Before she was a New York Times–bestselling author, Victorine E. Lieske was a busy entrepreneur who injured her back lifting her daughter out of a car seat. Lieske was on bed rest for a week while her muscles healed. The rubber stamp business she and her husband ran out of their house in Seward, Nebr., had to be put on hold—and she decided it was as good a time as any to try to write a novel. “I put a laptop on my knees and typed,” she says. At the end of the week, she had the first draft of the romance novel Not What She Seems. It would take four years of workshopping before she decided to publish the book through Amazon, and, soon after, it hit the New York Times e-book bestseller list, where it remained for six weeks. The book went on to sell more than 150,000 copies. Her latest title, Reluctantly Married, hit the USA Today bestseller list and climbed to #15 in the Amazon store and #1 in the Nook store after its release this January.

In 2012, Lieske published a handbook to help other indie authors. “I found myself repeating the same advice over and over after hitting the New York Times bestseller list,” Lieske explains. She decided to put that into her 98-page handbook, How to Find Success Selling eBooks, available in digital and paperback through Amazon. The book is full of practical advice and includes sections on writing, expectations within genres, cover design, creating a title, and writing effective descriptive copy. “One of the things that readers have told me they like about the book is I include my own story,” she says. “They enjoy the frank way I talk about sales and my conclusions to how the book sold so well.” Lieske says a key ingredient to success is to simply write a story that people want to buy. “You’d be surprised at how many writers don’t understand why their part science fiction, part women’s fiction, part space opera, part paranormal romance, part dog mystery based loosely on their life story isn’t a bestseller,” she says.

Understandably, many writers are reluctant to share sales figures or strategies, but Lieske writes candidly about her achievements. “My little how-to book is pretty much all my advice I would give you if you asked me what I did to become successful and how you could do the same,” she says. For example, she’s up front about why she feels that marketing isn’t the secret to selling a lot of books. After she dropped the price of Not What She Seems to 99¢ to see what would happen, Lieske says she began to see an uptick in sales—to around 40 copies per day. One month later, her sales jumped to 150 copies per day, then 300 copies per day. She examined her marketing and publicity efforts but remained confused. Sales were steady and didn’t jump when she posted a blog or bought an ad. So what was influencing people to buy her book? Lieske says she got an email from a woman that helped solved the mystery. “She said, ‘Amazon recommended your book to me, and I really enjoyed it.’” At that point, Lieske realized that it was not her tireless marketing efforts that had resulted in more sales. “I was doing all this work, blogging, and posting on forums, and making book trailers, and all these things that weren’t reaching people,” she says. “But Amazon could reach hundreds of people each day.” She decided that the key to a book’s success must happen before the book is published—a combination of writing, story line, cover design, blurb, and price. If those key elements are in place, authors can set themselves up for success, Lieske says. So, while she still uses BookBub and buys ads in Ereader News Today, she doesn’t focus a lot of her attention on that aspect of the publishing process. “I do most of my marketing by doing market research and figuring out what needs to go into the book to make it appealing to my audience, rather than trying to sell it after it’s done,” she says.

Lieske says it can be tough to find readers even if an author does everything according to her formula. But she also advises authors to keep writing should they not achieve success with their first or second books. “I have one novel I wrote that I love, but it just does not sell,” she says. Even with a new cover, a new description, and good reviews, the book hasn’t found broad sales. “I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes books just don’t appeal to a wide audience, and that’s just it.” When that happens, she advises: “Move on and write another one.”