To celebrate its launch, BLAZING A TRAIL: Your Self Publishing Journey is FREE in Kindle format today!
Mike Stackpole was one of the first authors to recognize the opportunities digital publishing had to offer. Here is the interview he gave for BLAZING A TRAIL: Your Self Publishing Journey.
Michael A. Stackpole is a bestselling author of many traditionally published novels and a successful self-publisher. His most recent Indie release is MYSTERIOUS WAYS. His website is http://www.stormwolf.com
Tell us a little about your background and publishing history.
I’m an eight times New York Times Bestselling author with over 45 books published. I’ve independently published a handful of originals (collections or novels) as well as a number of novels which had been traditionally published, but had no ebook rights attached. I’ve also participated in a number of Indie anthology projects, like FIVE BY, with Kevin J. Anderson, B. V. Larson, Loren Coleman, and Aaron Allston. That project was conceived of and executed as an Indie project.
If you published with a traditional publisher before self-publishing, do you think having a following helped your Indie sales? Why or why not?
There is no denying that having been previously published is very helpful. Any books sale involves a “trust me” factor. By having had work out before, readers already know what I can do. Also, as readers transition from paper books to ebooks, they look for authors they know and trust. Having a name—and a book on a shelf—is a convenient starting place. After all, if they decide to get my latest for their eReader, and do a search, all my titles show up. This way they find the traditionally published ebooks, as well as my Indie work. Search Engines do not discriminate in that way.
What led to your decision to self-publish?
Two main factors: First, money. I like getting a larger share of the pie. Second, I had work which no one else wanted to bring out in any format, simply because they couldn’t see how to make money off it. I could. So I decided to bring the books out.
How long have you been self-publishing?
I was the first author to have fiction available in the iTunes App store, and I had several stories available before that in a format that worked on iPhones and iPods. My self-published work began, however, back in April, 2003 with The Secrets, my how-to-write newsletter. So, at least ten years. If you want to take my gaming work into account, where I was writing, editing, and publishing through Flying Buffalo, Inc, then we kick it back to 1979, but who’s counting?
What were your goals when you began, and how have they changed since then? How do you measure success?
Great question. My goals were poorly thought out and really require constant revision because of the way the marketplace and Indie publishing changes. The basic goal was to make money, and that continues. Marketing is a secondary goal, and that’s the slippery one. That takes a lot of work where the results are very hard to quantify when it comes to success. You can’t put five hours in one day and see $1,000 show up tomorrow. Or, if you can, tell me how. Twitter is a great example. I send out stories every day and then see things retweeted up to a week later. Clearly it is working, and announcing a new book will generate sales, no doubt, but getting it to build requires a lot of effort and constantly embracing new strategies.
Did you do a lot of the production process yourself, or did you hire people to do it for you? Were you satisfied with the outcome?
I do a lot myself because a) I am cheap and b) I’m coming from the gaming industry where I did all of that stuff in the past anyway. Graphics, which I really can’t do, I hire out or barter for. Ditto editing. I rely on the kindness of friends for proofreading. (They seem to think that getting to see an advanced copy is payment somehow.) I’m very satisfied with the outcome, but, again, I developed those skills a long time ago. If I was just trying to learn it all now, I know the learning curve would be steep in parts. Still, the cost/benefit analysis would push me on to do it.
How have you spread the word about your work?
Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, blogging, conventions. I did a limited run of CDs with one book on it and then did readings at conventions. I had a really good sell-through after the readings. Interviews and developing a list of reviewers to whom work can be sent is also important. I will do more on developing that list this year.
What has been the most effective thing you have done to promote your books? What has been the least effective?
To me, marketing efforts are really tough to quantify when it comes to results. For example, I had really good results last year when I did a giveaway via Amazon. Gave a boatload of books away and had really good follow-up sales. One of my publishers tried the same trick with one of my books, had exactly the opposite result: gave away tons, had no following sales. I think the real key is to build up a captive audience and use them as the foundation of what you’re doing. Also, enlisting bloggers through free review copies is key. Less because they have dedicated readers than anything is a chance for folks to be reminded the work is out there.
How did your Indie sales evolve? What should a new Indie author expect?
Yes, sales do evolve. They ebb and flow. Frankly, we are too new to this whole market to be identifying all the variables in play, much less identifying one (price, for example) which is the “magic bullet.” Price competition is stupid, to my mind, since it’s never really been part of the way folks buy books. Plus, since anyone can get a free sample and decide to read more based on that, how can you price your book below free? Better to learn how to write the front part of a book to hook readers than to worry about what the price of your book will be.
In terms of new Indie authors, they need to think endurance, not sprint. Stay in the game. Turning out more work is actually marketing and very effective marketing. Sales will build eventually. Figure out two or three marketing methods with which you are comfortable, master them, and use them mercilessly. (Sample chapters are your best friend.) Don’t feel you have to do all the stuff everyone else tells you to do. Job one is write. Better to sell three copies of ten titles than thirty copies of one title simply because with ten titles, it’s easier for a reader to discover you.
What influenced your decision to price your books as you did?
I price them at what I think is fair and below what traditional publishers charge. In my case, it’s simple, $1 per 10,000 words, capped around $6 (depending on the book and any special/deluxe features). So, if the book is a monster, you get a bargain. I’m also turning out more compact novels, running around 50,000-60,000 words (the pre-1987 length for SF/F—current length for crime fiction and [category] romances). This means I can do more to have more work out there for more readers.
What are your top tips for new Indie authors? What do you wish you had known before you started?
Be market aware and keep writing. The saddest authors are the ones that flog the hell out of a single book. Why? Because by the time they’ve sold a copy to everyone who could conceivably buy it, they don’t have anything new to offer. Careers are made from continuing sales, not one-offs. You always want to have something new for the reader to find, and to include sample chapters in the back of earlier book, complete with links to buy.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Read the blogs, follow twitter feeds (@mikestackpole), and do what you must to keep up with trends, but take everything with a grain of salt. Sure, the predictions I started making about all this five years ago have come true, but that’s less because of truth of my vision, than the persistence of it. While folks waited to see what the future would become, I was out there telling them how it would be. They went along with me and my vision simply because it was easier than thinking for themselves (and risking being wrong compared to me—tongue in cheek here).
Most of all, keep writing. The fact that you must market does not excuse you from writing. More material means more sales. Every new person is a chance to buy your whole backlist. Don’t disappoint them by not having one. Also, think about new ways to tell stories and use them. Make the medium work for you.