Here’s how you can make real money and start your author newsletter and email list with your first self-published book launch, using a proven book launch strategy.
Whether you write novels as a fun side business, or you’ve got the next great underdog story to tell, you know as well as I do that it’s tough to get published. Most publishers want to see an author newsletter or email list, a social media following, or even a YouTube audience numbering in the thousands before they’ll touch even the best idea. They need to know there is somebody who cares enough about what you have to say to consider buying your book.
In short, publishers want to see an author platform. Most of us don’t just have one of those laying around. It takes a long time to go from, in the words of Stephen King, “a voice quacking into the wind,” to an established author. But we all have to start somewhere!
I used my first self-published book (Where the Stones Touch the Sky) to do just that: kickstart my author platform, earn enough money to keep it going for a while, and learn the next steps.
Here’s the process.
- Finish your manuscript
- Choose a Print-on-Demand Publisher
- Design your printed book
- Set up an author website
- Add an author newsletter subscribe feature
- LAUNCH – Pre-sell your book using adventure marketing
- Get paid for your sales
- Order copies of the book + bonus extras for your buyers
- Sign, pack and ship the orders
- Send out a huge thank you
- Evaluate your process
Finish your manuscript
This model is based on the idea that you’ve got a professional product (a really good book). That means you’ve got a great idea, yes, but you’ve also tested and revised the manuscript extensively. Write that killer book first.
Done? Wow, that was easy. Moving on!
Book Launch Strategy 101: Choose a Print-on-Demand Publisher
This tutorial focuses on selling print books for several reasons, chief among them: people get way more excited about first-edition, printed and signed author copies than they do about ebooks. This makes selling print books easier for a new author.
If you’re interested in selling ebooks on Amazon KDP after your print book launch, read the article I wrote on the KDP upload process.
Ok, back to the topic at hand. Print-on-demand (POD) publishing refers to a process that allows you to order any number of books at a time, from one single copy to thousands. You upload a formatted manuscript and book cover to the POD company’s platform; either you or a reader can order copies at any time; then the copies are shipped either to you, or directly to the reader, depending what setup you choose.
In years past (and still today, sadly) many overzealous newbie authors would go into debt launching their first book because they overestimate how many copies they’ll sell, buy printed books in bulk, then spend the next three years trying to rid themselves of the leftovers.
I believed in my bookbaby as much as anybody. Luckily, I didn’t have the money to buy thousands of copies upfront to distribute to legions of non-existent buyers.
This forced me to use a better book launch strategy: I took advantage of modern print-on-demand publishing and eCommerce to sell my book before I ordered any copies, saving me from over-ordering. The whole launch process took about two months, and every book I ordered sold at a profit.
The big three players in the POD market today are:
I have tried all three, and I wholeheartedly recommend Lulu xPress. Lulu is significantly pricier than Amazon KDP, however, their process is much easier, they have far more print options, and their quality is significantly better. After ordering hundreds of books, I’ve found their production and fulfillment time to be faster and more reliable than KDP, too.
Also, Amazon KDP only prints paperbacks as of this writing, however, Lulu xPress does everything from hardcover photo books to comic books.
IngramSpark is more complicated than either Amazon KDP or Lulu xPress, and it’s a pay-to-play platform – you have to pay $50 just to upload your book manuscript, before you even order a single copy. Ingram is more than just a print-on-demand platform, however – it’s a professional book distribution system aimed at more established self-published authors, rather than beginners. Include IngramSpark in your book launch strategy as a distribution partner when you’re ready to get really serious.
It may very well be that their quality is better than either Lulu or KDP, but at this stage in my publishing journey, I never even ordered one from Ingram. It wasn’t worth it, since Lulu is great; KDP is perfectly adequate; and neither of those charges me money before I even get a finished product.
Once you’ve chosen your POD provider, it’s time to design your print manuscript. We’re going to continue with Lulu xPress simply because I think they’re the best beginner choice (they didn’t pay me to say this either – believe me, I tried to get them to!)
Design your print manuscript and cover
Your layout and cover design are a crucial part of your book launch strategy! If you are not a graphic designer or at least somewhat tech-savvy, I recommend you outsource this step. There’s a lot that goes into formatting even a humble paperback, and a homemade cover almost always looks cheap and cheesy.
Check out sites like Upwork or Fiverr for affordable book formatting and cover design services. Be selective in the contractor you work with, but also remember that this is your first book. You’re learning. It doesn’t need to be anywhere close to perfect.
Where to find contractors to create formatted book manuscripts and book covers
Check out Private agencies like Damonza.com to compare bargain options with what you get from a quality professional
If you’re committed to doing your manuscript formatting and cover design yourself, check out Lulu’s book creation guide to get started.
Canva is a good resource for beginner graphic designers. YouTuber Jason Whaling has a great beginner’s guide to using Canva, focused specifically on book cover design.
Sign up for a free account at www.Canva.com
Jason Whaling’s Canva book cover guide
Order proof copies before your book launch!
Once you’ve got everything set, don’t forget to order proof copies! Chances are you will have missed something the first go around. I definitely did.
Even if you did everything perfect the first time around, getting those first proof copies in the mail is a truly magical moment for a first-time author.
Set up your author website
Now that you’ve got a book to sell (a real, finished, amazing work of art) – you need a place to sell it. And just as importantly, you need a place to sell it that also collects email addresses of buyers. This website is the beginning stage of your author platform, and it’s a critical part of this book launch strategy.
There are a lot of great choices for websites out there nowadays that don’t include paying $5,000 to a designer. Even if you have five grand to spend, I recommend using a web builder service as you’re getting started, because these types of websites can change and grow as you do. They’re much easier to edit than custom code.
And many, many more. I have personally designed with WordPress, Squarespace and Wix, and I chose Wix for my author site. In my opinion, it’s the best balance of ease-of-use, price, and functionality.
They have free plans so you can design without paying anything, and when it’s time to upgrade, they have a variety of options. BUT! Make sure you don’t pay full price. There are always sales. Sorry, Wix.
I recommend you use a one- or two-page format for the MVP version (Minimum Viable Product) of your website. Don’t go crazy. Here’s all the content you need to get started:
- Your book’s back cover info
- An image of your book’s front cover
- A brief “about” blurb for yourself
- A purchase link for your book
- An email newsletter subscribe button
You don’t need a blog. You don’t need an Instagram feed. You can add those later. I fussed over all those things, and they added absolutely nothing to my launch. Lots of fun, for sure, but not needed at the outset.
For the visual design of your site: check out your favorite authors’ websites and borrow freely! What do you think they did? That’s how creatives work. Just make sure you tweak the final product so it’s not exactly the same as your inspiration.
The bottom line is this: choose a website option that has eCommerce and the ability to collect email addresses for your author newsletter.
Set up eCommerce on your site for a successful book launch strategy
This is very easy with Wix. You add a store page, add your product, add your payment info, and you’re good to go. This does require an upgraded plan, so I wouldn’t make your store live until you’re close to launch to keep costs low.
When it’s time to launch, purchase a monthly plan that includes eCommerce, not a yearly one. That way, you can have eCommerce functionality for the month or two your sale is active, then downgrade to a less expensive plan when you don’t need the store to be active anymore.
I didn’t do this, so I wound up paying a lot more for the website than I needed to after the initial launch period.
Add your author newsletter subscription button
To get the full impact of this book launch strategy on your budding author newsletter, visitors should be able to subscribe to your email list in at least three ways:
- Through a big, bold, beautiful newsletter subscribe button on your first page
- Through another newsletter subscribe button in your footer
- At checkout, when they buy your book. Make sure you include a newsletter subscription checkbox right above that purchase button.
That’s really it. Your author site does not need to be complicated for your first launch. Make it fun and exciting, but don’t worry about all the bells and whistles just yet. You can add all that stuff later.
LAUNCH – Presell your book
Now you’ve got your finished book and your website is up and running. You’re locked and loaded. Time to launch.
Here’s how I put my book launch strategy into action:
- I posted photos and videos on my Facebook page about the process of designing the cover and manuscript for several weeks before launch, asking for my friends’ and family’s input. This is a great way to get people involved and was actually really encouraging and helpful to me, too.
- During a two-week launch period, I posted every couple of days with the link to my Wix site with my book for sale. I included photos and tagged thank-yous to people who had already purchased. This helped them feel appreciated and exposed a few people on their friends list to the book sale.
- My family members also sent out emails only to people who might genuinely be interested, not begging these people to buy, but telling them what I was up to and giving them the opportunity to join in on the fun by purchasing a book. Many did, and are still active members of my newsletter list.
- When the two-week period was up, I closed down sales, collected the money from Wix, and placed the order to Lulu xPress for the exact number of copies people had purchased from me.
That’s it. It was TONS of fun to see the orders rolling in day by day, but it wasn’t a huge deal or a massive production. It was a small deal, actually – about 80 orders ($1,200) in those two weeks. I was thrilled.
I’ve since learned a ton about the art and science of successful book launches – stuff I wouldn’t have even thought to ask about before I got my feet wet with a small launch. It’s a vast topic that we won’t dissect here. I just want you to take away a few key ideas from this method.
Don’t buy a single book from your POD provider until you yourself have been paid for it.
This way, no money comes out of your own pocket. It eliminates all the risk in the process, and it’s a key benefit of this book launch strategy.
Don’t treat your family and friends as your personal book market. Do treat them as partners in an adventure.
It’s tempting to think of your friends and family on social media and in your email contacts as an untapped sales mine, just waiting to be harvested (which is what many people will tell you to do). Please don’t do that – that’s a BAD book launch strategy.
The few dollars you might gain from your college roommate or your dear aunt Sally’s purchases are not worth the harm that kind of thinking does to a relationship, however unintentional. Instead of begging family and friends to buy your book, which smacks of a highly unattractive mix of narcissism and desperation, invite them to join you on an adventure.
Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Writing and launching a book is an adventure. People care about authors, especially newbies and underdogs – we’re gonna be famous someday, baby! And these are the people “who knew you when . . .”
So be honest with them. Tell them you’re just starting out, and you’d love them to join you on this journey. Include them long before the launch (before money is ever mentioned) by asking their opinion on different cover designs, sharing pictures or videos of your proof copies coming in, and asking for their advice and input through the process.
People love to be included. When it comes time to purchase, they’ll be many people you’ll barely have to ask.
BUT DON’T FORGET TO ASK!
Nobody is going to buy your book if you don’t give them an opportunity. During your launch, don’t forget to actually tell people that your book is for sale and how they can buy it.
In sales lingo, this is called the “call to action,” or CTA. Make it as clear as possible. If you think it’s too blunt, it’s adequate.
Here is an example of a poor call to action that ends a social media post or email to friends and family:
If you’re interested, you can see my book on my website. Thanks for looking!
Here is a much stronger call to action:
Buy your first-edition signed copy here [PURCHASE LINK] before orders close on February 1st!
Make the rest of your message charming. Make the close (the call to action) confident and strong. After all, it’s in your prospect’s best interests to buy your book. You’ve written a great story that will change their life. Give them every opportunity to obtain it.
Also, note the sense of urgency. I made sure everyone knew the ability to pick up a copy of my limited-run, first-edition, first-ever novel would disappear soon.
This wasn’t a marketing gimmick. It was true. Even though I didn’t stop selling the book afterward, I switched to Amazon (a lower quality paperback) and stopped signing each copy.
By the way, I’m not at all a natural salesman. At the time of my first publication, I’d describe myself as kind of a scared kid. I’ve since started a landscaping company and an etsy side business and have been forced to learn sales techniques, including how to confidently and proudly promote my work — skills I didn’t have while launching my first book. I highly recommend you get real-world sales experience in any industry if you’re serious about making money as a self-published author.
Get together a team to help refine your book launch strateg
This is something I didn’t do. As in most other areas of life, we go much farther together than we ever will alone.
Before you launch, you should put together a very small, tight-knit group (even just a few friends) who can help you test your manuscript, give you feedback on your book design, and help you spread the word. Even if all their effort only results in a few more sales, their encouragement and camaraderie is priceless.
Take good care of these people. Don’t ask for too much. Give more than you take. Thank them profusely with words, actions and gifts.
Don’t go to brick-and-mortar book stores. But also . . . go to brick and mortar book stores.
I love brick-and-mortar book stores. What author doesn’t? I got into three local stores with my first book. Let me tell you, that was cool. The owners were kind to me, and it was a huge confidence booster.
But I sold 80 books online in two weeks. I sold 2 books in a year at brick-and-mortar stores, and got paid for 1. If you want to make significant cash, making brick-and-mortar retail a priority is a bad book launch strategy.
Book stores buy from large distribution companies, not indie authors going door to door hand-selling a copy here, a copy there. And unfortunately, readers buy more and more from online sources, not book stores. From a financial perspective, it’s not worth your time to go to book stores when you are first starting out.
But from a personal perspective . . . it’s so worth it.
Get paid for your books, then order copies + extra goodies for your readers
Once you’ve gotten paid for your orders, now it’s time to place the order with your supplier. I recommend you also include something special for your readers, as a way to show your gratitude. It doesn’t have to be much, but surprise them!
My first book was an adventure travel novel, and I had tons of great photos from my travels all over the US which had inspired much of the book. So I designed a full-color photo book chronicling the process of creating the novel and had it printed from Lulu xPress, so it could be delivered at the same time as my paperbacks.
In retrospect, this was a little much, since it cut out a large chunk of my profits. But I had tons of fun making it, and I got so many comments from my readers about how much they loved it. Whatever you do, be sure to surprise your very first readers with a little something extra, even if it’s just a handwritten note that costs nothing but your time.
Sign your copies
When 80 books (and 80 photobooks) showed up at my door, it was a very exciting day.
I recommend you do paperback (or other physical format) for your first launch for a couple reasons. First, people love signed author copies, especially if they know you. Two, shipping something physical gives you more opportunity to include extra goodies.
But perhaps most importantly: signing every single copy of your first book ever is a rite of passage. It’s very different from selling an eBook to a stranger whose name you know only from a credit card statement.
This way, you hold every book. You invest a little bit of yourself into each and every one, signing your name and a short note to the person who ordered it.
Writing 80 personalized notes takes a long time. It forces you to slow down enough to think about why you know the person you sold that book to; to be grateful for them as you write a little bit of each person’s story into your own. It’s a humbling experience.
Ship your books
Something I didn’t know until I started an unrelated eCommerce business a year after my book launch: there are much cheaper ways to pay for shipping than handing a package to a clerk at the post office.
Use a shipping service to get the best rates. I use PirateShip.com for our Etsy store. It’s free to use and gives you commercial shipping rates you can’t get at the store.
Be sure to figure out your shipping costs before you price out your books for sale during your launch period. Otherwise, you may wind up losing money on shipping, which is no fun. Don’t forget to include the cost of all shipping materials, including any bubble wrap, boxes, or envelopes – even the labels.
Critical part of your book launch strategy: Send out a BIG thank you and celebrate!
Once you’ve shipped your books . . . it’s time to celebrate! But don’t throw a party alone. Send out an email to your — brand new email list!! – thanking them for their help through this whole process. Be sure to tell them you can’t wait to hear their thoughts on your book.
Seriously. Follow up with your email list a month later and ask for their honest thoughts. Make sure they know how much of a help they are to you. It’s true after all, and people love to be valued (I know I do, and I’ll bet you do – we’re people, aren’t we?).
Now that you have an email list, remember you have a responsibility to use it well. Respect these people’s time and attention. Never share their emails. Don’t spam them. Once a month is often enough for an author newsletter, and then only if you have something to say that is worth your readers’ time.
Otherwise, skip it. Trust me, they’ll be alright if they don’t hear from you that month.
Recap and evaluate your process
That’s it! That’s all you need for a successful first book launch. Just kidding.
Much, if not most, learning happens after an event. You’ll lose a lot of value from this method of book launching if you don’t spend time afterward evaluating how your process went – the roses and the thorns.
Think hard now … what did you learn?
I’ll tell you what I learned: everything in this article, and a whole lot more.
Why use this book launch strategy instead of waiting for a traditional publishing contract?
This process got my first printed book into the hands of about 100 people; started my newsletter list; and earned over $300 profit in the process (which would have been double if not for that expensive photobook). I used the proceeds to fund my new author website.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Three hundred bucks is not a lot of money. 100 subscribers isn’t a lot of people. And now that my book has been self-published, real publishers won’t want to look at it, because it’s not fresh anymore. Who wants an old book? Gross.
First off – unless you’ve written a book that will cure cancer or solve world hunger, no one was ever going to knock down your door begging for your manuscript without proof that you have an audience. Without an audience, a book isn’t worth anything to a publisher, because there’s no guarantee anybody will buy it. You need a platform to sell books.
And yes, it may very well be true that your first book may never get republished after you’ve used it to kickstart your platform.
But the truth is that it had very little chance of being traditionally published anyway, no matter how good it was! Why not put it to good use as a learning project that allows a small group of people to enjoy your work while vastly increasing the chances that more people will read your next book?
Nobody starts a business and expects to go from zero to millions in their first year, and writing is a business. If you’re serious about a writing career, like any other business, you have to be in it for the long haul.
So treat your first book like your first product. If it gets you started, teaches you something, makes a few people happy, and earns you a little cash, it’s a success.
The short answer is, you decide. What you do after your launch depends on your goals.
My goal is to tell stories during the cold months of the year, and to build sustainable houses in the warm months. In order to achieve the first goal (the one we’ve been talking about for the last 4,000 words), I need a platform.
The biggest lesson I learned from implementing this book launch strategy was how hard it is to build your own author platform. So I’ve started writing for other people’s platforms (like Jason here at Phroogal) so I can help them expand their writing business while building my own.
Here’s how that works: each article I write for someone else not only helps them add value to their readers, but directs a small percentage of viewers back to my website. Some of these people subscribe to my newsletter. It’s a very simple win-win.
The more articles I have out there, the more people see my work, and the more people eventually join my newsletter. That’s how you build a platform.
I don’t want to spend my life marketing books. I want to spend it (some of it anyway) telling stories. So I’m putting in the time now to build a firm foundation that will aid me for the rest of my career. It takes a long time, and it’s hard work. But I love it.
And if you love it — if you feel called to this — you can do it too.