How to Market and Sell Episodic Fiction

episodeblogimageThis post is the fifth in a series. For the first post (making a case for episodic fiction and emphasizing the importance of having a clear EndGame), click here.

Now it’s time to find readers. The first four posts in this series all dealt with writing episodic fiction. But honestly, I don’t have the luxury of writing for fun. I’m a commercial writer, and I need to make money off my “product.” This is, as they say in France, where the skidmarks meet the underwear.

Show me the money!

Monetization has been one of the main reasons I’ve returned to episodic writing. I started out writing episodes of weird western pulp fiction over four years ago (my Lost DMB Files) by following my gut and writing what came natural to me. But I didn’t have the knowledge or tenacity to stick with what my gut knew was gold.

Instead, I looked around after creating seven episodes and three novels. I lifted my head out of my writer’s cave and saw nothing but my shadow. No one was reading my weird western, alternate history, dieselpunk, new pulp, episodic fiction that I had given the label of Reeferpunk. (Okay, my marketing prowess was negative 682 on a scale of 1 to 10.)

Now we know it can be done.

Four years ago, I couldn’t find anyone selling niche serial fiction to an avid fan base of a few thousand dedicated readers. Collective wisdom indicated that such a thing simply didn’t make sense. So I gave up. Now I know I had been on the right track. If I would have endured for another year, I would have heard about Sean Platt and David Wright’s Yesterday’s Gone serial.

Those two authors had the balls to make a go of what I had abandoned. Then Platt teamed up with Truant for more serial goodness. Over the past few years, I’ve tracked their rise to self-sustaining, work-a-day writers via mostly episodic fiction. In 2013, Platt and Truant published a book for writers called, “Write. Publish. Repeat.” I highly recommend it. I’ve used that book to fill gaps in my thinking and to find courage (like taking nips from the Good Book) when my knees began to knock.

Own Your Readers

The central truth that Platt, Truant and I came to realize separately is that a modern day ebook writer has to own his or her readers. Amazon has been a great platform for indie writers, but at the end of the day, I’m simply a dollar sign to them. When readers purchase my products through Amazon, Amazon owns them. I do not. Amazon has their email and info. I do not. The consumers are loyal to Amazon. Not to me. As a longterm strategy, that ain’t gonna fly.

To make matters worse for episodic fiction, Amazon pays authors 30% royalty on anything priced beneath $2.99. And while Amazon does have the ability to generate additional readers by increasing a book’s visibility, this only happens after the book has experienced a modicum of success. In other words, if I’m able to drum up my first few hundred fans and funnel them to Amazon, then Amazon will reward me with a few dozen new sales.

How nice.

At this point, the obvious question should be, “How do I generate my first few hundred fans?” Once a writer can accumulate fans on his/her own, Amazon becomes a helpful tactic rather than a longterm strategy. That’s the goal.

Building Your Own Platform

I’m a WordPress fan. If you’re not, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you. A self-hosted wordpress site can do almost anything. There’s a learning curve, but it’s a curve that most indie writers can learn. The themes and plugins evolve and improve continually. If you can’t find what you need, wait a few months and someone will build it.

This blog is built on the Genesis framework for WordPress. (It costs money.) But I’m currently building my next blockbuster project with the Total theme ($59) combined with plugins like Totally Booked and Easy Digital Downloads (all free).

To build a WordPress platform capable of landing readers, gathering emails, generating sales, and growing true fans these are the basic components necessary:

  • a web host, $60 – $90 a year (I use Dreamhost)
  • a domain name, $9 – $12 a year
  • a wordpress install, FREE
  • a premium theme, $40 – $60 once (only trust Elite Authors/programers)
  • wordpress plugins like: easy digital downloads, WordPress SEO by Yoast, JetPack, Totally Booked (All free)
  • email client such as MailChimp (along with a MailChimp WordPress plugin for integration)
  • a backlist of products to sell
  • Scrivener (word processor) by Literature and Latte (to format your ebooks)
  • Write. Publish. Repeat. by Platt and Truant (to kick your butt and fill in the gaps)

Marketing Tactic Toolbox for Episodic Fiction

Building the site isn’t enough to make readers come. But you can’t turn readers into true fans (that you own) without the site. Now that you’ve built it, let’s discuss some tactics for sending potential fans to your flashy website.

Drip Constant Content: The commercial strength of episodic fiction is its ability to be generated and published quickly. If you can generate 2,500 words a day, you can publish an episode every 10 to 14 days. No problem. Better yet, team up with one or more authors to generate a fresh episode weekly. Capture readers and don’t give them time to forget about you and your characters. Keep hitting them hard.

We’ve been conditioned to consume narrative on a weekly basis by television. Modern readers will only tolerate reading episodic, serial fiction if the episodes come reliably close together. We want anticipatory readers. We don’t want pissed off readers. Keep the content coming. Publish in large enough bites to tell a satisfying story. Publish in small enough bites to keep pace.

Low Hurdle Entry Points: Episodic content provides multiple sellable products quickly. Use the first episode to capture readers attention by making it FREE. Don’t give a potential fan any reason to not give you a try. Competition in the written narrative marketplace is steep and getting steeper. Make access to your stories easy.

Scatter Entry Content Broadly: You never know where fans might find you. Scatter your entry level FREE episode as broadly as you can (without waisting too much of your time). Check out platforms like Wattpad, NoiseTrade, GoodReads. Smashwords and Kobo allow you to set the price of products at $0.00. By using Smashwords, you can usually force Amazon/KDP to list your book for free.

Of course you should offer your entry level content for FREE on your website as well. Do what you can to send traffic toward your site and attempt to snag potential fans’ email addresses in exchange for free episodes.

Create Product Funnels: I owe my full understanding of this concept to Platt and Truant. I didn’t fully get product funnels until reading their Write. Publish. Repeat. Basically, your free content is the widest part of your product funnel. After that, the funnel narrows. Not everyone that reads the free content will like it, but you want to keep those readers who do like it. This means having a pitch or call to action at the end of the free content that tempts readers to buy the next episode.

To improve your call to action, include an upsell that offers the reader a package deal at a steep discount. This means you will need to have several episodes finished in order to complete your funnel.

Kickstart a Community: Utilizing a crowd funding platform up front is always a possibility. But a Kickstarter campaign should never be viewed as a means to gain new fans. You might pick up a dozen along the way. But the real value of a Kickstarter is to rally the troops you already have behind you. If you can organise a couple hundred readers who already love you and/or your stuff, those fans will help you reach others. And while your at it, they might give you a little money to pay for your WordPress build, cover art, editing, etc.

Getting to Your 1,000 True Fans

Put everything together, and you should be halfway to your first 1,000 true fans. Keep building and managing your email list as if it were your life (because it is). Create additional serials. Keep writing episode after episode after episode.

Maybe after you gather 500 quality email addresses on your email list, you can try selling a box set of episodes on Amazon. Push your fans over there in an effort to take advantage of Amazon’s discoverability. Climb the top 100 charts and pick up extra readers that you then funnel off of Amazon (via the call to action at the back of your box set) and onto your WordPress site where they become true fans of you, rather than loyal Amazon consumers. Now, Amazon is serving your interests instead of the other way around.

How nice.