What are the benefits and challenges of selling direct? How can you use limited edition merchandise to add more value to retailers and make more money on a launch? Alex Kava talks about her author business.
In the intro, award-winning Japanese writer, Rie Kudan, used ChatGPT to write parts of her prize-winning novel and judges lauded the work as ‘flawless.’ [The Telegraph]; Personal news about my pivot, the Blueprint rewrite, and cleaning up the backlist; plus, I’m on The Alignment Show.
Today’s show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, self-publishing with support, where you can get free formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Just go to www.draft2digital to get started.
This show is also sponsored by my community at Patreon.com/thecreativepenn.
Alex Kava is the multi-award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author of the FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell series and K-9 handler Ryder Creed series, amongst other books.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- The struggles that come with traditional publishing
- Becoming an indie author and taking back control
- Direct sales as part of the author business model
- Sourcing and selling quality merchandise
- Merchandise as an extension of the reader experience
- The technical side of selling personalized books and merchandise
- Building your newsletter and marketing your direct store
You can find Alex at AlexKava.com.
Transcript of Interview with Alex Kava
Joanna: Alex Kava is the multi-award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author of the FBI Profiler Maggie O’Dell series and K-9 Handler Ryder Creed series, amongst other books. So welcome to the show, Alex.
Alex: Thanks, Jo. I’m so excited. Thank you for inviting me.
Joanna: Oh, yes, well, we have lots to talk about. But first up–
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and self-publishing.
Alex: Well, I’ve been in the business now for over 20 years. So I guess as a kid, I was like all the other authors, but for me, I never dreamed that you could actually make a living by writing up stories and writing books.
Both my parents were children of Polish immigrants, and they instilled a very strong work ethic. I went to college on an art scholarship, and at 26, I started my own graphic design company. I was designing anything from corporate brochures to food labels. I still remember spending a weekend in grocery stores, looking to see what colors worked best in the refrigerator sections of the grocery stores.
I still dreamed of writing. That still nagged at me. Remember, in the late 90s, there really wasn’t any other way to publish except traditional publishing. I remember somebody telling me that it was easier to win the lottery than it was to get published in fiction at that time.
So after 116 rejections from literary agents for my first novel, I put that aside, wrote a second novel, and found an agent. My first book was published in 2000, A Perfect Evil, and that quickly became an international bestseller.
I quickly learned that in traditional publishing, it’s almost as difficult to stay published as it is to get published.
You always seemed to be depending on the next contract, and the next contract, and having your publisher define what you were worth.
In the course of 16 books in 16 years, I went through nine editors, three Big Five publishers, and three agents.
Alex: Yes, I went through the merger of Penguin, Putnam, and Random House. That’s where I lost one of my editors who had just brought me over from Doubleday. She was literally gone a week before my first book with her came out.
So that was the second time that I had been orphaned at a publisher. The contract had just started for three books. It was a major contract for $600,000 for three books, but that doesn’t mean anything. You know, we always thought that meant something, that they would take better care of you.
Finally, in 2016 at the end of that contract, my publisher said to me, “Well, we’re going to have to pay you 20% less this time because paperback distribution just isn’t what it used to be.” That’s in 2016, and I’m thinking, “Really, paperback distribution suddenly isn’t what it used to be?”
The deal breaker for me was that they wouldn’t drop the non-compete clause.
So I couldn’t even go write a book for someone else, or indie pub anything to make up that loss of income. So by everybody’s standards, they were offering me still decent money, but they wanted to split it in five payments, which made another difference.
They held onto the non-compete clause. I just walked away. My literary agent thought that I was crazy. I decided that I’m going to trust my readers to tell me what I’m worth. That was in 2016. I released my first indie book nine months later, and I have never looked back.
Joanna: I love that because this is actually very common. Like you said, you’ve been doing this a long time, like 20 years. It’s not a surprise that you went through various mergers, you lost various editors, and agents changed. I mean, that’s actually quite normal.
Some people might think, oh, well, maybe there’s something wrong with you, all of that change. I mean, in reality, this is what happens, isn’t it, when it’s out of your control. It feels like–
You got sick of things being out of your control.
Alex: I think it’s becoming even worse now than it was then. I remember when I was orphaned at Doubleday, my editor had to retire because she had some health issues unexpectedly, and they were not going to pick up my option at the end of the contract.
So I was writing my Maggie O’Dell series, my FBI profiler series, I was probably in book 10 or 11, doing very well, and my agent’s solution to me was, well, we’ll go write a standalone. I remember asking him, “Okay, and then what happens?” And he said, “Well, we’ll let the publisher decide.” That did not play very well.
I mean, this is what I see, and I have friends who have been down the same route. You’re absolutely right, it’s not unusual. Their solution is to go write a standalone, go write a new series, because they don’t want an old series if they don’t have the backlist.
So you’ll see authors, oftentimes in traditional publishing, constantly reinventing themselves, constantly coming up with a new series to see if this one will click this time, and never having any control. I tell authors now —
The only person who is going to care about your career is not your editor, it’s not your agent, it’s you. You have to take charge.
Joanna: Yes, and I mean, they might care for the time that you are doing well, but even the most successful author can’t stay at the top of the charts forever. Then it’s someone else’s turn, and that seems to be when things happen.
I am interested, though, because I feel like the other thing that happens, I mean, I feel like this now after 15 years as an indie, is a creative confidence and more of a self-confidence.
So when you’re a new author, you really just don’t have that. You don’t have the understanding of your craft. Like you said, I’ll get my readers to decide. It feels like you made mature creative decisions. If people now are just starting out as new authors, they don’t have that creative confidence, I guess. What would you say to new authors starting out?
Alex: You know, it’s tough, but again, you do have control.
There are so many different things with social media that you can do to create a vibe, to create an interest to bring readers directly to you. Remember, traditional publishing is always using somebody else to bring a reader to buy a book.
That was another thing that bothered me. I was not published for very long, and they were sending me to Ingram, and to Baker and Taylor, and to Barnes and Noble’s office to have lunch with people.
I remember saying to them, “When do I get to meet readers?” They actually kind of laughed at me, like how naive I am. They said that these are the people that are going to sell your books and get your books to who needs to read them.
So they don’t have a connection to their readers. That’s probably the biggest disconnect that I see in traditional publishing that still exists. So as a new author, remember that you get to talk directly to them.
When you get one, when you get two, when you get three, start that newsletter, start that word of mouth, start building from just your readers that do come to you. That’s the best way.
I have been very fortunate because I have readers that are still with me. That’s because I built that relationship, despite my publisher not doing it.
So indie authors have a very distinct opportunity, I think, to be able to do that and to go directly to the reader. They have more opportunities to do that than ever before with social media.
Joanna: Yes. Well, let’s talk about this because I wanted to talk to you because you’re doing some awesome things with your direct store. Just tell us a bit about how you do publish. What is your publishing model? What is direct? What is wide?
Why do you like having direct sales as part of the business model?
Alex: Well, I like wide for the same reason that I like direct because I don’t ever want to be, and I’ve heard you say this too, I don’t ever want to be dependent on one source for my income like I was with a publisher, someone who can like pull the rug out from under you at any one time.
So I am wide everywhere. I’m on all of the e-retailers. I would almost said that print is a little bit different, but more and more readers are buying online, so we have the advantage there as well.
I’m a very slow writer. I mean, I was very much into the model of traditionally publishing one book a year, and that’s what I do. So a launch for us is a big deal. We make probably a chunk of our money in the first month.
We put up preorders, ebook and hardcover, still working with my narrator to hopefully someday get the audio at the same time, but he takes a little bit longer, and that’s okay. So we have those two that are up for preorder everywhere, and our website.
We have our loyal readers used to coming and buying the hardcover on the webshop.
That’s because they get a free bookmark. They get it personalized, they get it signed, I wrap it in paw print tissue paper, I put a thank you card in, I make it special for them.
They’re paying full price for that book and they’re paying for shipping. Sometimes we’ll give them like a $2 discount or something like that, but it’s not a lot. They come and they buy a premium product there, so I want to give them the full treatment. So we do that.
We did a launch in December, and we did the most hardcovers that we’ve ever done. I think we’re about 520 right now. That, I think, might be the limit. I mean, you just signed 500, right, for your kickstarter.
Joanna: Yes, but I don’t personalize, and I don’t ship.
Alex: Yes, so you understand how that works. So that’s what we do. We’ve been doing this for at least the last six or seven books. We put up the preorder and things are going really, really well.
Here’s why you sell direct.
Five days, literally five days before the book was to be released, the buy button on Amazon disappeared. A couple of hours later, the entire hardcover disappeared, and it was doing well. I mean, the ranking for the hardcover preorders was below 10,000 at one point. We normally sell 3000 hardcovers in the first two weeks through Amazon. It’s gone, and nobody has an answer.
I don’t know how hard anybody’s tried to talk to anybody at Amazon or at Ingram Lightning Source, who prints our books and distributes it, but nobody would give us an answer as to what was going on.
So we scrambled, and we got out an email to our readers and said, “Hey, this is what’s going on. I think we broke Amazon.”
You know, I kind of made light of it, and I said, “If you really want a jacketed hardcover, come to us. We’ll make sure that you’re going to get it.” We had a ton of orders, and we’re still fulfilling those now.
I have to say, I don’t do this alone. I don’t know how you do it and how authors do it that are a one-person shop. I respect the heck out of you guys.
My life partner is my business partner, and Deb is an operations person. She’s not an author. She was in the restaurant business for years before we got together.
She came up with the idea and, in hours, formatted the book for a hardcover at Amazon, which is case-bound not jacketed, but we got that up. So don’t ever assume that Amazon, and I’ve heard you say this before, that Amazon’s not going to change or that Amazon’s going to always be there. That is the best reason for going wide, and it’s the best reason for selling direct.
Joanna: Yes, so I think it comes back to what we said earlier about your need for control after so long out of control, and then things still being out of control.
Alex: Absolutely. I mean, it just drives you crazy, doesn’t it?
Joanna: It does. It’s so funny. I mean, it’s funny you say that because I was on Audible earlier, I was doing something, and I was like, where have these books gone? I don’t check these things all the time, so I’m like, what? Then they’ve disappeared from my dashboard.
I haven’t fixed this yet. This is just something I noticed earlier. I was like, oh, it’s so annoying when you have to go chase people who, as you said, it’s going to be hard to get hold of. These things happen.
Of course, it is not easy to sell direct. As you said, your partner helps you. As I mentioned before, I have not, as yet, personalized books.
I use Bookvault who do all my shipping. So when I did my signing, I went up to their factory, which is a few hours. It’s like a day trip for me. Obviously, not everyone can do that. So I agree with you, it’s quite hard to do yourself unless you are really organized and you get your process sorted.
I do want to ask you particularly about the other things. So I’ve talked a lot about books for selling direct, but you do other cool things.
So you mentioned there you have a free bookmark, but you also sent me this wonderful box of stuff.
Talk a bit about merchandise and some of the pros and cons of merchandise.
Because it just adds this whole other level.
Alex: Absolutely. I can’t remember what I sent you, but I’ll go through some stuff. I look at merchandising as another revenue stream, and because I only write one book a year, it’s a way for me to still connect to my readers in between. I can email them and say, “Hey, the next book is coming out in six months, but we have this. Would you like it?”
I think that Kickstarter has kind of shown that readers do like that extra stuff. They want the–I don’t know if you’d call it like maybe the reader experience–they want more. They want to be a part of something.
Books have such a skinny margin. I mean, the profit margin for books, whether it’s ebook or print books, even if you’re selling print books directly, the profit margin is still pretty skinny.
With merchandise, if you do it correctly and you really cost out what you need, you can make some pretty decent money.
We’ve chosen quite a few different varieties of stuff.
I should say the way that this got started of us doing merchandising. When I left traditional publishing, I didn’t want to do book tours anymore. I didn’t want to travel. I loved meeting the readers, but you know how exhausting it is to do the travel. You spend more time in airports than you do meeting readers.
Deb said to me, well, what about if we bring the readers to you? So, yeah right, like they’re going to want to come to Omaha, Nebraska. The first year we did it, we had 175 readers that came from 14 states, from coast to coast. It was incredible.
The second year that we did it, we had over 200. The third year, we had to cancel because of COVID, or maybe it was the fourth year. But when we did the tickets, I told Deb, well, I want to be able to price the tickets, and we priced them so that we didn’t make any profit. It was just the lunch, and then I wanted to buy them swag that they could take home.
So that was a really good test market for what readers liked. We would have leftovers, and that’s when this occurred to us. People came to the luncheon and they would get their swag, and they would say, “Well, I want to buy an extra ceramic mug for my friend,” or, “Can I buy three?” or, “Can I buy this?”
That’s when we realized, oh, I think they want this stuff, maybe we can sell it. So that’s when we first started. There’s been a lot of considerations and lessons learned.
There’s a lot of considerations that you want to put into before you do an item. I would suggest starting with one item, you don’t want to do more than one.
You should always think of it as your walking billboard.
You want the reader to love it so much that they’re going to show it off, they’re not going to put it in a drawer.
Don’t ever do anything that they’ll just put in a drawer. Sometimes I worry about that with bookmarks too, that they’ll just put it in a book, but they’re going to use that probably if they’re a print reader.
It should be something that I think extends the reader experience. I want to make these as tangible of advice as possible and kind of narrow it down to what you should and should not do. There’s a lot of time involved, so you want to choose carefully.
Everybody loves a ceramic mug, but they are a lot of work. They’re breakable to mail, so you have to ship them very carefully, you have to wrap them. If you don’t want all of that time invested, that’s not a good item.
T-shirts, people love t-shirts. I still have not been able to figure out a way to make t-shirts profitable because I am not going to warehouse different sizes. So I always discourage people from those two items. Here’s the thing–
You can limit how many you sell, just like on Kickstarter.
You can tell the readers that when they’re gone, they’re gone. So you’re not going to have a whole room full of whatever it is that you do.
You can take preorders so that you know exactly how many, and you can limit the timeframe that you’re selling it so that you’re not shipping and wrapping tote bags all year round.
Some of the items that we did that were really successful, of course, is a book bag, a tote bag. Ours is pretty simple. I don’t remember if I sent you one of those.
Joanna: Yes, you did. Just to say on that, it’s so funny, I used to really hate the tote bags. Like why are people always giving me tote bags?
And now it’s really funny, I think because we’re in a more green environment where we’re not really using plastic bags anymore, I feel like tote bags are actually more of a thing now. That’s just me, but I’m actually using them a lot more than plastic bags. So yes, it’s a good option.
Alex: Well, I have a confession to make. I don’t really use tote bags. I mean, I may use them when I travel a little bit, but I don’t use them. That’s the other thing too, is that you have to remember that this is what your readers want and what they want to use, and maybe not what you want.
That’s hard because there are items that I think, oh, I would never ever. Like for instance, we did readers’ socks.
Joanna: Yes, you sent me the socks.
Alex: The socks were a huge seller. I saw some on Etsy, and people custom imprint stuff on there. I got the idea to do on one foot of the sole of the sock it says, “Shhh,” and then on the other it says, “I’m reading Alex Kava.” I saw that somebody had done that.
I got in touch with a vendor and I said, “Hey, can you do 50 to 100 of these? And what kind of a price would you give me for them?” So that’s how that came about, and that was one of our best sellers. To give you some sense, those socks cost us about $3 to $4, and we went on to sell them for like $9.99 to $12.99.
Joanna: Plus shipping, when it’s your own store. So just to remind everyone.
Alex: Absolutely, and some people might want to include more if they want to, like for handling for their own time. I’m pretty bad about that. Deb tells me I’m always too bad about that. I don’t have all the time. Yes, I do have the time, these are my readers.
Even the ceramic mug, we bought those at 4imprint.com. They have lots of different items, and you can buy different amounts as well. We bought a nice ceramic mug, I think it’s a 14 ounce mug, and we put on it, “I stayed up all night with Alex Kava.” Readers love those.
We bought them for like $5 to $6. I think we sold them for anywhere from $15.99 to $20, and then they had to pay for shipping. The price never includes shipping, that’s always extra. Those were a big hit. I will warn people, those are tough to wrap, tough to package, and they do take some time.
I want to tell people too, that uline.com is a great place to get supplies. You can get any color tissue wrap that you want. If you’re writing romance and you want pink, everything to wrap in pink, they’ve got it. If you want black, they’ve got it.
Joanna: What about, you’ve mentioned it and it’s lovely, the dog paw print wrap?
Is that custom dog paw print wrap, or do you just buy that?
Alex: Actually, that’s right at uline.com. They have hearts, they have a whole bunch of different tissue paper. I buy it, I think it’s by 240 sheets. I can’t remember how much it costs, but it’s pennies on the sheet by the time that you figure it out. Deb is my cost analysis person. She will tell me, “No more, something else!”
Joanna: Yes, no more of this. Well, it’s so funny because I think you’re right, you have to source cheaper things. I’m actually going to the London Stationery Show later this year for exactly this reason. It’s like a trade show for paper people here in the UK.
I mean, this is the other thing, I think another thing for the direct sales for me is trying to talk about the products themselves.
So if you do source from, you’re in the US, so a US source, or I’m in the UK and I’m going to be like this is UK made or this is a UK Etsy seller or this kind of thing. Like Bookvault, my printer, is here in the UK and I know them, so I try to make it very personal because of the relationship.
I also wanted to mention, you’ve got a sticker that says, “Who rescued who?” and it goes with the dog paw prints. I think that is amazing.
Can you talk about the emotional side of some of your merchandise?
Because I feel like if someone is a dog person, they’re like, “Oh, my goodness. This is amazing.”
Alex: I don’t think that we do enough dog-related stuff, but it is another way to brand because my series that I’m currently writing is a canine handler. People do love dogs or they love their pets, and that’s another way to connect to readers.
Just adding little bitty things like that, like my thank you card is a card of one of my dogs that has since passed. But the Jack Russell Terrier, we just rescued a Jack Russell Terrier, so now I’m using her on everything because my character in the Creed series actually uses a Jack Russell.
You do have to kind of connect to them on a level, whether it’s dogs or whether it’s the crime stuff. We haven’t yet talked about the crime scene scarf.
Joanna: Oh, yes. That’s amazing.
Alex: That was the biggest investment that we made. I actually found this company that usually does sporting organizations and colleges and imprints really high-quality knit scarves. I can tell you that that’s probably the first crime scene scarf they’ve ever done in their lives.
I was going to buy 200 of them, so I got them for like $8 apiece. The market value I had seen was anywhere from $39.99 to $50 for that scarf, and we sold them for $29.99. We made $4,000 profit just on that one item. It’s an investment.
The scarf was easy to ship because it’s light, you can put it in an envelope. You don’t have to put it in a box.
Joanna: And it won’t get damaged.
Alex: And it won’t get damaged. Very good point. Exactly.
Joanna: Well, let’s talk about bookmarks. I mean, you do the free one, which is like a card, and then you have this metal one.
I just have these serious doubts over bookmarks, because personally, I have people give them to me in swag things, and I just throw them out because I turn the corners of pages. I’m a terrible reader. So I wondered, maybe just–
Talk about bookmarks and the various things you do. What do you recommend?
Alex: The people who order a hardcover at launch from my webshop get a free bookmark. I had been making these ribbon bookmarks with a little charm at the end, sometimes it was a paw print, sometimes it was a little gun, sometimes the crime scene ribbon said crime scene.
I loved to do that in my spare time, it was kind of a neat hobby to do, but then I would get behind and we would have 300 to make.
It was incredibly labor-intensive at that point, and incredibly stressful. So I was looking at different avenues, and I wanted to make it special. We found this company that’s called Metal Business Cards. They’re here in the United States. They actually make bookmarks too.
They engrave them, they print them, and they cut out things out of the metal. The metal is just very, very thin. It’s probably the thickness of a cardboard bookmark.
We had paw prints up the side of it that went from bottom to top, and then we did “Team Grace,” and it was etched on one side and printed on the other side. And of course, my website. I always include my website.
I ended up ordering those, and those were our giveaway this year. They were $1.65, and that’s what I considered my discount for them. That’s their gift if they order from the website. Remember, they’re paying a premium price for that book by coming to me, they’re paying for shipping, and that’s my gift to them.
So I think that, again, it’s a reader who probably is going to use bookmarks. Now, we’re going to put some up on the website and see if they sell, and I’ll let you know if other people want them.
Joanna: It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s really hard because I feel like, as you said before, we are not our customers. There are people who do use bookmarks, they don’t want to damage the book. Whereas I go at it with page turning, that’s what I do.
It’s really interesting. I’m looking at Bookvault who print my books, they’re also looking at incorporating some form of merchandising, as well. So that would also become almost print on demand, but they don’t do it yet.
One of the questions, and one of the doubts, I have is the quality of the merchandise. I guess, obviously, you’ve tested all of yours.
But if we do print on demand things, it’s very hard to know the quality of stuff that goes out there.
Any thoughts on quality or places to particularly keep in mind?
Alex: Well, if it is a good place, they should be able to send you a sample of that. Maybe it’s not with your custom imprint on it yet.
With anything that I do at 4imprint, I make sure that they send me a sample because I want to make sure what the quality is. It’s hard to look at a photo and know what the quality is, I want to feel it. I think that that’s very important.
That’s why I don’t use CafePress. I know a lot of authors use CafePress, and I don’t want to use them because I want to be able to see the item. I want to see it go out. I want to see that it’s wrapped in a certain way.
I think if it’s a quality item, they will send you a sample, and you can kind of play with it and see whether you like it or not. I would definitely say you need to see it before you get your stuff even printed on it.
Joanna: I just have more of a slightly technical question because as you said, you personalize books.
On your store, you can click to choose the hardback book, and then you can say, “Is it a gift?” and people type their name and they can tell you what they want written in it, which is kind of amazing. So how do you do that? Are those just extra custom fields on Shopify?
What are you using technically for your site?
Alex: We actually use WooCommerce because our website is about 10 years old. Deb uses different plugins to add things like that. She prints it out for me and I actually write it. I mean, that’s as simple as it is. They put what they want and I do each one.
We had, maybe because it was a December launch, we had probably the most people buying gifts and other books and wanting them personalized to them with special things like, “Merry Christmas,” or, “Hope you love this,” or whatever it is.
I usually, for every book, I usually have a saying or something that I put in the book too. So I’ll personalize it with their name if they want that and put my little thing. This year, because it was Midnight Creed, I said, “Get ready for what happens after midnight,” and I sign it. Some collectors just want a signature and they want a date.
When she hands me the packing slip, it has all that information, and I do it as custom as I possibly can, the way that they want it. It takes an incredible amount of time, but I get into a flow. I’ve got my ear pods on, I’m listening to stuff, usually I’m listening to you or one of the others, either Sacha or some of the others.
It’s time consuming. I was trying to figure out how you could do this without actually signing each book. Bookplates are the only thing that I can think of.
Joanna: There is a thing, and it’s called tip-ins. So you get sent the pages and you sign them, and then the printer binds them in the books.
Alex: That’s cool.
Joanna: Yes, but obviously because it’s a difficult process, you know, it would have to be done in batches. It’s more of a print run thing.
So I think this is what’s interesting, and for people listening, if you haven’t even dipped your toe in, you can just do ebooks with BookFunnel, you can do just print on demand.
You don’t have to do any of what we’re talking about. I think where we are is that next step, or where you are. I’m slightly different to you in that I do not want to do this manual packing, and I don’t have a Deb.
Alex: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. That’s what I tell people too. I also only do it maybe once a year, maybe twice a year.
This is not something that we do all the time. In fact, the store was completely closed, we put a banner up that we will not be open until after January 4th.
That’s the thing that you need to remember if you do any of this stuff, you get to control exactly what you want to do.
If you just want to do one item to your readers who love you, and you only want to send out 50 of them or whatever, you get to control that. You don’t have to do it to any large extent at all. Think of it as a Kickstarter that’s out of your webshop. That’s what I tell people.
Joanna: Yes, you’ve given me some good tips here.
You just said you can close the store, and I had literally not even considered that would be an option.
So I’ve been trying to figure out how we could go on some of our more adventurous holidays where we are pretty much off grid and I might check my phone like once while I’m away.
In the past, I’ve had a virtual assistant and all this. There are things I have to do even just for the digital stuff every day, and questions and stuff like that. And now you said just close the store.
Alex: Absolutely, and you know what, people are really very understanding about that. If you put up a banner and they want to know when you’re going to be back, they’re very understanding about that. You just treat it like a storefront. You’re not going to be there.
Joanna: It’s actually even more human. This is another thing, we are being humans.
In fact, one of the benefits, I think, is if people email me and they say, “Oh, hey. How do I download my ebook?” And then I email them and I can have a chat, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a real person. You’re not like an Amazon.” Their email tone completely changes when they realize that you’re a real human.
Alex: Absolutely, absolutely, and I do take that to heart.
You say that about AI, that we’re going to have to be more human. I think that in order to have a successful writing career in this day and age and in this atmosphere, I think you do need to double down on being human. That’s going to help.
Joanna: Yes, and the other thing you said that was really useful was you can limit the timeframe of a product.
Whenever I think about books and things, I always just try to think about evergreen, but you’re right. If you’re doing like a Kickstarter idea just through your store, you can say, look, I’ve got these 200 mugs, or the 200 socks or whatever, and it’s only open for a week or whatever it is, and then they’re gone.
So I like that idea as well. So these are all good options for people. I think this is the other funny thing, there are more and more and more options every week right now.
Alex: Absolutely. And you can do it just for even one book. We did a special mug, one of my Ryder Creed’s happened during a tornado outbreak, and we did a mug that said, “Be stronger than the storm.”
We said it’s only going to be available for launch date, and it’s only going to be available for this book. When they’re gone, they’re gone, and we don’t carry anymore. I’m looking at one now that I have that I’ve used for my tea, but it’s old and coming apart now.
You can decide to do whatever you want to do. I look at it as an extension of the reader experience and a way to keep in touch with my readers.
It’s kind of a reward of what I can give them too. I don’t want to milk them for a whole lot of money, but some of these items are things that they want. They like to have that connection to the reader. That’s the way that I look at it.
Joanna: Also, this is kind of a creative challenge, and it can be really fun.
You said that you don’t want things people can put in a drawer, but I really want to do a memento mori coin with a skull on it, and like, “Remember, you will die.”
For some people, that’s super depressing. For me, it’s part of my J.F. Penn brand, really. I would like to carry one myself, and I know this is something that other people have done who come from that kind of Stoic philosophy.
So I was like, okay, so if I want a really good quality coin, then I need to research where I could find that. I need to get it designed. I need to think about how I could do that. So, to me, it’s almost quite fun to think about the different things we can do.
Alex: It absolutely can be. The ideas are limitless, especially if you’re trying to connect them to your books, your brand. It is fun. It does stretch the creativity a little bit.
Joanna: So then one thing people always ask, of course, is okay, so you put up your WooCommerce store, or you put up your Shopify store, whatever, but then what happens? Like no one’s going to come. So how do you get people to buy direct from you?
What is your marketing strategy to your direct store?
Alex: Newsletter is still the best, that’s what I’ve found.
The other thing too is that when you send anything out, by box or even if you sell an ebook from your website, you always send them a coupon to come back. That’s our motto in this house, a box does not leave this house without having an invitation to come back inside of it.
That’s usually sort of a $2 off, so they’ll come back to the website and buy this. A lot of times people will give those to somebody that they know, that’s fine. We have different promotion codes that we use, and sometimes I guess we track them and see where they came from.
We’ve tried other things. We’ve tried Facebook a little bit. We have a private Facebook page that we’ve built up, I think we built it up to just under 2000. Those are people who really want to be there, so we will market to them as well. We’re trying to get them trained now to come and buy ebooks directly. They’re already trained to come and buy print books, but we really want them to come and buy ebooks.
We’ve got quite a few to do that this time by giving them access early. They could download the book, and they love that. By the time the book was on Amazon, they were going and putting up reviews. I love that.
So you look for different ways to give your base readers incentives, the readers that love you anyway. They’ll keep coming back, they’ll keep telling people.
It’s a struggle, but I don’t hold back in saying I make more money if you come to my webshop. I don’t hold back.
They like supporting me. It’s kind of like why people come to Kickstarters. They like being able to support the creator and being a part of that. But it is a struggle, I do have to admit.
We’re constantly looking at different ways, and I think one of the things that has helped us the most is that coupon. Anytime that somebody does buy something, bam, they get an email or they’ve got it in the physical mail, that you come back and get $2 off or $3 off of anything that you want to buy on the webshop.
Joanna: Well, you mentioned that your email newsletter is the biggest driver of this. So how are you building that email newsletter?
Alex: Well, this last year, we actually used BookSweeps. We’ve built that way a little bit. I don’t know if those people stay.
On that Facebook page, we’ve been really pushing for people to come be a VIR club member. We call them VIR club members, a very important reader. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else that we do like aggressively. I think those are really the only things that we’ve done this past year.
Joanna: Do you do free books at all?
Alex: Oh, yes, I just did that. Actually, I just did my first free book this last December for this launch. I believe that it’s like a sample, okay. You do have to give samples to people that read, but doing free is still hard. 99 cents, I can understand, at least you’re paying something for that book.
We did one, and I think it’s only been four weeks, and we’ve had over 50,000 downloads. I keep telling myself that didn’t cost me anything. These are readers who have never read me before, and hopefully they’re going to come and try the rest of the series.
Here’s the thing, the biggest struggle–I mean, first time authors always have a struggle–but when I left my publisher, I had three books in the Ryder Creed series with Putnam. I didn’t get those back. I still loved this character enough that I wanted to continue with him. So I have five books now of my own, but I don’t have that first book.
Joanna: Oh, that’s painful.
Alex: It’s very painful. So you know what I did? This time, I did my first one, which is the fourth book in the series, for free. I wanted to see how that would work, and I’ll let you know how it works. So far, it seems like it is.
Then we put the second one for $1.99, and we did the other two for $4.99, and then of course, we had the new launch. People were still going back and buying the $9.99 from Putnam for the first three.
It’s not something that I haven’t heard anybody else talk about, but you do what you have to do. You have to be flexible, you have to come up with new and different ways. I probably will never get those books back because they haven’t earned out. I was paid too much for them, but it sure makes it hard.
Joanna: Yes, that is tough. Just a thought on that, Brandon Sanderson, obviously his book’s first Kickstarter, which was like a 6 million, was a 10th anniversary special leather bound edition. He licenses pretty much all his rights, except for special editions.
Did your contract include special editions?
Alex: I will have to go and see. That’s a good point. I will have to go and see. Contracts are so awful right now, and mine wasn’t quite there. That’s a very good point.
I do own the print rights to my very first Maggie O’Dell in my profiler series. Let’s see, it was published in 2000. That might be a good idea to do a special edition for that series for the 25th anniversary. You’re giving me a good idea here.
Joanna: There we go. Making you some money!
Alex: That would be awesome because everybody still loves that series too.
Joanna: Well, there’s a good tip for people who have come out of traditional publishing or maybe wants to, which is look at your contracts and it may be that something’s forgotten.
Or sometimes they say they want this, this, this and this, and then all other rights remain with the author. That’s sometimes a clause that sits there. Obviously, if they’ve taken all formats for the life of copyright, all languages, whatever, then that’s tough.
Brandon actually said, I shared it just before Christmas, it was actually called Publishing Doom and Gloom, but one of the things I took it the other way, which was kind of indie publishing positivity.
What he said was the way that authors will make money over the next decade or whatever is by doing special editions direct. Then they’ll just do the rest of it as a sort of, you know, not too much money, but they will do these special editions and people will pay for them.
They don’t have to be leather bound, but like we’re talking about all these special ways we can do. You know, the gold foil I just did, and the ribbon, and the color photos. So I’m glad, you’ve given me some ideas, I’ve given you some ideas.
Alex: That’s great. I’m going to go and investigate that for sure. By the way, I love that gold foil, and the ribbon is so cool.
Joanna: It is cool, isn’t it? I think that Bookvault is getting it in some other machines, so I’m going to have Alex from Bookvault on the show coming up and talking about what is going to be possible with these short print runs, or even print on demand. So that’s very exciting.
Alex: You know what’s really hard for me to believe though, Jo? That an author who does such a beautiful book with foil and a ribbon turns down the pages!
Joanna: Well, it’s interesting you say that because the books that I buy as beautiful books, I don’t turn down the pages.
But like I’ve just got a pile on my desk as book research for the next novel. You know what I do, I don’t know if you do this, but I read all these books for research, and once I finish the book, I package them all up and I take them off to the recycling center or charity shop or whatever.
I remove all the books that are research for the last book to make room for the next one.
Alex: That’s smart, but that would drive me crazy because sometimes I want to know what was in the last one. I mean, it might overlap. I want to know what was than the last one. I have a hard time getting rid of books.
Joanna: I just have to make room for more books.
Alex: Well, I don’t have a problem with that. I’ll just have a new stack. I’ll build a new bookcase.
Joanna: I think you all have bigger houses in America. Well, not all you, but a lot of people.
Alex: True, true. Very true.
Joanna: Well, we’re out of time.
Where can people find you, and your books, and your shop online?
Alex: Well, they can find me at all the retailers. They can find my shop at www.AlexKava.com.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Alex. That was great.
Alex: Thank you, and thanks again for inviting me. This was so much fun.
The post Direct Sales And Merchandising For Authors With Alex Kava first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn