Tuesday, 16 April 2013

What I learned in my first year of self-publishing

Back in 2011 when I was getting ready to finish up my first book, I was starting the process of querying agents and learning about the book market. On the guidance of my older brother—he is making six or seven figures for an international bookseller, so I figured his advice was pretty solid—I decided to self-publish. From what I came to learn, self-publishing is an incredibly fertile industry to get into at this point in time, if and only if you’ve got the chops to be noticed.

After a year in the business, including free promotional downloads there are in the neighborhood of 1400 copies of my books in Kindles and Nooks and paperback out there in peoples’ hands. I’m not breaking any records or paying rent with it yet, but I’ll break down for you how I went about selling my books and what I’ve learned from my first twelve months.

Anyone who spends a little time in the publishing industry, even (especially) at the entry level, will know that it’s full of self-starters of varying degrees of skill and commitment. Writing is still and probably always will be perceived as a very romantic endeavor. There are no shortage of conferences and workshops where aspiring authors can write out a check hoping to uncover the secret of writing a really good book, or make much-coveted business contacts with gatekeepers. The Kindle store shelves are overflowing with handy get-rich-quick guides to making it big in self-pub, claiming they’ll teach you the magic formula to getting your work noticed on a large scale.

While some of the techniques learned from these sources can be helpful to apply to your strategy, for the most part the low level of publishing is a pool filled with sharks, eager and able to make good money on exploiting the big dreams and gullibility of wannabe writers. The adage is spend money to make money, but I am not the sort of person to make an investment unless I expect to get a return. It’s entirely possible to dump all of your savings on courses, conferences and power summits; books on how to write the next Harry Potter or skyrocket your Twitter follower count; or for the particularly shady, straight up purchasing the illusion of an audience by buying followers and Amazon reviews.

Building an audience, really building a following, is a slow and organic process. Unless your book looks and reads like complete trash (as unfortunately a ton of self-pubs do), chances are there is a healthy market out there for you to tap into if you get creative. What a ton of other indie authors don’t seem to grasp is that there is no quick route to success for the vast majority of us. I personally know a handful of indie pubs with ten times my twitter follower count, cultivated through diligent follow-backing and sniffing out potential customers via hashtags to go for hard sells; my sales are equal or even eclipse their numbers in virtually every case. I set up a ‘business’ Twitter account to try this approach, and it took me all of ten minutes before I realized I was doing little more than making myself look like an asshole. 

When was the last time you actually clicked on a banner ad? How would you react if some stranger came at you over Twitter with an Amazon link? Visibility is important, but I’ve found hard sells to be effectively useless. The vast majority of customers find their entertainment through word of mouth. For me, at least, the key to success on social media has been through the lessons laid down and frequently ignored in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Act like a human being rather than a spambot and people are far more likely to engage—it’s slow, but it works. On whatever platform you’re using, make it easy for people to find your books and website via a few clicks and then just join the conversation. It is indeed a good idea to find new people to follow by searching hashtags or mentions of your favorite authors or subjects—just follow people and then wait for an opportunity to converse with them rather than immediately inundate them with your shit. You have to remember you are dealing with other humans with their own wants, needs, and ambitions, and helping you to become a bestselling sensation is not high on their list of priorities. Is your primary motivation to make money, or to entertain people?

My biggest kicks in publicity came from approaching people with built-in audiences that were willing to point their fanbases in my direction, even briefly. I lucked out early in Dead Roots’ life by approaching author Neil Gaiman to retweet a link to my book and help me make some money to buy groceries. A little shameless, sure, but I wasn’t lying—I really was broke as hell. I got about forty sales on the day from that retweet, but the publicity from it has followed me since. I still run into people on Goodreads or self-pub forums that say they found my book on Neil Gaiman’s Twitter. Some of the sales I get now are still those people who put it on their wishlist or tucked the name away in some corner of their memory for later. If you can find influencers with strong audience crossover like this they can be invaluable for getting your foot in the door. 

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to reach the audience. I booked a table in the back room of a small horror convention in Sacramento, timing it with a KDP Select free weekend and riding on the back of Neil Gaiman’s shout-out to a fantastic number of downloads. I am a big fan of the Silent Hill video games, so I approached the admin of one of the biggest Silent Hill fansites about potential promotion; they were gracious enough to give me not only a front page blurb, but also invited me to appear on their podcast, getting me firmly in with a large number of like-minded fans. Some of them even read! Creativity, opportunism, and most importantly tact are the key to getting influencers to help you out.

The successes I’ve had with my books have required me to have rock-solid confidence in my abilities and my product, as well as always keep in mind that it’s not all about me. Networking is about leaving your comfort zone and embracing new friendships. Pestering people, going door-to-door with the sole intent to hard sell them your garbage has never been the way to success, and I suppose it’s just the nature of things that this simple tenet of business will continue to be ignored by the majority.

When I’m not writing, I’m reading. I turned my flaky reading habits into a steady diet of novels and short stories in all genres. It’s an extremely common piece of advice that you need to read a lot if you want to write; but sometimes people leave out the fact that you can’t only read what you’re familiar with. Make a Goodreads profile and try something that somebody else is reading. Look at how other authors do things and take the techniques you like. Read poetry, it’ll make your prose better. Study the bestsellers and the cult hits. Figure out what you can give your audience that’s unique and interesting. 

What it all boils down to is that success in self-publishing requires striving to be a better and stronger person. You have to embrace the unfamiliar. You have to be creative. Don’t settle and don’t compromise with yourself. Make yourself excellent. Write honestly, write something amazing that means something to you, not to please a market.

If you want to break into publishing, then kick the fucking door down. What are you waiting for?

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