Successful Fiction Writer Craig Martelle Shows You How!
Meet Craig Martelle. He is one of the most successful self published Science Fiction authors on Amazon, writing popular series such as the Free Trader Series, the End Times Alaska Books, and many more.
I met Craig in an author Facebook Group. This group has some of the most successful independent authors around, and Craig is one of them. He is not only a wealth of information, he’s also a great guy, especially for doing this interview and giving us extremely valuable information.
Success leaves clues and in this interview, you’ll find clues on how Craig became successful. In fact, he hands them to you on a silver platter.
Welcome, Craig Martelle.
Brandon Ellis: What types of books do you write?
Craig Martelle: Science Fiction — sub-genres of Post-Apocalyptic and Space Opera
BE: How long have you been writing and when did you start seeing some success?
CM: I’ve been writing full time since October 2015. My first real success came in the summer of 2016 with the publication of one series by a traditional publisher and my simultaneous publication of books 4, 5, and 6 in the Free Trader series.
BE: Do you feel your traditional publishing has made the biggest difference?
CM: The trad pub was a separate track — I call it a separate revenue pillar. It kind of helped, but in its own way. My greatest successes have all been indie. My biggest sales months have been with my indie books, even though my trad pub books did not do badly, but they were wide, with wide pricing and I think that held them back. They are all in KDP select now (the publisher acceded to my request).
BE: What reasons do you give to your Sci Fi writing success?
CM: Good covers, keep refining the blurbs, and write stories with characters that people care about. I kept writing even when I had no sales. Once I had enough books in a single series, I ran lots of promos. Now, on the older series, I run a gamut of AMS ads with a couple for the first book and ads for every other book in the series. I run Facebook ads for the first in the series.
BE: Did you start out with a bang or did you have to build up to it?
CM: I had to build up to it. After publishing my first 400k words in five books, I still had not made $1000 total. But then things started taking off. New covers, better blurbs, professional editing, and more books. Some readers wait to see that you have at least a trilogy before they dive in.
BE: Why did you choose the sub-genres of Post-Apocalyptic and Space Opera?
CM: That’s what I like to read and they are really big genres. Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond? I chose the latter because the potential readership was huge. I’ve seen people get Amazon Bestseller tags on books ranked 15,000 overall. I had one hit #168 overall and it didn’t get the tag. You know what? I like the money I got from more sales, regardless of the bestseller tag. And then what happens when you become the big fish in the big pond?
BE: Do you have an email list, if so, how many subscribers and how long did it take you to build that up?
CM: I started building my Newsletter list after launching my second book — the first in my Free Trader Series. It was really slow. I’ve used all kinds of techniques, but besides the organic sign ups from the back of the book, I’ve found FB advertising and Instafreebie are effective. I also used the services of Hayley Lawson to build some followers. It never hurts to branch out and try different things. Organic sign ups will be your consistently highest quality. I have to say that anytime you do a multi-author sign-up with a big gift card on the line, you will get your highest unsubscribe and abuse report rates. I stopped participating in those because I don’t want to get my newsletter service blocked and have to rebuild things. I back up the 2400 (at last count) names and emails because it’s taken a year to get there!
BE: What steps do you take when launching a new book?
CM: This is continually evolving. Most, I just hit publish, drop a note to my newsletter and on Facebook, maybe get shared in a couple other authors’ newsletters and then hit the Amazon ads. I will be doing more intentional pushes going forward. My last six launches have all landed in the 200–300 rank overall. I don’t think that will happen on my next one, so I have to promo a little harder on it.
There are a number of sites that do new launches — the most impactful is Amazon. You have to build your followers and I’ve done that through a bunch of eBook giveaways. The only thing I require is that they follow me on Amazon to enter. Amazon does not share this data with the author which makes it nearly impossible to determine an ROI, but the sales bump I get when Amazon’s note goes out suggests that I have a fair number. I wish I knew how many were following and maybe I’d run more giveaways.
BE: You mention an Amazon ebook giveaway. What is that exactly and how do I enter one of my books into it?
CM: When you publish on Amazon, you look at your book on the Amazon page (this isn’t your dashboard, but on the site like anyone else would see it). Scroll to the bottom. You’ll see a button for “Setup of Giveaway”. So I could do a giveaway of your book. You have a bunch of choices, but you pay whatever the price is on the book, for however many copies you want to giveaway. We always publish for 99 cents the first day, so I usually buy 10 t0 20 copies at 99 cents, then run a 1 in 40 giveaway where the requirement is that they follow me on Amazon. Easy as that. I’ve run hundreds of these.
BE: What about pre-orders? Have you found that they have helped your sales?
CM: I did a pre-order once and was unimpressed. I intend to try another one in order to better populate the also-boughts and such. It’s nice to know what kind of bump you’re going to get on day one, but there have been too many horror stories with Amazon not sending out the updated file. I’d rather upload my book one time, knowing exactly what the readers are going to get. I like simple. Pre-orders add a level of complexity (for Amazon) that could cause problems.
BE: Do you use promo websites and newsletters?
CM: Freebooksy is expensive for a free book promo, but I think they are one of the best. When reviewing which ones work, get on their lists and see how they promote the books. If they have more than two or three books in each of their promo blasts, your stuff could get lost unless you can get top billing. Also look for those promo sites that parse by genre. I used to use Free99Books, but they push all genres together. My Sci Fi book was number 10 behind nine romance books. I was below the fold. People probably deleted that email before scrolling to see that there was something besides romance and nonfiction.
ENT (eReader News Today), eBookhounds, ReadFree.ly, BargainBooksy, RobinReads, and Fussy Librarian (only if you can get the top highlight), and the ever elusive BookBub featured deal (I’m batting zero right now, but some day, they’ll cave).
BE: What steps do you take to advertise your older works?
CM: The key here is to advertise all of your books. I have ads running on my entire backlist and it isn’t expensive at all. I use AMS automatic targeting with a daily $1 spend and set my cpc to $0.25. Simple as that. I adjust the daily spend and cpc if an ad resonates. I mix them up occasionally, changing that 150 character blurb (I recommend using only 120 so the ad stays on two lines. Just a gut feel).
BE: Do you write to market?
CM: I tried writing something that I didn’t like to see if I could. I couldn’t, so I didn’t and I won’t. That being said, what I like happens to be the market, so I am aligned. If you don’t enjoy what you are writing, then it’s too much like work. You might as well go back to a day job.
BE: Other than writing a stellar book, what would you tell a new author on how to get their book in front of as many readers as possible?
CM: Build a backlist and promo the hell (free mainly) out of your book 1 in a series. If you write standalones, I don’t know what to tell you. All of my success has been with series and only after having multiple books available within that one series.
As for writing a stellar book, all authors need to listen to the fans, their editors, their beta readers, anyone who has an opinion. Try to improve with each new sentence, each new book. I love seeing the reviews that say my newest books are better than my older ones. I always appreciate the words “well written” and “well edited” in my reviews. I try to get better and look at writing as a great opportunity for continuous improvement. That’s why people who sweat no sales on their first book may be worrying for nothing. We can’t play a par round of golf the first time we get on the course. Don’t expect your first book to be a masterpiece, no matter how many times you’ve re-written it or edited it. Until you’ve put it out there to get feedback from the readers, you won’t be able to get better. Sometimes it simply comes down to marketing — you may be putting your book into the hands of people who don’t like that kind of stuff. We’ve all seen it — “I usually don’t read this genre… — two stars” It makes me ask, how did you get my book and how can I keep other people like you from picking it up? It all comes back to the author.
One thing I want to emphasize for any author is the importance of genre alignment — if someone tries to shoehorn their New Adult story into a YA newsletter, there will be disappointed people everywhere. You won’t gain the new readers you’re looking for and set yourself up for some bad reviews. With good genre alignment (knowing where your book fits best), you can better target the audience that will be most receptive to your book. A bullseye with your ads will earn you superfans and these readers cannot be valued highly enough!
BE: By series, do you mean three or more books? Or, does a prequel, a book 1 and a book 2 work as a series?
CM: I look at three books as a series, even if the prequel is only a short story and the other two are full length. This gives the author an opportunity to promote a book that gives the reader a chance to check out your work.
BE: What advice would you give a talented author if their books still haven’t made it off the ground? Yet, they write well and have a good/excellent story?
CM: If their books haven’t gotten off the ground, they have to look within. As indies, we are small businesses. We are responsible for it all. The hardest thing you’ll ever do is write a book, until you’ve written it, then you realize that it’s only half the battle. Are you marketing well? This doesn’t mean throwing money at ads — you have to take a third-party view of your work (Facebook groups like 20Booksto50k excel at giving you the kind of feedback you need, not to drag you down, but to help you succeed). Is your cover aligned to your genre? Is your blurb resonating? Does your first page draw the reader in? It’s not a Kindle Page Flip issue — your first page may not be drawing the reader in. We have to look at why a talented author isn’t succeeding. There is no one-size fits all, but none of us are as smart as all of us. You have to get other eyes on why.
BE: What’s the best advice you’ve received that keeps you going or that has helped with your success?
CM: If you can’t do a good job at a bad job, who’s going to give you a good job? I love writing, but am not a fan of marketing. To do job 1 (writing), I need to spend time at job 2 (marketing) and job 3 (accounting & paying taxes). I balance it so the best part of my day is spent writing.
Thank you, Craig. Also, thank you all for reading. Below I have a list of clues I found that might help you develop as a better writer and marketer:
- If you love writing and aren’t making a career at it, then keep writing. And, when you make a career out of it, then keep writing.
- If you’re not getting the results you want as a writer, listen to your readers, your editor(s), and your peers. Perhaps you need to improve your writing skills? Or, maybe you need to tweak your first page in order to capture the reader right away?
- Promote your backlist as much as you can. If you have a series, find a third party promotion site and promote book 1 there. Find as many relevant promotion sites as you can, research if that site can help you, and use them well.
- Use AMS ads for your books. If you don’t know how, find those who can help you or figure it out.
- Writing is a business and you need to treat it that way if you want to succeed. Many people can write incredible works of art and publish it to the world. That’s half the battle. The rest is marketing, prices, newsletter(s), cross promotions, accounting, etc… and, if you don’t have the chops for anything but writing, then — in my opinion — you may want to hire someone who does, so you can go forward with writing more books.
- Setup book giveaways on Amazon.
- Make good covers, incredible blurbs, and stories with characters that people care about.
- Go to the 20 Books Vegas Conference in Novemeber, 2017. Craig didn’t mention it in his interview, but I decided to. I bought my ticket, and along with Craig being one of the speakers, you’ll get a line-up of other professional, successful, and talented authors that will teach us a lot more than we know. The conference is designed to help a writer succeed, so take that gift. If anything, at least click on the link above and check it out, bookmark it, and figure out how you can get there.
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