How can you shift your mindset from catalog sales to selling direct? How can you reframe the direct author business model to take advantage of creative possibilities for different kinds of products and long-term marketing? Russell Nohelty gives his tips in this interview.
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Russell Nohelty is the USA Today bestselling author of fiction, graphic novels and comics, nonfiction, and books for authors, including This is NOT a Book: Musings on living a writerly life.
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 mindset shift of selling direct
- Catalog sales vs direct sales
- The benefits of a direct relationship to customers and reframing the more personal touch experience
- Creativity in campaigns and print possibilities with direct sales
- Direct book marketing
- Keeping a long-term perspective and the flywheel concept of an author business
Transcript of Interview with Russell Nohelty
Joanna: Russell Nohelty is the USA Today bestselling author of fiction, graphic novels and comics, nonfiction, and books for authors, including This is NOT a Book: Musings on living a writerly life.
His latest book is Direct Sales Mastery for Authors, co-written with Monica Leonelle, launching as this goes out on Kickstarter. So welcome to the show, Russell.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a career-long dream to be on this show because I’ve been listening to it for so long. So I’m very excited.
Joanna: Oh, I’m super excited to talk to you. You’re kind of one of my gurus at the moment. You and Monica are doing such a great job of educating people on this. But first up—
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.
Russell: Sure. So I started my first creative business in 2004. I went out on my own as a freelance camera operator after graduating from college, and that didn’t really work very well. It turns out, there’s a lot of technical stuff you have to know about cameras and editing and all sorts of things. I was very good at visually seeing an image, but like doing all of the actual recording of video and such, it wasn’t really what I truly loved.
Then I moved to doing directing, and then I realized no one hired directors, they all wanted to direct their own stuff that they wrote. So I was like, well, I’ve read a bunch of the scripts that I’ve been on camera with, and they’re all not very good. So I could probably do at least this good.
That’s kind of been the thing of my entire career. It was not saying I could do this really well, it’s like, well, I can do at least this well.
I had a bunch of publishing contracts, and they all went very badly. I found out that they were just putting my books on Ingram Spark and stuff, and I was like, I could do that. I don’t know if I can release this book any better than these publishers, but I know for sure I can release them just as bad. So that’s how it sort of was a career of going from photography, to directing, to writing movies and TV.
Then I got into comics when the movies and TV thing didn’t really work out. Then comics are really expensive, and they take forever, so I started writing books in the interim between comic projects.
Then I fell in love with books, and then books turn into conventions, and conventions turned into me writing nonfiction books, and nonfiction books led to courses. It just kind of was an organic snowball effect that I come back and say, wow, I don’t think I would ever tell any other human to do it that way, for sure.
Joanna: I love that though. I mean, I did do a plan back in the day, but a lot of this career is just taking the next opportunity and sort of deciding to take the next step.
So it’s interesting, you mentioned you started off in visual creativity with camera operator and script writing and that kind of visual sense. Is that why you favored graphic novels and why you still do a lot of very visual projects?
Do you think you’re much more of a visual person than a lot of the text-based writers?
Russell: I think that it just makes sense to me how visuals work. So yes, like my manager at the time told me I should do comics, and I was unconvinced until he handed me a whole stack of like new indie comics that were coming out at the time. I fell in love with them, and like it just immediately made sense.
And when I started writing books, I actually took movie and TV scripts that I had, and I started to write them and flush them out.
I’m not a planner, but I do write a beat outline, and at least try to hit the big beats, the action plot beats that move the plot along. So all of my books are about kind of moving around the set pieces, everything kind of leads to that.
That’s how my brain worked in movies and TV, and it’s still, even now, 40 books in. Even when I write nonfiction, I’m like, what is the set piece moment that we’re building all of this climax to?
Joanna: So let’s get into the direct sales piece because it really does seem like there’s been an explosion of interest in direct sales, really in the last year to 18 months. So I wondered, so like take us back—
When did you do your first Kickstarter? And why do you think it’s taken so long before this is starting to go mainstream now?
Russell: Sure. So I did my first—it wasn’t even a Kickstarter, it was an Indiegogo campaign—in 2011. Then I did another one, I think, in 2012.
I did my first Kickstarter in 2014, which is when I really started taking it very seriously, after I took all of the rights back from my publishers.
I started doing them because it’s weird working in so many different publishing areas because I feel like they’ve all got about 10-15% of the answer, and they don’t talk to each other. So nobody ever learns like what the other pieces are. You find a lot of the most successful authors also were doing a lot of different formats, and they’re learning from all of these different formats.
The thing is that when you do comics, there is no aftermarket for comics after Kickstarter. Like there are no retailers, aside from bookstores. If you can somehow get them into comic bookstores, even then that’s not very profitable. Like there’s no way to make money from comics online, really, that is not either a subscription that you would find on like Patreon, or even Webtoon, or doing Kickstarters, or doing conventions. It’s the only way to make money in comics really is at convention.
So they teach you very early, the stack that you learn for comics is you run a Kickstarter, you do the convention circuit, and then when Patreon came, it’s like maybe you do a Patreon, or there’s used to be a thing called Drip, which Kickstarter had or one of the other ones that you have a subscription. Like those were the ways you made money.
Listening to the other side of it, where the prose people are so retailer-focused, is wild to me. I still don’t have any of my fiction books on retailers. Like zero of them are on retailers right now, and I’ve written over 40. I think one of the big mindset shifts you have to make when you’re doing direct sales is that–
Catalog sales are very different to direct-to-customer sales.
When I say catalog sales, Amazon is a catalog, Sears is a catalog. So if you remember actually getting—like I’m old enough to actually remember getting the Sears catalog, the JCPenney catalog, and the Macy’s catalogs. And when you’re flipping through, the goal of the catalog is to be just like the other things, like to be the blue shirt that they want. They’ve already curated that Macy’s can curate for them, and so whatever Macy’s wants, like says that they should buy, that’s what they’re looking at.
That’s how Amazon sales works. That’s one of the reasons why people say every paranormal romance should look the same, everything with the same subgenre should look the same.
It’s because when people are looking through the catalogue of Amazon books, they are picking the one that looks most like the one that they have already read.
When you’re talking about direct sales, it’s the opposite.
It’s really people who are trying to find a unique and different experience. I think the change is—and I’ve been talking about direct sales in the prose side since 2016, at least, when I ran my first three prose campaigns.
And everyone would say, I’m not going to do that, I’m just going to go into KU because it works. The thing that happened in the past five years is it doesn’t work anymore. So people are trying to find more ways to make the catalog algorithm work, even as it works less and less, for less and less percentage total of people.
Joanna: I love that you said that the catalog idea is to be just like the other things, just a different shade of blue or whatever.
I feel such a relief at this Kickstarter model, but it takes a while for the penny to drop.
It’s almost like when you first look at it, like I didn’t want to do it for ages, I just guess I didn’t know. It does feel a bit complicated. People have said to me, “Ah, it’s too high risk,” and, “I could just put my book up on Amazon.” But what you’ve said is exactly right, that things are not working anymore—well, they’re working still for some people, but they’re certainly changing for other people.
So are there any other sort of mindset shifts people have to think about in terms of selling direct?
You said you haven’t got any books on retailers. I do have all my books still, well not every edition, but I put them on Amazon later. I do direct first, and then I put them on all the stores.
What are your other thoughts on any mindset shift or attitude shifts?
Russell: So, yes. The biggest thing I think is to kind of—this is a very flippant, brief history of the publishing industry which can easily be torn apart over some scrutiny—but like in general, prior to World War One, there was no chance, unless you were in the aristocracy, of getting a book published. It just pretty much didn’t happen. After World War One, and definitely after World War Two, it started to get more and more able for anyone to publish books as long as you lived in certain centers, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London. There were a couple others, but like those are the big ones.
Then with the invention of Kindle, it started to become more people from wherever could publish a book.
Then with the invention of KU, it was anyone can publish a book and be successful as long as it fits into the KU model.
Now with direct sales, the beauty is you can sell anything and find an audience really. But the problem is you can sell anything and find an audience.
Where do you put your effort and how do you know which of these things to focus on?
So one of the biggest mindset shifts for people who’ve been unsuccessful in retailers, a lot of them will say, “Well, why should I try a new thing? It’s just another chance for me to put a ton of effort in and fail again.”
And, yes, all business is about failure. I mean, we could probably have an entire two-hour conversation about the failures in our careers, even though we’re both very successful authors. It’s a chance to find different ways to succeed.
What I think the biggest mindset shift that a person can make is to say, “There are a million different ways to succeed, and all I have to do is find one of them. Like one path to success, and I can double down on that, and then I can expand out from there, and it can be the seed of building my publishing empire.”
As opposed to, while KU is very different than wide, they are both catalogs sales. There’s a lot of authors who don’t have success on either, and they’re like, oh, well, this is just another thing I’m going to put a bunch of time, energy, and money into, and then not have success.
While that is true, you could not have success, but because there are so many different models, from web stores and landing pages, from conventions and Kickstarter and subscriptions, there’s at least five different models for success.
Then there are different branches out underneath all of them, and all of them are a chance to latch onto something and find a success. If you find one, you can probably use that to find another one, and then find another one.
Then for successful authors, what I say is, Amazon will stop working for you eventually, over time. You can look at people who were super successful 10 years ago, and almost none of them are the same super successful authors now.
So you need to hedge from Amazon stopping looking at you like a darling and start taking your career into your own hands, so that if/when the Amazon or catalog sales drop, you have that email list. Like the people who still are able to have that success year over year are people who have curated that email list from the beginning and have a strong direct-to-customer relationship.
Finally, the last shift that I would say is most people say, “That means I have to do X.” And I would say the reframe is, “I get to do X.” Like I get to get books into my house and sign them, and like people pay me to do that.
Like 12 year old me would freak out if they knew I’d just spend like two days signing comics and shipping comics to people who paid me to do that. And you don’t have to do all of those things, like you can set up direct fulfillment from a warehouse, or you can use Lulu to direct ship from your website, but what you get to do is have a relationship with the customers that are more than just that bar graph going up and down and being very impersonal.
I mean, let’s be fair, like if we were doing the thing to just see the bar graph and line go up, like we would all sell different widgets because it’s a very hard widget to sell over time, books, and not great margin. So like we would go sell something that has like a higher profit margin, like we’re probably doing this to make a connection with readers.
That direct relationship, direct-to-customer relationship, allows us to not only own that direct relationship and curate it, but be energized from it as well.
Joanna: I love that reframe, and I’ve definitely had to go through this kind of journey.
I feel like a few years back, I did want the digital only. I mean, for a while I didn’t do print at all because when I initially did print back in 2006, I had them all in my garage, and I didn’t know how to sell.
Then over time, it was like, right, digital only, scale global, and I didn’t want to do the personal stuff. I didn’t want to sign books, I didn’t want to do that kind of thing.
We were talking before recording, like I find video difficult, and I didn’t necessarily want to be emailing with loads of people. So I think one of my resistance to this was this sort of, oh, I’m actually going to have to do a more higher touch thing. But as you say—
The reframe is, “Oh, my goodness. This is amazing because I actually do get to connect with people.”
Just yesterday, I sent a signed book, my book Pilgrimage, which I did my last Kickstarter on. This guy was like, “I bought it for myself. Can you sign it to me because I’m going to do the Camino in a wheelchair?”
And I was just so touched by emailing him back, and I just felt, oh my goodness, I am having a connection with this person that if they just bought a book on Amazon, I would not have had.
So now it’s almost like I feel like you’re saying, which is this totally different view of my business, which is that direct first means a much more personal way. It really is like we’re in that 1,000 true fans moment that we first talked about 20 years ago. It’s kind of crazy.
Russell: Yeah, absolutely. I love Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans, but it does have a reframe in and of itself, which is a lot of people think they’re going to talk to 1000 people and those 1000 people are going to suddenly become your biggest fans.
It really is the same kind of funnel as anything else, but in order to find those 1000 true fans, you need to talk to probably millions of people and reach millions of people at least, through Facebook ads, or through podcasting, or through shares, or through BookFunnel, or like whatever the way is, like you have to find a lot of those people.
A lot of it is funneling people from your casual readers into your direct sales relationship.
Not everyone is going to make that journey, and so one other reframe that I would say is those people at the bottom, like those people are the gold of your whole business because they’re the ones that have come with you on that journey.
And if you can have that reframe, well, these people probably found me on retailers, or listened one episode of a podcast, and then fell into my funnel somehow. And they somehow made it down to reading all of my books, or like getting this very odd book.
Like you mentioned, This is NOT a Book, and I was like, that’s a book that’s never going to be on retailers. You can only get it on my Substack or through my website in a bundle because I think that it’s this very weird book that you have to know. I don’t want that to be the first touch point that people had of me because people will say, “Well, this is just a bunch of thoughts, I don’t get it.” But once you’ve gone through the experience, you can then get that book and I think have a transformational moment.
I had a really nice moment after the Kickstarter, where someone in Australia was like, “I can’t believe I had to pay for shipping of this book,” or they said something, and then they read the book, and they’re like, “I just wanted to apologize. I read this book, and it’s transformed my life. It’s so amazing.”
I feel like we can also have these things where books that did not do well on retailers, or just you know will not do well on retailers, but you know that people in your true fandom will love.
Like you can still make money or make it worthwhile financially to take time out to make these experiences because suddenly like your biggest fans are there to have those experiences. They want that more transformational experience that comes with direct sales than someone who’s just coming in for a book on retailers and learning about you for the first time. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for that as well.
Joanna: I guess one of the other things that has frustrated me is the very narrow number of options. I mean, it’s funny that I say that because when I originally started self-publishing, we didn’t really have any print-on-demand physical books, and then we didn’t even have eBooks at the time.
Then over time, we’ve got more and more, like digital audio appeared. So we do have a lot of choices.
But with physical products, it seems like what we can do with direct sales, either with Kickstarter, obviously, you can do anything, but also now with Shopify, with Payhip, with all these other direct stores, we can do other things, from live events, to subscriptions, and your Substack and all of this kind of thing.
So I wanted to ask you, particularly, about the high-quality physical products.
You’ve done lots of comics and graphic novels, you’ve collaborated with artists, and I want to create beautiful books and products, but mainly books, and I know many listeners do too. So this is risky, this is risky.
I also kind of know from trying to do a Kickstarter that you need pictures and you almost need to know what you’re doing and do the art beforehand. So I just wondered if you could give us some tips for going beyond sort of print-on-demand and—
What do we need to keep in mind around these higher quality and higher cost products?
Russell: Sure. So first, I will say that somehow all of the teaching that we have given over the last two years has been executed in this way that makes it seem like you have to do this enormous campaign, with like sprayed edges, and like big beautiful hard covers, and interior illustrations, and Vellum, and all of that stuff.
And I want to say first, that is absolutely not true. Like, you don’t have to do any of those things. If you look at two of the last three campaigns, all I was offering was paperback books and eBooks, and then audio commentary for one of the campaigns.
So you can do a Kickstarter, and I often will tell people, especially if they’re not an already successful author, like do a campaign that is small and easy to get data on before you do something big.
So my first piece of advice is, until you’ve actually done a Kickstarter, and you know—well, I’ll just say Brandon Sanderson did his first campaign for The Way of Kings and made $7 million, and that is what I think like a perfect first campaign is. I mean, yes, it will make $7 million too, that will be amazing, but he took a book that was already successful, he used an anniversary, I think it was a 10 year anniversary, to do an exclusive hardcover book of a book he already knew was successful and had an audience.
So if I were to give someone who had a bunch of books already a piece of advice, I would say, go find a book that you already know is successful and already know has run up a quite a big profit margin.
So for our my Godsverse Chronicles books, before I even brought the novels to Kickstarter, I had made close to $100,000 on those books, of which like $60,000 was profit. So I was willing to do a lot for those books because they had already performed quite well for me as a series.
So if you have something like that, like you literally know it’s already going to be successful because you have fans. It’s not even about how much money you make, it’s about rewarding the fans with something that’s really beautiful.
And yes, you would like to make $10,000 on that book, $20,000, you’d like to make $7 million on that book, but it’s already earned out, and it’s already shown that it has a big fandom that will support it. So that is one thing that I would say.
Another option would be to —
Take a book that people love when they read it, but maybe not enough people have read—we call this a second chance book—and bring it out again and show some love to it.
Again, you’re seeing that you’re using the fan sentiment that already exists to dictate spending more time, energy, and effort on it.
I would say if you’re going to bring something new into the world, you probably want to be on the low end of what your exposure is because you are trying to judge how Kickstarter is going to go for you. So if at all possible, you should come in with something you either already know is successful or with something that if you make some money on it, it would be great, but you don’t have to make money on it because you’re already going to launch in retailers.
That’s why we often say a $500 reward goal is good because if you make 500 additional dollars on a book you’re already going to release without putting a whole bunch of effort into it, then it’s already a win for you.
As far as print options, the one that everyone uses now is sprayed edges, which I think is great. I think that now, though, everyone uses sprayed edges, and so it loses a little bit of its luster when literally every campaign has sprayed edges now.
I would you start getting real value when you’re able to move overseas, or to somehow do 1000 or 2000, or even 500 unit run of books, because the cost per book is much cheaper, and you can do a lot of cool things with the books.
So there are two ones that I grew up embedded in my brain, they might be called something different now, but they were called gang printing and gang binding.
So gang printing is if you can send more than one book to print at the same time, you save a huge amount of money on both of those books. So I had a book that I quoted, and I was gonna get 2000 books of one book. Then I decided to print a second book on top of that, and the price was only a couple $1,000 more to get 2000 books of both of those series. So you’re saving a massive amount. It was $6000 to get the first one ,and it was $8000 to print both, so you can save a massive amount by putting two books. Or let’s say you have four books you want to release on Kickstarter this year, order them all at one time.
Second, is gang binding. So the thing that is really exciting about doing an offset print run is the ability to—we call it a change fee—which is you can use the same interior, but let’s say you want to do 50 in leather, 100 in hardcover, 100 in an exclusive store variant cover, 200 in paperback and 200 in, I don’t know, some other format. You can do all of those, and now you’re not printing 500 books of one cover, you’re printing all of these.
You’re printing a store exclusive maybe, or a lot of people are doing retailer exclusive covers, you’re doing books that are for your store, for your conventions, and you’re printing all of these things at the same time.
So it might cost you $4,000 or something to get 1000 books, but you’re printing them all simultaneously. And instead of it costing you $8-$10 to print hardcover or leather, it’s costing you $4. A lot of publishing is about making that differential between profit and loss as big as you possibly can because then you’re going to have to give more on retailers.
Then you have things like pins, and vellum book inserts, and prints. One of the great things about prints is if you have an interior illustration, you can also sell that as a print, you can also put it in a potential art book in the future. So you can defray your cost multiple ways by making that one illustration. A lot of direct sales is—
How can I make something one time and sell it in 20 different ways?
Joanna: Yes, I think there’s a lot more creativity involved in thinking about what you can do using characters on stickers and doing—and there’s just so many things.
I’ve been trying to collect people’s various ideas on the campaigns I’ve been backing, and for fiction and nonfiction. I mean, I feel like in a way nonfiction can be—well, it can still be very creative, you can still do loads of things, but you see so many very cool things in the fiction niche.
So I want to encourage people to think that you can just be more creative with direct sales.
It might sound a bit daunting, and it is daunting, you have to learn a new language, you have to learn a new way of doing things. I also feel like that’s the exciting thing.
And as I’ve been saying, and I’m very pro-AI, but the rise of AI creation means that the digital-only market will be getting far more saturated. Doing this kind of special physical product, that will not get so saturated because of all the work it takes to do this, so you can double down on being human.
Russell: Yes, there’s going to be a number of people who want the direct human contact. Like I’m not quite as pro-AI as you, I’m probably somewhere in the neutral level. Like I think it’s going to be great. I use it sometimes, I don’t use it all of the time. I prefer all things being equal to like non-AI stuff and to talk to an actual human to get answers, but I don’t have a negative feeling about it.
I feel the same way about it that I feel about Grammarly. It’s cool, I get a lot of value out of Grammarly, but I’m also not going to go to a Grammarly conference.
The value that you have as an author has always been, whether you were competing against Stephen King—and I don’t like the word competing, but I’m going to use it—whether it was Stephen King or AI, like the advantage is you.
If you’re talking about Stephen King, like Stephen King is not going to conferences, he’s not responding to every message, he’s not having back and forth email exchanges with all of his fans. Maybe he is, I don’t know. He writes so much, but maybe he’s able to do all of these things. But he’s not able to have that personal high touch.
To me, that’s always been the indie advantage. We are able to go to conventions, we are able to speak on a lot of podcasts, we are able to have podcasts, we are able to have these communities which are considerably smaller than the reach that Stephen King gets, but also a lot higher touch.
The more authors can find ways to do that without energetically draining themselves, I think the better set up they are going to be in the future.
I mean, I know we have a similar opinion on the doomsayers of AI. Someone told me once, they’re like, “Amazon already filters out billions of garbage books every year, do you think 20 billion with AI is going to be significantly harder than the billion they already filter out?” And like in some ways, yes. In some ways no.
I think the opportunity here is that you are the human writing the books, whether you are using it as an augmented with AI or you are doing it completely as yourself.
The conventions and all of these things and direct sales is going to become more important because it is you that is able to set yourself up apart from every other writer. That has always been true.
The thing that separates Joan Didion from Stephen King is that they are Joan Didion, and they are Stephen King. That is the biggest selling point for an author.
So just a couple of questions around Kickstarter, in particular. So you did mention, if someone’s got something new, they should maybe put a $500 sort of idea in, and they don’t have to do all this stuff. They could just do, I guess, an eBook and a paperback, like you mentioned.
But if someone is brand new, and they don’t really have an audience, can they start with this kind of very wide direct sales approach? Or—
Do you think people need to build up an audience elsewhere before they go direct?
Russell: Well, I think that direct sales is going to give you a higher percentage of income and greater control over what you put out and what you should put out.
So the thing that is wild about catalog sales is they will send a survey to their audience, and they will make decisions on that survey without knowing whether those people buy their books or not. I find that wild. Like when I started doing this, people would tell me this, and I was like, but no wonder that book didn’t do well because you don’t know if the people actually who bought the book wanted it or just random people. Like you don’t know, you can’t make any decision.
I guess this is a very forest thing to say if you know our author ecosystem, but like, you want to make decisions either from what the market wants with no impact from like your own audience at all, or you want to at least make decisions where you can target, okay, these three people bought my book, and this is what they say, and here is the consistency between them.
If you’re sending a survey, you’re asking questions to a bunch of people, and out of 100 of them, only three bought your books, and the 20 people who answer your survey aren’t one of those three people, like you’re going to make some pretty bad decisions.
So one of the things people say is like doing BookFunnel promos or a lot of these freebie giveaways is like not a good determinant for making their business scale.
The reason is because if you send 20 people to Amazon to make $3, like you make $60, and that might not juice the algorithm to work for you, especially if you don’t have ads going.
But if you can take those same 60 people and make $25 on them, then suddenly, you’ve made $1,000, or however much that is, $1,200, and you’re able to say, okay, these 50 people bought the book, and here’s what the 50 people on my email said. Even if it’s only 10 people, even if you put out a book and one person buys it from your email list, it will always tell you something.
All of that catalog sales tell you at the end of the day is, did I hit the tropes well enough, and did I game the algorithm well enough to have Amazon show this to more and more and more and more and more and more and more people.
And that is important because you want to make money, but it is not necessarily a good way to run a business when you’re first starting out, especially because you need a certain amount of data to come through before you can make decisions.
Like if you’re putting a book out, and only five people buy it on retailers, even 100 people buy it on retailers, that’s really not enough information to make a decision.
But if you run 1000 people through a direct sales sequence and only one person buys, well, that’s a lot better way to make decisions about your business and make corrections that will lead to better outcomes for you.
So if you’re a newer author, I think for almost anyone —
Kickstarter should be the first stage of your marketing journey because it will hopefully (at least) break even and give you money you can then spill over into marketing.
I know from releasing books both successfully and unsuccessfully on retailers that putting money behind a book that has already broken even is a monumental shift from putting money behind a book that you have never sold one copy of.
Joanna: So we’re basically saying yes, go ahead if you don’t have much of an audience, but have a low goal and then use that data in the future.
You did mention marketing there. I talked to some authors who—and this always happens, right. People think, oh, if I put a book in KU, it will dramatically sell, or if I put a book on Kickstarter, it will just magically sell. This hasn’t changed.
You still have to get people to the page, regardless of where it is. People, I don’t know why, but they seem very confused about how to market to a Kickstarter, or a Shopify store, or a Substack, or whatever. So I guess let’s keep it to Kickstarter, specifically.
How much is organic algorithm and how much has to be driven by other marketing means on Kickstarter?
Russell: Well, so I think that at the beginning, you have to bring the first 25 people to the party. If you bring 25 or 30—it’s not an exact number of 25—but if you can bring a small amount of people to the party, Kickstarter will start showing your work to more people in their recommendation engine.
And their recommendation engine is, I’m not going to say like Amazon, but it has similar functionality in many ways. So at the bottom of every campaign that you scroll down, they recommend other campaigns.
When you are scrolling, it will show you more campaigns, and the bigger campaigns tend to go up higher. The campaigns that get consistently backed over time get higher, which sounds a lot like what Amazon does, as well.
When you back a campaign, after you back a campaign, it will show you more options. When they send an email that you’ve backed, they will send you more options. About once a week, they send you more options, or at least once a month, they send you options of what is going on. So the earlier you can get those backers, the better.
You can also do backer swaps, and reach out to people, and do group promos, and all of these things. Kind of what’s amazing is all of the things that used to work on Facebook and Amazon that don’t work anymore, kind of like work on Kickstarter.
So if you just look about 10 years ago about what was happening on Facebook that was working, indie books with a lot of cross promo and such that was working a lot better, and Facebook ops and things, they are working a lot on Kickstarter because you only need to get one or two to make $50 or $100, or sometimes $500.
So it’s not like you’re doing a cross-promotion, and then getting three people to read your KU book. Someone is going to your campaign and making a decision that is going to bring $25-$50, maybe even more money, to your campaign and get you better exposure. So it’s really interesting.
The same thing happens with Substack, where like I feel, personally, as a person who has done a lot of these things and then watch them do worse and worse and worse as far as returns, I feel kind of like a superhero because I’m like, wow, I can just do all these things, and suddenly they work again.
Joanna: It is very interesting in that way. I must say with Kickstarter, I have tended to spend like a couple of hundred dollars on paid ads, but only to my audience, so just to people on my email list and that kind of thing.
I haven’t really gone much further, I’ve mainly used my organic reach and things like podcasts. Like you say, it’s kind of like cross-promotional thing.
Do you think paid ads are something that people should look at for Kickstarter?
Russell: In general, no.
So the answer that I would say is that unless you have a minimum of 100 organic backers, which is like backers that you get probably in the first couple of days, and additionally, at least a $60 average pledge value, ads are probably not going to be profitable to you. That is not my number, that is a number that other people have calculated. It used to be $50, like the mechanics have changed, but in general, you are not going to see a significant profitability unless you have those. The most profitability you’ll probably get is about two to one. It’s usually like 1.6 ROI, like 60% ROI, which isn’t great.
One of the reasons that ads are great is because they like help you seed a thing over time, and after 30 days, all of that work you did with your ads are going to pretty much go away until your next campaign. So I usually say I wouldn’t recommend ads unless you have those metrics. However, if you have a name already, or if you know a lot of people that your name is relevant to, then that becomes more and more possible.
Like should Melanie Harlow do Facebook ads if she’s doing a Kickstarter? Yes, probably she should because a lot of people already know Melanie Harlow, and they already will have that lower cost per acquisition. But if you are just Joe Schmo, it’s probably not going to do you a ton of good to do ads because you’re going to reach up against the, “Oh, wow, I don’t know who this person is,” and then also, “Wow, that’s a lot of money to try this person for the first time.”
I’ve not seen most people have success with ads on Kickstarter. Even most people who are successful don’t have success doing that. I usually recommend doing more cross promos, email swaps, backer swaps, and things like that. You’re gonna get a bigger return, but it does take more energy to do.
Joanna: Yes, and I wanted to encourage people around that. I hear so many people say, “Oh, well, if I can’t afford paid ads, then I can’t do any marketing.”
And I’m like, look —
Most of us spend 90% of our marketing effort not on paid ads, there’s a lot more you can do.
So I think the overall idea is to get creative around your projects, and also around your marketing. And like you said, it’s almost like winding back the clock a decade where things were just more open. Like there are no rules, really, I guess, on this stuff.
So as we come to a close, one of the things I think is super important is this long-term view of an author business.
And obviously, traditional publishing has this myth of, you do a book, you hit the bestseller list, you make a million, you can retire. That’s just not the reality. That’s not been your career. That’s not my career.
So how can you encourage authors around that long-term perspective? Especially when it comes to building direct sales, which take time.
Russell: Sure. So the pessimistic side of this is that there’s not much money, we talked about this already, in publishing compared to other entrepreneurial fields.
Most people will burn out, and so staying in [the market] gives you a huge advantage —
— by staying in and putting out good books year after year because at the beginning, people are very wary that you will just not finish a series.
But like Brandon Sanderson, for instance, has proven that he will finish multiple series, so people are more willing to give him a shot over anyone else in the fantasy space because they know his pedigree, and they know that he’s going to finish what he starts, assuming that he doesn’t die. So it can be a huge advantage of you long-term thinking, in that respect. The optimistic side is that the marketing that you do now—do you ever talk about flywheels on this podcast?
Joanna: Yes, I mean, I know you use that metaphor. So why didn’t you explain that? Because I agree with it.
Russell: Okay, so most businesses are creating pumps. Most people show you how to make a water pump. A pump is something that when you exert force on it, the same amount of water comes out of that pump, the first time and the millionth time.
A flywheel is a concept that was invented by HubSpot, which involves attracting, engaging, and delighting your audiences in a cyclical manner, so it’s like a flywheel.
How a water flywheel works is it takes a massive amount of force to get it running the first time. It might take 2, 3, 4 people to start a flywheel, but with every rotation, it gets easier and easier and easier and easier, until you can spin it with just like a finger. That is what we’re trying to make here.
So everyone talks about how hard it is to get going, but I don’t know, I don’t know if you agree with me on this, but I find the things that are easy to do are pumps.
They’re very easy for a person to be like, “I had great success with these keywords, or gaming the system this way, or finding arbitrage here.” And then after three months, it’s like, “Oh, well, I gotta go pump again because I gotta find the next easy thing.”
Direct sales is a flywheel.
It is creating a system where you bring people in, you introduce them through a funnel into your system into your series, you treat them like more than a $20 bill, and that expands out over time. So the fifth year you’re doing this, you get more, you just get more from it.
I think of Elana Johnson and her cowboy romance series, and it’s got 100 books in it. Like that used to be one book, and it didn’t own the category. Now it’s 100 books deep, or more than 100 books deep, and again, over time, just the fact that you exist and you’ve put out 100 books in a series, that just says a lot about you. When you say, “I’ve got 1000 episodes of my podcast,” or, “I’ve been a six figure authors since 2017,” people go, oh, well, like that tells me a lot. It says that you have consistently been able to put out quality. It says that you are able to deliver on things. And suddenly you’re getting this arbitrage above other people, just by the fact that you existed.
Getting that initial flywheel set up is brutal. So people say this about Kickstarter all of the time. They’re like, this is so much marketing.
And I tell them, well, yes, it is building a sales page and then building an email sequence, but once you have that email sequence, assuming you’re going to keep going in that series, you can use it for 10 years.
The sales page I built on Kickstarter for the Complete Series is almost exactly like the sales page that I’ve been using all year for my Godsverse Chronicle series. A lot of the marketing copy, like talking about the world, and talking about what’s different, and talking about the characters, all of that stuff I added to the sales page just became part of the email sequence. And then that email sequence has been selling the books in the background every time.
So every time I do a BookFunnel promotion, or I have this thing called Action Fantasy Book Club, every time I drop people into that sequence, it automatically does stuff in the background.
We often talk about how hard these things are to set up at the beginning, but not how much they pay off at the end.
So yes, it is a lot harder than hitting the KU button and saying, yes, I want to be in KU.
What’s interesting about wide is that once you’ve done all of the work to put a book on Amazon, like you already have the ePub file, you already have the cover, you already have the copy, like all you have to do is basically replicate it to the other retailers. I mean, not exactly replicate it. Erin Wright would kill me if I said that, so would Monica. It’s not an exact copy, but you’ve gotten most of the work done for you.
Setting it up one time is very time-consuming, but setting it up in a way that expands you for the long term ends up being much easier over time.
Now I have the Godsverse Chronicles, I have Ichabod, I have the Obsidian Spindle Saga. I have an email sequence that introduces people to each one of those. While I go in and make tweaks over time, I don’t really think about it. Like when I do a BookFunnel promo, or when I get emails, they just go into my sequence, and then stuff happens or doesn’t happen, and then I still continue on with my day and my life. I write my Substack stuff, and people funnel in to all of these things, and they have all of these ways to funnel into my ecosystem.
I think that, to me, when people say, how can you do this for so long? I say, how can I stop? It’s so easy now. I’ve made the flywheel so easy, that how could I not keep doing it? Writing in another series becomes hard because I’m like, oh, my god, I have to start this from scratch again.
Joanna: Yes, I mean, I’ve built my business on the flywheel concept as well. I feel like doing the podcast, for example, doing content marketing, all these things snowball over time. I guess the snowball going down the hill is another metaphor.
One of the reasons I trust you and Monica is that you both have such longevity in the market. I didn’t really know you before this year, but I’ve been talking to Monica for a while. She’s been on the show a number of times, so it’s great to talk to you. But you both have a ton going on now, so tell us what you and Monica are doing with this new book.
Where can people find you? Where can they find the Kickstarter?
Russell: Sure. So this has happened in the past week, so I don’t think I had a chance to fill you in on it.
But direct sales, it ends up being a big concept, and we actually went from one book to two books. So it’s now a two part book. One is on sales funnels and flywheels, and one’s on psychological triggers. There’s Volume One and Volume Two.
It’s now called Direct Sales Mastery, and you can find it at WriterMBA.com/DSA. It’s a combination of basically everything we’ve taught for the past combined 25 years, along with a lot of stuff from our author ecosystem.
So if you haven’t taken our other ecosystem quiz, if you’re like, how do I even get started on this, we created a quiz at AuthorEcosystem.com to help you figure out where you are going in your direct sales journey and your sales and marketing journey.
Then we do have a conference called The Future of Publishing Mastermind, which you can find on the Kickstarter. And really, what we wanted to do was take all of the scholarship we’ve basically written over the span of our careers and condense it down into something that makes sense as a single narrative.
That’s been the hardest thing about direct sales is I don’t think anyone has created a singular narrative of what the scope of the problem is.
A lot of people talk about web stores and Shopify, some people talk about Kickstarter, people talking about subscriptions, but no one really talks about how these things interconnect and play together. So it’s going to be two volumes, and we really want it to be, like I said, a single thoughtful narrative on how to take this stuff and build an ecosystem around it that is additive to your catalog sales.
So if you are already doing really well on catalog sales, this will show you how to open up your direct sales in a way that doesn’t just focus on Shopify, doesn’t just focus on Patreon, but focuses on how you can build all of these verticals successfully into your business and make them all work together.
Because singularly it is a lot of work, but once you get one set up, it really does all funnel into and trickle into the other stuff. So I hope if you have any interest in marketing, sales, or direct sales, I hope you’ll check it out at WriterMBA.com/DSA, or just go to Kickstarter and type in Direct Sales Mastery For Authors.
You also have a podcast. Tell people where they can find that, too.
Russell: Absolutely. It’s called Kickstart Your Book Sales. It’s on all aggregators. It’s got, I think, close to 100 episodes now, and some of them are very meaty big boys, like two and a half hour from some of our webinars. We want it to be a really powerful repository of how to build direct sales into your business.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Russell. That was great.
Russell: Thank you for having me.
The post The Mindset And Business Of Selling Books Direct With Russell Nohelty first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn