Marketing Advice from Wallstreet Journal Bestselling Indie Author Sarah Denzil

Sarah A. Denzil is a British suspense writer from Derbyshire. Her books include SILENT CHILD, which has topped the kindle charts in the UK and Australia, as well as being a top ten Amazon bestseller in the US. SAVING APRIL and THE BROKEN ONES are both top thirty bestsellers in the US and UK Amazon charts.

Sarah lives in Yorkshire with her husband, enjoying the scenic countryside and rather unpredictable weather. She loves to write moody, psychological books about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

1. Silent Child, your self-published thriller, claimed the most 5-star reviews of any thriller released in 2017 on Goodreads. Did you ever expect something like this to happen with your novel?

Absolutely not! I knew I’d written a very dark book, and I wasn’t sure how readers would respond to the subject matter. I actually thought I was going to get a lot of bad reviews!

2. You’re not new to the indie world. You’ve published YA novels since 2011. What was different about self-publishing and marketing a thriller?

The YA market is tough for indies right now. In 2011–12, a lot of adults were buying indie YA ebooks. But something switched, and those readers started moving on to other genres, like paranormal romance and urban fantasy. YA is still a huge market, but it tends to be made up of teenagers who prefer to buy traditionally published paperbacks, rather than indie ebooks. Then you have to factor in the sheer amount of YA authors out there. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of authors self-publishing YA, which means competition is stiff for a relatively small pool of ebook readers who want YA. I simply wasn’t earning a living anymore.

Releasing a thriller was completely different. The sales came in faster right from the beginning, and reviews came in faster too. Ebook readers love thrillers and they read them extremely quickly. Not only that, but the UK market is just as big as the US market for thrillers, whereas I used to find that it was largely US readers who bought my YA books. The top 100 in the UK is almost always dominated by psychological thrillers, grip lit and domestic noir. There’s a huge market for these books.

3. Your release price was 99¢. Many indies feel like 99¢ is too low for their books, while others insist it’s an excellent marketing tool to gain readership. Why did you choose 99¢ and how did it help you gain new readers?

The 99¢ price point has advantages and disadvantages. The main reason I release my thrillers at 99¢ is because readers in the UK love a bargain. I mean, everyone loves a bargain, but UK ebook readers tend not to bother with a new author if the price is above $1.99. In my experience, 99¢ is the best way to get sales in the UK. Also, because my book is in Kindle Unlimited, that meant I was earning more money back from my page reads (we’re paid per page read when a book is borrowed through Kindle Unlimited). Because Silent Child is fairly long, that means whenever someone finishes reading it after borrowing it, I actually earn back around $2. That made up for the small return from my 99¢ price point.

The disadvantage is that you’re training your readers to buy the book when it’s cheap, and you get a lot of readers “taking a chance” on a book rather than buying it because they really want to read it. That doesn’t always inspire reader loyalty. That’s one of the reasons why I raise the price after the book has been out for a few months.

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4. You’ve been approached by some agents, but you have decided to stick with indie publishing for now. What made you decide to stay in the indie world?

I think I just feel like it isn’t the right time. I have an agent who handles audio and foreign rights and we have a great working relationship, but I still get to control my ebook rights. There are financial advantages to staying indie, and I wanted to make the most of the success of Silent Child by staying indie for at least the next book. Mostly, the idea of signing with a publisher felt quite stressful to me. I like my privacy, I like writing books in my office and staying far away from any limelight. Going with a big five publisher, for instance, would mean coming out of my comfort zone. But I never say never. Maybe one day it will be the right time.

5. What were your three biggest marketing strategies that proved to have the highest ROI?

I’m not much of a numbers person. I don’t have a spreadsheet set up with ROI and CTR and everything else listed, so take this with a pinch of salt! I would say that, aside from the cover, blurb, and price, that Facebook ads were the most successful for me. I put together a simple gif using stock images and posted a video ad. Soon enough, people were tagging their friends in the comments to tell them about the book.

6. Your blurb for Silent Child was captivating. Did you write that on your own, or did you enlist the help of another writer/marketer?

I wrote it, but I workshopped it with some authors I know. It went through a couple of transformations before I settled on the current blurb.

Like most authors, I absolutely hate writing blurbs. But I knew how essential it was to convey the right tone for Silent Child. I’m so glad I persevered with this one and didn’t settle with the first attempt.

7. You’re closing in on 4,500 reviews on Amazon, which is rare for a self-published novel. How did you get so many reviews on Amazon? Was it people filtering over from Goodreads, from the 99¢ price, the publicity, etc.?

Honestly, it was the volume of sales. I did give out around twenty ARCs when the book was first published, which I don’t always do. I like to accumulate organic reviews rather than set up an ARC team. It’s a lot of time and energy to give out ARCs, and they almost always end up on a pirate site, and Amazon gets very twitchy about reviews for free books. So I tend to sit back and wait for them to come in, which is incredibly nerve-wracking!

8. How does Kindle Unlimited play a role in your marketing strategy?

Being in Kindle Unlimited really helps in terms of ranking, sales, and income. Now, I was someone who was very resistant to Kindle Unlimited, because I wanted my readers to be able to buy their books from other retailers. And, honestly, it’s healthy for Amazon to have a bit of competition, for the future of books, and for the ebook market. But then I saw how it was helping the authors around me. Before I switched to thrillers, I was really struggling with earning enough to remain a full-time author. I had to make the best financial choice for me. And it really was the best financial choice. The borrows in Kindle Unlimited help with rank, and the page reads add up for a long book. In short, a thriller author in Kindle Unlimited should probably expect to earn more money than a thriller author published wide.

But there are some disadvantages. I get the occasional message from a disappointed reader asking why they can’t read the book on their Kobo. There’s nothing I can do about that. Also, it’s impossible to make the USA Today or New York Times bestseller list when you’re exclusive to Amazon. I worked it out, and I would have been on the USA Today list for at least two weeks. Perhaps I would have made NYT, but their list is curated so who knows. Luckily, the Wall Street Journal did feature Silent Child, Amazon started their own official chart, and I was the only self-publisher in the very first week, and more recently it looks like the Washington Post is compiling its own bestseller list, which includes Amazon sales.


9. People love this book—many stayed up all night to finish it. How long did it take you to write it, and what was the inspiration?

It took me around four months to write and another two months to edit, format, and proofread it (with a professional editor).

I was trying to think of an arresting hook for the story, and I had this image of a boy wandering out of the woods. I was originally going to write the book about the boy living in the woods on his own, becoming feral, but I felt that there wasn’t a strong enough reason for a boy to be alone in the woods for several years in modern society. It has happened in the past, though.

And I wanted to write about a strong pregnant woman. Right from the beginning, I knew that the main character would have to physically fight in order to survive, whilst in labor. Bit of a random point of inspiration was a strange scene in The Leftovers where a pregnant woman in ancient times gives birth to her baby during a natural disaster. It made me think about all the depictions of pregnant women in films and on television programs, and how ditzy, hormonal, and emotional they are. They always waddle, complain, cry, and eat. That’s nothing like the pregnant women I’ve known, who quite literally get on with life as normal, as long as they don’t experience complications. I wanted to break the stereotype of the baby brain pregnant woman.

10. Does social media or an email newsletter play a part in your marketing?

I’m not the best at social media, I have to admit. But I do think it’s difficult to publish a book without an internet presence. Readers need to be able to find you.

Because there are so many new thriller authors out there every day, I have found that the number of people who sign up for a newsletter is quite low when compared to the number of sales. Readers are happy to move on to the next new thriller author after reading the book. My mailing list is completely organic at the moment, which means people who opt in through the link at the back of the book. A lot of authors offer a reader magnet in exchange for a newsletter signup, and I have been meaning to set this up, but I need to write something exclusive for it, like a short story or novella.

11. What advice do you have for indie authors publishing and marketing thrillers?

Look at traditionally published books as your competitors. Your cover and blurb needs to be on a par with books being released by big five publishers, and upcoming ebook publishers like Bookouture.

The story is still the most important factor.

Release at a low price. Target UK thriller fans in your ads. In fact, don’t forget about the UK market when you’re considering every aspect of your book. Look at the kind of books in the top 100 of the UK Amazon store and think about the kinds of themes in those books. These are the books that will appeal to the UK and the US, whereas some of the US thrillers don’t appeal to UK readers as much, which makes your potential market a bit smaller.

12. What are you working on now, and when we can expect the next book?

I’m just about to release a new psychological thriller about a nurse working in a high-security psychiatric facility. When I get the book back from the formatter, it’ll be published! I don’t tend to set up a release date—I just upload the book as soon as it’s ready.

I think this one might be even darker than Silent Child, if that’s possible!

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An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.