A Message of Hope and of Responsibility

A while back, a guy wrote an article on salon.com about his failed attempts at self publishing. There was a lot of criticism about the piece because it seemed to cast a negative light on self pubbers and the guy didn’t seem to have tried very hard to make his book a success. Hugh Howey recently wrote a counterpoint article. (Links to both at the bottom of this post.)

If you haven’t read these articles, you should. The blogosphere is aflame with posts about the dueling viewpoints — and rightfully so. They express two points of view that I read a lot in my journeys through forums and blogs:

POV 1 – Over 3 million books will be published this year. If yours sells more than a handful, thank the stars for your luck at finding a market.

POV 2 – If your work is good enough and plentiful enough and you market it right, you will find an audience.

Note that I have no idea where I got that number about the quantity of books to be published. I can’t remember and, frankly, have no idea if it’s accurate. I do know that 93.499152168291063% of all statistics are made up.

The voices espousing POV 1 are much more plentiful than those for the counterpoint, and, I must admit, they sometimes give me pause. There are a lot of authors out there who have spent hundreds/thousands of dollars to publish a book and have sold about 50 copies.

Let’s be honest. I’ve read a lot of traditionally published stuff over the years. The majority of it is simply meh. Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of indie and small pub stuff. Overall, I’d say the quality is less than that of the traditional material.

No one is saying, “If you put something out there, no matter how crappy it is, you’ll sell mega copies.” What POV 2 says is, “If you work on your craft and produce stories that are compelling to your audience and you work hard and smart to find that audience, you will succeed.”

What Hugh says in his article, and what Michael Sullivan preaches all the time, is that there are a lot of people out there earning their living from self publishing. Though you wouldn’t recognize them if you hit them with a truck, they do exist, and they’re plentiful.

This view gives me hope.

This view scares me.

If success absolutely can be achieved, the only person I have to blame if I fail is me.

If POV 2 is correct, there are only 5 reasons for failure:

• I didn’t work hard enough at my craft.
• I didn’t work hard enough producing a sufficient quantity of products.
• I didn’t work smart enough in producing something my audience wants.
• I didn’t work hard enough at reaching my audience.
• I didn’t work smart enough in determining how to reach my audience.

I have hope; I can succeed. But, if I don’t, it’s all my responsibility.

Links:

I’m a Self-Publishing Failure by John Winters

Self-Publishing is the future — and great for writers by Hugh Howey

Advertisements

When Is a Book Ready to be Self Published?

I need your help. I’m confused. Bemused. Befuddled.

I. Just. Don’t. Under. Stand.

(Note to Mark: Not a typo; I separated the single word, “understand,” for effect.)

First, some background info:

I’ve done a lot of work in preparation for self publishing Power of the Mages. I’ve:

• Set a goal of what I want the book to accomplish – Not as much in terms of what the book will bring me as far as money goes but what I want the writing to achieve. I want to immerse my reader and evoke an emotional response.
• Studied writing – I think I know, from a theoretical standpoint at least, what it takes to achieve my goal.
• Taken steps to make sure I’m achieving my goal – I’ve sought feedback from sources that I trust.

Most of all, I continually re-evaluate if the book is ready.

I have an aggressive timeline ahead of me. I’m going to read the 3rd draft in early May, jot down notes, collect beta reader comments, and incorporate all relevant suggestions. By May 8, I want my 4th draft to be in the hands of my editor.

Once I get his analysis, my schedule stays tight — six weeks to get to the finished stage in order to release on August 1.

If I can’t meet that goal or the editor tells me the book needs a lot more work, I’ll push my deadline.

I feel two competing interests warring inside me:

1. The book will never be perfect. I could spend the rest of my life working on it, and, on my deathbed, I’d find something that could be tweaked. At some point, I just have to send it out there and accept that my next book will be better because my skill will be better.
2. If the book isn’t good enough, it does nothing for me. My marketing plan relies on the book compelling readers to recommend it to others. If it’s not at that level, publishing it is pointless.

There are tough decisions to make in my future, and thoughts of that process have me thinking a lot about when and why a book should be self published.

Here’s what I do understand:

Situation 1

An author studies the craft, creates an incredible book, and self publishes it. This situation is the one I want for me. I also want to find these books so that I can recommend them to others.

Situation 2

The author is delusional. Let’s face it, there are many people out there who just don’t get it. They think their book has merit simply because they put in the hard work of writing it. You can usually tell in the first couple of paragraphs that they don’t understand how to construct a simple declarative sentence, much less convey a story. Telling them what they did wrong is pointless; they lack too much basic understanding. While I don’t desire to encounter these books, I, at least, understand what drives the publishing of them. My response is to roll my eyes and move on.

Situation 3

Though the technique and writing may be spotty and editing close to non-existent, there’s something about the story that appeals to the audience. A reader of romance may not care much about story and style as long as the emotional punch is delivered. An action fan might not care about the plot plausibility as long as their pulse is kept pounding. A writer of this type of work has discovered that it’s more profitable to produce the next book than it is to tweak the first one to death. I respect and understand that decision.

Here’s what completely baffles me:

I’m reading a book right now that fits into a fourth situation, and I just don’t understand the concept. If it were an isolated case, I’d simply shrug my shoulders. However, I’ve encountered it many times.

Situation 4

An author is talented enough to create compelling story elements but the work — both from a storytelling and technique standpoint — is unpolished.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 1. It’s not good enough that I can recommend it to others. It feels like a decent second draft.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 2. The author has some skill. He’s not so delusional that he obviously has no idea what makes a book good.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 3. There’s no strong core to the book that’s going to produce an audience.

Simply put, it feels like the author put in a lot of work; got tired before getting to the finish line; said, “Screw it, good enough;” and hit “Publish.”

Don’t let that be you. If you’re that close, please take it the rest of the way. I know it’s a hard road, but making it to the end will be so much more rewarding than collapsing onto the curb.

Push on, writer. Push on.

Reviews at Any Cost?

Most authors who are either self published or are considering that route understand how important reviews are. The right mention in the right place can drive a lot of people to your book. Once a potential customer finds your book page, the quantity and quality of reviews influence the purchasing decision.

It’s also evident that obtaining reviews is not easy. Book blogs are inundated with requests. A low percentage of people who buy a book, or acquire it through giveaways, leave reviews.

Given the above, that reviews are both important and difficult to obtain, it’s no wonder that some authors pursue practices that other authors feel are morally and/or ethically unacceptable.

Let’s start with providing book bloggers, and other legitimate reviewers, with free copies of the book. I doubt that many of us would question this practice, but there is the point of view that you gave something of value to someone in return for a review. In reality, the “value” of the “gift” is in question. Would the reviewer have ever purchased your book anyway? And, what’s the alternative? Saying to the reviewer, “Hey, can you do me the enormous favor of trying to bring attention to my book and, oh, while you’re at it, pay for the privilege of doing so?”

At the other end of the spectrum lies the concept of fake reviews — creating fake accounts to post glowing reviews of your own book. I think most of us would consider this to be abhorrent behavior.

Where, then, is the line?

Let’s consider a generic review rather than one for Amazon or another particular site so as to avoid the issue of adherence to specific guidelines. At the core, which of the following do you agree or disagree with and why?

Review Trading – You ask an author to review your book, and, in return, you do the same for his. While both of you are planning “honest” reviews, there still exists some degree of social pressure not to trash your acquaintance.

Paying for Reviews –
• “Legitimate” sites like Kirkus that charge money for an honest review from someone who actually reads your book.
• Site where, for a small fee, you can get a great number of reviews from people who probably, at best, only skim your book. While there’s no requirement that the reviews be 5-stars, it’s understood the most of them will be.

Asking Family and Friends – Let’s be honest. Great Aunt Mable probably isn’t going to do anything other than say, “This book was great!!! 5 Stars!!!” Is that really an “honest” review? On the other hand, she bought the book. Why shouldn’t she voice her opinion?

I don’t have all the answers here, though I have opinions. I’d like to hear what you have to say on the matter, and I’ll revisit the subject with my thoughts in a future post.

Why I Plan to Ignore My Marketing Advice

At the moment, I think that my marketing activities are proportional. I spend a bit of time here and there doing research, and I blog for about 3 hours a week. Were I to keep up that rate, I’d say it would be a good balance of producing new work to selling activities.

Instead, I plan to spend an entire month doing nothing but marketing — almost no writing at all.

• April – Work on Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion
• Early May – Collect 3rd draft beta reader comments for Power of the Mages and send it to the editor
• June – Finalize Power of the Mages and create review copy (including, ugh, maps)
• July – Besides last minute touches, do marketing
• August – Release Power of the Mages, finish up rough draft of Daniel Darcy 1, and work on compiling blog posts into a nonfiction book

Obviously, this approach does not embrace the balance that I called for in previous posts. Here’s why I made that decision:

1. I fear losing motivation – The vast majority of self published authors sell a few copies to their friends and family, and that’s about it. If I don’t do better than that, I think I’ll get seriously discouraged.

2. The need to swing for the fences is a personal trait – While it’s not likely that a first novel by a self published author is going to be a runaway hit, the possibility exists. I need to give the book that chance of success.

3. It fits my long term plan – Between August 1 of this year and August 1 of 2014, I want to have 5 works on Amazon:

a. Power of the Mages (August 1, 2013)
b. 12 Simple Techniques for Improving Your Fiction Writing: Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes of New Authors (late 2013)
c. Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion (Spring 2014)
d. The Slender Man Massacre (Summer 2014)
e. Novelette/novella that comprises the 2nd part of my Dark Power series (Fall 2014)

4. The most effective marketing efforts take time to build –

a. Followers
b. Email list
c. Spreadsheet of bloggers

I don’t know if my first novel is going to sell one copy or a hundred or a thousand in its first year. From the numbers I’ve seen, if it hits 300, I should be happy. My efforts probably aren’t going to take it past that quantity, but I have to try.

The Two Conflicting Principles of Book Marketing for Self Published Authors

The most important thing you can do to market your book is come up with a comprehensive plan, and doing so requires consideration of two principles. Before we get to those, however, it’s important to understand two concepts:

Concept 1: The key to social media is that it’s social, not selling.

If your idea of using social media for book marketing is to tweet, “Buy My Book #mybookisawesome,” you’re not going to get many sales. In fact, you’re probably going to gain a bad reputation and, perhaps, see a backlash.

Social media is about building relationships with your potential customer base.

If your sole motivation for blogging is to sell your book, nobody is going to read your blog. If your purpose of being on a forum is to sell your book, no one is going to pay attention to your posts. If your main focus of Facebook updates is telling people about your book, you’re not going to get many likes or reach many people.

If, however, you interact with people, all these places can be great sources of both help and potential customers. Find a purpose for your blog. Contribute meaningful content to the forum. Use Facebook to connect with people.

The problem is that using social media correctly takes time. Not only do you have to learn the technical ins and outs, you have to understand the etiquette for each medium.

Concept 2: Cost means more than just literal dollars spent.

When I spend an hour creating a blog post, that’s an hour I didn’t spend writing or editing or even learning more about my craft. This concept is called opportunity cost, and, when I mention dollar figures in this post, that’s what I’m referring to in lieu of actually opening up a wallet.

So, with those ideas out of the way, let’s consider the creation of your marketing plan. The good news is that, in terms of deciding what resources to spend on marketing, there are only two principles you need to consider. The bad news is that those fundamentals are in direct conflict with each other.

Principle 1: The more products you have available as an author, the more cost effective your marketing efforts become.

Let’s consider the opportunity cost of marketing. I spend an hour creating a blog post or going on a forum or researching effective use of Facebook. At least a portion of that hour, I could have been writing or editing or learning more about storytelling or technique. That time I would have spent doing authorly things would have directly resulted in some portion of a product being created.

Envision me surrounded by charts and graphs. Assume I have projections and hard data. Picture a differential equation that I use a numerical method to solve. (Note that I don’t say I actually did any of this stuff, just that I want you to think of me doing it instead of just choosing random numbers.)

If I have a single book out, it costs $10 to generate one sale. Each sale generates $4 of revenue. Therefore, I’m losing $6 per sale.

I add a second book, and the fundamental math changes. I still only sell one copy of the book I’m advertising, but, now, half my customers go and buy my first novel as well. I’m still spending $10, but, instead of generating only $4 of revenue, I’m getting $6. I’m only losing $4 per sale! Whoohoo!

When I add my third book, some of my customers now buy one previous work and some both. My revenue on the same outlay increases to $7.50.

As you can see, eventually I’ll actually start making a profit. Based on anecdotal evidence, this tipping point comes around the 5th or 6th book.

The implication is clear: It makes no sense to market your book when you only have one out. You’re losing money on each hour you spend. Once you have five or six books, start marketing.

Principle 2: Each additional hour you spend on social media marketing increases your efficiency for future efforts.

There are two factors at work behind this principle.

1. There’s an initial outlay of learning the medium, setting up accounts, becoming proficient with the software, understanding the etiquette, etc. Once that learning is out of the way, creating content takes less time.
2. Your influence grows with time. One follower becomes a hundred becomes a thousand. Given a set conversion rate of followers to sales, sending notices to more people generates more sales for the same amount of effort.

In this manner, the longer you’ve been a user of a particular social medium, the more efficient you are at reaching customers. My first experiences tweeting will cost me $10 to make a sale. By the time I’ve been doing it a year, maybe I’m down to only $7 worth of effort for the same result.

The implication of this principle is also quite clear: You need to market as early as possible. Basically, as soon as you think you might become an author, you should start building a platform.

See the problem?

An author needs to:

1. Wait to market until he has 5 to 6 books out.
2. Begin marketing as soon as possible.

What’s the solution?

As with everything in life, the answer is balance. Either extreme is likely to result in failure.

If you do no marketing at all from the start, your book is not going to sell at all. You run the risk of becoming discouraged and giving up. Also, self publishing involves real cost. Editing and cover art adds up quickly. If you’re not selling anything, where does that money come from?

On the other hand, if you spend all your time blogging and on forums and connecting on Facebook, how are you going to ever produce even that first novel, much less five or six?

I think the balance point is different for each person. The important point is to consider each principle carefully and make wise decisions.

How to Become a Successful Author in Today’s Marketplace

When I first hit upon the idea of writing a novel, I imagined a publisher throwing piles of money at me while weeping for joy over the awesomeness of my book.

If that ever was the way of the world, it’s not anymore. Creating your novel is but the first in a long sequence of steps, and I’ve devoted considerable effort in gaining understanding of those steps.

Before I get to that, though, let’s define “successful.”

1. Megawealth – At some point, a book reaches a level where people buy and read it simple because everyone else is buying and reading it. Did I read Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games because I said, “Hey, this looks like a book I will enjoy?” No. I bowed to social pressure. How do you get your book to that level? I have no idea. If you happen to know, please clue me in. Truthfully, it’s unlikely that any of us are going to reach those kinds of levels.
2. Quitting my Day Job – As an engineer, I make a pretty good living. Salary-wise, I have no complaints. That success also makes it harder for me to replace my income. Through hard work and by gaining a better understanding of efficient marketing/promoting, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for me eventually to gain this level.
3. Extra Income – While replacing my salary would be difficult, a couple of extra thousand bucks a month would certainly come in handy, and I think it’s probable, with hard work, for me to attain that level of success.

While I’d love to get to (1) and I’m shooting for (2), I think that (3) is the more realistic, relatively-short-term objective.

So, how do I get there?

Step 1: Write a Good Book

One path to selling a lot of books is to devote a lot of money to marketing. If you have enough books out and enough resources, I think this would, eventually, pay off for you. Frankly, though, it’s risky, and I don’t have the necessary (huge!) resources to devote to it.

Since I have a day job, I also don’t have time both to produce new work and spent hours and hours marketing.

Without money or time to promote my work, the only path to success I see is to turn my readers into salespeople. If each person who reads it tells others, that’s the “force multiplier” I need to turn my meager marketing efforts into something that launches a successful career.

The first step in gaining my readers’ help is to write a book worthy of them recommending.

Step 2: Implore

The simple fact is that someone is much more likely to do something for you if you ask them to do it. Expecting a stranger to buy your book, read it, and spontaneously proclaim its virtues to all their friends on their own initiative is unrealistic.

If, however, you write a letter to your readers saying, “Hey, I’m an indie author. The only way I have to get word out about my book is through people like you. If you can do any of these things for me, it would help so much, and I’d really appreciate it.”

Then, list things like:

• Tell your friends – in person, on Facebook, and on Twitter
• Write a review on Amazon, your blog, B&N, Goodreads, and any other place you can think of to put it
• Add it to any “Best Book You’ve Never Heard of” list that you can find
• Like my Facebook page

A more comprehensive list is the subject of a future post, but you get the idea.

Step 3: Promote, but Not too Much

Each hour you spend marketing and promoting is an opportunity to reach new customers who in turn have the potential to tell their friends about you. At the same time, each hour you spend marketing and promoting is an hour you’re not spending writing.

Step 4: Write Another Book

As you create and market new products, you:

• Give your “fans” another chance to purchase from you
• Have the opportunity to reach new customers
• Create marketing efficiencies

If you spend an hour promoting your first book, you only have the potential of selling that one product. For the second book, you now have the possibility of your marketing campaign reaching back and selling both your books. Efficiency, to a point, increases with more books.

One book simply is unlikely to ever net you much of a profit, much less make you extra income. Keep writing.

Cover for Abuse of Power

AoP

As you might have noticed from the distinct lack of images used for this blog, I’m not a graphics guy. I think that, overall, this trait makes getting cover work done a much simpler process. I tell someone who, presumably, knows what they’re doing what I want, sit back until they’re done, and am impressed with the end result.

Since I’m giving Abuse of Power away and won’t make a dime off it, I didn’t have a huge budget for it. My plan was no more than $100 for editing and cover combined. I ended up spending just over $97 on the edit and $40 on the cover. Oh well. Budgets are made to be blown, right?

For my first foray into procuring cover art, I took the advice from How to Make a Killing on Kindle and tried elance.com. I can’t remember the minimum bid for services, but it was high. Between that site and another one, one required $200 and the other $300. I wasn’t going to spend two to three times my entire budget on the cover, thank you very much!

I discovered that the cheapest option was to Google premade cover art. You can buy the right to use an image and have a graphic artist put your title and name on it for $20 to $50. The problem is, you have to wade through a lot of sites to find what you want.

My solution? This link for the Deviant Art Job Offers Forum. You simply post what you want and how much you want to pay. Within literally minutes, I made contact with someone who had something that would work. Fantastic.

I chose to go with Neil Hutchison am quite happy with the results. You can see his other work here. It’s nothing like what I would have come up with on my own, and that’s a very good thing! If you need cover art, consider using him.

The only hitch in the process was that Neil wanted to know what dimensions I needed. I had no idea, so I posed the question over at Mythic Scribes. Turns out the answer is 1600 by 2400 pixels at 150 dpi. Presumably, this answer will work for you as well until such a time as the screens on e-devices get better.

Overall, the process was much easier than I had any right to expect. Neil emailed me a proof, I Paypalled him $40, and he emailed me the full version.

Let me know what you think of the cover.