Ruth Ann Nordin has built a successful business self-publishing romance novels. In our interview, she tells how she grew her readership and sales, and offers encouragement to other authors who may from time to time consider giving up. "Keep writing and publishing," she says, "Most of all, have fun writing..."
[David Weir] You've been very successful at Smashwords. Please tell us how you've done it.
[Ruth Ann Nordin] I heard about Smashwords in 2009 from Joanna Penn's podcast at The Creative Penn, and thought it would be fun to make ebooks. At the time, it was an experiment to see how the process worked and to share what I learned with others on my blog. As Smashwords opened up distribution channels, I opted in for all but Amazon because I was already publishing directly on Amazon (and I started that back in 2009 as well). Early on, I made all of my books free on Smashwords so people interested in my books could use any format they preferred to read them. I don't remember when I switched to $0.99 on most of my books, but I kept a couple of them free. I think it's the free books and offering them in as many avenues as possible that ultimately set me on the road to selling books for $0.99.
It wasn't until 2011 that I started asking $2.99 for my new books. I've experimented with pricing and found that for old books, free or $0.99 worked best, and new ones worked best at $2.99. Pricing up might have made me the same money, but I was more interested in exposure so that's why I like keep a couple books at free and my old ones (from 2009 to 2010) at $0.99. The trade off on losing money with free books to reach out to new readers who might then buy my other books has been one of my best tools. I also used to keep a first draft blog, and that was the best way my target audience found me. I posted my Facebook information on the blog, and they friended me over there. Between the comments on the blog and on Facebook, I was able to open a dialogue with my readers who gave me a better idea of what I was doing right and focused on doing more of that in future books. I'm not sure what worked best, but it's safe to say all of this worked together.
[DW] We understand you actually sell more books through Smashwords than through Amazon?
[RAN] Yes, and I recently made a blog post that tracked my sales from 2009 to November 2011. Here is what I got:
2009: 709 books sold; total earned about $160.
2010: 40,452 books sold; total earned about $15,500 (all of my books were $0.99)
2011 (up to the end of November):
•Books sold at all Amazon stores: 96,333
•Breakdown of sales earned through Amazon: US was a little over $44,000, UK was about $14,000, and DE was like $10 a month totaling $58,000.
•The $2.99 price on new titles made a big difference, as did word of mouth because at this point, I was doing no real marketing outside of blog posts and Facebook mingling
•Books given away for free on Amazon using their price matching strategy: 240,781 (this is separate from paid sales)
2009: I made $0 from Smashwords. I also sold no books in other venues. But to be fair, all of my books were free back then on Smashwords, and I don’t remember when Smashwords started distributing to other sites.
•Apple: 4,223 books sold and given away for free
•B&N: 66,291 books sold and given away for free
•Diesel: 230 books sold and given away for free
•Kobo: 55,025 books sold and given away for free
•Sony: 51,599 books sold and given away for free
•Total income from Smashwords in 2010: $2,860.
•Apple: 36,919 books sold and given away for free
•B&N: 555,994 books sold and given away for free
•Diesel: 2,169 books sold and given away for free
•Kobo: 92,119 books sold and given away for free
•Sony: 36,930 books sold and given away for free
•Total income from Smashwords in 2011: $75,100
[DW] What does it mean for you to be an independent author, as opposed to the old-fashioned kind?
[RAN] Being an independent author means that I have the freedom to control everything about my books. I get to control content, the title, the cover, the price, when it's published, and if I want to post it for free on my blog or not.
[DW] How long have you been writing and did you ever try conventional publishing?
[RAN] Unlike most authors, I hated reading and writing early in life. It wasn't until I read my first Sweet Valley High book (a teen romance) back in the sixth grade (late 1980s) that I realized reading could be fun. I still remember the first sentence of that book, the title, the cover, the characters’ names and the plot. After I read every Sweet Valley High book I could get my hands on, I had trouble finding other books I wanted to read. When I was a freshman in high school, I was browsing the bookstores and libraries and wondering why nothing appealed to me. Finally, it dawned on me. "If I can't find the book I want to read, I need to write it." From there, I started writing.
I was never interested in conventional publishing. The query process didn't appeal to me. I just wanted to write books and have fun. Seeing my books in print was fun, so I went through vanity publishers (meaning, I paid them to put my books into paperbacks) starting back in 2002. I continued on with vanity publishers and spent $10,000 from 2002 to early 2008. My husband put his foot down at that point and said making $30 twice a year wasn't worth spending all the money I was. In despair, I confined myself to never seeing another one of my books in print again and started looking for a conventional publisher because I still wanted to write and see my manuscripts in book form.
It was while hanging out in forums on Authonomy and Amazon that I learned about creating paperbacks for free. Well, free was in my price range, so I asked several authors for more information, and it was April Hamilton who pointed me to CreateSpace. From my time on the forums, I came across The Creative Penn where I learned about ebooks. I did send out queries and synopses to a couple of agents and publishers, and two publishers requested I modify the manuscripts to better suit their idea of what a romance book should be like (aka to make them marketable to their audiences). I never resubmitted the two manuscripts because their vision of romance wasn't my vision.
Thanks to CreateSpace for the paperbacks and The Creative Penn, which led me to Amazon KDP and Smashwords (ebooks), I could publish my books for free (making my husband happy) and keep my books the way I felt they were meant to be (making me happy).
[DW] Do you remember your first reader reviews or letters for your ebooks and what did they mean to you?
[RAN] I do, and I still keep in touch with the first reader who told me she enjoyed my books. Feedback I received from readers wasn't all positive, and I think that's the reality check that startled me the most. It seemed to me that if people liked my books, they would email me or comment on my blog, but if they didn't like my books, they would leave 1 or 2-star reviews on Amazon. To be honest, I almost gave up (and this was in March 2010) because of the 1 and 2-star reviews. While most of the feedback was positive and I was also getting 4 and 5-star reviews, it's the 1 and 2-star ones I remember most, and those reviews came on An Inconvenient Marriage (which is ironic since that seems to the be the book that has done the best overall). I remember praying to God and asking Him what He wanted me to do because I was ready to unpublish all of my books and walk away from the whole thing. A half hour later, I got an email from a reader who told me "to continue my good work”.
That email is posted on my wall where I can read it whenever I contemplate giving up because the urge still comes about twice a year. I share this story because it's one of the experiences of being an author that no one in my writing groups ever told me, and I was in organizations with Harlequin, Avon and small press authors who had more experience than I did. I wish someone had given me a heads up that the emotional roller coaster authors go through is normal.
[DW] What do you think of the trend toward exclusivity such as with Amazon's KDP Select program?
[RAN] It worries me because of the implications exclusivity involves. No matter where exclusivity is part of the deal, it means limiting yourself from potential readers. Readers prefer to read ebooks on their e-readers, whether it's the Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. I think the best thing an author can do is make their books available to them in the format (and for the device) they want. My other bad feeling about being exclusive through one retailer is that authors can get boxed in to ultimately relying on one place to sell books. It takes time to build up reviews and sales ranking. In the past, whenever I have pulled my book for even a week, I might have kept my reviews, but my sales ranking fell and I wasn't able to get it back to where it used to be, no matter what marketing strategy I tried. Also, from examining how exclusive programs work, I've noticed that books in these programs get a boost, but the problem is, the boost doesn't always last.
Books not in exclusive programs can take a hit, so there’s a downside to not being in them. For example, my sales at Amazon have been about 40% worse since I don’t have any books in the program. I won't enter Select or any exclusive program offered by any retailer because I think in the long run, it's going to hurt my potential to reach new readers. I think for authors who don't want to enter an exclusive program, the best strategy is to write more books they're passionate about and publish them. Sales might dip, but having more books available (and making them the best books you can so don't rush it) is crucial as you try to find new readers and to keep the ones you already have happy. I also think it's a good idea to keep books on Amazon even if sales are dropping. I don't want to alienate my Kindle readers, and Amazon is a useful avenue to get books to the public.
[DW] What's the hardest part about self-publishing and what's the best part?
[RAN] Back in 2008 and 2009, the hardest part was the stigma associated with it. I was pretty much told by traditionally published authors that my books didn't count in their organizations because I self-published. This is not the case today. Self-published books are now acceptable in most places. Today the hardest part about self-publishing is the spirit of competition among some self-published authors. There are authors who are nice to your face and leave 1 and 2-star reviews behind your back, and you find out it's them when readers call out their true identity on forums. Sandbagging is a big problem, especially on Amazon. I’ve seen authors who’ve been harshly criticized in reviews by their fellow self-published authors, and when I say criticized, I mean they resort to mudslinging. Most authors I come across are great. They are very supportive and will bend over backwards to help each other, but I think you have to be careful until you get to know someone to find out who you can trust.
The best part is having full control of your book. I love having the final say in my content, my cover, my title, my publishing date, my price, and even my record keeping. I have hired cover artists on a couple of books, but I do most of them myself because I enjoy working with GIMP or BookCoverPro. This is why traditional publishing was never a good fit for me. I love doing it my way too much.
[DW] You've published some 23 romance novels to date. How did you come to this genre and what continues to draw you to it?
[RAN] I stumbled upon romance by accident when my parents took me to a used bookstore when I was in the sixth grade and I picked up that Sweet Valley High book I mentioned above. I enjoy reading a variety of genres and I've written a variety of genres, but romance is my primary focus because I enjoy exploring the relationship between a husband and wife as they overcome obstacles presented to them. I also enjoy that “falling in love” feeling and love a happy ending, both of which are the focus of romance novels.
[DW] Who reads your books and what do they tell you about their experience reading them?
[RAN] My primary audience is Christian women around the world. My secondary audience is Asian women of various faiths. I've noticed that no matter what their religion is, their faith is important to most of them, and they appreciate the fact that sex happens after marriage in my books. In fact, I get more requests to keep sex after marriage in all of my future books than any other feedback, and since it's something I intend to do, fulfilling their wish isn't a problem. I would say my audience wants to see old-fashioned values in their romances.
[DW] How does your writing and editing process work?
[RAN] I have at least four books I'm working on because if the plot stalls on one book, I have other books I can focus on. That way, I can keep advancing toward the end goal, which is a published book. My goal is to publish six to eight books a year, so I keep a calendar where I write what I hope to accomplish three to six months in advance and another calendar to track down what actually happens. To keep my readers updated on my progress, I also have word count widgets and updates of where I'm at with all of my works in progress on my blog. This also helps me stay motivated because it holds me accountable for how I spend my time. I have an average goal to write 2,000 words a day. I break this word count up into one 1,000-word segment and two 500-word segments.
500 words equals 30 minutes. So I can do my word count goals in two hours, as long as I remove all distractions. That means no Internet, no TV, no answering the phone, etc., for 30 minutes to an hour at a time. After that, I'll take a break or do some housework (I'm a stay-at-home mom). There are some days when I can't make my word counts. If I miss a couple of days in the month, I don't stress it. I just start over the next day. I have scheduled in a vacation for the summer and take a day off if I'm too sick to write. So I do allow for real life. This helps prevent burn-out. If I'm feeling overwhelmed (usually because I have too much to do that day), I take the day off from writing.
As for editing, once I finish the first draft, I go through it to polish it up to second draft status. Then I send it off to my editor with specific things I'm looking for. After I get it back, I polish it up again to make the third draft. Then it goes out to two or three proofreaders. My proofreaders are people who’ve read and enjoy my books, have been nice in telling me what they like and don’t like in my books, and are punctual in getting the book back to me. After I fix their suggestions, I go through a final listen through on my Kindle (hearing the book helps me catch things we all missed earlier in the editing process). After that, I send it off to be published.
[DW] Do your characters come to you before you start writing, or do some pop up during the writing itself?
[RAN] This usually works in two ways for me. I either have the characters in mind and wait for the right plot to pop up, or I have the plot waiting for the right characters to come along. I am the type of writer who writes by the seat of her pants. I start with something like, "I want to write a mail-order bride story" and "I want a heroine who isn't beautiful". Then I start writing. Usually, I have the first couple of scenes in mind, but the characters end up taking over and as long as I follow their lead, I don't have a problem with the story. The story stalls when I am doing something that isn't right for the characters. At that point, I work on another book and brainstorm what needs fixing to get the other book back on track.
[DW] Many authors get discouraged when their books do not become successful quickly. What advice do you have for an indie author trying to connect with her audience?
[RAN] First, I think it's important to define success. I don't think success is limited to sales. To me, success is writing the story I want to read, and as long as I accomplish that, I'm successful. That's how it's always been for me. I know it's easy for me to say that since I'm where I am today, but it's how I felt back in 2002 when I published with a vanity publisher. I was just happy to have a physical copy of my book so I didn't have to carry a notebook around to read my story. I think if you're happy with where you're at and with what you're doing, it's easy to keep going.
That being said, I can understand and appreciate the desire to make a living or get a nice supplemental income from your books. Different things will work for different authors. Free has probably been the most useful way I've connected with my audience. But free took time. Free didn't lead to sales in a couple of months. It took over a year for me to see things start to take off. I realize there are some overnight successes out there, but that's rare. I think self-publishing has allowed a good percentage of authors a good chance of either making a living or having a nice supplemental income, especially since we're able to distribute to a variety of channels on Smashwords that are also expanding globally.
Ultimately, it's really a matter of patience and perseverance. Keep writing and publishing. I strongly advise authors to put their books through every channel they can. My first months (Spring - Summer 2009) on Amazon earned me a few bucks, and that is all I made until Dec. 2009. When I started out in ebooks, I didn’t have the sales that I hear most newbies get, so this is where authors should be encouraged. I think it’s easier to reach readers now. However, instead of expecting numbers to take off in a profound way the first year of publishing, I think it’s better to think long-term. Don’t stress the numbers. Keep writing books you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your books, you won’t have trouble writing them. Also, have a strategy where you're reaching deadlines so you can stay focused on getting more books out there. The more books you have, the better your chances are of finding readers.
[DW] Any other pearls of wisdom especially for new authors hoping to take a shot at self-publishing a book?
[RAN] Study books in your genre and see what types of covers and titles are selling well. Also, which ones caught your attention? The ones that caught your attention should give you an idea of what to name your book and what kind of cover to use. Read the descriptions and pick out key words and phrases that intrigue you. Go to reader forums on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble where readers of your genre are discussing books they like, don't like, and why. You don't have to do what the readers are saying, but they might discuss what types of covers, titles, plot points, and character traits they like or don't like that might give you some ideas when you're working on your books.
Most importantly, you should write the book you're most passionate about because you'll want to make it the best you can. I strongly advise you not to spam. Just put links to places to buy your books on your website and/or blog. Participate with people you come across and be the kind of person you'd like to be friends with. If people like what you have to say, they'll click on your name and see your website/blog that you linked to. Look for ways to help others but also know that you have the right to say no if someone is trying to take advantage of you or if you don't have enough time to do something.
Don't read reviews. Reviews are for readers. You're better off taking the advice (praise and criticism) from your fans because they are the ones you're writing for. Don't compare yourself to other authors. Everyone's experience will be different. Sales rise and fall. Publishing new books help to get out of the dips, but not all books sell the same. Some books sell better than others, and there's no way to tell which will sell well. All you can do is write the best book you can, put an attractive cover and title on it, write the best description you can, and put it out there. Most of all, have fun writing because in the end, that's really at the heart of what we're doing: writing books that mean something to us.
[DW] Thanks, Ruth Ann!
Smashwords distributes Ruth Ann Nordin to the following retailers:
Barnes & Noble
Diesel eBook Store
David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for 7x7.com.