If you are an author in 2022, you also have to be a marketing specialist. 

Whether your book is indie or traditionally published, you will play a critical role in promoting your book and getting it into the hands of readers. It’s especially crucial for indie authors to have the tools and skills to promote their books to the masses. 

That may sound like a lot of pressure. But at Novel Marketing, we give you innovative ways to build your platform, publish your book, and promote it with clarity and simplicity. 

Many indie authors believe the myth that selling books online through Amazon is the only way to be successful. 

It’s partly true. Many indies make 100% of their money through Amazon. The approach can work, but it gives Amazon 100% control over the money you make as an author. 

The whole truth is that you can sell books in many other places. You can even sell books directly to your readers. 

I recently interviewed S.D. Smith to find out how he has successfully made a living as an indie author. 

S.D. Smith is the author of The Green Ember Series, a bestselling middle-grade adventure saga. The Green Ember has reached hundreds of thousands of readers. It even spent time as the number-one bestselling audiobook in the world on Audible. His stories have captivated readers across the globe who are hungry for “new stories with an old soul.”

When we spoke, he shared how he has promoted and sold his book to hundreds of thousands of readers.

How did you get started writing and publishing?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: You were once an unpublished author. How did you take your book to market?

S.D. Smith: I had always dreamed of being an author, and my brother-in-law, Andrew McKay, had always dreamed of starting a little press. We worked as partners and started small.

I had written blogs to try and serve my audience, and I offered a lot of stuff for free. I had an audience, but it wasn’t huge by any means.

Thomas: What kind of things did you give away for free?

S.D. Smith: Mostly blogs. We started a website called StoryWarren.com to serve parents who were looking for quality resources and inspiration for the imagination.

We called ourselves their “Allies in imagination.” We wanted to be allies to parents in our stage of life, trying to raise kids and figure out what we were supposed to give them and do for them.

We wanted to help positively shape their kids’ imaginations through the blog and stories.

We had a little bit of a gang through StoryWarren. We’d attended a couple of small conferences, and we had a small but not completely insignificant audience who was ready to support what we were doing.

We had built up some goodwill with those people.

Thomas: The secret to effective content marketing is to find a specific audience, identify their pain points, and then thrill and serve them. When you do, they’ll come back to your website because it benefits them.

Were you reviewing books on your blog?

S.D. Smith: I mostly wrote about vision, identity, and thinking about who we are as parents and what we’re called to do. I wrote how to navigate the world our kids are growing up in.

Many parents fear what their kids are being exposed to in the culture, whether it’s excessive violence or whatever.

Niche cultures sometimes respond to that exposure with an overcorrection by looking for super, super safe literature.

I think there are ditches on both sides of that road, and I was blogging to let parents know we could be an ally who could help. I tried to inspire and equip families through my writing, but there was certainly an element of review on the blog.

Did you have an email list in the early days?

Thomas: Did you have an email list attached to your blog in the early days?

S.D. Smith: We did. Building our email list was a strategy, but our primary goal was to produce a quality book.

It doesn’t matter how well you market anything if it’s not good. John Lasseter said, “Excellence is the best business plan.”

We must create excellent content and connect it with our audience. Creating and connecting are important, but if you don’t get the creation side right, you won’t be able to connect. And you shouldn’t connect a bad product to your people. If you do, you can actually hurt people, and that’s not good for the world.

I strove for excellence with the writing, but we also aimed for excellence with the art related to the book. We poured ourselves into the video we created for Kickstarter.

I know it’s cliché to say you need a good book cover, but it’s profoundly valuable to be excellent at every stage of the process. Excellence is the best marketing you can do.

Thomas: I’m fond of saying, “Good marketing helps bad books fail faster.” You can’t fix a bad book with good marketing.

You have to write a good book, but it has to be “good” according to your readers. It must scratch the itch your readers have, so you must understand what your reader wants and why.

Your blogging was beneficial because it was a two-way street. You wrote a blog post, and the parents you wrote to interacted with you. You sensed their pain point. Since you connected with them and provided what they needed, you were able to form your own crowd. And you brought your own crowd to Kickstarter.

In your first campaign, you raised over $20,000 with 500 backers. That doesn’t normally happen unless you bring your own audience to Kickstarter to kick things off.

S.D. Smith: Seth Godin said it should be called Kick-finisher instead of Kickstarter. So many people float an idea on Kickstarter and believe they’ll start the project once it’s funded.

That’s nonsense. A Kickstarter campaign happens near the end of the process rather than right at the beginning.

We wanted to equip people to share about the book by creating content they’d be proud to share. So we made a high-quality video that our crowd loved, and they wanted to share it with others.

Our salesforce has been our readers and their word-of-mouth. They’ve done a far more effective job marketing than we could have imagined. Our approach is to equip them to share and to remove obstacles that would prevent them from sharing.

Thomas: You’re right that Kickstarter isn’t the first place to make money. I’ve seen people try to describe their book in words and then ask for money to have the cover designed.

If you don’t have money to pay a professional book cover designer, work a part-time job so you can afford the cover design. Then you can do a Kickstarted campaign and use the money you raise to pay for the editing.

People need an excellent visual if they’re going to back a campaign. Kickstarter doesn’t require you to have the final book cover or a video, but you’ll raise far more money if you have them.

An honest video that explains what you’re making and why it needs to exist will be a tremendous help to the success of your campaign.

Your books are successful partly because they’re connected with a cause. They’re fun to read, plus they provide the substance parents want to give their children.

S.D. Smith: Yes. The books certainly aren’t didactic. They’re not allegorical, but they do resonate deeply with the audience.

I think the audience has taken the spirit of the story to heart. They believe it so deeply that they are excited to share, and they become these enthusiastic ambassadors for the story in a way I never could.

My books aren’t merely my self-expression. I’m fond of saying that self-expression is not the end of art. It’s barely the beginning.

You’re not entitled to an audience because of your self-expression. If you think you are, you have a backward view of the vocation of an artist.

As a Christian, my calling is to love and serve my audience and give them a gift. If I’m an effective marketer for something that’s a lie, that’s a failure for me.

I have to be honest and generous first. I think of my writing as a work of hospitality. If my audience isn’t being loved and served by what I’m doing, then I’m not doing the right thing.

Thomas: The first commandment of Novel Marketing is “Love your reader as much as you love your book.” That means listening to your reader and writing a book that your reader already wants to read.  

You can’t change people into the kind of people who like your book. That’s not marketing. That’s impossible. I have a hard time changing myself. I have not been successful in changing anyone else.

After you raised the money on Kickstarter, what did you do?

S.D. Smith: We were so scared at the beginning. Our only hope was to break even. We invested our own money. I loaned our business $800, which felt like $7 trillion at the time. We ordered a print run of 1,500 books, hoping we’d make our money back in 18 months.

The Kickstarter was a pre-sale, and we hoped the word would spread.

We didn’t take any of the money home. We invested it back into the business.

Thomas: You took the old-school route of indie publishing. You didn’t use Amazon’s print-on-demand services. You used offset printing, which meant your printer made plates and ran them through high-volume printers.

It’s very expensive to pay for a large print run up front.

I don’t recommend offset printing for most people unless they do the Kickstarter. A Kickstarter campaign will tell you how many copies you’ll sell, and it takes some of the risks out of printing.

Many authors publish before they’re ready. They haven’t discovered their market or how to reach it. They print 1,500 copies and end up with most of those copies in their garage. It’s risky.

The advantage of offset printing is that your cost-per-book is lower, so you can sell it at a higher margin.

After you sent the first 500 to your backers, what did you do with the other 1,000?

S.D. Smith: We sold books at a couple of conferences for classical schools. We set up a little table by the bathroom, which was very exotic. One woman we met at the conference was enthusiastic about the story and suggested we attend a homeschool conference.

We homeschooled our kids at the time, but I didn’t know what a homeschool conference was.

By the time we were able to attend a homeschool conference, we had quite a bit of momentum. A lot of homeschool parents and their kids love to read. People in that crowd were attracted to our books because they’re new stories with an old classic feel, but they still have modern pacing.

That homeschool conference was an accelerator for our connection to our audience.

Thomas: The homeschool community has become the Praetorian guard of your fandom. People who don’t homeschool still read your books, but the homeschoolers made up a big chunk of your early audience.

The homeschool community is full of avid readers who love to talk about the books they read. Once you became popular with the homeschool moms, word spread quickly because they talk about books a lot.

S.D. Smith: Christians, as well as the broader homeschool community and the classical wing of that movement, are very excited about books in general.

I’m flattered that audiences have embraced these books because they don’t often embrace modern books.

Normally, they’re looking for classics. They love the older books. I wasn’t thinking of that community as a possibility, but looking back, it seems like a no-brainer.

Thomas: The homeschool community spends millions of dollars on books. There are three to six million homeschool students in the United States depending on which statistics you read. And those homeschool students probably buy 10-50 books per year.

They also know how to request your books at the library. If you want your books in libraries and you’re popular with homeschoolers, they will do the work for you.

But the homeschool market is not for everyone. They are very particular about the kinds of books they read.

Have you tried getting into public schools? 

S.D. Smith: Public school kids read the books, but I have not aggressively focused on trying to get into schools.

Honestly, we’ve been reactionary more than proactive because we’ve been forced to focus on what we have to do.

Librarians couldn’t get our books unless they went to our website, so it was extra work for them.

Our books still aren’t easy to get everywhere. In some ways, that’s good, but it can also be challenging. We just haven’t focused a lot of effort on public schools.

Thomas: And that is a result of not using the print-on-demand route.

It’s easy to add your book to Ingram spark and Amazon KDP Print to get access to many distribution channels, so it seems like the better strategy.

But you’re using offset printing, and you’re shipping the books yourself. You have your own store, and you’re selling enough copies to make it work.

Offset printing and shipping books yourself doesn’t make sense for most authors, especially if they’re only selling two copies per month. But it does make sense if you’re selling hundreds or thousands of copies every month.

Selling directly from your website gives you a strong, direct connection with your readers, and your margins are better.

Amazon takes a 70% cut, and that’s a lot.

When running your own store on your website, you’re making royalties, the publisher’s commission, and the retailer’s commission. You end up getting to keep most of the money. It allows you to feed your family with fewer readers because you’re getting a bigger piece of that pie.

Your strategy is valid. It’s common amongst authors who are selling in the homeschool market. They’re working around the traditional avenues.

I heard an interview yesterday about a homeschool author who didn’t even bother putting his book on Amazon.

He was selling from his own website because he thought Amazon wouldn’t agree with his politics and would kick him off. I haven’t read the book and don’t know if that would be the case, but I do know he’s making a lot more money per book by selling it from his own website.

Most authors in the Christian market who are financially successful are selling directly to readers without Amazon or the big publishers.

S.D. Smith: That’s right. The New York publishing world has no idea what’s going on with us. We’re not in the Christian publishing world either, so there aren’t too many people in that sector who know we exist. We’re also not political. We’re totally independent.

We’ve always made our books available on Amazon and Audible, and that’s been good but risky. They can kick you off because of politics, but they can also suddenly change their terms.

As the biggest store in the world, they can take whatever percentage of sales they want.

We’ve tried to move people away from buying on Amazon so that we can stop playing the game of seeing how high we can rank on Amazon. Plus, the print-on-demand margins are horrible.

I understand why people use Amazon when they’re starting, but being independent has been a good strategy for us because the margins are good, and we have that direct connection with our readers.

When I’m talking to a young author, I ask if they have their own website and newsletter. If you have those two pieces, you can eventually have your own store that doesn’t involve other gatekeepers.

If you remove the gatekeepers, then Mark Zuckerberg can’t dictate when you can talk to your readers.

We did our third Kickstarter campaign before Facebook changed everything.

One day we were getting 100,000 organic views easily, and the next day only 300 people saw our stuff. Suddenly no one could see Facebook business pages.

We had just launched a Kickstarter, and that change killed us. We’ve tried to get away from using platforms that change the rules on a whim.

I’m not mad at those platforms because it’s their house, and they can change the rules whenever they want. But we do want to avoid relying on them.

The tenth Green Ember book has been released, but it’s not available on Amazon yet.

My newsletter subscribers and closest fans have been able to get signed copies for the last month or so. We’ve been trying to have a unique launch, but we’re still going to sell them on Amazon eventually.

They still sell well on Amazon, but we’re moving toward selling directly.

Thomas: You’re adopting the Hollywood strategy.

When a movie first comes out, you can only see it in the theater, and you’ll have to pay $10.00 for a ticket. After 45 days, you can rent the movie. After 180 days, it’s free on one of the streaming platforms.

The movie companies get the most money from their biggest fans, but they can also reach the most people cause people because they offer it widely.

I want indie authors to hear that you are successful without relying on Amazon.

How many copies have you sold?

S.D. Smith: Over a million on all formats. We’ve done well on audiobooks. Your analogy with films is perfect.

We’re not charging extra for those first sales. We can give the best prices to our best fans. Many people do Kickstarter campaigns and charge $35 for a paperback.

We’ve never done that. Our core people get first access to signed books at the best price.

I originally wrote these books for my kids. Every time a kid reads one, whether in Africa or South America or here in West Virginia, I want them to have a delightful experience. I want to serve them with the gift of a great story. I’m not trying to exploit them.

I think that’s a smart, long-term business plan.

Thomas: Your business model enables that because you’re selling directly. Since you don’t have to share a big chunk of the money with Amazon, you can pass along the discount while still covering your bills.

It’s a strong strategy. It’s also a great way to thank your readers for going through the extra hassle of buying from your website. Amazon has one-click checkout, and your website probably requires a few more steps.

Also, when they checkout through your cart, you have their email address. When your next book comes out, it’s easy for you to send an email saying, “Here’s the book! Order soon to get the signed copy. The price is lower now than it will be on Amazon later.”

It creates that urgency authentically.

I love that you’re doing that with Kickstarter as well. Your most recent Kickstart brought in $81,000 from just under 2,000 backers.

S.D. Smith: That was a while ago. We haven’t used Kickstarter for the last several books. That was the campaign where we fought tooth and claw to get in front of people. Our strategy was built on reaching people through Facebook, and then overnight, it became impossible.

Since then, we’ve grown a lot, and now we’ve taken Kickstarter out of the mix and are going completely direct.

When I see what Brandon Sanderson is doing on Kickstarter, it’s tempting to rethink it. Same with Facebook. But whenever we have a post that does well, it’s because we sent people there through our email newsletter, so we’re beginning to ask ourselves why we’re even doing Facebook.

That last Kickstarter was definitely a marketing wake-up call for us. It was a reminder that we were in someone else’s store, and they could change the rules at any time. We don’t want to rely on them. 

We can only control the channels we own.

What kind of team have you built to run your business?

Thomas: You’re not approaching this like a self-published author who believes he has to do everything himself. You’re approaching it like a truly independent publisher. You’ve built a team and surrounded yourself with people who have skills you don’t have.

You’re the only one who can write a Green Ember book. But someone else can set up the next print run for the book and schedule Facebook ads or write the next newsletter.

What kind of team have you built?

S.D. Smith: In the beginning, it was just me and Andrew McKay working part-time. About a year ago, we hired Andrew full-time.

When I left my job in 2018, my brother, Josiah, who had been helping me at conferences, left his job too. He had to learn about the publishing industry and learn to do the things I was doing so that I could focus on writing. He’s been great at that.

The three of us made up the core team, but we’ve recently hired a part-time person, Natalie, who works in marketing and helps with social media.

She takes even more pressure off me. She shares our vision and has been a wonderful help.

We have another guy, Rick, who just started consulting with us. He’s helping us build out a bigger franchise plan for the Green Ember Series that involves the next stages of storytelling, such as film, TV, and more merch than we have now.

We’re trying to build a long-term strategy with this little team.

When people say I’m a self-publishing success story, I have to disagree if they’re thinking of me doing everything myself. These guys have been essential to the success of our business.

Thomas: You’ve also hired your cover designer, editors, and others who aren’t on your payroll.

S.D. Smith: You’re exactly right. I hire multiple editors because it goes back to the fact that quality is the best business plan.

Zack is our cover artist. His excellent work made someone pick up the book for the first time. If the cover was crummy, people wouldn’t touch it.

What were some hard lessons you learned that you want others to avoid?

S.D. Smith: We learned not to rely on Facebook and Amazon alone.

Write For Your Audience, Not Your Critic

Most of my other problems have been mindset problems. I’m an anxious person and somewhat introverted. I’ve thought of myself in a limited way.

Early on, I was afraid of what kind of feedback I would get. I gave my critics way too much power in my mind.

I had to learn I was just writing for the audience that wanted my book. I’m not writing for the world.

Some people will say they’re writing the next Harry Potter, and I want to say, “No, you’re not.” If you think your book is for everybody, it’s probably for nobody.

Thomas: Even J.K. Rowling was writing specifically for 12-year-old boys. She didn’t write it for everyone. She wrote it for a specific audience, and it thrilled them, and they spread the word.

S.D. Smith: I’m a firm believer in that.

I wrote the book for my own kids. They were my audience. The fact that other people have enjoyed it is a bonus. I think that’s true of art in so many different ways.

When you hear a song on the radio, it’s about a certain girl. You listen and realize the song is articulating exactly what you feel. We relate to particular things.

Find Coaches, Not Critics

I also wanted to find people who could be coaches and not critics. I wanted to work with editors who had the same goal and cared about what I cared about.

Feedback can be hard to take, but when you know the other person believes in the goal you’re trying to reach, then you can trust that they’re trying to help and not hurt.

Embrace Failure

I’d also probably embrace failure a little bit more.

There are so many gifts in failure and pain. It’s true in the universe and in a writing career. Birth comes with labor pains. Art and great stories are often born out of great pain.

Your mistakes shape your story. Take a breath. Learn as you go. Develop a thicker skin while maintaining a soft heart. Try not to become a sad or angry person who is continually victimized and hurt by what people say.

Tend your own field, and keep your eyes focused on your audience.

Whether your audience is small or large, consider it a privilege to write for them. If 100 people read your book, that’s amazing.

Modesty, generosity, and hospitality. These are words to hold to heart.

I’m a believer in dreaming big. I’d encourage you to hustle, but be realistic and realize that it’s a process. Like most things in life, the people who don’t quit are the people who succeed because it’s so hard.

Writing a book is such a hard thing to do. When you stick your neck out in a world full of flashing swords, you will feel some pain, and the critics are always there. They’re frustrated people who didn’t succeed, and they’re ready to inflict pain.

Focus on Your Readers

Try to be persistent, humble, modest, and gentle. Take the focus off yourself as much as possible so you can see those other people.

When you’re anxious at a social gathering, you’re probably thinking about yourself. You’re wondering what people will think of you. Will they think you’re stupid? Are you eating properly?

If you’re focused on yourself, you’ll have a miserable time. But if you focus on the nervous person in the corner and sit down and start a conversation to help solve his problem, it lightens your own load.

It’s true in marketing and life. I want to focus on loving and serving others and let that be the reality of my life.

Thomas: My dad says, “Success is a poor teacher.”

Failure is a powerful teacher. Some lessons can only be learned through failure. Strength of character develops by persisting through failure.

Until you have tasted failure and survived, you don’t know that you can survive.

As you judge your successes, be thankful for the readers you have.

I was speaking with two authors. One was a bestselling author, and the other was an award-winning author. They were both envious of the other.

One author hadn’t won any awards, and she craved that. She needed somebody with an award ceremony to tell her she was a good author. Meanwhile, the award-winning author was envious of the money the bestselling author had made because she wanted to pay the bills.

Envy was making both of them unhappy, even though each of them had what the other wanted.

Measure your success by whether readers are enjoying your books. Be thankful for the readers you have, and it will make all the difference.

S.D. Smith: I agree. It’s such a gift.

So much of it is out of our control. There are probably worse writers who are more successful than I am. There are better writers who are far less successful than I am. That’s just how it is in the world.

We can try to be good stewards of the responsibilities and gifts we’re given, and we can receive them with gratitude. But no one is entitled to get to do this for a living or to make millions or win awards. We’re not entitled to the attention.

I want the attention of children and families who read these stories. Their attention is such a gift to me. I cannot believe people spend time in the universe I’ve created. It is such a gift to me.

The further I go, the less I crave accolades based on copies sold or awards won.

You might be thinking, “Easy for you to say because you’ve sold a lot of books.” And that’s probably true, but if you’ve had any experience of wanting something badly and then getting it, you probably realized it wasn’t as great as you thought it would be.

That continues to happen all the way up. No matter what position you’re in, the position you’re envying won’t satisfy you when you get there.

Those accolades don’t have a lot of value behind them.

I’m trying to focus on the valuable things. When I get a letter from a kid saying this book changed his life, that’s gold. There’s not an award out there that beats letters from kids. I’m choosing to embrace that.

Gratitude is a repeatable cycle that fuels creators. Our readers are valuable human beings who have challenges. If I can bring light into their lives, I feel so thankful. That gratitude will show up in our stories, our marketing, and how we think about our readers.

Thomas: One thank-you note written in crayon is far more valuable than the fanciest award. And if it’s not, your priorities are all out of whack.

What advice do you have for a first-time author?

What advice do you have for the author who’s finished their first book and feels like the marketing mountain is insurmountable?

S.D. Smith: I sympathize because I know what that feels like.

By finishing your book, you’ve accomplished something big. Writing a book is difficult. Good job. You made something amazing, so hold on to the value, pride, and joy that it brings you.

Take a minute and enjoy that accomplishment. Celebrate it. Try to build a habit of celebrating what you’ve done.

After you’ve done the creation, your next task is connection.

Don’t wait around for a situation where somebody magically picks you and says, “Hey, you’re so great. I’m going to do everything for you.”

That doesn’t exist in the world anymore.

Put on your big boy pants and look at the task of connection. You solved a lot of problems while you were finishing your book, so summon that same problem-solving energy as you begin to connect with your readers.

If you can’t solve a problem, you can get help.

It is doable. There’s never been a better time because the gatekeepers are down.

On the one hand, that means a billion other people are charging through the gate with you. But all the resources are at your disposal. You have resources like this podcast and others, so you’re not alone.

Focus on one or two things at a time and do them well.

Maybe you’ll decide to create a clean website and start a newsletter.

You’re not going to write the very best newsletter in the history of the world every day. But you can decide to write one generous, kind newsletter per week. You can start by sharing it with your friends. It’s doable.

It’s okay to be afraid. Your character is afraid right before they go into the big fight. You are a character, and this is part of your story. Part of your story is generosity and connecting your work with others.

If you’re proud of your book, then back yourself. You’ve got to be able to say, “I do think this is valuable and worth sharing.” Then you take steps to do it. It’s okay that they’re baby steps. You don’t have to do it all at once.

I firmly believe that if you just keep going and don’t quit, you’ll find out it is doable, and you will succeed.

To learn more about S.D. Smith and his Green Ember Series visit his website.

Personal Update

We haven’t had an episode for a couple of weeks because I’ve been teaching the 2022 Book Launch Blueprint. We probably won’t have an episode next week, but we will return to our regularly scheduled weekly rhythm after that.

If you want more episodes of Novel Marketing, consider becoming a patron of the podcast. Each month I host a patrons-only episode where I answer your questions. It’s my way of thanking the people who make this podcast possible.

Patrons also receive significant discounts. At higher levels, patrons have access to the Podcast Host Directory.

Quick personal update, I’m sorry we haven’t had an episode the last few weeks. I have been hard at work teaching the 2022 Book Launch Blueprint. There likely won’t be an episode next week either since teaching the course is taking up such a good chunk of my time. 

In two weeks we should be back to our regularly scheduled weekly rhythm. I will say, if you are wanting more episodes of Novel Marketing, you should consider becoming a patron of the podcast. Each month there is a special patrons-only episode where I answer your questions. 

Patrons also received hundreds of dollars worth of exclusive discounts and at higher levels access to the podcast host directory and more. You can help yourself and help the show by becoming a patron today. Learn more at AuthorMedia.com/patron. 

Jonathan Shuerger, author of Shades of Black: In Darkness Cast

A young swordsman desperate to save his people turns to the only instructor he can find: the bitter champion of the Everlasting Dark. They know Light best…who first know the Dark.                    

I’ve read this book I would say it is Star Wars meets Skyrim with one of the most interesting villains you will find outside of a DC comic book.    

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