Indie Authors – Common Denominators & Why So Many Fail

I rarely come across authors who I actually click with when it comes to the publishing business. I’ve been around this game for over twenty-five years. I’ve been on both sides of the platform, something which has given me a lot of insight into how the industry has changed, evolved, risen, and floundered. I’ve read so many how-to blogs and followed gurus and read books and researched until I feel like my brain has melted and reformed at least a hundred times over the past two decades. When you have this many years under your belt and have watched the industry like I have, it’s no wonder one of my pet peeves is authors who have been in the game for just a few years who seem to think they are experts on the business. For some reason, people seem to think success equals knowledge – because they managed to get a single book in a huge boxed set to rank it somehow gave them magical knowledge on how the industry truly works. Other authors see the ascension of a literary god who rose above the ranks, a shiny beacon of hope. What I see are authors who haven’t managed to letter outside of those boxed sets. I’m going to repeat this – success does not necessarily equal knowledge, and unfortunately, knowledge does not always equal success.

That’s why it’s refreshing when I come across another author who sees the same patterns I do, who has studied the business like I have, and who is over there shaking his head at the same stupid shit I am, asking the same thought-provoking questions I do, and just realizing there is someone out there other than myself who understands this business on all levels – not just the business end, not just the artistic end, not just on the marketing end, not just on the trendy end – but someone who sees the whole picture and understands the fundamental basics of economics and how other people’s business practices can directly affect everyone else in the industry.

Which brings me to the point of this post. At it’s core, I have noticed only two things which successful authors seem to possess in order to make a name for themselves, and that is money and a support system.

Let’s take a closer look at these. First – money. We’ve all heard the old saying that it takes money to make money. That is equally true in the publishing industry. Even if you do not have the funds to hire fancy PR firms, you will still need to purchase the basics of publishing – an editor, someone to format your manuscripts, and a graphic artist.

But let’s look even deeper. Those who are really successful didn’t get that way out of sheer luck. Someone was funneling money into marketing and promotional resources, regardless of whether it was the publisher or the author. In other words, someone was paying to hire the right PR companies and the right marketing firms to build a buzz around their books. They were investing in marketing ads, and maybe even paying someone to ensure their book got in front of the right people. As much as I hate to keep bringing this damn book up, we can still learn from it. Think about 50 Shades. The publisher managed to convince over a hundred million people that this was the book to buy. Even when readers were leaving scathing reviews and everyone was talking about how bad it was, even when readers were warning other readers to avoid it like the plague, even when book stores literally had tens of thousands of paperbacks which had been returned to them, people were still rushing out by the thousands to purchase it all because of really great marketing and a huge grassroots movement.

Now, most of us can’t do anything about the money side of things. Most authors work full time jobs and are already operating on a virtually non existent budget, and I’m no exception. But what we can do something about is our support system.

Think about it. Having the best PR company in the world isn’t going to help sales if there aren’t enough interested readers. And having the right mix of readers who are eager to share their love of a great book is worth far more than any marketing budget a Big 5 publisher could possibly throw your way. Think about Twilight and how many of your friends were talking about the series. I had friends who were rushing out to Wal-Mart to stand in line for hours just to buy the next book like it was the Black Friday sale to end all sales. I never once saw a stitch of advertising for that book or the movies, but everyone I knew was talking about it for years. The same goes for Harry Potter. It wasn’t until those books starting lettering before you actually saw any advertisement for them.

When was the last time you told all your friends about a really good book, or a really great movie, or a really awesome restaurant? We do it all the time, and by doing so we have become part of a support system which helps push sales.

We all need some type of support system, and it has to start somewhere. We can’t always depend on people in our social media feeds to share our newest release or leave reviews. Bloggers are hit or miss, and newsletters seem to be a fad which are good one year and bad the next. But in order to really be successful, to really build a buzz about our work, we need a support system of readers who are willing to promote our work, leave reviews, and share their experiences with their peers. We all know word of mouth is the absolute best type of promotion but is also the hardest to foster.

And this last common core asset is the reason why most indie authors fail. I’ve seen this and experienced it on many levels firsthand. It’s really no great mystery on how or why the authors in these boxed sets are lettering. When you have 20 to 30 authors pooling their collective resources together and promoting one book together then great things are bound to happen. But this fundamental core asset is the very reason why these same authors can’t letter outside of these sets – individually they lack the support network required to truly market their books. Imagine if these same 30 authors were to stick together and help market/promote the individual’s books? How many of those authors would then be lettering with a single book rather than just a boxed set?

Unfortunately, authors seem to not want to play nicely with anyone else. They want you to help them, but when it comes time to reciprocate they all decide they don’t want anything to do with you.  I’m reminded of toddlers playing in a sandbox – they will happily play with the other kids’ toys but when asked to share, they quickly begin screaming that it’s their toys.

And this is why we can’t have nice things.

No one is willing to put aside their competitive nature to see the larger picture of what they could accomplish if they just worked together. While Anne Rice may be my competition, you can bet your sweet ass I’d team up with her any day of the week. Those authors who have succeeded do so because they have a support network to help share their books and promos. Whether it is a team of readers or a team of bloggers or a team of authors makes no difference. And until we all start working together and stop thinking of this as a one-horse race, we are all doomed to eventually fail.

Why Newsletters May No Longer Work for Indie Authors


As an author, it’s something we’ve heard from every author, marketing “guru”, and publishing company – you need a newsletter. When asked why you need one exactly, most likely the answer is something along the lines of “it’s the most effective marketing tool because people who subscribed want to year your news. Plus, unlike social media, your email is going to 100% of your audience versus just 5% of your social media platforms.”

According to these same “gurus”, you also need a social media platform, for pretty much the same reason as above – “it’s the most effective marketing tool because people who follow you on social media want to hear your news.”

Here’s the simple, cold-hard truth of the matter – newsletters are not any more effective than social media. As a matter of fact, most small time authors are reporting the exact opposite.

I know, I know, people have been hammering it into your head ever since you started writing that you need a newsletter. But let’s face it, most newsletters only have roughly a 10 to 15% open rate, and those who do open only have approximately a 1% click-through rate of actually clicking on whatever new book you are offering them. Based on these numbers, even if you were able to get a 15K subscriber list together, only about 2K of those subscribers are going to actually open the newsletter, and of those only about 20 are going to click-through. And the buy-through rate? It’s about 1% as well, meaning out of 15K subscribers you may have a whopping 2 to 10 people who may actually buy your book. And given that the market is super saturated and everyone is trying to entice readers into signing up, constantly trying to gain new subscribers to replace those you’ve lost – it’s a whole lot of work for not a whole lot of return.

So let’s break this down and discuss why people are no longer opting in, and staying opted in, to newsletters.

1 – Social media. Let’s face it, I’m a complete and total fanatic when it comes to Bret Michaels Band. Yes, I signed up for his newsletter, but guess what? I never open it. That’s right, despite me being the biggest BMB fanatic on the planet, I never open the newsletters. And you want to know why? Because of social media. Any time I want to know what is going on with the band, I surf on over to the band’s FB page or one of the band members’ pages to see what they are up to. If I want to know where they are playing I go to Bret’s website and check out tour dates. Bottom line, I don’t need to read his newsletter to find out all I want or need to know about the band and what is happening simply by following them on social media. Even when I’m not seeing their posts in my feed, I still know what is going on with them because I check out their pages and other social media on my own. So even though I am subscribed to a newsletter, I am one of many, many people who delete it without ever opening it.

2 – Organic vs inorganic. Because social media makes it super easy for everyone to stay connected despite FB’s algorithms, it’s getting harder and harder to get people to actually sign up for a newsletter. And if they are not opening it in the first place, getting them to subscribe is only part of the battle. Many times, authors are being forced to ‘entice’ readers by giving them free stuff – either a free book/short story for signing up, or trying to keep them signed up by sending out freebie shorts in subsequent newsletters. This is considered inorganic subscribers. These are subscribers who would not normally have signed up and only did so to capitalize on the free item you were offering. There are many FB groups and marketing companies who offer newsletter swaps etc. where a huge list of new subscribers are pulled in by the offer of free reading material. Unfortunately, many authors notice a huge unsubscribe rate once their first newsletter goes out after offering this freebie.

Another problem seen when offering free material in exchange for signing up for your newsletter are the “dead” leads. These are people who use alternate emails to sign up for the newsletter (read – just created email account for the sole intent of signing up for your newsletter), get the free content, and then never check the freshly made email address ever again. So while you have a subscriber, they never open the email, thus making them a “dead” lead.

The problem with offering free content in exchange for a subscription is twofold – first, you are getting someone who would not have normally signed up for the newsletter in the first place, and second, offering free content oftentimes just pulls in the freebie seekers who have no intentions of staying on your list once they have their free content. There are entire FB groups dedicated to helping readers find free books, including signing up for newsletters only to unsubscribe as soon as they have their freebie.

Doing newsletter swaps where you give other authors free advertising space in your newsletter in exchange for the same thing can backfire as well, oftentimes leading to unsubscribes from organic readers. Why? Because organic subscribers who signed up to hear about your news can be put off when they realize your newsletter just became a giant advertising platform to push other authors’ books onto them.

The ease of connecting on social media is often the reason why it is so hard to get organic subscribers in the first place. Unless you publish on a regular basis and send out newsletters with relevant updates every month, you will most likely also see huge unsubscribe rates from readers if it’s been a while since your last newsletter. This is because readers forget who you are or why they signed up for your newsletter in the first place. Others have so much spam and other junk coming in that they either delete the email after a while or unsubscribe in an attempt to weed out all the unnecessary emails they get every single day.

3 – Information overload. Devoted readers do not just read one genre or like one author. They devour books and oftentimes follow dozens of authors at once. Because of this, it’s pretty impossible for them to subscribe to everyone’s newsletters, especially when you have hundreds of thousands of new books and thousands of new authors hitting Amazon every day. They may sign up for a half-dozen newsletters at the most, and those lucky authors tend to be those who are already big names.

Think about how many emails you receive in a day. How many of them are newsletters that you actually open and read? Now think about all the different authors whose books you enjoy reading, all the different bands you like to listen to, all the different brands you like – and now imagine if you had signed up for a newsletter for every single one of those. How long before you went through unsubscribing to all but the ones you simply thought you could not live without? This is why thinking readers are going to subscribe to your newsletter and stay subscribed to it for any length of time is just plain silly, especially from a marketing perspective, and most especially if you are an unknown author. We are bombarded by advertisements all day every day. Signing up for newsletters is just another way of having pushy sales people trying to talk them into purchasing things they may or may not want.

4 – Money. But readers want to know about great deals and sales, right? Um, not exactly. Again, I use the same example from above. Would you really want to be notified by email every single time any author, band, or brand had a sale going on? There are far too many ways for readers to find out what is on sale than through newsletters, and most of those are already built right into Amazon.

If readers are price conscious they can simply use Amazon’s pricing filters to find what they want, and if they are on a budget it doesn’t matter when a book goes on sale. If they don’t have the money to buy it they are simply not going to purchase it. Sending them a newsletter reminding them your book is on sale for this week only isn’t going to matter to someone who has to wait until their next payday two weeks from now before they can treat themselves. Books aren’t like concert tickets. They are already relatively cheap even when full price, and since most indies do not sell their books for more than $5, discounting that already cheap book by a few bucks isn’t really going to matter to those who want to buy it in the first place. It might push someone who had already planning to buy the book to buy it a bit sooner, but all you’ve really done is crew yourself out of a better royalty rate.

To sum things up, newsletters only really work for authors who already have a huge fan base, and even those with huge subscriber lists are seeing lower and lower open and click-through rates. Most readers who are devoted fans are going to follow the author on social media and find out about new releases and sales that way. Many other authors have more success posting about their books and sales on their website or blog.

This isn’t to say that having a newsletter isn’t helpful. I still have one, but I do not depend on it as the sure-fired way to target marketing that everyone wants to hail it as. I do not advertise free content when people sign up, thus the few subscribers I get are organic, and I have less than a 1% unsubscribe rate. I send out a newsletter only once every three months, which is about how often I publish. I still find my most valuable marketing tools are still social media and my website. I use a newsletter as an enhancement tool, but I do not depend on it solely as a means to reach my audience. With so many ways to connect with readers, anyone who has been in this business for any length of time will tell you to utilize all the tools available to you, but do not expect or depend on any single one of them to work magic for book sales. After all, if it were that easy, we would all be bestsellers.