Coffee Talk with Lizzy Ford

I had the pleasure of “sitting down” for a chat with Lizzy Ford recently. Instead of the usual Q&A, I decided to simply start a dialog with Lizzy and let it go where it wanted to go. What developed was a genuinely wonderful conversation that I think offers plenty for indie authors to learn from.

JW: There are just two aspects of being an indie author that I dislike: promoting my books and the idea the term “self-published”. Why? Simply because promoting my own books makes me feel dirty for some reason. I would love to see a rise in authors promoting other people’s works on a daily basis (In fact, I might just start doing that anyway.) And the term “self-published” has such a stigma attached to it and helps derive the assumption that the work is less viable or valuable. I don’t know about you, but I work hard on my books (to near obsessive levels) and I don’t want anyone associating the term “self published” to my books. My editor and my beta readers might take exception to that as well, since it implies I do 100% of the work. Your take?

LF: Awesome topics! I really like the idea of promoting other indie writers. I try to strike a balance, because there are many incredible indies out there that I’d love to help, but I’ve also got to try to build my brand. There aren’t enough hours in the day! It’s a really hard line to walk; promoting ourselves as brands and promoting our books without resorting to the infomercial method. I try to focus on the type of self-promotion where I feel I’m giving back or adding value somehow, like contributing articles or content for a website; sharing lessons learned with other indies; promoting others; engaging readers or similar. I guess I don’t feel as bad about self-promotion if others are benefitting, too! And I love passing the baton and seeing my readers promote my work!

I agree about the self-published label still being viewed by the mainstream industry and many readers (as well as writers) as substandard. I wonder if this will change with time, as the industry model must adapt at some point. With all the indie books out there, and the readers picking their champions, the industry can’t continue to thumb their noses at us indie-pubbed; it would be bad business, if nothing else. I envision some sort of evolution into more of a partnership where writer and publisher are actually working together towards a common goal. Right now, every new writer is a financial risk to a publisher, and writers are more in the role of indentured servitude, expected to be grateful for seeing their name in print while earning pennies on the book. I wonder sometimes if the indie publishing movement is like the reality TV movement (competition for mainstream TV entertainment) OR more like the music industry’s digital download movement – the natural evolution of the industry due to technological advances. What do you think? Competition, evolution, other?

JW: That’s an interesting point. This could turn into the same situation the music industry faced in the 90s when the public turned its collective back at an industry that was treating its artists poorly. I wonder what happens if the public eventually falls on the side of the indie authors, how the traditional publishers would react. I have to admit I do have a conspiratorial streak in me and worry that the traditional publishers are just waiting in the wings to pounce on indie authors and try to discredit the reputation we are so hard at work building. But I like to think that, since the consumer has spoken about the price-point, and the traditional publishers cannot meet that price, what (if anything) they can do about it.

I believe the price-point we are currently dealing with ($0.99 cents for initial releases and $2.99 for successive releases) will eventually change as each indie gains more and more popularity. I would guess, as an author reaches new heights of popularity, they could do initial releases at $2.99 and successive releases at, say, $5.99. But there are indies out there making a lot of money selling at $0.99. John Locke is probably one of the single best selling indie authors out there. He happens to be a client of the computing consultancy I work for and I’ve seen his numbers – they are staggering – and he’s selling all of his kindle editions at $0.99. So the price point works, if you have the numbers. But for those of us just building, that $0.99 cent price-point doesn’t add up to anything remotely close to “bill paying”. But, I am fairly certainly we all know that time is on our side.

LF: Ha – my husband has a conspiratorial streak, too. He’s of a similar opinion: The House will try to bring us down! I think at the end of the day, $ speaks, and the industry will evolve with the indies becoming part of a more horizontal type of business model. We’ve got volume, technology and flexibility that allow us to create products and strategies as good as any publisher’s and far less overhead. You’re right: traditional publishers can’t meet that price point of ebooks between $.99-$2.99. We have a tremendous amount of flexibility: if we have to change our pricing or our marketing strategies, we can overnight. My current marketing strategy is, um, to give books away for free for the year. They’re free everywhere but Amazon, and I tell folks to read my books for free, then buy it if they like it. I have four novels and a short story out and am releasing a novella at the end of the month. I’ve seen my book sales go from 30-40 month to 468 in May and am on track to exceed 600 this month. They’re not John Locke numbers, but they’re growing! (Someday!)

The freedom and flexibility to create, change, and control marketing strategies has been one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects about being an indie. We see a direct impact from my online activities on my website traffic and the downloads of my books. It’s incredible how we can use technology not only to epublish but also to create cheap-to-free marketing techniques and measure their effectiveness. We really do have the ability to control our own fates. One of my readers asked me: if a publisher approached me to publish my book, would I do it? When I look at what I’ve done in six months, I can’t help but think the deal would have to be lucrative (and therefore impossible! Ha!) to pull me away from what I’m doing for the simple fact that I can do so much in the 12-18 month timeframe it would take to prepare my book for publication with a publisher. Maybe someday, but today: I love what I’m doing!

JW: Oh I agree completely. When I reach the point where my sales are drawing the attention of publishers and agents, I have to say it would require a fairly high financial gain to pull me away from what I’m doing. Why? Because I love it. I love the creation of the product from idea to publication. I love creating covers, titles, blurbs, hooks, and everything in between. I also realize it’s going to be a long while before I reach the point that I’m impressing publishers or agents with numbers. But I have absolute confidence in my work that I will.

It’s very interesting that you are giving away your books. I see the $0.99 cent price-point as practically given them away. But, as John Locke stated – that price-point (and the percentage we get from that) is like printing money. That, of course, requires the volume of sales he’s getting. Which leads me to this – the biggest hurdle for indie authors is attracting sales. In most cases it’s not a question of quality. I’ve read plenty of indie novels that I consider as good (and in some cases better) than best selling, traditionally published works. The biggest advantage those books have over indie books is simply being seen on the book shelves. How can we overcome that hurdle? What do we do to just get those beautiful covers we produce into the eyesight of the readers? Once we figure out that part of the equation, the rest is cake. Of course, website traffic is a great way to get those books out into the public’s eye – but even then, you have to drive the public to your web site. And Twitter only helps so much, because so many of us are following and/or being followed by fellow writers! I have a bit of an advantage because I am also a technical writer and I have a lot of followers who just want to learn about the technology I write about. But many don’t have that extra set of followers. We need to find a way to attract READERS to our twitter feeds and our web sites. We already do a LOT of preaching to the choir.

LF: Ay, there’s the rub. Attracting readers. That’s where the creative aspect comes into play! Ha! One of the things we do is watch where our sources of website traffic comes from, and I have to say, the referrals from Twitter are dismal, even when I release a new book AND it’s free. With my nonexistent attention span, I love Twitter and following the different discussions. I’ve found it effective in learning more from other writers, but I haven’t found it effective in bringing in readers. Facebook has been more effective: readers track me down via Facebook regularly. I’ve found Goodreads to be an awesome place to connect with readers: I’ve done paperback giveaways, participated in forums, and created my own group there. I’ve also found that advertising small incentives on Goodreads and elsewhere – such as offering sneak peeks of the cover of my next book and the actual publishing date – has doubled the size of my mailing list in the past 2-3 weeks.

I have to say: with all our technology, word-of-mouth is still a huge driving factor when it comes to readers. I’ve narrowed down my most recent grassroots strategy to this: people have to know I exist, and they have to want to know me. And by me, I mean the Lizzy Ford brand I’m building. Those brought in by my books are almost completely by chance, which is terrifying! I post my website and invite comments everywhere I am online and even in the back of my paperback books. I need that person-to-person connection to start the ball rolling, and to enlist the help of my readers in promoting my work. I’ve responded to close to 500 comments, emails, DMs, etc., from readers the past two months, and I’ve seen a spike in the amount of downloads and sales, the amount of interest in my books, the size of my mailing list, the amount of reviews/ratings, etc. I’m floating a book-on-demand idea to my readers, where I’ll take suggestions for genre, characters, setting, etc., put it to a vote, then write a book based on the winning combination. I think engaging the readers – so they’re not only interested but invested in the books and me – is going to be a good short term strategy for starting that word-of-mouth avalanche. When it stops working or I get just too overwhelmed (which I will soon!!), I’ll adjust again …

JW: Goodreads is an interesting site. I’m on there and have found it interesting to see that people just, out of nowhere, mark my books as to-read. But I think I’ve yet to find the winning formula for that site. I have my twitter feed attached, but I don’t do much else there. Why? I guess I’m so busy with everything else that I don’t have time for yet one more baby to burp. And really, that’s where I’m having the most trouble – time. I have, effectively, three full time jobs. I work a 9-5 job as a computer engineer, I write about nine tech articles a week, and I work on my novels. I barely have time to live at the moment. I’ve been hoping sales will take off enough so I can drop one of my jobs, but that’s WAY down the road. But because of the time-sucks I am involved in, my ability to really market my work has been infinitesimal. If only someone would start a business that would market indie authors at an indie author price-point. Wouldn’t that be great!

But I do believe you are dead on. The on-line presence is key to success in this industry. Without being “known” on line, your works will not be known. This means building a web site – and a good one. One of the things I find a bit disconcerting is the amount of indie authors assuming a Facebook or Blogger page is enough. In order to have a “brand” you need a domain – a site you can really build. That’s why I have Monkeypantz. I’ve owned that domain for over a decade and it’s been so many things. But it’s always been about me and my life. That is key for indie authors – get away from the idea that one can brand themselves using a generic site that has nothing to help make the author memorable. And word of mouth is simply the best marketing tool available. I fully believe a person is going to follow up on a recommendation for a book they heard from someone else (especially an acquaintance). Problem is, I find, the vast majority of people aren’t so willing to spout off like myself. If I like something I will shout out to the world! If I don’t like something – depending upon how much I don’t like something – I might shout out to the world again.

LF: I think the key to Goodreads is giveaways. I have close to 700 people signed up for my most recent paperback giveaway, and I’ve seen those marking my books as to-read skyrocket, along with reviews and ratings. I started a group to test the waters for 3 months – we’ll see how it goes, and if it helps draw any more readers!

Time management is one of my biggest struggles, too. I automate as much as I can with RSS feeds, but wow, I could spend forever on online marketing and empire building. I try to spend the weekends writing and away from all the online activity, then focus weeknights after work on online activity. Some days I’m more successful than others. But, the sacrifice is that I have no social life! It’s all about balance – I told myself this year would be focused on my books to create a foundation. Next year, I plan on publishing half what I am this year. In either case, I need to fit in about an hour a day for physical activity. I’m becoming a stranger to light!

You know, I agree about the brand being better tied to an actual website. Mine is GuerrillaWordfare, and my brand centers around indie publishing, both mine and supporting others. I feel like I have much more control over the site and its appearance. Of course, I feel like I have an advantage in that my husband is an IT Sherpa. If not for him, I would’ve gone the Blogger route, simply because I wouldn’t have had the expertise or funds to pay someone else to help me! I think for those starting out, the Blogger/Facebook route is a good starting point. I really don’t know what I’d do without my husband. We bring in about 200 unique visitors to my site a day. It would be about 5 if it were up to me! Ha!

JW: Thank you Lizzy! It’s been wonderful chatting with you. To find out more about Lizzy Ford, visit the following: