M. Louisa Locke was on a 20-year quest to publish her Victorian mystery series. She finally found the avenue to get her books out into the world when she discovered independent publishing. By combining strategic marketing techniques with good storytelling and word-of-mouth, Louisa has gained fans and increased her book sales exponentially each year. Here, she shares the story of her publishing success and provides tips for her fellow indie authors.
Tell us about your book.
I have published 3 novels and 2 short stories in my ongoing series of mysteries set in Victorian San Francisco. I came up with the idea for the plot for the first book, Maids of Misfortune, more than 30 years ago while researching my doctoral dissertation on working women in western urban areas at the end of the 19th century. As I read a diary by a San Francisco live-in domestic servant of that period, I came up with the idea of a locked-door mystery. Ten years later, between my first teaching jobs, I decided to write the story. My protagonist, Annie Fuller, is a young widow who runs a boarding house and supplements that income as a fortune-teller. In Maids of Misfortune, she goes undercover as a domestic servant to investigate a crime. In the second book, Uneasy Spirits, she investigates fraudulent trance mediums, and in the most recent book, Bloody Lessons, Annie discovers who is sending poison pen letters about school teachers.
Care to share your author bio?
I knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to write historical fiction, but I assumed I would need a day job. When I graduated from college in the early 1970s, I decided to get a doctorate in history and become a college professor. I taught U.S. and U.S. women's history at San Diego Mesa College for more than 20 years. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my career, I continued to work on the draft of the historical mystery I had written years earlier.
In December 2009, after having semi-retired from teaching, I published that book in print with CreateSpace and as an eBook with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Within a year, I was selling enough copies of Maids of Misfortune to retire completely from teaching and write and market full-time. I write frequently about my self-publishing journey and successful marketing strategies on my blog, and I am on the board of directors of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative. I live in San Diego with my husband while I work on the fourth book in my series.
How did you come to independent publishing?
When I wrote the first draft of Maids of Misfortune in 1989, I immediately got an agent. However, the consistent response by editors was that they weren't sure how strong the historical mystery market was. Of course, the market would prove very robust in the next decades. Then, in 2001 I entered into a three-year contract with a small press, but they didn't come through on their promises and never sold a single copy of my book.
I knew my book had potential, but I had become increasingly frustrated by my attempts to go the traditional route to publication. I belonged to a writers group, and over the 20 years the group had been together, I had watched as friends who had been successful mid-list authors in the 1990s found their backlists out-of-print and their new books rejected by their editors and agents. That's when I began to do research into indie publishing.
I attended a conference in 2009 where agents and publishers spoke about advances for new authors of genre books being less than $5000, that their policy was to delay releasing eBook editions for at least a year after the print editions were published, and that at the very minimum it would take 18 months for a book that was accepted to actually make it into print. This contrasted with the exciting new possibilities about independent publishing being discussed online. The entrenched attitudes I encountered were so stark that I returned home and made my decision to self-publish Maids of Misfortune. Life was too short and I was too old to wait for traditional publishing to catch up with the changes that I, for one, could see were coming to the industry. Best decision I ever made.
What brought you to CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)?
I was committed to doing everything myself (only spending money for a professionally designed cover), and the instructions for CreateSpace and KDP were straight-forward. When KDP offered the 70% royalty split, my royalties increased dramatically, and I was delighted to get a steady monthly income. The development of the KDP Select program has probably been the most important tool for indie authors, as it can raise a book's visibility.
I think the best thing about Amazon's publishing platforms is that they are steadily improving. With my most recent book, I was particularly impressed by the book previewer. I also love that when I make changes to a book's price, keywords, product description, and so forth that the change happens quickly and the book continues to be available for sale.
Tell us about your marketing efforts. How did you get the word out about your book?
I used Twitter, my Facebook author page, and my blog to announce the availability of my latest book, Bloody Lessons. I put the print copy of the book up as a giveaway on Goodreads. I sent out an email to all the fans who contacted me over the past three years and told them the book was now available and asked them to sign up for my newsletter. I also contacted professinal review bloggers who had reviewed my previous books and offered to send them copies. I ended up with solid, professional reviews and have gotten many more positive customer reviews on Amazon.com, which I know will continue to help sell the book.
On the day of the launch, I made the first book in the series, Maids of Misfortune, free for three days via KDP Select and discounted the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, to 99 cents for a week. By combining these promotions, I was able to point out that a reader could get all three eBooks in the series for under $5, knowing that this would attract readers who had not yet heard of the series. In the first two weeks of publication, I held a contest on my Facebook author page where I gave away $5 Amazon gift certificates to the first people who could answer trivia questions about the new book. I also participated in a virtual book tour that took me to seven book blogger sites. As a result of all these marketing strategies, Bloody Lessons has continuously shown up on the bestseller lists in multiple categories.
What are your goals with your book project?
When I first published Maids of Misfortune, my goal was to give a book that I had worked on for 20 years a chance to be read. Once this book achieved success, I became motivated by fans who wanted to know what was going to happen next to my protagonist. However, my underlying goal has always been to figure out a way to make the information I had learned about 19th-century working women available in an entertaining and accessible fashion. I firmly believe that without the opportunity to self-publish that CreateSpace and KDP have given me, none of that would be possible.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
I have been independently published for nearly four years, and every year I have been more successful than the last. For the past two years, my income has been greater than my income as a full professor at the peak of my teaching career.
What advice would you offer your fellow authors?
I think the key to being an indie author (besides making sure your book meets professional standards in editing, cover design, and product description) is to keep up with the changing marketing landscape and be willing to experiment. Authors should subscribe to the numerous blogs or forums that talk about marketing to hear about new promotional tools early. Also, authors need to be persistent, since sometimes they experiment with something once, and if the results don't live up to their expectations, they will never try again. Many authors also don't bother to experiment with categories, fill out their Author Central profiles, or invest in a promotion campaign. If no one hears about a book through word-of-mouth (and social media) or it doesn't show up near the top in any browsing category, it doesn't matter how good the book is - no one is going to buy it. Authors must be willing to self-promote if they want their books read.