Episode 13: Alessandra Torre on Indie Author Strategies that Publishers Can Use

Alessandra Torre, CEO of Authors A.I. and BingeBooks and a NY Times bestselling Psychological Thriller and Romance author, joins Joshua to talk about various strategies independent authors utilize when marketing and selling their books, and how publishers can take advantage of these strategies.

Alessandra’s suggestions cover a wide range of topics. Being flexible in pricing, testing new prices periodically, and setting affordable ebook prices can be a great way to see what price the market will bear for specific products. Cover reveals can be a great opportunity to get the word out about a new title, and sometimes the author can be a herald for that reveal event. Authors can also be helpful in getting upcoming books into the hands of blogger, influencers, and reviewers (for example, by using the widgets available in NetGalley). Also, an update to a backlist title’s cover image has the potential to give older titles new life and keep them relevant to readers for many years to come.

While some publishers have a dedicated team working on their backlist, no single publisher is able to completely manage every title.

Link to study I mentioned: Aged like a fine wine: What’s the ideal age for a backlist title?

Are you having trouble monitoring your backlist? Are you feeling defeated, knowing that you are missing things, not catching the issues that impact your sales and can make or break your success?

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Transcript

Joshua Tallent
Hello, and welcome to the book smarts podcast where we talk about publishing data and technologies and send you away with some insights that will help you sell more books. I’m your host, Joshua Tallent. So this week on the BookSmarts Podcast, I’m very excited to have Alessandra Torre who is the CEO of Authors A.I. and Binge Books, and also a New York Times best-selling psychological thriller and romance author, Alessandra, thanks for joining me.

Alessandra Torre
Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.

Joshua Tallent 
So, I’m excited to because we’re going to talk today about some of the competitive advantages that indie authors have and how publishers could take advantage of some of those same strategies. And we chatted just a little bit about this already. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts about some of these advantages. What do you think that indie authors bring to the table? And how do you think publishers really could take advantage of those strategies internally?

Alessandra Torre 
Absolutely. So I come from a fairly unique perspective, though it’s one that a lot of indie authors have, which is that I am hybrid: I am traditionally published and I’m independently published. My traditional publishers are Hachette, Harlequin, and Thomas and Mercer, which is an Amazon imprint. So, I’ve seen publishing from both sides, and I’ve seen kind of the limitations that I face as a—when I do have a book that’s traditionally published, versus having a self-published book. So that’s one of the reasons why—I want to also say that I’ve hit the New York Times list seven times, all with self-published books. Traditionally, my traditionally published books are my weakest sellers. That has not been the case of my latest releases with Thomas and Mercer, but that’s because it has the Amazon engine behind it. And we all know, the opportunities that are available there that oftentimes traditional publishers and indie publishers cannot use. So, I’m not going to be talking as much about my Thomas and Mercer experiences, but more my brick and mortar, traditional publishing, and how that experience has differed.

So, there are a few key things and anyone who’s watched the industry knows in certain industries like romance, Indies have really taken over. And that is, in large part, because some of the competitive advantages that we have. But they’re competitive advantages that traditional publishers could just as easily oftentimes use, I believe, if they change some of their thinking a little bit. So that’s what I’m hoping to share today.

And I’ll jump right in to my list. The first thing is pricing flexibility. So as an indie author, I can change my price at any point in time. This allows me to participate in group promos—if a bunch of authors say hey, for the start of baseball season, we’re going to put all of our baseball romances on sale for 99 cents, do you have any baseball romances that you want to include? If I have a traditionally published baseball romance, I normally ignore that opportunity, because I don’t believe that my publisher can move that fast or would be interested in participating in that promo. But as an indie author, I can say, Sure, you know, here, I want to throw in Moon Shot. And I can include that in the promo, we can all promote together, and I can definitely see a spike in my sales for that promo.

Another example is testing of different pricing, a lot of times I can raise or lower my prices by $1, or $2, or $3, and see if there’s an impact. If it’s a positive impact or a positive increase in my profitability, I will keep it there. Otherwise, I can drop it back down. Pricing is really something that is hid from me with my traditionally published books, and I normally don’t have any input or discussion on that. I also put books on sale before they release before my next book releases. So I can discount a title, really push it hard, get a lot of downloads, maybe my profit margin isn’t as high. But if all of the back matter of that book pushes to my new release, I can see a benefit in that.

Back matter is actually something later on my list, but I might as well mention it now. With my traditionally published books, whatever back matter there was when that book was published is the back matter, and it stays that way. And there’s a lot of lost opportunities there.

Joshua Tallent 
So, when you say back matter, are you talking about advertising that you put in the back of the book to point to newer titles that have come out or other titles that you think people might be interested in?

Alessandra Torre 
Great question, so I’m really referring to anything past the end. So normally, in my indie titles, I’ll have the last paragraph or the last word of that scene. I don’t normally have the words “The End,” but then normally if you scroll down or go to the next page it says, “Want to read another book by Alessandra Torre, or by AR Torre, check out book XYZ” and then you know, and the first few chapters are, are following you know, and sometimes I’ll include the first couple of chapters, sometimes I won’t, but at least I’ll have a link to that book and promoting it. And if you look back—if I never ever updated my backmatter then it normally says something like, “check out Alessandra’s next book coming March of 1999,” or something crazy like that, you know. And a lot of my traditionally published books—I have traditionally published books where it’s the first in a series, and there is no sales link for the second book in that series at the end of that because the second book wasn’t out yet or we didn’t even know we were going to write it yet. So um, so updating of backmatter is something indies are really good at. And there’s no reason why traditional published books are not the same way, where they can be updated when you have new releases, or if you have a certain book that you’re really wanting to push, because I can go through and update backmatter of all 26 of my backlist titles, and so every single time one of those books is finished, it’s all pointing towards my next release. And that could be a really powerful tool. There’s no more qualified buyer right than someone who just finished reaching all the way to the end of your book.

The other really common pricing strategy that indies use, but I don’t see traditional authors using is First in Free or the first book in a series at 99 cents. So, in the indie world First in Free is like “Hi, welcome to this world, let us talk to you about first in free.” So, the first book of the series, especially in romance, or anything with a cliffhanger ending is oftentimes free for an extended period of time, or continually discounted to 99 cent and pushed hard. And I don’t see traditional authors or traditional publishers using that strategy, but it is an extremely strong one.

Joshua Tallent 
So have you seen I’ve seen some numbers from other indie authors who talk about this kind of thing where you are throwing that first book out very, very inexpensively or free? It does drive the second and third and subsequent books and from what I’ve seen basically the numbers, as far as downloads, as far as actual sales, end up being essentially the same across the board, every time a new new title in the series comes out the other titles before it in the series pop up to the same number of readers. So that’s a really great idea to be able to push that first title out at a very low cost, very easy to grab and get people hooked on the series.

Alessandra Torre 
And even if you wanted to do it, like let’s say that you had your traditional pricing, you know, and it was it was a high price book, once a year, you know, do a 99-cent sale on it and really heavily push it. And then if you want to bump it back up to full price, you can but at least give it that chance, you know, give it that exposure to but—I gave away a free. If I really do a big free push, I can get 40,000 downloads. And if you can have 40,000 readers—granted, not all 40,000 readers are going to read it right away. But let’s say you have 10,000 readers who read, and you have a strong cliffie, for someone to tell me that that is not going to generate sales of book two— And oftentimes that doesn’t cost you hardly anything. You know, it’s an experiment. That’s the other thing that indies we’re constantly experimenting, and we can make a change. And because we can see our sales—and I know, traditional publishers can see their sales, but traditional published authors normally cannot see their sales, they only get, you know, a royalty statement every six months or so. But um, but we as indies can make a change and then immediately react. If it doesn’t work, change it back, you know. If it is working, you know, double down. But that adaptability is really strong. But there’s no reason why traditional publishers can’t have that same adaptability, at least in some areas of their business.

Joshua Tallent 
Well, you’re focusing a lot on backlist as well. So, you’re not just thinking about I’m publishing this new book. And this is the new thing. And this is all I’m focused on. You’re going back and thinking about that backlist in a way that sometimes publishers don’t have the time or the energy to do you know if they’re focused on the brand new titles coming out. We’re publishing X number of titles this year, they just don’t have the time to go back, and you know, put that much energy or effort into thousands of backlist titles that you know, otherwise they would ignore.

Alessandra Torre 
I’m so glad you brought that up. I didn’t even have that on my list, but you’re 100% true. So what I’ve found with my traditionally published books is that editor that acquired that book is kind of that book’s champion but that editor leaves right and they go somewhere else. And I can tell you right now I had a series with Hachette that has an agoraphobic character who hasn’t left her apartment three years. It would have been fantastic to push during COVID right—when we’re all these shut-ins. Like, she’s a shut-in, she’s never left her apartment, she has this great, vibrant life from inside her apartment. I don’t think anyone Hachette even knows this book still exists. So it’s not just—it’s a question of effort, but it’s also—we intimately know all of our titles. And so, we intimately know—and they can’t intimately know, like you said, 1000s of titles, but their authors do, right? Their authors, those books are still their babies. So, if anything, I would encourage them to just have more open communication with their authors to have maybe like a marketing or promotion form that authors can fill out if they sense an opportunity, because you’re right, like, there’s no way that they can know all of their babies like the way that we do. But their authors do. And their authors, certainly, especially the traditionally published authors that I meet are hungry for opportunities to communicate more with their publishers, or to have some sort of input or involvement in their book’s marketing, they just don’t know how, because it often feels like your hands are tied every time you try to do something.

Talking about pricing, affordable ebook pricing. Whether or not my belief in this is true, my belief is that publisher pricing models are designed to push and justify print sales. So, when I see ebooks—traditionally published ebooks that are priced at higher than print that is always my first thought that they’re trying to push the paperbacks so they can justify why they have these big, you know, printing setups and everything else. The problem is that they are competing in on an even field with indies, and indies don’t care about their print sales, so they price their ebooks—oftentimes too low, I will agree with any traditional publisher, who says that indie authors price their titles too low. The problem is indie authors are fantastic at packaging. And we are putting out slick and attractive products at a price that is half or a third or less of what a traditionally author—traditionally published book is. And that is really hard for readers to justify paying $14.99 for an ebook when they can pay $3.99 for an ebook that looks just as good. And there—the profit margin is almost 100%, right? So um, I think traditionally published—traditional publishers need to reexamine their pricing in a lot of markets, especially romance. Some markets, they can get away with it, they’re less crowded, they have household names and household names can justify that. But if you’re talking about a debut author coming out with a traditionally published book, unless you have massive marketing spend behind it, the readers are not going to go for that $14.99 or that $9.99 or $12.99 ebook, they’re just not going to do it. It might have print sales, but as soon as that initial release marketing cycle is over that book dies. And I see great books, fantastic, traditionally published books that just don’t get read because of those price points. And that’s tough.

Moving into just my just a quick thing on cover reveals and ARC distributions, cover reveals for indies are a really big promotional opportunity to push pre-orders and to get readers excited about excited about a book. That’s one of the most exciting moments when you have a cover when you first see a cover. And traditional books, oftentimes, the cover just pops up on the Amazon one day and that’s it. As a traditionally published author, oftentimes I get absolutely no heads-up when a cover is going to be put on retailers. And I really miss a key marketing opportunity there. So, I would encourage at minimum they at least communicate with their authors so that they can if they want to organize some sort of event around that cover reveal they can.

And the same with distributing ARCs. A lot of times—by ARCs, I’m referring to Advance Review Copies, also called galleys oftentimes in the traditional world, my publishers are often very tight fisted with those, but I do know who deserves to read my book or who has always left strong reviews and bloggers and things in the past. And so, I would encourage them to allow their authors a way to distribute advanced copies.

Joshua Tallent 
So, Alessandra, do you use NetGalley for your indie books that you’re publishing yourself? Are you taking advantage of that service for that?

Alessandra Torre 
I do use NetGalley. I actually really love NetGalley for that and I’ve almost moved all of my—even my blogger contacts, I have them go through NetGalley. But I’m pretty, I’m pretty generous with my distributions. I personally give out 300 or 400 advance copies through NetGalley or through my existing blogger list. And bloggers have really kind of lost I think a lot of their power and influence that they used to have. And with changes in affiliate income, they’re almost going the way, you know, of extinction. But I still foster mine best I can.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah. Have you taken on—I’ve heard a lot recently about BookTok as one of the one of the biggest influencers—Have you been taking a direction that way as well?

Yeah, I was very lucky. I had a book go viral on BookTok, I had nothing to do with it. Someone read my book, they made a post, and it went, and it went viral. And that book has been in the top 25 of Amazon for over a month as a result. And purely off that BookTok. And now the mad rush is like, how can we find people? And the thing is, a lot of times, it’s just like this girl, she had, like 500 followers. She was not a big BookToker. But that one video just went viral. And it’s hard to find like the magic equation. But yeah, absolutely. I think social media influencers are the new book bloggers and book bloggers that are social media influencers, absolutely, they still have power.

Alessandra Torre 
And then the last thing I just want to touch on is adaptability. And I talked about this a little bit earlier about how we can move quicker, and we can test. But also—and it really hits on your point about well, they can’t do this for you know—they can focus on their newest titles, but the backlist really, like you said, gets forgotten I think with publishing. And there’s so much money in my back list. My back list makes up 80% of my annual revenue. And I would think for publishers, it could be the same if they properly pay attention to it. But for us, when trends change as Indies, we can change covers—you know illustrated covers became all the rage for romcoms and that sort of thing. Indie authors went and they changed all of their backlist covers to illustrated covers, and relaunched them and rereleased them, you know—or relaunched or released them—and oftentimes accompanied them with a pricing promo. So that’s something I used to be shirtless guys were always on the covers, now we’re all changing our covers to fit the new norms where a lot of times when you look at a traditionally published book, it looks dated, if it’s three or four years old, it looks three or four years old. And that could be accomplished with a simple cover change. But oftentimes, whatever cover was there, when it was published, that’s the cover. And that’s always the cover.

But the same adaptability comes with blurb—changing your books description, I routinely will go through and update an old description, and I change it and I watch the sales for two weeks. And the sales either go up or down, they do something, they go up or down or stay the same. And if they go up, then I keep the blurb if they go down, I change back. And if they stay the same, I ask myself which one, you know, I think is more appealing. But those sort of testing and changes is something we can do and traditional publishers could do it too.

And then last but not least back matter updates, which we talked about earlier is keeping those fresh and new. And it would take a full-time person. I mean, it would take it you know, it’s a laborious task. There’s nothing more boring than updating an ebook, you know, redoing the formatting. But it’s a fantastic sales driver. I don’t use trackable links in the back of my ebooks now, but I have in the past. And links in the back of ebooks were always 20% to 30% of my sales back when I did use trackable links, so it’s well worth the effort in my opinion, but it’s a pain. It’s a pain in the butt, you know?

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah. Well, and it takes time. And I think a lot of what we’re talking about is watching that backlist, you know you mentioned 80% of your sales come from backlist and across the industry it’s about 67% according to NPD. And that’s a big deal. When you think about how many titles are being sold. There was an interesting study—I’ll link to it in the show notes—they did research up in Canada about backlist sales. And they saw between two and five years after publication is really when backlist sales are the highest for a title. And in traditional publishing that makes a lot of sense, because that’s still fresh enough that it can actually be thought of as kind of a newer book. But it’s built up enough of a following potentially—depending on the type of book it is. But it totally makes sense that a book that’s you know, especially in the romance category, if it’s 15 years old, as long as it’s not in the book itself, talking about something that’s really out of date, you know, it’s talking about my car phone or something like that, you know it as long as it doesn’t feel out of date when you read it. If the cover looks good, and it looks like it’s up to date, it doesn’t matter. So in backless titles, you can really make that work, right?

Alessandra Torre 
And I don’t think readers care. I mean, there are some readers that are like, Oh, I only want to read a book that’s a new book, which is crazy. But for the most part, readers just want a great book. And I’ll go—and they like finding the older hidden gems a lot of times, you know. But if I find an author I love I’ll go and read everything she’s written. Um, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t some older covers that will scare—I mean, they just they scare readers off.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, no, that makes sense. This is great! I appreciate it, Alessandra. This has been a great conversation. I think, you know, big picture: going back and looking at titles that are in the backlist, keeping up with what’s going on watching pricing, trying to take advantage of the opportunities that are available. These are things that all of us can learn from. But it’s great to hear the success that you’re seeing with that and hopefully, as more publishers think about backlinks and think about these things, they’ll start to see okay, yes, some of these, some of these indie author ideas are actually pretty good. Maybe we can move the industry even further by taking advantage and learning from each other. I think that’s a great thing.

Alessandra Torre 
And the last thing, just communicating with your, with your authors, because they know that book, and they know their books better than anyone. So, if you can give them a way to communicate or make requests or give suggestions, absolutely, by all means if you can do that.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s great. Well, thanks again for joining me. I appreciate you taking some time. This has been great.

Alessandra Torre 
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Joshua, have a great day.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, please leave a review or rating in Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever you listen to the podcast, and also please share the podcast with your colleagues. If you have topic suggestions or feedback about the show, you can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com, and be sure to fill out our listener survey at booksmartspodcast.com/survey. Thanks for joining me and for getting smarter about your books.

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