While most authors sell most of their books on Amazon, it’s not all roses and butterflies. Amazon takes between 30% and 75% of the profits, depending on what kind of book you’re selling, and that doesn’t include the price of printing or production!
Another downside of selling books on Amazon is that you don’t know who buys your book. You cannot connect with your readers to get their feedback or let them know when your next book releases.
If only there were another way to make more money from your book sales and connect with your readers at the same time!
There is! You can sell directly from your website.
If you’ve listened to Novel Marketing for a long time, you know I was not a big fan of direct sales for most authors because it was expensive, required a lot of technical sophistication, and was usually a money-loser after authors accounted for their expenses and time.
In fact, our plugin MyBookTable was designed to allow authors to add a bookstore to their website without having to sell any books themselves. It was a bookstore, but instead of a shopping cart, it had links to Amazon and dozens of other ecommerce websites.
But in the last ten years, the cost of selling directly to readers online has gone down. It’s now much easier to sell directly to readers from your website, and more readers are willing to buy directly from an author’s website.
Direct sales now make sense for many authors, and it is time we talked about it with Joanna Penn.
Joanna writes nonfiction for authors and is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.
What was it like when you started selling directly to readers through your website?
Thomas: You’re famously an early adopter. You don’t wait for things to get easy to try them for the first time. Describe your first experiences of selling directly.
Joanna: I started selling directly from the beginning. I can’t remember the stores I used because the tools change over time. I started selling ebooks as downloadable PDFs and downloadable MP3s.
In those days, I used to put a cassette tape adapter in my car to listen to audio.
In 2009, we had a few tools, but they were complicated to use.
Over the years, I’ve tried different tools for selling direct. The most recent one that worked better was payhip, which I recommend for people who want a smaller store.
Then, about 18 months ago, I moved to Shopify because now we can do print.
Book people like us love beautiful books. In your study, Thomas, you’ve got beautiful print books on the shelves behind you. Authors have not been able to easily create beautiful books. Print-on-demand technology is amazing and has changed many indie authors’ lives, but print-on-demand books are not really beautiful. Let’s face it. We just haven’t had the option to produce beautiful books.
But today, authors can create beautiful physical books through printing companies like bookvault and Lulu. With bookvault I can print hardbacks with color printing, gold foil, and ribbons. And I can integrate with Shopify.
I have been selling directly from my website since 2008 or 2009 when I first started selling online, but it has recently become my major focus with Shopify and Kickstarter.
Now, I love Amazon. I’m a shareholder in Amazon. I believe in the company, but I want more control as an author and publisher. Selling directly gets me more profit per sale, customer data, and faster payment. When someone buys directly from my website, I get paid within an hour, or perhaps in 48 hours, but that means I’m getting paid every single day. The economics change dramatically when you aren’t waiting 60 to 90 days for a payment.
Selling direct has many benefits, but the biggest downside for many authors is the marketing, but that’s why we’re here.
Thomas: Exactly. You can have the greatest store in the world, but if you don’t have a plan to get people to your store, you won’t sell books.
I often see authors spend a lot of money to hire a traditional web design firm to build a robust bookstore with checkout pages and everything. But they don’t have a plan to get people to visit their store.
When people do visit, all they want is a button that will take them to Amazon so they can checkout with one click. Buying from Amazon is easier because you can paste the book’s title in the search bar and buy with one click. That’s easier than typing your address and credit card number into an author’s store on their website.
How do you get people to your website and motivate them to buy the book from you?
Joanna: The attitude shift is the magic we need because it doesn’t matter what marketing you do to your store. It’s about your attitude toward sales.
For fiction authors, the focus has been on selling cheap books or free books in KU for almost 15 years. That’s how we’ve trained our readers, and it has changed the author’s brain to think that readers will only buy cheap or free books.
You almost have to completely reeducate yourself if you want to sell directly. You have to understand that many readers are happy to buy print, audio, and ebooks from your store, on the Shopify app, through your website, and through social media. What’s more, they will pay for shipping.
People ask me, “But why would someone shop that way?” And my answer is that you just have to put it in front of them and educate them as to why they should buy from you. Remind them their purchase is supporting an independent author and publisher.
We’ve had enough of cheap eBooks already! We have to change our view.
In terms of marketing, pretty much anything works for selling direct except for Amazon ads.
Thomas: And many of the marketing tactics work better for selling direct. If you’re running Facebook ads, you can pixel people when they visit your website and then retarget them. That’s a very advanced strategy, so don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
But that very powerful technique is almost impossible to use on Amazon. Whereas if you’re doing it on your own website, it’s easier and more powerful. Some of the tools get better.
Joanna: Yes, and with Meta ads, you can optimize for conversions, which we cannot do on Amazon or any third-party store like Kobo or Apple because we don’t have access. But because we have access to the sale when selling direct, the Meta ads can be optimized for conversions.
But you don’t have to start there. Start with an easier marketing tactic.
What’s the first step for selling directly?
Link to Your Own Store
Joanna: If you are committed to this mindset, the first step is to change the links on your website. Probably 99% of authors link their buy buttons to Amazon only or Amazon first.
I and many other authors have started to change all the links on our websites to redirect everything to our own website store.
We found amongst the sell-direct community that the more you sell on your own store, the more you also sell on other stores. Even if you turn off your Amazon ads, for example, and redirect your marketing to your own store, lots of people will see an ad or hear about your book, and they’ll still buy it from their favorite online retailer.
You’re not giving up those sales. You can almost amplify them by changing all the links on your website to point to your store.
Utilize Content Marketing
I have 15 years’ worth of great content on my website with many links and backlinks. I’m changing all those links to point to my store. You don’t need to jump straight into advertising. Content marketing has been the basis of my business for 15 years, and it’s still the basis of my business.
Paid ads are the cream on top. They are not the bulk of my business.
Creating new content through blogging and podcasting is another way to use content marketing. One tip for podcasters is to make sure you can say your links out loud. For example, CreativePennBooks.com is my store for my nonfiction, and JFPennBooks.com is the store for my fiction. I can easily say those web addresses out loud. I don’t need to say slashes and dashes.
Good for SEO
Thomas: The other benefit of changing all those links to point to your internal store is that it’s good for search engine optimization. If your internal page has book club resources or a map for your fantasy novel, and all your buy links point to that page, you may be able to outrank Amazon for your book title. The more links you have pointing to your store, the higher you will rank.
If you outrank Amazon, people who Google your book title will suddenly start buying from you because your website appears first in the search results.
Good for Readers
Joanna: Another tip is to post a reading order. You know which book to read first, but your readers may not. Including a reading order list on your store with links to all the books is helpful. Then, you can update the back matter in your books to point to your reading order list on your website. It’s a brilliant strategy because it means people will go there and might click through and buy your other books.
Shopify integrates with Google, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook Shop, and Instagram, so you can actually embed your book’s buy links. It’s like a shop within the platforms.
On my Instagram, for example, you can click through and buy the book straight away. These powerful integrations mean it’s much easier to buy direct.
Thomas: I love that because you do need to make it easy for customers because by default, the checkout process on your website is harder than checking out on Amazon. Amazon has one-click checkout. The more steps you can remove from your checkout process, the better.
I love your reading order suggestion because, as an audiobook reader, Audible is the worst for helping me know which book to read next. It rarely shows the series or the series number. If I want to binge-listen to an author’s books, I have to google the reading order.
Whether you sell directly or not, a series order page on your website is an absolute must. It’s easy to put together. If your books are only listed on Amazon, simply make a reading order list linked to your Amazon affiliate links. It’s better than nothing, and you can always change that page later to link to your own store when you have one.
Joanna: We can use BookFunnel for ebook and audiobook sales and bookvault or Lulu for print. Everything is delivered automatically. Once somebody buys, I don’t have to mail anything.
Shopify can also integrate with your email marketing service.
For example, I use ConvertKit, which allows me to trigger an autoresponder based on a purchase, and it brings the buyer onto my email list. It’s a great email list builder, which we don’t get when we sell in other stores.
That autoresponder feature also allows you to
- offer automatic discount codes
- track where people have clicked from in your autoresponder series
- upsell people from free books
- upsell people to bundles
Speaking of bundles, the bigger the bundle, the more money you’ll make.
For example, I sell a 12-book bundle. If you spend $0.35 to get a click from an adand upsell readers to a $16 or $30 bundle, it’s much easier to make your money back.
Again, change your perspective from cheap or free ebooks to bundles and an average order value of $15 to $100. That’s where the proper income comes from.
Thomas: As Seth Godin says, “The problem with a race to the bottom is that you just might win.” Many authors have been frantically trying to figure out how they can race to the bottom in terms of pricing, and they’re barely making pennies by offering entire bundles for $0.99.
Brandon Sanderson wanted to try something entirely different. He wanted to sell his book for $250. He told his publisher that the people who buy his books also play video games. Collectible edition video games cost $100 or $200 and come with figurines.
His publisher blinked at him and said, “Nobody’s going to pay $250 for your book, Brandon.” But Brandon thought they would. He sold a collector’s edition of the first book in The Way of Kings series for $250, which was the cheap version. You could also get it for $500.
I was happy to buy that $250 version of his book. He raised $6 million from that Kickstarter campaign. He made $40 million on his next Kickstarter and broke all the records. He has proved to the industry that a certain kind of reader wants to buy those books.
Joanna: Direct-only products are an important part of selling direct. For example, you can only get some of my books through my stores. They’re not available.
That’s what Brandon did. His readers could only get that version if they bought it directly from him.
If you don’t want to go that far, you can offer an ebook for sale on your store first for a few months. Take as much of that money as you can, and then publish it on the other stores.
Thomas: When you combine all these motivations, it becomes magical for sales.
Motivator 1: Support the Author
Tell your readers that when they buy from your website directly or back your Kickstarter, they’re supporting you as the author rather than Jeff Bezos.
Amazon has plenty of money, but you, as the author, need money more than Amazon. That’s the basic pitch, and it works best if readers already love you or if you’re connected with a cause or religion they support.
That pitch doesn’t work as well if you’re just some random romance author they don’t really care about as a person. The help-me-make-more-money pitch works, but it doesn’t work on everyone.
Joanna: What I’m talking about is primarily for our fans. I’m focusing on educating my existing audience to buy direct first. We’re not trying to guilt anyone. We’re encouraging a healthy ecosystem approach where independent authors, publishers, and printers are supported.
Motivator 2: Early Access
Offering early access to products might motivate a stranger to buy direct, but it works better for fans because they care more than anyone about getting early access. A stranger may prefer to see reviews before buying, so early access may not be a motivator.
But, if the only place to buy your book for the first three months is on your website, suddenly, the hassle of typing my address on your website is no hassle at all compared to the hassle of waiting for a book that all my friends are reading now.
Motivator 3: Bundles
Bundles work for fans and strangers. You might offer multiple books in a bundle. You could also say, “If you buy the hardcover for $50, you’ll also get the ebook and audiobook.” That adds a ton of value to their purchase, but it costs you almost nothing to deliver. It makes the print book seem cheaper.
Most Kickstarter campaigns bundle digital editions into all the paper editions because it makes them more appealing.
Motivator 4: Special Edition
The final motivation is the special edition which is only available through Kickstarter or on your website. It’s probably leather-bound with gold foil letters and special full-color maps. It’s expensive, and when you offer it directly, readers are motivated to buy directly from you.
Joanna: As a creator, I want to make beautiful books. I want people to have them on their shelves like you do. I’ve never been able to do it before in an effective way. This motivator is almost changing my perspective on being a creative.
I’m an author first, but I’m also an amateur photographer. I buy a lot of special hardbacks, and I have so many ideas for what I want to create. I’ve started doing spiral-bound workbooks to go with my nonfiction, which you can’t do with print-on-demand through KDP Print.
The last 15 years have focused on driving people to a big store. We’re at the beginning of the next 15 years, which will be focused on a very different business model.
Many marketing tips we share will still work with that different business model. We’re just pointing customers to a different store.
Thomas: That’s right, and it opens the playbook. It’s not hard to set up an email that triggers a month after someone buys a book and only if they have not bought the next book. That email could offer a 10% discount on the next book in the series.
You set it up once in ConvertKit, and you’re done. It only goes to people who didn’t binge your books. The only people who receive the email are those who are interested. That email can be very effective, but you can’t do it if you sell on Amazon or Barnes and Noble’s website.
Joanna: You can’t do it because you don’t have the customer’s email address.
At the moment, most of your email list is made up of people who have clicked on a link at the back of a book that’s been sold in another way. They came to your website to sign up for your free reader magnet.
We’ve been pushing reader magnets for years, and suddenly, by selling direct, I can get them to get my free book on JFPenn.com, and now I have their email. The reader magnet is actually the book itself. Thinking through why we do things is an important part of this scenario.
What about BookBub?
Joanna: You can point BookBub ads to your direct store. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m testing out BookBub ads that direct people to my Shopify store. And that’s been really, really good. You have many options for paid ads as well.
Thomas: And part of the reason it’s good is that you’re making so much more money per sale. The click-through and conversion rates don’t have to be as high for the net profits to be high. As a direct seller, you’re getting the publisher’s cut, the author’s cut, and the retailer’s cut.
You’re getting most of the bites of the apple, so you can share more of the apple with the advertiser and still have enough apple for yourself.
Joanna: Yes. We should be transparent about costs, though. All the platforms have a cost to set up. BookFunnels is reasonably cheap, but you do need to pay for certain things. Services like Shopify and ConvertKit will cost you.
But there are a lot fewer costs than there were originally. And I find that the speed of payment and getting the customer data means you have to take a long-term approach. Many people say, “I started a direct store a week ago, and nobody’s bought anything.”
You still have to have a strategy and the determination to drive traffic to it. But if you think about the snowball rolling, every day, you’re getting new signups through your store. Every day, new readers get used to buying directly from you.
There’s also the rising tide effect. The more authors who sell direct, the more customers will get used to buying direct. It helps all of us.
What do the tools cost?
Thomas: Consider the costs when you’re putting together your strategy and choosing a tool.
Some tools have a monthly cost. Shopify has a monthly or yearly cost attached to it, which means you need to sell a certain number of books just to break even on Shopify.
Authors who do well with Shopify have multiple books and release multiple books every year. Customers constantly come to their store. With all that customer traffic, the monthly cost of Shopify won’t gobble up all your profits.
Shopify may be overkill if you’re a first-time author and haven’t sold a book to a reader.
Kickstarter will be so much better for a first-time author. It’s got all this wonderful marketing psychology built into it, and it’s a one-time thing. You sell to your friends on your list, regardless of how big it is, and then you’re done.
After that, you can be on Amazon for a while, and then you can Kickstart the next book. Once you get established, you can always set up Shopify later. If you’re looking for a bookstore tool that doesn’t have a monthly cost attached, consider Gumroad or payhip.
Those tools will take a slightly bigger percentage of the transaction because they’re not charging you monthly.
Joanna: You can also use Thrive themes on your website or WooCommerce.
The problem is if you start as a first-time author and put your books into KU until you build a following, you’ll build a following of readers who expect free books.
Much of this is starting again by reeducating our readers to buy differently. If you’re just starting, you have an advantage. I’ve been training readers for 15 years to go to all the other stores, and now I have to retrain them to come to my stores.
Thomas: And readers are changing. I used to only buy stuff from Amazon, but I’m finding myself going to Walmart.com more often, and I’m more open to buying from other kinds of sellers.
Joanna: That also accelerated during the pandemic as people learned to shop for everything online.
The brilliant thing about Shopify is that if you buy once on Shopify and your details are there, you can buy from anyone with a Shopify store, and all your details will be there. It gets closer to that one-click experience Amazon provides.
These behaviors change over time, and this is where authors need to give customers a choice. I will buy direct from authors if they tell me I can and provide a link.
Usually, authors email an Amazon link, and readers typically buy from wherever you send them. But I certainly shop a lot more on Kickstarter because there are so many cool things. I buy short story collections, whole books, games, and audio.
Don’t assume people’s behavior is stuck because they’ve always done it one way.
Thomas: Kickstarter is great because you also get the good feeling of knowing you helped make something happen. You get a feeling of ownership and contribution that you don’t get when you simply buy a book.
Joanna: The other thing I’ve learned about Kickstarter is the real power of scarcity. I hate fake scarcity. I hate it when people say, “You must buy this before the end date,” when I know they will keep selling it. That really annoys me.
But with Kickstarter, there is no fake scarcity. It is true scarcity. And I feel like it’s the first time I’ve been able to do that.
So for my next Kickstarter, Writing the Shadow: Turn Your Inner Darkness into Words, the Kickstarter special edition has gold foil on the hardback and a ribbon. I’ve never done gold foil and a ribbon before, and that particular version will only be sold with the Kickstarter.
True scarcity is so important for motivating people to take action, but we haven’t had that apart from these crowdfunding platforms. They’ve been around a while, but they’re taking off for fiction since Brandon has had so much success.
How did you make a gold foil edition?
Thomas: Most indie authors only know how to make a book through Amazon KDP, and there’s no gold foil option.
Joanna: Bookvault is a company located here in the UK. I met the guys at the London Book Fair, and when I saw how amazing their stuff was, I visited their plant in Peterborough. Now they’re starting to do these other options, so I’m doing my first gold foil and ribbon because that’s what they’re starting to offer.
Again, the benefit of Kickstarter is that you know the number of books you want to order. If you have a good relationship with a printer who’s agreed to print the books when you want them printed, it can work.
I’m going to the plant to sign the Kickstarted books, and I rarely do signed editions.
I’ll sign them all at the factory, and then they ship them out. Not everyone can do that, but you could do an unsigned edition. They’re looking at offering those metal corners on books, and they’re exploring other options authors might want for beautiful books.
Thomas: For special editions, I have been recommending working with a local printer for years. I have gotten incredibly positive feedback from authors who’ve fallen in love with their local printers. It’s amazing how much better you get treated when you’re interacting with a human being rather than interacting with an impersonal website.
A five-minute phone conversation is way better than reading a million FAQ pages on a website trying to figure out one technical detail for your book. And you may be surprised to learn there is a printer near you. The company that prints direct mail can also print books on the same machines.
Joanna: My goal for the next few years is to get deep into how to make beautiful books.
Let’s face it: we’re in an age of AI. How can you stand out in an incredibly busy market? It’s been busy for years, and it will get much busier. I’m sorry to say having an ebook or a print-on-demand paperback is no longer special.
How can you give your readers something beautiful and special that stands out? What can you provide that they can give as a gift? What will become a conversation piece? We have to think of original ways to stand out.
Marketing is about giving people things they want. It’s not about shoving stuff at them. It’s about attracting people and saying, “Look, you want this book for these reasons. Look how beautiful it is.”
So many people have emailed me to say, “Oh my goodness! You’re doing a ribbon in your book? I love a ribbon.” That’s book lovers for you.
Thomas: It’s not just book lovers. We got my four-year-old a CD player because we want to control what kinds of things she listens to. We didn’t want to give her a tablet with access to the internet. But the ritual of taking the CD out of the jewel case, putting it in the player, and punching the buttons is a delightful experience for her. A certain kind of person will pay money for a vinyl record because they love the ritual of taking the vinyl out and putting the needle down. Interacting with it in that real way is valuable.
As more things go digital, people will begin to treasure the real and tactile.
For example, younger readers often want paper books. You probably think that young people want the high-tech thing and older people want paper, but, in general, the opposite is true.
Somebody with old eyes wants the large font on the Kindle so they can read it. Younger readers prefer paper. They’d rather pay a bit more and own fewer but nicer books and have them as artifacts they can put behind their camera or show off in their apartment.
You’re not adding foil just because it makes you more money. You’re adding it because it makes the book beautiful. It makes the world a more beautiful place, and everybody wins.
You’ll still have the ebook people can buy and read on their Kindle. But more people are choosing something special.
Joanna: I have a bookshelf downstairs in my house where I like to display my books. I try and buy hardbacks that I want to keep because they last longer and I like them. I often listen to an audiobook, and if I want to keep it, I’ll buy the hardback edition even though I might not touch it for years.
I want to remember that book, and I don’t remember all the digital stuff.
Hopefully, we’ve given people loads of reasons to move away from free or cheap eBooks and into a world where our work could be more valuable again.
I hate to think of how we’ve devalued our work, especially as fiction authors. We’ve done it for good reasons, and many of us have made good money that way. But we’re in a new world now, and this is the first step.
How do you do fulfillment?
Thomas: One thing that keeps people from selling direct is fulfillment. If someone buys a copy of my book from my website, I have to take it from the shelf, put it in a box, drive it to the post office, and wait in line for 30 minutes to mail it.
Suddenly, making an extra $5 selling it myself doesn’t seem worth it.
So, how do you navigate the fulfillment side of things?
Joanna: I use BookFunnel for ebook and audiobook fulfillment and bookvault.app for print fulfillment. When someone orders a print book from my store, the order goes to bookvault. They print it and mail it, and I get the money. I don’t do any shipping.
Bookvault prints in the UK and the US. You can also look at Lulu.
Shopify, WooCommerce, and many others are apps you can plug in. You can do print-on-demand merchandise and print-on-demand books. With KDP, if someone orders your book on Amazon, they’ll print one book and send it to the customer. Bookvault’s print-on-demand works the same way, so there is no issue with fulfillment.
That’s what made the difference to me. I was never going to do anything that involved the post office. So, as soon as I learned bookvault would print on demand and ship, it became the missing link for Shopify. I was all in.
Thomas: I don’t recommend doing your own fulfillment, except for maybe after a Kickstarter, when you buy some local high school students pizza and have them help you package books for a day.
But fulfilling orders on an ongoing basis can be a real drag. You can’t go on vacation, and you’re tied to the fact that orders can come in at any time, and you have to pay to warehouse your books.
But bookvault simplifies the supply chain because the book is printed and shipped, and the warehousing piece is eliminated.
What are some mistakes that you see people make?
Overengineering the Store
Joanna: One is overengineering the store.
For my first store, I used the same basic theme I’ve always used from WordPress. It doesn’t have to be that hard, but you do need to have a desire to run a business. You’ll have to work out some kinks and spend time upscaling, but once you’ve built it, it’s a machine. You can feed your new books into the machine.
Authors can check out my blog post, Selling Books Direct With Shopify: The Minimum Viable Store.
Failing to Make a Marketing Plan
The other mistake is failing to understand that you must market those books. You have to think about how to get traffic to your store to sell books.
Disregarding Sales Tax Regulations
Thomas: Another potential mistake is not paying attention to sales taxes. I know this differs in the UK, where you have VAT taxes. In the United States, we have over 500 taxing jurisdictions for sales tax.
Joanna: Yes, that is a massive hurdle. People say, “I don’t want to deal with the tax,” but most global jurisdictions have a threshold, including your sales tax in your different states.
For example, it’s very unlikely you’ll hit the threshold for sales tax in India. If you do, that means you sold a lot of books, so celebrate and pay your tax!
You have to be doing some pretty big sales numbers to pay taxes in some countries. And that’s why I said you have to decide you’re running a business.
I deal with European digital VAT laws, and they’re pretty bloomin’ annoying. But you can set it up and run a report for your accountant.
Do your research. I probably spent about four hours researching my tax-specific situation, and now it’s done. All of these things are figure-out-able.
Make a decision, learn how to do it, and then upscale.
Thomas: If you’re concerned about the taxes, some ecommerce stores will become the seller of record, which means they handle the taxes. Gumroad and payhip do that.
If you’re using a tool like Shopify, WooCommerce, or TaxJar through Stripe, they will calculate the taxes and possibly file the tax returns for you. In the US, some states don’t have sales taxes, and others have complicated sales taxes.
If you’re in California, pay for Stripe’s tax service. It will be easier than dealing with California’s sales tax laws, which recently underwent some sort of change.
Don’t let the tax question keep you from selling direct. It’s just a cost to work into your budget. Remember, you have more bites of the apple, so you potentially have room in your budget to pay for tax help.
Any final tips or encouragement?
Joanna: Selling direct gives you more control as an independent author. Who would have thought we’d finally be independent? You can get more profit per sale, more customer data, and faster payment.
You don’t have to stop doing everything else, but for me, my focus has changed to Shopify and Kickstarter. Everything else comes under that.
I’m a fan of all the big online partners, but ultimately, I’m the author. We are creators, and we are independent businesspeople. We have to look after ourselves.
This is how we look after our readers and think ahead for the next 15 years. Who do you want to be in control of your author business?
Thomas: Well said. You are an adult. It’s a free country.
You’re responsible for your own actions in taking responsibility for selling directly. You don’t have to do it, but if you do, some really cool rewards can come from it.
If you want to go indie, listen to Joanna’s podcast. She’s not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty details of the technical parts of going indie, but she also talks big-picture stuff. It’s an excellent podcast.
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