David Gaughran has collected information about this train wreck and analyzes it far better than I could. This is a must read if you’re waffling about how to approach publishing. (Also note: David’s novel and short story collections are free today.)
Tag Archives: breaking in
This month marks my one year anniversary as an indie publisher. LIGHTBRINGER: A Celestial Affairs Novel was the first of four self-published titles I’ve released since last October. It has been a busy year, and while I’m usually focused on the next goal I’ve set for myself, this seems like a good time to look back and see what I’ve learned and how well I met my goals.
In terms of sales, I didn’t really have any specific goals. I had no idea what an unknown author like myself could expect. I had read about a few phenomenal success stories, but I figured they were from the far right edge of the bell curve. I hoped that I would join them there, but I didn’t really believe I would. Not in this first year, anyway. My minimum was that I wanted to break even within a year.
LIGHTBRINGER started slow, selling only about 12 copies a month for the first five months. I wasn’t doing a lot of promotion other than blogging and facebook (and not much of the latter). At this rate of sales I figured that it would take me 2 1/2 years to break even. I was a little depressed. Even the holiday bump only increased my sales to 22 in December, and half of that was because I’d introduced a second title, WITH HEART TO HEAR. But I’d only been at this for a little over two months. Way too soon to get discouraged.
Then I decided to try Kindle Select and use the free promotion after a friend reported significant success with it. Amazon was already changing its algorithms by then, but I still experienced a 650% jump in sales to a little over 80/month. A few months later when I found more sites to notify about my free promos, sales jumped again by 250%. By this time I’d published a third title, DANGEROUS TALENTS.
Overall, in this first year I’ve sold just under 1000 copies of my self-published books (and given away over 35,000). That doesn’t sound like much, but sales are trending upward. I’ve achieved my minimal goal, breaking even on my investment. And I’ve achieved something else that is worth more than money to me: empowerment. I am happy doing what I’m doing. It’s challenging to balance production with promotion. I firmly believe that getting more great books out is the single best way to improve my sales. Beyond that, it’s a challenge trying to determine what works and what doesn’t, and what I’m willing to spend my time on to improve my books’ performance in the marketplace.
Here are five things I’ve learned this year, in no particular order:
- Expect to learn as you go. You can’t know it all before you begin.
- Be nimble and willing to experiment. Indie publishing is shifting rapidly. Vendors and distributors keep changing their ways of doing business, while new promotional opportunities seem to arise daily.
- Keep writing. You never know which book will be the one that catches on. The more books you have out there, the more opportunities readers have to find you.
- Think hard about where you invest your time. There will never be enough of it to do everything you want to do. It’s a finite resource. However you spend it, make sure what you do is either productive or fun.
- Listen to others, then make up your own mind. It’s your career.
For next year? At minimum I expect to triple my sales. But my goal is to sell ten thousand copies. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Whenever I talk to aspiring fiction writers who are just starting out, I always recommend that they begin by writing short stories. There are several reasons for this.
Short stories allow a writer to experiment within a small package. First person, or third? Past tense, or present? Ratio of dialog to narrative to description. High fantasy or science fiction or urban fantasy or romance or mystery? Character or plot driven? Vignette or full story arc? Short stories let you test yourself, practice, and improve in a shorter period of time. You can write a short story in a week, a day if you’re a fast writer. It takes most of us at least a few months to write a novel. During the same time you could try out a dozen ideas in short stories.
Writing short encourages you to make every word count. To know what the essence of the story is and not to wander. It’s a great challenge to accept a very tight word limit, say 500 words, and tell a story within it. When you do “graduate” to writing novels, you won’t be as profligate with your words.
You can hold the whole story in your mind. With a novel you have plots and subplots, secondary characters and red herrings. When you’re just beginning that’s a lot to juggle. Make it easy on yourself. Start small. Learn to juggle just a couple of balls before you try to keep half a dozen flaming torches in the air.
It’s easier to get good feedback on short stories. You’re critique partners don’t have to wonder if you’re wandering off on a tangent or setting up something for later in the book as they might with a novel fragment — it’s all there. They can tell you if you pulled it all together or if the story fell apart in act three. And once you’ve got that feedback, it’s quicker to revise a short story.
You can learn most of this from writing novel chunks, but using the short story format encourages you to complete a whole thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end, not just a piece. Storytellers need to know how to start, sustain, and finish their tales. It’s easier to start learning that with a single plot line instead of a sprawling epic.
For a while, the market for short stories was shrinking; only a few print magazines still bought them, and only in a few genres. Now with people turning more and more to the internet for entertainment, there are an increasing number of markets online for short stories, some of which pay quite well. You can even sell your stories yourself on Kindle and Smashwords if you’re so inclined.
On this last point, I’d like to digress a little. There are some authors who suggest that you not spend too much time revising. Give it a light once over, then out the door it goes. They publish their shorts on Smashwords and Kindle and feel that reader reviews are good teachers. That’s true as far as it goes, but I can’t agree that this is the best start for beginning writers.
Every piece that goes out the door with your name on it is your ambassador. It may be the first thing of yours that someone reads — and it could be the last. Every story should be the best you can make it right now, within a reasonable amount of time. And that understanding comes with experience. And that experience is something you can get from writing multiple short stories.
Yes, if you foul your name by self-publishing work that’s really not ready, you can always continue your career under a pen name. It’s not a fatal mistake. But I think waiting a bit to publish while you learn your craft will be time well spent.
Start by writing several short stories and see how your work improves. Then you can decide if you want to go back and fix your first efforts, or trash ’em. Then push whatever survives out the door, and start another story.
No – that date’s not a mistake. I am well aware that the year is 2011. But I don’t think the publishing industry is. And I do wonder when one industry doesn’t learn from another. Do you know what I’m talking about?
It’s June 2000. *NSync has just broken all sales records by selling 2.4 million CDs in one week. The music industry feels invincible.
Then along comes Napster. Internet file sharing. All basic computers burn CDs. Sales plummet for obvious reasons: who wants to pay $26.99 for 12 pre-set songs when they can download the ones they LIKE for free? Sure it’s illegal. But the music industry is crushing the consumer with their high-prices and their greed! With prices like that they are ASKING to be pirated!
Now let’s look at publishing.
With each new release, publishers print thousands of paper books. These books are boxed up and sent around the country in trucks burning fossil fuels. The books are stocked on shelves by paid employees, pulled off the shelves by paid employees, and shipped back to the publisher within 90 days on those same trucks. Then one of two things happens: the books are re-ordered (no payment has been made) or they are destroyed. And books that don’t sell “well” are taken out of availability.
This is a very expensive (and wasteful) process. And to keep it going, print book prices are rising and paperback book quality is sinking. Manuscript lengths are dictated by cover templates and case sizes, not the integrity of the story.
But what about e-books?
Hm. No word-count restrictions. No paper, ink, or glue. No boxes. No trucks. No fuel. No bookstore employees to be paid to handle the books – twice. Returns are insignificant.
And what about Print On Demand (POD)? The only books printed and shipped are the ones already paid for. No books are ever taken “out of print” because they don’t require storage anywhere but on a network server. Electrons don’t take much up space.
So why do big publishing houses like Macmillan insist on charging up to $14.99 for e-books? Because they had their head in the sand (or up some lower body part) in 2000. With prices like that they are asking to be pirated! And their authors are the ones losing income.
The music industry lost out to pirating sites and YouTube – until they figured out that selling individual songs online for 99-cents would make everyone tons of money.
Now the publishing industry needs to come to grips with the same reality. Because I can upload my manuscripts to Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Smashwords for zero dollars. I can sell my books for $2.99 and make 70% in royalties by myself – versus the 10% publishers pay, minus my agent’s 15%. And monthly royalties from my online sales are deposited directly into my bank account.
I can cut the big publishers out completely. And I am.
Sure – I’m working hard. But the only thing that a traditional publishing house offers that I cannot manage on my own is 8 weeks of shelf space in the big box book stores. But 78% of book shoppers buy online; so I don’t see the problem.
Is it worth it? You tell me. This was the only way you could fall in love with Nicolas Hansen. Otherwise, you never would have heard of him.
For every 10 people who comment here, I will give away one free e-copy of A Woman of Choice – the beginning of the trilogy. And, yes. Commenter #11 warrants 2 copies! Comment #21? I’ll give away three.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
In February at the end of my blog tour, I’ll give away one SIGNED PAPERBACK SET of the trilogy. Here’s how you can get in on that deal:
1. Go to http://www.kristualla.com/ and find the “Secret Word” on my home page.
2. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Signed Trilogy Giveaway” in the subject line. Put the secret word in the body.
3. Comment on any blog at any time in the tour to activate your entry. Each day’s blog location is listed at http://kristualla.wordpress.com/blog-tour-dates-locations/
A Woman of Choice, A Prince of Norway, and A Matter of Principle are all available at http://www.goodnightpublishing.com/
A Woman of Choice – Missouri Territory, 1819
A woman is viciously betrayed and abandoned by her unfaithful husband. She is rescued by a widower uninterested in love. In desperation, she becomes engaged to his best friend. One woman, three very different men. Life is about choices.
A Prince of Norway – Christiania, Norway, 1820
American-born Nicolas Hansen has been asked to candidate for his great-grandfather’s throne. His new wife Sydney isn’t about to let him go to Norway and face that possibility alone. The moment they arrive at Akershus Castle, the political intrigue and maneuvering begin. Can Sydney trust anyone? Will Nicolas resist the seduction of power? Or will he claim the throne for himself? Most importantly: will their young marriage survive the malicious mischief of the ambitious royal family?
A Matter of Principle – St. Louis, State of Missouri, 1821
Nicolas Hansen has returned from Norway determined to change the world. But when he runs for State Legislator in the brand-new state of Missouri, the enemies he made over the past two years aren’t about to step quietly aside. Sydney has made enemies of her own, both by marrying Nicolas and by practicing midwifery. When a newspaper reporter makes it his goal to destroy them, Nicolas must rethink his path once again. But this time, it’s a matter of principle.
Even though I’ve been writing for a while and have had short stories published, I’m still a newbie to publishing. (I’m not sure when I’ll graduate from that category, or what the criteria are.) I’ve signed contracts before and killed my darlings at editorial direction. But a short story is, well, smaller. This is one of my books. It took nearly a year to write, so I can tell you I read that contract carefully even if it wasn’t open to negotiation. Especially since. It felt momentous signing it, like buying a house, irrevocable. I was making a commitment. I was finally taking that next step on the road of my career, a road I chose when I submitted Veiled Mirror in the first place.
Today I filled out the information sheet the artist will use to design my cover, and signed up for the publisher’s author group. None of this was very complicated, though I had to go back to the manuscript to find out what color my hero’s eyes were. To my dismay, I discovered I’d described them as green in one place and brown in another. (They are now consistently green.)
Now I wait to hear from my editor what my next little step in the journey is.
Just about every unpublished, or little published, author wants to know “the Secret,” that combination of actions that results in “the call” from the publisher offering to publish their baby. Those of us who belong to writing organizations or who go regularly to conferences (in order to learn the secret, of course) have heard many times that there is no secret. None. Zippo. Nada.
We hear over an over again that the only way to succeed is to write the best book we can, format it correctly, and then keep sending it out to publishers and agents until it finds the right person who will fall in love with it and offer a glass slipper in return.
We hear rumors of authors who have defied the words of the wise ones and left the beaten track to strike off on their own into the woods, but something in us holds us back. The wise ones tell us that leaving the tried and true path will result in disaster. Self-publishing will cost us money we’ll never recover. Digital publishing is still in its infancy. Only traditional publishers can give your book the exposure it needs to succeed.
I’ve been reading the blogs of Michael Stackpole and J.A. Konrath. These guys are serious about their careers and hyper-aware of what works and what doesn’t. They’ve been in the game for a long time, and both of them are embracing digital publishing. (In particular, check out Konrath’s post, “You aren’t J.A. Konrath” of 10/3/10.)
Yes, as Tim Ferris points out, his Kindle sales are only a fraction of his total book sales. But I’ll point out that his book is non-fiction (which generally enjoys larger sales numbers than fiction), and his Kindle sales are still significant. Low sales numbers don’t seem to be a problem for J.A. Konrath, however. If an author can approach even a fraction of what Konrath has acheived through digital sales, then that’s still a pretty good career, and you aren’t waiting around for the gatekeepers to bestow their blessing.
Does this mean I’m going to pull my books from the traditional publishers who are considering them?
No. As Stackpole advises, I’m pursuing all options. Does this mean I’ll self-publish future books? Quite probably.
Here is the truth as I see it:
You need to be brutally honest with yourself, and you need to find readers who will be brutally honest with you so you can make your book really, really good. That is the ONLY hard and fast, immutable truth. Your book must be the very best you can make it. No typos. No awkward phrases. Consider hiring a professional editor if you don’t know readers up to the task. Yes, it takes time, and possibly money, but you’re planning a marathon here, not a sprint. Don’t stumble in the blocks.
If you want to self-publish fiction (either Print On Demand or digital) you need to have a good cover. Aaron Shepard makes a living off his non-fiction, independently published books and they have plain white covers with just the title and his name, but I believe (with no evidence to support my belief other than an informal unscientific survey) that for fiction, a good cover is helpful to capture the eye of the reader cruising down a list of thumbnails online.
Be smart. Take your time. Educate yourself. Learn from others.
Hold on to your dreams.
Kris Tualla‘s first book, A Primer for Beginning Authors came out in April of this year, and her first novel, A Woman of Choice was released earlier this month. A retired high school teacher, Tualla is pursuing her dream of becoming a multi-published author of historical fiction. She started in 2006 with nothing but a nugget of a character in mind and absolutely no idea where to go from there. She has created a dynasty – The Hansen Series – with six novels currently in line for publication. Norway is the new Scotland!
1. What is your latest project?
I am finishing the editing on my trilogy; “A Prince of Norway” is coming November 8, and “A Matter of Principle” releases January 8, 2011.
In between, I am writing “Loving the Knight” – the sequel to “Loving the Norseman” – which is currently waiting on traditional publishers’ desks.
2. What made you decide to buck tradition and pursue independent publishing?
Traditional publishers did. “We don’t do American historicals… no one can sell Scandinavia… write Scotland BUT Scotland is a very crowded market… cut 15,000 words then I’ll look at it… publishers LIKE their boxes…” I’ve heard it all.
3. What response do you have to those who feel there’s not enough money and exposure in self-publishing for the amount of effort, and that the quality of self-published books is poor?
It’s true: indie-pubbed authors have to work twice as hard or more at promotion. That is one heck of a lot of effort, make no mistake.
On the other hand, indie-pubbed authors make 35%-70% in royalties per book, not 10%. And sales numbers never determine whether or not another book is released. And indie-pubbed books never go “out of print” creating a perpetual backlist.
As for the quality, it often IS poor. Ignorant authors charge into publishing without 1) learning how to write well, 2) learning to format professionally, 3) researching their options. It’s sad, really.
But there are plenty of us who ARE doing it well. I have to believe that the cream will – eventually – rise to the top. I’ve got time. Years.
4. How do you see the publishing industry changing (if at all) in the next five years?
- E-books, e-readers and used bookstores will continue to grow.
- POD is the only print model that is viable.
- Big-box bookstores and traditional publishers will need to rethink their business plans. Jobs will be lost.
- National writer organizations will have to accept indie-pubbed authors, setting a bar of either total copies sold or royalties earned to qualify as “official” – or lose new authors.
- New business models (such as my Goodnight Publishing) will appear to support the indie-pubbed author.
5. Tell us about your process of preparing a manuscript for publication. (Choosing a print method, editing, etc.)
I use CreateSpace by Amazon because there is no contract, no required purchases, and fabulous distribution. I print completed books and give them to readers to be edited (this costs no more money than printing manuscripts at Kinko’s and is so much more productive!).
I go through 4 rounds of printed-book edits until 12 sets of eyes have picked the books apart. When I’m done I publish through Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. Still waiting for Nook’s PubIt! to go live…
6. Do you think there are projects that aren’t well suited to independent publishing?
Yes – anything that should be in hard back like big, glossy coffee-table books. Or children’s books that have cute quirks like shapes, holes, fuzzy stuff, etc. Or little, cheap, series books like Harlequins.
7. How do you define success for yourself?
In baby steps:
A book signing with 30 people. A good review here or selling six more books there. An interview on internet radio. Buying an ad in RT that leads to a promised review. A request to speak.
I can’t look too far ahead, I only look at what I can do NEXT. And if I do the next thing well, then I’m succeeding.
8. What three qualities or behaviors do you think an author needs to have to achieve success in publishing today?
No saying, “I can’t.”
Never turning any opportunity down.
9. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Sometimes I think I should have submitted to e-publishers that would have taken me in a heartbeat. Then RWA would consider me “published”…
But I LOVE being able to write what I want and having control over my product. And working at my own (quick) pace. And problem-solving. And learning SO much through the process. And promoting myself. And helping other authors who want to indie-pub. I’m having a blast.
So, I guess the answer is “no.”
10. What advice do you have for authors considering independent publishing?
DO NOT DO IT IN A BUBBLE! Find a mentor who has walked this path and done it well. You must have both input and editing from readers and other writers on EVERY aspect of the process.
Thank you Kris, for taking the time to share your experience with us!
This week I finished doing some niggling revisions on my romantic fantasy, Forbidden Talents, the second book in my Vinlander Saga. (FT is the sequel to Dangerous Talents which is under submission to a New York publisher. Keep your fingers crossed for me!) Then I moved on to amping up the sensuality in my contemporary paranormal, Lightbringer. (Jill Knowles, who writes erotic romance, is helping me with that — thanks Jill!) I’m also struggling with the question of whether to add to/change/enrich some of the primary character motivations.
This is part of the job of writing. (Not the fun part). I have to decide if the book is strong enough as it is, or if it really needs to be rewritten and if this is a good use of my time. Or would I be better off working on something entirely new?
Time management is a huge part of the business of writing. At the most basic level, we have to get our BIC (butt in chair) on a regular basis. Then we have to decide how much time we should spend wearing each of our many hats.
I had a great conversation about this recently with Janni Simner, who has commented here before. Her perspective on time is that it’s better spent writing or revising than doing almost anything else. She believes that writing and submitting to traditional publishers (large or small) is the best business model. I’m not as convinced, even though that is the path I’m pursuing at the moment.
Questions we both would like to see answers to: 1) What percentage of manuscripts submitted to traditional publishers are purchased? (Quality aside, what are your chances of selling?) I’ve heard numbers ranging from less than one percent up to four percent (for small presses). But what is the average?
2) What percent of self-published manuscripts sell a thousand copies or more? I recall reading that only three percent sell more than 500 copies, but I couldn’t swear to that.
If the results of #1 are less than the results of #2, or even close, is it still the better business model? In other words, is it better to keep hoping that you’ll beat the odds and get that New York contract, or is it better to get a small amount of exposure (most likely), and make a very small amount of money by self-publishing?
Of course, in earlier blogs we already determined that money isn’t the only factor to take into account when deciding which publishing model to pursue. So maybe we should ask a third question:
3) What percent of authors following either model are satisfied with their experience? And of the few who have done both, what do they think of each model?
Inquiring minds want to know. . . .
Review Wednesday: Top Self Publishing Firms by Stacie Vander Pol and The Fine Print of Self-Publshing by Mark Levine
You’re getting a two-fer today because these books address the same subject from different directions.
Top Self Publishing Firms: How Writers Get Published, Sell More Books, and Rise to the Top by Stacie Vander Pol is, not surprisingly, self-published through CreateSpace. (And by the way, only the subject matter and the “Published by CreateSpace” in the front matter gave it away.) This slim volume, published in 2010, rates 24 self-publishing companies. Vander Pol gives a quick overview of each, discussing such things as which publishing package offered is best, author royalties, book pricing and author purchases. She gives an overall score, and a scores for sales and distribution. She also devotes a chapter each to list top performing fiction and non-fiction books so the reader can see for herself what sells.
Vander Pol approaches the rankings like a business person, asking how much will it cost, what do I get for my money, what do they pay, and how effective have they been in the past? She acknowledges that measuring self-publishing success is difficult, but suggests that using Amazon rankings and TitleZ.com can give a pretty good picture. I knew before I read this book that non-fiction enjoys more self-publishing success, but Vander Pol gave actual statistics: “Of the self-published books selling at the top of the market, fewer than 15% are fiction.”
I liked the quick reference guide aspect of Vander Pol’s book, and returned often to her two page comparison chart when I was reading the third edition of Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: The Contracts and Services of 45 Self-Publishing Comanies — Analyzed, Ranked & Exposed.
Levine is an attorney, and takes a different, more in-depth, approach. He looks very closely at the contracts and the various clauses that can bite an unsuspecting author. He thoroughly explores how the money flows with each company with respect to trade discounts, production cost mark-ups, and royalties. In addition to that, he reports on how responsive each firm was to questions. (Levine and his editor posed as prospective clients.)
Unfortunately, the third edition came out in 2008, and a great deal can change in a short time. Read this book to learn how to analyze any self-publishing contract you may be offered, not for the specific numbers of his calculations. (His numbers for CreateSpace are no longer accurate, for example.) I also felt that in some cases his opinion (and ranking) of a company was determined more by how helpful the staff of a company was than by fairness of their production charges and the royalties they paid.
Not surprisingly, since Levine and Vander Pol judged by slightly different criteria, they didn’t always agree on which firms were best. The two books each have their strengths and are best used together.
I’m skipping the poetry today to recap my experience at the Desert Dreams Conference. The short version: It was great!
I went to several very informative panels, about topics as varied as writing erotica to the legal and money issues of being self-employed. All of the presenters were excellent. I was lucky to hear Jodi Thomas talk about writing historicals and Jennifer Ashley discuss the progression of a writer’s career.
The panels weren’t the only good thing either. I had the good fortune to have great conversations with several authors who gave me tips on where to submit next and one who shared her experience as an independent publisher. (Check out Kris Tualla’s A Primer for Beginning Authors.)
I also had the pleasure of meeting Kate Seaver of Berkely Publishing. She’s a lovely, gracious woman, and I’m not saying that just because she invited me to submit Veiled Mirror to her. 🙂
The keynote speakers, Linda Lael Miller and Brad Schreiber were funny and inspiring, and some of the stories told by the editors and agents were absolutely hysterical.
If there was one theme that I had to choose to describe the conference, it’s that writing is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. To quote Jodi Thomas (who was quoting a headstone), “Triumph comes through perseverance.”
So, I’m giving a big round of applause to the organizers of the the conference. They did a fabulous job.