Carol Ervin didn’t set out to write historical fiction. She wanted to write an adventure story. Today, two and a half years after she published her first book on Amazon, she is a Top 100 Kindle Author under Historical Fiction. This week I chat with Carol about her recent sales success and how she accomplished it with very little promotion.
Although Carol Ervin was always a self-described “scribbler,” and had done technical writing for years, she didn’t start writing fiction in earnest until after retiring. She developed her craft through Critique Circle, finding encouragement, critical feedback, and a wonderful support group of writers and friends.
Once Ervin had a book ready to send out into the world, a fellow writer remarked, “Now, I hope you will not self-publish.” But she had already tried querying a few times to agents and publishers and realized early on what a “horribly long process” it was and “how impossible it is to go through the eye of that needle.” At the speed that traditional publishing moved, she realized, “I’m not going to live long enough to go through the traditional route.”
So she published her books herself and hasn’t looked back. “It’s been exciting,” she says. As Carol puts it, “The upside to indie publishing is you do it yourself; the downside to indie publishing is you do it yourself.” But she loves having control over her work and being able to get her work in front of an audience so easily.
Over a two-year period, she’s released four novels, one book bundle, and an audiobook:
- September 2012 – “The Girl on the Mountain” (Mountain Women Series Book 1)
- September 2013 – “Cold Comfort” (Mountain Women Series Book 2)
- May 2014 – Audio Version of “The Girl on the Mountain”
- August 2014 – “Dell Zero” (science fiction)
- September 2014 – “Midwinter Sun: A Love Story” (Mountain Women Series Book 3)
- October 2014 – “Mountain Women Series” Bundle
Things started off slowly. Carol’s initial sales were to friends and family, and friends of friends, as she puts. In the summer of 2013, she priced “The Girl on the Mountain” at $.99, and didn’t sell a single copy. She attributes this to a lack of visibility. People just couldn’t find it.
But after she released her second book in the fall of 2013, she began to experience a slow, but steady growth of positive reviews. In December of 2013, with two books now in her catalog, she ran a Countdown Deal on Amazon, and got a little bump in sales that resulted in higher residual sales. The following month, January 2014, she sold 159 books, a huge improvement over the summer of 2013. And just a year later, in January of 2015, her sales jumped to 3,600 books!
Marketing Strategy: The Power of the Reader
Ervin set up an author website/blog, a couple of social media accounts, and has run a few low-cost promotions, but mostly her momentum seems to have come from slow and steady word-of-mouth. Readers have responded positively to her work; her first book in the “Mountain Women” series has 112 reviews at this writing, an average of 4.4 stars out of 5.0.
She has a list of things she’d like to do — set up a subscriber list, a separate website for her science fiction novel, and maybe try to land a BookBub promo — but for the most part, she’s simply focused on writing good stories.
Carol says she never expected big sales. What’s kept her writing through the slow times was simply “the fact that somebody might read it and say, ‘That’s all right.’”
Writing “Historical Fiction”
Carol didn’t set out to write historical fiction, per se. She was more interested in writing a good adventure. Her setting just happened to be historical. She has a fondness and respect for West Virginian culture and developed a great interest in the history of industry of the area in the early 1900s — but mostly, she was interested in the everyday people who lived it.
It was Roy B. Clarkson’s book, “Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia 1770-1920,” that inspired the setting for her first book, “The Girl on the Mountain.” Her second book of the series is set in the moonshining industry at the time, and her third book features the coal-mining industry. The books are not based around any specific historical event. They are “character novels,” as Carol puts it; their emphasis is squarely on the characters and how they deal with everyday problems in the unique culture they live in.
Changing Horses in Midstream
After Carol released her second book in the “Mountain Women Series,” she made a left turn into science fiction with the release of “Dell Zero,” a dystopian novel set in a world of drug-induced immortality.
Although she hasn’t experienced much audience cross-over from her period pieces to her science fiction, Carol says the two genres aren’t much different; they both feature worlds removed from the present.
She has yet to actively market the book — she’s busy writing a mystery! — but judging from the enthusiasm of reader reviews, it shows signs of becoming a sleeper hit.
Carol was encouraged by fellow bloggers’ stories of getting their books out on audio and decided to give it a try. She posted her book “The Girl on the Mountain” on the ACX website, which she found to be wonderful and easy to use. ACX determined her project to be eligible for a stipend, which offers $100 per-finished-hour to entice narrators to sign on to produce promising titles. She very quickly found actress/voice narrator Becca Ballenger, and pretty soon, her audiobook was available for sale.
Although she is in no hurry to get the other two books in the series into audio format, she notes that it sells better than her science fiction title and her paperbacks, and that having more products adds up pretty quick to be a good income.
What’s the Next Big Thing?
Fans of Ervin have a new mystery novel to look forward to this summer, set in the same area as her “Mountain Women” series, but 100 years later. She jokes that maybe she’ll have to fill in the 100-year span in her saga with other titles, and she is also planning a sequel to “Dell Zero” down the road.
- Join a critique group. Being able to tell a great story is your biggest marketing asset. Carol developed her craft — and cherished friendships — through a critique group.
- Build up a network of colleagues you admire and trust. The exchange of information and encouragement is invaluable. Carol says the community has been tremendously helpful. It was through fellow writers that she discovered the benefits of running a Countdown Deal or how to make an audiobook through ACX. It was also fellow writer — and enthusiastic fan of her book “Dell Zero” — John L. Monk who brought Ervin to RSP’s attention for this interview.
- Put your biggest effort into the quality of the story you’re telling. Carol notes she’s a big editor and tends to write every sentence five times or more — a “flaw,” she calls it — but her results prove that a good story won’t stay unnoticed. Readers talk, and you want them talking about your book. Make it great!
What is the most important factor for you in deciding which writing project to pursue? For Carol, it’s the exploration of different cultures and how characters deal with everyday problems within those cultures. Do you prefer writing high-concept stories? Character-driven stories? Or do you consult the market? How has your approach worked out for you? Let me know in the comments below.
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