Thursday, 23 January 2014

Two years in self-publishing and some thoughts on what I've learned so far

24th of January 2014 marks two years since I entered the world of self-publishing. It’s been an interesting ride, that’s for sure.

First up, the reveal-all stats. I have nothing to shout home about but I’ve not done as bad as a lot of people probably think.

First, the stats…

As of today, I’ve sold 1943 books across all platforms and formats, and made roughly (Jan’s report isn’t in yet) $2400.

Of those sales, roughly 1500 were in my second year, so my sales basically tripled from my first to second years.

In total I have 32 items available across four different pen names. Four novels, a novel sampler, five collections of short stories, twelve individual short stories, four novellas (comedy) under a penname, five short stories (sports) under another penname, and one “work” of non-fiction.

My biggest seller is The Tube Riders, which has sold 754 copies across all platforms. Next up is my standalone horror/thriller, The Man Who Built the World, which has sold about 600. The only novel that sells without me doing anything is the sequel to The Tube Riders, The Tube Riders: Exile. All the others require constant promotion.

During that time I've also written a shade under 600,000 new words, although I was lucky in a sense that I was writing for many years beforehand, and a lot of my published work was written over the last ten years or so.

I consider myself the very definition of a lower midlister – I sell enough and make enough to call myself an author and justify what I do, but I’m not making enough yet for it to make any significant difference to my life. In fairness, when I started out in 2012 it was with a seven-year plan to become full time, and I expected to make nothing for the first three years. I’m still spending more than I’ve earned, but the gap is closing. With the third in a trilogy out by the end of January, I’m hoping that 2014 will be a bit nicer to me.

Here’s a list of things I’ve learned. Some of these are serious, some are a little tongue-in-cheek. Be aware this is not really advice, just things I’ve come to understand, but I tend to talk to myself because I don’t have many friends. Different things work for different people, and while for me Twitter sucks, for someone else it could be the key to world dominance. And as always, everything I say is subject to change.

1.      Social media alone doesn’t sell books

But, it’s extremely important for maintaining your fanbase. Nothing sells books like paid promotions. All the Twitter, Goodreads and Facebook in the world won’t sell you as many books as a Bookbub, but they’re great for fans to come to AFTER they’ve read your books. Basically, you steer the fans towards you with promotions, then you net(work, ho hum) them with your social media presence. Once they’re there you can cultivate them as you choose.

2.      Never assume anything

Run your Bookbub promo or your ENT Book of the Day, but never get too excited. Always expect the worst – zero sales. Then everything else is a bonus. I’ve crashed and burned too many times to get excited these days, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep coming back. I just refine the way I do things, maybe change the covers, then have at it again. Be optimistic, but thinking things like, “Yay, I’ve got a Bookbub, I’m going to make 2000 sales today,” is just asking for trouble. It’s all part of the process of hardening yourself against the knocks.

3.      Be flexible

I once promised myself I’d never write a sequel. I’m now just finishing the final touches to a trilogy and have at least two more books planned in the same world. Write what you love (more on that later) but always be open to new ideas. Self-publishing requires the most open of minds.

4.      Always look for new opportunities to promote

You name it, I’ve lost money on it (including Bookbub). In fact, I think the only promotion site I’ve not lost money on is ENT, and only because they charge a percentage rather than a flat rate. However, you have to be looking at long term gains, and especially if you have a series, because you could make your money back further down the line, in sequels sales or sales of your other books. And you have to be constantly looking for new ways to promote. New sites appear, people create multi-author boxed sets and anthologies, and you never know when one might give you the lift-off you need. Get in on as many different promo opportunities as you can, but don’t turn into one of those annoying spammy types who send me private messages on Goodreads or Facebook asking me to review their book. Remember, for spam, Twitter is your best friend.

5.      Don’t trust online converters :-0

The worst – or at least most frustrating – review that I’ve received (which was kindly plastered across two Amazons, Goodreads and blog, complains mostly about my formatting (it also says my book sucks, but I can deal with that haha). The reviewer received a review copy I made through an online converter, a mistake I’ll never make again. If you know what you’re doing with computers that’s great, but when you’re computer-illiterate like me, it’s better to only use copies you can trust. When I send out review copies now, I either send a PDF or a Word and ask the reviewer to convert it to their preference. Amateurish it might be, but I dread to think how many sales I’ve lost because people have assumed my Amazon formatting sucks, when it’s actually pretty decent.

6.      Don’t condemn someone for a single breach of etiquette (but block repeat offenders!)

Everyone is a noob at some point, and like me, not everyone knows the rules on spamming or pestering people. Several people I’m now good friends with came across as “please read my book” types at first, and I’m glad I didn’t automatically pull the shutters down. Give people a chance. However, if someone is repeatedly spamming your blog or Facebook page, be ruthless about wielding the axe. Dispatch them like a rotten tree stump and heave their broken remains into the nearest e-fire.

7.      Do not expect or ask for help from those close to you

If you have supportive family and friends then that’s great. If they no more care about your writing than what you did at work or what you ate for dinner, don’t lean on them and expect them to buy your stuff. They are not your crutch. Everything – 100% – of your motivation must come from inside you. If you get support later on from other writers, then great, but if you need just one person to give you a gee up then learn to deal without them or you will never be able to survive. If you’ve come up the hard way like I have, through bloody-minded perseverance in the face of months and months of pathetic sales while everyone around you is laughing behind their hands because you suck and you’ll never amount to anything, there’s no point in being a pansy or crying into a pillow. Go and scrape your fingertips on some sandpaper, dip the bleeding stumps into some salt, growl into a mirror, and get back to work.

8.      Write in a bubble

When you’re hard at work writing, you’re entirely alone. People can encourage you but no one can write the book for you (unless you pay them, haha). As I said above you have to find the motivation but you also have to discipline yourself. Find time. I work full and part time, but I made the sacrifices necessary to get in the time I needed – about three hours a day – to do what I need to do. It wasn’t that hard; I just ditched the waste of time stuff like watching TV and having friends :-0. I still need more time – but I have enough to produce a volume of work that keeps me - if not happy - then for the time being, content.

9.      Have absolute faith in your work

There’s a difference between being self-critical and thinking that you suck. I’m my own biggest critic but I take criticism from others very well because I always want to push my writing to another level. However, at a base level, while I might be a bit rough around the edges, I know that I rock. I don’t just think it. I KNOW it. My books are almost painfully good. People can tell me I suck a million times but I will still believe that the narrative I’m creating is a good one and has merit. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. You have to be your own biggest critic but also your own biggest fan. Confidence is attractive. Have it.

10.  Write what you love

Okay, here’s the controversial bit. The internet is full of writing advice – pick a popular genre, write a series, copy all the big guns and do exactly as they do, blah blah blah – but it is only YOU who is sitting at your desk and it is only YOU who is writing your book. Forcing yourself to write something that you have no interest in or that you’re only writing because you’re hoping it will sell better than the story that you actually want to write is only cheating yourself and will make you miserable. Sure, some people can deal with it – but it’s a lot easier to do something you don’t enjoy when you’re earning $1000 a day. That’s why there are so many lawyers. And once you actually have a fanbase, then is perhaps the time to redefine how you approach a story that will please both yourself and the people waiting to read it. If you’re struggling to make $100 a month though, you should be concentrating on writing the stories that you can put the entirety of your soul into. Empty your heart into that story and weave it out of strings of love. It’ll be a better book for it, and you won’t dread getting up and going to that writing desk every morning. You’ll be staying up late at night to write it, or like me, getting more and more dependent on coffee.

11.  Cultivate and nurture relationships

I’ve met dozens of awesome people over my time in self-publishing, and while the writing itself is a solitary affair, there are thousands of others out there in exactly the same boat. Your family might not want to talk about how you felt after a tough day at the desk, but there are other writers that will. Find them. Meet them on forums, in groups, even in real life, if you have a life away from your desk (I go to work and band practice but that’s about it). Be nice to them, and help them when you can, and they’ll do the same for you. And then in ten years time when someone you knew as a floundering noob is a literary superstar, you can sell the paperback they signed for you as a joke on eBay.

12.  Give back

Everyone starts a noob. Today’s noobs are tomorrow’s bestsellers. If anyone has ever helped you or given you advice then take a little time to give a bit back. People will appreciate it and they might even read your books. I’ve found that in general no one really cares what you have to say unless you’ve sold more than them, but the nature of this business is that we’re all standing on a very long ladder, and there will always be someone below you. There’s always someone you can help, so give back what you can. It takes time to develop a thick skin in writing, but you can help someone else out simply by identifying with the struggles they’re going through on a daily basis.

13.  Set low targets but aim constantly to break them

Nothing boosts confidence like a bit of success, but one man’s success is another man’s failure. Set low targets for yourself and attempt to smash them into oblivion. Then, when you’re confident you can top them regularly, shift them up a level. Never set completely unrealistic targets, at least not until you’ve been punishing yourself at this for a couple of year and you’re sure you can take it. Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer really kind of sucks, unless it’s made out of sponge. Then it’s a massage.

14.  Never stop learning

Even after twenty years of writing I still pick up new tips almost every day. Get critiques from better writers to improve your craft and listen when more successful people offer advice on marketing and branding. Think with your eyes open and NEVER stop learning. You might not agree with everything that you hear but successful people have become successful for a reason and you owe it to your dreams and your career to at least consider what they have to say.

15.  Work your ass off and be prepare to work it off for no reward

Two years in, and I write/promote probably three hours a day for roughly $1 an hour. I've got 51044 words for January already (NaNo, what's that? haha) but I'll be disappointed if I don't hit 70k. And I work full and part time around that. Almost every day I hear of success stories where someone has put out a book and sold 100 copies off the bat without knowing why, or has maintained a steady rate of sales over several months or years for no reason and with no promotion. These are outliers. Applaud them, then push them to the back of your mind. The majority of indies are floundering. Even with my modest sales I’m probably in the top 5% when it comes to success, and I barely make enough to pay for my next cover. At the end of the day I love what I do and I will continue to bust my ass at it in order to become as successful as I possibly can. And if I never make it to the higher echelons of sales, at least I will have given my best effort. Don’t sell yourself short by spending your time whining about not selling or getting bad reviews. Chain yourself to that desk and get words down on the screen.

And that’s about it. Onwards to year three ….

Chris Ward
January 24th 2014


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