Hey Mixed-Up Folks! I’m so excited about today’s interview. As you’re well aware, there’s a great big publishing world out there and that includes independent authors. With tools like Vellum for formatting and distribution channels like IngramSpark, authors have a toolkit at their disposal. There’s also support networks and groups where indie authors share helpful information. And in those groups are some incredible success stories. One such success story is that of Dustin Brady. I’m super excited to chat with him today!
Amie:Welcome Dustin! Thanks for coming to the files today. Let’s start with the most important question of all. What do you enjoy most about writing middle-grade books?
Dustin:I love writing middle grade because those are the books that really developed my love of reading. I feel like if you can write something that connects with a 10-year-old, you can create a reader for life. Also, I have a short attention span, and 25,000 words is a lot easier for me to wrap my head around than 100,000.
Amie: Haha! Yeah, I struggle with those longer books, too. Your books feature a boy trapped in a video game. Some boys (and girls) tend to be reluctant readers, so writing in an area of interest (video games!) is a genius way to engage this demographic. Would you say part of your success can be attributed to fulfilling a need in an under-served, eager audience?
Dustin: Yes! One hundred percent. I’ve had many parents tell me that they bought this book because their child struggles with reading but loves video games, and this is actually the first book the child has read without prodding. I think that’s so cool. That angle wasn’t a conscious decision I made when I wrote the book – I just wanted to write something I would have loved when I was ten.
Amie: I think, as authors, when we write something we love, our readers know it. That makes it even more appealing. So, what made you decide to go indie?
Dustin: First and foremost, I had the resources to make a great cover. My brother is a professional illustrator, and I knew he could absolutely crush the cover. Also, I’d been selling other items on Amazon for a year when I wrote the book, so I was comfortable with marketing on the platform. Finally, this was my first book, and when I started writing, I honestly wasn’t sure if it was going to be that good. I would much rather put it out there, see what happens, and get feedback that way than submit it to a bunch of agents and get crickets.
Amie: So you had a marketing plan in place, or at least some knowledge of it, which is important not just for indie authors but even for trad authors who are expected to do more of their own marketing than in years past. The general consensus seems to tell us that MG readers prefer physical books over e-readers. In your experience, did you find this to be true?
Dustin: Absolutely! I’ve found that the sales ratio for my books is about five physical copies to every one e-book.
Amie: That’s a stark contrast to other genres in the indie market where sales are typically on digital books. Since parents typically purchase books for their MG kids, what was your marketing strategy to reach these readers?
Dustin: The only thing I’ve really done to market the book has been Amazon ads. I just chose as many keywords as I could think of to get the book in front of parents of 8-12-year-old boys. Once those keywords started converting, Amazon’s algorithm took it from there and started listing the book in organic search results and adding it to “Customers Also Bought” lists for other titles. I don’t think Amazon ads are a silver bullet because I’ve used the exact same strategy for other titles with much less success, but I think they’re good for accelerating growth for books that would already perform well on their own.
Because almost all my sales start with people seeing the book as a thumbnail, I think the most important “marketing” thing I got right was the cover. I decided to do two things with my cover: make the title say exactly what the book is about and keep the layout simple with a large title and a clear picture of the main character. I just wanted to promise something that a 10-year-old boy would be into, and then write the best possible version of that story.
Amie: Smart! Content is important, but the cover is the very first impression. Your cover (and title) does a great job of conveying that content.
You were quite successful as an indie. In fact, your books did so well, they attracted a publisher. Tell us a bit about your transition from indie to trad and what that’s been like. Do you have an agent? What did you hope to accomplish with a publisher that you couldn’t do as an indie?
Dustin: When Andrews McMeel approached me last year about acquiring the books, I was very skeptical. Obviously it’s flattering to have someone interested in your work, but this series has been so steady for me that giving it up felt like killing the golden goose. A big thing that convinced me to switch was when they showed me the sales breakdown for a few of their comparable titles. I always assumed that Amazon makes up the vast majority of a book’s sales, but physical bookstores still have a big share of the market. Then there are foreign rights, libraries, and audiobooks – all things that I could have pursued while indie but probably was never going to. The publisher has the resources to make those things happen.
In the end, I know that my series connects with reluctant readers. Right now, the vast majority of people introducing reluctant readers to my books are parents desperately searching Amazon for something their kid will read. I think the publisher can help introduce other gatekeepers to my series and get the books into the hands of even more reluctant readers.
Since the publisher approached me, I didn’t hire an agent. I negotiated the contract myself with help from the free legal counsel provided by the Authors Guild, which, by the way, is a fantastic resource.
Amie: Fantastic advice! Your new cover is very similar to your old one. I’m guessing your publisher was also interested in your illustrator.
Dustin: My brother, Jesse Brady (jessebradyart.com), illustrated all the books. In my initial talks with the publisher, I said that I wanted to keep him on as the illustrator, and they said, “Sure, we’d love that!” I’m not sure how unusual that is, but Andrews McMeel has been great about collaborating rather than “taking over.” Working with them feels like being an indie author, except with a lot more resources.
Amie: I love Jesse’s cover designs! So now that you’ve experienced both publishing worlds and we know the benefits of trad, tell us your favorite part about being an indie author. What was the worst thing? Will you continue to self publish?
Dustin: Best thing about being an indie author: The ability to bring things to market quickly and experiment. Worst thing about being an indie author: Formatting is the worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst.
Yes, I’ll continue self-publishing the other series I’ve already started. Plus, there will always be ideas that are better suited for the indie market than traditional.
Amie: Hahaha! I feel your pain! Formatting (especially when illustrations are involved) is the absolute worst! So anything else you’d like to tell us?
Dustin: It can be tempting to chase trends or write something only because you think there’s a market for it, but I really believe that every author has their own unique thing they can be great at – maybe better than anyone else – and the best path to success is finding that thing. Once you find “your thing” positioning and marketing are important, but what’s even more important is that you now offer something unique to you.
Amie: Yaaasssss. Thank you. So much truth in that. Any other books you’re working on?
Dustin: I just finished the final book in the Trapped in a Video Game series, and now I’m working on the second book in my indie Superhero for a Day series.
Amie: Ohhh! Superheros FTW! Okay, now comes the serious part. Chocolate or vanilla? Boogers or vomit? Legos or troll dolls?
Dustin: #TeamChocolate. Legos. Obviously. I’m trying to think of anything that vomit could beat, and I’m really coming up empty.
Amie: There you have it, folks.Vomit covered chocolate Legos. You heard it here first. Thanks for joining us, Dustin!
If you’d like to win a copy of Dustin’s newly relaunched Trapped in a Video Game (book 1), just fill out the rafflecopter form below for your chance to win!
Dustin Brady writes funny, action-packed books for kids. Although he regularly gets locked out of his own accounts for forgetting passwords, Dustin still remembers the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Genie code for infinite lives. It’s SLXPLOVS. Dustin lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, kids, and a small dog named Nugget. You can check out his work at dustinbradybooks.com.