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What I learned self-publishing my book

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There were two chief reasons why I self-published the first book of the Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains: timing and control. I wanted to launch it on the back of Rocket Science at the Eastercon this year, and only by doing it myself would I make that deadline. I also took some chances with the book that most self-respecting editors would have baulked at: not using speech marks for dialogue, writing the flashback sequences in long discursive passages in italics, and using a list of abbreviations and an extensive glossary. I could have just formatted the book for Kindle, and loaded it up onto Amazon. Which is what a lot of self-published authors do. But – if only for my own self-respect – I decided that if I was going to self-publish I was going to do it properly: paperbacks, hardbacks, ISBNs, a proper small press…

And that’s what I did.

To be honest, the hardest part was writing the book. Typesetting it and getting it printed were not difficult. Likewise buying ISBNs. Or setting up the online shop. The launch at Eastercon went well, and I sold a good number of copies – and not just to people who knew me, or who had read other fiction I’d written (sadly, the latter number is lower than the former). And yes, I did have to do a bit of a “hard sell” at times.

But once the Eastercon was over, and I was back home, the really hard part began. They say the average self-published book sells less than a hundred copies, and those are mostly to family and friends. I’d gone past that number by selling my book at Eastercon and alt.fiction. But if I wanted sales to continue to grow, I needed to make them online. My next priority might well be writing book two of the Apollo Quartet – the working title is currently The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – but I also needed to work on promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains.

And having now spent two months trying to do that, I’ve learnt a few home truths:

1. breaking out of your community is hard
There are about a dozen reviews of Adrift on the Sea of Rains online. Quite a few were done by friends of mine. I value their opinions, so the fact they thought the book good makes me happy. Some of the reviews were done by people unknown to me. But if I want to sell more copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I need more of the latter than the former. I need people who have never heard of me to buy copies of the book. Reaching them is hard – they have no reason to listen to me. I’m an unknown quantity. I don’t even have the benefit of a known imprint on the spine of my book -ie, a logo which indicates a history of publishing science fiction a buyer knows they like.

2. there is no secret place online which will lead to sales
I have started threads promoting Adrift on the Sea of Rains on a handful of forums. I’ve watched the number of views of those threads climb up into the hundreds, but only a few people have actually posted comments. Even less have actually followed the links and purchased a copy. Again, it comes down to being an unknown. I’ve been a member of some forums for several years; people there know me. On others, I’m pretty much a drive-by spammer. People in the former situation are more forgiving of my promotional posts; but in neither case has it proven especially effective at generating sales.

3. quality is immaterial
I made sure Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a quality product – a well-made paperback and hardback, with striking cover art, and properly-edited text. None of that is obvious online. The same is true for the quality of the writing. Amazon provides a preview for the Kindle edition, but is that really enough to get an idea of how good the book is? You read the previews for some self-published authors, and the prose is semi-literate. Yet they seem to sell hundreds of copies a day. I suspect it’s the number of books such writers have available which is the chief factor in driving sales.

4. promoting your book will often lead to you defending your choice to self-publish
The fact that I chose to self-publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains will damn it in many people’s eyes. It’s true the vast majority of self-published titles are complete rubbish – even the successful ones. People will choose to believe I self-published because my story wasn’t good enough for a commercial publisher. (For some reason, small presses never seem to factor into this argument.) I could have pretended Whippleshield Books was not my press, and created some separate online identity to promote it. But that’s a lot of trouble to go to for a lie that would be quickly seen through. I’m operating an open submissions policy for Whippleshield Books, so it’s not a true self-publishing venture, it’s not solely for my books. But that’s a distinction many critics of self-published books consider irrelevant.

5. the internet allows you see how badly you’re failing in real-time
If you publish for Kindle, the Kindle Direct Publishing website displays how many copies you’ve sold on a monthly basis. Other sites, like goodreads.com or librarything.com, tell you how many people on those sites own copies of your book, or have seen fit to review it or comment on it. Very few casual readers will bother to write a short review of a book they’ve read. And when the number of readers is still in double-figures… Unsurprisingly, it can be very disheartening.

I came up with the idea for the Apollo Quartet partly because I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and partly because I had a couple of ideas for stories which I felt could be thematically linked (a third has changed greatly to fit into the quartet, and another was entirely replaced). I’m hoping that the appearance of each book will increase sales of the preceding volumes. And if, as some of the reviews have stated, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is good enough to appear on an award shortlist or two (providing people remember to nominate it, of course), then that too can only help.

None of this, however, alters the fact that Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a self-published book, a fact which will be seen to define it far more than its story or the quality of its prose. And while I can bemoan that, I can understand why it happens. Because, bar very rare exceptions, self-published books are typically pretty damn poor. Evangelists for so-called “indie” publishing may get all offended when this is pointed out – no, they’re not the future; yes, ignoring self-published books is entirely reasonable – but I’m not interested in promoting the means I used to get Adrift on the Sea of Rains out into the market, I’m interested in promoting my book. I may have self-published it, but that doesn’t mean I automatically support every self-published author on the planet. Nor am I convinced it is the best way to publish a book, or the only way which is economically sustainable in the mid-term. I support those books and authors I like and admire, irrespective of how their books were published.

And I would hope others apply the same to me and Adrift on the Sea of Rains.

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14 thoughts on “What I learned self-publishing my book

  1. From someone who’s gone the same route as you, I very much agree with everything you have said and it’s good to see someone say it as clearly and succinctly as you do.

    Do you think the self-publishing the first book in the quartet has been worth it?

    Are you planning to publish the rest of the series on Whippleshield?

    I went into the self publishing with few amibitions, just mainly wanted the book to be done (as like you with Adrift, I decided to take some editorial chances and it was a project of personal significance).

    But I’ve loathed the promotion part, specifically asking for reviews, and have probably done too little of it.

    I also hear about self published authors who have thousands of FB and Twitter followers but only a small fraction of them buy the book (as to be expected). That is probably down to being an unknown and not having an imprint, as you mention.

    Any author has to self promote these days, but I at least would like to do that in conjunction with a publisher next time.

    • Yes, the remaining three books of the quartet will be published by Whippleshield. I also have a short collection of five stories planned. Plus whatever is submitted that I want to publish.

      I’ve done okay with reviews, though I still need to tackle some of the bigger sites. Unfortunately, many won’t touch the book because it’s self-published.

      • That is indeed the case with some reviewers and sites.

        But it’s probably possible to find a few key reviewers that will review the book because it’s in the right genre for them.

        I also think that you are right about numbers of books and that having more of your books available on Whippleshield is a good strategy.

        When readers find an author or a series they enjoy, they do wish to read more. Trying new authors is a high investment of time and effort.

  2. Completely agree. In a way, I’m pleased to hear of your struggle (!), because it makes me feel better about the photo-book I self-published last year. Although the content is completely different to yours, in another genre altogether, the reaction has been pretty much the same. I’ve exploited what contacts I have, I got a good review (in a commercial magazine), but otherwise I get a lot of warm praise for the quality of my photography which doesn’t translate into sales.

    Partly that’s down to the fact that people can review the content online, and for an increasing number of people that’s enough. (I know I’m getting reasonably good hit rates on the online version.) Partly, it’s down to the fact that the economics of publishing illustrated books on demand makes it necessary for me to charge very much a market price for hard copies of the book; partly it’s because the product I’m pushing will really only appeal to the avid collector, and in my chosen field there are far more opportunities to get out into the field and sell, but that means that the costs are higher, both in terms of unit costs for space as well as number of events I could attend. I could be out somewhere every weekend promoting my book, but only if I was prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country and spend anything between £20 and £350 for a pitch.

    I do have one advantage on the horizon, and that’s the fact that I have a book currently on the stocks that will be published professionally. (In fact, I ought to be writing it now…) Once that’s out in the market place, I should be able to use that as an opportunity to market my own, more individual work.

    I’m also hampered by the frankly blinkered attitude of some of my potential audience. Railway enthusiasts are almost as tribal as football fans: I’ve actually had the comment “Huh! Not enough Great Western in it!” In a way, that’s not quite the market I’m aiming for, anyway – but it doesn’t help. Equally, I can’t afford to send out review hard copies, and some of those who would review it also took the position that “there’s nothing in this one that relates to our specialism; come back when there’s Austrian (or German, or Dutch, or more British) content in it…”

    And yes, there are as many poor self-published photo-books as there are self-published novels, making it all the more difficult for truly original work (he said, modestly) to stand out.

    Do we let this sort of thing put us off? Of course not. We do these things because they are The Things We Have To Do. The difference is that some of us stand a chance of succeeding eventually because other people think we have talent, and that will out. Eventually.

  3. Name recognition and branding are the reality these days, many readers content to remain in their comfort zones, rarely venturing off the beaten track.

    I count myself as a serious and committed reader and, in my case, I’m ALWAYS seeking out work by authors who are breaking new ground and creating a buzz with their originality and fresh approach to their subject matter.

    But how many serious readers are out there…and will they find themselves discouraged by the crap the traditional publishers are offering, turned off by the ineptitude of the vast majority of the self-published stuff? How does one reach that shrinking audience of intelligent, thoughtful readers who still care about a well-crafted sentence and appreciate stylistic sleight of hand? Questions that bedevil me on a daily basis.

    And, yes, how to get folks to part with a few of their hard-earned dollars, take a chance on an author they haven’t heard of and who might be a complete waste of their time and money, that’s another conundrum.

    Questions, questions.

    Wish I had some answers, pal, but after 25+ years in the biz, I’m not much further ahead. Selling out and writing “Dr. Who” novelizations to get your name noticed is one alternative. But do you want to crawl through that particular gutter? The name Kevin J. Anderson springs to mind…and I hope that just provoked a spine-shaking shudder…

  4. Hi Ian

    Keep at the promotion and be patient. Sometimes it can take a while to build up ebook sales in my experience. I’m sure as the reviews are good it will be successful.

    I would like to know if you are at all concerned about whether by self publishing you are harming your chance of being published by a commercial publisher?

    • No commercial publisher would have touched the Apollo Quartet anyway; and given the response to it so far, I don’t think it matters much whether Whippleshield Books is considered a small press or a self-publishing venture. Writing it certainly doesn’t preclude me writing a more commercial novel-length piece, and already having my name out there may help when it comes to selling that. Also, demonstrating that I’m willing to promote my book may stand me in good stead.

  5. I made that 11 links to the Whippleshield Books page for Adrift on the Sea of Rains.
    Now that is promotion!
    No one can accuse you of not trying.

  6. Pingback: I wish I had something interesting to say… » The Hysterical Hamster

  7. I am not sure if this inspires me to self publish or continue the (so far fruitless) grind of searching for an agent/publisher. I have come to a decision though, that after these last few attempts at a writing grant and if my last two publishing companies falls through then I will embark on the road of self publishing. I have worked closely with an editor during the writing process and since polishing the first manuscript have finished the first draft of the second novel in the series.
    My editor has praised my work and my beta readers have all given positive feedback… I do not know what more I can do really.
    One author said it succinctly on a forum I post to regularly and reminded me that the process of getting published was a marathon and not a sprint.
    Patience and diligence are key.
    I even had some feedback from some publishers and agents that was positive despite the decline. I feel as if I do not want to wait another year to get another twenty rejections…

    • It’s always worth trying to get published. I’ve not given up on it. I only published this particular book myself because I wanted it to appear exactly as I’d written it. Some of the sf authors you see in book shops now took almost a decade before they sold their first novel. You just have to persevere.

  8. Wow. Thanks for your thoughts and sharing it with us. I truly feel you. Obviously, traditional publishing does not insure excellent quality. Nor does self-publishing suggest inferior quality. Such a simplistic representation belies the gray area in between. Since anyone can become self-published, regardless of aptitude, it is logical to assume that there are more poor quality self-published books, because there is no doorkeeper to screen out inadequate talent.

  9. Well I found it through Pornokitsch mentioning you, and then I think I googled your name to see what else you had done.

    A lot of publishers gift e-copies to influential bloggers who will give it a mention. I have only barely started it, but if I understand there is an apocalyptic element to it. Apocalypse/dystopia sells well (though your “cover” is not geared to that audience), so they might be a thought.

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