Can you get a new cover, rewrite the blurb, set up some new promotions, and call it a day? Or do you need what I call the 6-million-dollar relaunch? At that level, you spend several thousand dollars on revamping the cover, rewriting the blurb, scheduling promotions, and coordinating with every author who owes you a favor to ask them to promote your book.
You can do very little to relaunch, or you can do quite a bit.
Thomas: You’d be surprised how effective a new cover can be. I know authors who have launched excellent books with terrible covers. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series had terrible covers, but they are some of his best books. Even though the Mistborn books were better than his previous books, the sales were worse, and his publisher was disappointed.
After six years, he convinced his publisher to get better covers, and sales revived.
Chris: I was part of his target audience, and I refused to buy those books because the covers were atrocious. Because of that cover art, I didn’t even discover his books until they changed the covers. Now they’re great.
Thomas: I had read all his books, but I skipped the Mistborn series. I assumed the books were bad because the covers were so bad. It wasn’t until after I read his Wheel of Time series that I decided to read Mistborn.
How do you know if you have a good cover?
Chris: You’re looking for a cover with consistent branding that matches the audience’s expectations. If you’re part of the audience, you know what looks good and what readers expect. If you’re not part of the audience for that genre, you need to research the genre, find covers that are selling well, and see which books hold the top sales spots on Amazon. Then, see if you can discern a pattern in the cover design of the top-selling books. Your cover design will be dictated by what’s selling well in your genre.
Thomas: But most authors want their covers to be unique and different from all the other covers.
Chris: Yes, they do. I did that the first time around. We believe that being unique will differentiate our book, and unfortunately, a lot of us succeeded at being unique. Your reader is looking for a certain emotional experience, and your cover needs to communicate what kind of book it is. If the cover is too unique, it’s also unclear, and readers will be confused and therefore uninterested.
When you’re looking for a TV show, you’re looking for a certain genre. So if you see a picture of the expanse and a spaceship, you’ll know the show is set in space. But if you see a picture of a proto-molecule from the show, you might not even know the show was set in space.
You have to leverage the visuals to explain to the reader what your book is about so that they read the title or click to read the blurb.
Jim: A great cover will get a reader to the blurb, but the blurb must get the reader to the first sentence or paragraph.
Why is the back cover copy so critical?
Chris: You have about five words to gain the interest of your reader. If the first four words sound like a trope they hate, they’ll click away or put your book down.
For example, if your cover tells them it’s science fiction, but the first four words of your blurb make it sound like a thriller, they’re already looking for a different book.
You need to know what readers expect, and you have to intrigue them.
To find out what intrigues my readers, I test through advertising.
I set up a $.99 preorder on one of my books. Then, I’ll run a bunch of Facebook ads trying to get people to sign up. I know I’ll take a loss on those ads, but I’ll run a dozen ads with different taglines and blurbs to see what the audience likes.
Inevitably, I’ll see that one or two perform much better than the others. I’ll build all my marketing copy around those successful ads. I used that process for my most recent series, The Magitech Chronicles, and the first book made it to the top 100 of all of Amazon.
Thomas: That’s a fantastic strategy. I’ve been advocating for testing through ads for years, and almost no one does it. Science and experimentation will show you what works.
I was at a writer’s conference talking to a marketing executive for one of the top publishers. I suggested they test their covers on the audience through Facebook ads. He’d never even thought of it before.
Testing through ads is one way indies can out-maneuver the marketing teams at traditional publishing houses. Traditional publishers are not testing. They simply send their ideas to a committee inside the company. If people inside the company don’t understand the genre, they may have no idea what the audience wants.
Chris: It’s surprising how easy it is to test. I spend 15 minutes per day modifying my ads to target different and new audiences. The goal is to find out what works and what doesn’t. The biggest barrier to entry for most authors is the daily cost of running ads. But if you keep your daily spend low, you can figure out which audiences like your stuff.
How can I improve my marketing copy?
Jim: That small investment can return huge numbers if you tap into the right audience.
If you have several novels published, comb through your reviews for wording readers are already using about your books. You can modify their words and use them in your marketing copy.
Chris: You can even use one-star reviews in a humorous way. Some of my best marketing was based on a one-star review that blasted my book. But, it was funny, and people got interested.
Thomas: I have purchased books based on the quality of a one-star review. If the wrong audience for your book leaves one-star reviews, it will signal to the right audience that your book is something they will like.
For example, a one-star review might say, “This book has too much Christian content.” But if you’re targeting Christians, then that’s exactly the kind of review you want!
If someone writes a one-star review saying, “This book has too much sappy romance,” then readers of sappy romance will know your book is one they’d like.
Do you have any relaunch success stories?
Thomas: Tell us about some successful book launches you’ve seen.
The first that comes to mind was an author with a successful series called Bill the Vampire (Affiliate Link). It’s raunchy, tongue-in-cheek comedy, but it made him $130,000 in the first three years it was out. Even though he had poorly branded covers, he’d made great money, so he was afraid to touch anything.
I talked with him, and he decided to brand the covers in a cohesive way. He did a light edit on the first couple of books, and then he rebranded the covers. Suddenly, through Facebook advertising, his series took off, and his income tripled. He was making $350,000 per year from that series. Two years after the fact, sales are trickling down, but he’s still making great money. That series is now his flagship series, and he’s built his career around it.
Thomas: I love the idea of rewriting the first book in a series. If you can sell through the first book, readers will buy the rest of the series. So editing and rewriting that first book will pay for itself since you’ll sell more of your subsequent books.
Chris: That especially applies to the first 3,000-5,000 words of that first book. Those first chapters are the introduction to your work. It’s your business card. If you don’t delight them in the first 3,000 words, people will put the book down, look for something else, and rarely return to you.
What kind of book is a good candidate for a book relaunch?
Jim: Which kind of books aren’t good candidates for relaunch? Our patron had 60 books. How can she decide?
Chris: When I consult with an author in that situation, I want to find out which books were hits for her. Then we start looking for themes. Were they all in the same genre? Did they all have the same heroine? If you find a theme, you can do a light rewrite on the first three books in the series, get new covers, and workshop your blurbs with your author friends in the same genre to make sure your marketing copy is decent. Then you see how they do.
If they do well, you release one a month (or whatever your genre will sustain) until you’ve caught up your entire backlist. That’s more effective than trying to republish 60 books at a time, especially since you don’t know how the market will receive them.
Does the relaunch work for stand-alone books?
Jim: You talk a lot about series. My first three novels stand alone. Do you recommend the same strategy? People aren’t compelled to read the next in the series to find out what happens. They’re just looking to read something else by me.
Chris: If your books are in the same genre, you’ll still see some of the benefits of this strategy. It’s hard to convince people to read from one book to the next if they’re not linked in a series. You’ll usually see some readers drop off.
However, you can use your back matter to mitigate the drop-off. For example, you can include a sample chapter from one book in the back matter of another book so that each book becomes an advertisement for another.
Thomas: It’s important to think about the customer journey even when you’re writing books for the first time. At the end of each book, you want them to read your next book. So make it as easy as possible for your reader to find the next book. It’s surprising how few books have sample chapters in the back matter. It’s a proven technique, and it works well. I saw it work when I was the marketing director at Enclave Publishing.
Chris: You can even get email subscribers by offering a free ebook in the back matter. An email subscriber is even more valuable because that often leads to multiple sales over the years.
What mistakes do authors make when relaunching their books?
They don’t prepare. Often, an author will launch a book that doesn’t do well, but they don’t take the time to scientifically research why it flopped. They don’t find out what the problems were. Instead, they’ll throw money at it. I’ve seen people spend $5,000 to $10,000 on a relaunch. They might get a new cover, but they don’t research why they needed a new cover or how the blurb should be changed.
If you’re going to relaunch, try to get a second, third, and fourth opinion on your cover and blurb from people who have the kind of sales numbers you’re after.
If you write science fiction, look for the top authors in your genre and email them saying, “I’m thinking about doing a relaunch. Would you take two minutes to look at this new cover or blurb and tell me what you think?” You’ll be surprised at how many authors will offer advice.
Thomas: Change for its own sake doesn’t do any good. If you don’t know why it’s broken, you won’t know how to fix it.
How do you test a cover on Facebook?
Chris: Start with a budget. Before you get a new cover, try to figure out what is selling at the time. If you have people on your list who have read your book, email them and ask what they think the cover should look like. Those readers have spent time in your world with your characters. They are your most passionate fans. Many of them will have great ideas for potential covers.
Once you have ten potential cover ideas, post them in your Facebook group or send out a survey and have people vote. That way, before you’ve spent a dime, you already have an idea of what kind of cover you should get.
After you’ve compiled the best ideas, visit DeviantArt.com. Most artists maintain a profile there. Start searching for the type of art that represents your genre. You can find artists who are just starting out. They’ll make you a high-quality cover at a price a new author can afford.
Thomas: After an author buys cover art, how do they test it for their audience?
Chris: Create several Facebook ads using the artwork from your artist. Then use the most interesting text you have. For example, in one ad, you might use the first paragraph from the book. In a second ad, say something exciting about the plot. Then start plugging in different Facebook audiences to see how they respond to the ad.
You’ll quickly see data for the cost per click (CPC). If you see a high CPC, that means people in that audience aren’t interested in that ad, so you’ll want to turn it off.
If you have a low CPC, you’ve found people who really like your image, and you’ll know that image is working, and you’ve got your cover.
Thomas: The temptation is to survey your readers to see which cover they vote for. But with a survey, people are terrible at knowing what they want. When you survey people, they become a more rational version of themselves. But when you test through ads, people either click or they don’t, and you get real data from their subconscious. A survey doesn’t tell you what people are feeling, but you do get that data with clicks.
Facebook will show your ad to 5,000 people for a few dollars, so the ads are relatively cheap.
Chris: If funds are a real issue, you can kind of get around it by posting your cover image in Facebook groups where members are familiar with the genre. It’s not as good as the data you’d get from ads, but it’s one way to get started.
What’s your one piece of advice for someone thinking of relaunching their book?
Chris: Be patient. People are so eager to publish. They feel the industry is moving at light speed, and they’ll be left behind. I don’t think that’s the case. Take the time required to write the best book possible. Take time with your marketing and research. Maybe you only run a $2.00 ad, but you’re still taking action that will bring you closer to success than you are today. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
Jim: In your book, you talk about your experiments, and you reveal what worked for you and what didn’t. You explained that this is a strategy for the long haul. If authors learn from their mistakes, they’ll have a lot of success. I appreciated that perspective.
Thomas: Chris, You are my favorite marketing guru for authors right now. The good-advice per page ratio is the highest of all the marketing books I’ve read. Other books are good, but you have great advice, particularly in Relaunch Your Novel: Breathe Life Into Your Backlist (Affiliate Link)
Where can people find out more about you?
Chrisfoxwrites.com is my website. You’ll find my YouTube channel there with tutorials for authors. My book, 5,000 Words Per Hour, is available for free on my website. I also have three free prequel novellas on my website if you’d like a sample of my fiction.
The Embers Series (Affiliate Link), by Carrie Daws
Inspector Cassandra McCarthy never thought she’d be raising her two daughters alone, but her husband’s unexpected death forced her to find a career. Now working beside a retired Special Operations soldier and veteran fireman, she serves her small North Carolina town, protecting them from hazards they don’t understand. She loves what she does and trusts God to provide—until a hurricane and a series of unexplained fires hits too close to home. What will it cost Cassandra to protect the citizens of Silver Heights?
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