My Inkshares Experience
By Chris Picone, 09 July 2017
A brief foray into crowdfunding, marketing, and promotion.
I wrote this article in response to numerous expressions of interest from within my local writing community. Within the article, I briefly discuss my reasoning for launching and cancelling the Kanimbla campaign on Inkshares, and my achievements throughout the campaign, but the focus of this blog is my experiences with promotion and marketing, and the effectiveness and efficiency of various types of advertising used during the campaign. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, and I wish that I knew then what I know now. I feel like a record of my experiences could be a valuable tool for any other to-be-authors, in particular those considering self- or alternative publishing, or really any kind of crowdfunding or self-promotion.The article’s pretty lengthy but I’ve subtitled everything to make it easier to just glance at the bits you’re interested in.
The Campaign: Launching, Achievements, & Cancellation
Before I start, I wanted to state for the sake of full disclosure that I have not been successfully published via Inkshares, nor do I personally know anyone else who has, although I did meet several during my campaign. However, I also want to make it clear that the reason I cancelled my campaign was likely to fail anyway – conversely, it was actually doing quite well. I opted for a three month campaign, as recommended by Inkshares. Within the first month, the campaign had sold 112 copies, 45% of the Quill publishing goal. The book had also received backing from the Fantasy Syndicate, and was sitting happily in #4 in the semi-linked Launchpad Competition (out of 134 submissions).
I launched the campaign because Inkshares appeared to offer very similar advantages and opportunities to traditional publishers. The primary difference, and part of the appeal, was that success was to be achieved by demonstrating that your book has a market, rather than by submission to agents that seem to decide success and failure on a whim. The other attraction was that Inkshares allowed you to maintain your IP, which I thought might be valuable as I had already made a board game set in the same world as the book.
The reason I cancelled the campaign was because of limitations within the Inkshares program that I did not discover until after the campaign has begun. The single biggest limitation was Inkshares’ distribution power outside North America, which was woeful. To give you some idea of the impact of this limitation, Australian buyers were pre-ordering copies of my book at ~$60 each, 3-4 times the usual cost for a book. This figure is so high that even with the retailers’ discount, the cost would still be too high to allow a profit margin for book stores outside the USA. As an Australian author, I determined that I could not accept that limitation, and so I cancelled the campaign. There were other issues, but I won’t go into those here.
Now for the meat:
I did my research before-hand, and planned my campaign in phases, mapping out weekly goals, which I’ll summarise below. I also had a few experiments built into the campaign: Succeed or fail, I was determined to use the campaign as a learning activity so that I could see what worked and what didn’t, for potential future campaigns.
Phase One: “Core Supporters” – This revolved around base level promotion, such as the initial announcements on Facebook and Twitter, and generic campaign updates. The aim was to get as many friends & family that were already going to support me, to do so, before I started any invasive promotion. I dreaded the thought of trying to “sell” something to friends and family so I wanted to minimize this. I also wanted there to already be a decent number of sales before I tried to promote the campaign outside my immediate support circle – people are more likely to support something that they can see is already likely to be successful. This also included paid advertisements over social media.
Phase Two: “Conventions” – By chance, the Townsville Savannah Writers’ Festival and Heritage Day events fell during my campaign. My local writer’s group had a stall at both of these events and I had planned on using the opportunity to pick up some extra sales. I even convinced a good friend of mine who worked as a salesman to come in for the events to help me with promotion. What eventuated was a comedy of errors resulting in dismal failure, which I’ll describe below.
Phase Three: “Passive Advertising” – The campaign was for three months, during which I was going to be very busy working to promote pre-order sales. I wanted the campaign to be working for itself during this time, so I distributed flyers & business cards, hoping to pick up some passive sales while I worked. I had also planned on pushing the local writer’s community to help me promote the campaign during this phase but I had to wait for other members’ launch parties to occur first and it so this promotion never took place.
*This is where I cancelled my campaign*
Phase Four: “Direct Messaging” – All the blogs I’d read from those who had successfully crowdfunded on Inkshares stated that this was where almost all of their sales were achieved. My goal was to send promote pre-order sales through personalized messages to 100 Facebook friends and 200 Twitter followers each week. At the time I had 550 Facebook friends and 850 Twitter followers.
Phase Five: “Hail Maries” – I had planned on trying my luck through a few other avenues. Most notably, I had planned to directly message everyone that I had ever supported on Kickstarter and ask them to help spread the word. I had also joined Goodreads as an author and was going to try and host an “event” to help promote the campaign, and/or use their advertising system. I was also going to try my luck on local Facebook buy/swap/sell sites, etc. I was also going to try and push for Syndicate support during this phase, but as it turned out the campaign had already received Fantasy Syndicate backing and I suspect another Syndicate was going to vote for my book the following month had I continued my campaign so this step became unnecessary.
Phase Six: “Begging & Buying” – This phase was only to occur if for some reason the campaign had sold a significant number of pre-orders but not quite enough to hit the goal.
Marketing & Promotion
Between my two accounts, I had ~550 followers, all of whom I know personally – friends, family, work colleagues, that sort of thing. I had planned for Facebook to be the core of my campaign. Every blog and article I’d read by those who had successfully published this way all said the same thing – success or failure with this model would be decided almost entirely by the level of support given by friends and family. Throughout the campaign, I posted campaign promotions and updates. The word spread immediately; it’s hard to judge how far the message spreads with Facebook’s mysterious algorithms, and even harder because most of my friends don’t really use it – they check it, and see my posts, but they don’t discuss them on Facebook. They wait until they see me in person. In the meantime, orders started rolling in. 27 copies in the first 3 days, 60 by the end of the first week. However, after the initial rush, the orders started to slow down. I was planning on direct messaging everyone later anyway, but to try and spread the message past Facebook’s algorithms I opted for some paid advertising. I spent $100 over four separate paid promotions, trying different settings. I tried page promotions, boosted posts, I tried aiming for different target groups. According to Facebook, my paid advertisements reached a total of 4,650 people and receiving 150 post engagements, which seems realistic. The ads did seem to have an impact on prompting my existing friends and family to action, and the campaign hit 94 pre-orders by the end of the second week. I would suggest that ~80% of those pre-orders were from friends and family. However it had almost zero impact outside my existing support circle. The advertisements only received about a dozen ‘likes’ from strangers, and probably another dozen strangers started following my author page. I directly messaged each of these, but did not receive a single reply. So although the ads did appear to help share my post, it still equated to zero conversions outside of my friendship circle.
Friends & Family
As mentioned earlier, all successful author’s blogs stated that 90% of their sales came from directly messaging their friends and family on Facebook. I had planned to hinge much of my own campaign on the same thing. 550 friends and family contacted directly and personally should amount to a significant number of conversions, and more than enough to hit the publishing goal. However, I only ended up messaging ten people, more than half of which then bought the book. I stopped, because this was the point where I became uncertain that Inkshares was the right way for me to publish, and I didn’t want to harass my friends and family to purchase my book if I was only going to cancel anyway. I will note here, however, that my friends and family actually turned out to be really supportive. No one seemed to be irritated by my campaigning, and there doesn’t appear to have been any negative repercussions.
Throughout the campaign, I tweeted campaign promotions and updates. I had ~850 followers, mostly made up of people interested in reading, writing, and crowd funding. A few helped spread the word by retweeting, but this method did not create even a single conversion. I then tried a paid advertisement, spending $35 on the first ad. If you can believe Twitter, it was seen by tens of thousands of people, thousands of which clicked on or otherwise interacted with it. And still not even a single conversion. There are so many robots on Twitter. I then tried to instant message my followers on there. I did get through a couple of hundred of them but it was incredibly slow going as Twitter’s anti-spam features meant I could only send maybe 30 messages an hour. I did get some genuine interest through the direct messaging, and a few more retweets, but again not a single conversion. Can not recommend twitter. If you already have a large following for a particular product it might be a good way to promote additional products but it is not useful for promoting a new product or creating a following.
Posts & Promotions
To begin with, my posts were all self-promotional, either revolving around the campaign, or giving generic info about the book, or about Inkshares, or about recent sales and the distribution heat map. This worked for the first week or so, but quickly became repetitive and tiring, and I can only imagine potential buyers would be scrolling past them because they’d seen them before. I was later given some good advice by one of the other Inkshares authors, who recommended that my posts should be focused at gaining reader attention by having them engage with something in the book. For example: maps, and character biographies, or revealing author blogs. I later watched as he demonstrated this in his own campaign and am happy to say that it was far more engaging. It seems simple now, but I would not have thought of it if he hadn’t mentioned it.
Word of Mouth
I did stumble on a few people having physical conversations about my book and did see a couple of additional sales via physical words of mouth, but I didn’t see any conversions from word of mouth over social media. I suspect that other people, like me, don’t like filling their Facebook and Twitter feeds up with promotional material, and so I found most people were very reluctant to share any of my promotional posts. In line with my previous note on posting ideas, I would suggest a method to get people talking about the campaign on Facebook would be to give them something to talk about that wasn’t just promotion. For example, votes on who readers’ favourite characters were, or what sort of things they were hoping to experience in the book. Maybe give some excerpts of something that happened in the book and ask the readers if they had any similar experiences to share. Anything would organically generate conversation should work whereas “buy my friend’s book!” was unpopular.
As mentioned earlier, the conventions were a disaster. I was so excited to find that a writer’s convention happened to occur during my campaign, and took it as a good omen. My local writer’s group had a stall I could put some flyers and business cards on and I even found a friend who worked as a salesman to come in and work the events to help me promote the book. However, when I went into the convention on the Friday night, it was set up in such a way that personal promotion would have been impractical, so I cancelled the salesman. I would have to rely on the flyers and business cards at the stall. On Saturday I saw a photo of the stall, which featured neither my flyers nor my business cards. After some investigation, my business cards were found and placed on display. My flyers went missing mysteriously. To make matters worse the second event which was not a writer’s convention but was still a reasonably large event at which my writer’s club had a stall was Heritage Day. The event was cancelled due to unseasonal rain.
Interview & Reviews
This isn’t something I had thought about, but in retrospect it’s something that I really should have. Similar to my comments earlier regarding posts and promotion, an interview is something that’s coming from someone else, something that’s potentially hitting a whole new audience, and that people might be a bit happier to share around on social media. In this instance, I was lucky enough that one of the local writers’ group members approached me for an interview, which I gladly accepted and completed. Unfortunately, this was the last I heard about it – I don’t know if the interview ever got published. Similarly, I was fortunate enough that a few Inkshares readers reviewed my book positively after reading the preview. In hindsight, I should have found an interviewer and some reviewers prior to the campaign, and integrated their reviews and the interview as part of the larger promotional campaign plan. External book reviewers would also have been a solid strategy, but alas I did not think of this until it was too late. Like I said, I’m new to this stuff.
This is my greatest regret of the campaign. Similar to the interview and book reviews, this is something that I simply hadn’t thought about. I was exposed to some other book trailers early in the campaign and immediately sought a graphic designer to create one for my campaign, but I was never able to track one down. There were many around, but I was unhappy with the quality of most. Those whose quality I was happy with, were booked out months in advance. Unfortunately, I lack the skill set to create my own, and so I had to do without. However, I also wanted to mention here that I believe the book review is the exception to the general ineffectiveness of advertising on social media. I don’t think boosted promotional posts work because there’s too many of them, and boosted content posts would be useless to an audience that is unaware of the context. I think a book trailer might actually have a chance of succeeding as a paid advertisement on social media.
Flyers & Business Cards
I’m so artistically retarded that I can’t even draw stick figures that don’t look rubbish, so I had to fork out and have my promotional material professionally designed. This cost me $75 to have the flyer designed and a further $15 to have 100 glossy copies printed. I also had 500 business cards printed, replete with QR codes, etc. for $40. I also had to purchase a bunch of display holders for the business cards, which were $3-4 each. I managed to have these distributed in several different unit locations on the local army base, on a navy base, in two cafes, all over the local university campus, and a few other locations. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, this resulted in zero conversions.
Inkshares Community & Reciprocal Purchases
The way Inkshares promoted themselves, along with the competitions, forums, and so on, led me to believe that Inkshares would have its own active community similar to other platforms like Goodreads. Therefore, I wanted to utilize it as a promotional tool to sell more copies through the platform itself. To do that, I figured I needed to have my book “trending” so that it appeared first on the list of books. More looks should equal more sales. It might help attract the attention of the Syndicates. So I approached other campaigning authors and arranged for seventeen reciprocal sales in short order. I figured there was no real harm – those who succeeded meant I had more books to read, and those who didn’t succeed would see my money refunded. In the meantime, it did what I wanted. My campaign was at the top of the trending chart for a long time and it did result in Syndicate backing and a few extra sales, although not many – I later discovered that Inkshares didn’t really have an active reader community. The membership was really only made up of other campaigning authors. There were a few others around but not many. Further inquiry revealed that most of the others were members who planned on launching their own book in the near future, or who had already launched a book and were hanging around because they planned to launch another. The rest, as far as I could tell, were long-term hangers-on who had joined the Syndicates. The huge membership Inkshares boasted were really friends and families of Inkshares authors who had only joined to purchase the book belonging to their campaign and that was all they were there for. I will mention as an aside that the Inkshares author community was actually pretty great. They were all very selfless, friendly, and helpful. I have joined this community over another platform called Slack, and plan to continue engaging with them on a personal basis.
Summary: Time & Expenses
As you can see, I did spend a bit of money during this campaign: $150 on flyers, business cards, and display holders, $135 for advertising over social media, and $220 on reciprocal sales (although I will get some of that back as campaigns fail). In one way, this is very bad – if your campaign fails, you lose that money. And if you don’t know how Inkshares work, every sale you make leading up to your publishing goal goes toward the cost of designing, printing, and publishing the book. Which means that even if you succeed, you don’t start earning money to cover those expenses until after you’ve hit the publishing goal. So with a profit margin of $4-6.50 per book, I would need to sell an additional ~100 books – after the initial 250 – just to break even. The only reason I spent so much this time is because I wanted the campaign to double as an opportunity to experiment with promotion and marketing so that I know what does and does not work if I were to ever try to run another campaign. For example, a Kickstarter for my board game is definitely on the cards. In this case, I found that both Facebook and Twitter advertising were ultimately ineffective. I have lost that money, but now I know better for next time. I’m not upset about the reciprocal sales because the books that are likely to successfully fund are books that I’d like to read anyway – so really I just bought some books. The money on the flyers & business cards was a real loss, but you get that. The one thing I learned here is that I will probably shop around next time, and probably use a cheaper alternative like Fiverr. In this case I utilized the graphic designer who had already created all my logos and web imagery, but the reality is that he’s expensive. That doesn’t normally matter – I’m happy to pay for quality – but for a crowdfunding venture, it’s important to keep those sorts of costs down. Further, the flyers and business cards resulted in zero conversion, so I may give it a miss next time. The flyer design was also used for web promotions, but as I mentioned earlier, that method of promotion isn’t really effective on social media, so next time I can possibly cut this cost altogether. Another cost to consider would be the potential cost of bulking up sales with your own purchases if you are near but do not quite manage to hit the publishing goal by the end of the campaign.
Time-wise, I was actually really overwhelmed by the campaign. I went in having absolutely no idea what to expect. How hard could it be to put up a couple of posts each day and send off some direct messages? Very, it turned out. I spent absolutely hours each day doing it. It felt like every spare minute around work I was on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, many crowdfunders I spoke to said they had actually taken holidays and treated the campaign as a full-time job for the duration. They weren’t exaggerating – that’s the reality. Campaign updates and initial contact messages are just the beginning. There’s the sale conversation. There’s answering questions about your book, questions about how the crowdfunding system works, questions about why you chose crowdfunding over traditional publishing. There’s helping people with the technical aspect of actually getting on the website and making the purchase. There’s the after-sale thank you messages. And everything needs to be individual and personalized. But the real time-consuming aspect was the ongoing interaction that resulted. “Hi, buy my book, thanks, bye,” – it doesn’t work like that. Your friends and family will support you, and then want to talk to you about what’s going on in their own lives. They will want to know what else you’ve been up to lately, and invite you out for coffees or beers. You will be drawn into many conversations and you need to be prepared for it. When dealing with friends and family, pushing your campaign on them without engaging in non-sale interaction would obviously be quite rude. Furthermore, I can tell you now that you will be surprised who supports your campaign. Be prepared to suddenly catch up with a bunch of old friends that you haven’t spoken to in years. I found this with my campaign and when speaking to other Inkshares authors, they noted that it was a recognized phenomenon. Even for cold contacts and other non-affiliated prospects, some small measure of social interaction is expected. They’re more likely to share and otherwise your support your campaign if you treat them as a person and not just a sale.
Have everything ready to go before you start. I was unprepared for my campaign – not because I didn’t prepare, but because I had no idea what I was doing. Mid-campaign I was trying to get flyers and business cards designed and printed, trying to find someone to create a book trailer, trying to find external book reviewers that weren’t already booked out. I really can’t overstate just how time consuming the campaign is, so you need to be prepared for it.
I might have cancelled my campaign, and I might have lost some money to it, but I don’t regret that I did it. The campaign was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was an incredible learning experience. I won’t go over the things I learned again – I summed them up throughout the article. And there were some other rewards I hadn’t considered when I started the campaign: My author page’s following more than doubled during the campaign, I am now linked to a new network of authors, and I am now back in contact with some mates I haven’t spoken to in years.
And it isn’t the end of the road for my book. Although I cancelled the campaign, I proved that the campaign could have succeeded, even while being strangled with outrageous distribution costs. I’ll keep my eye open for other alternative publishing opportunities, but I would suggest that from here I am going to re-edit the book and then begin the arduous task of submitting to the traditional publishers. Wish me luck!