The Anatomy of a Launch Plan Marketing Publishing

The launch plan for Let’s Get Digital 3 shifted around 3,500 copies in a week. How did that happen? Let’s take a look…

The Book

I released Digital 2 in September 2014 and it was maybe 60% new content, but the changes were largely superficial in the sense that it was an updating of the text rather than any kind of re-imagining. I decided early on that Digital 3 would be more revolution than evolution. As I detailed in this interview with Forbes earlier this week, a lot has changed in the last few years.

The whole text was rewritten from scratch – bar the odd sentence fragment here or there I couldn’t bear to part with – the only section that was spared a radical overhaul was the success stories at the back.

The structure changed noticeably too. The ten steps to self-publishing success are now at the very front of the book, and the deeper ruminations on the business landscape and so on are further back in the text. This wasn’t just a case of moving things around, it also signaled a shift in emphases from the why to the how. The chapters on finding editors and cover designers are much meatier now, delving into ancillary matters like writing to market and how to brief a cover designer effectively.

Lots of topics were severely truncated or just ditched – it’s simply less relevant today what’s going on with agents or in short story markets. Writers need less convincing to self-publish and more tools to do it effectively, and all of those deletions freed up a huge amount of space to devote a lot more time to marketing, things like Kindle Unlimited, or how to find your first readers.

And to communicate all that in two seconds to a casual browser, I had a plan…

Launch Plan: The Look

I had the same little production team since I started in 2011… until they were all simultaneously unavailable. I’ll admit to some fretting. But pushing yourself out of a comfort zone can be very rewarding too!

The timing wasn’t as bad as it first seemed. I needed a complete rebrand for Digital 3 for two important reasons. First, to transmit the new, fresh approach to readers. Second, because I did the audiobook of Digital 2 via ACX, that edition would have to remain on Amazon for another few years. Together with stray paperback editions that tend to float around, there was a real possibility of reader confusion. I would particularly hate for a reader to shell out for an expensive audiobook thinking it was the latest edition.

There was a more fundamental reason for a complete overhaul though – the logic behind the original design no longer applied. In 2011, we were on the cusp of a revolution. Self-publishing was very much the upstart. It was romantic. It had a whiff of cordite too. The design very much reflected that, embodying the idea of samizdat, like a well-worn pamphlet handed around between underground revolutionaries.

But the landscape is very different in 2018. Self-publishing hasn’t just arrived, it has taken over. I wanted the cover to reflect that status, that confidence, that brashness, if you like. And I had an idea of the palette I wanted to show a clean break with the past editions, most definitely inspired by this alternative poster for Drive by a designer called Signalnoise (pictured right).

(Side note: alternative posters for Drive seems to be a whole amazing sub-genre.)

I needed a new designer for this project and Alex from 187Designz did a wonderful job. He listened to the ideas I was floating and took them to the next level, transforming the half-baked concept into something really beautiful. I remember gasping when he sent the final.

The Cook

I wanted a different approach for the launch too. After the problems that bedeviled the release of Digital 2, I decided early on that this would be a fresh book on a new ASIN, and that decision naturally led to a few others: I would do a pre-order, and launch at 99¢. Was that leaving money on the table? No doubt, but it also allowed any of the old purchasers to “upgrade” their edition for the minimum possible cost, and perhaps those sales would translate into a rank which brought me enough new readers to compensate.

The first two editions had sold around 30,000 copies. I’d given away another 65,000 ebooks. There is no way to accurately estimate how many free PDFs I gave out back in 2011 in a kind of experimental “try before you buy” scheme, but it was a lot. I think it’s safe to say there were 100,000 people who had either the first or the second edition in one form or another. I wanted to incentivize as many of them as possible to pick up the new edition, and 99¢ is pretty frictionless. That part seems to have worked, at least.

But was a pre-order the optimal move? That’s a question we can’t quite answer yet, despite the stellar result. First, the logic.

Digital 2 had accumulated a large number of excellent reviews and I was loath to lose them. I asked Amazon to copy them across to the new edition, but also had a Plan B up my sleeve just in case.

I gave out 250 ARCs of Digital 3 via BookFunnel. And I had the paperback edition go live as soon as the pre-order went up, so that ARC people could potentially post reviews on the pre-order (the only way that is possible absent being a big dog with an Amazon rep who switches that on for you). In the end, none of that was strictly necessary as Amazon copied the reviews across, but it probably helped create some buzz, and it was reassuring to know I had a fallback option.

It’s impossible to know what exactly was driving the most sales as I had stuff going on every single day during the 10-day pre-order period: podcasts, guests posts, email sends, newsletter swaps, Facebook campaigns, webinars, BookBub CPM ads, culminating in some reader site ads once the book actually dropped. I even gave three workshops at a conference somewhere there in the middle.

Organizing all that was about as crazy-making as you imagine, worse actually. Because my editor came up with a last-minute plan to both boost my new mailing list and reinvigorate my old one. A book-shaped plan. Argh.

You might remember a competition I ran back in October for a spot on Mailing List Expert – one of Tammi Labrecque’s new courses. I liked the sound of the course so much that I bought a spot for myself and gave away another to one of my readers. Anyway, I took the course in December and it was even better than I had hoped. I’ll write a proper review at some point, but suffice to say that I’ve completely changed my whole approach to email (and my open/click rates have soared and my list has more than doubled in a month).

Well, when I missed my deadline in December, and my original editor couldn’t take the job, Tammi stepped into the breach as she is also an editor. I had been planning to unpublish Let’s Get Visible and perhaps use it as a reader magnet. I was worried about how out of date it was though.

Tammi pointed out that if I really wanted to re-energize my old list, and boost new sign-ups, I’d have to write a brand new reader magnet, and Amazon Decoded was born.

I don’t know how exactly – I still get caffeine jitters when I think about it – but somehow Amazon Decoded got written, edited, covered, and published in three days. Okay, okay, it’s only 60 pages. But still. And then I posted it to my blog and got 2,000 sign-ups. THANKS TAMMI, I guess.

(Huge thanks also to Michelle for the late-night editing rescue mission, and Alex for rushing the cover and still doing a fabulous job.)

Soooooo, why is it still an open question whether a pre-order was the smart move? The answer lies in the mysterious and tricksy Popularity List, which some bearded war criminal spoke about at length in this Facebook Live video.

I had a solid and consistent rank all through the pre-order and launch period. The launch plan called for a roughly even amount of juice each day, and if rank started to head north of 1,000, I just dropped a little BookBub CPM action to nudge it back towards 500. I did notice though that rank was falling faster than I’d like when I had nothing directly pushing the book, and when I checked the Popularity list, I could see it was way off where it should be.

Ed Robertson reminded me of what he had discovered in 2014: that new releases are suppressed on the Pop List for a brief period. This effect seemed a little stronger though, and after checking pre-orders from high-profile authors with huge fanbases like Bella Andre, I could see that they too were way off where they should be on the Pop List (important because it feeds into all sorts of reader recommendations).

Reassuringly, Ed told me that he expected them to snap back into position shortly after release, and so it proved. About a week after the release, Digital 3 jumped up to its “rightful” position.

Hopefully, that will now trigger some form of algo-love, as that sticky position of #1000 at 99¢ has turned into a more slippery #5000 at $4.99. Would it have been better to do no pre-order and sell 2,000 copies instead of 3,500, and keep the push going until the Pop List placement and associated recommendations kicked in? That’s an open question. Something to mull over, for sure, while watching how things go over the next week or so.

Pretty good result though, whichever way it shakes out. And I really am so grateful for all the sharing by you guys. We lit up Facebook and Twitter. #sorrynotsorry

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.