book marketing experiments with Rachel Aaron

The results of Rachel’s latest book marketing experiments will surprise you.

Rachel Aaron is a bestselling traditionally published novelist and author of several books including the Eli Monpress series, as well as one of my absolute favorite nonfiction books on writing: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.

We talk about how her writing has changed since our last interview, and her latest experiments with book marketing.

We also talk about the importance of writing quality books and what types of marketing work (and don’t work) when you’re just starting to build an author platform.

Note: Rachel’s been on the show before: in Episode 36, we talked about how to write faster, better, and love what you do. We talked a lot about plotting, as well as Rachel’s writing process. It’s worth going back for a listen just so you can get the full scope of what Rachel’s talking about—and how it might work for you!

Writing is Marketing

Since our last interview, Rachel has studied a lot about story structure and what really goes into a good story. She focuses a lot more on characters than she used to.

Characters are what drive the story forward, and your audience only experiences your story through the five senses, thoughts, and opinions of your characters.

That means you have to write great characters if you want readers to love your story and share it with others.

Tips for Populating Your Story with Great Characters

  • A novel is going to have more than one antagonist, and every antagonist is the hero of his or her own story. Don’t forget to make your antagonists people, too!
  • Give your character a motivation, something they want. Then give them something they need. Put what they want and what they need in conflict. This is how you create a character arc and write a really interesting story.
  • When you’re just starting out as a fiction writer, focus on giving your characters one major motivation. When you focus on just one motivation, it helps clearly define your character for your audience and makes your job as a writer simpler.If you think about characters, their motivations, and how the decisions they make will bring them into conflict with other characters, you will end up with a much better story.
  • You should give your character a flaw that needs to be overcome in order to get what they need. Human beings are flawed and we can more easily identify with a protagonist who isn’t perfect.
  • You should be willing to beat up on your characters. How a person reacts to hardship reveals their true character. The same thing is true of fictional people: the more you beat up on them the more they reveal their true selves.Beating up on your characters works especially well if their reactions change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.
  • Showing your character reacting differently at the end of the story than they did at the beginning illustrates their character arc and really brings home for your reader how they have changed.

More on Character Motivation

The clearer you can be about your characters’ motivation, the more impact you can have as a storyteller. That’s why Rachel likes to focus on one motivation per character.

When you limit yourself to one character motivation, that motivation serves to define the character and it really helps make everything clear to the reader so that they can truly identify with where the character is coming from.

When introducing characters, you want to tell your readers who that character is, what they want, and why the reader should care about them. Being unclear is the kiss of death in many stories.

Make Every Book the Best

Do everything you can to make the story you’re writing right now the best story it can be.

If you’re writing a series, don’t hold back something cool in Book 1 just so you can put it in Book 2 or 3. Use the cool stuff now! There will be more cool stuff later.

Besides, if you save the good stuff for later, your readers may leave—and then they’ll never read all that cool stuff you were holding back.

Your reader is coming into your story blank

Your reader is coming into your story blank. It’s your job to fill in the blank in the most beautiful and interesting way possible.
—Rachel Aaron

Book Marketing Experiments

Rachel admits that, after trying every social media marketing strategy she could find, she just doesn’t like to use social media to promote her books. She doesn’t like Facebook at all.

She enjoys Twitter, but just as a citizen—not as a “platform author.” She has just over 4,000 followers, and she might mention when a new release comes out, but she doesn’t use her Twitter feed to push her books on anyone.

Everything I have to say about my books is in my books

Everything I have to say about my books is in my books. If you want to know what I think, read my books.
—Rachel Aaron

Rachel knows authors who are very successful at using Facebook ads and other paid advertising. It’s just not her thing.

Rachel has done three things to build her author platform online:

1. Write More Books

If you want to build an author platform online and make a living with your writing, the number one thing you should do is write as many books as you can.

Each book you write becomes an entry point for a reader to join your audience. The easiest sale you will ever make is to a reader who likes what you’ve written before. If the reader buys your new book and likes it, they’re very likely to buy other books you’ve written.

You want to:

  • Write a book that has an engaging story.
  • Give your book a title that catches the reader’s eye, and intrigues or excites them.
  • Give your book a good-looking cover.
  • Give your book a blurb that is going to make people want to read the book.

Readers don’t care whether your book was published in New York or not. If you do your job right, they won’t even notice what imprint might be stamped on it.

2. Have a Professional Website

Give your readers plenty of ways to connect with you, even if you don’t like social media. When you build your author website, it becomes a hub for all the ways readers can interact with you, get news, and get your books.

Rachel’s professional website is Her doesn’t bring in new readers, but it is a way for people who are interested in her to see everything she’s written.

This makes it easier for casual fans to become superfans who read everything she’s ever written, no matter what series or world it’s written in.

3. Build an Email List

Rachel has an email list of subscribers and she sends them updates when she’s about to release a book. She actually sends them three emails per book:

  • The first email goes out when the book is available for preorder.
  • The second email goes out when Rachel releases sample chapters.
  • The third email goes out on launch day.

The number one thing you can do to build your email list is to write a short story that’s only available to your email subscribers. The short story Rachel wrote for her email list tripled her subscribe rate.

Beware of Using Free Giveaways to Build Your Email List

But while giving away short stories is a great way to build your list, other giveaways may be less helpful.

A lot of indie authors will bloat their email list by attracting subscribers through free giveaways. The problem with this strategy is a lot of people will sign up just for the giveaway, and if you’re using an autoresponder service like aWeber or Mailchimp, you have to pay for everyone who subscribes to your email list. If your list swells up with people who don’t actually care about what you’re writing and who just wanted a free book download, you’ll end up paying a lot per month for a list that isn’t very engaged.

In the end, it’s just not a smart business decision.

The Book Advertising Experiment

Last year, Rachel and her husband did an experiment where they paid a marketing firm quite a bit of money to do all kinds of paid advertising over multiple platforms.

  • They paid for Facebook ads.
  • They paid for Amazon ads.
  • They paid for BookBub ads.

Rachel’s big takeaway:

There was no measurable uptick in sales due to the advertising.

Rachel got her biggest uptick in sales when she wrote a new book in a series. This is because each new book in a series advertises all the other books. If a reader looks at a cover and blurb and decides they like a book, but it’s Book Four in the series, that reader is likely to buy the first three books in the series to know what came before.

Book Marketing Rule of Thumb

Want to know Rachel’s biggest secret to marketing?

Look at your own buying behavior as a reader.

Rachel never buys books from Facebook ads or Google ads. She ignores them. And her marketing experiment confirmed that her readers share her buying behavior.

Instead, Rachel does three things to market her books to readers:

  1. She makes sure she has a good cover.
  2. She makes sure she has a good blurb.
  3. She sends her book to book reviewers and bloggers.

She also lets her email list know when a new book is coming out…and pretty much only then. She only sends three emails per launch. Because Rachel emails so infrequently, her audience knows that each email is valuable.

When people subscribe to your email list, they are asking to be marketed to. They are inviting you into their inbox and allowing you to have a window into their world. That is a precious gift and you shouldn’t squander it by spamming them or betray it by selling their email address.

Writing a Series to Build Your Author Platform

One of the most effective ways to build your author platform is to write a series. Series work well because if a reader likes the series, they’ll buy every book in the series.

Your first book sells your second book. The second book sells the series. The real trick is to create a follow-up series that appeals to at least a segment of your target audience.

Using Permafree as a Marketing Tool and Other Marketing Advice

A lot of authors use permafree books to attract readers into their sales funnel. But you should only use the permafree strategy when you have a completed series. Using the permafree strategy too early is a mistake Rachel has seen a lot of authors make.

If you’ve written two books and you make the first book permafree to attract readers, you’re losing half of your potential income. Setting the first book in a series to permafree after the series is completed is a much more sound business strategy.

Permafree books are advertising. And if you have no product to sell beyond your permafree book, there is no point to advertising yet.

Writers will often turn to marketing as a substitute for doing the hard writing work they don’t want to do. The truth is, no amount of marketing can sell a book that is fundamentally flawed and bad.

Focus on writing a good book and any marketing efforts you do later will have much better results.

Aaron Rachel Quote on Marketing

Marketing makes a good product succeed faster and a bad product fail faster.
—Rachel Aaron

As a writer, the number one thing you want to be doing is writing more books. Creating more inventory is the fastest, surest way to build an author platform. If you want to make a living as a writer, writing new words should be your top priority.

There is no objective way to tell whether or not a book is good before you put it on the market. Every reader is different. Every reader has a favorite book. And for every reader who loves a book, you’re going to find a reader who hates that book.

Heck, one of Rachel’s favorite books is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. As of this post, it has 723 Amazon reviews, and 21 of them are one-star reviews.

You can’t predict the opinions of a wide audience. All you can do is entertain yourself while you’re writing. If you do that, you will find readers who like what you like, and you will begin to build an audience.

It’s important to know your audience and what they like in your fiction. That’s why it’s easiest to write to entertain yourself and people like you. Another approach is to write for somebody you know well, like a family member, friend, or spouse.

By narrowing your target audience to one person, you can begin to get a handle on writing a book that will entertain them and make them want to buy more books from you. That is true success in the writing business.

The worst thing you can do as a writer is write a poor imitation of a story people have already read. When you write a story, you should always try to write something new, interesting, and entertaining to you.

Be sure to take the time you need to make your story good.

Books can be bad forever

A book can be late for six months, but once it’s published, it can be bad forever.
—Rachel Aaron

Last Words of Advice

  • Use your time wisely. Writing new book should be your number one priority.
  • If you want to do marketing, limit the time you spend on it. Write it into your schedule. You should never spend more time on marketing than you do on writing the next book.
  • If you are going to spend time on marketing, do your writing first. Marketing has a way of eating up your time, and for marketing to have any value, you need to create products to sell. If you’re not done writing your first book, forget about marketing.
  • Marketing is the endgame in writing. It’s something you do after you’ve written your books, not before.
  • When it comes to marketing and promotion, do what feels comfortable to you— don’t compare yourself to other authors.
  • Every successful author has his or her own unique success story. Focus on writing yours rather than worrying that you don’t have somebody else’s.

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – Rachel learned a lot about the art of storytelling and character development from this book

Rachel Aaron’s Amazon author page– Rachel Aaron’s author website — a blog for romance readers. – Rachel Aaron’s business blog — connect with Rachel on Twitter

The Let’s Talk numbers section of Rachel’s blog — where she goes behind the scenes to talk about the sales numbers in her self-publishing business.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — This book has a 4.5 star average and more than 20 one-star reviews, proving you can’t please everyone

For more on improving your writing skills, read on: