The publishing industry is in turmoil, and there is no shortage of people lamenting the passing of the old order.
We’ve previously had wailing and grinding of teeth from the music and movie moguls. Now the publishers are the latest to tell us the digital revolution is the end of civilization as we know it.
But the changes are also creating fantastic opportunities for writers willing to take an alternative route to success — and novelist CJ Lyons is living proof.
To date, CJ has sold over a million self-published novels, hitting the USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists in the process. At one time, her books held five of the top ten slots on Amazon.
Success on this scale doesn’t happen by chance. CJ is an inspiring example of the emerging author-entrepreneur who is thriving in the new era of publishing. I’m delighted that she has agreed to share the lessons she’s learned with Copyblogger readers.
I know the writers in the audience will be eager to learn how CJ topped the charts. But when you look at the strategies she used, you’ll see they are also applicable to any nimble content-driven 21st-century business.
1. Mine your experience
CJ spent several years working as an ER doctor, dealing with the real-life dramas that came through the doors at all hours of the day and night. This gives an unmistakeable authenticity to her novels with medical settings, that would be next-to-impossible to achieve with mere research.
She has also worked with victims and law enforcement, and had to overcome post-traumatic stress after the murder of a close friend. This range of first-hand experience has enabled her to extend her reach as a writer into the mainstream thriller venue.
I believe these experiences have helped me to make my novels feel ‘as real as it gets’ while still being entertaining. ~ CJ Lyons
Takeaway: No one else on earth has lived your life, had your experiences, or seen the world through your eyes. Ask yourself what you can share from your unique story that will help you attract the right audience.
2. Put in the hours (even when they’re in short supply)
For most people, the punishing schedule of an ER doctor would be more than enough to fill their week. Not CJ.
She wrote her first novels in the gaps between shifts, which required extraordinary levels of energy and commitment. And like all aspiring novelists, she learned that perfecting the art of storytelling takes time, patience and persistence with no guarantee of success.
I’ve been writing all my life, so motivation wasn’t an issue, but finding the time to write was. The stories would ferment in my subconscious during my work week, and then when I had a day off, I’d blitz write as it all poured out of me. It actually was a pretty efficient way to work and has helped me to write faster — a bonus now that I have such tight deadlines to meet. ~ CJ Lyons
Takeaway: There are no shortcuts to excellence. Whatever your line of work, make the effort to master it. There’s no firmer foundation for your business than being the best in your customers’ world at what you do.
3. Use creative positioning
CJ describes her novels as ‘thrillers with heart’, as they focus on people and relationships, not just the crime, technology, and conspiracy that are the staple of the thriller genre.
I created the term after trying unsuccessfully to explain my unique brand of thriller/romance/women’s fiction to agents and editors. ‘Thrillers with heart’ says it all. My stories promise the reader an emotional journey in addition to the typical thriller roller coaster adrenalin rush. ~ CJ Lyons
By combining elements of the thriller and romance genres to produce something new and original, CJ is using classic crossroads positioning. Brands with this positioning combine previously unrelated elements to create something new.
The movie Alien was pitched to studios as “Jaws in space,” combining the horror and science fiction genres. Primal Scream started out as an alternative rock band, but they really took off when they mixed in elements of house music to create a hybrid sound.
In the online space, obvious examples of crossroads positioning include NeuroMarketing (brain science + marketing) and you guessed it … Copyblogger, combining copywriting and blogging (which was certainly a novel combination back in 2006 when Brian launched the site).
Of course, CJ didn’t come up with her positioning as a cold, calculated formula — like many artists, her positioning is a natural extension of her creativity.
Thrillers with heart are the kind of books she found herself writing, so it made sense to put that front and center for the kind of reader who would enjoy her books. You could say that her positioning comes (ahem) from the heart.
Takeaway: Does your work or business combine different elements in an unusual (and valuable) way? Could that give you the basis of a remarkable brand?
4. Be generous
You’re probably familiar with the idea that it makes good business sense to be generous in sharing digital content online, as a content marketing strategy.
But have you ever considered mailing hundreds of your physical products out to strangers, for free?
Because that’s exactly what CJ did. Back in 2008, when her readers were getting impatient for the follow-up to her novel Lifelines, she decided to keep them happy in the meanwhile — much to her publisher’s dismay — by offering to mail them a free copy of the book, personalised as a gift for their friends or family.
The publisher refused to participate, so CJ bought 350 copies of the book and paid all the postage herself. It was expensive and hard work, but as CJ told me,
I realized that not only was I making my audience happy, I was hopefully growing it by getting my books into the hands of new readers, and that’s when the light bulb went off and I realized my best promotion was getting my books into the hands of readers.
Since then the proliferation of ebooks has made it possible to do this without lugging so many parcels to the post office, but the principle remains the same: be generous, let people experience your great work and your business will grow.
And real generosity is more than a marketing strategy. Now that she’s achieved extraordinary success, CJ is using her platform to give back, with her Buy a Book, Make a Difference project:
I began writing thrillers as a way to cope with the pain of losing a close friend who was murdered. So now that my readers have helped me build such a successful career, I wanted to give something back. The Buy a Book, Make a Difference project provides money to charity as well as scholarships for police officers to receive forensic training.
I named the scholarship after my friend and my readers get the chance to become heroes as well as they’ll determine the amount we raise for each new release. So far in 2012, we’ve raised $12,000 and have provided six forensic scholarships. I hope to double that in 2013 — actually, I’m pretty certain we can because my readers rock!
Takeaway: Generosity doesn’t just feel good, it’s also a smart strategy for growing your business. Be generous in sharing valuable ideas online (mailing free products is optional). As Brian is fond of saying, if it feels like you’re giving away too much, you’ve probably got it about right!
5. Price strategically
Some online entrepreneurs, used to charging a healthy price for digital products, look at the low price of ebooks on Amazon and shudder. And there’s no shortage of voices from the traditional publishing industry condemning self-published authors for ‘devaluing books’ by charging as little as .99 cents a title.
What both of these groups fail to appreciate is the strategic function of pricing in a high-volume dynamic marketplace such as the Amazon book store.
Is a novel that took months or years to write worth more than .99 cents? Of course.
But supposing you could achieve exponentially more sales by pricing at .99 cents versus $9.99 or even $4.99?
That’s what CJ did. When her novel Blind Faith picked up enough momentum at $4.99 to pay her monthly mortgage, she decided to take a risk and drop the price to .99 cents.
Far from eroding the value of her book, she saw sales take off like a rocket — she hit the Amazon best seller chart (a powerful form of social proof in its own right) and the magic Amazon algorithms kicked in, promoting her book on “customers who bought this book also bought” lists and elsewhere in the store.
I have to give Mark and Brian and their Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap course credit for giving me the courage to try this and several other initiatives (like giving away 50,000 free ebooks!). Once I got over my ego being tied to the price of my books and realized that my readers were far more valuable, I began to make every business decision with my readers in mind.
My new mantra when faced with a dilemma is: Will this make my readers excited and delighted and ready to jump for joy? If the answer is yes, it’s the right thing to do — and so far that philosophy has paid off in spades! ~ CJ Lyons
As Seth Godin puts it:
For books under $20 (which means just about all ebooks), all that matters is volume. Not margin, but volume.
Takeaway: When pricing your products, consider context as well as intrinsic value. If you’re selling in a marketplace with a potential for high volume, consider pricing low (maybe temporarily) to achieve a strategic advantage.
6. Earn permission to stay in touch (and know when to ask for a favour)
I left out something really important from the last section.
CJ didn’t just drop the price of her book. She did something that distinguished herself as a creative entrepreneur, as opposed to the average self-published author who uploads her book and crosses her fingers that a low price will entice readers to take a chance.
In fact, CJ had been doing this something for years … earning the trust of her readers, asking for permission to stay in touch via email, and sending them valuable content over time (like those books in the mail).
So by the time she decided to drop the price of Blind Faith, she was able to send a friendly email to more than 10,000 readers.
The only promotion I did for that sale on Blind Faith is I sent out an e-mail to my readers and I said, ‘Hey, help me make a dream come true. I want to hit the Amazon Top 20 and we’ll see, maybe that will also lead to hitting another list.’
Well, two weeks later Blind Faith was number four on the USA Today list and a week after that it debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list. So my readers really started that momentum that built into something that I just couldn’t even imagine doing on my own. ~ CJ Lyons
The massive dent CJ made in the best seller lists came from a smart combination of an irresistible offer and a well-timed call to action to legions of eager fans.
She was only able to do this because she had spent years focusing on the big picture, building her permission asset through hard work and generosity. In her case, overnight success was anything but.
Takeaway: Make it a priority to build your email list, by sharing valuable, inspiring and/or educational content with your biggest fans. Never forget that these people are the future of your business, and treat them accordingly.
7. Accelerate when you build momentum
CJ was not satisfied with one big hit, nor even a string of them – she has kept up her remarkable rate of production, expanding her book range vertically, by writing series of books, and horizontally, by writing different types of books and creating other products.
As well as her ‘Angels of Mercy’ and ‘Hart and Drake’ thrillers with a medical background, she has ‘Shadow Ops’ and ‘Lucy Guardino FBI Thriller’ series, as well as standalone thrillers, collaborations with Erin Brockovich and appearances in anthologies. She also teaches what she has learned on her journey, in courses and blog posts via her NoRulesJustWrite site.
In one sense, this is down to the natural enthusiasm of a creative person who loves her work and likes exploring new avenues.
It’s also a smart entrepreneurial strategy, as it allows her to accelerate her success, giving her readers more of what they love, and keeping them interested by taking them in new directions.
I’m bored easily, guess that’s why the ER suited me so well, so I love being able to keep my promise to my readers of providing Thrillers with Heart while exploring every aspect of that brand, including some future series cross-over novels.
My newest projects are YA (young adult fiction) — I love reading YA and as a pediatrician love having the opportunity to empower kids when they’re at this very vulnerable age. But the cool thing is I can actually go darker and edgier with my YA than my adult fiction because kids crave emotional honesty and for adults sometimes being ‘as real as it gets’ is actually too real and too frightening. ~ CJ Lyons
Takeaway: When you feel your momentum building, look for ways to accelerate your success vertically (by giving your audience more of the same) and horizontally (by creating complementary products or services).
Doing great work isn’t enough
CJ has an artist’s dedication to the craft of writing, which is a necessary condition of her success. In an ideal world, it would be nice to think that just writing great books would also be sufficient to achieve what she has done.
But the reality is that, over and above the effort CJ puts into her writing, she has also approached her work as a creative entrepreneur, applying her creativity to the process of moving her business forward as well as her story lines.
One of the things that helped CJ accelerate her success was taking a course called the Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap …
A quick note from Brian Clark …
Mark was a little shy about highlighting the fact that C.J. is a student of his. In fact, she’s a student of mine as well, in the form of a course Mark and I created called the Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap. I’m not as modest as Mark is so I’m perfectly willing to tell you that the course distills some powerful thinking about how a small-scale creative business can keep their creative energy high and still make a profit.
The course also includes lessons from Sonia Simone, Jon Morrow, and Tony Clark. It’s all high-quality material and if you’re a creative entrepreneur, you should go check it out.