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Go digital and go short as you work on your masterpiece

Digital publishing is where you should look first at what is feeding rising indie success. It’s not so much that print is dying. But it’s about how e-books are alive and on fire.

Last year, I self-published my debut novel, an international thriller called Terminal Rage. Like many indie authors in the business, I jumped in with my eyes closed, ignoring every daunting statistic hovering over my head. Like how the average indie writer will never sell more than twelve copies in their lifetime, not counting friends and family.

Fast-forward a year later, and I am indeed selling about twelve books. Every eight hours, that is. My monthly average of one thousand books across print and digital is hardly job-quitting success and a drop in the ocean compared to the real superstars of self-publishing. But consider that for many months after publishing, my sales languished in the double digits as I scratched my head trying to understand what I was doing wrong.

So what changed?

One of the many reasons my sales were stalling initially was precisely because I was operating with an antiquated print-only mentality. With print, your worldview is based exclusively on full-length novels. Which means the gap between your works is punctuated in months or years. My first novel took about three years from initial light bulb moment to published, mostly because I was still learning and wanted to get it just right. But still, I can’t imagine taking less than six months to a year to write something of a similar magnitude.

With e-books going neck-and-neck with print, the proliferation of relatively inexpensive digital readers, and our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, a new appetite for shorter pieces was born.

Quick-hit short stories, novellas, and even nonfiction singles can be written, polished, and published electronically within a short period of time. They are an effective way to keep your readers engaged and vested in you while you work hard on your next flagship full-length book. They seem to do rather well with commuters in major cities who don’t want to commit to a long story arc.

E-book shorts are a secret book-selling weapon in the arsenal of indie writers. It’s also known as the funnel effect. The problem with being a new and unknown writer with a limited body of work is that once a reader has bought and consumed your sole offering, they can’t vote for you again with their wallet. It becomes easier to forget you. But releasing frequent shorter pieces ensures you are satiating your existing clients, while constantly picking up new readers and funneling them from one piece to the other. Think about it: What’s the first thing you do after reading a book you like? You look for more by the same author, right? In time, the more pieces you have as a writer, the more readers you will pick up and keep within your writing ecosystem.

Releasing shorts alone, however, is not enough to garner a readership when you are unknown. The other secret ingredient for me has been the use of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select’s free promotional tools, in conjunction with Kobo’s perma-free option. By releasing my shorts for free to start and marketing them like crazy during the limited promotional period, they are downloaded in the thousands, which jump starts the funnel effect. At the end of each piece, I place a blurb and a link to all of my other work.

The only drawback I can think of to constantly piping short e-book singles is a creative one. I am a pretty monogamous writer and love being committed to a long-term project. Getting out of that mindset to pen shorter pieces is similar to having frequent one-night stands. They’re exciting while they last, but they distract you from your long-term vision.

To remedy that, I try to write shorter pieces that are either part of an ongoing series, or ones that fit neatly in an overarching thematic collection. For instance, three of my current novellas are part of a romantic suspense series I am developing exploring the lives of strong but emotionally or culturally oppressed women seeking salvation from exceptionally despicable men.

Are you an indie writer firing frequent e-book singles to stay in the game? I want to know if this strategy has been working for you. I do most of my e-book sales on Amazon and Kobo, how about you?

A.M. Khalifa is a novelist based in Rome.

A.M. Khalifa

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