I first heard of Ashleigh Renard through a Facebook writing group I belong to. Every few days writers said things like “OMG I can’t wait to read Ashleigh’s new book,” or “Thank you Ashleigh for that great advice,” or “Because of Ashleigh I had this success.”
I soon discovered this figure-skating-coach-turned-writer is an Instagram maverick and author platform coach who had partnered with Allison K. Williams to run the Writer’s Bridge, a biweekly free-to-all platform chat. Coaching writers was one way she prepared to launch her memoir Swing.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ashleigh at the 2021 HippoCamp conference and soon discovered she’s as delightful as the posts written about her.
If you haven’t read her memoir, Swing is equal parts steamy look at swingers who attend sex clubs and story of a hard-working mom searching for the love and life she always wanted yet never believed she deserved. It’s led to several conversations between the hubby and me about the growth edges in our own marriage, which like most relationships, is a continual work in progress.
While readers rave about Swing, writers are enamored with her publishing story. In 2020, Ashleigh landed an agent and a book deal. But a lack of momentum led her to scrap that plan and forge ahead on her own. She started her own imprint, checked off all the indie-publisher boxes, then planned and executed a stellar book launch. To date, Swing has sold over 10,000 copies. Ashleigh is a regular on the podcast circuit who has over 48,000 Instagram followers. She’s successfully sold her book on TikTok, but more importantly, she’s achieved the self-publishing impossible: her book is sold in a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore.
It’s a great honor to interview Ashleigh as a part of my author-platform series.
During the first week of your book launch you sold an impressive 5000 books, with over 2000 of those being print copies in the US reported to BookScan. That’s enough to qualify for the New York Times bestsellers list. Those numbers also exceed the total sales most books see across their lifetime. What unique strategies did you use to create such a successful launch?
Hitting those first-week numbers was exciting. Choosing to publish independently as a debut author, I didn’t have publisher clout or many industry reviews behind me. Sales and reader reactions were my metrics for how the book was being received. I outsold five titles on the NYT paperback nonfiction list that week, which encouraged me that yes, people want to read this book.
I had been educating my audience on the importance of preorders and supporting independent bookstores for a couple of years. I basically documented my literary citizenship. Anytime I preordered a book from my local indie bookstore I posted about it in my Instagram stories and tagged the author, the bookstore, and often the editor and imprint. At this point, most people I know are eager to make conscious purchasing decisions. By the time my preorders opened, many of my audience members had already started preordering books from their favorite authors.
My local indie was the exclusive retailer for signed copies. When I announced on my Instagram stories that preorders were open, the bookstore’s website was immediately overwhelmed. Many people messaged me saying they were trying to get a signed book but couldn’t. I reminded them that the book was available at Amazon. They all responded with, “Nope you taught me why I should order from an independent bookstore so I’m going to do it.”
These are the talking points I repeat over and over for my audience.
- Help publishers determine the investments they’ll make for marketing and publicity of a title.
- Strong presales increase the chances bookstores will stock the book.
- All preorders count for first-week sales, giving most authors their best chance at hitting a bestseller list.
Purchases from bookstores don’t just support small business––they benefit authors, too:
- Sales from independent bookstores are more heavily weighted on curated bestseller lists (like the NYT and the WSJ) because those customers are thought to be more serious readers. (Snobbish? Maybe. A fact that played into my strategy? Absolutely.)
- If many copies of a book move through a brick and mortar store it’s likely one of the employees will like it and give it favorable placement in the store, for example, “cover out” rather than “spine out.”
- Or they may choose it as a staff pick. When that happens, the book gets a special display, most likely with a handwritten note from the staff member letting readers know why they should buy this book.
- Booksellers and authors share a beautiful reciprocity. Even though publishers bring the book into the world, booksellers see the joy of readers picking it up and experience the special cha-ching of customers opening their wallets to buy a book they’re excited about. They are our feet on the ground who recommend our titles to people in their stores. I asked my local indie if they would be willing to serve as the exclusive retailer for signed copies. They don’t usually stock self-published books because they’ve had poor results with local authors. Luckily, my Instagram stories about their store helped me develop a relationship with one of their managers. She advocated for my book and my ability to promote sales. My discount was set at the industry standard of 55% and my book was returnable, so they agreed. They were a joy to work with and I aimed to be professional and gracious. They dedicated the space and employee hours to help me sign 600 copies in one afternoon, then had staff come in early the next day to package and transport them to the post office so customers would receive them by pub day. A few weeks later, Candace Bushnell’s people contacted the store to see if they would host a live, in-person event, and asked if the owner, by chance, had any ideas for a local author who would be a good conversation partner. Apparently, the bookstore owner couldn’t get my name out of her mouth fast enough. So, my first in-person event as a debut author was interviewing Candace Bushnell. I even bought a pair of Jimmy Choos to celebrate.
What helpful tips! I’ve been telling people to support their indie bookstore for years. Your success demonstrates why this is so important. Thank you for helping me make my point. What part did your platform play in your book launch?
My social media platform has two parts, the writers I engage with and support through Facebook groups and The Writers’ Bridge biweekly platform Q&A, and my readers, who I’ve attracted through Instagram and TikTok.
Writers bought my book because they appreciated the support and encouragement I gave to the writing community (and likely because I preordered their book recently). My audience bought the book because they love the advice and perspective I offer on social media.
This is a great example of how giving back to the communities you care about can give you so much in return. You’ve created several successful video series for your Instagram including How to Keep Monogamy Hot, How to Get Your Kids to Clean the House, and Before You Get a Divorce to name a few. Couples have written to you about how they’re reading Swing together and then having honest conversations about how to build better relationships. Does your author platform enhance or frame the conversation happening within your book? If not, is there another way your book and platform work together?
Couples reading my book together is the biggest (and most welcome!) surprise of this whole process. Seeing how my audience responds to my content always informs the next piece I write or the next video I create. The book is an extension of this. When questions come up after couples read the book, I’ll answer via DM (direct message) and often share about the question in my Instagram stories. I then ask my audience to answer questions for me on that topic or vote on what I should focus on next in my advice.
This sounds like a great way to keep your audience engaged. It seems like you’re an Instagram and TikTok maven. What’s your secret?
After growing at a rate of 500 followers a year on Instagram, over the past 11 months I’ve averaged 1000 new audience members a week on Instagram and 1000 new followers a day on TikTok.
I was a figure skating coach and choreographer for over 20 years, so I know better than to take an audience member’s attention for granted. Whether I was trying to impress a judge with my team’s choreography or trying to get 20 teenagers to give me their attention, cooperation, and execution, I needed to get to the point––and quick.
Now, if you give me 30 seconds, I can make you feel comfortable, give you the feeling we’re on the same team, make you laugh, share information with an original slant, and leave you motivated to take action.
My years of disarming skeptical adolescents have given me the ability to create content you can share with your spouse without blowback. For this reason, many people share my videos with their partners.
Getting to the point is such a vital skill for writers to master. Are there any social media platforms you struggle to use?
I cannot figure out Snapchat, at all. I don’t get it. But I did figure out how to make ads there, which did very well. Women aged 25-55 who scroll Snapchat are incredibly interested when a video offers insight on rehabbing a shabby marriage. Imagine that.
What advice do you have for those of us who might be intimidated by the sheer number of posts you create or the sophistication of your videos?
When I was pushing preorders, I posted three times a day on Instagram. Those posts didn’t do well, so I cut back to about three posts a week and the performance went way up. Sometimes now I only post once a week. I’ve learned that frequency isn’t actually the golden ticket.
For me, what’s most effective is checking in (posting) on my Instagram stories several times a day. It’s a casual, fun place to workshop ideas or questions for my audience. All replies go to my DMs (direct messages). This makes people more comfortable asking questions or speaking honestly. I also ask my audience for help and advice (Is this thing on my eye a stye? What secret ingredient do you put in your chili? And just today: tell me your favorite cover songs of all time.), which they love to give.
My videos are usually 30 seconds long and take me about five minutes to film and ten minutes to caption. They may look sophisticated, but I avoid adding audio, transitions, or any effects. I only make videos when an idea pops into my head that’s crystal clear. Doing that three times per week is a snap and then it takes me two minutes to post to IG and TikTok.
If you want to see how I do it, I’m teaching a class on it for Lounge Writers on September 22.
When someone is overwhelmed by the idea of making a face-to-camera video I always tell them to start by watching a few Instagram stories and then experimenting with their own.
I love how you authentically engage with your audience. It seems like one of your not-so-secret strategies for success. Personally, it takes me a while to post something to social media. There’s the initial think time, then the drafting time, followed by the technical work of putting things together for platforms like Instagram. How much time do you spend per day on social media? How does that time work for or against your writing time? Do you have any time management secrets we can benefit from?
I actively work on my social media about four days a week. On those days I spend about four hours on my socials (2 hours on IG, 1.5 hours on TikTok, and 30 minutes on FB).
Here is the breakdown:
- Instagram: 1 hour posting and captioning face-to-camera videos for my stories (15 minutes, 4 times a day), 1 hour responding to comments and direct messages (5 minutes, 12 times a day).
- TikTok: 1 hour on TikTok live (while I am on live the app pushes out my previous videos in a big way. I often have 1k notifications by the time I jump off. Then I spend 30 minutes responding to comments and direct messages.
- Facebook: 30 minutes responding to comment threads in FB groups.
You may notice that none of this time above mentions making content or posting (outside of Instagram stories). Posting is quick––I can film and caption a video in 15 minutes or less.
I save screenshots of my Amazon reviews and have them in a photos album I share with my assistant (super easy since we are both Mac users). She uses the same background each time, picks out the best line(s) from each review, and makes a batch of quote cards with my custom GIFs. She can make a dozen quote cards in about half an hour. She uploads them to a shared album called “Quote Cards – Ready to Post.”
Having an assistant makes you sound so official. Have you had one the entire time, or is she a more recent addition to your team?
Until recently, I ran all aspects of my business. To encourage preorders, I offered my audiobook for free if readers preordered the print version. Two months before my book launch, I hired my 21-year-old niece, Geena, as an assistant. She manages all those preorder emails and sends out audiobook links to my readers.
When I’m invited for podcast interviews or brand collaborations, all those inquiries go to Geena. She confirms they’re a good fit and puts them on my calendar. If I’m behind on my inbox, she’ll go through my emails and make me a to do list. She preps my newsletters by customizing the templates in Flodesk (my new email service) by adding my photos and links. I coach writers one-on-one, developing a social media strategy based on their book or WIP. After videos are scripted, practiced, and filmed, Geena does the final edits and (closed) captioning.
She’s a tremendous help. Working with her forces me to develop some systems and protocols. I’m a bit spontaneous and knowing she is expecting A and B from me before she can complete C helps me prioritize. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months working out systems that are easy and efficient (and fun). We meet on Zoom Mondays and Fridays, but most of our communication is through shared notes, albums, and reminder lists (all on iPhone/Mac). Having an employee I appreciate has also pushed me to expand my business––I want more income so I can continue to give her raises and bonuses. Currently, I rely on book sales, one-on-one coaching, and one brand partnership for income, but in the next few months I’ll open three new revenue streams.
I can’t wait to see what those revenue streams look like. You’re the co-host of the Writer’s Bridge. Two weeks ago, your partner-in-crime, Allison K. Williams, shared some details about upcoming Writer’s Bridge events. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Partnering with Allison has been one of the greatest gifts of pandemic––if not my life. I’ve never had a professional partnership where so much is accomplished with so much ease. This photo from HippoCamp by Kerri Tollinger captures it beautifully. I mean, who doesn’t want a partner who’s brilliant, funny, and trusts you completely? I think our Writers’ Bridge participants feel that and it’s contagious. We don’t sugar-coat the amount of work necessary, but we do help people believe they can do it and might even enjoy themselves in the process.
What’s next for you?
Three new things in the works:
- All my video content will soon be self-hosted on my website. I’m opening a subscription option for singles and couples, with members-only video content and reflection questions.
- I am expanding my social media strategy coaching with webinars.
- Coming soon: my own podcast/YouTube show
What are you currently reading?
A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar! If you liked The Celestine Prophecy or The Alchemist, you’ll love this book. Don’t miss our event together at Powell’s Books on September 24.
I’m a huge fan of both The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, so you’ve sold me on Ari’s book.
You can follow Ashleigh online by clicking on the following links:
Ashleigh, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I’m so impressed by all you’ve accomplished. I can’t wait to hear more about your podcast and to see what you write next.
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And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents.