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Even as I write this post, I freely admit my own indie book marketing sometimes falls short and misses the mark (kicking myself for low sales this past month as we speak). Marketing techniques change all the time, and the best way to keep abreast of changes is to watch what successful indie or even traditionally published authors (or rather, their publicity firms) are doing.

A willingness to change your strategies is the key to staying afloat in the ever-shifting world of self-publishing.

But today I want to talk about a marketing step that, for me, is non-negotiable. Early Readers.

Early readers are a group of people who will read your ARC (Advanced Reader Copy, as it were—the nearly-finished final draft of your book). Early readers are not the same as your critique partner, proofreader, or beta reader group.

To clarify, critique partners, proofreaders, and beta readers receive a less-finished draft of your novel and give substantive advice on flow, character arc, etc. Their input enables you to make the final edits in your storyline. I recommend no more than five beta readers, who also regularly read in your genre. Otherwise, you get too many opinions on your novel and lose focus as to your vision for the story. I often think of it as “too many cooks stirring the broth.” Beta readers are the ones you can ask questions, if you feel so inclined (I don’t usually do this, as I think the questions can be leading and make readers see things they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise).

I recommend several steps before getting your books out to early readers, who are basically the final string in your pre-publication lineup. Early readers can be comprised of authors who might want to endorse your novel, readers who have expressed interest in reading/reviewing your upcoming release, etc.

1) I try to make sure I have completed cover art ahead of time, so early readers can get a good feel of what the book will look like. This is optional, of course. But I do look at this early reader version of my book as an “ARC” (Advanced Reader Copy), such as what traditional publishing houses send out. For non-author readers, I think having that cover shows this will indeed be a “real” book someday (authors are used to looking at books as Word docs).

2) Convert your novel to e-reader versions accessible to most. I use Calibre, which is free, and convert my Word doc to .pdf, mobi, and epub, so readers can have their choice to upload. (Mobi is for Kindle, Epub for Nook, and pdf can be viewed on computer and elsewhere). Other authors might use Scrivener for this. It is relatively simple, but PLEASE proofread that file before you send it out.

Case in point: I sent out a mobi file that was missing all the chapter endings, due to an incorrect conversion process. This looked really bad for my early readers as they assumed the chapters were REALLY hanging endings! I had to re-send that file and felt embarrassed about that. Just double-check before attaching files to readers!

3) The more early readers, the better. As I said above, early readers don’t offer substantive advice on the novel, and I don’t ask them for it. They are welcome to tell me anything that jumps out at them (generally typos!). I recommend a pool of at least 30 early readers, if possible, and this is why: they will not all respond. They will not all review. Which brings me to this…

3) Set a date for when you need endorsements/reviews. I like to get my early reader copies out two months ahead of time. Readers actually like knowing what kind of time schedule they are on. Also, let readers know via email (I use MailChimp for bulk emails like this) when your book is live on Goodreads/Amazon and able to be reviewed.

You can upload your book to Goodreads as soon as your cover art/blurb is ready. That way, your early reader reviews can trickle in, pre-release. They can’t post reviews to Amazon until your book is published.

Please note: As I said above, not all your early readers will read quickly and get back to you. Not all will review or endorse. I know…that first week or so, you’re sitting by the computer, waiting for those glowing thoughts on your book. Try not to! And try not to take it personally if you never hear back from many of those reviewers. I would say out of a pool of 40 early readers, you may hear back from 20-25. Some will fall through the cracks, because a) they didn’t like your novel, and they don’t know how to tell you this, b) they won’t read it till months post-release because they just don’t have time, or c) they totally forget.

Don’t ask anyone personally if they have read it yet. I’ve done this and it puts a major strain on your relationship and pressure on that reader. If you must follow up, do it by a group email, just reminding them of your release date, or let them know that reviews can go up now, etc. Just a nudge—not a personal one—is what I’d recommend!

4) As the author endorsements trickle in, be sure to collect those in a file that is easily accessible. When you have all you need, you can upload them into your final doc for your softcover or e-book. And once you load your book on Amazon, those endorsements can be loaded into the “editorial review” section there.

5) Make sure you update early readers when your book goes live, with any links, tweets, etc. You can also create influencer-oriented groups for them on Facebook if you want, to foster that sense of community and backing for your book. Early readers are basically your “street team” of people who will actively promote your book upon release, if they enjoyed it.

Why are early readers such a crucial step, you might ask? I think it’s such a leg-up when authors can have reviews ready to roll the minute their book releases. Early reviews on Goodreads and Amazon (which often stay in place as the first reviews!) are THOUGHTFUL, because those readers were hand-picked due to interest in your book. You might not get all five-stars, but don’t stress that. What you want are thorough reviews that show people have read your book and thought about it.

The more reviews, the merrier. Many ad sites (such as Bookbub) require a certain number of reviews before posting your book. I have seen traditional publishing houses drop the ball here, and I feel like it’s one way indie authors can rally support and garner buzz even before publication. Having a core group of readers who’ve read and liked your book, who are willing to give shout-outs for it, is so valuable.

One last thought: early readers might change from book to book. My Viking historical early readers were not all the same as my contemporary mystery early readers. Some were, because they expressed interest in both. But some were new readers who enjoy mystery genre more than historical.

I know it seems somewhat counter-intuitive to give your novel away to interested readers, especially if it’s your debut novel. Wouldn’t it be better if those interested readers BOUGHT your book? But I’ve found that with a debut, you can hardly give away too many copies. You are basically an unknown: a wild card. You want as many readers willing to promote you as possible to OTHER readers, in circles you can’t even reach. Word of mouth is valuable, and having a large pool of early readers enables that word of mouth/buzz to start up.

Next time, we will talk more about building buzz.