Christine Lemmon is an example of self-publishing at its best, with nearly 50,000 copies of her books sold. After selling books in her own community of Sanibel Island (off Florida's coast) and expanding regionally (through her own vigorous promoting and selling to local bookstores, hotels, gift shops and more), she is hoping to continue her journey, reaching fans and readers nationwide with the recent release of her new book, Sand in my Eyes.
Christine has generously answered some of my questions about the success of her self-publishing efforts.
As a self-publisher, you’ve sold 50,000 copies of your books. I’m sure every self-published author wants to know your secrets. So, let’s start from the beginning: When your first book was hot off the press, did you have a marketing plan? Did you have an existing platform or readership of any kind?
I had a very simple plan for my first novel. My husband and I were living in Nashville, Tenn., at the time, and when the novel released, we loaded our trunk with books and drove to Sanibel Island, the setting of my book. I sat out in the car with our baby as my husband went in and out of every book and gift shop on the island asking if they’d like to carry the book.
I remember letting out yelps of pure joy and shock every time he returned to the car to tell me, “Yes!” Of course the shops were cautious at first, taking only a couple copies at a time and most did want books on a consignment basis. If they sold, then they would pay us.
What kind of role did your community play in the marketing of the book?
From the very start, the local island newspapers have reviewed my books and have written feature articles about me being a writer with a history on Sanibel. They also print a weekly bestseller list and my books frequent that list. I also write a column related to creativity, writing and inspiration that appears in the paper every other week. And during the winter months, I did 15 local book signings/talks and the papers promoted every single event. The newspaper has been an outstanding way for me to promote my books without spending a dime on advertising.
What was the single most successful marketing or promotion strategy you employed?
My husband designed a display for my books—a beach chair the books can sit on. He ordered the wood, painted it white and put each display together himself. There is a small beach chair that sits on a counter, and often gets placed near the cash registers, or there is a tall beach chair. He also created a poster that we attached to the top of the displays. It features the covers of my books and my website and lets people know in a roundabout way that the displays are specially designated to go with Christine Lemmon novels.
Floor space is short in most stores and at first, some stores told us they simply didn’t have enough space to take on our books. But when John returned with the charming beach chair displays, those very stores made room for us. Often, books by local authors are placed on a side shelf, or in the back of a store, but our books—thanks to the eye-catching displays—are right at the front door when you walk in and they are hard to miss. The display paints a picture in the minds of customers. It has them thinking, “I want to sit on that white beach chair and read that book.”
Is there anything special about you, your book, or where you live that made it easier or more natural for you to market/promote your books??
All three of my novels take place on Sanibel Island, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. It is a major tourist destination attracting people the world over. Visitors to the island want to take a slice of paradise home with them and good quality books by local authors make great souvenirs and gifts.
Although my first novel released when I was living in Nashville, Tenn., I have been walking the beaches of Sanibel since I was two years old when my grandparents moved there from Chicago and we would go to visit them. I spent all my high school and college spring breaks visiting my grandma on Sanibel, and even met my husband in the area. Most of our dates were on the island and we held our wedding reception there. Now we are living and raising our children there and people like buying books by an author who actually lives on the island and gets inspiration there.
Where do most of your books sell?
Locally on Sanibel Island, in its two bookstores, numerous gift shops, upscale resorts on the island, in Fort Myers, Sarasota, Marco Island and Naples, as well as the local airport. It is a unique situation because people buy it while visiting, then take it back to their own states, read it, like it, and then e-mail me asking where they can buy more copies for friends and family.
Our website links to local bookstores on the island, as well as to the major online bookstores and we have seen nice sales here as well.
?Was there any kind of tipping point for you in book sales?
Yes. We noticed a tipping point as soon as my third novel, Sand in My Eyes, released. By the third novel, I had a following of readers and because many people visit Sanibel year after year, they had already bought my first two books and when they saw the third, they had to have it almost as if it were a collection, or as if they couldn’t come to the island without buying a Christine Lemmon novel. This is according to the e-mails and feedback from store owners. In addition, those who did not read the first two books returned to the island, seeing three books and suddenly felt they needed to see what it was all about. But, because they wanted to start with the first, they ended up buying all three. We saw a huge increase in the sales of the first two novels, in addition to the newly releasing third at this time.
We saw another tipping point after my fourth book, Whisper from the Ocean, released and I started writing a column for the Island Sun. People that have never read my books before are telling me that after reading my column, they have gone out and bought my books—all four of them!
I personally sign every book that is sold on Sanibel, and when my fourth book released, I could hardly keep up with signing books. Some mornings I was signing upwards of 400 books at a time before my husband delivered them to the stores.
Has online marketing played a role in your sales? If so, what strategies have been most effective?
Up until this point, online marketing has not played a role in my sales, mostly because we have not pursued it. Our business has been consistently good in our local market. Also, I must confess that there is so much work involved in self-publishing that there is very little time and in my mind, I imagined online marketing to take up my entire life, just figuring it all out. Now that we have a national distributor, however, and are taking the books national, we see how crucial it is to pursue online marketing and I am doing all I can to learn everything I need to know about it.
To start, we have launched a brand new website we are proud of. The website is our headquarters for online marketing and I wanted mine to be an experience for visitors, as if they are washing ashore in a little boat, discovering an island of their own. I am writing blog posts for the very first time and in addition to posting on my own website, I am in the midst of a very exciting 30-blog tour in which my book is being reviewed, but also, I am doing interviews with guests. I have already read feedback from readers who said they are now buying my book online after having read my blog or a review of my book online.
How much time do you spend each day on marketing/promotion vs. writing??
When working on a novel, I write every single day for two hours morning or night. When a novel releases, I put untold hours into promotion. If
I give a talk, I spend hours writing an outline, preparing my talk, tailoring it to the particular group I am talking to. I have been spending several hours a week writing my newspaper column, blogs for my website and conducting online interviews with special book sites. Writing is very consistent, but promoting is not. It all depends on the opportunities that arise. I do, however, put in extra promotional time in the 90 days after my book first arrives. It is almost like a promotional sprint during the first three months and sometimes I plant seeds that don’t surface for months later and all of a sudden the newspaper calls and tells me they want to meet me, they want to do a feature story.
?Given your success, have any agents or editors approached you with a traditional deal? Or have you pursued an agent or publisher based on your success?
An editor from a major publisher recently e-mailed me. This editor has visited Sanibel and year after year has bought and read my three novels and feels I would fit well with their publishing house. I do not, at this point, have plans to sell my books to a major publisher. My husband and I have a unique situation and we are not ready to let it go. We enjoy the challenges that come with self-publishing and striving to put forth books every bit the quality of major publishers while at the same time exercising our creative freedom. The long and arduous journey of self-publishing has enhanced our lives and has given us a sense of pride and ownership that one gets from running their own business.
Of course I will always entertain offers. I do not want to overlook wonderful possibilities, but I will consider carefully before letting our books out into today’s world of publishing hardships.
Other advice to share?
Be open to criticism but do not let it kill your spirit for writing. Some readers may write from ego and others I believe, from inspiration. I don’t understand how authors can have big egos because the process of writing and getting to the point of publication and acclaim is a humbling journey full of criticism, rejection and endless hours of solitude and hard work.
I thought I was done with the writing of Sand in My Eyes and sent it to a New York editor for feedback. She told me my writing was good, but that no one wants to read the story of a miserable woman. I told her I would do anything to make it better but she told me not even to try. It wasn’t worth fixing. Her outright rejection sent me for weeks into a dark night of the creative soul and had me questioning the difference between inspiration and imagination and wondering whether inspiration exists at all.
And then during my daily walk around Sanibel Island where I live, there was a bird crossing the road and a woman in a car that was waiting for the bird hung her head out the window and said to me, “The birds have no fear.” I thought about what she said the rest of my walk home and the next morning turned my computer on and without fear, I started to rewrite Sand in My Eyes!
I took into account the negative feedback the editor had shared with me. If my story was a tree, I tried to see it as barren with no leaves on its branches, so I went to work adding layer upon layer of beauty, optimism, spirit and wisdom until I saw that my tree was full of leaves, flowers, fruit, birds and even had wind moving through its branches and then I knew I was done, that my story was a mature tree brimming with life.
My thanks again to Christine for taking time to answer my questions. Learn more about Christine Lemmon and her novels at her website.
For more insight into self-publishing (and marketing and promotion) from Writer's Digest, check out these on-demand seminars that I've presented in the last year: