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More self-publishing home truths

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Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been in print for just over six months and has so far sold around two hundred copies in all three formats. I didn’t set up Whippleshield Books and self-publish because I thought it was a sure-fire route to riches and success. I’d much sooner someone else had published the book. But I did it myself because a) I wanted it done quickly, and b) I didn’t want to compromise on my vision. Happily, I got the book out on time, and no one has had a problem with the way I structured the novella.

However, being a self-publisher and starting up a (very, very) small press has definitely taught me how difficult the entire process is. Basically, it’s a numbers game. If one hundred people know of your book and ten percent buy a copy, that’s ten sales. If one million know and ten percent buy a copy… well, you get the picture. But how to get your book in front of a million pairs of eyes? Every time someone buys a book by someone they’ve never read before, they’re taking a chance. How to convince them it’s a chance they won’t regret taking?

One of the myths of the American Dream and, by extension western society, is that hard work leads to success. It’s utter bollocks, of course. People work hard all their lives and still die owing thousands of dollars, pounds, euros, etc. Bosses expect workers to put in unpaid overtime, even though the workers don’t actually profit from those unpaid hours. But when you do work hard for yourself, you often find obstacles thrown up in your way – partly because the system is set up to protect established businesses, but also because the only methods open to you as an entrepreneur have been so widely abused they poison everything that uses them…

1 Most forums have indiscriminate zero tolerance spam policies
When is a self-published sf novel like a pair of Nike trainers, or Louis Vuitton luggage, or even Viagra capsules? When mention of it is classified as spam. It seems eminently sensible to limit the amount of spam subjected to members of forums, and many self-published authors have used the tactics of spambots in getting their title in front of as many people online as possible. As a result, most forum moderators categorise any kind of promotion as spam. Typically, there’ll be a ring-fenced thread or group, in which authors can promote their books. But outside of that – nope, not allowed. Even if the poster is a member of good standing, even if it’s relevant to the discussion. Verboten. The offending post, or link, gets removed, and you receive a patronising message from the moderator. You’d think a sf forum, for instance, would be interested in sf books. Self-publishers, or indeed small presses, of course, can’t rely on the presence of their books in book shops to spread knowledge of their titles. They have neither the print-runs nor the coverage to be able to do so. So they have to promote. But most of their intended audience is routinely blocked from getting the message.

2 It’s not a level playing field, and Amazon has its thumb on the scales
Amazon does not typically stock small press print titles. It will show them as “out of stock” or “unavailable”, even though the book is readily available from the small press’s own website. But when a person sees mention of a title and considers purchasing it, they will be often go and look on Amazon. They see “out of print”. Result: sale lost. If they’d known of the small press’s website, they could have gone there and bought a copy – but there’s no link from Amazon, and most people won’t bother to google for it. Which means that whenever you mention your small press or self-published title, you’re going to need to attach a link to your website. But that’s not allowed, that’s spam. It’s catch-22. Having said that, since Amazon takes a 60% discount – there’s no negotiation involved – any sale through Amazon will likely mean a loss. Amazon is a good platform selling ebooks, but for small presses without the economies of scale it’s completely useless for print books. Sadly, it’s also most people’s first port of call for print books.

3 Never mind the quality, feel the weight
I read somewhere of an established author who self-published a novel on Kindle and made $1250 of sales in ten days. He complained that was a poor result. But the vast majority of self-published novels on Kindle won’t make that in a year. The market does not have perfect information (which is one reason why capitalism can never really work), and so every reader out there for whom your novel might be a perfect fit is likely unaware of its existence. Instead, most readers will stick with what they know – they’ve read author A before and they like their books, imprint Z publishes good books so they’ll take a punt on their latest title, and so on. As a self-publishing small press, I need to get my name and the name of my press out there. My name doesn’t have sufficient weight to make much of dent in my intended market’s ignorance. The only way that will likely change is if… I get a contract with a major imprint.

4 Reviews are better for the ego than the bank balance
To date, Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been reviewed more than two dozen times on blogs, review sites and in print magazines. That’s a remarkable number for a self-published novella. On Amazon, it currently has eight customer reviews, which is not especially high – even for a self-published ebook. All of the reviews so far have been positive. The most negative comment I’ve seen about it is “it wasn’t too bad” by someone on GoodReads. Of those two dozen reviews, most of the people who wrote them received review copies – electronic or print. Reviews are good, they get word of the book out and about. People see the reviews and are sufficiently intrigued to buy the book. But only two or three of those reviews actually resulted in an uptick in sales. And I suspect there were several incidents of prospective buyers going to their preferred suppliers – Amazon, for example – not finding copies, and promptly giving up.

5 Once tarred, that’s you forever that is
I didn’t want Whippleshield Books to be a purely self-publishing venture, so I made it open submission. In six months, I’ve received a single query. I admit to being picky, but the guidelines are quite clear on what I want. I didn’t want to be spammed with inappropriate submissions – space opera, for example – but I’ve not even had that. Authors complain there aren’t enough venues to sell to, that those which do exist don’t like the sort of fiction they write… Perhaps there really is no one else writing the sort of fiction I want to publish. I find that hard to believe. Maybe it’s because Adrift on the Sea of Rains is self-published – I’ve made no secret of it. I know some book bloggers and review sites won’t touch it because it’s self-published – though they’ll happily review crap books by established imprints. Maybe the same also holds true for submissions?

Okay, perhaps not “forever”… I can think of two small presses originally set up to publish their founder’s own fiction. Both are now reasonably successful, with large catalogues of books by many different authors. Perhaps a decade from now, Whippleshield Books will be in the same situation. But in the years since those two small presses were established – and it’s less than a decade for both – much has changed in the publishing world. While new channels on the internet have made distribution and promotion much easier over a much wider area, the low barriers to entry have also significantly decreased the signal to noise ratio. The market is far bigger, but there are now so many traders that people can only hear you sing out your wares when they’re actually standing at your stall.

In a month or so, the second book of the Apollo Quartet should see in print. Having a second book out might change the game entirely for Whippleshield Books. It’ll be interesting seeing if it does. We shall have to see how it goes…

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8 thoughts on “More self-publishing home truths

  1. Ian,

    I want to pick you up on point 1.

    I moderate 2 online communities. It is a matter of etiquette to contact an admin and clear advertising with them before you post up anything (not implicitly allowed see next para). A decent moderator will listen and respond accordingly. I will normally allow established members to advertise whatever they want within reason.

    In addition in the communities I work advertising second hand gear, professional services and sundry community related content is considered normal. You’re right – SF communities should be willing to hear from authors with new books, however the problem they have is the same problem you talk about later – signal to noise.

    If they allowed any old person to advertise any old crap then they would probably find their pages swamped with people claiming to sell one thing but really lightening the pockets of their community. Which doesn’t help you and annoys the community. If I was offering my services to your community I might suggest adding a new section to allow “known” authors to advertise new work.

    On your wider points.

    It seems to me that Donald Maas’ points about self promotion which he wrote in the 90s are as true now as they were then and will remain true in the future. I find the prospect depressing. It’s a brave new world alright.

    • Some members of one forum complained loudly when I posted an offer for review copies of Adrift, even though I’ve been an active member of the forum for a number of years. Another forum, which I joined only this year but have contributed to several discussions, removed posts despite them being direct responses to question posed in a discussion. And another forum I joined specifically to promote Adrift only allows you to post once a week in a ring-fenced thread.

      I can understand that forum members dislike spam – I dislike it myself. But in forums where I’m known, where I consider some of the other members friends, it’s a bit fucking irritating to be classified as no better than a spambot.

      • I really do understand your problem. I really do. I also understand the personal slight you feel.

        (I think I can guess at least one of the forums you’re implying by the way.)

        The thing you’re missing here is “etiquette”.

        You don’t say whether you tried this but really, honestly contact the mods and admin to float the idea before you do it. The first can seem a little weird to you and them especially if the culture isn’t already present in the group (especially puzzling to the mod who’s never heard of you – been there been that mod).

        You cold pitch the idea of a sub forum for self promotion and/or agree some ground rules with the mods.

        Consider also that some people are super sensitive to what they perceive as self aggrandizement and it becomes an increasingly knotty problem.

        “Oh god there he is banging on about his book… again…” And that’s only after your second ever post mentioning it in 6 months.

        What you’re facing here is a problem created by other people. If everyone behaved sensibly with due care and consideration to those around them you wouldn’t see this issue. Alas … welcome to the Internet.

        I actually know my stuff when it comes to this – I’ve cleared a decade of online moderation now.

        Which is a scary thought now that I think about it.

        I should dig out an article I have on a dentist in the US who actively courted bad press. The more bad press he got the more clients he served… even though he’s a terrible dentist. It’s all about relationships in online forums… fascinating stuff.

        • Both forums have specific areas for promotion. In one, the area is only frequented by other self-published authors, and they’re not interested in buying someone else’s book. As for the other, I only linked to my site because it was relevant to the discussion, not as a deliberate act of promotion – but the post still got zapped.

  2. It’s all a very two-edged sword.

    As you may know, I’m active in a number of “fandoms”. One of them is the slightly esoteric one of European model railways. (Well, it’s esoteric in the UK.) An egroup – not even a BB, blog or website – that I contribute to has a fairly well-known dealer as a member. He was quite instrumental as a private individual in setting up one of the major Continental interest groups, and is generally considered to be a Good Guy. He scrupulously does not use the egroup for advertising. But once – just once! – he posted to say “I don’t normally do this, but I’ve got a special and very limited order of X coming in next week, and i know plenty of you have been pestering me for ages to get some. Contact me off-thread.”

    He got royally flamed for it.

    I thought this was a degree of hypocrisy on the flamers’ part. This guy is trying to make a living purveying the objects of our desire; he had something special on its way that he knew many of the group participants wanted; and it was going to be in limited supply. The flamers had most likely all bought stuff off him in the past. But some people do now like to get on a high horse over not using certain channels for “advertising”; and they also will often want good bargains, or even sometimes stuff for nothing, forgetting that the purveyors of our dreams have to put food on the table.

  3. I’ve had similar experiences with Brain in a Jar, Ian. Even when you’re publishing other people’s stuff – even when that stuff has previously been published in paying markets, or has been nominated for awards – it remains far, far below the radar of most readers, regardless of how good it is. It’s hard to see a diamond, after all, if it’s immersed in a near-infinite sea of dreck.

    However, one surprising and entirely unintended consequence to me of the whole Brain in a Jar exercise was that it promoted *me*. I saw Brain in a Jar mentioned in an interview with Mike Cobley in SFX; in a retrospective on Scottish SF authors at the National Library in Edinburgh had information about it on huge wall display; and I’ve seen the name crop up in other places too, cross-referenced with my own.

    I have a feeling Whippleshield and ‘Across the Sea…’ have done the same for you, Ian, in that the project has perhaps raised your profile more than a little. That in itself may have unintended and potentially quite positive consequences.

    (By the way, having Brain in a Jar mentioned in national genre magazines, on display in front of thousands of visitors to a major librayr and museum, had zero effect on sales)

  4. Pingback: More Self-Publishing Home Truths (via @ian_sales) | Literarium – The Blog

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