This week, I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Kindle bestselling author, Adam J Nicolai.
We discussed the worlds of traditional and self-publishing, the strategies and tactics Adam used to get his first novel, Alex, to the top of the bestseller lists, the ups and downs of self-employment and entrepreneurship, and what’s coming down the road – both for Adam personally, and for the publishing industry in general.
If you don’t have the time to sit through the whole interview – which I highly recommend – you can read excerpts and quotes from our conversation, below.
Adam’s Key Takeaway:
Want to hear (or read) more from Adam?
0:42 - The Journey Begins: Traditional Publishing, Agents and Query Letters
I’ve been writing for a very long time. This is not something that struck overnight for me, by any stretch of the imagination. The first book I wrote took me about 10 years and it was more of a hobby. And then I decided to try to get it published, and I went through the process of trying to find an agent.
That took about a year, and I didn’t get an agent. I had a few people say that they liked my writing and they were interested in it, but didn’t have time to take on a new writer at that time. And it was also a very stressful process, because of the whole ‘you want to approach each agent on their own level’.
I don’t know if I was doing it too obsessively, but I exhaustively researched every agent I queried, which made it that I could only do one or two of these a week.
1:52 - Writing Alex and the Choice to Self-Publish
[Alex] flowed like the first novel never did. It was very easy to write; the main character was very much me, the scenarios were just – I mean – it was impossible to get them out of my head, so it wasn’t hard to keep plugging along.
When I got about half-way through [Alex], I thought about the process of querying agents for this book, and it crushed my soul. I couldn’t imagine doing it again.
What a lot of people don’t realize, what I hope more people are coming to realize, is that self-publishing is not the thing it used to be.
E-books obviously are where most self-published authors can really break in, and so that’s what I decided to try because I figured I had nothing to lose.
Basically what I did is I finished the book, had some beta readers look at it, they thought it was good. I slapped together a really crappy cover (to put it bluntly)… and then I put the book up there, so I just uploaded it one night and told my friends.
3:26 - Reviews: The Key to Early Success
Inasmuch of a launch plan as I had, what I wanted to focus on was reviews.
I set a goal of getting 25 reviews out on Alex within 2 weeks.
I posted the book at $0.99 when I first put it out there… I mainly had it there, because at the time I couldn’t list it for free without going through this complicated process, and I wanted people who were doing this for me to get the book cheaper.
The reviews have just been a very constant, steady stream. And it did hit a point, probably about 50 reviews or so, where most of the reviews I know were not from people I know. And since then, it’s very rare for me to see a review from somebody that I know.
My theory about reviews helping sales seemed to play out.
6:40 - Hitting the Bestseller Lists
One thing that was interesting was that I managed to break into the top-3 top-rated novels in several sub-genres.
There are 2 things I think that really helped my sales…. The first thing was the reviews, and those were doing really well. The other thing that really helped my sales is Amazon instituted a program called the KDP Select.
9:58 - Pricing and Promotions
In July, I wanted to play around with the $0.99 price point. Just to see how many books I could move. And that month was the month that I really hit – I kept it at $0.99 for that month, and that was the first month that I really started hitting sales rank numbers… and the reviews just started exploding like gangbusters.
The book was living up at the top of the horror best-sellers list, it was usually somewhere in the Top-10. And as far as the overall Kindle, it was breaking into the Top-1000 best sellers. … That was really good, but I wanted to see more money out of it.
I just flipped the price one night, from $0.99 to $4.99… and my sales slowed down, but they did not slow down anywhere near as much as I expected them to.
At the beginning of July, before I went into that $0.99 promo for one day. And the amount of books that you get on a free promo really feeds directly into how many sales you get.
What I’m looking into more closely now is really planning a promo, like planning with a capital “P”, out a month in advance.
13:17 - Experimentation and Interpreting the Results
The hardest part of this whole thing [with experimenting with prices, covers, etc.] – is knowing what the causal effect is.
One of the things I experimented with was advertising, and I was to gauge clicks (click-throughs) because I put the link out there, and I could follow the clicks. And that was really nice to be able to do, because it helped me realize a lot of the advertising I was doing was not doing anything for me.
For things like the cover, and things like the reviews… it stands to reason that the more exposure you have, the more sales you’re going to get. But I can’t draw a direct relationship between “as my reviews increase, my sales increase”. That hasn’t been the case.
I do try to change one thing at a time – one of the things my wife is always reminding me is to not be so reactionary… The night I changed the price to $4.99, the next morning I’d only sold 5 books. Well, overnight at $0.99, it wouldn’t be uncommon to wake up and see that I sold 20 books or 30 books overnight. So I saw that 5 books number and I was like, “that was a bad idea”. I was freaking out. [My wife] was like “just leave it, just give it some time.” … But it worked out.
One of the hardest things is keeping yourself in check, especially if you’re operating on your own…. It’s really nice having a lot of control, but you really need to have self-control. And I do try to do one thing at a time for that exact reason.
18:07 - Quitting the Day Job
My boss wanted me to stay – she was kind of horrified when I said I was leaving… and I told her there may be things that could’ve entice me to stay, but it would have only been a matter of time anyway.
That whole month of December – one of the reasons we did it then was that I wanted to get my second book out. There were all these reviews that were coming through that were saying they want more books.
I had one person who wrote a review who said “I stopped reading Alex halfway through to go out and buy everything else he’d written, and I saw this was the only thing” – and that’s just like a dagger to the gut. I just didn’t have time.
A few mistakes I think I made on Rebecca – I ended up kinda slamming a cover together again, which is something I am never going to again after the last experience I had with the Alex cover. It was cheaper than I expected, I worked with a guy named Kit Foster in Scotland, he was fantastic to work with; the cover looks wonderful, I’m never doing my own cover again.
Another thing that I’m learning and that I want to continue experimenting with, I want to have an actual launch for my next book, which is “Children of a Broken Sky” which comes out in June. But for [Rebecca] there was just no time.
21:21 - Balancing Time Between Doing the Work, Marketing and Everything Else
I’m still trying to get a handle on [balancing my time]. December was actually easier because it was all the book. The book had to be done by January 8th. And I expect life to be much easier in May when I’m doing the same kind of rush for ‘Children’, although the launch process is more of a project that needs to be managed starting this month.
I started to do some things like – you mentioned marketing. Marketing is something we both need to focus on. I’ve set aside pretty much every Monday to do something with marketing. Whether it’s approaching another author, whether it’s working on the new cover, whatever it is. To work on that. And then hopefully I’ll get into more of a rhythm where I understand what I’m actually doing those days.
I actually made a blog post early on in 2012 that was titled I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. For someone who’s doing this full-time, that’s still more true than I’d care to admit. But I feel like I learn a little more every week about what I’m doing. And it’s kinda frightening and kinda thrilling at the same time.
When I think about all the stuff that has to be managed for Lone Road Publishing, which is my publishing company, alone – let alone the other small business that I run – I think back to the fact that I was doing this stuff once a night for 3 hours at a time, and beating myself up that it wasn’t as successful as I wanted. This is a full-time job by itself, and I was trying to squeeze it into 5 hours of work a week.
[Having more time now to work on things] actually makes it more challenging, which is something I did not expect. I figured “well, with all the time I have now, I’ll just be able to get everything done”. But that was when I actually realized how much there was to do. Until then, I had this vague floating notion of how much there was to do, but I didn’t really understand it.
24:51 - The Stress of First-Month Entrepreneurship
That first month, December, I was incredibly depressed. And I did not expect that feeling at all, but I felt like I had just taken this gigantic risk, and every second of every day was of absolute critical importance. When you’re running along, feeling that way, you never feel like you’re doing things right. That feeling is starting to fade, I’m starting to understand, “we did prepare for this, I’ve got things down, there’s questions I don’t have answers to, but I’m doing this because I’m able to answer questions and I’m able to experiment and figure things out.” So I’m calming down a little more now.
The worst part is, I quit my day job to basically pursue my dream. I felt like I didn’t have the right to feel as stressed as I did. That I should just be skipping down the street, flinging roses at people with happiness. And it was double, because I felt so stressed and so nervous, and then I felt terrible for feeling stressed and nervous, which was something I did not expect.
It’s not instant success, either. That’s the other piece that I’m coming to terms with. There was a part of my brain that was expecting every month to be last August, and I’m coming to terms with that part of my brain, and trying to get more realistic expectations.
24:51 - The Challenge of Self-Promotion
[To get past the discomfort of self-promotion], just hold your nose and [do it] – that’s what I’ve had to do. The other thing that helps, it can help me to look at the competition and see what they’re doing, especially if I think I wrote a better book than them [laughs], and I see that they’re out there, or their sales ranks are better than mine, or they’re talking to people, they’re unabashedly endorsing themselves. And it’s like, “okay, well maybe I’m not a big fan of endorsing myself, but if I don’t believe in myself, nobody else is going to.” That’s a basic lesson that applies anywhere, whether it’s self-publishing or day jobs or whatever the case may be.
30:53 - The Importance of Making Connections, Networking and Building Relationships
When I first started doing this, networking was not something that was really on my mind. I have a very much “man against the world” kind of mindset usually. And I was lucky enough the networking came to me, and it helped me understand how important it is.
Other people would approach me over time, and ask how I was doing things, when I started getting more success. Which was really kind of strange for me, because I never felt like I was getting all that much success. But when I look back and I think about where Alex has been, and where it’s going, and how many reviews it has, and all that kind of stuff, it has been very successful. Much more successful than most self-published novels have been. So when people were asking me those questions, I wanted to maintain good relationships with them, because I think maybe I’ll be able to help them now, and they can help me later. I hope I can give you good advice, or even just to know people who are on the same journey as me, is really really helpful.
The main reason [networking is so important] is that there are other people out there that are on the same journey that have ideas you haven’t thought of. It’s the same reason you have a meeting to brainstorm and powwow out ideas that you wouldn’t normally be able to come up with yourself.
There’s always the risk that you run into someone that’s trying to take advantage of you, but that has not been my experience at all.
It’s amazing to me the extent to which this whole thing is internet based. Everybody who has approached me or that I’ve worked with, it’s been through email. The fans have all contacted me through email or Facebook, Griffin Hayes got in touch with me through email, the person I’m working with for the promo was through email, the publisher that approached me in December about the audio rights for Alex, that was through email. I asked him for his phone number as kind of a knee-jerk reaction, like I feel like I should be able to talk to you if I need to, and he gave it to me, no problem. I didn’t try it, I haven’t talked to him. He sent me the contract, I read it over carefully, had some other people look at it, and we negotiated the contract online through email, I sent it back. The extent to which you can do this in a room in your basement is amazing to me. And it just speaks to the kind of world we’re living in right now.
38:54 - How the Internet is Changing the Publishing Industry
In my heart of hearts I think eBooks are going to become more prevalent. I think paper books are going to become less prevalent. You already see bookstores closing left and right. That kills me, but at the same time, I’m trying to be realistic about it. I think the world is only going to get more digital from here, not less. So that stuff factors in to my plans…. Sales go up and down, you get good review and bad reviews. I’m trying to just keep my head down, and keep writing books.
One thing that I think is going to be really, really interesting to watch is this whole unfolding drama between Amazon and Apple and the Big-3 publishing houses. You see this in industry after industry, and right now, there’s a lot of focus on the eBook industry, but we saw it in music, in film. Digital is just this monster that can’t be stopped.
All these industries [music, publishing, movies, game design] are on this parallel path, where it just becomes more and more digital.
One of the things that makes it such a good time to do this is Amazon, and Amazon’s system. They have an infrastructure set up, and I was able to just go into it and use it, and it was wonderful. For music, I think iTunes probably to some degree plays a very similar role.
One of the things that is transformative about this is, it really gets into – when you have a book and you have a physical paper book, and “this book is precious to me because it’s dogeared and it’s one of my favourite books”, and what have you. That kind of goes away when you’re talking digital; it’s much more about the pure data. It’s much more about the story, the ideas. It’s much more about what you’re conveying, because you don’t have any physical thing to get attached to. And anything that’s digital can just be copied en masse, and sent all over the world, and anybody can experience it.
It can be a very good thing in terms of exposure, and a very frightening thing in terms of – if you let your brain go this way – it feels like it cheapens it, because of how readily available it is. So it’s the same questions there that come up with music or games or books.