Well, I’m an IT professional in my day job, so I tend to keep track of things, including my public speaking engagements. Apparently, since 2007, I have spoken in public 102 times, including speeches, lectures and 4 different workshops. I have spoken in 37 different venues, including auditoriums, studios, hotel ball rooms and restaurants. I have spoken on TV 2 times. In addition, I have organized 16 conferences and more than 100 smaller events of different types. Somehow, it all adds up over time.
There’s this thing that’s happened to me a number of times now, and it’s really irritating, so I’ve decided to write about it because, like, that’s what writers do. It usually starts off with a self-published writer complaining in a public forum about how their ebooks aren’t selling and how they’re not gaining any traction in building up a fanbase.
The conversation invariably moves on to how tough indie publishing is, with some moaning about how hard it is to be discovered, and then the writer will say something like, “There’s got to be a better way.” There’s this sense of betrayal that’s expressed, like it’s not fair that self-publishing hasn’t worked for them. If you try to provide any advice to them, they’ll insist that they’re doing everything right, and they can’t understand why it’s not working for them. They’ll even wax skeptical about how anybody else could possibly have achieved the success that they haven’t.
Invariably, I’ll go to Amazon to check out their books, and discover that the author’s ebooks possess some combination of bad covers, bad blurbs or generally bad writing.
Here’s an exchange that I was involved in recently on Facebook, with the names changed because I don’t want to call anybody out.
|Facebook Conversation||My Commentary|
Miss Positive: In my limited experience so far, you have to get out from behind the computer and sell face to face. I have had incredible success – and met lots of beautiful new fans – by attending conventions and selling my book to them in-person.
It’s a long and slow slog – for SFF writers, we don’t yet corner the ebook market the way romance readers do. I have heard that Indie SFF writers often get the most bang for their buck in the area of series – and don’t see a return on investment until the series is complete.
On the other hand – I make $6 for every book that I DO sell, and I’m selling the words that I wrote. I also get to control every aspect of my author-brand, my schedule, my resources, and my work. So I can’t complain too much…
|I like this lady. She’s got a positive attitude, a healthy attitude toward promotion and an awareness that it takes time to build an audience.|
Mr. Betrayed: Not all independent authors have the time or resources to travel around attending conventions (especially considering your audience isn’t just limited to the county, state or country you’re standing in).
And for those of us who are basically introverted, specifically NOT natural-born salespeople, face-to-face meetings aren’t always successful or even useful. An author shouldn’t have to be a carnie huckster to sell books in the 21st century.
|Translation: I don’t want to do the work that other authors are doing. I just want my books to sell.|
Miss Positive: I don’t believe myself to be a carnie huckster – more a quirky, smiling friendly face who asks if you’re interested in a new book.
Writing is a beautiful art form. Publishing is a business, and you have to be able to do the hard stuff in order to be successful.
I attend local events, and I’ve always made a profit. A table at a comic-con is $100; an order of 50 books ~$225 from createspace. You sell out, you’ve made a $175 profit. Do it again, and you’ll have enough to purchase your books outright. Do it again, and you’ll have enough to keep a little for yourself.
As far as my international audience, that’s what Goodreads Giveaways are for.
|Again, I really like her positive, can-do attitude. I bet she’s good at connecting with people. Ultimately, it’s people who decide whether or not to buy your book.|
Mr. Skeptical: The key to success (if by success you mean making a living or at least a reasonable sideline income) is selling LOTS of books. Anyone can sell a few dozen copies. My aunt Tilly alone would probably buy that many.
But we need to sell thousands — tens of thousands — of copies just to make a healthy sideline income. A fulltime job would require even more sales than that.
Reaching an audience of that magnitude is the PROBLEM. It’s a real problem for an indie or self-publisher. It’s the difference between real success and self-delusion.
|A new writer pops in, moaning about how success requires thousands of sales. We’ve all heard stories about how lightning has struck for certain authors, but, generally, these types of sales build over time. Hugh Howey published numerous stories online before he had his break-out hit with Wool.
He also doesn’t seem to realize that it’s a long game. Even if you only make a thousand dollars per story per year, that can add up to some serious money over time.
Mr. Betrayed: I’m definitely not “quirky”… I’m a grey old dude… and even speaking to a passing stranger that I’ve only just made eye contact with is difficult for me.
I also publish exclusively in ebooks, with their own unique set of costs, prices and deliverability issues that can make convention selling… tricky. I have as yet not been able to get it to work out.
That’s why I’m always on the lookout for a promotional method that WORKS for people like me, as opposed to people who have the time and the temperament to go out and physically work crowds.
|Once again, he doesn’t want to do the work that others are doing. He just wants to be successful.|
|David Keener: All writers need to sell books. All writers need to build up their audience over time. I’d rather do it at the profit margins that indie publishing allows than the ones that traditional publishers provide. Would you rather get $0.65 per book for an $8.99 paperback sale or $4.19 for a $5.99 ebook sale? And remember, it’s a LONG game, not a sprint.||Here’s where I chimed in. Indie publishing is a numbers game. I’d prefer to make money at indie profit margins than traditionally published profit margins.|
|Mr. Betrayed: I’d like to sell more than 2 books a month. At that pace, I’m moving backwards…||And yet again, I just want my books to sell.|
|David Keener: You need…a good book, good concept, good blurb, good cover, some modest social media…I know an author who self-pubbed his first fantasy novel in January and has made more than 11K. And it’s still selling at a decent clip…||Here are the ingredients for success at indie publishing. And an example of somebody I know personally who has made real money.|
|Mr. Betrayed: Yeah…||I’m detecting a bit of skepticism here.|
Mr. Skeptical: Modest social media isn’t going to do it. And I’d only believe 11K when I see the receipts. Rumors of success are a common part of this faith. It helps everyone believe, but we need concrete steps that actually produce repeatable results.
We’ll keep talking. Eventually we’ll work something out. I have faith. 😎
|A modest amount of social media hash’t worked for him, therefore it can’t possibly have worked for anybody else. And my story about the author who has made real money, well, it can’t possibly be true because, otherwise, he would be making real money.|
|David Keener: “Rumors of success” is a misnomer. This is a person I know, and we’ve been discussing his numbers all year, including the initial burst, the post-launch decline after about 30 or so days, the number of ebooks vs. trade paperbacks sold, and the small boost the novel has received as other stories have come out.||OK, so I’m just a little annoyed right now. It’s like Mr. Skeptical has just patted me on the head and told me that somebody making 11K in nine months is a nice fairy tale, but please shut up because the grown-ups are talking.|
|David Keener: Another writer, a different guy, from my writing group has released an SF novel, and is tracking for making about 3K by end of year. He’d be making more but he screwed up his launch because there were typos in his 10% preview section on Amazon. I’m guessing that probably cost him a couple thousand he could have made in the first month, because sales only ticked upward when the typos were fixed. Again, not a rumor, this is a guy that I know personally.||Being stubborn, I provide another example of someone successfully self-publishing to slightly less success. I even provide some analysis as to why he wasn’t more successful (which is something I actually discussed with the author).|
Mr. Betrayed David, as an author with 11 good books with an average of 4-star ratings… a blog I contribute to every 1-3 days… contributions on multiple Facebook pages and twitter… and (formerly) presences and interviews on a number of book aggregate sites (including Goodreads)… I’m saying that none of that was enough to get me more than a few sales per month over the past 8 years. And it’s not getting any better.
And there are plenty of authors like me out there, doing what we can with the time, resources and abilities we have. We need a better way to get our names out there and get noticed, because the ways you described just aren’t enough for many of us.
|And here comes another pat on the head. Through no fault of his own, you see, Mr. Betrayed has been let down by indie publishing. However, when I checked out his books on Amazon, they all had second-rate or third-rate amateur covers and mediocre blurbs. Even worse, his most recent book had grammatical mistakes in the FIRST PARAGRAPH of the sample content that Amazon provides.|
I didn’t really write this post to complain about being patronized. I’m writing it because I’ve seen this scenario too many times, where writers have this idea that self-publishing is some kind of magic bullet that will automatically make them rich. When reality fails to measure up to their expectations, they decide that there’s something wrong with reality rather than something they could possibly be doing wrong.
Writers need to understand that there are two fundamental aspects of a writing career. There’s the craft of writing, in which writers try to master their art and produce the best work that they’re capable of. And then there’s the business of writing, in which writers must sell the fruits of their craft, the product they’ve created, in a competitive marketplace.
If the product isn’t solid, it probably doesn’t matter what you do after that — you’re doomed to failure. Even Fifty Shades of Gray, whatever you may think of it, was professionally edited, featured an innovative cover for its genre and was written well enough to appeal to a large audience.
Even if your product is solid, failure to master the necessary business aspects of running a self-publishing enterprise can also lead to failure.
In the Internet startup world, where I’ve spent a good portion of time in my day job over the years, it’s common to talk about startups pivoting, i.e. – completely changing how they do business in order to deal with real world issues. Being in business requires a certain amount of ruthlessness.
Writers need to learn how to be ruthless towards their own art. Once your story is done, it’s a product. Accept that fact…and move on.
If you’re going to succeed in self-publishing, you need to be able to evaluate your own work as a product and make hard decisions. Is your story good enough to sell? Is the manuscript free of typos and grammatical issues? Have you tested your story with beta readers to ensure that it works as a story? And when I talk about beta readers, I’m not talking about your mother or your spouse — I’m talking about people who will tell you what you need to hear, not people who are predisposed to tell you how great you are.
If you’ve gotten this far with your book, how does your book compare to similar stories in your niche? How do you position it so that it will sell? Is there an angle that you can emphasize to help it sell?
Most of the top-selling indie books are indistinguishable in quality from traditionally published books. They are professionally edited, feature professional covers and are advertised using solidly written blurbs designed to hook the potential reader.
How does your story compare to that standard? When answering that question, you need to be thoroughly and ruthlessly objective. If your book doesn’t match up, then you are impeding your own potential sales.
I’ve seen multiple people that I know self-publish books successfully. And by successfully, I mean that I’ve seen them make real money. These are facts. I know these people, and I know what they’ve done to make money. They spent cold, hard cash on professional editing and quality covers for the best book they were capable of writing. If that’s not what you’re doing, then maybe you’ll get lucky and lightning will strike…but I wouldn’t count on it.
As a fledgling writer at Capclave 2014, I got to participate in my first panel at an SF convention. My fellow panelists were Paolo Bacigalupi, award-winning writer of The Windup Girl and the Guest of Honor for the convention; D. Douglas Fratz, the moderator for the panel, a writer and a climate scientist in his day job; James Maxey, a fantasy writer; and Max Gladstone, a fantasy writer. The topic of the panel was:
Fellow writer Jennifer Povey was kind enough to “capture the moment” for me:
Clearly, I was the junior member of the panel. And Paolo Bacigalupi and D. Douglas Fratz were far and away the most expert on hardcore climate change science and policy. Nevertheless, I think I acquitted myself reasonably well. I was also pleased that my fellow panelists were quite nice and didn’t exhibit any of that bias against self-published writers that I’ve heard others talk about. I had a great time.
Some of the attendees from my workshop, “Public Speaking for Writers,” hard at work on, of all things, a writing assignment (a brief story pitch, which they than had to present to the class). The man in the middle on the far side of the table is Tom Doyle, best-selling writer of American Craftsmen.
You can just FEEL the concentration…
The workshop was held at Capclave 2014 in Gaithersburg, MD, in a room aptly called “The Boardroom.”
I’ll be going to Capclave again this year. It’s a small literary SF convention serving the Washington DC metropolitan region, probably around 450 – 500 people. We’re expecting attendance to be down from last year’s numbers, which were around 900 or so thanks to the “George Factor” — the Guest of Honor was George R. R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones series and the inspiration behind HBO’s hit TV series.
It’s October 10 – 12, so it’s only about a week away. As with last year’s event, it’s being hosted in Gaithersburg, MD. So, be there if you can. It’s money well spent, whether you’re a reader or a writer.
Speaking of writers, Capclave has also got an excellent Writer’s Track, which I’m proud to be part of this year. I’ll be conducting my workshop, “Public Speaking for Writers,” on Sunday, October 12th. This is a talk that is clearly on the business side of being a professional speaker, and which also leverages my extensive Toastmasters experience.
That same day, I’ll also be on a science panel with Guest of Honor Paolo Bacigalupi (I’ve learned how to say his name just so I can manage to not embarrass myself on the a panel — batch-i-ga-loopy), the award-winning writer of The Windup Girl. The panel is entitled “Writing About Climate Change.” Authors James Maxey and Max Gladstone will also be on the panel with me, along with D. Douglas Fratz, a writer and climate scientist (in his day job). It’s my first panel at an SF convention, so I’m really looking forward to it.
One more week, and then it’s off to Capclave!