Sunday, 22 September 2013

Fighting through the low times

There comes a point during any self-publisher's journey where you start to doubt yourself. Am I really as good as I think I am? Am I really in the right profession? Should I just give up and try something else?

It's an easy situation to be in, particularly when you're surrounded by people doing a whole lot better than you are. It's easy to let the bitterness slip in, to feel aggrieved or frustrated at someone else's success, particularly when you can't understand why you're unable to replicate it.

There could be a number of reasons why someone is more successful than you.

They might have more books out.

They might have a large friends/family network all wanting to blog/Tweet/Facebook them to give them a chance to get off the ground.

They might have really good books, the kind where someone reads it and just has to tell everyone they know.

They might be writing in a more popular genre.

They might be incredibly business savvy, incredibly hardworking, or incredibly adept at knowing what kind of covers, blurb or pricing works best.

They might be very, very lucky.

A lot of writers say they feel no bitterness, envy or jealously towards other writers. Some of them might be telling the truth. Many will be lying. If you're making a thousand dollars a month it's a lot easier to not feel jealous of someone making $2000, but if you're writing/marketing three hours a day for $10 on a good month, it's a lot easier to feel that frustration, that "why not me?" feeling.

September marks the 18-month mark of my self-publishing adventure. I've published 31 different items under four different pen names, including three full-length novels, half a dozen novellas and several collections of short stories. I even have one work of non-fiction (but it's a secret!)

I've sold roughly 1800 books, more or less 100 a month, which is far, far better than many thousands of indie writers, who are probably going green with envy right now and can only dream of the kind of success I've so far attained. I hope so, I really do.

That's a joke, kind of. I've not made any money. So far this September, only 4 of my 31 titles have registered a paid sale. I think, at the time of writing, I'm still a little in the red.

I work on my books in the majority of my free time, roughly three hours a day on average. That's a lot of time to spend on not making any money (okay, I could be watching TV, which is much worse).

Why don't I make any money? Firstly, I plow it back in. As I got more sales, I invested in better covers, editors, proofreaders. All my novels are now going through a formatter, because I'm not happy just having an uploaded Word document, I want my books to look pro. I want there to be no distinction between my work and say, Stephen King's (although for the most part, my books are a lot shorter ...). I want my books to be awesome inside and out. I'm a complete computer illiterate, so it's easier to farm these tasks out. But that costs a little money.

I've built up a firm base. I have a decent if unspectacular social media platform, and a solid, well-reviewed backlist.

Yet still the doubts creep in. In March or so I gave up doing free promotions on novels. What used to happen was in exchange for some douchebag review or two you'd end up with 50 - 100 sales if you gave enough copies away. It was enough to massage the bank account a little, although the bad reviews always used to hurt. Doesn't matter how many five-star reviews you get, those one-stars really sting.

Suddenly things became hard. Getting reviews was difficult, getting on bargain book promo sites was tricky, getting any sales at all without reducing the price was near impossible. August was my worst sales month since my first, which was only four days long.

Then a couple of days ago I got rejected by a pretty piddly promotion site, after labouring for six months to try to get the prerequisite number of reviews.

I wanted to bury my head in the sand. Am I ever going to get anywhere doing this? Surely after 18 months I deserve a break?

I wanted to get bitter, I wanted to get resentful. I wanted to stand up on a rooftop somewhere and shout, GOD DAMN IT! WHY AREN'T I SELLING ANY BOOKS?? MY BOOKS ROCK BUT NO ONE WILL BUY THEM!! ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY??

Or something like that. Then I realised. No one owes me shit. Not Amazon, not other authors, not friends or family. It's just me, and it's all up to me. And that list of stuff other people are doing that makes them sell better? Not my problem. My problem is my books, and my books only.

You have to fight through the bad times. You have to get proactive and not turn into one of the whiny little pricks you find in places like the KDP Forums, the kind that will go and one-star more successful authors just to feel better about themselves. I've never done it, but I've had it happen to me, and it sucks.

You might be struggling to stay afloat in a sea of internal negativity, but you HAVE TO DO IT. DO NOT GIVE UP. You have to reach and reach and reach for that olive branch of positive energy that's dangling over you and haul yourself up it on to dry land.

Here's what you have to do.

1. Write more books. Obvious, but so true. No one can totally control the market, but one thing you can do is keep churning out those words, and the more books you have out the more chance you have of having one take off.

2. Become a better writer. All I ever here is "how can I sell books?", when you should be asking, "How can I write better books?" The same way as with everything else. LEARN. Buy study guides, listen to advice from other writers, watch online lectures, practice. You want to be so good that anyone who buys one of your books has no choice but to buy all the others.

3. Get proactive about marketing.

Research. Try new places. Bust ass looking for reviewers. There are huge lists of review bloggers out there, you just have to contact them. You need five reviews to get on Bookblast, eight for Kindle News and Tips, 10 for Ereader News Today. Stepping stones. Take one at a time, gradually lifting yourself up.

4. Relax.

Okay, I couldn't really think of anything interesting to write for number four, but you need to remember that unless you're like 95 and you're expecting to die in the next week or so, it's not a race. You have lots of time. Many traditional writers took decades before they were able to give up the day job. You have all the advantage - no production schedule, no one rejecting your proposal or telling you to write your book over from scratch or to write something different in another genre. YOU are the master. YOU CHOOSE what gets published and when. It's the perfect situation.

Through most of July and August I was busting my ass getting the final Tube Riders book done. Now that's been drafted, I have a little more time to address marketing and see if I can't figure out what to do about my plummeting sales.

What I've been doing -

I set up Goodreads giveaways for two of my paperbacks. This is a way to get more visibility for your books and to potentially get more reviews.

I've done some research into online markets, and I've spent a bit of money here and there. Not much, $10 here, $10 there, trying to get a bit more visibility.

I've tweeted and blogged more (hello!). I've linked my blogs on Stumbledupon and tweeted them.

I've set up a Facebook ad for one of my books, which I put on special price.

I printed out a bunch of photographs of my book covers, and during a recent trip back to England I "strategically" placed them in potentially beneficial locations. For example, the next person to use my seat on the airline I took will find a Tube Riders bookmark inside his in-flight magazine. Not sure if it'll help, but you have to think outside the box sometimes.

What have been the results?

Well, nothing spectacular, but yesterday I sold four books. That's four more than I sold the day before. I can't be sure that had anything at all to do with my renewed efforts, but it felt like it did.

And sometimes that's enough.

Don't let the bitterness take hold. If you've decided you're in this for the long haul then stop stressing about today or yesterday's sales. Think about where you want your sales to be in 2015.

Fight through the low times. If you keep writing, they'll pass.

Chris Ward
September 23rd 2013


  1. I'm currently writing my first novel, so I have absolutely zero input, except that I deal with the same doubts in writing my novel. (will anyone like it, will it ever sell, etc)
    I am writing on here to point you to a website called Story Cartel. It's a website where you give away your book on Kindle, plus some kind of prize carried out by lottery (they take care of the lottery part, you provide the "prize") in exchange the people who download the book on Kindle promise to write a review.
    I have no idea if it works by personal experience, but here is the website I found out about it:

    Good luck!! I'll be following you.

    1. Hi Fleur, thanks for your message. I had a look at that site you mentioned. My advice would be to be very careful with sites like that. It might be completely legit, but be wary of anywhere that requires some form of payment for reviews. Giveaways are fine, but asking for reviews in exchange for entering a prize draw has its own problems. For example, you might end up with a bunch of single line reviews that say nothing about your book and are all one-star, yet you still have to give a prize out. There are better ways of doing it, such as emailing bloggers or offering reviews in exchange for free copies of you books on sites like Goodreads. Beware serial prize-draw enterers (sp?). In any case, you don't need 100 reviews. You only need 5 - 10 and then you can start getting on promotion and advertising sites, and once your book is making sales you'll get more reviews anyway. It took my six months to get five reviews on my book Tube Riders, but once I had them the rest came quite quickly. In short, getting anywhere in self-publishing requires you to do the hard yards, and they're VERY hard. You have think long term. Two years in and I'm still making no money despite having almost 2000 sales, because I plow it all back into my books to get better covers, better editing, better formatting. This is in addition to the 3 - 4 hours a day that I work on my books (around a full and a part time job). You have to build the foundation before you can live in the house. That's the hard part, but if you put the effort in eventually you'll be rewarded.

      Good luck with your book!

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