Writing and Selling

My new book, Impala, was finished in May–not just the writing, but the editing, proofreading, design, and layout. I decided to have it ready four months before release so I could do some of the promotional work that traditional publishers do: get the book into the hands of reviewers, talk to bookstores and news outlets. The ebook market is quite competitive, and like the app market for smart phones, it often seems like a race to the bottom. The writers and app developers who appear to be winning are the ones who are working really hard to sell their product for 99 cents, or to give it away for free in hopes of drawing attention to their paid works.

In the book market, hard copies still account for the bulk of sales, so I wanted to spend some time trying to get Impala into stores. Few of the ebook authors cranking out formulaic series put much effort into selling physical books, so I thought there might be a little less competition there. I’ve also noticed that the indie titles that tend to sell well on Amazon belong to genres where people tend to read quickly and in high volume: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Amazon is to Kindle readers what 7-11 is to stoners: a place to find something quick, cheap, tasty, and forgettable that will tide you over until the next time you get the munchies.

The first step in selling to bookstores, so I thought, was getting good reviews from the reputable sources that booksellers actually read: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, local and regional newspapers and magazines. To make a long story short, most newspapers and magazines state explicitly that they will not accept self-published work. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist say they welcome your submission, but they may or may not review it, and if they don’t review it, they don’t give any explanation why.

I spent a few hours a week for many months reading independent book review blogs, and made a list of bloggers who might like my book. I wrote individually crafted emails to each of them, but only one agreed to look at Impala. In fact, she was the only one who even acknowledged receiving my email. Many independent bloggers also now also say they will not review self-published books. I understand that, because there’s a flood of them now, and no one wants to wade through that slush pile in their spare time for free.

In the end, phase one of my strategy yielded a number of very good reviews, but not all of them came from the prestigious sources I was after. While the book was out for review, I started talking to bookstore owners and managers, and I learned a few things there as well. If you’re an unknown author, they don’t want your book taking up limited shelf space unless 1) the book takes place in their town or pertains directly to some local interest (like a book about farming in farm country), 2) you’re willing to do a reading or event in their store, and 3) you have some general marketing plan that shows you’re serious about promoting the book. The marketing plan should include a series of appearances on radio, at bookstores, and events, etc.

My first book, Warren Lane, is published through Ingram and listed in Ingram’s catalog under standard terms, which means a 55% wholesale discount, and the book is returnable. I went into a few stores and asked the manager to look the book up in their system to see how it appeared, then I asked them if there was anything in the listing itself that would prevent them from ordering the book. They all said, “Well, it’s Print On Demand (POD). We don’t stock those, but if a customer comes in and requests the book, we’ll order a copy.” That left me thinking that most customers would just order the title online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and have it shipped right to their house.

Print On Demand makes sense, both economically and environmentally. When putting out a new title, publishers have traditionally guessed how many copies they could sell, and then ordered a print run of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 copies. They distribute those to bookstores and regional warehouses, and hope they got the number right. If the book sells better than expected, they order another print run, and hope they can get the title back onto store shelves before the first printing runs out. If the book doesn’t sell, they wind up shredding thousands of copies, losing money and wasting trees.

Print On Demand neatly solves the problems of having enough copies available and avoiding returns, but it has a stigma, as Brook Warner notes. Even though the big publishers now use POD for parts of their backlists, bookstore owners think POD means either 1) the author is self-published and therefore won’t sell, or 2) the publisher didn’t have enough faith in the book to issue an initial print run, so why should they take a chance on it?

Indies face yet another problem in bookstores. Traditional publishers send book reps out to stores to sell new titles months before they hit the market. The book rep meets face-to-face with the store owner to discuss upcoming titles. The rep and the manager have a trust relationship. They may talk every few months. As an indie author, you’re trying to get shelf space from someone who’s never heard of you, and the space you’re trying to get may have been reserved months ago.

All these obstacles led me to focus once again on online sales. I had learned a number of things about the online market after publishing Warren Lane. First, the promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily catered to readers of genre fiction, and if your book didn’t fall neatly into one genre, it’s going to be difficult to market. Second, the books that sell well are not necessarily well written or insightful or memorable in any way, but they do give the reader what they’re after. (I noticed that most of the hot-selling genre fiction on the promotional sites fell into the Romance category. I used Amazon’s Look Inside feature to read the opening chapters of some of those books, and I got a little education there too. I had thought “Romance” meant something like courtship and Prince Charming and happily ever after. Instead, I learned that women like to read porn, instead of watching it like men.)

Finally, most successful indie authors are writing series within one or more genres. They have a detective or a fantasy hero or a spaceship and crew that readers follow from one adventure to the next. The book covers in each series have a similar look, so readers can identify them, and once the series has two or more titles, the author will give away the first book, or sell it for 99 cents, to bring in new readers. That’s a good strategy for writers, and it makes economic sense. The software market these days follows a similar pattern, with free and paid versions of the same app, “freemium” web services that give you bonus features if you’re willing to pay, and open source software that companies give away, making their money through customization and support instead of sales.

What’s disheartening to me is what the genre-series model says about readers: that they only want what’s familiar, and if the book they read today isn’t just like the one they read yesterday, they might be disappointed. I’ve never quite understood that kind of reader, because I’ve always been that kind of reader. I read to find new insights, new depth and perspective. Bookstores tend to be full of books that offer those things, while the hot-selling indie titles on Amazon tend to be closer in spirit and substance to the mass-market paperbacks at the grocery checkout.

So if you’re an indie author and you’re not interested in writing a commercial series, you’re in a bind. Your real readers are in bookstores, but getting into those is difficult.

I had been lamenting this after publishing my first book, and as I was beginning to promote my second. Then, recently, I came across a series of books by Chris Fox, which embraces all of the things I had once lamented about the online book market. In a book called Write to Market, Fox describes the process he followed to produce a top-selling ebook. First, identify a sub-genre on Amazon that has strong sales and is underserved. That’s one in which the top few sellers are selling very well, but the tenth and twentieth best-selling items on the list are not moving many copies at all. After identifying a sub-genre, Fox read the top few titles and figured out their formula. In his case, he found books about spaceships with maverick captains having to fend off some alien threat that might wipe out the whole human race. The final part of Fox’s advice is to write a book that follows that formula, give it a cover and a blurb similar to the covers and blurbs of the best sellers, do a little marketing, and collect your paycheck.

Fox says he took a lot of flack for the process he described in Write to Market, with a number of readers and writers calling him a cynic and a sellout. I actually think he’s really smart. If you want to make money, you’ll do much better embracing the market than complaining about it. And I agree with his point that if you choose a sub-genre that you actually enjoy reading, you can still write a unique and compelling book, despite the fact that you’re following a formula. Think about how many painters have done landscapes and battle scenes, and what a different feeling you get from two people presenting two different views of the same subject.

If you look at fiction from a business perspective, it looks like a bunch of people creating products that no one asked for, and then wringing their hands because no one is buying what they made. Most businesses, from home building down to cupcake baking, first ask, “What do people actually buy?” And then they say, “OK, we’ll make some of those.” Writers and painters and musicians, especially the more intellectual ones, think their creations are special and that they’re entitled to an exception to the market rules. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. We might as well expect the law of gravity not to apply to us.

So Fox’s books got me thinking about why I read and why I write. What do I look for in a book, and what do I try to create in a book? Fox has another book called 5000 Words Per Hour, which describes why and how you should write 5000 words per hour if you want to make it as an indie author. (For the why part, the short of it is that Kindle readers like series, and they’ll binge read if they can. The faster you can put books in front of them, the happier they’ll be. As your sales increase, you become more visible to new readers on Amazon, creating a cycle of sales growth.)

Now I can probably write 5000 words per hour. I can certainly type that fast. After all these years as a software developer, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the keyboard. But I know I couldn’t produce the work I want to produce if I were writing at that speed. I tried to formulate the reason why, but I couldn’t quite do it until yesterday, when I was looking at paintings in the art museum in Richmond.

I was admiring the work of Kehinde Wiley, who himself has something of a formula, and when I looked past his message to the quality and detail of his work, I was finally able to describe why I can’t be a 5000-word-per-hour genre writer. It comes down to this: There is no story we can tell that hasn’t already been told. The stories that stick with us are the ones that are told in a way that moves us. They have a little more heart, a little more depth and style than what we’re used to finding. In telling yet another version of a story we’ve heard before, they reveal a something new, reaching us in a way the other tellings didn’t.

I like writing that shows a willingness to open up and look deep, that shows attention to composition and detail, building not just the story, but an overall experience in the reader’s mind by working on many levels at once. That kind of writing doesn’t really happen at 5000 words per hour. In the online writing market, choosing the challenges of depth and detail means giving up your shot at being a first-tier seller. You’re aiming at a smaller, pickier audience that’s harder to find, and the chances of them discovering you without the marketing channels available to traditional publishers is slim.

So for now, I look at writing and earning a living as two different things. Software pays the bills, and when I have time to do it, writing is the creative outlet that keeps me going.

 

On Being a Self-Published Indie Author

Are you a self-published indie author by choice, or are you one of those losers who couldn’t get a book deal?

Yes.

What’s the process like? What happens between conceiving a book and getting it into the marketplace?

You get an idea, and you turn it over in your head for a while. You write a draft, and you think it’s great, so you show it to some friends. Then you think it sucks.

You do some major revisions, throwing out whole chapters and adding new ones. When you get to the fourth or fifth draft, you give it to an editor. Ideally, it should go through a developmental edit and a copy edit. The dev edit addresses big issues like plot development, pacing, character development, and themes. The copy edit addresses line-level issues, like sentence structure, clarity, and word repetition. Then proofreading catches typos, spelling errors, and other minor issues.

I’m lucky because my wife is designer, and in fact, she used to design book covers. She reads the book and comes up with a bunch of design comps. We go through them and pick one to develop. Sometimes she posts the comps on Facebook and asks people to vote on their favorites.

A good cover is a big deal. If your cover is alluring and gives some sense of what the book is about, people are willing to look at it. If you have a bad cover, particularly one that looks amateurish, people will assume you didn’t put much care or effort into the project, and they won’t look at it.

After we have the cover, my wife sets up an Adobe InDesign project with the interior layout and pours in the text. Then I fiddle with it for a long time, breaking the chapters into sections, making sure the formatting is correct, fixing widows and orphans.

When we have the cover and the interior ready, I assign an ISBN and upload the files to Ingram Spark and order a proof copy, which I actually read, cover to cover. I correct whatever errors I find, send the new PDF to Ingram, and then the book can go into production.

By then, it’s been a year or so since I first sat down to write the thing.

I’ll order a few dozen copies to send to friends and reviewers. Then I’ll create the e-book copies from InDesign and upload them to Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. I stopped selling through Google, in part because they kept changing the price of my book without telling me, and their price changes forced price changes on Amazon that I couldn’t control.

I chose Ingram over CreateSpace because Ingram lets you price your book on standard terms and accept returns. Bookstores require that, or they won’t stock your title. And Ingram is one of the two big suppliers in the US. Bookstores already have a relationship with them.

The production process is long and tedious. You’d better like the book you’ve written, because you’re going to be looking at it a lot.

And that’s just getting the book into production. Then you have to sell it. That part is really hard, especially for an Indie writer who doesn’t stick to any particular genre.

What kinds of challenges do indie writers face in selling their books?

The biggest problem is just getting people’s attention. Many people who would have been readers in prior generations are not readers today. They’re watching Netflix, or playing video games, or spending their leisure time on Facebook and Instagram. In the 1950s and 60s, those people might have been reading one or two books a month. Now they might be reading one or two books a year.

Then, keep in mind, when you write a novel, you’re creating a product that nobody asked for. And it takes, like, a year. What sane person does that? Would you spend all day cooking a big meal on the off chance that a bunch of people might stop by for a dinner party?

You get your book out there, and then you’re competing with millions of other titles on Amazon. Literally millions!

If you’re writing in a popular genre like Romance, Mystery, or Thriller, there are actually quite a few channels to help you reach your target readers. Paid promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily can promote your title to their huge mailing lists. It costs money, but it does help you build a readership.

If you’re not writing squarely within some well-defined genre, you’re going to have a hard time. I learned that the hard way with my first book. There are no readily available marketing channels for general fiction.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being self-published is that many high-profile publications whose reviews could help put your book in front of a large audience will not even consider self-published books. They say so outright in their review policies. Even some of the more popular independent bloggers won’t look at self-published work.

I get why that is. There are too many books out there, and most of them are really bad. Most reviewers don’t want to open the floodgates and drown themselves.

As a self-published indie author, you also don’t have access to the kind of paid placements the big publishers can buy. You can’t purchase prime listing space on the Kindle storefront, or on the new titles shelf at Barnes and Noble. Not because of the cost. Because they won’t sell that placement to indies.

So you have to go out and find as many small channels as you can, like bloggers with modest followings who review books like yours. You share things out on Facebook or Twitter and urge your friends and followers to pass them along. You write a blog to give people a sense of who you are, and you give away books to help build a readership. You have grassroots and guerrilla tactics, and you have to learn to use them.

In many ways, I think it’s a better system for writers and readers. Success shouldn’t be easy, because easy things attract lazy and untalented people, but it should be possible. The old system, in which agents and publishers had to guess what was worthy of publication, was never all that efficient, and its errors of omission–what was excluded from publication–were worse than its errors of commission–the published works that didn’t sell.

Publishers had no interest in the Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces. One of Elmore Leonard’s finest novels, 52 Pickup, received more than eighty rejections, even though he was an established author with a proven sales record. And J.A. Konrath’s novels were rejected over five hundred times–five hundred!–before several million readers got together and overruled the entire publishing industry.

I’m not saying the publishers short changed anyone. Most of what they turned down was probably crap. And who knows how many good books are lost in the current sea of publication?

Being an indie author today is a lot like being a standup comic or an indie musician. You can take your work directly to the people, though you usually have access only to small venues and limited audiences. If your work sucks, people will tell you. But at least you heard it from them. If it’s good, they’ll tell you that too, and they might even buy the next thing you put out. But you have to keep working. Getting people to read your book requires a combination of talent, quality, exposure, and persistence.

What do you like about being an indie author?

Being able to write whatever I want. And the sense of satisfaction when something turns out well. I like working with my wife on the design. I like to hold the final product in my hand. I like to send copies out to my friends.

I’m not in it for the money, because there is none. In fact, like most hobbies, you put more money into it than you get out of it. But when you send a book to someone you like, and they say, “Hey, I really enjoyed that,” it’s priceless.

Summary of an E-Book Promotion

I changed the e-book price on Warren Lane from $4.99 to $0.99 on all platforms, from Saturday, Sept. 19 through Sunday, Sept. 27. I posted a link to the book on my Facebook page, and friends shared it. That resulted in 2 sales before the promotional sites started pushing the book on Monday. (Most people in my FB network who wanted the book already had a copy. Hence the low sales.)

The aim of the sale was to increase readership, not to make a profit. I knew I’d be taking a loss here. I spent about $600 to promote through a number of sites, which are listed below. I was going to post the actual sales figures for the book, because I like openness and transparency (I’m an open source developer by day). But I learned that publishing sales numbers violates the terms of service for both Amazon and Kobo. So the most I can do here is talk about how the promotions affected my sales rank.

Before the promotions started, Warren Lane was ranked the number 1,273,510 seller overall in the Kindle store. The book also ranked very low in its two categories:

Category 1: Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Private Investigators
Category 2: Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Private Investigators.

My sales rank improved somewhat on Saturday and Sunday, because my Facebook friends shared the announcement about my book being on sale, and I launched a Facebook ad. But I didn’t start recording the category ranking until the third day of the promotion, which was Wednesday Sept. 23. The chart below shows the promotional services I used and how sales rank changed on the days each site was promoting the book.

Note that sales rank tends to move the day after sales numbers change. So when you see a change in rank, look at where the book was advertised the day before.

Again, I’m not allowed to post numbers, but I can say that if you’re selling an ebook at $4.99 on Amazon and you sit in that #2000 spot all year, you can quit your day job. Here’s a little screenshot from Wednesday, Sept. 23.

WL_Amazon_2015-09-23 at 2.52.17 PM

And it was kind of cool to see my book listed up there with Sue Grafton and James Patterson. Warren Lane is down there in 14th place.

WL_Amazon_2015-09-23 at 3.44.46 PM

This brief entry into the top 20 of the genre made me wonder about all those writers who advertise themselves as “Best Selling Author,” even though you’ve never heard of them. I suppose one day near the top of a list in a sub-sub-genre technically qualifies you as a best-selling author. And that sounds a lot more prestigious than “slightly effective marketer,” which is what I actually was during promo week.

It’s like when I brag to my friends that my time in one of the Olympic running events is only 11 seconds off the world record. That would be the 100 meter sprint. Usain Bolt can run it in about 9 seconds, and I can do it in about 20.

Somehow, “11 seconds off the world record” sounds a lot more impressive than “not even half as fast as that Jamaican guy.”

A Note on Genre

One thing to note about Warren Lane is that it doesn’t fall squarely into any one genre, and that makes it hard to market. My friends in the book world warned me about this when I wrote the book. It’s fairly easy to market a mystery, or a thriller or a romance, because readers are looking for those specific types of books, and they go to the channels that sell or promote those genres.

Warren Lane has elements of mystery, comedy, and romance, as well as some literary leanings. I listed it under different genres on different sites: mystery, literary, romantic comedy, etc. Unfortunately, since I ran all the promos at once, I have no way of knowing which sites or which genre categories produced the best results.

A few of the promo sites I approached would not promote Warren Lane at all, even if I paid them, because despite its strong reviews, they didn’t think it was marketable to their audience. Remember, these sites are in the business of alerting readers to titles they might like. If they start pushing books that are not to their readers’ taste, their readers will leave.

The upshot of all this, as my friends in publishing told me from the beginning, was that it’s much easier if your book falls into a single genre. Then people who know what they’re looking for will find it, and they’ll get what they wanted. If your book does fall into a specific genre, you may get better results on your promotion than I did on mine–particularly if you’re in a genre like romance, mystery or thriller, where the market is big.

One last problem with writing a non-genre book is that, because you have to market it through a genre channel to a genre-seeking audience, some readers get angry when they find the book is not what they expected.

Facebook

I had heard that Facebook was not as effective a sales channel as the mailing lists of the e-book promo sites. While this might be true, I did manage to generate some clicks through Facebook.

I spent $20 on a Facebook ad targeting people who like Mystery Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Literature, Suspense Novels and Fiction Books. I probably could have chosen more specific targets, like people who like specific authors, but this is my first Facebook ad, so I went with those. The ad starting running on Sept. 19. I know it resulted in one sale. Possibly more.

I was going to publish a screenshot showing how many people the ad reached and how many clicks it got, but after reading through Facebook’s terms of service, I don’t think I’m allowed to do that. I will say that, based on click-through rates, Facebook was at least competitive with most of the book promotion sites. And if I targeted my audience a little more closely–for example, by choosing people who liked specific authors–click-through rates for the ad may have been as good as or better than click-through rates from the promo sites.

Genre Pulse

While the big, known sites with large subscriber lists (Free Kindle Books & TipsKindle Nation Daily and The Fussy Librarian) led to the largest bump in sales, the site that impressed me most on a technical level was Genre Pulse.

Genre Pulse links to your book through Bitly, and they provide a page that allows you to track clicks in real time, so you can see what you’re paying for. (See the image below.) The cost per click on Genre Pulse was less than half what it was on Facebook, and as I mentioned above, the Facebook ad did pretty well. I have no idea how many of these clicks converted to sales, but Genre Pulse publishes click-through rates and buy rates on their site.

Genre Pulse is working on a number of other services, so if you’re promoting a book, check them out.

GenrePulse_Bitly

So there’s a little insight into the glamorous world of self-publishing. I suppose it’s like every other independent profession. You start at the bottom and work your way up. Just remember that all those cool stand-up comics you see on cable spent years doing late-night routines in depressing little clubs, getting heckled by obnoxious drunks. At least no one’s throwing beer cans at us writers while we work.

UPDATE – Fed. 26, 2016 – Brent Underwood, from Brass Check, wrote about how he was able to become a best-selling author in five minutes, without even writing a book. I knew something like this was going on, because every author site these days belongs to a best-selling author. To distinguish yourself these days, you almost have to be a worst-selling author.