October 21, 2011

Selling Books: What Works (and What Doesn’t) When You’re Indie Published by Carolyn J. Rose

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 12:24 pm

An Uncertain Refuge

I am thrilled to welcome Carolyn Rose back to the blog with a post that is about as topical as it gets. I was lucky enough not only to read the book Carolyn has recently published (great, harrowing read) but also to meet Carolyn in person last summer. Writing simultaneously shrinks and expands the world, making it a place of books and book lovers, and this is one of the great joys in life for me.

What works to sell books in this brave new world? Carolyn’s going to tell you what she learned when she began to experiment.

Carolyn J. Rose

This spring, after years of rejection and weeks of anguished inner debate, I independently published a suspense novel called An Uncertain Refuge.

Jenny Milchman was kind enough to let me blog about my decision to e publish, and recently invited me back to provide an update on how the book is doing.

An Uncertain Refuge, priced at 99 cents in its e-book form, went hot on Kindle and Nook in mid May. By the end of August, it had attracted 500 readers, mostly Kindle owners. In September, however, more readers clicked the “buy” button and I sold nearly 1100 copies. Again, mostly Kindle owners. As of October almost 700 more readers downloaded the book.

I am awed and amazed by that September showing and the October pace because I did very little in the way of promotion—partly by choice and partly because I had no choice.

First, I lacked the guidance, support, and experience of an agent and/or editor. Second, because I self-published, I was locked out of many contests and review opportunities. Third, I live on a limited income and hold down a job, so I have almost no promotional budget for ads and travel and very little time to devote to chasing opportunities around the Internet.

So, because the jury still seems to be deliberating about what sells books by barely known authors, I decided to experiment with An Uncertain Refuge. After all, I had nothing to lose and no one to account to for success or failure. I made two lists—what I was willing to do within my budget and time limitation, and what I wasn’t.

I wasn’t willing to tweet endlessly, post on Facebook constantly, badger friends and relatives, or leave shrill or self-serving posts on various forums. A little BSP goes a long way, and I didn’t want to alienate readers or writers. I also wasn’t willing to spend too many hours on networking sites that I found confusing, that sucked my time, or that seemed geared mostly to non-writers.

In addition, I wasn’t willing to dip into my savings to buy postcards or bookmarks. They’re pretty and make a nice display at events, but I didn’t think the expense would pay off. And, because I released another indie book this month (A Place of Forgetting) and my husband has one just out through Krill Press (Shotgun Start), I wasn’t willing to update my website and business cards until later in the year when I could add those books. too.

But, I was willing (and eager) to be a guest blogger for other writers, to post on various sites to get the word out, and to give away copies of the book in paperback form. And I was willing to seek out reviewers, to post occasionally on writer/reader forums, and spend a few minutes a day chatting with others in the Writers’ Café and other sites.

I was also willing to keep the price low and to give the book, and my low-rent promotional strategy, time to show results. Thanks to the changing landscape of publishing, to digital and print-on-demand formats, I don’t have to worry about my book being pulled from the shelves and remaindered. Promoting a book is no longer a sprint to the release date and the crucial time window after that, it’s a now a marathon.

Given all of that, here’s what I think worked and why.

First, I wrote a pretty good suspense story with layers, a strong female protagonist, complex and conflicted characters, and an ending that leaves things in doubt until the last minute. (On the negative side, An Uncertain Refuge deals with the raw issue of domestic violence, so it could be a tough read for some.) I used two sharp-eyed, nit-picking editors to root out typos and tell me when I piled on too much description. (Despite that, a friend called a few days ago to gleefully report that she’d found two typos.) And I hired professionals to format the manuscript for e-book (Kimberly Hitchens of Booknook.biz) and paperback (Patty G. Henderson) formats.

Second, I set the price low to attract impulse buyers. I took the focus off money and put it on increasing the number of readers. When I first published, my aim was to raise the price after Labor Day, but now I post that the e-version will be 99 cents until the economy bounces back. (And, skeptic/realist that I am, I’m not banking on that being real soon.)

Third, I picked up several nice reviews and a few mentions from writers I’m acquainted with and from strangers who read the book and put up posts.

Fourth, and probably most important, the also-bought factor came into play. An Uncertain Refuge sold enough copies that it made its way to the front row of the “readers who bought this also bought that” sections of books making strong showings. Their rising tide lifted my little ship.

Will An Uncertain Refuge continue to find readers at this pace? Or is this just a flash in the pan?

Who knows?

But I’m thrilled with the reader response so far, so thrilled that I’m giving away two copies of the paperback to lucky winners drawn from those who drop by and share their ideas and comments.

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, and spent 25 years as a television news writer and producer in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She has published many mysteries and lives in Vancouver, WA, with her husband, radio personality Mike Phillips, and a motley collection of pets. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.


  1. Carolyn, I love how you listed what you could do, would do and did. I think you made a gutsy move, it paid off and I hope your ship keeps rising well above the tide line.

    I too have a limited budget and time schedule so when I’m ready to publish my book, I have some ammo on what I can do to make it work.

    Comment by Karyne — October 21, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Carolyn, I love your honesty and gutsy approach. I, too, don’t want to spend my life social networking to attract readers, and feel that we get caught up in so many things we “should be doing” that it leaves little time to write! Thank you so much for this great interview, and you, Jenny, for keeping us in the loop of current trends.

    Comment by Maryann McFadden — October 21, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  3. It takes real drive and determination to take on the self-publishing industry and actually make it as an author. Congrats on your success, I can only hope that my book does well once I release it. :)

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — October 21, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Thanks a lot, Carolyn. These are excellent points. It’s hard, in my opinion, trying to balance what really works. Everyone tells you to social network, but what does that really mean? I have to be on FB, Twitter, and every other dealy-bopper out there? Or does this mean I need to try and connect with others who would actually be interested, as opposed to expecting them to stumble upon me in the mass of others on FB and Twitter?

    It seems there is no right way, no wrong way… just a way.

    Comment by Nathan Weaver — October 21, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Thank you for sharing this – very inspirational. I’m sure writing an excellent page turning book must be a major part of your success. I’m very envious of your sales figures and wish you every success.
    Grace x

    Comment by Grace Elliot — October 21, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

  6. Oh, boy, Carolyn. I wish I knew then what I know now. I’m poorer than I was a year ago with not much to show for it. I’ll do it differently next time. Congrats on your great sales, and I look forward to catching up in Nov. at the Oregon Book Fair.


    Comment by Julie D. — October 21, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  7. I wish you all much success with your projects and am sorry that I could offer only anecdotal evidence based on my particular case – and not the results of a survey that might be more helpful. So much depends on the book, the tastes of the audience, and readers you reach – and a thousand other factors, including the time of year.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 21, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  8. Carolyn,

    Thank you for writing this piece on Jenny’s Milchman’s blog. I have recently self-published my first novel as well and hearing your story, and what worked for you, gives me hope. :) As writers and authors we care a great deal about the books we write and being able to share our story with as many readers as possible is the greatest achievement of all. As of now, my novel is only available in paperback and I have gone back and forth with the idea of making it available in Kindle or ebook format. I have told myself that if I make a decent amount of sales I will decide to do the ebook version later. However, after reading your comments, I believe I have changed my mind. Now I want to invest turning into an ebook. Thank you for sharing your experience!
    Laurie Bellesheim

    Comment by Laurie Bellesheim — October 21, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  9. What wonderful information! After spending the past several months going thru the same process, I’m beginning to see the same results. I wish you continued success. Sounds like you’ve got a great story pushing you forward!!

    Comment by mountainmama — October 21, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  10. Those are good things to think about; especially the cards and book marks. I never know if they are necessary or not. I do agree that regular guest blogging is a huge driving force behind sales.

    Comment by Connie J Jasperson — October 21, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  11. I think it’s important (and rather simple!) to just get your name out there, blog and guest blog, and if a book is good – the readers will come. I think word of mouth is great. Whenever I read a book and like or love it, I post it to my FB.

    Comment by Karen S. Elliott — October 21, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

  12. Good information. Really appreciate it.


    Comment by Arthur Levine — October 21, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  13. I really LIKE the certainty of this post. It is sensible and encouraging. Thank you both!

    Comment by Niamh Clune — October 21, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  14. Yikes – certainty. Well, I guess maybe I am – as long as I stick to being certain about my effort (or lack of it).

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 21, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  15. Thanks for the great information. I do tweet and visit one forum, but that is the limit of my participation with social media. No matter what the fans say it takes time away from writing.
    Do not consider me for a give away. Your book is within my price range.
    Good post.
    Nash Black (Irene)

    Comment by Nash Black — October 21, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  16. Congratulations on your success, Carolyn! I love the way you structured your marketing strategy into what you wouldn’t do and what you would do. I think a lot of people are leery of the idea of constantly tweeting or posting to FB to spread the word, and I agree that kind of activity doesn’t guarantee results. Guest-blogging makes sense to me, because I got a sense of who you are as a person even in this one post, and that by itself can make me interested to go check out your book. I think a lot of readers want to feel like they can get to know the author through interviews and guest posts, which makes the whole experience feel more personal.

    In any case, thanks for such an thought-provoking post! Best of luck with the sales numbers going into the holiday season! I’ll be checking out your book soon, and I’m not a big thriller reader myself (they get me so stressed out! :p).

    Comment by Becca — October 21, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

  17. I love this blog! Thanks Carolyn for sharing, and thanks Jenny for posting.

    Comment by Christopher Poe — October 21, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  18. Huh. So if I post congratulations here or tweet a link to this blog, I am being ‘shrill and self-serving’.

    Nice. I’ll make sure not to do either. Thanks.

    Best of luck to you anyway.

    Comment by JR Tomlin — October 21, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  19. Great post Carolyn. Glad to see your new book is doing so well. Thanks again, Jenny.


    Comment by Pamela DuMond — October 21, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

  20. Great blog post. It’s as helpful to know what not to do as to know what has worked. I think the biggest reason your sales are growing exponentially is that you’ve written a stirring memorable story. May I say, too, that I love your covers? They invite me in.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — October 21, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  21. Carolyn, thanks for sharing this awesome post. This is great information. I am currently experimenting on how to the get the word out about my books, and am finding similar results. I can always tell the days I spend some time in the forums and other networking. I am encouraging my writer friends to do the same.
    Keep up the good work, and good luck.

    A.M. Burns

    Comment by A.M.Burns — October 21, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  22. Great things, Carolyn and more ahead as you sell through the holiday season. More readers are sure to get Kindles/Nooks, etc. Your Indie titles are primed to get a share of that. When I hear you and others talk about what worked with thier Indie experience, it inevitably comes down to a well written, multi-layered story.

    With that, readers always talk about/recommend stories that stayed with them. Doesn’t matter if it’s in print from a Big 6 Publisher, or ebook/Indie press. Continued success to you!

    Comment by Randal Houle — October 21, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

  23. Carolyn – appears to me you made all the right moves. Congratualtions on excellent results. For most, I caution, it takes perserverance and time. Few to no successes happen overnight even if they appear to be out of the blue. Time, patience, and stick to it-tiveness.


    Comment by Robert W. Walker — October 21, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

  24. Carolyn, thanks so much for the good advice! I just released my first book on Amazon a few weeks ago, and I’m another like you, who doesn’t have the time/inclination to Tweet all day long, or do the time-suck networking. It’s great to get some practical, useful advice on things that do work, and that can be done in a reasonable amount of time. Best of luck with your books!

    Comment by Lauren S — October 21, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

  25. Thanks for all the kind words. I just wanted to clarify that I’m not knocking social media and networking. Those are valuable tools. But, as with most tools, a positive outcome depends on how and when you use them and sometimes (LOL) on knowing when to stop.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 21, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

  26. Carolyn–in your experience, about how many blogs have you been “on” since you put your first novels up for Kindles? Also, do you think it is important to continue to do your own blog?

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — October 21, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  27. Carolyn: As self-published authors, we sometimes forget that it’s *social* media.

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — October 21, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

  28. Nice post. It is awesome to read what is working for others. And you have such a way with words. I’m hoping your ship continues to have fair winds and following seas, matey.

    Comment by Melanie Sherman — October 21, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

  29. Jenny, I found this post very informative. Thanks. Carole, I’m impressed by your success.

    Comment by Lisa wharton — October 22, 2011 @ 12:16 am

  30. Carolyn, I’m always wondering just how much marketing a relatively unknown author has to do too. Thanks for your insight! And thanks for sharing.

    Jenny, awesome guest and post!

    Comment by Susan — October 22, 2011 @ 1:09 am

  31. Everything you said and did makes perfect sense to me, Carolyn. Best wishes for continued success.

    Comment by Earl Staggs — October 22, 2011 @ 9:41 am

  32. Thanks for posting your experience, Carolyn. And thanks, Jenny, for guesting Carolyn.

    I have two books published under a pseudonym for an e-book publisher and am about to self-publish one in the suspense genre under my own name. I’m doing my own cover, relying on my years as a commercial illustrator/designer, so that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about. Your calculated approach to self-publishing seems to be working for you. I’m taking notes. Best of luck.

    Comment by Polly Iyer — October 22, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  33. I never did get caught up in tweeting and I don’t think I ever will, but I’m certainly guilty of too much Facebooking and I’m about to squelch that. I was wondering, till I saw this, what you were doing now, Carolyn, and I definitely think you made the right move, because your success now depends entirely on you. Depending on what others say on Facebook certainly doesn’t work, depending, of course, on what they say and how they say it, which can hurt your sales a whole lot more than it helps. ;-) Carry on, you’re doing fine. And don’t add me to your drawing either, I already have your new book. Cheers!

    Comment by Beth Anderson — October 22, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  34. Thanks, Carolyn,for writing such an honest and helpful post. For those of us who truly are the stereotypical hermit writers, you provide hope that we don’t have to turn ourselves inside out with social media to market our books. Having just returned from an exhausting–though exhilarating–bricks-and-mortar indie store tour, I’m ready to get back to the solitute of my computer. Smiling my way through six events in seven days has left my face muscles permanently damaged, I’m sure. And thanks to you, Jenny, for providing yet another great look at publishing options in today’s climate.

    Comment by Elizabeth C. Main — October 22, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  35. Elizabeth – I’m smiling about your experience smiling. I grinned my way through a lengthy book fair last weekend and felt like I needed a cheek massage when it was over. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting and talking with readers, but keeping that smile pasted on when there’s no one in the immediate vicinity is painful – and so is hoping that the next person will stop only to have them pass by without a glance. My husband,who was a radio DJ for 30+ years used to joke that he could have been naked for all the audience knew. I think of that often when I’m chatting on line and, LOL, it makes me smile, even though there’s no one who can see.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 22, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  36. JR – Sorry if I offended you. I’m all for responding to others’ blogs and congratulating others on their successes. I love to get to know writers and read what they have to say about their experiences, about the process of writing and life in general. I love the sharing that goes on in the writing community. Although I’m well aware that I need to get my name out there because what it comes down to is getting books into readers’ hands (through an exchange of money), I’m uncomfortable with the direct “buy my book” message.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 22, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  37. Carolyn; congratulations on your success. The cover on your book is fab, it drew me in the moment I saw it so I’m off to check it out. Oh…and great post, by the way :-)

    Comment by Jenny Hilborne — October 22, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  38. Carolyn,

    Glad to hear your e-book is doing so well. Since I’ve read your novels, I know they are very well-written.

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — October 22, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

  39. Thank you Jacqueline (and others) –
    Anything I do well I attribute to the training I received during the years I was an associate editor for Elizabeth Lyon (Manuscript Makeover and The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit) and to reading the works of writers I admire to see how they put stories together. Anything I do not-so-well is purely my own fault.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 22, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

  40. The dialog here is fascinating, and I’m so glad Carolyn’s post inspired some, emboldened others, and made still others decide that another way might work for him or her, even if it didn’t for Carolyn. What more could we ask for in a blog than that kind of food for thought?

    I wish you all great success with your future projects, whether indie or traditionally published. If we 40 or so people gathered here all read each other’s books and recommended(tweeted, shrieked about) the ones we loved…well, I think we could go a long way toward saving the world :)

    Comment by jenny — October 22, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

  41. I like the idea of blowing our horns about other writers’ books. Let’s form a band. We’ll call it _______. Well, I’ll let you decide.
    Thanks for letting me hang out in your virtual living room.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 22, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  42. Your comments are a nice antidote to the negativity that seems to chase all but a few anointed stars. It seems possible that a really talented writer (like you) can actually reach readers directly while not squandering too much of their time on promotion. Of course, you start (as Elizabeth Lyon says above) with great stories, rich characters, and just enough detail to get me into the trance that only a great novel produces. BTW your latest, A Place of Forgetting, is brilliant: touching, filled with action, and satisfying.

    Comment by David E Cournoyer — October 23, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  43. Dear Carolyn, Thanks for all your words of wisdom. I have written a book about my husband witnessing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “From Shaniko to Pearl Harbor”. I would love to put it on kindle, but I don’t have the least idea how. Can you direct me to a website or person who knows what to do. My book does sell at the Arizona in Pearl Harbor, but otherwise it is quite slow sales. I was told by someone else that kindle is the way to go, but how does one start??? Thanks so much, Trinette Weber

    Comment by Trinette — October 24, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

  44. Dear Jenny, I tried to reach you via the “contact me” message at the top of this page, but they told me I had your number wrong. this has happened to me before, but how can it be wrong when I got it from you??? As an unknown auther I could use some contacts & support from you who know what you are doing. Would apprecaite knowing how to really contact you. Trinette Weber

    Comment by Trinette — October 24, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

  45. Trinette, I glad you got through and so glad you read Jenny’s blog. I’ll contact you one-to-one and see if I have any information that might help you out.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 24, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  46. Excellent! Thanks for finding the time to share. It’s nice to know someone from just across the river is making things work!

    Comment by Shari L Schildan — October 25, 2011 @ 12:40 am

  47. Congratulations, Carolyn! And thanks so much for sharing your experience and sales numbers. E-publishing still seems like a big black hole, so it’s encouraging when an explorer I know sends back friendly reports. Tina

    Comment by Tina — October 25, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  48. Shari and Tina – Jenny deserves the most thanks for giving us all a place to exchange ideas. She rocks.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — October 25, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  49. Very helpful, Carolyn. Thanks so much!!

    Comment by Pam Stanek — October 26, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  50. Kudos, Carolyn. I went to Amazon, read the first few pages and downloaded the book, even though I only had 3.60 in my account. I’m going indie with an SF Time Travel on April 14th of 2012 (100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic.) I also plan on being very frugal with my marketing. Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Bart Palamaro — October 28, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress