NB: Hi Everyone, Tracy Marchini is a former colleague of mine and she recently self-published a nonfiction guide to publishing terms, Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms, and a middle grade novel, Hot Ticket. She’s guest-posting today to share her experiences with self-publishing. Enjoy!
Since the news that one indie goddess and one traditional publishing guru were switching their publishing strategy for the other’s, the buzz about self-publishing ebooks has been incessant. And now that Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms has been out for about two months, I thought I’d whip out a big ol’ can of wasp spray and share what I’ve learned in the indie ebook world.
Crossing The Line
The first thing I’ve noticed is that there’s still a mental division between the indie world and the traditional world, despite many authors having success on both sides of the line. The most astounding part of this to me is that most of the really successful indie authors, started by publishing their traditional backlist.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is brilliant. If you have a book that was already edited, reviewed and is languishing in your reverted rights pile, then why not put it back in circulation as an ebook and hit a new audience? But sometimes I think people miss the distinction between a successful indie that started with a traditional backlist and an indie that is starting from absolute, 100% scratch. Obviously, it can be done (see: Amanda Hocking, Victorine Lieski, David Dalglish), but it’s a completely different animal, for sure.
In going indie, what you give up for the total control of your book and manuscript is the distribution and visibility that a traditional house can give you. So if you have already been established by the traditional houses, there is already a fan base that has read and loved your work. That is no small potato. (In fact, that is a farm of potatoes.)
An indie that starts from scratch is going to have to hand-sell at least their first hundred books. This means that they are going to have to make a personal connection, talk about their book, and hope for a purchase. This is done through blog tours, book reviews and other methods. Getting reviewed as an indie through the traditional reviewers (Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, NYT) is all but impossible, unless you’re willing to pay for Kirkus Indie. And because most indie book review sites don’t have the name recognition and following that Kirkus or The New York Times does, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and subbing to try and find the same audience.
Book reviewers that are open to indie books are, as expected, becoming swamped with potential titles. If your book is accepted for review, you can expect to wait at least one to two months for that reviewer to get to your title. The most successful indies have given away at least a hundred copies, if not hundreds of copies, of their book. Building “word of mouth” is a long, hard process, and most indies notice that it doesn’t really start to take off until their seventh month. (For some, it’s the fourth month, and for others, the book might never take off.)
Paying For Publicity
There are, however, plenty of people willing to take money from aspiring authors, whether you’re seeking traditional or indie publication.
Yes, as an indie, you will have to invest in a cover artist, editor and copyeditor/proofreader. If you can’t format the book yourself, then there are affordable options there as well. My advice when it comes to advertising though — if you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t spend the money. Yesterday, I received a packet in the mail that offered me television and radio exposure for just $498 a month. I’ve heard of other services that charge a monthly payment for a year of publicity, and will charge a large penalty if you cancel early.
The truth is though, that any advertising money you spend before you’ve spent the time to get reviewed by both book reviewers and customers, is like lighting your wallet on fire. Let’s say I spent $498 to put my brand new middle-grade mystery, Hot Ticket, on the air. Here are all the reasons I would not see any money from that investment:
1) Hot Ticket has been bought, but not reviewed yet. People are leery of making a purchase on Amazon that hasn’t been reviewed.
2) Hot Ticket retails for $2.99. I would have to sell 250 books per month just to equal the TV and radio investment.
3) Hot Ticket isn’t currently available in paperback, which means that I would have to find a radio audience that has a decent number of ereader owners.
4) There are too many steps involved between hearing about the book and making the purchase. You hear the ad in the car, then you have to remember when you got home that you wanted that book, then you have to remember the title and author and look it up… etc. Unless you’ve already been established as someone’s favorite author, chances are, they’re not going to be thinking about your book when it’s time to go home, eat dinner, and watch some TV.
5) Note the ad promised exposure, but you’re not buying airtime for $500 a month. The truth is, nobody can promise you radio or TV time unless they’re a producer or you’re flat out buying advertising time. A PR person could do their very best, but if there isn’t a newsworthy angle, then there isn’t a story for that radio or TV show.
I’ve noticed that the one thing that’s sold the most copies of Pub Speak for me, was a stroke of luck. I wrote a blog post during the Pub Speak blog tour that was picked up by Visual Thesaurus, a subscription website with a large following.
Okay, it wasn’t completely luck. I had to set up the blog tour and write the post. But just like traditional publishing, what takes off and what doesn’t can sometimes be attributed to the stars aligning. Amanda Hocking wrote what she loved, and she happened to do it in a time when YA paranormal romance was on fire. I’m not saying that she wasn’t working her butt off, because I’m sure she was. But if what she loved to write was biographies of the Presidents for children, I don’t think she’d have nearly the same career path.
Indie and Traditional Publishing Have Both Mid-lists and Outliers
One thing to note about Lieski and Dalglish though, and which I think is amazingly encouraging, is that you don’t have to be Amanda Hocking to make a living as an indie. Lieski and Dalglish aren’t millionaires (yet), but they’re writing full time and supporting their families. That’s amazing, and it says to me that indie authorship is actually more similar to traditional publishing than one might think.
Some will rise to the very top, some will languish at the bottom, and some will make a comfortable living doing what they love. The difference between the two is when a book sees the chunk of sales. In traditional publishing, the focus is on pre-selling to retailers and trying to launch the book as successfully and large as possible. For most books, that big push in the beginning is going to determine what happens to the book for the rest of its shelf-life.
In indie publishing, most authors see the opposite sales pattern. It might look more like this:
Month 1 – 10 books
Month 2 – 37 books
Month 3 – 100 books
Month 4 – 300 books
Month 5 – 800 books
What you’ll notice is that all of the marketing is cumulative, and the jumps that a successful indie sees will become larger and larger.
It seems to me, that most indie authors have to be popular to become popular. And what I mean by that is that people have to be talking about your books when you’ve stopped handselling, in order to really see the groundswell of activity that someone like Hocking, Lieski, etc. is seeing.
Still, you’ll note that in five months, there have been less than 2,000 copies sold. The traditionally published author might sell 10,000 copies in that same timeframe. But since the indie author’s sales patterns tend to look more like bell curves, rather than that initial push and then a lower plateau, they have time to catch up.
(And, before you get all excited about selling 800 books in a month, consider that 800 books at the $0.99 price point that many indies start a series at, is $280 in royalties.)
Growing A Dedicated Audience
Trade in a Lieski for a Konrath (who was originally traditionally published before going indie) and suddenly you notice something else about successful indies: they each write in just one or two genres, have at least one series, and are extremely prolific. Konrath has over 40 books, Dalglish and Hocking around a dozen. Their release dates are within weeks or months of each other, instead of about a year apart. To be honest, I still don’t know how anybody can write a finished book every month. It’s truly astounding to me. But the key word there is finished. Or you could replace it with good, excellent, publishable, etc.
Am I worried that because of all this press for successful indies, suddenly everybody is going to fill Amazon and B&N with books and the whole industry will turn to a pile of crap? No. And here’s why. Indie authors have to be:
— excellent writers and moderately good marketers
— moderately good writers and excellent marketers
— zombies who don’t ever sleep, and are both excellent writers and marketers.
If the book isn’t well written and well marketed, it will fall to the bottom, and won’t affect traditional publishing at all. It would reinforce the stereotype that indie publishing is a bunch of authors with crappy books who were tired of being rejected by agents and publishers. But hopefully this stigma will change over time, too.
Because in the future, I think we are going to see more and more authors using both traditional and indie publishing to build their careers. And I think this is good news for traditional publishing, too.
Tracy Marchini can be found at www.tracymarchini.com or on Twitter as @TracyMarchini. She is a former Curtis Browner turned freelance editor and author. Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms is available in print and ebook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Her new middle grade mystery Hot Ticket is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.