A Harlot Author Success Story!
Over the weekend I got a message from Harlot Author Elsie Silver that moved me to tears:
“Today is my birthday. Everyone in my house has gone to bed and I just checked the rank on my latest release. 454. My highest rank ever… and it’s not even close.”[Note: Later in the day, that book, A FALSE START, ranked at #358!]
“A year ago I reached out to you for cover help on my debut, I’ve scoured the group for information, I’ve listened to every live, and I know I’ve harassed you with questions from time to time. I’ve kept my head down and watched every release jump up a little bit. And I’m just so grateful for everything you’ve done, for me and for everyone else in that group. I know I need to write the next book and that this rank won’t stick forever, but this career is absolutely life-changing for me.”
After crying in my coffee for a moment, I messaged Elsie and asked her about her debut year. Below is our conversation!
MH: This is actually really cool to go back over the last year and see how far you’ve come! The first time you messaged me, it was in response to a post about covers! You said this: “Your post about covers yesterday was a tough pill to swallow. I haven’t published my book yet – but I think I’ve been ignoring knowing that the cover I bought wasn’t properly to market. Anyways, I’m going to take the plunge and fix it.” Do you remember that?
ES: So as I revised I realized that I had set out to write a sports romance, but didn’t. It was about horse racing and I thought I was being really clever by using a sport that wasn’t all that well-known. In my mind I thought it would be fresh and new–and in a lot of ways it was. But as I read back through I think I realized that it was more about the town and the farm (even the animals), and the relationships forged there. Sure, the sport was present, but more as an occupation and definitely not to-market enough to hook the average sports romance reader. When I read your post about sunk costs it really struck a chord. I kept opening my covers and looking at them and just had this gut feeling that they weren’t right. I personally really like black and white covers, but I was starting to realize they didn’t match the story inside. Or the entire genre (small town) at all. Lol. I decided I’d take the financial hit to just let those first covers go. I kept telling myself that no small business gets going without start-up costs and didn’t want to hamstring myself before I even got started. I felt a bit sick about it to be honest.
The original book 1 cover.
MH: But it was good that you recognized the packaging error before release and you weren’t stubborn about changing it. Your entire series is now beautifully packaged!
Here are her current series covers as seen on her Amazon Author page. Covers designed by Wildheart Graphics.
MH: You released your debut OFF TO THE RACES in April 2021. One month later, you said, “In retrospect it exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways, but fell short in others.” Can you tell me about that?
ES: It exceeded my expectations in that people liked it. Really liked it. And that was the craziest feeling to me. That someone I didn’t know at all would go out of their way to send me a message and tell me I created something that they loved. I was terrified to hit publish, I literally popped a blood vessel in my eye the night before release. Soo… just doing it at all felt like an accomplishment.
It fell short financially, and that’s how I was measuring my success. I also had higher hopes for the number of early reviews I might get. No matter how many times people told me that this is a marathon and to keep my expectations reasonable for a debut, it’s like it went in one ear and out the other. It’s a tough adjustment to lay out money on editing, proofing, covers, promotions and all the other costs that come with starting up (NL, website, other subscriptions) and then not earn it back. I was a stay-at-home mom, blowing that money felt very careless at the time. Especially as I teed up to do it all over again.
MH: I think we all struggle to temper those expectations, no matter how many people tell us about the marathon! You were hoping for 50 reviews and after a month, you had 44 (which I think is great for a debut), about half from the promo company you hired and half from your team. Is that something you felt like you did right–starting your own team and getting as many reviews as possible?
ES: I think starting my own ARC team early was a game changer. It was daunting because I had to personally reach out to people, but those same people are now the most reliable and such great cheerleaders. I think reviews give a book social proof, it’s something I look at when I scroll for a new read. If someone is able to review, I’m happy to give them an ARC. I open my team up for a couple weeks before every release now.
MH: Excellent. My advice is always to be generous with ARCs!! So at that point, we talked about setting some SMART goals that were not income related. What were your goals for book 2?
ES: 1. Reach 50 reviews on Amazon within one month of release
2. Arrange 5x NL swaps for release month
3. Get 80+ sign ups between my team and PR
4. Eat on release day (lmao)
5. Have 10k words written on next book by release day
MH: You released book 2 in August and messaged me this: “I posted my goals on my office wall and told myself I was going to check each one off by the one month mark. It hasn’t even been a week and I’ve checked them all! My feelings around this release are night and day. I swear I’m pinching myself. Thank you so much for forcing me to change my perspective!”
That made me so happy! Can you tell me a little about that perspective change?
ES: I think that perspective change really came from you telling me to pick goals that were not financial, but that I deemed would help the financial side of things. That I couldn’t control that aspect of it but to choose something I could control. So I focused on more eyes on my book and ways I thought I could achieve that. NL swaps, better ARC numbers, and more reviews to draw readers in. Just feeling like I met and exceeded those goals changed my focus, and of course with release #2 the financial stuff got better anyway. Patience is a virtue and all that. I was ecstatic with my second release.
MH: We chatted about the December release for book 3–you were nervous about that month (because it’s always VERY crowded), but I said go for it. While ranking well is harder, a LOT of readers are picking up new books in December and January. Were you happy with the decision?
ES: Yes! December worked just fine for me. It was an AMAZING release that blew my previous one out of the water. I wasn’t running ads or competing in that regard so I think it was all okay and then I got another solid bump in January that really spread the good days out for me.
MH: So each release was growing, which is so fantastic! Before the release of book 4 (this month) you did 5 free days on book 1 in KU with some paid promo. Tell me how it went! A screenshot here would be great too! What paid promo did you use and did you make back what you spent on read-through?
ES: The free book promo was great! It ran March 7-11th. I had over 15K downloads and it doubled my daily page reads. I definitely made it back, especially since it butted up against the new release/final book in my series. Admittedly, I went all out on paid NLs. I figured if I can’t get a BookBub I’ll spend like I did. Haha. I did Freebooksy, Fussy Librarian, ENT, Red Feather, Bookspry, Pillow Talk, and Swoony Reads.
MH: It was a solid investment!
The graph below shows daily income for all Elsie’s books, and you can see she had a nice spike around her free days, which was also helped by a viral TikTok video.
MH: You messaged me this morning that you’d hit #454, and now you’re at #411! Are you comfortable sharing the top ranks you achieved with each book in the series, showing how you’ve grown?
ES: It’s blowing my mind. My highest rank around every release: Book 1: # 22,022
Book 2: # 11,836
Book 3: #5,923.
I just started playing with FB ads in February, and I’m glad I waited to have a few books out first.
MH: AMAZING! Wow, book 4 really stuck the landing, didn’t it?
ES: I guess so! I had hopes and dreams for this release and it was not this. haha.
This screenshot shows her income growth over all four releases in the series.
MH: Do you think the success of book 4 is because the series has been gathering readers slow and steady? Or do you think book 4 just had mass appeal and brought in lots of new readers?
ES: I think it’s been pretty slow and steady. I’ve watched close friends of mine blow up on TikTok and it looks soooo damn good. But it hasn’t happened for me and I keep reminding myself that the problem with TikTok is you can’t replicate that.
MH: Nope. But you know what? I just looked at your blurb (something you CAN control) and it’s fucking GOLD.
For reference, here are the top two lines, which are bolded on the product page:
I kissed my best friend’s little sister, and the world stood still.
That night we were two perfect strangers, the town’s grumpy recluse and a gorgeous girl in the back of a bar. Until we weren’t.
ES: I do feel like I nailed that blurb.
MH: Blurb nailing confirmed. It’s excellent.
ES: You have been my blurb guru every book. So thank you.
MH: You’ve now graduated from the Harlot Author School of Blurbs. A+++
Looking ahead, how are you using the momentum from this series to your advantage as you start the next one? Are they connected?
ES: The series are connected! The next one goes to the hometown of the heroine from book two (who is also a secondary character in the rest of the books.) It will follow all her brothers. I wrote a 600 word epilogue at the end of this book that teases book one in the next series as a phone call between her and her brother. I ended it on a hooky little cliffhanger and then linked to the pre-order there. I’m also hoping to continue publishing every 3-4 months. I’d like to say 3, but I always end up more at 3.5 and that’s comfortable for me right now I think.
MH: Tell me about how your subscriber list has grown.
ES: My list is at 3K and I just culled some who had never opened. My open rates are close to 50%. I send every other week. Except release month, this time I sent weekly. I started it about a month before my first book by offering a free prequel novella. I’ve also used it in BookFunnel NL building swaps. I think going forward I really want to focus on growing that list. These last two releases I’ve seen what a big impact sending a NL can have.
MH: YES. Your mailing list is your BIGGEST asset. You’re using bonus epilogues to entice readers to sign up at the end of your books?
ES: Yes! I have a bonus scene written for each book that is linked at the end. And then I also offer that free novella.
MH: Perfect. Preorder strategy?
ES: So this is interesting. Book one I did a month because that was the generic recommendation. Then I got more into your group and and saw what you were doing and talking about and I decided that first release with SB to try the 2 week strategy. Then book three we did three weeks because of where it fell and wanting to avoid thanksgiving with a cover reveal. But my preorders weren’t great. Only a few more than book two.
So then after some prodding from a friend who does longer preorders and seeing I think Karla Sorenson and Amy Daws talk about longer preorders, I pulled the trigger on I think about a 6 week preorder. This final book was teased really well in the book before it and I had 5x as many preorders as book 3 which was a very happy surprise for me.
MH: NICE! How about for the next series?
ES: I went all in and put it up already, so it will be about a three month preorder. Rank is nice, but ultimately I’m after bank and I already have a nice little chunk of preorders on a book that isn’t even completely written yet.
MH: Love it. So in terms of income, you went from not breaking even on book 1 to 5 figures a month with book 4, which I think is SO inspiring!
This screenshot shows how her backlist is helping that income growth, and it’s a great visual to advocate writing in series and staying in your lane! Yellow is book 1, orange is book 2, green is book 3, blue is book 4.
MH: What tips do you have for someone about to release a debut?
1. Don’t rush. It ruins the fun and I think putting out books that are well-edited and tightly branded is important. I am still constantly reminding myself to not rush.
2. Build your own ARC team! Send cold-call type messages is super cringey, but it will pay off. Melanie has a few great posts in here about how to reach out to bloggers. Follow that advice.
3. Set goals that you can control/affect to avoid disappointment. I think I’d have enjoyed the incredible milestone that publishing your first book is a whole lot more if I’d kept my goals more specific and attainable.
MH: This is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing, and I can’t wait to watch your career continue to soar! You’ve made very smart, brave, professional business decisions. Congratulations!