If you’re an app developer who isn’t making a decent living from the app stores, there’s someone you need to meet.

His name is Mark Dawson. Amazon paid him $450,000 last year. He didn’t write a line of code.

That’s because he’s a book author.

Mark writes books about a British assassin named John Milton, a character described as James Bond with a conscience. (Here’s an article about him in Forbes.)

So what? You don’t have time to read. You’re banging out code for two dozen downloads a day.

Well, stop it. You can learn a lot from Mark. We all can.

I would argue being a self-published author is very similar to being an indie app developer. In fact, I can say it with confidence, because at various times in my career, I’ve been each.

Take it from me, there is very little difference between the two. Particularly when it comes to marketing and sales.

Yes, I know. Marketing is slimy. Sales is a job for people who can’t code.

But you want to make a living from your apps, right? Stop updating your resume? Take all product meetings off your schedule? Live on your own terms, with money in the bank?

Good. We’re on the same page. I’ll make it quick. Here are five things Mark Dawson does to earn that $450,000 from Amazon that you should be doing to earn more than you’re earning now from the app stores.


  1. He Designed a Series, Not a Single Book

Mark started the John Milton series in June 2013 and has since written six of them. His other series have similar cover styles and are written in the same genre. Once someone discovers one of his books, they have plenty more to read.

Building an audience who loves your product — whether it’s for a book, an app, a game, or a widget — is tough, time-consuming and expensive. Once you’ve got them hooked, give them something else to buy from you. As you choose your next project to work on, make sure it’s something that will appeal to your existing audience.

If all the apps in your network appeal to the same audience, you’ll be able to cross-promote across your apps. You’ll also be able to leverage social media channels in a more streamlined way.


2. He Started Small

Mark’s first Kindle book, The Black Mile, was ambitious — it took a tremendous amount of time to research and write. In contrast, his second book was leaner. Just under two years later, he has seventeen titles. This is due in part to his discipline — he writes during a four-hour daily commute to London, every day — but also largely due to the scope of the projects he takes on. If every book was as ambitious as The Black Mile, he’d have only two or three titles to his name instead of seventeen.

When you’re choosing your first project — or your next one — hammer down the scope. Make that app an MVP. Purchase source code if it can give you a leg up on features you need. Do what it takes to get your development investment down from a year (or more) to a few weeks.

Don’t make the rookie mistake of spending $100k and two years on your first project, only to learn the hard way that marketing is way harder and more time-consuming than you imagined.


3. He Gets Them Hooked

When you go to Mark’s Amazon page, you’ll see he has a lot of books. Where do you start? There’s a four-book starter bundle. But do you want to risk that much money on an author you don’t know? What if you hate the books?

No worries. Mark’s welcome message offers you the first four books in the series, free! All you have to do is sign up for his email list.

It’s a win-win. You get four free books and can try out a new author, risk-free. Mark gets a healthy list (15,000+ emails) that he can engage with. He can let them know about new releases, and since they’re fans, they give him great reviews on the store.

If you’re using the freemium model in your apps, you’re already doing a form of this. But what more can you do? What can you offer of value to your users in exchange for their email addresses? Figure it out, and start building your list now.


4. He Works Hard at Marketing

Mark spends on Facebook ads — as much as $370 a day. (And why not? Prospects are sent to an Amazon page full of glowing reviews for his books. He easily doubles his return.) He holds seminars and gives advice freely to other writers. He responds to all of his fan emails. And yes, he also has to approach bloggers to get reviews.

As a developer, you need to spend at least the same amount of time on your marketing efforts as you do on development. Mark has a flawless sales funnel. How’s yours? (If you’re asking me, “What’s a sales funnel?” then it’s time to learn the basics.) Start educating yourself on content marketing and list building. You’re going to need to build a community. How soon, you ask? Start about a year before your app launches. Yes, you’re late. Time to get moving.


5. He Approaches It Like a Business

I put this one last because it’s the most important one. Mark does not treat what he does as a hobby. He doesn’t research and write books, then complain that no one is reading them. He engages with his fans. Holds seminars. Gives advice to other writers.

“Dawson also credits his success to his unusual attitude towards publishing. He approaches it like a business, one in which writing is just a single cog in the media machine. He engages (responding to all fan messages) with all of his fans and focusses on building a rapport to ensure their loyalty. He holds seminars to give other writers advice and guidance. And through all of these activities, he collects names and email addresses that have amounted to a 15,000 person strong mailing list. It’s through this that he disseminates his new work. What Dawson has done is essentially build a small but loyal community that translates into near guaranteed sales.” -Forbes

In this day and age, that shouldn’t be an “unusual” attitude in publishing, or in app development. Every single indie going into this space should understand that he or she is starting a business. If you treat it like a hobby, you will never have that success you crave.

Don’t just start an app or game project because it sounds like a great idea to you. Do your research. Investigate the market you are entering. Identify your target customers. Understand how your app is going to make money, and how long it will take. Calculate your ROI.

Not sure how to do those things? See # 1–4. Start learning, trying, and practicing marketing. Don’t ignore it.

Just think about it. You’ve read this entire article. That already puts you ahead of all the hobbyists.

Congratulations! Now go get ‘em.


Hard work and a lot more hard work

I’ll leave you with the closing words from the Forbes article, since they apply just as much to you, fellow app developer, as they apply to all those writers. I’ll just change two words so it speaks to you:

“You need grit and determination to complete multiple pieces of work in a short space of time, alongside dedicating as much marketing and community-development time as you do to coding…These are not developers who suddenly found fame by complete fluke. There was an incredible amount of groundwork beforehand — mainly in developing a community — that got them to this stage. And anyone who wants to emulate even a modicum of this success, will need to do the same.”


Want to learn more about non-slimy, DIY app marketing? Join us online for the 2nd Appreneur Summit, December 4–11, 2017. Get your free pass here.