Breakthrough: interview with indie author Eliot Peper

Eliot Peper
Eliot Peper, author of Bandwidth, Borderless & other technothrillers.

In 2016 I self-published my first novel, a Virtual Reality technothriller entitled Presence. It got some good reviews and sold fairly well in the first month or two. But after that, sales trailed off. That’s because I struggled – and ultimately failed – to get my book noticed by the right websites, reviewers, “influencers” and book trade publications.

It’s a familiar story to the vast majority of self-published authors. The reality is, it’s very difficult to break through in book publishing.

One self-published author who did make the breakthrough is Eliot Peper, my guest in today’s creator profile. Peper also writes technothrillers (a subgenre of science fiction and, as I discovered, the only one a tech-based novel can easily fit into). It took him four tries to make a mark in this subgenre, but his persistence paid off.

Peper’s breakout book was Cumulus, a novel that got great reviews and went viral on Reddit. In the following interview we discuss more about how he promoted Cumulus and what the secret of its success was.

After Cumulus, Peper self-published his fifth technothriller, entitled Neon Fever Dream. While this book wasn’t as successful, it did lead to him landing an agent. Things really took off after that.

A literary agent is a crucial conduit to getting past the book industry’s gatekeepers, so it was little surprise when Peper inked a deal with Amazon Publishing soon after. Bandwidth and Borderless, the first two novels in the Analog trilogy, were both published last year. The third book, Breach, will be published in May.

Some of Eliot Peper’s novels on Amazon.

Even with the support of an agent and a powerful publisher like Amazon Publishing, it takes initiative and hard work to get your books noticed by the right people. I’ve always admired Peper’s ability to try different things when marketing his work online and the effort he puts into building his career as a fiction writer. We explore these aspects of being a modern author in the following interview.

Note: the rest of this article will take the form of a Q&A. I did a mix of email and phone interview with Eliot. Both were long, so I’ve edited to make this readable in one sitting.

Creator Interviews: You currently have an agent and publisher, but first I’d like to know about your experiences as a self-publisher on Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. How did you market yourself for your first few books, as a relatively unknown indie fiction writer at that point?

Early on, I scoured the internet for advice on how to market books and tried everything I could think of: I contributed guest blog posts, emailed book reviewers, solicited blurbs, ran A/B ad tests, sent out an email announcement to my entire contacts list, spoke up on social media, hosted a launch party, created a real website for the fictional startup in the novel as a stunt, and generally made an ass of myself.

Very few of my experiments worked. Many of them wasted a lot of my time and other people’s trust. Most of the advice I found online was bullshit.

But a few things did work: I wrote another book. And then another one. And another one after that. I tried to make every story I wrote better than the last. I took risks and had fun.

I shared work I was proud of with people I cared about, people whose work I respected and championed, people who had real, personal, specific reasons for wanting to take a chance on my novels. Over time, that group of people grew.

In short, I kept writing and built direct relationships with a small but growing community of readers.

Creator Interviews: Cumulus seemed to be your breakthrough, in that it generated reviews in some well known sites and (I assume) sold fairly well. What did you do differently for that book, that you maybe didn’t for the previous ones?

The day Cumulus came out, I was scrolling through my inbox while eating granola for breakfast and saw an email titled “Cumulus Film/TV rights.” Over the next few hours, more inquiries flooded in from agents, publishers, and production companies. I signed into my Amazon account and saw that Cumulus had rocketed to the top of the sales charts. I was stunned and confused: Cumulus was self-published and my “launch” consisted primarily of sending out my newsletter, drafting private notes to friends and advance readers, and posting on social media. What the hell was happening?

Later that day, a friend who was an avid Reddit user forwarded me a screenshot showing that Cumulus had hit the front page and attracted thousands of upvotes and hundreds of comments. Somebody had shared a link to an Ars Technica review of the book, which had sparked a flurry of snarky and serious discussion.

[Creator Interviews: it turns out Eliot had run into a writer from Ars Technica in a bar several months before, which ultimately led to that crucial writeup and the subsequent Reddit post.]

Could I have planned any of this? No way in hell. Was it replicable? Not in the least. Like Sauron’s eye, the internet had deigned to turn its fiery gaze on Cumulus for a brief and bewildering instant. It couldn’t be engineered or growth hacked. It just was.

We can’t control popularity, but we can control inputs. Doing your best work and putting it out there exposes you to serendipity. Focus on that, and sooner or later the rest will take care of itself.

Creator Interviews: In my own experience self-publishing, I found the PR and marketing by far the most difficult part – I really struggled to get the attention of any reviewers, and my existing social media platform was next to useless. Clearly you did a better job than me on these fronts, so what advice would you give to struggling self-published authors when it comes to marketing?

Books (and other creative products) succeed when readers tell other readers about them. That means that the most important thing I can do when I launch a new thing is get it into the hands of people who will love it so very much that they won’t be able to keep their enthusiasm to themselves, and then trust them to share it with the world.

How exactly do I do that? I start by sharing new work with my fans via my newsletter, blog, email, and any other channel I can. If they liked my previous books, they might like my new one.

Separately, if I come across a stranger (in person, by reading something they wrote, listening to an interview, etc.) who I think has a strong reason to love one of my books, I reach out with a concise, respectful, personal note telling them what their work means to me and offering to send them a copy of the book in question. Whether or not they’re interested, I treat each piece of outreach as the beginning of a longterm relationship, not a transaction.

I enthusiastically share books (and other art) I love. I pay it forward by sharing lessons learned.

Creator Interviews: Now I’d love to hear how your experience as an author with an agent and publisher has been, compared to your self-published experience. Has it markedly improved PR and sales?

I’ll start with the literary agent. So the reason I have an agent is because he does a lot of things for me that I can’t do on my own.

The first is that he lives in New York City [the home of book publishing]. He’s worked in publishing as an acquiring editor, meaning the person who’s making the decision to buy a manuscript. Later he became a literary agent. So he brings a strategic perspective to understanding the business of book publishing from the inside, and the structural dynamics currently affecting it. He has a perspective on that, that is really unique.

If he wasn’t my agent, I would happily pay for his time as a consultant – to help me figure out different approaches to what I’m trying to do with my books because he has a really unique inside perspective. So for example, because he sees so many books, he has a really, really good aesthetic eye for cover design and a very good intuition for title and for marketing copy. Like how to pitch a specific story to a specific audience.

As for the publisher, there are three major questions I consider when I decide whether or not to go with a publisher on a book: Do they believe in the story? How will they grow my audience? Will I earn more by working with them than by self publishing?

Because I keep a substantially larger part of the revenue from the sale of a self published book, a publisher must be able to sell many times the total number of books I can sell alone for the math to work. I care about the lifetime profitability of my books, not the first month or first year of sales, so it’s too early for me to give a definitive answer for the Analog novels. But I can say that Amazon Publishing believes in the series, they have helped me reach more than a hundred thousand new readers I would not have been able to reach otherwise, and I am earning more out of the gate than I have with any of my self published books so far.

Creator Interviews: Have there been any frustrations working with a publisher, compared to self-publishing?

I haven’t experienced any frustrations that are significantly different than self publishing. When self publishing, there are the usual communication and collaboration hiccups with the production team I hire. I’ve experienced similar things communicating and collaborating with a publisher.

Everything’s gone relatively smoothly. We did a good job setting the right mutual expectations when we inked the deal.

Creator Interviews: Finally, what are your views on the state of publishing now for indie authors? For example does Amazon’s dominance make it easier or harder for indies?

Amazon’s dominance means that anyone can sell ebooks, print books, and audiobooks online on a level playing field with Random House. Amazon’s dominance means that publishers large and small (and indie) depend on them for online distribution.

So far, Amazon has been fairly benevolent, but dependence is dangerous. Given that books represent a minuscule percentage of Amazon’s overall business, my guess is that neglect is a bigger threat than anything else. Authors (and publishers) who build direct relationships with their core audiences will be able to send those readers elsewhere, if or when they choose to build or use new distribution channels.

Creator Interviews: you can find all of Eliot’s novels on Amazon. Do support indie authors whenever you can.

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