Ann Charles’s books don’t sell very well during the holidays. “My covers have bloody weapons on them, and shriveled-up hands, doll eyeballs, and weird things—I tank at Christmas,” says the self-published author of the two mystery-romance series Deadwood and Jackrabbit Junction, which showcase the macabre and dark humor that their gory illustrated covers suggest.
Fortunately, most other times of the year, Charles’s books have been selling like gangbusters. The Great Jackalope Stampede, the third Jackrabbit Junction mystery and Charles’s most recent novel, landed at the #5 spot on Amazon’s bestselling self-published list after its release in late January.
The book continues Charles’s impressive track record dating back to January 2011, when she published Nearly Departed in Deadwood, the first in that series. Audiences have so enthusiastically embraced the unusual way she blends her genres that Charles is now jump-starting a third series using a similar mix.
“There’s always a mystery, there’s humor, and a romance subplot,” says Charles.
But agents and publishers were much less excited about the way Charles combined these story lines when she began pitching them seven years ago. As she sent out early manuscripts, agents urged her to write more clearly in one genre—either mystery or romance—rather than an even mix of the two.
“They would say, ‘You’ve got about a 50/50 blend here, and you have to have like 70/30,’” says Charles. “But I said, ‘This is what keeps coming out.’”
For one of her early books—which eventually became the first title in the Jackrabbit Junction series—Charles got an agent, who said that although she loved the story, it would be a difficult project to sell. When the book failed to find a publisher, Charles remained undeterred, feeling confident that the audience was there if her work could find the right outlet. She then wrote the first Deadwood book—again the agent loved it, but felt it had the same genre problems as Charles’s previous book.
They had a little more luck with this one, finding an editor who immediately connected with the story and setting, worked with her on refining it, and sent it up the chain, only to have the marketing department pass on it at the final acquisition meeting.
“They thought I didn’t have enough audience potential with it,” says Charles. “But it taught me to learn marketing, and that I would have to do it myself.”
Charles stuck to her style and did find an audience—a large and active one that has grown with each book. Jackalope had the strongest opening of all the Jackrabbit Junction books. Charles attributes this in part to the timing of its release—just after the New Year, thus avoiding her fallow holiday sales period.
Properly timing publication has been an important consideration for Charles, who has experimented to see which period drives the strongest sales. The first Jackrabbit book, Dance of the Winnebagos, came out in fall 2011, and Jackrabbit Junction Jitters in summer of 2012. She followed a similar pattern for the Deadwood series, releasing the first in January, the second in February, the third in March, and the fourth in April, in different years to determine which month saw the biggest bump in sales. Charles found that the beginning of the year seemed to be the strongest time for her books.
Of course, blood and intrigue go over well during the Halloween season as well, and Charles says of October, “That’s my month.”
Price promotions have been a valuable tool for Charles. She will generally list the book at $3.99—“not the big $5.99 and not the cheap $2.99”—and for at least six months after release she will not drop the price, so that loyal readers who buy the latest installment immediately will not feel they should have waited for a better deal.
“After six months, I will start doing sales here and there,” says Charles.
BookBub is her preferred platform for promoting sales, where she lowers the usual $3.99 price down to 99 cents for a week. These promotions typically generate sales of around 3,000 copies the first day of the sale. But some books have seen bigger numbers, as was the case for Better Off Dead in Deadwood, which sold more than 4,000 copies and got up to #4 on Amazon’s e-book bestsellers.
“There are so many websites and blogs out there that have their eyes on book deals that if you drop price, all at once they pick it up and say, ‘Look: Ann’s got this book at 99 cents,’ and I’ll start getting traffic,” says Charles. “Then BookBub comes out with their amazing email list and it’s just boom.”
Charles has also used book giveaways as a major marketing tool. She estimates having given away more than 250,000 e-book copies during her self-publishing career.
“I would do 40,000 e-books in one day,” she says, most often giving away the first in the Deadwood or Jackrabbit series to interested readers as an incentive for them to buy the subsequent installments. But she admits that recently, as book giveaways have become more commonplace, she has moved away from them, saying, “Unfortunately, now ‘free’ is associated with ‘junk.’”
In marketing workshops now, Charles urges attendees to not just follow what she or another successful author has done but understand that the market is constantly changing. She says her success came in part because she tapped into an e-book market as it was on the rise and was not yet overcrowded.
“Times change, so you have to take a different path to do what works now or a year from now,” she says.
She follows this advice for herself, sitting down every December to review her successes and shortcomings from the previous year, assessing what might work better in the year to come. For example, last year she determined that it was time to start aiming for foreign markets and expanding into audiobooks.
“I’m always asking Facebook fans for their two cents—‘What would make you want to buy this?’—and they help me understand what readers are thinking and what they want,” says Charles.
Tapping into Fans
Charles cites her fans as the greatest source of her success, much more so than promotions or release dates. She does not just ask fans to buy the latest book, but makes them part of her sales and marketing team. Every day for the first week or two after the book’s release, Charles posts how the Amazon sales have been.
“I consider all my fans on Facebook my team, and we’re all doing this together, and it takes all of us to make the book successful,” says Charles. “It’s not just me—I just write the books.”
She urges followers to help in whatever ways they are comfortable. This may include posting a review on Goodreads, asking a local librarian to stock the books, or emailing friends to go out and buy it.
“I say, ‘You don’t even have to give the book five stars, but if you can just help me in whatever ways you are comfortable, I owe you everything,’” says Charles.
Her Facebook page becomes a platform for what she calls “teamwork and all this goodwill” as fans cheer on the books’ success, share on their own pages, and urge friends to order copies. Charles constantly thanks her fans for their help in an effort to keep the connection strong and make sure her gratitude is felt.
This understanding of marketing came to Charles early. When she determined that self-publishing was likely to bring more success than continuing to try to convince publishers her books could sell, she not only dove into writing, but studied up on marketing. On maternity leave with her first daughter, Charles spent her time at home taking marketing courses online.
“I looked and said, ‘Who is really successful as an author?’ and a lot of times it was people with a marketing background, who understood how to promote a book, how to talk to fans, and interact,’” she says. “I had a lot of role models, not for their writing or their storytelling but for their marketing.”
Charles has her strongest following on Facebook, where she has a personal and professional page, as well as a page titled “Purple Door Saloon,” which is meant to be a place for fans to interact with one another and share personal stories. But she also keeps an active website and email list that is constantly updated. She occasionally uses Twitter, but admits, “I really suck at it, because I like to talk too much.”
Developing a World
Part of the Deadwood series’ early success came from the fact that it’s set in a real city in South Dakota—a popular tourist attraction and the setting of the acclaimed HBO series of the same title. Charles, who spent a number of summers in the town while growing up (though she now lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest), thought it would make a great setting for the mystery series she wanted to write—and would have a built-in audience.
Just as she sees fans as central to her writing, her first priority in composing Nearly Departed in Deadwood was making sure the locals liked it. She reached out to a dentist, a family friend who worked at the bank, and others with advance reading copies. This was not only to see if they liked it but to make sure the geographical details and history were right, even within the fictional world. They loved the books, and the town itself proved a major booster of her work.
The region continues to support her, and Charles visits the city at least once a year to see friends, hang out with the locals, and hold signings at local businesses that support the books.
“They promote me like crazy,” says Charles. “There are a lot of gift shops that carry the books, and sometimes I will go in and see [that] there is a little handwritten note recommending it, like, ‘This is a semi-local author and her stories are great!’”