How I became a Kindle Bestseller

Publishing direct via the Kindle is increasingly becoming a sensible option for new writers. One of our clients, Tim O’Rourke, succeeded in becoming a #1 bestseller within his category by taking that exact route. In just four months, he has sold 40,000 books – and sales are still increasing. Here is his story.

My name is Tim O’Rourke, and I’m a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop. Recently my ebooks have really taken off, and on this blog I’m going to tell you how I did it – what I’m discovering – and how you can do it too.

I’ve only been self publishing my books for the last ten months. If I really think about it though, that short space of time has been tough, fun, exciting and sometimes surreal. Like many aspiring writers, over the years I’ve had my fair share of knock backs from agents and never got close to even getting any of my books in front of a publisher. But, I never stopped writing and that’s the most important thing. I kept on writing because I just loved doing it.

Last February I was bought a Kindle for my birthday. I didn’t want one as I loved books. I loved the feel of them, the smell of them and the noise of the pages being turned over. Nevertheless, I switched it on and started downloading and downloading and reading and reading and downloading and reading – you get the picture and rightly or wrongly, I haven’t bought a paper version of a book since.

In March, I happened across an article on the internet regarding self publishing your own books onto the Kindle to be sold on Amazon. Intrigued by this and with a fair amount of hesitation (what if I didn’t sell any?) and the numerous articles on the internet telling you that you shouldn’t self publish on the Kindle as its killing the publishing industry, and self published authors on the Kindle are lucky if they sell more than 150 copies, and although Amazon offer an attractive 70% royalty programme, 70% of nothing (the amount of books you will sell) is still nothing, I thought I would give it a go. What did I have to lose? I would have been happy to sell 50 books as that meant I’d shared my stories with 50 more people than I had previously.

So with very little effort and totally free of charge, I uploaded my first book Doorwayson to the Kindle, which meant it was available as an ebook on Amazon in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. The original cover was designed by a friend. The book was a fantasy adventure aimed at 14 – 16 year old boys. I set the price low at 99 cents (77p). Why so low? Two reasons, I thought that as a self published and unknown author it was more important for me to find a readership for my work than to make money. Secondly, I have two teenage sons who believe it or not have never walked into a music store and bought a CD. Every piece of music they buy, they download for 79p from the iTunes store. The Apps and games that they download are never more than £1.00. So as I was aiming my book at a similar age group and my books were going to be downloadable, it made sense to me to set the price of my books at the same levels as equivalent media that my own children were downloading.

So with my book on Amazon, I sat and chewed my already bitten fingernails to see what would happen. Not a lot. After the initial copies that were snapped up by friends and family, the book just kind of sat there. Undeterred, I uploaded another book that I had just finished writing. This book was called Black Hill Farm and was a psychological thriller with a paranormal twist aimed at the YA market (16 plus). Again, I got my friend to design a cover and I uploaded to Amazon. This did a little better and I sold about 65 copies in the first few weeks and I sold a few more copies of ‘Doorways’. Pleased by my progress (Hey, I was halfway to that magic 150 number!) I wrote a follow up book to ‘Black Hill Farm’ called Andy’s Diary. I put this out about six weeks later and my sales crept up again and I think I sold about another 50 copies. (Happy days!! I had passed the magic 150!).

The problem is, there are over 600,000 books available to download on the Kindle so how do I make mine stand out? I’m competing with books that are promoted by massive publishing houses – my books have to compete with thousands of traditionally published books!

So, with a little bit of money I had earnt as overtime from my day job (£80) I invested in some Facebook Adds. With a very small budget compared to the big publishing houses, I knew I had to spend my money wisely. I therefore targeted those aged between 16 and 21 years, that had a Kindle and read authors in the same genre that I was writing in. You pay per ‘click’ and you can set the price. I set mine as low as possible – I think about 12p per ‘click’. Every time someone ‘Clicked’ on my add it took them to my book on Amazon and Facebook took 12p. Just because someone ‘Clicks’ doesn’t meant that they will buy your book. I tried to make my blurb as enticing as possible, and with my prices low and what I hoped was a pretty good cover, some of those people did buy my book and my overall sales for one month went to about 200.

I soon realised that once people had read ‘Black Hill Farm’ they then downloaded ‘Andy’s Diary’ book two. Then, if they liked them perhaps they would download ‘Doorways.’ So, one book was then selling two other books if that makes sense. I realised that one way of growing a greater readership was having more books available. About the same time, I discovered book bloggers and these people are awesome. Just like you and me, they have a passion for reading and reviewing the books on their blogs.

I researched some bloggers that reviewed books in the genre that I write in (YA paranormal romance) and emailed them. I offered them a free copy of my ebook ‘Black Hill Farm’ for a review. It’s risky because they might hate the book and you get a bad review, but again what did I have to lose? I emailed about twenty-five different bloggers and a few got back to me and offered to do a review.

While this was going on, I started writing the Kiera Hudson Series’, again another set of books aimed at the YA market. Kiera Hudson is a feisty twenty year old new police recruit who has the wonderful knack of solving crimes that others can’t, especially when it comes to Vampires and all other things paranormal.

Eventually my £80 marketing budget dried up and although my sales had increased to anywhere between 150 – 200 a month, I couldn’t tell if this was due to the bloggers, the Facebook adds or if my books were spreading by word of mouth. I had started to sell books in the US and I knew this wasn’t friends or family who were buying them.

Then one day, just before releasing the first book in my ‘Kiera Hudson Series’, I googled my own name and the title of my book ‘Black Hill Farm’ and I was surprised that it was being mentioned on blogs that I hadn’t even contacted. It was also being mentioned on a website called ‘goodreads’. I’d never heard of it. It’s a site where avid readers and writers review books, join communities and talk about authors etc. I was surprised to see that my book and been put on the virtual bookshelves of members of the site and some had mentioned that they had seen my book on facebook – so I knew that in someway my £80 and been well spent.

I joined the site and created a blog which I connected to my own books. I put the first ‘Kiera Hudson’ book out in July and then something exciting started to happen. In August, I had my best month ever and sold approx 400 books. Then in September something truly amazing happened and I sold just under 1,000 books. October, I sold approx 4,000 books, November, over 8,000 books, December over 16,500 books and if my books continue to sell at the rate that they have for the first half of this month (January 2012) I should sell approximately 22,000 books. My total book sales are in excess now of 42,000. This has mainly happened in the last five months as the sales prior to this were pretty insignificant.

Why did this happen? To be honest I think there are several reasons. I set the price of my book low, I write in a genre that is popular, I personally answer every single piece of fan mail that I receive, I contact those people kind enough to have left me reviews on goodreads and thank them for doing so. I believe this is very important, not to sell more books, but to say thank you to that person for spending their money on my book, taking the time to read it, then to leave a review for me. For instance, I received an email only the other day from a young girl you said that she had been given a Kindle for Christmas along with a £10 gift voucher. She went on to say that my books were the first that she downloaded and had loved them. It’s nice to know that she enjoyed them, but more than that, she spent her Christmas present on my books and that really made me think how nice that actually is. So the very least that I could do was email her to say thank you.

I also have my own website which I have linked to my facebook page. This is where I post news about my books and a place where people can become a fan of my books and leave messages. Again, I make sure that I respond to every message that is left for me and answer any questions. This for me is really important and the bit I love the most, because it gives me a chance to chat to those people that are taking the time to read my books.

I’m not very good at ‘twittering’ but this again is an important tool, so I have linked my facebook page to my twitter page, which is linked to my Amazon author page and website. This is a great way of connecting to the readers of my books

I also run competitions and giveaway’s, which have included signed T-Shirts that I had made with my book cover on the front, bookmarks that were kindly made by a fan, signed prints of the book covers and original pieces of artwork from the book cover designs. This to me is the most important part of what I’ve done, to have a good relationship with the people that read and enjoy my books. I have made so many new friends.

At the beginning of this blog, I said that I had experienced many things in the last ten months and one of those was at times I had found the experience tough. How can it be tough? I’m doing what I’ve always dreamt of doing? But the things is, I still have a day job and a young family. Everything that I have done in the last 10 months, including writing eight novels, publishing them, marketing them and everything else that I have mentioned above has all been done in my spare time. One night I was actually caught by my family asleep sitting in front of my laptop halfway through writing a chapter. The point I think that I’m trying to make is that, although my books are selling well (and there other independent writers out there that are doing just as well and better) it has taken a lot of work. This is not easy. As an indie writer you are just that, plus the publisher, the editor, the marketing department, finding artists to do book covers, answering and dealing with all the correspondence, updating your bog, website, Facebook and a hundred other things that I’ve probably forgotten.

I am no expert in publishing, but my heart tells me that things will change in the publishing world. I’ve read plenty of articles on the internet that authors are now leaving their agent and publishers to self publish on the internet. Some of them have said that they earn more money that way, and others say it gives them more creative freedom. But for me, I’m starting to wonder if publishers will look straight to the internet to see what they want to publish next. Maybe the test of a good book wont be on the suggestion of an agent, after all that is just one opinion, but if a book seems to be selling well on the internet doesn’t that suggest that the public are enjoying it? Maybe that will be the real test. I believe this for a couple of reasons.

In the last few days the first book in my ‘Kiera Hudson’ series was rejected by an agent as they said the book was for adults and not children. This seemed strange to me as the book is currently No. 1 on the Amazon Children’s Horror chart, No. 3 on the Amazon Children’s Romance Chart and No. 3 on the Amazon Children’s literature Love and Romance Chart and number 239 on the over all Amazon chart. This isn’t just in the kindle chart this is the book chart, so my books have crept in amongst the physical books that children are buying/downloading.  Despite the concerns that the agent had that my book wasn’t really a children’s book (although I wrote it for YA) doesn’t the fact that it’s at the top of the Children’s/Young Adult chart suggest that it does fit into that age range?

Secondly, another agent recently said “no” to the same book because they didn’t think they could sell the foreign rights despite the fact that the book sells more copies in the US than anywhere else, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and has now started to sell in Germany, France and Italy and it hasn’t even been translated. My book is currently No. 92 on the German Children’s horror chart. Only yesterday I received an email from a US Publisher asking if I had an agent because they are interested in buying the rights so they can sell my book in China. But I’d just been told by an agent that the book wouldn’t sell abroad!

The point that I want to make is this – isn’t it the children/young adults who are buying my books the people that decide whether it’s a kid’s book or an adult book? Why do we pigeon hole everyone – children have different reading ages and likes and interests. With regards to my ‘Kiera Hudson’ books, haven’t the children/young adults who are downloading them in their thousands, already decided that they right for them and a lot of adults too. But it seems that it’s just a handful of adults deciding what is right for them and what they should and shouldn’t be reading.

I don’t know, I could be wrong – but if young adults didn’t feel that my books were right for them, would they be buying them? This point was never made clearer to me than the other day, when I received an email from a young teenage girl who said in big bold letters at the end of her email: “I want to be Kiera Hudson!

Tim O’Rourke
Tim’s Amazon page can be found here. Or find him on Goodreads here.

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  • Tim, that’s an inspiring story to those of us teetering on the brink of doing some kindle publishing. For me, it would be a way of making out of print children’s novels accessible again. One of the things holding me back is that question about whether enough will sell to justify paying for professional cover artwork. What should one pay for a cover picture?

  • Alanboy

    Yes, an interesting read, and I congratulate Tim. I almost took this route a few months back with my first novel. I did the groundwork – prepared the MS in the appropriate format, designed a cover, created the sales blurb etc, but then I put the brakes on. I thought ‘is this novel actually good enough to publish?’ If I submit an inferior work, I am damaging my reputation, and that is not easily recovered. The ‘vibes’ from bad reviews stick around; good reviews are ten a penny. So, I didn’t go ahead, and I am really glad I didn’t. Having now done a second, better novel, I see how flawed that first one was.
    The problem with Kindle publishing is that it gives you the IG (instant gratification) and that can be a compulsive and dizzying experience for a budding author. But, IMO, it should be resisted, unless your prime motivation is to have an ego-boost. How many of those 600,000 Kindle books are actually worthwhile as a reading experience? Okay, this question has been asked and asked, but it is a moot point that cannot be escaped.
    No, my philosophy is that quality must supercede quantity, or the rush for a little sprinkling of golddust.
    I will hold on to my work, and get it as good as it possibly can be before considering the Kindle route again.

  • Hi Pippa thanks for the kind words. Finding a good cover artist can be hard and prices vary. I’ve used different artists and some will be happy to do you a cover very cheaply in return for helping to promote their work by putting their name in the front of the book and add their email address etc. If you would like to contact me I would be happy to share some contacts with you. I hope this helps.

  • suzanne

    So glad you posted this. I’m working with an agent for a year on a YA action adventure but she finally rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it is too different so I’m now thinking I will self-publish. This was just the inspiration I needed – thank you 🙂

  • Harry

    Good luck, Suzanne!

  • Hi Suzanne that’s great news. Let me know if I can help in any way. Best of luck!

  • Hi Alan, you’re right, you shouldn’t publish anything unless you are totally happy with it or how will anyone else be. Don’t let the fear of bad reviews put you off though, authors who aren’t self published also get bad reviews. There are over 600,000 books on the kindle but the vast majority of these are via traditional publishers, only a small number are come from self published authors. How many books have we not enjoyed and have come from traditional publishers? A self published book doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad book. I dom’t think the main motivation for those who publish via the kindle is for instant gratification. It takes a lot of hardwork and time. I wish you the best of luck with your writing whichever path you decide to follow.

  • Patricia

    Hi, I found your story very informative. I have been thinking of publishing with Nook for some time, and this has given me an insiders view of doing something like this.
    Thanks and good luck with your future e books!

  • Hi Tim – really inspiring blog hon. Wish there was a service that did the complicated uploading and formatting for you! Or a good book – maybe an ebook! – that anyone could recommend. I’ve finished my first novel, and it’s a typical ’53 revisions’ effort! It’s gone off to a couple of women’s commercial fiction publishers, but if it’s not taken up, I’ll probably put it up on Kindle. The big debate I suppose is ‘at what point do I decide it’s not been taken up’!
    I’m encouraged by the people who read my blog – I’m really lucky that due to my job, it has about 9000 hits a week – but am sure that the vast majority of blog visitors won’t buy my ebook! Or the ‘self-help’ weight loss book I did many years ago – I’m tempted to put that up just to see what happens, since the last p-copy on amazon apparently sold for £19.99, but as you say, even if only a few hundred copies of any of them sell, at least that’s a few hundred more than would have read my work! best of luck – if my kids were young enough I think I’d have been recommending your books to them as they sound great from the reviews! Great job!
    Debbie Flint

  • Harry

    Hi Debbie, there are places that can do the formatting for you – and not at wild expense either. Drop me an email and I’ll tell you more.
    All the best, H

  • Hi Debbie, Harry is right, there are plces where you can get the formatiing done very cheap. I’m glad that my blog was helpful. Good luck with the books they sound very interesting. Tim 🙂

  • Hi, if you upload your books via smashwords your book will not only be available on the Nook, put iBooks, Kobo, Diesel. Kindle and many others, therefore reaching a large audience. I hope this helps. Best wishes Tim 🙂

  • A wonderfully encouraging and informative piece, Tim. Thank you very much. For anyone out there taking the plunge, just please hesitate long enough to get some seriously conscientious editing and proof-reading which were jobs which Harry tackled for me and I was quite ego-dented at how much needed doing. The difficult bit was admitting it, so thanks to WW and to Harry. I strongly recommend they get a look at your pride and joy before you unleash it into the unforgiving world.

  • Hi tim, im so glad ive stumbled across your story.. I have been a ‘wannabe’ writer since i was 8 and ive been so caught up with the fear that i will never get published that ive never tried.. Your story gives me hope- that maybe my story will get read by someone someday.. I have written loads of stories over the years but for the past 2 years ive had a great idea for a novel on my mind but im scared to write it incase i dont do it justice..
    Everytime i start writing it – i pick holes in it, and then scrap the whole lot…
    The story is on my mind ALL the time to the point that ive thought of writing to a ‘real’ author and telling them my idea just so someone will write it and get it out there..
    My question to u is – how did u get the confidence to let other people read your stuff??
    i just feel like a lost little fish in a big writing pond…xxx

  • could you tell me when you’re going to update your posts?

  • Wow, amazing weblog format! How long have you been blogging for? you make running a blog look easy. The entire look of your website is fantastic, let alone the content material!