Tuesday 29 June 2021

Indie Spotlight: A Tale of Two Series - How Author Jeannie Lin Took Took Her Asian Steampunk Series from Traditional Publishing to Independent Publishing Success

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing. 

The publishing world is rapidly changing with technology. More and more, authors are finding new ways to offer their stories to readers. The limitations of traditional publishing have pushed many authors to leave behind the old model and try out all the new opportunities to expand their readership and get their books into the hands of the readers.

Our column today features Jeannie Lin, a USA Today Bestselling author of Chinese historical romance and historical fantasy. She is the author of the Gunpowder Chronicles, a Chinese historical steampunk series set in the Qing Dynasty that was originally published by Penguin. Here, Jeannie tells us the fascinating tale of how she took back the rights of the Gunpowder Chronicles, which was languishing under Penguin, and re-released it independently to make it a success.

Also, the final book of the Gunpowder Chronicles series, The Rebellion Engines, was just released on June 28. Be sure to check out this exciting series with a very different historical spin.

Now, over to Jeannie . . .  

A Tale of Two Series

This is a tale of two series – actually it’s a tale of a single series that started out with a traditional publisher and was later revived in indie-publishing.

It’s a tale of resilience.

It’s a tale of repackaging.

It’s a tale of….reincarnation?

Within this tale, I hope to highlight some of the potential and pitfalls of an Asian-set series trying to fight its way through the book market from both the traditional and indie publishing side.

A Little History

Original covers for Gunpowder Alchemy and Clockwork Samurai. Woman seen from the back looking at Asian scenery: a Chinese junk ship and a Japanese fortress

Gunpowder Alchemy, the first book in an alternate history Opium War series, released in 2014. At that time, the major publishers were trying their hand at launching all-digital eBook lines with the strategy of throwing things against the wall to see what stuck.

The concept of Gunpowder Alchemy is quite niche – it’s a steampunk historical set in Qing-era China rather than a Victorian-era western setting—the fact that it was to be released as part of Penguin’s new Intermix line made it an experiment of an experiment of an experiment.

To take a few steps back – the foundation of steampunk was the idea that you have more modern or fantastical technology back in a historical era. It’s sort of a nod to throwback science-fiction, a science fiction of the past a la Jules Verne in the age of sail and steam. Gunpowder Alchemy was an exploration of “what if” in imperial China. What if China had developed gunpowder technology to rival steam technology and managed to fight back against British colonialism?

The first two books, Gunpowder Alchemy and Clockwork Samurai, were released in digital-only format by Intermix and never really found a wide audience and had little visibility. There was no marketing budget and the only promotional strategy was a small blog tour at release time and digital ARCs.

The series never earned out its initial advance and within a year of release, sales had dwindled to zero. After the initial contract period was up, I requested and was granted the rights back for the two books in the series – known as a reversion of rights.

This was when things became a lot more fun…

New Covers

The series was concepted as a steampunk adventure tale. The original publisher slotted in their historical romance line and the covers created for them looked the part. On top of that, there was no budget for photo shoots.

For the re-release, I had even smaller of a budget, but it’s really amazing what cover artists can do with stock photo manipulation. I went to Deranged Doctor Design to seek out a new cover design that highlighted the fantasy aspects of the story and they came out with this:

Book covers for Gunpowder Alchemy and Clockwork Samurai. Strong Asian women with imperial China and steampunk background.  

The new covers are more in line with what you see in the current fantasy and science fiction market. Also there’s more drama, tension, stunning colors and sense of time and place. The new look screams “steampunk fantasy!” vs. “historical romance”.

Print Edition

Intermix was a digital only line with a clause that would allow the book to go to print if it did phenomenally well in digital.

It did not do phenomenally well in digital.

Without a print edition, it was difficult to promote the book at signings and live events. The books couldn’t be sold at brick and mortar stores or presented as gifts.

Once rights reverted, I fixed that and put out print editions that could be brought to signings and carried in book stores.

Bookshelf full of books. Gunpowder Alchemy print book is visible on top shelf. Text label: “Look who’s up there!”

Joint Promotional Ventures

If you sell your book to a traditional publisher and they don’t have big plans for promoting it, there is only so much you can do to push the needle. That’s not to say there’s no benefit to promoting – it’s always valuable to reach out and connect with readers, but when the publisher controls the book, your options are limited.

As an independently published title, I was able to experiment with pricing as well as do joint promotions with other independent authors. The most effective promotions have involved teaming up with other Asian fantasy or steampunk authors.

Image of vintage book with Victorian characters in background with text: Steampunk Story Bundle

Collage of steampunk covers from 10 different authors

New Books in the Series

This was the biggest boost to the series – more books.

Banner showing four books in Gunpowder Chronicles series, Gunpowder Alchemy, Clockwork Samurai, The Rebellion Engines, and Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles

I often say that in order to sell one book, you need to write three. For one book to sell, it needs to be a BIG BOOK. It needs to receive a huge promotional push, get in front of a lot of eyes, build a lot of buzz behind it. OR…and this is even harder: The book can go viral with runaway word of mouth and gain mass and momentum like a massive snowball organically.

Only a precious few books get that sort of visibility.

But small books without big marketing budgets by authors without big names can still find a sustainable readership. The good news is books sell books.

I continued with the series and released a novella anthology independently followed by the third and final book in the trilogy which just released on June 28, 2021.

Reviving the series with new releases did achieved some critical goals:

1. Provided new material for long time fans to continue reading

2. Gave confidence to new readers that the series wasn’t dead. With only two books and no promise of a third to wrap things up, readers may feel reluctant to start in fear of being left in the lurch.

3. Gave a lot more opportunities with each title, each SKU, if you will, for being discovered.

4. Provided more pricing promotion opportunities such as discounting the first book, offering the short story as a free read, offering a free book in the series.

5. Allowed for box sets to make the series attractive for new readers to the series.

People buy books in many different ways. Some people buy books off the shelf in book stores. Others will jump on a new series the moment it comes out. Others hunt out discounts first and want to try a free or discounted read before committing. Some buyers prefer box sets and bundles. Some like multi-author anthologies. Others will search out books in the library…and I haven’t even started into other formats like audio and translations.

The more versions and combinations and permutations you have for your book, the more traction it builds in the market. You can see this is how publishers treat their big names and bestsellers, capitalizing on every possible opportunity and format, but it’s taken me a while to see that this is true for the small fries as well.

This is why my future plan for the Gunpowder Chronicles is to produce and release audio books. Though the effort may take a while to earn out, this is my content and I’m in it for the long game.

Lessons Learned

The most compelling thing I’ve learned is that in the traditional publishing world, publishers are looking at your front list to see if a book is worth investing in. If your book doesn’t hit it big right out the gate, it’s not worth the time and money to most traditional publishers to continue mining it when there are more lucrative titles in their catalog.

But in the independent publishing world, backlist is king. Your books are not retired if they’re not runaway successes right of the bat. You have time. You control the strategy.

A book that isn’t profitable for a larger publisher, can still be very profitable to an indie author who’s managing a much smaller book list with more attention and care.

With higher royalty rates, creative promotion opportunities, and the long game, the Gunpowder Chronicles continues to find a steady stream of new readers. Gunpowder Chronicles isn’t a blockbuster by any means, but it’s an enjoyable adventure series with an occasional nice mention in the bookverse, and a small, but loyal following.

With a little elbow grease and determination, even a niche project like an Opium War steampunk can find new life and have a fighting chance.

Jeannie Lin is the bestselling author of the Lotus Palace Mystery series and the Gunpowder Chronicles. Her latest release is The Rebellion Engines, an Opium War Steampunk Adventure.

Find out more about Jeannie or follow her at:

Website: www.jeannielin.com
Twitter: @JeannieLin (http://www.twitter.com/JeannieLin)
Facebook: Jeannie Lin (https://www.facebook.com/JeannieLinOfficialPage)
Instagram: Jeannie Lin author (https://www.instagram.com/jeannielinauthor)