Tracey Garvis Graves: The Self-Publishing Bestseller on ‘How I Did It’

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One of the questions I’m asked the most is, “How did you sell 365,000 copies of your self-published debut novel On the Island?” There’s no short answer, but if I had to sum up my success I’d say that I owe it to the readers who embraced my story and shared their recommendations with friends, family members and, sometimes, total strangers. No marketing campaign in the world can compete with the power of a large number of positive, word-of-mouth recommendations.  

Read more stories from successful authors in self-publishing on how they did it, including Theresa Ragan and Karen McQuestion.

When I completed On the Island a year ago, all I wanted was to obtain agent representation. I drafted my query letter and polished it to a high sheen. I sent out the first batch of queries and rejections started rolling in an hour later. In hindsight, I was probably naïve in thinking that anyone would take a chance on a debut novel that didn’t fit neatly into a single genre and had, quite frankly, a somewhat risky storyline. This realization, however, didn’t make the rejections any less heartbreaking.

My husband and my critique partner urged me to consider self-publishing. I didn’t want to. I thought it meant that my book wasn’t good enough. That I’d failed as a writer. People looked down upon self-published authors and were quite vocal about everything they were doing wrong: bad covers, no editing, horrible plots with holes you could drive a truck through. I resisted. Finally, I decided that I had absolutely nothing to lose by self-publishing, and I wholeheartedly disagreed with the mindset that a writer who fails to gain agent representation must shove their novel in a drawer, never letting it see the light of day again.

So I hired an editor. And after that I hired a copy editor and a digital formatter. I chose my cover art and I wrote a blurb. It took me approximately two months to complete all the necessary steps to prepare the manuscript for self-publishing. Then I uploaded to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.  

onthe island Over the next six months I promoted On the Island. I released the paperback via CreateSpace a month after releasing the e-book, and I sent copies to bloggers and held a giveaway on Goodreads. I purchased sponsorships on Pixel of Ink and Kindle Nation Daily and each ad paid for itself (and then some). The book steadily sold more than it had the month before. Some amazing bloggers started shouting their love of the book from the rooftops, and I started smiling a lot. Amazon selected On the Island for a promotion in March, and the visibility I gained did wonderful things for my sales.

I received an e-mail from an agent who wanted to discuss representation, and I signed with her agency. Foreign rights for On the Island have now been sold in 17 countries, as of this writing. MGM has optioned the book for a feature film. Last month I signed a two-book deal with Penguin, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing my books on the shelves of bookstores everywhere.

There are many avenues that a writer can choose for bringing their work to the marketplace, and I’m personally grateful that these choices exist.

I think the readers of On the Island are, too.

Tracey Garvis Graves lives in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, two children and hyper dog Chloe. Published in July by Plume, On the Island is her first novel. She loves hearing from her fans and can be found at Twitter @tgarvisgraves and on Facebook. Author photo by Ryan Towe.

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