Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors #11 – Ruth Ann Nordin

Today we have a very special interview with best-selling Indie author, Ruth Ann Nordin. Ruth lives in Montana with her husband and four sons. When she's not playing wife and mother, she's reading and writing. She has written over sixty books, and about fifty of those are romances. Her romances include Regencies, historical westerns, and contemporaries. To find out more about her and her books, please visit her website (link at the end of this interview). Meanwhile, grab your favorite beverage and dive into this interesting and informative interview:

Who are you and where do you come from? Do you think that your life experience has gone someway towards making you a successful author in your chosen genre?

I’m Ruth Ann Nordin, and I was born and raised in Ohio.  I’ve lived in several states since I was 18, my favorite ones being North Dakota, Alaska, and now Montana.  To a point, having moved around and checked out different areas of the United States has influenced my decision to write historical westerns, so you could say it has helped to some degree.  However, a person can live in one place their whole life and be successful.  There is no limit to the imagination.

Did you try to get publishing contracts for your books early on with traditional book publishers? If so, did you have any success there or, if not, what was it that made you decide to self-publish the majority of your work?

I did, but only because people in my writing groups said it was the only legitimate way to be a writer.  I didn’t receive rejections, per se.  I was given feedback on things to change in my stories, and I was encouraged to resubmit them.  This was with two different publishing houses.  So it wasn’t like I was submitting all over the place or submitting a lot.  I barely managed the enthusiasm to submit to them since my heart wasn’t in it.

My heart wasn’t in doing the changes they wanted, either.  The stories would significantly change, and I wouldn’t have liked them the way the publishers wanted them.  I decided to go on my own and self-publish, much to the dismay of the writers in those groups.  Some people warned me I was making a huge mistake and some refused to acknowledge any of my self-published books.  This was back in 2008-2009.  I can tell you the attitude has changed so much toward self-published authors.  Ironically, the writers who once argued with me about my choice are now self-publishing their own books.

With over fifty published works, you write mainly Historical and Contemporary Romance but also dabble in other genres. What drew you to primarily write in the Romance genre/s and why do you also write in other genres?

I love reading a wide variety of books.  The same is true for watching TV shows and movies.  Writing in other genres helps me stay creative.  If I only did romance, my work would become stale.

Is diversification something you see as a growing necessity for contemporary self-published/indie authors, or is specialization (genre focus) more important in your opinion? If so/not please explain why.

I guess it depends on whether you’re going after a trend or not.  Romance sells well regardless of trends, so it’s easier to diversify between Regencies, historical westerns, and contemporaries (the three sub-genres I write in).  I remember when serials were big, and now I barely hear anything about them.  I never did serials because I like writing standalones or a series where each book can stand by itself. 

I think what might be a good strategy is to find a genre you enjoy, find out what elements are in the bestselling books in that genre, and putting those elements into your stories.  For example, when I branched out to Regencies, I read the descriptions of the top sellers in the genre and picked out things they had in common (a forced marriage, a scandal, and the hero and heroine not liking the arrangement).  I put all three into my first Regency, and it was one of my bestselling books of all time.  I created my own story using those three things.  I think that technique can be done in any genre.  You’re not writing someone else’s story.  You’re telling your own, but you’re using similar elements.

I would also make the title and cover something the readers in the genre expect.  If you do something different for the sake of being different, I don’t think that’s going to send the right message to your target audience.  The audience has learned to expect a cover to look a certain way.  As for titles, I would use something that would naturally catch the target audience’s attention.  So having a woman in a beautiful gown on the cover with a title along the lines of “Bride” or “Marriage” or “Mail Order” attract romance readers, esp. for historical westerns.  The books I use with those elements on covers and titles sell the best long-term. 

The genres I write outside of romance barely sell anything.  For experimentation, I would say go ahead and spread the net wide.  But write most books that fit within the platform you’ve built for a better chance at a sustainable income.

Most of your books have positive reviews and lots of them (reviews, that is). How do you go about soliciting reviews for your work, or is it a more organic process for you in that you put the books out there and the reviews come on their own accord? Do you have any advice for indie/self-published authors as to the best way to gain reviews?

I don’t solicit reviews unless it’s a book with my publisher.  In that case, I offer a free book in exchange for an honest review.  (I only have five books with the publisher.)

For my self-published titles, I rely on an organic process for acquiring reviews.  I don’t like asking for them because I’m so busy that I have trouble making it over to Amazon to review books.  Readers are busy, too.  Some have been burned by authors who’ve actually harassed them over a review.  I don’t want to add pressure to a reader to review my books.  I prefer it to be their idea.  Having the first in a series at free has helped to get a lot of those reviews, but mostly, it’s been time that builds up the number of them.

Is there any one thing that you have determined has helped you sell more books – i.e. could you outline your path to establishing your brand and your most successful sales method/s?

I know this is highly controversial in the self-publishing circle, but putting the first book in a series at free has been the single best marketing technique I’ve ever used.  Early on (around 2009), almost all of my stuff was free.  I had the books on my website, on some blogs, and on Smashwords.  I also started a first draft blog around that time.  This blog was very popular, and I got a chance to meet a few readers in the comments who later went on to be friends.

Since then, I have adapted my strategy so that the series starters are free.  I don’t have the blog anymore, but I just started over at Wattpad.  I don’t plan to put everything up for free.  I think that could be a bad move since writers should be paid for their work.  I know this sounds like a contradiction since I suggest free books, but those series starters are loss leaders to introduce people to my work.

Do you think it is important for self-published authors to identify and write in a niche market (genre) that they may have an interest in, in order to establish themselves as a leader in that genre and sell more books?

Well, I did do this without meaning to.  I started writing Christian romances that included sexual intimacy in the marriage relationship.  This was unheard of by publishers and the self-publishing crowd back in 2009 when I started it.  Now I know several self-published romance authors who have gone down this path.  It’s a surprisingly big market that few tap into.  No one was more surprised than I was to learn so many Christian women love this niche.  I’ve received thank you’s from them and their husbands for writing these books.  (Not everyone is happy with it, though.  I do receive emails from Christians who don’t approve of what I write.)  It’s a toss up.  You’ll never please everyone.

I’d say if the genre is popular anyway, writing for a niche market might pay off very well.  But if you’re hitting a genre that is small already, it’s going to be harder to make significant money.

Once you have decided that self-publishing might be your route, what financial and artistic considerations should you keep in mind before you begin?

If you are looking at living off your writing, pay off all your debt and save up for at least six months of expenses.  Sales fluctuate way too much to quit your job as soon as you’re making a living.  There will be self-employment taxes to pay, so save aside money for that, too.  I live in the United States, and I didn’t realize 40% would go to the federal government and almost 7% would go to the state I lived in.  So consider what your tax implications will be if you start making a living at writing.  I had to sell a truck I loved in order to make my tax bill one year because H&R Block told me I only had to pay 15% to the federal government.  It still hurts when I think about it.  Another thing I would do is find a certified accountant who specializes in small business to help with taxes.  You could spend your free time doing this stuff yourself, but you’ll make more money writing the next book.

As for artistic considerations, I would make sure the book is edited by someone who is qualified to do the job.  I’m not a big fan of critique groups, but I love beta readers who love the genre I write in because they best point out if anything is boring.  Readers will forgive the occasional typo, but they don’t forgive a boring book.  A good proofreader will help with the typos.  I would also get a good cover.  At the minimum, an attractive stock image with a title and author name that is legible are necessary. 

Last, but not least, I would make sure this is something I’m 100% passionate about.  It’s not easy to be a self-published author.  You’ll get negative feedback, sales will go down at some point, someone might steal your work and sell it on Amazon because it’s the most popular bookstore out there, you’ll get pirated at some point, and you might lose your whole story and have to rewrite it all over again.  I’ve dealt with it all, and I would have given up long ago if I didn’t love what I do.

How important are ‘Series Books’ to your continued success as a self-published author?

I write romance, and it’s absolutely necessary in this genre.  Romance readers get attached to almost every secondary character that shows up in a book.  I’m not sure how important it is for other genres. 

Do you design your own covers? How important do you think cover design is to a potential reader and how big a part do you think it has played in your success to date? 

I don’t design my own covers anymore.  It’s too much work to get it looking like it came from a big publishing house, which is where the level of expectation is now at.  Back when I started, I could do my own covers, and things worked.  Now, it’s a different story.  Unless you are good at doing them, I would hire out.

In your opinion, is traditional publishing on the way out? Do you think that traditional publishing can continue to keep up with the rise of self-publishing?

This is just my opinion.  I don’t have a crystal ball, so I could be totally wrong.  That disclaimer aside, this is what I think will pan out.  I suspect self-publishing will continue to thrive for a few more years over traditional publishing.  I suspect the big publishers will decline overall.  (This assumption is based on the way some are embracing places like Author Solutions, which is a vanity press.)  I think they’re in trouble.  Readers can get better deals without them.  The fact that they have the overhead of a staff to pay is working against them.

My other opinion is that Barnes & Noble won’t be able to stay relevant.  My sales have continued declining over there while staying pretty consistent at iBooks and Kobo (although Kobo’s earnings aren’t so hot to begin with).  I think globally, self-publishing will take off like it had in the United States. 

Long-term, I think the royalty rates we currently enjoy will go down.  The squeeze is already starting at Amazon.  Authors not exclusive to them only get 35% at some countries like India.  I don’t know if Amazon will continue to be a huge portion of earnings for authors, especially in the United States, but I do expect Amazon (at some point) to lower royalty rates on everyone to some degree. 

When this happens, I expect other retailers to follow suit.  I believe this might bring on the rise of small publishers who can help authors get a fair royalty rate, which will lead more authors to seek them out.  Then, in years to come, those small publishers will become big publishing houses.  And the cycle will repeat itself with self-publishing becoming attractive once more.  I would give this about a hundred years to play out, so we still have plenty of time to enjoy self-publishing.

Again, it’s all speculation.  I could be completely off base. 

You’ve had noted success with Smashwords. Many other authors have failed to make much money with the Smashwords publishing platform but you seem to have bucked the trend. In 2012, David Weir interviewed you and you shared your sales figures for Smashwords – you had a massive jump in sales after your first year with them. Can you share your thoughts on this and try to pin-point what it was exactly that launched your sales back then? I.e. do you think it was because you gave away so many titles in your first year with Smashwords and that you had a ready-market for your follow-up titles?

Honestly, I think it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  The techniques I used back then wouldn’t work so well today because today there are so many more books out there, making it harder to get noticed.  Back then, if you had free books, it was easy to get noticed.  It also helped this happened at a time when the eBook market was taking off in the United States.  What also helped was that I had about twenty books published and was working on more.  If I hadn’t kept writing and publishing an average of six books a year, I don’t think I would have gotten noticed at all on Smashwords.  Today, I’m not an impressive name at Smashwords.  Other authors do way better than I do.  They have big traditional publishing houses behind them, so they are established.  Those are the authors who seem to be hitting it big over there these days.  I can only think of one or two authors where this isn’t the case, but they both got into self-publishing before it really took off.  Sometimes timing is everything.

Would you recommend publishing with Smashwords and other online publishers as an alternative to Amazon’s KDP and Createspace platforms? I.e. do you feel that it is necessary for self-published authors to use as many avenues in order to widely publicize and market their books to potential readers?

If someone is going to enter Amazon’s exclusive Select program, my advice is to do it with a new book.  Amazon is too quick to punish an author for having that same book up at any other site and it’s hard to control when another site is going to take the book down.  Smashwords just had to cancel their contract with Flipkart because Flipkart wasn’t removing books fast enough to make Amazon happy.  Amazon was sending the author a warning to get it removed, and the author was scrambling around to make it happen while Flipkart wasn’t able to react fast enough.

So the best way to protect yourself if you’re going to be exclusive with Amazon is to put a brand new release in Select.  Only do other avenues when you are 100% convinced you’re going to let the book stay on those other avenues.  In my opinion, it’s just not worth the headache to be going out and going back in.  If you want to try some books in Select and others widely distributed, fine.  Just make sure you have a strategy when doing this.  After 90 days, take out the Select book and distribute it.  Then put a new release into Select.  Eventually, you can have a good backlist with both methods.

Obviously, writing a good story, having great covers and lots of hard-work goes towards creating success, but do you think your financial success with self-publishing has also been fortuitous because of the popularity of your chosen genre? If so, what is it about the Romance genre/s that you think makes it so popular with readers?

Genre definitely plays a huge role in sales.  Romance readers read a lot of books.  Some read 1-2 books a day.  The market is in high demand.  On the flip side, they do seek out bargains, so lower priced books tend to do better.  In other genres, this might not be the case, but from what I’ve seen over the years, a low priced romance will do better over the long-term than a high priced one.  Free to $2.99 seems to be a sweet spot for this genre.  I’m guessing other genres see their ideal price point a little higher.

Would you ever consider signing all your books to a traditional publishing house or will you always mange some of your titles yourself through self-publishing?

No.  I would always want some of my books to remain fully under my control.

Have you ever used free book promotions? Do you think they are a worth-while marketing tool for self-published authors? If so/not – why?

Temporarily setting a book free in a promotion can be a good tool as long as there is a nice back-list of paid books that go with it.  I would never offer my only book for free.  From what I’ve researched, the best use of free is for a series starter, so I’d make it the first one in the series.  

I’ve seen authors gather a good-sized email list from offering a free book in exchange for someone signing on up to be on their list.  There are people who will unsubscribe to the list after getting the free book, but it seems most will stay on it.  I don’t use this technique, but I’ve heard it pay off very well for some authors.

Lots of changes have been occurring within Amazon’s KDP program/s (Select, Unlimited, Countdown etc) over the past couple of years – do you feel that it is still possible for hard-working, self-published authors who write great stories, to become best-sellers by remaining exclusively with Amazon?

I’ve never been exclusive with Amazon, nor have I ever been exclusive with anyone else.  I like having a wide base.  For the record, most of my sales still come from Amazon.  While iBooks and Kobo have been pretty steady (with Kobo being a very small percentage), Barnes & Noble has been dropping over the past year.  I know it seems like the smart author would do exclusive to some degree, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

I have some readers who buy books from other retailers, and I want to make sure they have access to my books on their preferred device without having to download a Kindle app.  Not everyone wants to get that app.  I’m probably losing money by not being exclusive, but my first loyalty is to the readers who have been with me over the years.  Had it not been for them and their encouragement, I would have pulled all of my books from the Internet long ago.

I do believe authors who tell compelling stories that are polished up can make the bestsellers list even if they aren’t exclusive.  I know a romance author who manages to do it with almost every book she publishes.  She can run a Bookbub ad and hit the Top 100 in the Paid Kindle store. 

Has it happened to me?  No.  I tend to hit lists outside of Amazon.

What would you say is the single biggest advantage of deciding to self-publish?

Full control over the story’s content.  To me, that is the very best reason to self-publish.

How important do you think social media and a strong active online presence is, to becoming a success as a self-published author?

I think it’s very important.  I know we would rather be writing our books, but the truth is, we need to connect with our readers.  Social media is about being social, not constantly pitching your books.  Readers like to see the author as a human being, and, likewise, it’s nice to know your readers’ names and something about them.

That aside, in order to stand out from the crowd of self-published books, we need to be actively engaged online and build a presence so readers can more easily find us.  They won’t find us right away.  It’ll take time, and it needs to be consistent.  You can’t post something once a month and expect a large following.  Also, you don’t want to be posting something all the time or you’ll be annoying.  I knew an author who made a three blog posts a day.  I had to hide him from my feed because I got sick of it.

The best technique is to engage with what others are saying.  Participate.  Blog an average of three times a week, if you’re into blogging.  Otherwise, hang out and be a part of the discussion on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, etc.  Be a person, not an author trying to sell a book.  Your link with your name can show people what you write. 

Are you in regular contact with other self-published authors and how important was any input you may have received early on in your career?  Do you have a mentor in terms of your self-publishing success – someone who may have inspired you to ‘give it a go’?

Since I started out with eBooks in 2009, the atmosphere among authors was pretty much antagonistic toward self-publishing.  The only real mentor I had was Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn.  She was a big source of enthusiasm and motivation in self-publishing.  I still listen to her podcasts and buy her books to this day because of it.  Her stuff is top notch, and I would highly recommend her to anyone who is starting out with self-publishing.

Where to from here? Are you currently represented by an agent and are you working with any publishers on future projects?

I am working on one book for my small publisher and two I’ll self-publish.  I still primarily self-publish everything I write.  The percentage of books I self-publish is 80%.  I like having the publisher because I do keep control over my content and covers, and it’s nice having the experience under my belt.

Can you offer any advice to fellow writers if you could go back in time and “do it all over?” What’s your top tip for other indie authors?

Don’t listen to someone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.  Do what you want.  No one knows what’s best for you except you.

Finally, thanks for sharing your thoughts on self-publishing. Where is the best place for readers to find your books?

To keep it simple, I’ll point you to my favorite place on the Internet: my author blog (

Thanks for the great questions.  This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had.

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