Marketing Interview with John Bowen, Thriller and Mystery Author

Today I’m welcoming John Bowen back to the blog. John writes across genres but despite not following the book marketing rules (write fast, stick to your genre, always write series), has had great success with marketing his books.

Here he shares his tips.

How are you published? Why have you chosen that model?

I’m self-published, and a huge advocate of going the independent route.

I found the process of trying to get an agent frustrating and creatively corrosive, and in most cases I’m not sure it’s even worth it. A recent Guardian article found the average wage of the traditionally published writer to be around 10K a year, less than minimum wage, and these writers are the success stories, the determined souls who beat formidable odds!

It’s worth questioning, since you don’t need an agent or a publisher to reach readers anymore, why are so many writers still expending so much energy chasing them, often to reach fewer readers and be badly rewarded for their efforts? Yes, there are authors who get the fabled, life changing, ‘big deal’, but they are the rare, rare exception, and self-publishing has its mega successful outliers too. 

The control and creative freedom independence offers is amazing. You have one client, one priority, unlimited flexibility, and a much deeper understanding of who your readers are and a much closer relationship with them.

You’re not a slave to deadlines, you know exactly how much your books are making day to day, what marketing is helping to sell them, how long you want that marketing to continue, and a what scale, and you don’t need to fret about being dropped if your next novel underperforms.

I understand the desire for validation, an agent and publisher telling you they think your book is good enough for readers, but since most traditionally published books make a loss and are carried by a small percentage of hits, you have to ask yourself what that opinion is really worth.

Given the expertise, experience, contacts, and budgets they have, and the sheer volume of submissions to choose from, shouldn’t almost all of the books singled out as worthy to be published turn a profit?

My decision to self-publish might have come from no agent being interested, but my failure ultimately resulted in tens of thousands of hard sales, millions of Kindle Unlimited page reads, over a hundred thousand readers and genuine international success, with three of my books having broken into the US and UK Kindle store top #100s, and one the UK Top #10.

Best of all, reviews seem to indicate readers are happy. One of the best moments of my writing life so far was the decision not to submit my most recent novel to a single agent. It felt incredibly liberating.

How did you learn about book publishing? Are there any tips you’d like to share with readers?

Around 2013 I heard about some self-published authors finding success on Kindle and took an interest. This was in the wake of having my second novel roundly rejected. Financially, things were somewhat tight at the time, and the money it cost to mail out all those cover letters, synopsis and opening chapters wasn’t trivial to me at all.

Once I looked into publishing on Kindle, I found it wasn’t just simple and offered a generous royalty rate, but it was wonderfully egalitarian. Amazon didn’t shove self-published authors’ books into some ghetto on the store as I’d expected, but put them right in with the big traditionally published ones. Better still, it was completely free to publish.

I learnt a lot from scouring the internet and a few self-publishing related podcasts, which pointed me in the direction of what to study in greater depth. I published my first novel early the following year, self-edited, with a cover I designed myself (I still do design them, although I’d like to think I’ve got better at it) at a production cost of zero pence, and marketing budget (and marketing experience) to match.

I marketed in all the free ways I could, and invested what I earned from those early sales to experiment with advertising, and soon reached a point where there was enough to invest in marketing and take a profit.

I will freely admit, the hill is steeper now for new self-published authors, but I truly believe the odds of success still easily trump those of securing a traditional publishing deal worth the effort.

How did you get started and was there any specific event that was the trigger to your writing career?

Two big ones, really. Wanting to write, and being able to.

I left school with no real qualifications at all. I really couldn’t write; its that’s simple. I wasn’t illiterate, but my technical writing was quite poor. I’d been a keen comic book reader as a kid but wasn’t really into books. I discovered novels in my late teens, largely through horror fiction, although my tastes quickly broadened and I became a pretty reader in general.

This was the first half of the equation; the second half came in my late twenties when I decided to take an evening adult education class to see if I could get a GCSE in English.

I got my GCSE, and the itch to write. Since novels were what I loved to read they were what I wanted to write, and working on my first made for a sort of a creative writing course in itself. I read a lot of books about creative fiction in the process, using them as food for thought and guidance to solve the problems anyone new to novel writing is likely to encounter.

How are your books distributed and where do you find most of your readers?

My ebooks are Amazon-exclusive though Kindle, and until another platform really shows a genuine commitment to taking Amazon on in the ebook realm that’s probably going to remain the case.

My paperbacks are available through Amazon too, but with wide distribution so retail can order them in via ISBN on request. My audiobooks are available through Audible, and iTunes via Audible.

What forms of marketing do you use to reach and engage with readers?

I use whichever ones I can make work. Honestly, the marketing landscape is ever-shifting, what works today might not work tomorrow. Primarily though, I use Facebook, but also Amazon’s own AMS ads, and promotions supported by email blast outlets.

I have a small subscriber list but don’t really use it effectively. I think they work best for authors more prolific than me, as they’re always in ‘coming soon’, and ‘recently released’ cycle. As my books are typically years apart and my backlist is small, and only two are a series with strong read through potential, I tend to lean towards direct sales rather than front-loading investment in a building a list.

What marketing has been most successful for you? Why do you think that is?

Facebook advertising has been incredibly important, and my most reliable engine for selling books at full price.

One of the things I found frustrating early on was a reliance on discounted deals to move books. While promotions are great, ideally, it’s better to be steadily selling a modest number of books at full price every day than lots of them months apart in a clump to deal focused readers.

I also suspect deal-oriented readers just aren’t as invested, may not read your book soon, or indeed get around to reading it at all. Full price sales, without doubt, result in a far tighter review attachment.

I sort of enjoy Facebook advertising too. It’s an incredibly flexible platform, and one which can be creatively engaging, crafting ads can be interesting and fun. That matters. You have to find a form of marketing you like, or you just won’t stick at it.

How do you keep in touch with your readers? 

I like Facebook. For me, it feels like where I get the closest and most immediate contact with readers.

I have a modest subscriber list, but it feels like a ‘talk first’ to readers medium, whereas with Facebook I’m usually responding to someone reaching out to me or commenting on something related to my books.

Is there any marketing you’ve done that didn’t work for you?

Lots! Often marketing is about not giving up when something fails, but to ask why it failed, and exploring what you can change to make it work, or work better.

Do you have any tips on reaching an audience and building an army of fans?

Advertising has undoubtedly help me to find an audience, but it comes back to the books in the end. I know if readers leave disappointed whatever advertising I do will eventually be infective.

Sales of a poor book will lead to poor reviews, the more books sold, the more of them, and poor reviews do not sell books. Obviously, the equation works in the other direction too. 

In short? Write for passion. Market for profit. In that order.

Thanks to John for sharing your experience. You can find out more about John’s books on his website and Facebook page.

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