Failure To Launch

There is nothing more natural than putting a pen to paper. It is what happens next, after the book is already written, edited and formatted, that can be a little overwhelming.

Contrary to popular belief, a good book doesn't sell itself. You have to put as much (if not more) work into spreading the word as you did into creating it in the first place.

When I published my first book "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", there was a long list of things I felt terribly yucky about doing: going on the Tiktok and Instagram, making awkward videos, talking about the book for too long or too much, patting myself on the back for the successes, opening up publicly about the struggles... and guess what? I still don't love those things.

When I published my first books, I really had no clue what I was doing in terms of design or marketing. There was a huge to-do list of things that I didn't even know I had to do long before I clicked publish: finding ARC readers, securing editorial reviews, paid advertising and pitching my book to libraries. Despite many rookie mistakes, the book did surprisingly well in terms of sales. However, the one thing I kept getting told was that I couldn't expect to sell books unless I had more than one of them.

I powered away quickly, adapting two new projects to book form - "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating". I knew "Technical Merit" was far superior to the other two books and that the Bibliography book would have a much more limited audience, so I focused my attention on "Technical Merit" and ran several free promotions on "A Bibliography of Figure Skating" solely to try to bring in reviews. I ultimately did the same thing with "Technical Merit" as well, when I realized more people were interested in "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating" than the other two. The free promotions were both a complete failure - tons of downloads and no reviews. 

Data from an eBook giveaway promotion for "A Bibliography of Figure Skating" on Reddit. 73 downloads, which resulted in 0 reviews.

Both books got buried... and I took the whole experience quite hard. I took comfort from the words of another author who went through a similarly frustrating experience: "I was convinced that I had taken my failure too harshly, that I had identified my faults, and that I could do better. I certainly could, and I certainly shouldn't." 

I knew I could and I knew I shouldn't but I took time before I was ready to coax myself back to the drawing board. I knew that if I wanted to succeed with book number four, I needed to go about things very differently. I took a course in book marketing and applied what I learned, coming up very comprehensive marketing plan after finishing "Jackson Haines: The Skating King". I plugged away behind the scenes every single day before or after work this past summer. I put a lot of effort into creating good marketing copy and getting editorial reviews. I even went out of my comfort zone and joined some new social media channels to get the word out.

I resisted joining Instagram and TikTok for a long time, but decided to put my reservations aside and give them the old college try. I had a good following on Facebook and Twitter/X, but I had a heck of time gaining traction on Instagram. 

Data from an Instagram post that went viral not long before my book launch

Two weeks before my launch, a reel I posted went viral. As of the time I wrote this blog, the viral post reached 209,929 accounts and had 446,902 watches and 15,952 likes. My follower count, though still sadly modest, jumped from 237 to 1,096. When I posted a gorgeous photograph promoting my book on November 13, Instagram showed that post to exactly 24 accounts.

Data from an Instagram post promoting my book two weeks after my launch

I knew from the get-go TikTok wasn't my thing, nor was the younger demographic that use the app my target audience. There is a sizeable community on there called BookTok though and I hoped I might be able to tap into both the skating community on there and the smaller corner of BookTok that enjoyed reading about historical fiction. It took me an entire summer of posting clickbait videos to even reach 40 followers. As an experiment, I tried posting the same viral reel that got over 15,000 likes on Instagram on TikTok. It got less than 15.

Data from TikTok about the exact same video that went viral on Instagram showing that the video was only shown to 318 people, getting 7 likes

During the summer, Meta released its new app Threads - designed as an alternative to Twitter/X, which is becoming increasingly unpopular. There's actually a great community of fellow writers on the app, but the skating community is not particularly engaged as compared to Twitter/X. My best performing post on there got a grand total of 4 likes. Threads was like yelling into the void. 

Less than a week before "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" launched, I found out that Amazon (who is the seller for hard cover copies of the book) had an issue at one of its printing facility impacting distribution in a big way and causing delays of upwards of 4-5 weeks. I had the option of pulling hard cover edition altogether and redoing over 100 marketing materials or going ahead and hoping that people would read the eBook or paperback editions, which are available through dozens of retailers. Despite my best efforts and the fact I've done everything right, things simply haven't gone well at all in terms of sales. 

Some very telling stats. On the top are the ages and genders of Skate Guard readers, on the bottom are the skating lovers who engaged a highly targeted advertisement I ran on Facebook and Instagram on November 13. Not a single click from anyone under 44. 22 clicks, 0 sales.

Despite the struggles, I'm extremely proud of what I accomplished with "Jackson Haines: The Skating King". It's been double and triple fact-checked and annotated enough to satisfy those with academic leanings. It is readable enough to appeal to those who just want to read an interesting story about a founding father of the sport they may have only heard of in passing. It has appeal to figure skating lovers, readers of both historical nonfiction and fiction and history and biography buffs alike. What I'm perhaps proudest of is that it's the kind of book I wanted to write... nerdy, nuanced, factual and fascinating. 
Stack of four copies of the book "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" by Ryan Stevens

I really do want you to read it and that's why I have been posting about it on social media and talking to people about it a lot over the last two months. I'm not going to apologize for doing that often and I'm not going to apologize for charging money for something that I think is worthy of a place on any skating fan's book shelf. 

No one loves writing for the joy of it more than I do, but we pay to go see plays, films and musicians... Books are entertainment too and as unnatural as it may seem for many artists to double as business people, if you're going the indie route you have to - and you can't apologize for doing it.

I'm not apologizing about asking you to go on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads and leave an honest review.

I'm not apologizing about asking you to go to your local library's website and fill out a Suggest a Purchase form.

I'm not apologizing about writing a book about a skater who died over a hundred years ago instead of a book about figure skating today to appeal to the masses.

I'm not apologizing for not giving up on a project I worked very hard on that hasn't been selling well.

The only thing I'm apologizing for is not writing the kind of book I wanted to write sooner.

Despite the fact the launch of the book didn't go as planned, I'm looking forward to 2024 with a really positive attitude and starting the long process of working on a fifth book. I don't plan on being finished anytime soon... and I'm very much okay with that!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":