Ask any indie game dev what the secret to marketing an indie game is and you will hear pretty much the same thing: get featured on the Steam or the mobile App Stores, get covered by the press, get covered by a popular streamer. Launch without those and that game you worked so hard on for however many years is going to be a bust.
But, just imagine a market where those considerations aren't even an option. What if there was no such thing as a Steam Launch Visibility Round or getting featured on the App Store? What if there was no enthusiast press to cover your game? And what if instead of the 7667 games that released on Steam in 2017, there were more than 100,000 new books in the same year. And what if the total number of titles in the store exceeded 4,000,000.
Indie fiction authors have so much more to teach than what goes down at Bear Creek.
That truly apocalyptic scenario is a reality if you are a self-published fiction author. For example, Amazon.com doesn't have special curated pages showing "best new books," Unfortunately it just shows a list of the top selling books and those are filled with books that have been there for the last couple decades (Harry Potter, Steven King etc). And worse off, unless your book is a traditionally published literary darling, nobody writes about newly released books.
These basic limitations make some of our troubles as indie game devs seem petty. You might think it would be hopeless for making an indie career as a self-published author. But amazingly, a hearty bunch of indies figured out how to survive this harsh reality without the kinds of luxuries that we expect.
With all the recent talk of an Indiepocalypse, I went out to see how other indie creatives managed to survive. What I found in indie author world was a set of marketing strategies that were amazingly sophisticated. It seems the brutal environment bred innovation.
If your game failed find success because it was never featured or earned media coverage there is some hope for you yet. Let's explore an alternative reality to the indie world. Think of this like a botanist venturing into the harsh deserts to see what adaptations have evolved.
Look at this cute little desert Kangaroo Rat. They adapted to the lack of water by harvesting moisture from seeds. So clever.
The purpose of this article is to give ideas and alternative marketing strategies to indie devs who hope to release commercial games in a sustainable fashion. If you are a hobbyist or trying to break our very conception of what the medium is, this is not for you. This blog is not intended to stop anyone from pursuing their own creative path. Do whatever you want. Truly! But if you want some ideas on how to try to earn a living from your creative work so that it doesn't seem like such a gamble, this post is for you.
TLDR: Here is what indie authors are doing that we should consider
- Build a dedicated fan base using a mailing list.
- Publish a whole lot and frequently.
- Write sequels and series so fans buy more than just one of your works.
- Don’t stray too far from the strict expectations of the genre.
- Use special tactics to tune the online store to recommend your books to likely fans.
- Partner with creators who are similar to you to create joint works, bundles, and cross promotions.
What are self published authors
There have always been authors who wrote and distributed books despite not being signed by one of the big 5 publishers (Random House, Simon & Schuster etc). Typically these self-publishers were those whose chosen genre or writing abilities didn't fit with what publishers considered quality. But there were enterprising individuals who did the printing and distribution themselves: typically selling books out of the trunk of their car
Some of these books are traditionally published and some are from indies. Can you tell the difference? Neither can most readers.
However since the release of the Kindle eBook reader and the widespread adoption of eBooks, authors can now sell their work without the overhead of distributing physical copies. The complete dominance of Amazon.com as a book distribution platform also means that a self published book can appear in the same search results as a book from the traditional publishers. In response, indie authors have upped their quality and marketing sophistication so that they appear indistinguishable from traditionally published authors. As a result of the indie author business model, many indies make more than a middle tier author that is signed to a traditional publisher.
Here are the nitty gritty details how they do this:.
They build a loyal fan base
Indie authors make their real money from repeat buyers. Loyal fans evangelize their books, leave reviews, and buy every SKU (the eBook, audio book, and even the physical copy) just because they love their author so much. Amazingly, there are many indie authors who have built such a small but potent fan base that they earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but are virtually unknown outside their tight circle of followers. These authors have never been featured on the New York Times best selling list, they don’t win literary awards, or get movies made out of their books. But, they are top of mind to the people who matters the most: their fans.
The most important tool that indie authors use for connecting to their fan base is a mailing list. A mailing list performs far better than Twitter and Facebook and allows them to converse 1 on 1 with their fans. It also allows authors to slowly establish a relationship over time.
To get people on their mailing list, authors typically have a book on Amazon that is discounted to free or $0.99. That cheap book ends on a cliff hanger but with a message on the last page that says “Download the sequel to this book for free by going here <link>.” That links to website with a mailing list signup form. Once confirmed on the list, they are sent the promised free book.
This is an example of the last page of many indie books. It is a clear, simple offer to get another free book in the series.Clicking that link takes you to the author's email list signup page.
Once you are on the mailing list, the author introduces themselves with an auto-responder sequence detailing their background and other books that they have written. The author also regularly sends out more free books to further build goodwill with their fan base.
Then when the author releases a new book, they email their list. Those loyal readers then instantly download and almost always review that book the day it launches because they are so loyal.
What we can learn from this
Build. A. Mailing. List. Now! And use it!
I write about this a lot so you can just go read my previous posts on this matter
- Video game email marketing 101
- 5 reasons why you need to build a mailing list this year
- What Nintendo Power can teach us about indie game marketing
They write a TON of books
The classic image of an author is one who toils on their masterwork for years. They live a monk-like existence in a sequestered hovel waiting for inspiration to strike. They rewrite every sentence until it is perfect. Then, they emerge with a book only after considerable anguish. This process repeats sporadically until they die having released only a handful of books. (See Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger)
This notion is not true for indie authors. These folks crank out books. Some at the rate of one a month. On top of books they also write regular blog posts, short stories, and emails to their fans. It is not uncommon for them to write 9000+ words a day, everyday. They measure their productivity with AIC time. Or Ass in Chair Time (while writing.)
Typical output of a single successful indie author.
There are many reasons for this behavior.
Nobody knows which book will be a success. They could either spend time pondering, deconstructing the meaning of literature, and then rewriting the same book 3 times. Or just publish 3 books and figure out which one does the best. The general rule is 20% of their books make 80% of their income. Unfortunately, nobody knows which will be a hit so they just need to keep trying. See this great talk How I Won The Lottery
Also if you write more, there are more books for your fans to buy. This is another reason authors establish a loyal readership who will buy everything the write.
Authors also understand that success doesn't come overnight with a single book. There is a general understanding in self-publishing that you need to release at least 10 books before you can even hope of making a living at it.
What we can learn
If you are having trouble getting visibility, make more games and faster. Quality is important but there are other ways to do more faster:
- Cut details that nobody is going to care about. Please watch this talk. The developer talks about coding an entire procedurally generated city that has no purpose other than being the background to a level.
- Reuse code between games.
- Don't roll your own game engine.
- Consider being braver about your design decision and just release. Instead of redoing all the art 3 times as your skills develop during development, ship 3 games where each iteration has better and better art.
- But most importantly, stop scope creep. If you get new ideas mid game, write them down in your notebook under the section title “Ideas for our sequel.”
They write lots of sequels
One of the main ways indie authors are able to write so much is that they write a lot of books that are part of a series. By having established characters and settings they are not reinventing the wheel with each book.
A series is also the primary marketing strategy for the author (mentioned earlier in the section on the email list). The first book in the series is always free or $0.99 on Amazon, the second book is free if they join the mailing list. If a person read the first two books and still wants more they are more likely to buy the rest of the series. These subsequent books are always in the $2.99 - $6.99 range.
Look at how the author of this book series took the time to design these covers to feel as if they are part of a series but are still unique.
To encourage readers to get the next book in the series, on the last page there is always an advertisement for the next book and a link to the Amazon store. If you have ever binge watched a Netflix show you will know how tempting that “Watch Next Episode” button is.
Authors also sell all the books in a series as a box set. The box is deeply discounted because it is less risky to get a reader’s money up front than losing a fan halfway through a series.
The covers of series are also specifically branded so it is immediately obvious they are part of a set. A major reason why they do this is that if you are familiar with the first couple books and are scrolling through a new releases list you will instantly recognize one of these as a new book is a series.
Once an author has a bunch of books in a series, they can bundle them and sell them as a separate SKU.
What we can learn from this
- Make sequels. Indies rarely do this and are not using the full potential of the tech or the marketing that they built up for the first game. Watch this talk: Why Not More Sequels for Indie Games
- One benefit of this strategy is if Steam features one of your game sequels (lets just call it "Zombie Horde RTS part 3: The revenge"), there is a good chance that players who discover you because of it, will go back and download your previous two games.
- Make sure that your promotional material such as box covers look like they are part of a set. Maybe same basic layout, same color scheme, same border.
They stay well within genre conventions
There are very very specific genres that authors write for. For example, here are just a few of the Fantasy Sub-sub-genres: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, The New Weird, and Paranormal.
It turns out that fans of High Fantasy don't often also read Urban Fantasy. Two totally different kinks. Indie authors long ago noticed that if they try and push the boundaries and blend established genres their sales suffer. In fact some sub genres are so specific there are rules as to what can and cannot be in the book. For instance in romance there must be a central love story, there can be risk and struggle but the central love story must always finish with unconditional love, and the two main characters must never cheat on each other.
Authors also make sure that their book covers contain a very complex yet subtle set of symbology to accurately signal to readers which sub genre this book belongs to.
Sweet sword? Check. Dragon? Definitely check. This is without a doubt a Fantasy book under the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre
Science Fiction and Fantasy Books within the subgenre of "military fantasy" must have exploding spaceships.
And romance books of every sub-genre must have man chest. Always man chest (head is optional).
What we can learn from this
- Consider sticking to a genre for several games. Sure, being indie means we could follow whatever whim we want. But when we release a metroidvania, then try a roguelike, then maybe an FPS that comes at a cost. A high percentage of the people who download your game do it because they like that genre not because they like you. If you switch to a new one they are not going to follow you. Instead, if you release several games as series that are all of the same genre you can expect more repeat business. Remember it is more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to contact an existing one.
- Be aware that attempting to invent a new genre is very risky. It requires a lot of experimentation and does not have a built in fan base.
- Sticking to one genre also means we can reuse tech from the previous games. This speeds up development and allows you to release more games.
- Look at general strategy of Spiderweb Software for inspiration about sticking to a genre.
- Watch this talk on the strict genre rules of Hidden Object Games. Even if you think Hidden Object games are dumb this talk has altered my preconceived notions of games more than any other game talk I have ever seen.
- Look towards the simulator genre: although it has become a bit of a meme their covers very quickly signal what type of game it is to anyone:.
Side note: I know what you are going to say “but I got into indie games so that I could exercise my creativity!” Follow the lead of director Steven Soderbergh who famously alternates between highbrow and lowbrow films. He calls the process one for him and one for his fans. You can do the same.
They leverage the "also boughts"
The biggest book seller, Amazon, does not have anything like a Steam Launch Visibility Round or an App Store featured front page. There is zero personalized curation on the store so all rankings and featuring are based on algorithms. Instead of focusing their effort (and anxiety) on whether or not they get featured, indie authors spend a lot of time trying to massage Amazon’s algorithm that runs the section called “Customers who bought this item also bought”
Colloquially referred to as “Also boughts,” Indie Authors realized that a significant source of their new traffic comes from readers of authors that are similar to them. “Also boughts” are algorithmically calculated based on tracking buyer behavior. This section is such a significant source of traffic that indies strategize on how to make sure that their books appear on the right "also bought" list. For instance, if an author writes both romance and sci-fi they have to make sure that their romance books do not appear in the “also boughts” under their sci-fi books.
This is an example of a well-groomed “also bought” section. Notice how 4 of the 7 book covers have a dragon and 5 of the 7 have a medieval weapon of some sort. Also there are definitely no man chests here.
To prevent this cross pollination, authors are very careful during the launch to only notify fans of that book's genre that a new book is out. Authors know what their fans want because they use their email marketing software to tag them based on what books they have purchased in the past.
Authors even go as far as to tell their family not to buy their book during the launch because family members can have a more diverse buying history and thereby dilute the “also boughts” section.
Authors will even publish different genres under different pen names so that they don’t have to worry about romance readers being confused by seeing dragon books recommended to them.
But the most potent tactic for having a clean “also bought” section is to advertise their books on Facebook to fans of authors that are similar to them.
What we can learn from this
Most app stores have a section that is equivalent to “also boughts.” Used correctly it could be a significant source of traffic way past your launch window.
However, we need to be more careful about keeping them clean. Look at this “More Like This” section I pulled off a pretty popular and well known indie game on Steam.
These recommendations feature a metroidvania, a vehicle combat game, and a top down action RPG. None of them are in the same genre as the game it is attached to.
- To clean up your also boughts, partner up with developers who release games that are similar to yours. Bundle your game with theirs. You can also get them to promote your games to their mailing list and you promote theirs on your list.
- Use Facebook targeting to advertise to fans of developers in your genre.
- Stick to making a single genre so that Steam knows what your games are.
- Make sure your Steam tags are very accurate and encourage your mailing list subscribers to tag specific ones.
- Don’t pick the “Indie” tag because that is not genre specific enough.
Authors work together
The indie book community is just as close as the indie game community. However, they take their comradery a step further and do many co-marketing strategies.
One of the most popular strategies is for multiple authors to contribute a book to a box set. During the launch of the set, the authors deeply discount that box set almost like they are running their own private Humble Bundle.
To promote this super bundle, each author recommends it to their email list. The result is a win-win because fans of one author are likely to be fans of the other. Authors on both side of the “swap” typically see a big subscriber jump due to the cross-promotion.
Even if the authors do not have a bundle together, they do make agreements to promote each other’s books. For example, they might arrange a deal to send an email to their list that says “Hey since you like my book X, you will probably like this new book Y from my friend.” The other author will do the same.
Sometimes authors will even co-write books together. For example the book American Demon Hunters Sacrifice was written by four authors while on a train trip to New Orleans (Indie Train Jam Style). This one book had the marketing muscle of 4 authors pushing their followings towards it.
What we can learn from this
- Collaborative projects have been done to a limited degree by indie developers. Derek Yu’s next game UFO 50 is a retro smorgasbord in which popular indie developers each contribute a game. I sure hope that each indie in UFO 50 has built up a mailing list and will be pushing their followers to buy it.
- Even if you are not a super-successful indie, look to make a game with several other developers who are around the same level of popularity as you.
- Indie devs have also been very good about including characters from other indie games in them as secret unlockable characters. These are good first steps but we should be doing more collaborations and with greater marketing muscle behind it.
- Don’t be afraid to promote other game devs to your email list too. As long as the games are close in genre and quality it makes sense for you to try and join forces.
Things that indie authors have abandoned because they don't work
- Twitter - while many authors still use it to communicate with each other, it is not a reliable source of new customers and does not perform well when trying to get customers to buy their books.
- Book tours - although a mainstay of traditionally published authors and celebrities, going on book signings is a waste of time that could have been spent writing.
- Trade shows and book festivals - Similar to book tours. The number of people you can talk to in a single day during one of these shows is not high enough to warrant the time, money, and energy to participate in them. Also, indie writers are not well known outside of their tight circle of followers so don’t really attract people who don’t know them already.
Similarities between Indie Authors and Indie Game Devs
Although our marketing strategies are very different there are several similarities that we both worry about.
- Wary of a single, dominant platform - To an indie author, Amazon.com is our Steam. The 800-pound gorilla makes up the majority of any indie author’s income but many are afraid that if they become too dependent on the company, their business might dry up if Amazon become hostile towards the small indie. Authors use the term “Going Wide” to describe the business strategy of selling books in more online stores than just Amazon.
- A recent golden age - From the release of the Amazon Kindle in 2007 until about 2013, the eBook market was in its growth phase. Early adopters could put up any book and it would sell. Many authors would find anything that had enough words to resemble something that could be called a book. Those lucky authors had first mover's advantage and reaped huge rewards for it.
- Maturing market - The stories of overnight riches that the first generation of eBook indie authors had lead to a crush of new writers entering the market. Quality rose and the strategy of throwing any old book out there has ended. Some authors fear that the old tried and true strategies of mailing lists might be losing their efficacy and they will have to seek a new antidote. Authors are looking at additional income streams such as creating Audible versions of their books or translating them into other languages
- Overwork - While we developers worry about crunch time, self published authors worry about the expectation of producing so many books so quickly. Are they letting down their fans by trying to slow down just a bit? Burnout is common.
- Imposter syndrome - All creatives feel this. It is no different in the indie author world. We need to conquer it because it holds us back from releasing and asking for the compensation we deserve.
Additional Facts about Indie authors:
Typical Self-Published Ebook Price: $2.99 - $4.99. First in series teaser books are typically Free to $0.99
Indie Successes and Thought Leaders
- Joanna Penn
- Hugh Howey
- Andy Weir (Creator of the Martian)
- CJ Lyons
- Lindsay Buroker
- Apple iBooks
- Bookbub (very interesting business model, very similar to Humble Bundle)
Good Podcasts about the Business of Indie Book Publishing
Even if you have no intention of writing a book, these podcasts have some great marketing ideas that can be adapted for games:
- The Creative Penn Podcast
- The Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast
- Mark Dawson's Self Publishing Formula
Good books about indie book publishing
- Write Publish Repeat by David Wright, Johnny B. Truant, and Sean Platt
- How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn
The Steamspy equivalent for self-published authors:
If you take one lesson from Indie Authors, it should be to start a mailing list. I wrote a book with even more details than this essay and an easy to read collection of 87 emails you should send out. Download it for free here.