How to craft a brand as a best-selling indie author

Helen Harper 

best-selling indie author

Helen’s first series of urban fantasy novels, Blood Destiny, reached an enormous audience and continues to be her best-selling series-

…it tapped into what people were reading at the time. I wasn’t writing for someone else or to try to sell books. That’s what I wanted to read at the time. I think that helped a lot and that’s what I’ve tried to continue ever since, to write whatever I’m interested in. I’m doing this for my enjoyment as much as to make a living out of it.


Most people send manuscripts to publishing houses and agents and have a file full of polite rejection letters. Helen didn’t even consider following the road most traveled-

…yeah pretty much because I didn’t think there was going to be a vast readership for what I was publishing so it didn’t seem worth the heartache of going to all the traditional publishers. Now that I am independently publishing I don’t see a scenario where I would go traditional. I’ve got so much control over what I do. I write what I want to write rather than what’s going to improve my bottom line. Plus, the percentages are an awful lot better for me doing it myself.


Having an online business doesn’t just mean that your audience is online. It can also mean that your colleagues and community of support is available via the socials-

… I live in Malaysia. In terms of meeting up in person with other authors, there really aren't any other authors here. Recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time on Facebook in secret groups with other like-minded authors. There’s quite a strong indie author community and if you connect with the right people they can be very good and very supportive. Everything changes so quickly. It’s good to have a group of people who are keeping their finger on the pulse. The Internet’s been a godsend really. Not just to be able to publish the books in the first place but having that community.


Information about our customers helps enormously in working out how to market our creations more effectively. There are many ways to get that information. Helen prefers Facebook ads-

…they don’t just advertise my books they also give me an insight into who would be interested in them in the first place. Facebook are very good at breaking down everything and telling me who it is who’s liked my page, who’s interacting with me. An awful lot of stock these days, certainly for indie authors, is being put into Facebook advertisements and it’s very easy to track those advertisements and to see where they’re being successful. I can target my ads to particular sections of society: whether they’re male or female; where they live; pretty much anything you can imagine. Then I can see really who’s interacting with that advert which helps me to consider my audience and how I can narrow it down further.


Helen’s books are primarily found on Amazon. That’s where she started talking to her audience-

…certainly with the first series there was a lot of engagement. I had a lot of people wanting to know different details. They would engage on Amazon and ask questions, try to find out what was going on next.


Amazon doesn't do all the work. An author needs to bring strategy to every release-

…when you start off initially you really need to think about what you’re going to put on your author page.  Write a bio of yourself and try to be as personable and as real as possible. You can put all your social media links on there and link to your tweets and that sort of thing and really come across as not just a person behind a screen but somebody who is real and who does want to interact with people. The less you come across as just another bot and more as an author who really wants to listen to readers and hear what they have to say then that helps hugely.


Of course, Amazon isn't the only platform there are many others that offer lots of different things-

Some of my books are exclusive with Amazon because Amazon offer some very good deals if you choose to go exclusive with them, but I think it can be dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket. I use a company called Draft to Digital. They make it very, very easy. I upload my books and they send them out to all the other different platforms for me. I’m on Kobo, Nook with Barnes and Noble, Scribd, Tolino, Page Foundry. I certainly don't sell anywhere near as much with them as with Amazon, but I think you want to have your books as many places as possible to be as successful as possible.


As creators, we want to spend all of our time in the creative zone but as independent artists we need to spend a certain amount of time in promotion. It takes time to manage social media and blogs-

…I will admit that when I get a bit of writer's block the blog is very useful for just doing something completely different, just writing about my day or the things that interest me.  But it is also there to be another addition to my brand as an author, something else where again people can see me as a real person and someone who has a life not just to do with books but with other things as well. It’s something that I wish I had a lot more time for. I need to schedule it so that I do it more often but then sometimes it comes across as less natural when I do that.


And the socials-

…well with social media you could spend probably twelve hours a day just purely maintaining a social media presence. I try to limit myself and focus on Twitter and Facebook. Everything I put on Facebook I do myself at the time so it’s much more of the minute but with Twitter I use a couple of apps that help me keep up to date with Twitter all the time, RoundTeam and Social Oomph. I still need to do a lot of that personally, but they've really helped me to gain a wider twitter audience and ensure that I'm tweeting regularly and interacting with people regularly. Part of me feels like I’m cheating a little bit because they’re helping me to be on Twitter and to really establish a huge presence on there but then you can’t be on there all the time otherwise you’d never be writing or never doing whatever other content it is that you’re doing. And unless you’re still authentic with those tools they’re not going to work so you’ve got to use them very judiciously.

Most successful independent creators maintain a mailing list. Helen wishes she started hers earlier-

…it’s your absolute number one toolfor making sure that the people who really want to read your books are going to pick up the next book. I use it about once a month to tell people what I’m up to and any new books that are coming out, and extra content that they wouldn’t get anywhere else. To encourage people to sign up, I offer a free book. Whenever someone has finished reading a book they’ll get a page that says if you really enjoyed this book and you want to read more then click on this link and you’ll get a free book and you’ll be signed up for the newsletter at the same time. I want the people on my mailing list to be the people who genuinely want to be there which really enhances the quality of it.


Everyone needs to learn about their business. Helen gives us some pointers about where she finds information to help her plan-

…when I started out I used to spend a lot of time using Amazon's forums. They have a whole section of forums set up especially for writers who are using their self-publishing program. That was quite useful initially. Then I moved over to a site called Kindle boards where the advice was a lot more structured. I did buy quite a few books to start off with which were written by self-published authors about how to self-publish and get your name out there. These days I subscribe to different groups where you can get particular marketing advice. One that stands out for me right now is a gentleman called Nick Stevenson. He runs a program with lots of videos and lots of ideas called Your First Ten Thousand Readers. He has concrete advice for how to set yourself up and how to get yourself out there. I’d say there’s no one thing. You need to take ideas from everywhere.


We all experience dry times when our art just doesn’t seem to be coming together. It is usually something outside of ourselves that gives us succor-

One of the hugest things when I’m having low periods and dips and thinking maybe I should go back to teaching and maybe this is going to be too hard is when real people who I don’t know get in touch with me personally and say they loved my books. They really want to know when the next one is coming out. Just that knowledge that someone else is interested in what I’m doing, someone who I personally don’t know, really helps to spur me on. Those sorts of emails often come at my worst moments when I’m really feeling bad about myself because I’ve been stuck inside for three days and not spoken to anyone. I’ve been in book hell and something like that will come and it really picks me up and reminds me why I’m doing this in the first place.


Helen’s take away advice for indie authors is

…it’s both easier and harder than you would think. The writing part, writing the books, that’s pretty easy. To sell books, you need to really have a plan. If I could do it again before I put the books out there I'd have everything set up. I’d have an author Facebook set up. I’d have a mailing list set up. I’d already know where the best places are to put advertisements and how to really market myself and market my books. Think about what your plan is going to be for the entire year. When are you going to schedule your books, how are you going to compete in a market that’s becoming very saturated? What makes you unique and how are you going to get that across? For someone who’s an author, I think the most important thing is to read. If you’re not passionate about doing this in the first place and about being a consumer as well as a writer then I don’t think you could ever be successful. You've got to love what you do otherwise there's no point really. It's not a money-making machine. You can't go into it thinking I'm going to be a billionaire in six months time. It doesn't really work like that.


This article first appeared in the January Issue of Follow Magazine.

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