GHOSTLAND: Anatomy of an Indie Marketing Campaign (or How Much Does it Cost to Publish?)
"How much does it cost to publish a book?"
It's a question that comes up time and again on social media.
I've seen many crowdfunding campaigns for novels over the years seeking (and often receiving) several thousand dollars to produce a single book. I've seen vanity publishers (like these hucksters) claiming it costs upwards of $10K to publish and "launch" a book. I've also read from some successful indie authors who claim to publish their books for absolutely nothing.
So… just how much does it really cost to publish a book?
The majority of publishing costs come in the form of editing, cover art and initial marketing, ie. "launch." If you fully embrace the do-it-yourself route, all of this can be done for as little as the cost of the software it takes to write the book and create the cover. In this case it would cost literally nothing but time if you already have all the software and resources you need.
But unless you're a skilled graphic designer and an extremely competent editor (and I'd say it's far more difficult to edit yourself than to edit others), I wouldn't suggest this route. Those successful authors mentioned above? They started before the market became oversaturated and now have a solid enough following who don't care about editing errors or cheap-looking covers. Would Hugh Howey's WOOL have sold as well as it had if he'd released it with its original cover today? Likely not.
(As an example of a cheap cover from a name author not selling, see Howey's "The Box," compared to my novella "Where the Monsters Live," which has almost as many reviews and has been out for a shorter period, from a virtually unknown author. Granted mine is permafree and Howey's is 99 cents. Still, I think the comp is fair considering people actually know Howey.)
The fact is, unless you're someone like Stephen King, most readers will judge your book by its cover. (Scammers like Stephen R. King can apparently also get away with junky covers because of similar-name recognition.) Most writers, especially new authors, will flounder with a cheap-looking cover. Beyond name recognition, it's the first thing that catches a reader's eye. The only way to get readers is to get noticed, and you'd be wise to stand out for the right reasons (unlike Mr. R. King).
Look, I'm not an expert. I can only go by what I see on Amazon, what I read from other authors, and my own experience. Books with great covers flounder just as often as books with shit covers. A great cover isn't a guarantee you'll do well, just like it's not a guarantee you'll get all the accolades you think you deserve even if you've written the next Great American Novel. But a stunning cover really can help if you've written the best book you're able to, with decent editing and the best synopsis you can craft for it.
There's a market for just about everything (see: Chuck Tingle and the somewhat recent Shifter Romance fad). So why limit your book's potential by crippling it before it's launched with bad editing and a cheap cover?
I started out in the indie-horror game several years after the initial self-publishing boom with a cover I made myself, using my younger brother's artwork (for more detail about that book, click here). I edited the collection entirely on my own and tossed it up on Amazon in December of 2013, not expecting much, just hoping that a few people might read it and enjoy it. (That it ended up being read and appreciated by horror legend Jack Ketchum several years later certainly never would have occurred to me then!)
I sold a few copies, probably no more than twenty over those first few months. I did a Kindle free promotion back when those still got major downloads without external boosts and shifted about a thousand copies. Daunted by the lack of actual sales - back then, nobody told me to expect the sound of crickets welcoming my new book - I had a new cover commissioned.
Sales didn't improve much but there were more than prior. (I'd attribute this more to connecting with other indie authors in the interim, than with a "better" cover.) They eventually picked up when my first novel came out in October of 2015 (both books had been published by Booktrope by then, which went bankrupt a little over a year later), for which I'd also commissioned a semi-professional cover. They were professionally edited by editors within the Booktrope "community." I later went back to my original draft of Gristle & Bone, as I felt the editor employed far too much past perfect tense for my liking. Booktrope gave it a bit of promotion by way of their website and later a Humble Bundle, in which both of my books were featured. Nothing major. They had dozens of titles, maybe as much as a hundred. Impossible to put any real effort into marketing any single book. Though they did get a Bookbub Feature Deal for both, which is more than many small or hybrid press might afford you.
When I released a handful of permafree books in late-2017, I finally started to see my readership increase. Almost 4 years after the release of my first book. Bookbub Featured Deals in late-2017 and early 2018 were behind a lot of that positive gain. I wrote more books. I won a Kindle Scout publishing contract. Commissioned some excellent covers from serious graphic designers and artists. Some books did well. Others landed with a dull thud.
Then I released Ghostland, which seemed to propel my books to the Next Level.
Ghostland: A Case Study
Ghostland is my most successful book to date, but it also had the most up-front costs. Are the two connected? Probably, but not definitely. I'll break down what I did to launch this book, from the initial grassroots marketing campaign to the launch-week Facebook ads. I'll also attempt to provide costs for each step in the process.
First of all, I pitched this book to agents for almost a year. In retrospect I don't think it was ready for pitching when I first started (the writing needed more honing). But the pitch itself was pretty decent, I think, and it has a good hook. What if ghosts were real and there was a theme park where you could see them safely in their "natural habitat": ie. haunted places? Basically, Jurassic Park meets The Shining. Felt like a no-brainer.
It got very little attention from agents, though several did ask to see the first ten pages. Two seemed to have interest, one of which wanted me to write it more YA, because Young Adult is so hot right now. Never mind that Stephen King's IT was the most popular horror movie/novel in the past several years, a movie and book which featured teenagers and adult content.
I'm only slightly bitter about it. *wink*
Anyhow, skip ahead six or so months. Once I decided I would be releasing it myself I started to dream up ad campaigns. The marketing for Ghostland happened in three major stages: website, viral campaign, cover reveal.
My first thought was to create a website for Ghostland itself, but it would have been too time-consuming and costly to make it look legitimate. Instead, I made a website that's meant to have been created by someone with a personal interest in the "Ghostland Disaster," who is combing over artifacts from the theme park after the event, and after the actual site had been scrubbed. She's collated all kinds of stuff from a scrap of a park map with bloody fingerprints to stories from actual survivors of the event.
The entire website took me a month to finish, including writing the site creator's blog. I did nothing else that month but work my day job and mess with the website. It's by no means perfect, and if I'd had more time and money I probably would have done much more. But I think it works pretty well for what it is, just adding some additional depth to the universe of the novel. Take a look at it here.
One thing readers seem to enjoy about the book is the ghost index ("excerpts" from the Ghost Hunter's Guide that's supposed to have been provided at the park), which gives a more in-depth description of some of the ghosts and exhibits at the park. This is delved into a bit deeper on the site, as well.
I also commissioned a park map, which I would use for the book interior and the site, as well as merch (I printed off a copy for the "bloody fingerprints" image), and collected a ton of free-use images off the web to use for the Know Your Ghosts index.
The Garrote Campaign
In completing the website, I had to also create a horror author who didn't exist. Rex Garrote is the main antagonist of the Ghostland Trilogy. I wanted to make him to feel as real as possible, and to do that I first added quotes from his nonexistent books to the individual parts of the novel(s). I then created a fake Wikipedia page for him (which some eager beaver redditors - read: alpha nerd assholes - have since pulled down).
I felt like to give the fake author more authenticity, I'd also need an actual physical book, or at least photos of one. So I banged off a cheap-looking cover, went to a local printer, and had it printed to fit a standard paperback. I snapped a few pics and posted them on the site.
This got me thinking: why not try to make a hoax? Hoaxes often go viral. I knew mine wasn't quite up to the viral hoax level - especially considering my social media reach, or lack thereof. But at least I could have some fun with it, and introduce the Rex Garrote to some horror fans in the process. You can read the original posts here, and read more about the creation of it here.
I first posted about Garrote on October 24th, about two weeks before the book release. The story didn't come close to reaching viral proportions, but it amused some people and even fooled a few. It got a fair amount of shares and reads, and generated a little bit of a buzz about a book that likely very few people would have talked about until the cover reveal.
The Cover Reveal
The cover reveal came next, on November 1st. Jim Mcleod at Ginger Nuts of Horror was gracious enough to host it, and it did quite well. I started preorders for a November 8th release that same day, hoping to take advantage of the signal boost from Dean Samed's stellar cover.
In a week I got over 200 preorders, which isn't exactly mind-blowing but was almost twenty times more than my previous book launch for VIDEO NASTIES, which also has a pretty great cover.
It's gotten a fair amount of praise and over 160 reviews on Amazon in little over a year. And considering a certain "midlist" author was actively attempting to sabotage my career during that time, I think it's done pretty well for an indie release.
Let's take a look at the breakdown of all the costs, from cover to ads:
Website cost (1st year - including domain name) $97.95
Bookbub ad $1.78
House Feeds cover, posters etc. $48.76
Teespring (t-shirt for contest) $29.56
Fiverr AR (augmented reality) cover animation $64.77
Fiverr Twitter boost $28.00
Facebook ads $52.53
Paperback proof $12.81
Signed paperbacks for early readers $101.11
FB ad (May 2020) $223.32
Ghostland font $40
Bookbub ad (a year after publication) $357
There you have it. All told, I spent a little over $1500 US, and some of that marketing has carried over into the second book in the series. I'm not going to tell you how much I've made for it. I think that would be gauche. I will say I'm extremely satisfied with the results of my marketing efforts and work on the books themselves. I released the first sequel (Afterlife) this past December and it has already surpassed the goals I'd reached with the first book by way of preorders, sales and page reads. I'm writing the third book in the trilogy now and plan to release it this summer, if all goes well.
In conclusion, does it cost $10k to launch a book? No, clearly not. Would it be nice to be able to spend ten-thousand dollars to market a new book? Of course! But that $10k won't guarantee a great return on investment. You can spend however much you're able to afford, and it still won't guarantee sales. That's just not how all this works anymore.
That's why I look at some of these crowdfunding campaigns - especially from these scammer vanity presses - and shake my head. At least indies using Kickstarter have the benefit of likely not knowing any better. The scammers should have a bit more of a grasp on the New World of Publishing by now. You'd think.