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Marketing Advice from Self-Publishing Success Intisar Khanani

Posted by Cynthia on January 8, 2018
Self-published author Intisar Khanani had always loved making up her own stories, and challenged herself to write a full-length novel during her senior year of university. She loosely based it on a Grimm’s fairytale she had loved as a teenager, The Goose Girl. Thorn tells the story of Alyrra, a princess who is forced to marry a prince she’s never met. When her identity is switched with another woman’s during a magical attack, she faces the opportunity to choose a different path. Before long, the book amassed over 5,000 ratings on Goodreads and the interest of an agent, who negotiated a two-book deal with HarperTeen. We asked Intisar to share some background of her publishing success story, and what marketing advice she has for other self-published authors.

Tell us a bit about your writing background. What made you start writing the story of Thorn?

Having written a number of short stories, I wrote Thorn my senior year of university as an exercise to see if I could write a novel. I figured if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to just go ahead and do that. So, between a full load of classes, a 20-hour-a-week job, and extra-curriculars, I set myself the task of writing a novel.

I chose a fairytale retelling of Grimm’s The Goose Girl as a way to have a tried-and-true plot to build off of, figuring it couldn’t be that hard to get it right. We’ll just call that the optimism of the ignorant! I read it as the story of a woman finding a way to choose her own path when so many of her decisions have already been made for her. Over the course of that school year, the same year as 9/11, I began to struggle with so much more as well: issues of justice and mercy, questions of compassion. Much of that also came into my novel, and continued to influence it over the course of a dozen drafts or so over the next ten years.

What kind of marketing activity did you do to get readers to read your book?

So much of this has to do with doing the right thing at the right moment. I enrolled Thorn in KDP Select when it first came out, and used my free days to garner thousands of downloads. Then I went wide and published a permafree short story set in the same world. Permafree shorts don’t get that much traction anymore—everyone wants free full-length novels now—but it worked wonderfully back then to boost sales of Thorn.

I ran a number of Goodreads giveaways to help create buzz, along with doing blog tours, general giveaways, and more. I also took the time to thank readers at the end of my book, and ask them to consider leaving an honest review. I provided links to Goodreads at the back of all my books, because that offered a two-fold benefit: readers could mark it as read (hopefully adding a rating while they're at it), and their friends would see the book pop up in their newsfeed. There's no telling what combination of factors resulted in so many ratings for Thorn, but it's clear that there's no one magic bullet.

What was your path to publication like?

It took a while for Thorn to hit its stride—finding the right cover, gathering enough reviews to gain traction on Amazon, and so on, but eventually, it founds its legs. Then I received an e-mail from an agent at Stonesong Literary after a Bookbub Featured Deal. She'd picked up Thorn and loved it. We spent about a month chatting about everything from my planned projects to the current political context and the need for diverse voices in the mainstream as well as stories that build empathy. Fast forward to now, and I have a two-book deal with HarperTeen for Thorn and a companion novel!

What did you learn during the self-publishing process?

I learned a lot. Here are my top five lessons learned, possibly in reverse order:

  • Reviews matter. Back in the day, blog tours were where it all was, and blogger reviews are still fantastic for both building buzz and getting the necessary reviews up on Amazon. NetGalley co-ops are another great option nowadays.
  • Marketing matters. Books don’t sell themselves, so you’ve got to be savvy. Keep an eye on what’s working, follow author forums, and try new things. Develop a budget and use it wisely. And remember, not everything has to cost a lot of money.
  • Covers matter, and no, you won’t necessarily get it right the first time, or even the second. Keep trying, study your genre, and go for the essence of the story.
  • Readers matter. Thank readers at the end of your book (and ask them for a short review if they’re willing). Give them useful, interesting content in your newsletters. And, well, don’t be surprised if, as time goes by, you make some amazing new friends here. It’s a wonderful thing.
  • Story matters. If your book isn’t up to snuff, nothing else really matters. And, of course, you need new stories. So just keep working to put out new stories, good stories, as often as you can.


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What’s your favorite thing to do on Goodreads?

I love finding new books to read! My general approach is to keep track of my own reading (and write reviews), and track trends and reviews of my books. I use the stats page for my books to see if giveaways or promos have an impact on how many people shelve my book, or read it.

What do you think self-published authors need to focus on to be successful?

For reaching new readers, I still mostly use sales with booked promotion services as well as group cross-promotions with other authors. I’m currently trying out newsletter swaps. Goodreads and other giveaways are fantastic for getting your cover/blurb in front of more eyes, but the old marketing wisdom of requiring five touches to sell a product holds true. You’re going to have to reach that reader again another way (or four) before you can hope for a sale. I can rarely track direct sales to giveaways, but when I don’t do them over time, sales slowly decrease. I should note that Goodreads books stats can be a decent proxy for assessing how effective a giveaway is (number of folks who add the book to their shelves), as long as the giveaway links up to Goodreads in some way.

What do you look forward to with the re-release of your books through HarperTeen?

I'm thrilled to be able to share this story with a wider audience. I've really enjoyed working with my editor to make Thorn shine (we're wrapping up final edits this month). But more than anything, I'm so thrilled at the prospect of reaching libraries. I grew up as a library kid, so the idea of getting one (or more!) of my books into libraries is the pinnacle of all things awesome for me.

What advice do you have for other self-published writers?

There is so much writing and publishing advice out there; I suppose the important thing is to keep your own reality in perspective. Do what works for you, write the stories you have in you, and keep trying new things. Don't sweat the stuff that you can't manage or have no control over, and, of course, don't give up!

What's next for you?

In addition to working on the companion story to Thorn, I'm also working on wrapping up my indie series, The Sunbolt Chronicles. I'll be researching the newest strategies for book launches, as well as the tried and true, and hanging out with readers and authors both. But mostly, I'll be writing.

Thorn will be re-issued in Winter 2019 along with a companion story. Got a question for the author? Intisar Khanani will be answering questions about book promotion in the comment section below the week of January 15, 2018. Leave her a question here and be sure to follow her to see her activity on Goodreads!


Next: Three Things Readers Want to See from Authors on Goodreads in 2018

You might also like: Marketing Advice from Authors, for Authors

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Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by T.A. (new)

T.A. Ward I really enjoyed this - very helpful. Thanks. Children of Wrath


message 2: by M. (new)

M. Nazar Syed Great insight! Thanks a lot! A Rush to the Stars


message 4: by B.B. (new)

B.B. Morgan Great article, short and sweet. A lot of self-published authors don't realize how much time should go into writing a novel - too many authors push out their self-published titles on the first or second draft.


message 5: by Intisar (new)

Intisar Khanani B.B. wrote: "Great article, short and sweet. A lot of self-published authors don't realize how much time should go into writing a novel - too many authors push out their self-published titles on the first or se..."

I believe there is a *lot* of market pressure to publish often, especially among indie authors. Just from my own experience, whenever I have a new release, all of my books have a jump in sales. Years that I don't? A steady decline until it's just a trickle of sales across the board. Personally, I'm a slow writer and I do 4-5 revision rounds on a book, including multiple beta-reading rounds and copyediting. As you say, I've got to put a lot of time into a novel to make it strong. But that does mean that (in the short time) my sales suffer. And my readers get sad waiting for the next book.

So I can completely understand authors who are trying to make even a supplementary income (and keep their readers happy) pushing themselves to get books out as quick as they can. It's a bit of a Catch-22, but I understand it completely.


message 6: by J. (new)

J. Else Thanks for sharing your marketing wisdom! Definitely a part of self-publishing I struggle with. I look forward to the re-release of Thorn, though I totally loved it the first time. Congrats on getting it picked up by a publisher!!!


message 7: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Wilson I wonder how this process translates into non-fiction books. I've been helping non-fiction writers get their books out into the world over the last seven years and I do see the trend toward literary non-fiction. But it still seems most of the books that get traction on Goodreads are fiction.


message 8: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Shannon Melissa wrote: "I wonder how this process translates into non-fiction books. I've been helping non-fiction writers get their books out into the world over the last seven years and I do see the trend toward literar..."

Hi Melissa! This blog post, The Essential Guide to Promoting Nonfiction Books on Goodreads might be helpful! It was posted this time last year. At the time, we looked at the most popular nonfiction categories for our members. Hope it helps shed some light!


message 9: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Wilson Wow. Thanks! This is kind of you.


message 10: by Vivek (new)

Vivek Kumar It was amazing to read about your success story. All the very best for future.
Saving The Secret (A short double murder mystery)


message 11: by Ma (new)

Ma Titia Thanks for sharing your wisdom...like Melissa I wonder how this translates to Non- fiction books.?

I recently published a non-fiction book for which I'm currently doing a Goodreads Giveaway for - 'Truth About Health Exposed' and it would be great to hear from someone who's had similar success with such....


message 12: by Gatot (new)

Gatot Susanto Success amazing intizar khanani. I hope can like you. My novel konspirasi para ibu (women conspiration) ini in indonesian language about woman in politic, i can hope like your books. I am sorry my english is bad. Thanks you

Gatot Susanto


message 13: by Andy (new)

Andy Zach Wonderful article Intisar Khanani! I particularly liked the idea of thanking the reader at the end of the book. Another author I know, Ksenia Anske, writes handwritten notes in the back of her novels. I think I'll do both.

I also like publishing a preview of my next novel in the back of the previous one. Aurthor Rachel Aaron has found that is her most effective marketing technique.

Andy Zach, comic paranormal animal author
https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01M3Q35H1


message 14: by Intisar (new)

Intisar Khanani Andy wrote: "Wonderful article Intisar Khanani! I particularly liked the idea of thanking the reader at the end of the book. Another author I know, Ksenia Anske, writes handwritten notes in the back of her nove..."

Hi Andy! What a neat idea to write a handwritten note at the end of a novel! I haven't heard of that before. I think that could work very well--just be careful with and test out how big the note will look on different e-readers. I just finished a book last night that included an image of an "official" letter only it was showing up the size of about a book cover thumbnail. I had my nose about an inch from the screen trying to decipher the writing! I'm sure it showed up better on whichever device the author tested it on.

And yes to other back matter! I usually only put a 1 page excerpt from 1-2 other novels at the back, plus cover, blurb, and links. I used to get dinged in reviews for providing a full chapter at the back, so I've gone shorter now and it seems to work. However, it's also possible readers have gotten more used to longer excerpts since I first tried it out. Must revisit...


message 15: by Andy (new)

Andy Zach My 'Zombie Turkeys' novel has half a chapter of the next in it. I'll put about a page and a half in 'My Undead Mother-in-law' after my third has been edited.

The handwritten notes are actual notes enclosed in paperback editions! I love your idea of taking a picture and enclosing it in the ebook.

I wish you more success!


message 16: by Emma (new)

Emma York Wonderful, helpful, detailed article. Thank you for sharing!


message 17: by Esther (new)

Esther  Loftus  Gough Very interesting article -thanks


message 18: by Ivica (new)

Ivica Ďuricová Thank you, Intisar, for your great insights. I also use the "thank you and reviews" technique in my books and also used it by The Golden Bond: a (charis)magical spy story. It always works. I hesitated with a BookBub promotion but it seems I have to give it a chance. Do the bloggers want to read and review a book if it's published only in an ebook form? Thanks for your reply and wish you a lot of success with your books! :) Ivica


message 19: by Intisar (new)

Intisar Khanani Ivica wrote: "Thank you, Intisar, for your great insights. I also use the "thank you and reviews" technique in my books and also used it by The Golden Bond: a (charis)magical spy story. It always..."

Hi Ivica! I haven't had any trouble with bloggers not wanting to read and review a book if it's indie published or only has an e-book version. (That said, you might want to set up a print format on CreateSpace or Ingram Spark because there will always be a few readers who might like to keep your book on their shelves!) When reaching out directly to bloggers, always double check their review policy to make sure they're open to your genre, and to self-published books. If they don't answer a query, let them go. :)

I also wrote a post on the SFWA blog about planning for reviews for new releases. If you're interested, you can find it here: http://www.sfwa.org/2017/03/four-stra...

Even if you don't have a new release planned soon, the strategies outlined can still be helpful.

All my best!


message 20: by Ivica (new)

Ivica Ďuricová Intisar wrote: "Ivica wrote: "Thank you, Intisar, for your great insights. I also use the "thank you and reviews" technique in my books and also used it by [book:The Golden Bond: a (charis)magical spy story|351407..."
Another great article, thank you, Intisar! :) This is very helpful <3 I am definitely going to try out some of these strategies and will see, how they work. Thanks again! :)


message 21: by Intisar (new)

Intisar Khanani Ivica wrote: "Another great article, thank you, Intisar! :) This is very helpful <3 I am definitely going to try out some of these strategies and will see, how they work. ..."

You're so very welcome! :)


message 22: by Teri (new)

Teri Thanks for sharing your advice - that's a beautiful cover!


message 23: by Intisar (new)

Intisar Khanani Teri wrote: "Thanks for sharing your advice - that's a beautiful cover!"

Thanks so much, Teri! I love my cover designer; she is incredibly talented. Her portfolio is at www.seedlingsonline.com :)


message 24: by James (new)

James Ermilio-Warren Hi.
Thank you for the article, and congratulations on your success. I just self-published my first novelette of 59 pages with 20 color photographs. The target audience is LGBTQ teenagers, but probably most teens will enjoy "The Queer Godfather and the Principal."
Could you please give me some advice about current ways to market to teenagers? Thanks, James Ermilio-Warren


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