Interview with
Chelsea Campbell

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I’m glad to be of any help that I can. This is one of my favorite subjects and one that has had a big impact on my life.

1.  What motivated you to self-publish your book/s instead of seek (or continue to seek) a traditional publisher?

My first book, The Rise of Renegade X, was purchased in February, 2009 by Egmont USA and published in May, 2010. By its publication date, I’d already submitted several other books to the publisher, including a sequel, and it was clear that they had already dropped me, presumably based on projected sales numbers for the book, based on orders from bookstores. Borders had made a small order and Barnes and Noble had decided to completely exclude it from their stores (based on one person’s decision). My agent submitted my new books to other publishers as well over the next few years, but with no luck. I got really tired of working so hard on my books only to submit them to a handful of editors who would inevitably all say no. A few times there were editors who were excited about my work, but then another editor or someone from marketing would say something like, “Oh, we had one just like that and it bombed. We can’t buy that,” and they’d have to say no. (Most traditionally published books bomb unless the publisher actually markets them, something they only do for their bigger titles.)

At this point, I felt like I had no control over my career–if I could even call it that–and felt an enormous pressure for each new book I wrote to somehow be the perfect thing that editors were looking for instead of what I wanted to write. Renegade X had a lot of fans who all wanted a sequel, and I wanted to give it to them, but I was worried about self-publishing one, afraid that it wouldn’t be taken seriously. Then at a book festival, Kevin Emerson, a local author, talked about how he’d self-published the sixth and final book in his Oliver Nocturne series. The first five books were traditionally published, but the publisher had dropped the series before he could finish it, so he just self-published the final one. And I remember thinking, “I could do that.” The idea took hold of me and wouldn’t let go, and when I finally told fans about my plans to publish a sequel myself, I was surprised and relieved that they didn’t have any issues with it being self-published–they were just happy it was going to exist.

2.  Had you done any research on self-publishing before doing so, or did you simply choose to do it for fun?

I did it out of necessity. I didn’t think I was ever going to sell another book traditionally, and I felt so discouraged and unhappy with my career. Writing was my life and all I’d ever really wanted to do, and there was no way I was going to give it up, no matter what happened. But I started to realize that if I didn’t do something myself, my career really would be over and no one would ever read another book from me. I did do some research before self-publishing. I read Zoe Winters’ book, Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author, which was super helpful and inspiring. I read a couple others, too, after that, but that was the first one and the most helpful as far as getting started.

3.  What genre is/are your self-published book/s in?

Mostly YA fantasy–my main series is YA superhero–but I have a couple of middle-grade books as well.

4.  How many copies of your book were sold and/or downloaded?  How long did it take before your book gained momentum?

My first self-published book was a middle-grade detective novel I’d written but couldn’t sell. It came out in March 2012, about two years after my first book was published, and I think I made about $30 off of it, lol. It was the first money I’d made off my work in years, so there was some triumph in it, even if there weren’t really many sales. Then in 2013, I did a kickstarter to publish The Trials of Renegade X (the kickstarter paid for cover art by the original cover artist), a sequel to my first book. I was also in the process of getting the rights back to that first book, since it had gone out of print and was selling few enough ebook copies that it met the conditions for rights reversions in my contract. Basically, my agent just had to write them a letter asking for it back and they gave it to me. Trials came out in the middle of September 2013, and I re-released Rise, like, a week or two later. At the time, I didn’t know long it was going to take to be able to republish book 1, otherwise I think I would have waited that extra week. But then again, I had no idea what to expect, and I really thought I was only going to sell a few copies to people who had already read the first book anyway, so maybe I still would have published it early, who knows?

Anyway, in that first week or so, I think I sold 12 copies of book 2. Book 1 wasn’t available at all, because it was in limbo, having been taken down by the old publisher but not re-released by me yet (I was still getting the cover sorted out). Once I self-published book 1, it started selling copies much faster. Maybe 12 in its first day, then getting better and better numbers over the next few days, until it was selling about 100 copies a day. Sales numbers for book 2 followed really quickly after that, and it was selling about 70 copies a day. (I actually have a really tedious spreadsheet where I wrote down the numbers, like, every couple hours while I was obsessively checking these, complete with daily totals, starting a couple weeks after the publication dates, once things started taking off. I just couldn’t believe it was really happening.) Both books rose to the top of the superhero category on Amazon, which boosted their sales in other categories, like urban fantasy. Book 1 hadn’t even been in the superhero category when the original publisher had it. BTW, in case it’s not clear, those are all ebook sales numbers, all on Amazon. I had published them to various platforms at the time, but the sales on them were tiny in comparison. While I publish physical copies of most of my books, the overwhelming majority of sales are ebooks. I’m currently selling the ebooks exclusively on Amazon, because I make more money from their Unlimited program than I was from selling the books on other platforms, but even when I was, the overwhelming majority of sales was on Amazon. Like, in a really good month, after a new book was just released, I might sell 30 copies through Barnes and Noble, and even less everywhere else, compared to thousands on Amazon.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that when I was traditionally published, I only saw sales numbers every six months, and they were way outdated by the time I got them. I’m still not even sure how many copies of The Rise of Renegade X my publisher sold or how big their print run was. I *think* the print run was probably around 5,000 copies, but I don’t know for sure. I estimate that they sold around 5,000 copies in the three years that they had the book, and I sold that many copies in my first three months of republishing it. I had the same cover (different lettering, but same art), but I lowered the price (but with 70% royalties, I still make more per book at the lower price than when the publisher had it) and put it in the right categories, which helped a lot. Amazon also saw it as a new book when I republished it, but it kept the 30 reviews it had accumulated over the years, so it may have looked like a brand new book to the algorithms that had 30 reviews already on its first day, which may have led to them promoting it more. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it helped. Both books ended up at the top of the Hot New Releases list in several categories, which also helped boost sales. Also, having two books in a series come out at the same time seems to have boosted sales and reader follow through immensely, though it’s not always feasible to do that.

Sales numbers, excluding audiobook sales, as of June, 2018, in chronological order by publication date (except that technically I released Renegade X 2, like, a week before I re-released Book 1, but whatever):

Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye – middle-grade detective novel, published March, 2012:
201 sales, 6 borrows, 3,226 pages read, 1,380 copies downloaded as free promo.

The Rise of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 1) – YA superhero novel, published September, 2013:
15,028 copies sold, 912 borrows through Amazon’s Prime lending library, and 603,898 pages read through the Kindle Unlimited subscription service. (Note that authors still get paid for borrows and pages read.)

The Trials of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 2) – published September, 2013:
11,305 sales, 490 borrows, and 661,890 pages read.

Growing Up Dead – humorous middle-grade vampire novel, published June, 2014:
117 sales, 7 borrows, 4,748 pages read.

Starlight – light YA romance, published September, 2014:
112 sales, 12 borrows, 19,137 pages read.

The Betrayal of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 3) – published June, 2015:
5,630 sales, 659,826 pages read.

The Haunting of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 2.5) – novella, published January, 2016:
1,089 sales, 49,957 pages read, 53 copies downloaded as free promo.

The Torment of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 3.5) – novella, published July, 2017:
490 sales, 34,330 pages read, 48 copies downloaded as free promo.

The Phobia of Renegade X (Renegade X, Book 4) – published August, 2017:
1,132 sales, 551,485 pages read.

5.  Did you use any specific advertising avenues?  If so, what worked well?  What didn’t work?

Originally, no. When I started publishing the Renegade X books, I used the strategy of making sure they were in both a smaller, less-competitive category–in this case, superheroes, though people have caught on now and put anything they can in that category, so it’s not as easy to get to the top–and in some more competitive categories–like YA urban fantasy and coming of age. You’re allowed to choose two categories, but they’re also determined by the seven keywords you give, so you can get into more than just two categories. Anyway, having a book in an appropriate-but-less-competitive category allows you to rise to the top of that category more easily (you don’t have to have as many sales/as good of an Amazon ranking to get there), and then the algorithms see that the book is a category bestseller and start promoting it more. Once the algorithms start promoting it more, then the book will rise up in the more competitive categories, which will also boost sales and push the algorithms to promote it even more, and if you can get this cycle going, it can snowball into a really good boost in sales. The best time to do this is when the book first comes out, especially since then it will be eligible for the Hot New Releases lists as well as the category bestsellers, so you want to watch your categories carefully at first and adjust them as needed. In my case, Amazon also kept changing the release dates listed for the first two Renegade X books, which resulted in them staying in Hot New Releases for months longer than they should have. I have no idea if this was an accident or if it was something they did more “accidentally on purpose” as a way to have the algorithms keep boosting sales, since the books were profitable–I really have no idea!–but whatever the case, it kept the ranking up and slowed down the natural sales depreciation. (It’s also why if you look at the kindle versions of books 1 and 2, they claim they were published in January, 2014, which was not true.)

The first two Renegade X books also got selected for the Kindle Daily Deal in February, 2014, which resulted in a huge boost in sales and they almost got into the top 100 on Amazon. Boosts from sales have a much faster drop off than the boost from the initial release, but that spike in sells still helps a lot. You can’t apply for the KDD, it just maybe gets offered to you out of the blue, so while it’s something I definitely said yes to, it’s not something I sought out. I did manage to get a Bookbub in June, 2014. Bookbub is a company that sends out daily newsletters to subscribers, telling them about ebook sales. As an author, you have to apply for a spot, and it’s really competitive. I was rejected a few times before the first Renegade X book got selected, and I’ve applied lots of times since then, both for it and various other books, all with no luck. The price for these ads can run kind of high, but it’s totally worth it if you manage to get a spot, and I definitely made my money back and then some.

6.  How many books have you published?  Which ones were self-published?  Which ones were traditionally published?

9 novels and 2 novellas total.

The Rise of Renegade X was traditionally published originally, then later self-published after I got the rights back a few years later. I’ve self-published the rest of the books in that series (still ongoing), plus Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye, Growing Up Dead, and Starlight.

I also have two YA fantasy novels, Fire & Chasm and Dragonbound, traditionally published by Skyscape, Amazon Publishing’s YA imprint.

7.  Did you have someone professionally edit your manuscript, or did you do your own editing, or not edit?  Did you have someone professionally create your book cover, or did you create your own cover?

I do my own editing/have one or two trusted beta readers reading along as I write. I also do all my own formatting. I hire artists for the covers or occasionally have artist friends and family do it, depending on the project and on my budget. It’s worth pointing out that the covers for Renegade X books 1, 2, and 3 have been the most expensive, but those books have also had by far the most sales. This doesn’t mean that all covers need to be super expensive to be successful, but if you’re going to put money into self-publishing, put it into getting the best cover you can for your book. Don’t pay anyone to do formatting–ebook formatting takes two seconds and is super easy to learn and can be done for free on your computer, and while formatting a paperback or hardback has more of a learning curve, especially if you want anything fancy, it’s still very doable. As for editing, (content) editors can be helpful, but they can also be expensive, and if you need a really expensive editor because you need that much help, you’re probably not at the level you need to be at to be able to incorporate their advice anyway or earn the money back through sales.

8.  After successfully self-publishing, did you find people in the traditional publishing arena who were interested in your book?  If so, how?  Were agents or editors interested in re-publishing your original self-published book or only future books by you?

Yes, at the end of October, 2013, when the first two Renegade X books had been going strong for about six weeks, an editor from Amazon Skyscape contacted my agent, asking what other books I might have to submit to them. Sales from the Renegade X books are what drew her attention to me, but she never brought up buying them. I don’t know if this is because book 1 had already been traditionally published before or what, but I wouldn’t have sold them either way, after just having gotten control of the series back and experiencing the freedom of publishing it myself. She did end up buying another book I had that had previously been submitted to editors but never got picked up (Fire & Chasm), and then went on to buy another book from me on proposal (Dragonbound). So, by the time I sold Fire & Chasm, it had been five years since my last traditional sale, and I don’t feel it would have happened at all without self-publishing.

9.  Do you feel as though your experience was one-of-a-kind or something capable of being accomplished by any writer serious about self-publishing?

Anyone can do this! Some of what happened to me was random chance, but I believe most of the success I’ve had has been from writing good books that both me and my readers love and from being willing to take risks and try new things. Have I done everything perfectly? No way. Have all my books been successful? Nope. Though the one’s I’ve felt more invested in and feel are my best work are also the ones readers love the most, and those books have been the most successful. But one of the great things about self-publishing is you don’t have to nail it on your first try. You can just keep going until you get better or figure out what works for you and gradually build up your fanbase. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, and you can be making a living from writing without having to be a bestseller.

10.  Do you regret originally self-publishing your first book?

No way! The first book I self-published was Harper Madigan: Junior High Private Eye, and even though that particular book didn’t do well, I learned so much from the experience, and I love that the book exists and is available to readers, which it wouldn’t have been if I’d just let it sit on my hard drive forever.

11.  Do you have any advice on self-publishing for other writers?

Just go for it! Keep writing, finish your projects, and get them out there. It’s not as scary as you think, and having control of your career and complete creative freedom is really satisfying and rewarding. Don’t get hung up on success or failure–approach this business with the knowledge that you will make it someday, whatever that means to you, and make decisions with that knowledge in mind, never out of fear.

12.  What is the biggest mistake you see other authors make?

Making excuses for why they can’t/won’t self-publish. The most common excuse I hear is that they don’t want to have to do their own marketing (as if publishers will actually market for you), and when I say, “What marketing? I’ve hardly done any marketing,” they say maybe that happened for mebut it won’t happen for them. The real reason people say this is because they’re afraid of being responsible for their own failures. If a publisher screws up your book, you tried your best, but it was out of your hands. But if you screw up your book, then you don’t have anybody else to blame it on. So they just sit on a pile of finished manuscripts that are never going to see the light of day when they could be building up fans and taking control of their own careers. You can’t count on publishers to market your book, and I think traditionally published authors end up spending more time on marketing because they don’t actually have control over it, so they feel like they just have to do all the things ever because they have no idea what’s working or not, and they don’t want to feel like they didn’t try their best. As a self-published author, you have control of the important selling points for your book–the cover, the blurb, and the price are the big three, but I’d also say categories and keywords play a big role as well. If one of those aspects isn’t working to sell your book, you can change it. At any time. You can keep changing it until you figure out what works. You also have the power to put your book on sale and do promos, either paid or free, and you can see how that affects your sales numbers in real time.

13.  What was your biggest mistake?

Not self-publishing sooner. Worrying more about what other people will think about me and my writing than actually doing the writing.

14.  Is there anything you wish everyone knew?

I think I’ve covered everything, but I’ll say this again: ANYONE can do this. Start today. Start right now. The worst thing you can do for your career is to do nothing.

15.  Is there something I should have asked but didn’t?

Not that I can think of. These were great questions!