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Barbara Freethy: Secrets for Building a Multi-Million Dollar Book Enterprise

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Barbara Freethy is the best selling Kindle Direct Publishing author of all-time. She's sold 4.2 million eBooks and has published several New York Times bestselling novels.

Here is her story:

Q: How were you able to get your first book publishing deal and were you initially rejected by other publishers before landing a deal?

A: Like most writers, I spent about two years writing my first novel. I was working another job at the time and I had a baby at home, so life was pretty busy. I eventually finished the book and sent it around to the publishing houses and one very kind editor took the time to tell me what was wrong with the book. I then rewrote it and wound up selling it to another editor. So while I sold the first book I wrote, I also rewrote it three times before the sale.

Q: Why did you decide to switch from using a pen name early on in your career to using your real name?

A: When I first started writing for Harlequin/Silhouette, they insisted on pen names for their authors, so I wrote under the name Kristina Logan. When I moved out of category romance and on to single title novels, I was able to use my real name, and I've done that ever since.

Q: In 2011 you began self-publishing your backlisted titles. Many of them became instant hits hitting Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The New York Times and USA Today's best seller’s lists. What do you attribute this success to?

A: When I first started self publishing in 2011, I had no idea the exciting adventure and exhausting journey I was about to begin. I had no expectations. The eBook industry was very, very new. But within six months I was selling thousands of my self published titles and now three short years later, I've had 18 of my books appear on the New York Times Bestseller List, including one in the #1 spot, and I have sold over 4.5 million units across all retailers. I also just found out that I am currently the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Bestselling Author of All Time! So that's pretty exciting!

To what do I attribute my success? Lots of things. When I started putting out my backlist, I worked really hard to create a Barbara Freethy brand. I made sure that all my covers really fit the tone of my books and were professional in appearance. I tried various covers in the beginning before I settled on a look that fit my particular blend of romance, mystery, and adventure. I knew I had the right look when sales took off. I was also able to release several books within one year, both backlist and new original work, which helped build my momentum. Once a reader found one book they liked, they had another one to buy. I also continue to build a mailing list that is filled with subscribers who are genuinely interested in my work, so that I'm not spamming anyone with emails they don't want to read. I also contacted the retailers, who have been very supportive in merchandising books by Indie authors. Success is never the result of one thing, at least not in my experience. It's putting together a lot of great content and then working hard to get that content discovered.

Q: Since self-publishing has removed the barrier to entry for book publishing, the market has become over-saturated with new authors and new titles. Do you fear being drowned out as new authors begin to rise in popularity?

A: There is more competition now. And the competition is better as Indie authors get savvy about covers and formatting and providing high quality content, but that's great for readers. As a reader, I'd have to ask if we can ever have too many books? I think most readers would say no. It is more difficult to get discovered, and authors pursuing any career in publishing, whether it's Indie or on the traditional side of publishing, will have the same challenges. I do think that a lot of writers who only had one book in them have probably already taken advantage of the ability to publish that book, and we'll start to see a fall-off of those types of writers while the career writers will continue to provide good content.

Q: As both a self-published and traditionally published author, what have been the pros and cons of each outlet?

A: Self-published authors have the ability to control content, covers, pricing, frequency of publication, sales and marketing. They also make on average between 65-70% on most book sales at a retail price between $2.99-$9.99. That number fluctuates depending on the price point and territories, but it's a huge number compared to what traditionally published authors get. While the money is high, the flip side to that reward is a lot of work. The author has to become a publisher as well as a writer.

Traditionally published authors have the benefit of a publisher providing art, editorial support and distribution. But the authors don't have any control over covers, pricing, sales, etc. They also on average receive 25% of net (which is basically 25% of the 70% the publisher gets from the retailer). Most authors also then have to pay their agent 15% out of that 25% so the number gets pretty small. But the big 5 publishers can get books into the print market. And they can provide some advertising opportunities that Indie authors can't get.

When it comes down to the marketing and promo – it's basically the same no matter which path a writer chooses. I do the same promo for my Indie books that I did for my traditionally published books.

Q: How has the direct line of communication social media provides between you and your readers allowed you to grow as a writer?

A: This has been a huge advantage for me. I have more freedom in my content now because it's just me and the reader! I know what my readers want in my books, and I can give it to them. I have the agility to add to a series or to veer off in another direction. Because I know what I'm going to write, I can plan further ahead without worrying about whether I will get a contract with a publisher and whether they will want that particular story. I feel much more connected to my readers now than I ever did before.

Q: How has your email list allowed you to stay connected with fans and promote new releases?

A: I put out an email newsletter when I have something important to say, a new book, a big contest, an opportunity for my readers. It's never more than once a month, but it's a way for me to stay in touch with my readers and let them know what's coming.

Q: If self-publishing didn't exist how would this have impacted your career?

A: I'd probably still be putting out one book a year and worrying about the dwindling shelf space in the print market. And I'd definitely have a lot less money, a lot less opportunity. For me, self publishing has been a total game changer!

Q: How have your life and your lifestyle changed since becoming a successful author?

A: I actually probably work harder now than I did before. But I love the challenge of running a multi-million dollar business on my own. I've put a small team together to help, which has made it easier. But I love writing. I have the best job in the world. And I'm thrilled that writers have so many more opportunities to make money and sell books that perhaps the publishing industry didn't want, but the readers did!

Q: After the success of self-publishing your backlisted titles, did you ever go back to a traditional publisher? Why or why not?

A: No, I have left traditional publishing and while I never say never, I've had a tremendously high level of success on my own, and I like being in charge of my career. I was published for many years by traditional publishers so I have a very good idea of exactly what a traditional publisher can do for an author. I'd have to see a very innovative and financially amazing deal in order to consider changing paths.

Q: What's the best advice you would offer to aspiring authors?

A: Set realistic expectations. Not very many people hit it big with one book. You need to think of having a long-term career. So once you finish the first book, take a day to celebrate and then get back to work on the next book. You can't build momentum without a couple of books. So commit to writing at least three books. It's much easier to sell books when you have a couple of them done. You can give the first book away for free or run special sales. But you don't want to do that until you have a couple of books up, because readers need to be able to move on to another book.

So patience and persistence are very important traits for a writer to develop. You have to finish books and then try not to panic over sales too early. If sales are not what you desire once you get further into your career, then there are lots of strategies you can use to help with that.

For authors choosing whether or not to self publish or to sell to a traditional publisher, I would advise lots of research. There are many groups devoted to self publishing online. Do a search and join some. Find out what writers before you have already learned. If you're offered a contract, know what you're signing away. Hire a lawyer if you don't have an agent, and if you do have an agent, make sure you read everything, too. It's very difficult to get rights back, so know what you're giving away.

If you want to self publish but you're overwhelmed, hire a couple of good freelancers to help with the things you don't want to do. This is a low cost to entry business. You can find lots of help for a fairly low cost. Explore all the retail sites. You never know where you'll find your readers. Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes and Noble Nook, Google Play and Kobo Books all have platforms through which Indie authors can publish. Sign up and check it out!

Most importantly, don't give up. If you want to write, you have to write, and you have to keep writing even when things are difficult. I've seen many ups and downs in my writing career, but the only writers who failed are the ones who quit.

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