How to Learn from a Failed Book Launch

If you're here to learn from the mistakes I made from my book launch and learn from my failure, then you've come to the right place. My tale is not a success story. But I believe that to succeed, it's important to share our failures. Learn what worked and what didn't, adapt, be nimble and move on.

Without failures, I'd never learn.

Some quick backstory: I have been an indie author since 2008 (remember Lulu?) and have 8 novels published (in a wide range of online retailers with 4 of my novels out as audiobooks), 2 non-fiction books, a collection of my science fiction short stories and I just participated in my first BundleRabbit this month.

I have a full-time job, am raising two kids, run half-marathons and volunteer in my community. And in the wee hours of the morning or at night I write fantasy and science fiction books. I've worked hard over the last 9 years build up several different series:

  • Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries
  • A Witch's Coven series
  • The Jovian Gate Chronicles
  • The Werewhale Saga

Back in 2015, I came up with an idea for a book while playing with my kids in a pool. I put the book on hold in the fall of 2016 and then reworked the book in the spring and summer of 2017. My plan was to launch Ahab's Daughter: The Werewhale Saga, a dark historical fantasy, in September 2017.

I had a good amount of experience under my belt in writing books and had some success with my Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series. I had my email subscribers and my plan was to launch the book in September, promote to my readers and then stack a bunch of ads to help advertise my launch.

Adding all the Fees Up

Here is a breakdown of all the fees that I put out for creating Ahab's Daughter:

Cover: $381
Copyediting: $441
Revised book description: $157
Happy Book curating book reviews service: $212
Copyright registration: $35
Kindle Nation Daily ad: $130
GenreCRAVE mega ad service: $499
Facebook ads: $42
Amazon Marketing System (AMS) ads: $10.63

Total fees: $1,907.63

That's a lot of money that I spent, but it falls within the average. Now when I look back, I can see where I made mistakes and that's what I want to learn from and hopefully you'll learn as well.

After all my work, what were my sales? Including pre-orders, ebooks on Amazon and print from late August until November 23, 2017, my sales total is $151.78.

No, you did not read that incorrectly. I lost a lot of money on this launch.

Breaking It All Down

When I look back and see the money that I spent, there are certain production fees that I could not eliminate. Cover, copyright registration and proofreading fees are a must for me. Sure, I could do lower costs on them, but I'm happy with the quality that I got from the freelancers I hired.

When I add that up, that's $857 that I spent on getting the book produced. If I can take a trip back in a TARDIS, I would have stopped here. Why?

You would have thought that I would have learned my lesson by now, but I keep failing on this one: It's really difficult to get new readers to jump into book 1--especially if you're trying a new genre. My Ahab's Daughter book is dark and borders on horror. My Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series is a different audience than those readers I was trying to get for Ahab's Daughter.

My best form of marketing would have been to write books 2 & 3 and then release them closer together. I could have launched book 1, then 3 months later launch book 2 and then book 3 three months after that. I chose not to hold off on publishing book 1 because I truly believed that Ahab's Daughter would find an audience all on its own. I was wrong.

Let me dig into this some more:

The book has only 5 reviews (at the time of this writing) and they're all 5 stars. I want to be clear: I don't know these readers. They're not my mom and close friends! I know that the book is liked, but it's just not found an audience.

All the money that I spent on advertising and the other marketing items that I tried were not successful. They just didn't underperform, they crashed and burned.

What Didn't Work

Revised Book Description

I wanted to optimize my book's description and I paid $157 for that. Was that worth it? No, not really. Organically, I drew no extra sales from having this revised book description. When I compare the new description with the one I wrote, my own description was perfectly fine.

Lesson learned: Look at the book descriptions to popular books and follow that format and style (and I could have saved $157).

Assistance in Curating ARC Reviews

There are only so many hours in the day and I thought that if I spent some money here that I could have a company handle all the ARC reviews for me. They had a mailing list that they would email and see if any of their readers would want to get an advance copy of my ebook and have the option to leave a review. I spent $212 on the service, gave away around 2 dozen ebooks and earned 0 reviews.

Paying for this service was a total waste of my budget. I thought by outsourcing that I could save time and garner more reviews, but that's not the case. I have only good things to say about Happy Book's service, but when it comes down to it: You sell your book better than anyone else can. I regret spending the money for this service as it failed entirely.

Promotions

In looking at the numbers, my Kindle Nation Daily ad did not convert at all for me. I lowered my book's price to $2.99, but I barely saw any sales. And my GenreCRAVE mega ad brought in most of my sales, but $499 is an expensive amount of money to spend to only sell 48 copies. When I throw in Facebook and AMS ads, they also didn't convert for me (I had hoped that the AMS ads would get me more KNEP from being in Kindle Unlimited, but that didn't work either).

Lesson learned: I wasted money on advertising book 1 in a series. There's no other way to sugarcoat what happened and I'm embarrassed to say that I really didn't learn my lesson when I did the same thing for my Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series. A better strategy would have been to write books 2 and 3, offer book 1 at a reduced rate and then my read through would sell the series.

I can tell you that when I was writing the book all that kept going through my mind was: "This is a really good book. People are going to want to read it." I gave in to my desire for the book to be successful and ignored all the lessons I had learned previously.

 Amazon sales

Like many of you out there, I worked really hard on my book and wanted to see some sales. If I threw money at book promotions, then it just had to succeed.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened. I gave in to my hope that the book would do well and wasted a lot of money in the process.

Book Reviewers

I spent hours upon hours going through more than 230 book review websites. I read their submission policies, submitted emails to 30 reviewers and heard back from two of them. Most reviewers were simply too busy and had a backlog that stretched far into 2018. 

With all those hours researching and sending emails out, I could have written a lot on the first draft of the next book. In retrospect, paying for a virtual assistant to do this research and submit requests for me would have made more sense.

Other Things to Consider

The Cover

Maybe my cover doesn't work. I researched the books that are similar and they all have a woman on the front. I went another direction taking inspiration from Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (Book 1 in the Southern Reach Trilogy). If you've not read VanderMeer's book, go buy it. I loved it. And it seems that Hollywood did too as Natalie Portman is staring in the movie sent to launch in February 2018.

It's possible that my readers (aged 30-55) didn't like my cover. I did receive a lot of compliments on it, but maybe it's just not selling my target readership.

Before I publish books 2 and 3, I need to decide on whether to stick with my current cover theme or change. The best way for me to answer this question is to survey my readers and see. The challenge is: I might need to start an entirely different mailing list for readers that are more into dark fantasy/horror.

Maybe I Suck as a Writer?

I think all of us go through this phase: We work alone in our craft, put our blood, sweat and tears into a book, and then--nothing. The book falls flat. No book that I write will ever be perfect. But I can honestly say that each book that I publish shows my growth as a writer. I have a stronger sense of a narrative flow and realize the different beats I need to bring a reader through on the journey I'm taking her.

I would be more prone to believe that my writing sucks if I had horrible reviews, but that's not the case.

I've been writing and publishing books since 2011 and I still have this demon to face. In my head, I think the book is great, but then once it's in the wild I begin to doubt myself because a book isn't selling. I know other authors who have dealt with similar self-doubt. The best way I know to overcome my fear is to start another book. Use my doubt and fear to fuel my creativity.  No one owes me anything for all those years of hard work. Either I have a great book that people want to read, or I don't.

The only way I know how to get better is to read and keep writing.

There's No Market for My Book

Right now, military science fiction and romance books are hot. There are also some crossover genre books that are also selling well. But a sequel for Moby-Dick, well, not so much. After I launched my book, I received some feedback from fellow indie author Joanna Penn. She read my description and suggested that I tweak it a bit (this is before I had my description professionally rewritten). It used to say: "Ever wonder what happened after Moby-Dick?" She was honest and said that she never did wonder about that and had never read Melville's Moby-Dick. Great feedback because in my little bubble I studied English literature in graduate school and took a course on Moby-Dick and I really wanted to know what happened to that damn white whale.

And the way my book is constructed, you don't really need to know much at all about Melville's novel. But in trying to sell the book as a sequel, well, that wasn't going to work. It helps if you know who Ishmael and Captain Ahab are, but it's not essential.

But the fact remains that there isn't a burning need out there for a sequel.

Readers are not organically looking for a book like mine. Unless I promote the book, it doesn't sell.

I have the hardest time dealing with this topic. I don't want to just write what's selling today. If I am only writing to market, I can't be my most creative because it's not what I really want to write about. What's popular today isn't going to be popular next year and I believe that I need to write what I'm most interested. If I'm up at 5:30 a.m. writing before my day job, well, it better be something that's going to get me out of bed early in the morning. If it isn't, then why the hell am I doing all this work?

I don't want to chase after what everyone else is doing. I'm not saying that that is wrong for other authors, but it just isn't for me. Even when I tried to write a Fifty Shades of Grey-like book, I still came up with something entirely different. But I like how I make something my own and created a whole world around a series idea I had.

When it comes to writing for market, I believe Kristine Kathryn Rusch in what she wrote in her blog. She challenges writers to do something original and make it your own. I like that and wholeheartedly believe in that philosophy.

Of course, several authors writing to market are paying off their cars and houses and I'm failing miserably. I don't have much room to talk here. But when I read my reviews and see how people really enjoy my books, that helps me better understand that I'm doing something right.

I will keep writing and working hard to better my craft and to learn book marketing. To be honest, the hardest lesson is patience for me. I see how Michael Anderle and those following him in the 20Books to 50K group are doing extremely well.

I just don't want to do exactly what they're doing. I want to do my own thing. Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's extremely difficult to see how successful some other authors are. I would like some success as well. I keep writing and I think what's hard is that I'm spending my time trying to chase after what's the biggest marketing fad du jour. Is it Facebook ads, email lists, AMS ads, text message ads, etc.?

If there's one lesson that I would like to share with my fellow authors who are struggling like me it would be this:

Have patience. Keep writing, do not give up, but most of all have perseverance and patience.

Patience, for me, means writing more than one book in a series and scheduling out my launches more strategically. It also means saving money on promotions and putting it toward covers and proofreading in other books in the series and then running ads to discount book 1 to get people into a series that way.

Instead of focusing so much on seeing marketing as fishing and getting people into my net, I'm changing my strategy. Farming is the way for me to go. But that's a post for another day.

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Ron Vitale is a fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction author. He's written the Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series, the Witch's Coven series, book one in the Jovian Gate Chronicles, and the Werewhale Saga. His first nonfiction book, How to Be a Successful Author While Working Full-Time: The Secret to Work/Life Balance is also now available. When not writing, Ron loves spending time with his kids even when they beat him in the fun card game Kittens in a Blender.