When I speak to writing groups about what it takes to become a full-time indie author, I like to give this number. “All it takes is selling 1000 books a month at $3.99 to make an average NZ wage.” It’s that easy, and that difficult.
If you’ve got 1 book out, selling 1000 copies every month is going to be really hard. But what if you’ve got 5 books out? Or 10? Or 30? Suddenly, that number stops sounding preposterous. Everything gets easier once you build a backlist.
For most indie authors, including myself, backlist forms a significant percentage of our income. I consider backlist to be any books that aren’t part of the series I’m currently working on. As soon as a series is finished and I release book 1 of something new, that previous series becomes part of the backlist.
Other authors consider backlist to be anything outside the 90-day cliff (the 90 days following publication on Amazon, when the algorithms stop giving you so much love). This might be useful to you if you only have one long-running series.
In 2018, my backlist sales were around 60% of my total book royalties. My backlist is wide, with thirteen Steffanie Holmes books, 3 box sets, and 4 S C Green books published on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, B&N, and Google Play. Some of those books earned … not a lot. Witch Hunter netted $106.65 on Amazon for the entire year. But with so many backlist books, it all adds up.
You’re not screwed just because a book doesn’t earn $10k in its first month. I don’t think I’ve had a single title that’s done that. You’ve put the work in to create those books, so you might as well squeeze as much profit from them as possible. Ebooks are forever – they don’t go out of print.
As long as you continue to release great books and promote your backlist, you’ll eventually hit an income number that’s good enough for you to quit your day job.
Here are some ideas and techniques I use to get you thinking about promoting your backlist.
1. Create a backlist that funnels readers through your catalogue. By that I mean, think carefully about the branding of your author name and the way you do series. Readers are series-loyal first, genre-loyal second, author-loyal third. By creating huge, interconnected worlds and linking your series, and by writing tightly-branded books in the same genre, you make it much easier for readers to stick with your work.
Also, the longer your series, the more you can afford to spend advertising book one (as you’ll make that money back in sell-through).
2. Promo a backlist title once a month if possible. Throw $100 at sticking it into a newsletter. Use your KU free days or stick it on sale for $0.99. Drop it into a Kobo promotion if it’s wide. Run some FB or Bookbub ads. Try and do one activity every month to stimulate backlist sales.
3. Rebrand old work. When cover trends change or you want to try a new blurb style, rebrand a series and use advertising (FB ads, AMS ads, newsletters) to push it to a new audience. You don’t need to tell your current readers every time you get new covers – focus on using each rebranding to reach new readers.
4. Bundle backlist titles into box sets. Experiment with different box set sizes and lengths. You can bundle the first three books in a series, all books in a series, even a “series starter” set of the book 1s in all your different series. Try releasing limited-edition box sets – I do one in December every year, which is a combo of 10+ books with bonus content. It comes down January 1st.
5. If you’re running constant series 1 ads, give them a rejiggle every month or so. Stop the ads, tweak the audiences, refresh the copy, etc. This helps them to constantly find new people. There’s some evidence out there that CPC ads like AMS or Facebook go “stale” after a few weeks.
6. Apply for Bookbub Featured Deals. Always. I pretty much always have a book either being considered by them, in line for an ad, or I’m waiting for the 30 days post-ad to run so I can submit again. They aren’t as effective as they used to be, but for stimulating backlist sales they’re still hard to beat.
7. Got a FB reader group? Most authors focus all their conversation/promo in their reader groups on their current series. Remember that as more people join your group they probably haven’t read all your books, so try to introduce them to your other worlds and characters with fun snippets and games. (Here’s my reader group if you’re not a member – Books that Bite).
8. Ditto for your newsletter. If you don’t have a new release to send out one month, then let your subscribers know a backlist title is on sale. You’ll be surprised how many newsletter subscribers won’t have read all your books.
9. If you run an automation sequence for new subscribers, add emails talking about your different series and directing readers to the book 1s. Many of your readers won’t have read your other series, so give them a chance to rectify that!
10. Do you have a series that doesn’t sell as well as others, and you think it has a weak book? Consider a rewrite.
The first three books in my Crookshollow Gothic Romance series (Art of Cunning, Art of the Hunt, Art of Temptation) were the first romance books I ever wrote. They had flaws. Sooooo many flaws.
In 2016 I rewrote them, adding 15-20,000 words per book, including the hero’s POV, and just making the quality higher. It took me about a month to do all three, and it was worth it, as those are the lead-in to my longest series and biggest world.
11. Set up the backmatter in your books to push readers to buy the next book. I include the buy-now link underneath THE END – not on the next page. I always include an excerpt of the next book in the series or book 1 in a backlist series.
12. On your website, create a “series order” page. List all of your books in their series with their buy links, as well as notes about what each series includes and which series readers should try next if they enjoyed that one. Here’s my series order page. This is insanely useful and I link to it ALL THE DAMN TIME.
13. Release a novella, short story, or free short in that series world. This will often bump sales of the series, especially among your current readers. I particularly like writing alternative scenes (usually a favourite sex scene or emotional scene from a book, from the opposite character’s POV) as half the work has already been done, and readers LOVE LOVE LOVE ‘em.
14. If you’re wide, throw a backlist series into KU for 90 days as an experiment. If you’re in KU, take a backlist series wide.
15. Publish a backlist tie-in book/novella into a box set. Readers of the box set who want to know more about the characters/world will be funnelled into your old series.
16. Try not to get distracted by the shinies. By this I mean, try not to release book 1 of 5 different series and never get around to finishing them. When you do this, you lose the momentum that could see one of those series take off. Your backlist will be most effective if it contains series of 3+ books (5+ is even better), so try to focus on getting to that place first.
17. Consider other markets. Look for other ways to earn money from your backlist, such as releasing the books in audio, or selling subsidiary rights to a foriegn publisher (especially if a series has done well in a particular foriegn market). Depending on the type of books you write, you may be able to excerpt certain chapters to sell to publications, offer a publisher the right to serialise your work, create a graphic novel or play, or find other creative ways to re-package the content.
18. Hook into current events and trending topics. If you have a backlist book or series that touches on a topical subject, now’s a good time to get the word out. You might like to consider writing some pieces for the media or offering yourself as an expert.
19. Try a podcast. Many authors are using podcasts to reach their audience. You could start your own or reach out to another podcast about your backlist books.
20. Write the next book! The only way to consistantly improve your income and your backlist sales is to bring in new readers, and the best way to get those readers is with a new release! The more you put out new material, the more your backlist will thrive.
Although I spend most of my time writing my next book, I’m always thinking about how to promote and improve the books I’ve already written. Don’t neglect your backlist, because even the worst performing books can continue to bring in new income and readers.
What ideas do you have for promoting your backlist titles?