Nat Russo is the author of Necromancer Awakening, a debut dark fantasy novel that reached the top ten in a number of categories, including contemporary fantasy and horror. Given his success and that we're writing in the same genre, I was very eager to get his take on marketing, and delighted to find that he'd put a lot of thought into this very topic.

You went into self-publishing as a first option, as opposed to a “second-best” option after trying to get into traditional publishing. Can you give us a little summary of why you chose to self-publish?  

I struggled with this question for more than a year, constantly going back and forth on what I would ultimately do. What really helped me decide on self-publishing was seeing what happens when an author manages to land a deal with a traditional publishing house. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I saw very little advantage to going that route because I’m not a “big name” writer.

As a first time novelist, a publisher isn’t going to spend a lot of marketing dollars on me. Combine that with the policy of allowing bookstores to return unsold books for a full refund after a relatively short time on the shelves (30 – 60 days), and the landscape looked pretty bleak.

Aside from the marketing realities, I also saw no financial advantage to traditional publishing. The sad reality is that more than 80% of books never earn out their advance. And advances aren’t all that much to speak of these days to begin with. As a first time author, I could reasonably expect an advance of around $5000. That advance could come to me in two or three payments spread across eighteen months. And once I received the sum total, that’s it. I’d likely never earn another penny off Necromancer Awakening.

For perspective, Necromancer Awakening has been out for seven months. In that time I’ve already earned twice what I could have expected in the form of an advance, and I continue to make steady sales every day.

As an independent author, I’m in complete control. Unlike a book store, it costs me nothing to leave my book up on the virtual shelf. I can afford to give myself time to allow my story to find its audience. I also get to decide who I’m going to hire to design my cover, and what the final product is going to look like. I get to make all decisions, from creative to business.

The wonderful thing is that traditional publishing is still an option. But instead of jumping through hoops to find a publisher, and then settling for a raw deal out of some sense of gratitude, the publishers now have to approach me and offer me a competitive deal. I’ve already been approached by several audio book publishers (big names), and I signed with Blackstone Audio after a brief negotiation. The sky is the limit! (And look for the audio version of Necromancer Awakening in January of 2015!)

Can you give a basic overview of your marketing strategy?

I love the saying that goes “we know 20% of marketing works, we just don’t know which 20%.” It’s so true!

My marketing strategy can be summed up in one sentence: Be a content provider, first and foremost. I tried advertising and found it worked against me. When I reduced the number of ads I was tweeting and sharing on other social media outlets, my sales increased.

The single largest source of sales I have is my author platform. I strongly urge new authors to start building their platform as soon as possible. Today! Now! If possible, build a subscription-based mailing list to keep in touch with your fans. Looking back over my sales, I estimate only 1% of my Twitter followers bought a copy of Necromancer Awakening. However, I estimate more than 75% of my mailing list bought a copy.

Your book reached the top three in several categories, including dark and contemporary fantasy. Did your success meet or exceed your expectations?

The success of Necromancer Awakening absolutely surpassed my wildest expectations. I used to chat with a colleague at work and tell him I was worried I’d never earn back the $200 I spent on the cover art. He tried to assure me I was crazy (he’d read the book), but I just didn’t believe it would amount to anything.

Seeing Necromancer Awakening on the best seller lists was nothing short of surreal. There has never been a time in my life that I’ve gone physically weak in the knees over something, but when I saw my book on the Fantasy best seller list, I tried to stand and couldn’t. It was crazy!

Did you do research into which two categories to choose on Amazon, and how did you decide on keywords?

I did some basic research using Amazon’s own search engine. I started typing keywords I thought people would use to find my book, then I took notice of what the “autocomplete” feature would suggest. This was somewhat helpful, but it wasn’t as helpful as the KDP forums. In the forums, I found a list of keywords I could use to guarantee my presence in certain categories. This was invaluable.

In truth, my keywords are a work-in-progress, and I’m sure I’ll continue to experiment until I find the perfect combination. But one thing I know for certain is that everything changes. Keywords that work for me today may not work for me tomorrow. So it’s an ongoing learning process.

As far as the two categories are concerned, I actually spent quite a bit of time researching the formal definitions of the various subgenres of Fantasy! I urge writers to do this, because they may find their “dystopian” novel isn’t as dystopian as they think it is.

Your readers give your writing style high praise. Since the quality of the book is likely to be the number one factor in sales, can you tell us a little about the writing process for the first book? How long did it take you to write it? How many drafts did you do? And what was your editing process like?

Necromancer Awakening was my first published novel, and I knew I had to get it right. The first draft took me ninety days to complete, but the editing and rewriting phase took me nearly three additional years spanning more than twenty drafts. I don’t expect future work to take near this long, however. That three years is a reflection of the learning curve I had to endure. There are many lessons I no longer need to learn.

As far as process is concerned, my first draft process is like a sprint. I go for speed, and I don’t stop to edit myself. Sure, I’ll fix typos as I spot them, but I make absolutely no substantive edits during the first draft. When I’m finished with the first draft, I set it aside for four to six weeks to get some distance from it. I’ve found that if I try to go back and edit without sufficient distance, I can’t really do the work that needs to be done, because I don’t have the objectivity I need to hack and slash through my work and fix the things that need fixing. On the day I finish the first draft, I’m of the opinion it’s the best book ever written! That’s not the emotional headspace you want to be in when you edit your work.

My editing process is rigid and targeted. After the four to six week period I mentioned earlier, I print the book out on paper and read it cover to cover. At this stage, I make high level observations about pacing and confusing sentences, and I take small notes using a shorthand notation I picked up from James Scott Bell. The purpose of the shorthand is to remind me that this isn’t the time for extensive fixes. My purpose for the first read through is to put myself in the position of a reader. So I want to get through that read quickly and efficiently so I can arrive at some estimation of what the reader is going to take away from the story.

After the first read through, I have a revision checklist (published on in two parts) that I follow systematically. When I’ve completed the checklist, I read through the book cover to cover once more. Only this time I’m concentrating on the prose itself. I read slowly, and there are very few sentences in the work that go unchanged.

Once I’ve gone through the entire manuscript one “last” time, I’m ready to hand it out to advance readers.

Did you give out Advanced Reader Copies before publishing, and if so, who did you give them to?

I did, and I find this a crucial part of the process. I start with people who are close to me. I know they’re not going to be objective, but being a writer has a lot to do with battling your self-doubt. You need people in your life who are going to act as cheerleaders and tell you that what you’re doing is wonderful. This is going to prepare you for the constructive criticism you’re going to get from people who aren’t particularly close to you.

Once I’ve gotten my friends’ impressions of the story, I pass out the book to a handful of beta readers along with a questionnaire.  I’ve found the questionnaire idea to be invaluable, because it cuts down on responses like “That was awesome!” or “That sucked!” Knowing it’s awesome is always a wonderful thing, but it’s more important to know why it’s awesome so that you can repeat the process when you need to. Likewise with knowing why it’s bad.

Along with the questionnaire, I give them a deadline. When the deadline comes and goes, I collect the feedback and create a spreadsheet with three columns. In the first column I place items that were commonly identified as problems (for me, this means two or more readers had the same or similar comment). In the second column I place comments that may have only come from one person, but the comment sparked an idea or otherwise intrigued me, and I want to explore it further. In the last column I make note of what “solutions” I have for the problem in question.

There is one beta reader in particular who has absolutely no need for my questionnaire, and I’ve mentioned her in the acknowledgements of my books. Let’s just say her advice receives a little more weight than suggestions I might receive from other readers. And that weight is well deserved. She really knows her craft!

Did you pay for any advertising or blog promotional services?

I’ve experimented with targeted advertising on Facebook, but since Facebook offers us no real way to gauge an advertisement’s success, I can’t really comment on whether it worked. I can say that my gut feeling is that I poured money into a black hole. Until they come up with a better way (ANY way, for that matter) to track click-thru metrics, I probably won’t be wasting any more money there.

I’ve never paid to promote by blog. Instead, I rely on standard SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques, and I promote my blog heavily on Twitter and Facebook (through Page and group posts, not paid ads). I’ve found that if you’re going to advertise anything on social media, a blog that provides helpful content is a prime candidate.

In upcoming months I’ll be experimenting with a different form of targeted advertisement: email subscription lists like eBookSoda and BookBub. I’m not sure if these will pan out yet, but I’ll definitely know if it was worth it after the holidays. 

Your book was recently priced at $6.99, which is more than self-published ebooks are generally priced at. Did you play around with the price?

I did play around with the price (and still do!). Pricing takes a little bit of black magic. For many potential buyers, the price of an item speaks to that item’s value. If you price your book too low, many people come away with a deflated impression of the value (or quality) of your book. Price it too high and people simply won’t spend the money. The goal is to strike a balance between a price that’s low enough to catch impulse shoppers, yet high enough to provide a decent income.

The $6.99 price point was a complete experiment. It’s outside the range of many “impulse” shoppers, which experts say caps out around $4.99 for eBooks, and for that reason it worried me. Yet, Amazon’s new pricing tool recommended that price, so I decided to try it out. Much to my surprise, Amazon was correct. My total number of sales declined, but my income increased. It was a successful experiment, but I won’t be holding it at $6.99 until I collect more data. For example, I recently lowered the price to $4.99 and found no change in my total sales volume. So this means all I succeeded in doing was lowering my income. I may experiment with even lower price points in the future, because at this stage of my career visibility is more important than income. I’d rather have 20 downloads per day at a low price right now than 5 at a higher price.

I’ve experimented with Kindle Select’s free promotional days and have decided it just doesn’t work for me. While downloads increased dramatically on free days, it didn’t really build a sales momentum after the free days ended. It also didn’t translate into reviews. I suspect there are many eBook “hoarders” out there who download anything free they can get their hands on. The trouble is that doesn’t necessarily mean they ever read it. I’ve heard some people say they have ten thousand books on their Kindle. I’m a voracious reader, and I doubt I’ll get through ten thousand books in my lifetime.

What I will likely do after publishing book #2 of the series is lower the price of Necromancer Awakening back down to around $2.99 (perhaps even temporarily $0.99) to entice new readers.

You have a huge number of twitter followers (73,000). Did you work to gain most of those before publishing? Or are they a result of having published? Has twitter been helpful?

Twitter has been invaluable to me, in terms of meeting people in the writing community. I spent a couple of years building my following from nothing to around 50k. After publishing, my following grew by another 20k and continues to build slowly without much work on my part.

Twitter is wonderful for promoting my blog articles, but it’s lousy for advertising books. People respond wonderfully when you’re sharing helpful links and info. But they absolutely can’t stand being “sold” to. And who can blame them, really? The last thing I want to see in my Twitter feed is a bunch of advertisements, so why should I expect people to want to see ads for my book?

To clarify, I’m not suggesting people don’t advertise at all. I am, however, suggesting they limit their ads to a small fraction of the overall number of Tweets they send out.

Did you organize any free giveaways or other online events?

I’ve recently begun experimenting with free giveaways, and so far I think they’re helpful. I used Rafflecopter for a recent giveaway, and I loved it! Other than that, I occasionally participate in blog tours, but I don’t do many other online events. I tend to use my own interests as a sort of litmus test for what I should be doing. Since I’m not personally drawn to things like online release parties, I don’t expect people to be drawn to mine, so I don’t do them.

Is there anything you did differently to promote your second book?

I actually took the same approach, and I found something very interesting: it didn’t work! Sales languished for my second book (The Road To Dar Rodon…a novelette set in the Erindor universe). I think short fiction is just a tough sell overall. When people see full length novels on sale for prices similar to short fiction, they’re going to make a quick value judgment and go with the novel almost every time.

What are your thoughts on authors using "perma-free" strategies once they've got more than one book out?

I think this can work wonders for series authors. Once the entire Mukhtaar Chronicles (Cycle 1) is complete, I’m considering making Necromancer Awakening permanently free. I don’t know if it will work, but I’m definitely willing to give it a try!

My advice is experiment. What works for one author’s books won’t necessarily work for another.

What are your thoughts on DRM?

DRM (Digital Rights Management: the anti-piracy technology that makes it impossible for a reader to share your book with someone else) is a horrible idea that ultimately does nothing to stop piracy. The music industry learned this years ago, as did the software industry. But publishing has yet to keep up, and the industry at large still thinks it’s a great idea. It isn’t. And Big Publishing seems destined to repeat the mistakes of Big Music and Big Software.

The simple truth is that piracy isn’t the enemy of the new author. Obscurity is.

Neil Gaiman recently did an experiment. He discovered that one of his recent books was being pirated in Russia, and free downloads were spreading like wildfire. But he discovered something else: sales of that very same book in Russia increased dramatically. So he went to his publisher and convinced them to offer his book for free temporarily. It had the effect he wanted, and sales increased for that title.

Why? Because the number one thing that sells a book is word-of-mouth. Regardless of how a person comes by your book, if they like it enough to tell others about it, those others are going to eventually turn into sales.

Overall, what was the most successful strategy you employed and what advice would you pass on to new writers?

The best thing I ever did to guarantee the success of my book was spending a couple of years building a writer’s platform. I know that many writers want to do nothing except write, and I can sympathize with that sentiment. But it’s not enough. You have to provide the community with something valuable. You have to get people invested in you personally. Be a content provider first and foremost, and your content will do your selling for you.