The Making of a Successful Ebook: An Interview with Geoff Jones, Author of The Dinosaur Four

dinosaur_fourYou may remember Geoff Jones, author of the thriller The Dinosaur Four, from my last post where I happily reviewed his book. Geoff is so awesome that I had to interview him twice. The first time was for the podcast I make with my husband, I Know Dino, where we of course discussed the amazing dinosaurs in his book, and the second time, Geoff very graciously let me pick his brain and ask him a ton of questions about his work as an indie author. Geoff has 501 customer reviews on Amazon with an average of 4-stars, and he successfully sells his book in ebook, paperback, and audio formats, so you can see how I may have gotten carried away.

Anyway, Geoff, being the great guy that he is, kindly answered all my questions and shared all the secrets to his success. Read on for my interview with him.

S.R.: How did you decide to become a writer and self-publish a book?

G.J.: I have always loved escaping into a great story and wanted to create those sorts of experiences. For sixteen years, I did this as a video game designer, but after the last studio I worked for closed down, I ended up working at a business software company. I started writing on the side so that I could continue telling stories.

I decided to self-publish after following authors like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath. If you’re willing to put in the effort, it’s now possible to publish a book just as professionally as a traditional publisher. And the good news is that the author has more control and a larger share of the profits.

S.R.: What inspired you to write about dinosaurs?

G.J.: I love monster stories, and dinosaurs are some of the best monsters out there. They are unbelievable and fantastic, but they are also completely real. There aren’t enough dinosaur stories.

S.R.: You have a background in game design and writing story and dialog for games. Has your previous experience helped, and how has it influenced your writing?

G.J.: Video game stories use many of the same elements as novels, such as pacing, character development, foreshadowing, world-building, conflict, and tension. With many games, players want the storytelling to be as brisk as possible, so I also learned to be “economical,” which is just another way of saying that I try to cut out the boring parts. Of course, writing a novel requires many other skills and talents, but game development gave me a great start.

Probably the biggest lesson I took from game development, however, is the importance of Quality Assurance, or “testers.” It is so critical to identify and fix problems before you release. I am a big believer in getting as much feedback as possible on my writing. I rely on critique groups, beta readers, and hire a professional editor to make sure that the final book is as solid as I can make it.

S.R.: What’s your writing process like? How do you fit it in with your day job and family?

G.J.: I get up early and spend at least an hour writing before work each day, and I also devote a lot of my weekends and time off to writing. I feel like I’m slow compared to other writers out there and wish I had time to write more.

I’m a plotter. I fantasize about the big character moments and action scenes that I want to see in the story, and then I lay out an outline that connects them together. As I go, the characters often come up with different ways to surprise me.

When I’m editing, I read everything out loud to make sure it flows well, again and again and again. I recommend this, and I also recommend that you lock the door. It is heart-stopping-ly embarrassing to be in the zone, performing your unfinished work out loud and have someone come up behind you.

S.R.: How much time did you spend writing versus marketing The Dinosaur Four?

G.J.: Writing The Dinosaur Four took me three years – one year to write it all out, and then two more years to re-write, edit, and polish. I have been in marketing mode ever since it launched.

S.R.: What services or platforms, if any, did you use to help package and promote The Dinosaur Four? (editing, cover design, formatting, marketing,
etc.)

G.J.: I hired a local editor and a video game artist I had worked with to design the cover. I did all of the formatting myself, through trial and error.

The first cover wasn’t quite right. I was shooting for something like the iconic cover of Jaws, with the monster attacking the swimmer. My artist delivered what I asked for, but it felt fairly “young adult” and my book is not for kids. Readers complained about the cover in reviews. In two months, I updated the cover with something darker and more successful.

This really illustrates the control of self-publishing. A friend of mine was traditionally published at around the same time and had similar problems. Her book was a down-to-earth, coming-of-age YA novel, but the cover made it seem like a sultry romance. Readers complained in her reviews as well. However, she was powerless to change it. (Fortunately, her publisher changed the cover with the paperback release, a year and a half later.)

S.R.: The Dinosaur Four has an impressive 501 reviews on Amazon, most of them 4- and 5-stars. What’s your secret? How did you find so many readers and get them to leave a review?

G.J.: I’m a “researcher,” and whenever I make a purchase or plan a trip, I rely on reviews to help make decisions, so I’m a huge believer in reviews.

In the “Acknowledgements” at the back of my book, I end with this:

Finally, I want to thank you, the reader, for coming along on this ride. I hope you had as much fun as I did. If so, please take a moment to post a review and tell a friend.

When I first launched the ebook, I ran a “Free Day” through Amazon and gave away 1100 copies, some of which hopefully led to reviews. I have also done giveaways through Goodreads, and sent review copies out to various blogs and dinosaur websites.

I clicked through Amazon reviews for two books similar to mine (Jurassic Park and The Mist) until I found reviewers who published their email. I wrote to them and offered review copies of The Dinosaur Four. This was tedious and time consuming, but I got some of my best reviews this way.

Ultimately, the best way to get reviews is to sell books. Every three months, I run a $0.99 Kindle Countdown deal, and promote the sale at various discount sites, including BookBub on a few occasions. This has resulted in a decent number of sales over time, and a (small) percentage of these translate into reviews.

S.R.: You published The Dinosaur Four two years ago. Have you found enough people have bought and reviewed the book to spur organic sales?

G.J.: Along with the $0.99 sale every three months, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to promote the book. I found some dinosaur fans last year by commenting on articles about Jurassic World, for example.

As another example, my city was showing Jurassic World at their free “Film in the Park” series, and I went over before it started and handed out 10 signed copies of the paperback. I asked each person to write a review and tell their friends if they liked it.

S.R.: There’s a lot of great advice out there to indie authors that they should build a platform and an email list, and once they have that, it’s pretty easy to market their books. But there’s not a lot of advice on how to get started on building that list. How did you initially find your target audience?

G.J.: Game development is a very turbulent industry. The four game studios I worked at have all since shut down, and people tend to move around a lot. This left me with a wide network of friends and former co-workers, many of whom were into sci-fi and horror. Several of them read the book and recommended it to others, so that certainly helped me out.

Some authors build a mailing list by being really active on social media, but I haven’t been able to find enough time for that.

Honestly, I think the best way to build a mailing list is to write lots of books. I’ll let you know when I get there.

S.R.: Your website, http://www.geoffjoneswriter.com, has a survey where people can tell you how they found out about The Dinosaur Four. Do you get a lot of responses? How do most people say they’ve found your book?

G.J.: I don’t get a ton of responses, but the top three are “Discovering the book on Amazon,” “Discounted book email from a site like BookBub,” and “Comments on articles or forums about dinosaurs or writing.”

S.R.: How have these responses shaped how you market the book?

G.J.: These responses reinforce the importance of running and marketing $0.99 sales at Amazon. They also remind me to try to stay active on the internet.

S.R.: The Dinosaur Four is available as an ebook, paperback, and audiobook. If you don’t mind sharing, what are sales like for each format? (Do more people tend to buy audio, print, or ebook?)

G.J.: The ebook was published in May of 2014, the paperback in October of 2014, and the audiobook in December of 2015. I’ve sold far more copies of the ebook than the others. I sell very few print copies, but I think it’s important to have a print version available. It makes the ebook appear to be a better deal by comparison. Day to day, when I don’t have a sale going on, the audiobook currently sells about as well as the ebook.

S.R.: Audiobooks are becoming more and more popular. Any tips for indie authors on how to create audiobook versions of their work?

G.J.: I wish I had produced the audiobook sooner. I think it’s the best way to “read” The Dinosaur Four. Nick Podehl’s performance really brings the story to life. I listen to audiobooks myself while commuting or doing chores because I don’t have time to just sit and read. I discovered Nick when I was listening to The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Nick’s performance blew me away, so I reached out to him.

Audible makes it pretty easy to produce an audiobook. I spent some time going through their FAQs and also reading about audiobook experiences at author forums.

Once an audiobook is released, Audible provides review copies, and they will usually give you more if you ask nicely. I’ve taken advantage of this and given out quite a few.

S.R.: When you promote The Dinosaur Four, which format do you promote the most heavily? (audio, print, ebook)

G.J.: I pay for ads and email blasts at discount ebook sites to promote the $0.99 sales every three months. I also like to mention that the Audiobook is “Whispersync” enabled. This means that someone can buy the audiobook for only $1.99 after they have bought the ebook (at full price or at a sale price). I have no idea if this has generated sales or not, though.

S.R.: The Dinosaur Four ebook is only available on Amazon. Why did you decide to only sell on Amazon? And which KDP Select marketing tools have worked the best for you?

G.J.: As I mentioned, running the $0.99 Countdown Deals has been huge for me. I always run them for the full seven days that Amazon allows.

Staying exclusive to Amazon also means the book is available in Kindle Unlimited, and this provides extra revenue and awareness. Every time a book is downloaded by a Kindle Unlimited user, it gets a ranking bump. Since Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world, any extra visibility there is helpful.

Publishing a book isn’t terribly hard, but there is some overhead to keep track of everything. Staying exclusive to Amazon helps keep things simpler for me. If I’m ever able to focus full-time on writing, that might be the time to go wide.

S.R.: The Dinosaur Four is available in some indie bookstores (Books to Be Red on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, Local Editions Books and Coffee in Longmont, Colorado, and The Book Cellar in Louisville, Colorado). How were you able to get your books into those stores?

G.J.: Local Editions only carries Colorado authors and The Book Cellar has a section for local authors. With both of those, I provide copies to the store. Books to Be Red is on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My parents live there and they donated a few copies to the owner. She sold them and started ordering it from her distributer. She says it’s a regular seller for her.

The paperback version is available through CreateSpace, which is a print-on-demand service through Amazon. This program allows bookstores to order books from their distributors just like they can with traditional publishers; however bookstores are not allowed to return unused inventory. Returns are a critical part of traditional bookselling, so very few bookstores are willing to stock CreateSpace titles.

S.R.: You’ve made some bookstore appearances and given talks about The Dinosaur Four as well as your publishing experiences. Did you enjoy doing it? And did you find it was helpful in promoting your book?

G.J.: I’ve enjoyed it, but I haven’t found it to be all that helpful in promoting the book.

S.R.: What marketing and promotional strategies have worked best for you overall?

G.J.: To sum up: it started by having a professionally-edited book that was good as I could make it. Next came the cover and the blurb, which I re-wrote several times until it felt right. I offer a paperback and audiobook alongside the ebook so that the book has a professional presence at Amazon, and I run regular sales to promote the ebook.

S.R.: Any other tips or advice for new indie authors?

G.J.: I’m a huge believer in self-publishing, but it requires a lot of work and research. Read the author forums at KBoards. Read articles at indie publishing sites like Digital Pubbing.

Focus on quality. Get feedback from beta readers and critique groups, and when the book is as solid as you can make it, hire a professional editor and be ready to spend many more months on it.

Finally, I think it’s important to manage expectations. Many authors will publish a half-dozen books or more before finding an audience. There is a lot of luck involved. You have to do it because you love it.

S.R.: What book (or books) are you working on next?

G.J.: I’m working on another book with a similar theme. Like The Dinosaur Four, it’s about a small group of everyday people trying to survive a disaster, and of course they discover that dealing with each other is just as dangerous as the disaster.

I’ve had readers email asking for more dinosaur books and I would love to include dinosaurs again, but the disaster this time around is the end of the world. I promise there will be some sort of monsters in there, one way or another…

Purchase your copy of The Dinosaur Four here.

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