How to hit the bestseller lists with a book series began with leaving Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription program, which was the scariest risk I’ve taken since my journey as an author began.
It was also awesome.
I’ve made a six figure income and hit the USA Today bestseller list with the last three titles in my series since I made the move. How is that better than the income made in KU? Bigger exposure worldwide, that's how, and “un”limited growth potential!
Here are the steps I took, in case they’re helpful to you in charting your path to bestseller status:
- Write a series in a popular genre, minimum of five books, before expecting to make any real money. This is a known strategy with lots written about it, so I won’t belabor the point.
- Write well and collect as many reviews as you can. The best thing you can do when you’re starting out is keep writing the next book, improving your craft and collecting reviews on the ones you have. This will provide a steady base for all that comes later to rest upon.
- Build a base of readers, income, and sales numbers in KU. Lei Crime Series entered Kindle Unlimited when the program first began in July 2014, and were in the program through ups and downs, thick months and thin, flat rate through pay-per-page until November of 2015, when my agent got me a deal for distribution on a new phone reading app. Taking that deal would violate Amazon’s exclusivity clause, so I made the difficult decision to leave KU. (I was petrified. Amazon had begun to feel like a “home” to me, and the income from the lending program, while having ups and downs, was solid and steady. I was a four time KU All Star, earning bonuses! Everything I read about the other platforms seemed daunting to navigate for uncertain benefit, but my friend Emily Kimelman of the Sydney Rye Series assured me she was doing well in the IBookstore particularly. She recommended using Draft to Digital for distribution because they were a faster, cleaner, better tech platform than Smashwords, a nimble company, and could help me gain attention for my books with the main distributors. So, in November of 2015, I began updating all my older manuscripts and moving them out of Kindle Unlimited as their terms ended. I eventually enrolled 20 books on Draft to Digital’s all-platforms-except-Amazon distribution program.
- Build the snowball. I work hard to capture and keep my readers by offering incentives to join my email list, giving them perks, freebies, and pictures of Hawaii—and continually writing the next book. There will always be lulls and slow months—but if you’ve diversified income streams and have enough product (I now have twenty books out in print, audiobook, phone app, and ebook) you can weather the ups and downs of the market and continue to grow at a steady pace, without one single “breakout book.”
- Move when you have a well-established base and ask for help marketing. Support your claim with numbers and figures. Updating all my older books into current epubs for D2D distribution was not for the faint of heart—that project alone had kept me in KU longer than I should have been—but encouraged by Emily, I wrote to the D2D marketing division and told them about myself: who I was, awards the books had won, sales figures, and that I was going to try this “experiment” of being out on all platforms for six months. If I could equal or surpass my KU lending income, I’d stay out, and with them. They earn 15% on my sales, so there was an incentive for both of us!
- Go wide on all platforms with a lot of books. Draft to Digital were very responsive to my questions, concerns and timeline. They worked to get my books good exposure and placement. They obtained me a ‘Deal of the Day’ on Barnes & Noble with my boxed set of first four books, and a headline leader ad in the Apple Store for Blood Orchids as a ‘best first in series’ title. Both of these product placements started a cascade effect that led to the other books selling briskly, and I was delighted to be able to watch my sales numbers on their dashboard, only one day behind real-time. (Their Dashboard and upload process are as slick and easy to use as Amazon’s, and their pay is two months behind, like Amazon.)
- Do a sale or giveaway to gain momentum. This was all well and fine, but two months out of KU, while things were building, I still wasn’t close equaling what I’d made in KU. I decided to accelerate the process by putting a recent title on sale right before the debut of the next book in the series. I was lucky enough to get a Bookbub for .99 for that title, Rip Tides, which fed into a presale for the next book, Bone Hook. I sold close to ten thousand copies on that sale, which was enough to get me onto the USA Today Bestseller list for two weeks—but I never even knew it! I just went on to do my same strategy a few months later. In January I put Bone Hook on sale, (leading into Red Rain, the next title) and that time, Draft to Digital were the ones to let me know I’d made the bestseller list! I did it again the next month with Red Rain.
People debate the value of discounting/giveaways, but every time I do a short-term discount, I hope to keep loyal readers happy by making the books affordable, and capture new readers with a low risk incentive. So far, it’s been win-win for all.
I still have three books enrolled in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited—“Companion” books to the main Lei Crime Series. These are side books starring minor characters that have never sold as strongly as the main Lei Crime books (though of course I think they’re just as good!) I get a lot of page reads on them through KU, and my hope is that they work as “ambassadors” to KU readers to entice them into trying the main series.
Advice to writers starting out: work on writing the next book as a priority, and don’t worry too much about marketing. Put your books in KU to build your income stream “snowball.” When you have five or more books in your series (of whatever genre) go to all platform distribution and do some discounting and giveaways, and perhaps make your first in series book permafree.
Along the way, look for ways to capture and engage your reader base as you build your momentum. By the time you have enough books out, the bestseller lists are a real possibility.
Any ideas for breaking the bestseller lists with a series that I might have missed?
Awesome. Thanks Toby. This is helpful info.
Love this! You inspire and lead. Thank Toby!
Congratulations, Toby! This is HUGE! Thanks for sharing your tips. Slow and steady, keep writing…I think I can do that!
Thanks for sharing this. Thanks for writing your books. Thanks for being Toby!
Excellent guide, Toby. Thank you.
Thanks for sharing your experience Toby. It’s so easy to get caught up with the marketing aspect of authorship, and forget that ultimately we need to focus primarily on building our backlist before we make any big moves. Great advice and just what I needed to hear.
Great blog, Tony! You mentioned a “new phone reading app”—can you say which one? Also, are you having any luck in any other ‘mobile app’ markets?
Hi there! Check out Tapas! They may be accepting new authors by now… I was one of their launch Authors.
Thanks for the information. I have around eight books out in KU but they’re mostly standalones. My best seller resulted when I bundled three of the thrillers together. Also done pretty well writing in the JET Worlds universe like you have. Hope to have a couple more in my series there soon. I am writing a new mystery series now and will probably follow your advice and leave it in KU until several books in and it starts selling well (hopefully). Thanks again and congratulations on your success.
Good stuff & congrats! Look out NYT . . .
Great information. Thanks for sharing, Toby, and big congrats!
Great article Toby. Thanks. I was wondering what phone reading app you are using?
It’s called Tapas! Check it out!
I’m very curious about the fact that the series you took wide is a Kindle World series. Does this mean the World author doesn’t have to be exclusive to Amazon, like the fanfiction authors do? How does a thing like that work? Has Amazon treated your World differently since you took the series wide?
No, the main World author does not have to be exclusive. In fact, a wider reach is probably better for the WOrld’s growth since it’s all about attracting fans of a series to continue to buy and read. I WAS exclusive to Amazon for years and got no special treatment (though they were easily able to verify my sales numbers when considering offering me the Kindle World!) and now I’ve had no consequences for leaving KU. These programs are run very separate from each other in my experience working with Amazon staffers.
Hope that helps!
Great Ideas, Toby! So glad you listed with USA Today, and things are going so well for you because you are one of the hardest-working, smartest marketing authors in the Biz. I try to emulate you every chance I get and after reading this, just learned some new stuff! I loved writing for Kindle Worlds in the Lei Crime Series, and look forward to writing the second book for Lei Crime. I’ve gained some awesome readers, reviewers and friends through this world. Love watching your fame and glory as an amazing author.