It’s been roughly six years since I published my first paperback – The Betrayed. Although I’ve published books before (technical stuff) in digital format, my official entry into the world of independent authoring, the way people perceive it, started in 2012.
In the past six years, I had a chance to release seven novels, with another five books, bearing my name out either as a primary author or a co-author, also seeing the light of the day in that same period. A nice dozen. That’s a sizable volume of publications, and I believe I can share some of the lessons and insights I’ve learned since.
Being your own boss is easy – or hard, you choose
Writing at your own pace, your own schedule and deadlines, and your own expectation has its perks. It also requires steel discipline, which luckily, I happen to possess in abundance. Rather than seeing self-publication as an opportunity to procrastinate, I set aggressive goals just as I would if I were to write for a publishing house (done/doing that in the professional, technical capacity). From that perspective, the name of the publisher on the book’s backcover does not make any difference for me. Nor should it for you.
There are no shortcuts
I started self-publication with CreateSpace. I did look at several other venues, but for some reason, CreateSpace seemed to offer the most complete and intuitive package. I can’t say what my experience would have been with other platforms, but overall, ’twas good. I did write on the transition from CreateSpace to KDP, and I think, it is a positive change, if you got the right mindset.
Back then – still true in that sense – CreateSpace allowed you to publish books for free. You could make your own interior format, your own cover, everything. Or you could opt for their professional services, each with its own price tag.
I knew right away that doing everything solo would not be a good idea. You can read and proof your own manuscript as many times as you want, but you will always, always miss something. I could have designed my own cover, but it would certainly not be as pretty as a professional product. No shortcuts.
For The Betrayed, I went with a relatively long and hefty list of options on the shopping list. I purchased the proof reading service (comprehensive editing), interior design, cover design, marketing package, and an independent review, plus Kindle conversion. Not a cheap bundle, but I was treading in unknown territory, and I was willing to err on the side of the caution, even if it means paying extra.
Was it worth it?
Three months after The Betrayed was launched, I could look back and evaluate the benefit of each one of the selected services. I realized that I had made some really good choices with the above, and some rather poor ones. In particular, the marketing and review services seemed like a waste of money. On the other hand, comprehensive editing was a gem. I was pleased with the cover work, too, but over time, that impression changed somewhat.
Second book onwards
For the second book, I decided not to bother with the two services I didn’t like – let the community form its own opinons, and let the word of mouth by happy readers be my guide – but I did keep the rest. Good.
The third book brought in a major change. I wanted a rather elaborate cover, and the CreateSpace team simply couldn’t deliver what I needed. I realized – and with a nagging sense that the covers for the first two volumes in The Lost Words series weren’t as perfect as I’d like them to be – that I needed to venture out. And so I hired Anton Kokarev, an awesome graphics designer, and never looked back. I had him create my cover for The Forgotten, redo the covers for the first two books, and he’s being doing all my covers since – and we are cooperating on future works, too.
Remember, there are no shortcuts.
And this is when I fully realized it. If something isn’t 100%, it will come to bite you. This was the case with the covers. And that’s probably my most important take from this journey – never compromise on your sense of quality. If you feel something is missing, then it is. In the long run, it will cost you – money and emotion.
Tightening the belt
Over time, I started spending less on the publication process. Not that I tried to save money, I just learned to be more efficient. And the efficiency brought savings with it. I would not buy things or services that I knew wouldn’t or couldn’t yield me 100% satisfaction. In the end, the end of CreateSpace services forced me, in a good way, to completely change track and figure out all the components in the self-publication equation. To wit:
– Proof reading (editing) is cardinal. Spelling mistakes will kill your book.
– A good cover is a compelling visual stimulus for potential readers (and buyers).
– Interior styling is also important – but most people do not necessarily see what you, as the author, see. You may be angry or frustrated over an indented line of text, font size, or the footer height in millimeters, but none of your readers will actually care or notice.
The legal side of things – fonts & images
Then, there’s another element – and it has nothing to do with you. When you put together a book, you will end up using proprietary content, often without realizing. I’m talking about fonts. Yes, there are free, commercially available fonts you can use. But often as not, many sleek, elegant fonts will come with a price tag.
This is something you must bear in mind. It’s not just fonts. Pictures, too – for the cover, or the interior. If you use something that you haven’t created, i.e. a stock image of some sort, then you must carefully check its terms of usage. Some proprietary content might be free for home use but not for commercial distribution, or you might be required to use attribution. Some stuff might be ok in digital format but not in printed works. Some things will only be allowed in certain digital formats, or certain worldwide territories. And fonts call into this category, as well.
It is easy to overlook something like this, but it is important to remember it and implement it as part of your publication process. When you have a publishing house handle this for you, Bob’s your uncle, but when you do things Han Solo, you need to take it into consideration.
Once again, having professional assistance helps. CreateSpace bundled various licensing fees directly into their services, so you didn’t need to worry about it. Your designers may also do the same thing. But do not assume or take things for granted. It’s always best to clarify any third-party content usage, fonts and images in particular.
What about marketing?
Publication is one thing. Having a successful book is another. If anything, this seems to be the weakeness link in the chain. The market is saturated, plus most authors actually want to write, not spend days promoting their work. Not just that, self-promotion is often regarding in a negative way in reading circles, and you will be labeled a spammer if you do so. Moreover, few people will believe your gospel.
So what constitutes a successful self-published book? Sales, money, reviews? There are many possible answers, and the right one is probably a combination of various factors. It is safe to say that most authors will be happy with wide recognition, lots of nice reviews and a reasonable paycheck from royalties.
Doing it on your own is hard. I don’t have a golden formula. In fact, a lesson here, six years down the road, is that I’m not 100% sure how marketing works, or if it’s even possible to answer that in one sentence.
I noticed that one of my technical books, the one on problem solving (via Elsevier) is doing well for its category and price, but then, the big house is actively and aggressively promoting it with businesses and academies. I’m not sure how to translate that to fiction.
What about advertising?
This is a subset of the wider marketing strategy. In addition to social media, activity in forums and book communities, reviews from readers and such, you can also invest money in advertisement. Have your book featured here and there, for a small (or large) fee.
Over the past few years, I tried several promotional campaigns:
– Ads on Amazon
– Ads on Goodreads
– Ads on Facebook
– Physical copy giveaways on Goodreads
– Physical copy giveaways on Amazon
– Kindle giveaways on Goodreads (in bulks of 100)
So how did these work out?
What I was able to learn is a curious mix of findings. Again, I don’t have a magical formula, both because the landscape is too complex, and because it’s too complex, I need more data before I start seeing meaningful patterns in the chaos. That said, I did learn some interesting things:
– Amazon and Goodreads ads did attract an occasional reader. But you will need significant budget if you want to make it work.
– Facebook ads are a double-edged sword. You can easily attrack new followers and get likes, but long-term loyalty retention is very low. In fact, my experience with blogging – my tech-focused website dedoimedo.com has about 800,000 pageviews per month, so we’re talking lots of statistical information over more than a decade of activity – shows that social media is probably the last place where you’ll gain loyal readers: fans, yes, loyal ones, not so much. On the more business side, Facebook do seem to know their game, but I’m still trying to figure out the finer details. This is an unfinished project six years down the line.
– Physical copy giveaways on Goodreads are a good thing. You don’t need to offer too many copies. One or two each time will work, and usually, I’d end up with about a 1,000 want-to-reads over a typical two-week campaign. Goodreads folks DO read – and write reviews.
– Physical copy giveaways on Amazon are an ok thing. People don’t actually socialize on Amazon as they do on Goodreads, so traction there is a bit less. Not bad, but far less effective.
– Kindle giveaways on Goodreads are a great thing. I’ve run three so far, now that they’ve finally moved the program out of its beta status. This means 300 copies of my different books sent to book-loving Goodreads members. Unlike the physical giveaway program, this one is restricted to the US only, so it does limit your readership, but on the other, the cost per book for you, as the giveaway organizer, is low. Shipping physical copies is expensive. Kindle giveaways (excluding special discounts) comes down to 119 cents per copy, and you typically end with 50-100x more readers per giveaway. So far, the turnaround has been quite good, and this seems to be the best way to market your work and raise awareness at a relatively affordable cost and with solid, deterministic results.
Goodreads seems to be THE place
One conclusion that seems to be coalescing in my mind is that Goodreads, the book-and-author social network, is quite effective in what it does. Because it specializes, and it’s not just a random get-together digital board. There’s purpose, for authors and readers. Being involved seems to slowly draw people in, and the giveaways do help generate positive noise and awareness.
What else did I learn?
Well, the exploration journey continues. And I know you have a question: Have I sold enough copies to cover my investment (various services)? The simple answer is: not quite yet. From that perspective, my restaurant at the end of the universe (see what I did there) is a losing business.
But then, if you write for money, you’re doing it wrong.
I am confident regarding the long-term financial success of my books, which is why I don’t think about it, and don’t let it interfere with my writing. It’s not about that. Writing is an expression of self, and it needs to be fun. Which is why it is critical not to confuse the publication process with the reasons why people write in the first place. The difficulties – or the lack of immediate and apparent success – that is part of the self-publishing journey has nothing to do with why you create books. It shouldn’t. Those two are separate.
Well, if you’re not in the mood for a long article, then this is the gist of it. Over time, I learned how to trim cost (in a smart way), improve quality of my books look & feel, and realized that one must never compromise when it comes to the final output. If you don’t like it, something is wrong. And I’m NOT talking about you not being happy with your writing – every artist is unhappy about their writing, most of the time, you need to learn to live with it, never try to perfect written works, just write more, and the perfection will come through practice. Get the books out, don’t spend a decade putting final touches on some sad drawer monster.
Then, make sure you pay for fonts and images if needed. Marketing is a big black box for me, at the moment, I haven’t mastered the mathematical algorithm. I need more books, more time. On the ads side of things, I have more confidence and insight, and in that regard, conventional social media offers little loyalty, Goodreads offers a lot of it, and its giveaway programs seem to be the most effective way of promoting your works and garnering genuine, long-lasting reader loyalty.
Those are my lessons from the past six years of my writing and publishing life.
I hope I haven’t wasted these past six minutes of your reading.