One of the best things about being an indie author is the ability to change things over time.
It's important because no one starts out with all the answers, and we all figure who we are and what our books mean along the author journey. I retitled and re-covered my first three books, and I've changed the covers on Desecration and Risen Gods along the way too.
I wrote my first two novels under Joanna Penn, before pivoting to use a different author name, J.F.Penn, for my fiction. And that's OK – because we all change and our books can change with us. In today's article, thriller author AD Starrling shares her rebranding story.
I loved my first book covers and titles. Absolutely adored them. So did my friends and early fans.
In 2016, three and a half years after hitting the publish button, I had four novels, six short stories, four audiobooks, and four booktracks out in Seventeen, the main series I was writing. Though I knew my writing was solid and my stories compelling from my editors’ feedback and my fans’ reviews, sales were slow and I was still investing more than I was making.
I started embracing the business side of being an author-publisher in 2014. By then, I knew I had mastered the basic mechanics of publishing and I was ready to start scaling. In addition to hiring an assistant, I consumed several business books and attended my first business course in early winter of that year. That course was with Joanna.
From then on, I started investing in more books and online courses to acquire the knowledge and skills to grow my career.
This is what I’ve learned from the last two years about what it takes to be financially successful in this field:
- Write more. When I started publishing in 2012, the popular advice going around was that it could take 3-4 books for an author to tip into profit. That goal post has moved way past those figures. Unless you’re writing romance, you’re probably going to need to double those numbers to see a significant uptick in sales. So having a steady production schedule is key, as is learning to optimize and maximize your output, and refining your craft.
- Know your target audience and package your products in a way that will appeal to them.
- Figure out how you’re going to reach your target audience and get them to click the buy button. I put my first in series permafree in 2014, a few months after releasing the third book. I also started doing paid advertising and learned how to optimize my metadata.
- Grow your mailing list and reward your fans. You do not have a direct relationship with the customer base of any of the platforms you sell on. You do with your mailing list. Not only can you reach and engage your readers directly, which is one of the things that brings me the greatest joy as a writer, it’s also an incredibly powerful tool for marketing.
- Write romance and romance subgenres. Romance remains the best selling commercial fiction genre and the one with the most avid and ravenous target audience. There are romance writers making a comfortable living from their third release onward. Considering I need alcohol to write the love scenes in my books, that’s not happening anytime soon.
- Get lucky. You don’t have any control over whether your book might be the next Fifty Shades, Wool, or The Martian.
I was getting better all the time at 1,3, and 4.
5 was way out of my league at that point and 6 would possibly involve selling my first born to the devil. So I decided to concentrate on 2 in 2016.
My series appeals to a wide audience. I realized this early on from my reviews and from surveying my mailing list in the last two years. When I started publishing, I decided to market my books as supernatural thrillers, hoping to attract fans of urban fantasy. At that time, I was still doing virtual tours and 90% of bloggers were pushing YA and urban fantasy books.
But although my storylines undoubtedly contain a paranormal element, it isn’t in your face hocus-pocus. They are blisteringly fast-paced, set all over the globe, and with more action, adventure, and science than the occult.
The reviews I was getting and the responses in my newsletter survey confirmed that I should really be trying to reach mainstream action, adventure, and thriller fans too.
Having watched several authors successfully rebrand and relaunch their series, I decided that I should try changing my covers, titles, and metadata to attract my new target audience but continue to appeal to my current one.
First, I needed to do my research.
These are the conclusions I reached by spring 2016 after analyzing my existing novels and short stories:
- Most of my current covers were too dark. At thumbnail size, they were difficult to see and read on an Amazon bestselling category page. They did not “pop”.
- Some of my current titles did not really fully suit either the supernatural or action/adventure/thriller genres. The titles of the novels were all based on my characters’ names and featured their birthmarks, which were cute and much loved by my fans but meant zilch in terms of capturing the imagination of new readers.
- You can barely make out my name on the covers. One thing you learn fast in this business is that your name is as much your brand as your covers, titles, website, and your presence on social media.
The middle of 2016 was all about rebranding my series and it took several months of putting the research I had done in the earlier half of the year into action, getting my designer to produce my new covers and titles, reformatting all my novels and short stories, and reuploading to all platforms, including changing the audiobook covers. I took the opportunity to perform a complete overhaul of my business with a new look and strategy, from my website and my mailing list, all the way to my social media platforms.
Here’s what I realized I had to do specifically for my covers and titles
- I needed covers that screamed action/adventure/thriller with a hint of the paranormal/urban fantasy.
- I needed titles that said the same as 1.
- The covers, titles, and my name needed to “pop” at thumbnail size. I wanted to scan a bestselling category page on Amazon and be able to identify my book in under 5 seconds.
- They needed to be “samey”. By this, I mean they needed to look similar to other books in those genres. It took me a while to realize this and it really rubbed my friends up the wrong way when I first showed them the new covers and titles. “Boring” and “plain” were used a couple of times when compared to the original covers. But “samey” can be good. And it took reading an article on the psychology of marketing that clinched it for me. People crave the familiar. Be it who they choose as friends, the cars they drive, the food they eat, the clothes they buy, or the consumer goods they crave. Once someone finds something they like, chances are they’ll buy similar products in future. The same goes for readers. If they see a particular style of cover, title, color, and font combination, their subconscious kicks it and shouts “Like!”. And they are more likely to stop scrolling, click on that cover, read the blurb, and buy the book.
These are the new covers and titles I went with
We kept the titles for the short stories, brightened a couple of them, and changed the font.
As for the novels, we kept the individual birthmarks somewhere on the covers to add a flavor of the supernatural, stayed with the central figures and their poses, changed the backgrounds, and brightened everything up. It took me all of five minutes to come up with the new titles for the novels. All I had to do was scroll through the bestselling action/adventure/thriller, and urban fantasy/ supernatural genre pages on Amazon, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo to see a pattern. Plus, the new titles added to the figures’ poses scream action.
I guess the question you’re asking yourself is, “Has this made a difference to sales?”
Here are some figures for you to ponder:
- I relaunched this series with its new branding in October 2016. Except when I had a new release or did a major promo push, I was earning 2-3 figures each month on all my platforms combined before that month. I am now earning high 3s and low 4s on just Amazon alone and my sales have also increased on the other big 3 retail platforms.
- I had sold 348 audiobooks from July 2015 to October 2016. My ACX dashboard currently says 1040 sales.
- I had 80-100 reviews on Hunted, my first in series, on Amazon US in October 2016 and about 300-400 reviews and ratings across all my products on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Goodreads. I am currently at just over 2000 ratings and reviews, including Audiobooks, on all platforms combined.
- I had some 1800 readers on my mailing list in October 2016. I currently have just over 7000.
Note, this didn’t just all happen because of the new covers and titles. I have also done more paid advertising and cross promotions with other authors to grow my fan base in the last four months. But having all my products packaged to be visually appealing to my target audiences sure as hell didn’t hurt.
I’ve had mixed feedback from my readers in my newsletter survey since the change. When I started doing them in 2015, I had a 60-75% “Yes” to my book covers being the reason they bought my books and 89-98% “Yes” for my copy being the reason they bought them.
I have modified my newsletter to add more options in the last two weeks and the answers are currently running at 55-63% “Yes” for cover and 81-92% “Yes” for copy being the reasons readers bought my books. Note I now have 3 figure respondents rather than 2 figures for the initial surveys. Interestingly, title comes in at a respectable 31% while reviews are currently ranking last at 13%. The latter result surprised me too.
The above solidified one of my convictions about branding.
Cover attracts, copy converts.
So don’t allow a dismal copy to let you down.
As I continued to add to my repertoire in the last few months, branding was at the top of my mind with my latest releases too.
For the Division Eight special ops novella series, we decided to change the font style to italic to give it an individual look that still said, ‘This is an action thriller by AD Starrling.’
My early fans and members of my advance review team (Team Immortal – we have fun with that one) still adore the original book covers and titles. Luckily, I have a great solution which I’ll be announcing to them in one of my future newsletters. I still have original physical copies of the first four novels at home. By default, they are now valuable, limited first editions. I will be offering them to my fans in future giveaways.
I have no doubt that I will change these covers again at some point. Constantly reviewing brand is just part of good business practice. Who knows, if my new readers also start clamoring for the old covers, I might change them back and keep the current titles, brightness, and font.
Have you ever considered rebranding your books? If you've already done it, what was your experience? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
AD Starrling’s multi-award-winning thriller series Seventeen combines action, adventure, science, and a dose of the supernatural to make each book an explosive, adrenaline-fueled read. When she’s not busy writing and reading, AD can be found looking up exciting international locations and cool science and technology to put in her books, eating Thai food, being tortured by her back therapists, drooling over gadgets, working part-time as a doctor on a Neonatal Intensive Care unit somewhere in the UK, reading manga, and watching action and sci-fi flicks.