Russell Nohelty and Monica Leonelle are disrupting our publishing paradigms and directly addressing the most important question on every author’s mind: How do I sell more books? Russell Nohelty is a USA Today best-selling author, publisher, and speaker. He runs Wannabe Press, a small press that publishes what he describes as weird books for weird people. He also writes The Author Stack, a popular publication on Substack. His website is RussellNohelty.com
His partner is Monica Leonelle, a USA Today bestselling author, MBA and former software engineer turned executive marketing professional turned independent author. Her background offers a unique analyst perspective on trends in the publishing industry, which she shares through her work in her free newsletter, her books, and writer MBA.
Their latest project is Direct Sales Mastery for Authors, the definitive guide with a goal of teaching authors how to sell books directly to readers with crowdfunding, live events, websites, and subscriptions, and memberships. Russell Nohelty joined me for a deep dive into the strategies and synergies authors can consider as they grow their business.
TS: Take us through your journey from college student to publishing marketing guru.
RN: I graduated from college all the way back in 2004, I worked for in news for about six months. I had a degree in broadcast journalism and then I sort of went out on my own.
I wanted to make narrative films. I wanted to be the next great indie director. And, I even made a movie, made a web series, directed some stuff, nothing really took off. I moved to LA and just was not happening for me as had been my second or third company that failed.
When one thing fails, it can be a fluke. When two fails, it could be bad luck. Once you get to three, something is wrong. And I figured the thing that was wrong with me is I didn’t know how to sell things. Now I can look back and be, you know how to make pretty good things, but probably not good enough things to sell.
So, I got a few sales jobs that really beat me up before I finally landed at this B-to-B sprint reseller. And they really kicked my butt. Within a year, I was their sales manager and I had learned how to sell, and I had launched my first Kickstarter and then my second Kickstarter. I’d gone out on my own and I had sort of learned this way of selling ephemeral products.
I call it sole resonance selling, but it’s our, our creative work. The stuff that nobody needs to live, but that make life worth living. Operas, and plays, and books, and movies, and TV shows, and art books, and all that kind of stuff.
I know you come from the corporate world, and I Come from a business-to-business world and it’s really easy to say, “Your shoes are too small and they suck. What if I made shoes that were cheaper and better and then I can just sell them to you and you’ll give me money.” Or, “I have a really good hamburger. You want a hamburger. You could give me money.
All those things are very easy. There’s a pain point to it and then you make money from it. The kind of stuff that fiction is. Even some memoir stuff, it’s just a whole different world and it’s a way harder world and it requires a lot of modifications to how we sell in business, but not that many modifications to make it really work without feeling like you’re selling your soul.
So, I started doing that, it just started working. People started asking me questions, I made a podcast, I wrote a book, people kept asking me for more, so I kept asking for more and more money from them to do things, courses, and building a mailing list. And I started getting really good at all of this stuff over time, and meanwhile, I was using all of that stuff to test out fiction things, and how my fiction works, and writing a bunch of novels.
And then in 2020, it all came crashing down. I decided I really did not want to be doing the nonfiction work anymore. So, I talked to Monica about licensing all the work that I had done multiple books courses and such into her new series book sale supercharged. And then a year later, our first book together, Get Your Book Selling on Kickstarter, became this massive indie hit and opened all these doors.
And then we started doing a Kickstarter course and then people were, what do I do after Kickstarter? And so, we made a direct sales course. And then we talked at conventions, and we started our own convention called the Future of Publishing Mastermind. And all this stuff was just spiraling and spiraling and spiraling.
But meanwhile. This is overarching narrative it’s a little bit better now than it was when we first set out to write this book people want to.
Consider one pillar of direct sales to be all of direct sales and it’s really confusing for people. One person is Shopify as direct sales and this other person saying subscriptions are direct sales… “I don’t understand how it all works together.”
Our businesses separately and together have been a lot of showing you how all the things connect. Even though we have it almost 20 books in the series now, we decided this book would be our thesis statement of how all of this stuff fits together this cohesive argument for how you actually build a direct sales environment for your business in a way that does not cost people $1,000 or $2,000 to learn.
They still must do all that stuff, but we think there’s a major flaw in how direct sales is taught and that is natural because most people are teaching a platform, whether it’s a platform that they created, or whether it’s a platform that they use, it’s very easy to say, I will teach you how to make money on Kickstarter.
People who want to make money on Kickstarter will give you money to learn how to make money on Kickstarter or Shopify or Patreon. To make this very big cohesive argument about all of direct sales and how it all integrates together is a sociological experiment that you’re doing. It requires this Scope and scale of looking in and zooming out that most people don’t want to do.
But Monica and I really love that stuff. What we love doing is watching how systems interact with each other; how you create them, the best practices between them, and then the gaps in the market.
Unfortunately the gap in the market in this particular instance is a massive undertaking of teaching people how to take Shopify and Kickstarter and Patreon and Reem and their website stores and hook them all together in one cohesive argument that makes sense. And it’s never happened in publishing before. At best, we’ve had wide sales across multiple retailers. But retailers all work enough with each other that they don’t seem foreign to each other. When you look at their dashboard, Patreon and Ream work similarly and then Substack works a wildly different way. The same thing is true with Indie Gogo and Kickstarter versus equity fundraising. Even when you take one pillar and break it down. They are vastly different experiences.
What we’re asked to do as authors is to pull all the pieces together from this very scattered board and just start playing with them. That’s what entrepreneurs do very well. Experiment with this and see if it’s going to build our business.
But writers also want to write. That’s the thing. We want to write, not market things. And we don’t have money and budgets to just start testing random platforms, and then what if they fail? That’s Monica and my job. I’ve always been this crash test dummy in every industry where I’ve worked.
I believe in first-mover advantage. If you try all this stuff eventually one or two will stick. You just keep finding things that stick eventually you have a good business.
Monica and I share this interest in the scope of indie publishing and how to add this component of direct sales and create something that is cohesive across multiple different platforms and multiple different integrations. And create something that works so that you can write more things.
TS: Outline the five tenets of direct sales.
RN: Sure, web stores are stores on your website. So, Shopify, Payhip, Gumroad. You’re selling a book or a bundle of books.
A landing page is a single offer page on your website that sells your series or sells a book for a bundle price. But instead of your web store, that is 50 different products. A landing page only has one product and one thing. If you go to a book funnel page and you put in your email, that is a landing page, except instead of getting a book for free, you pay, you’re paying money to get a series usually. Conventions, San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, 20 books, anything from nonfiction to fiction to industry shows. Crowdfunding is a time-based landing page, basically, that is on a third party. You could do it on your own site, but generally it’s time bound.
Raising money for a product line: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, crowd funder sites.
And then subscriptions are when someone’s paying you a monthly fee to access your work or your art. So, there’s Patreon, there’s Dream. There’s a Substack where I’ve had my success.
You will want to integrate all of these tactics into your business on some level. You will want continuity for everything that you do. You’ll want to keep adding subscribers over time until you have something. Subscriptions tend to be very slow growth until it’s very high growth. And all this leads to you having a business.
Those are the five pillars.
TS: How do you recommend an author, who’s never done any of this before, should start?
RN: I usually recommend you start with Kickstarter first. Why is that? Because it is time bound. So, if you don’t after 14 days, you can stop. Most other forms of direct sales require a long-term time commitment to make work. If you put your web store up, and then it comes down, that would be pretty weird. People would wonder what happened to your web store. But if you start a Kickstarter, and then two weeks later, the Kickstarter ends. That’s normal. That’s what is supposed to happen.
Kickstarter, because of the way it deals with scarcity and is time bound, it generally leads to a fast infusion of cash. And when you’re leaving a platform that accounts for 50 percent or more of your income, a fast infusion of cash is a good thing to have. So not in every case because some people really don’t love how Kickstarter works or it’s intimidating to them.
If you’re still in KU, what can we do with Kickstarter? Well, you could do a special edition, you could do print books, you could do audiobooks, you could do games, you could do all sorts of things on Kickstarter. You could do pins, you could do merch, you could do all sorts of things to test.
Kickstarter is your best chance of getting a quick infusion of cash. That’s what I care about when you’re leaving KU, how can I off ramp you from KU while still maintaining the money that you are making or come close to maintaining the cash flow you were making at KU, at least for the first couple of months. So usually, it starts with a Kickstarter.
TS: All these teachings presuppose that you have a series of products to sell and already have cultivated an audience which you bring with you to the tactics.
RN: You bring your audience with you to something. Kickstarter, easy and time bound. All you must do is get messaging right. And so, you would run that Kickstarter test and probably you’re still in KU with your main series at this point because you want to test if it’s working and then you see. “Oh I made $10,000. I can make this transition easily if I have if I can do this a couple more times.” Or you say “Wow, I made $200 I really need to go and build my audience more or get my audience a lot more comfortable with direct and wide selling.”
You don’t leave KU yet until you have more scaffolding in place. You’ve tested some ideas with Kickstarter. You’ve figured out messaging that motivates some reader action.
TS: What’s next?
RN: From there, you would take your Kickstarter page and you would transition it into a, probably a landing page. And you would take your email sequence and all the copy and all the messaging you’ve already tested and create a landing page, a landing page for a series. And then from there you have your email sequence that leads into your series and then you’re, you’re probably at that point ready to pull your books out of KU and go wide.
You have created a system to make money when people come into your email ecosystem. You then are going to be pulling things wide and you’ve got a cash reserve so that you can push ads and start doing things; free book, BookBub, whatever kind of advertising slash promotions that you do to start making the wide approach to selling work.
You just keep doing that over time while creating your web store.
TS: There’s a whole other segment of people that are doing what’s called cold traffic advertising which is basically Facebook. It’s going to their website to define each marketing segment. Warm traffic is existing relationships, your mailing list, your Facebook followers, people who already know your work and may want to consume more of it. Cold traffic is how most authors traditionally market. Optimizing their website so search engines can connect with them, SEO, as we call it, with new potential customers. And buying and marketing advertising on platforms targeting people who don’t yet know you and may never have read your books. As any of us who have bought an ad on Amazon or Facebook can attest, that can be very labor intensive and fraught with financial risk.
RN: It is not chill when you’re running cold traffic. You need systems in place. There are people, Pierre Gentil and Steve Piper who are very good at optimizations because every optimization that you can make on your website Will help you sell better by because you will convert better. And so, there’s if all the things we teach are kind of the basic foundational principles.
If you don’t want to run cold ad traffic, if you do want to run cold ad traffic, which eventually you will want to, that is when you probably need to bring in a specialized expert in running ad traffic to a landing page or web store. But otherwise, you just are kind of slowly building this process.
The big difference between KU and wide is it’s usually a slow build. That maintains growth over time. So, I set up a landing page for one of my series. In January, I’ve not touched the sequence in a year, it’s made me, not that much money, several hundred if not thousands of dollars, it just works now in the background. I set it up. I spent two weeks on it. It just works in the background.
And then there’s retailer sales and there’s Kickstarter sales that come in and then there’s it’s an ecosystem that’s why it’s called the author ecosystem the thing that we have. Because it becomes more robust as you add more things to it the biggest thing that differentiates the era we’re going into from the era we left is. when things go wrong on one platform and you have a good ecosystem, you can pivot and transition to other platforms. When you’re all in on KU and something stops working, there is nothing you can do except write the next book and hope it fixes the problem. I will never lie and say that it’s easy. I will never lie and say that you’re going to figure it out next month.
The advantage is You can add another landing page, you can add another Kickstarter, you can spend more money on retailer sales, all of these things are at your disposal, and you can maneuver between them when all of this is set up properly.
TS: It sounds like those of us who just got into this business to write will have to become entrepreneurs if we want to be more widely read and sell more books.
RN: We’ll have to dive into the weeds of product testing, audience building, deploying our books and perhaps other products that connect with our audience through multiple sales channels must be managed. You’re going to need to create compelling marketing copy for your books. You’re going to have to talk about why it’s special, the world, the characters, all this stuff.
What direct sales does is give you more ways to disseminate that information and get value from it. I have a 12-book series called the God’s First Chronicles. And I have been releasing it all year on my sub stack and you could release it on Wattpad and Royal Road. That’s direct sales.
Someone’s become a subscriber, but really all I care about is that it gets more distribution and more eyeballs on it. So, if you are one of the 99. 999999999 percent, repeating into infinity, authors who wants to be more widely read, KU is not going to make you more widely read. It’s going to limit who sees your work to people who are in KU. By being on other platforms and being direct, you get read by more people, isn’t that the goal?
Sales and marketing are just part of an independent author’s life. We get to do this work. We don’t have to. We get to.
Russell Nohelty’s Kickstarter for Direct Sales Mastery for Authors, The Definitive Guide, can be found by searching for Writer MBA at the kickstarter.com website, he has a robust presence on authors stack dot sub stack.com, and you can learn more about the books Russell writes at RussellNohelty.com
- The podcast: https://kickstartyourbooksales.buzzsprout.com/
- The YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/@writermba/featured
- Information on Russell and Monica’s archetyping system: https://authorecosystems.substack.com/
- Russell’s Substack: https://authorstack.substack.com/
- The conference. https://thefutureofpublishingmastermind.com/