Marketing Advice from Self-Publishing Success Intisar Khanani

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.

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

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posted by Cynthia
on January, 05