Lessons Learned: Self Publishing – Part Two

Last week, I discussed my experiences with production and distribution as a self publisher / small press.  Obviously (or maybe it isn’t obvious!) the job isn’t done when the book is created and made available for sale.  There’s a lot that has to happen to let potential readers and listeners know that your book exists.  Also, since I focused so heavily on distribution last time, I neglected to mention some things about the pre-distribution steps involved in actually creating the book itself, its cover, its contents and its overall presentation.  (You’re right — I’m not going in order! I warned you that this would not be a formal presentation!)

So… Marketing.  You’ve written and produced a book.  It’s available for sale.  Now what?  The big publishers in New York spend more than you make in a year on promotion for a single title.  (I understand from those who’ve been there that they spend it wastefully, but they spend it.)  That’s not an option.  They buy ads in print media, they send reps to book fairs and to meet with buyers for large chain bookstores.  You might get into book fairs.  I haven’t tried.  But I doubt you’ll get a meeting with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, and you won’t get on the shelves at the local B & N (or at any other chain store) without going through corporate.  You can get your book on the “shelves” at Amazon, but so can everyone else.  Amazon is probably not going to meet with you about giving your book special treatment.  (I say “probably” because I never know what seemingly impossible thing Amazon is going to do next!)

In short, Lesson 2A – You can’t market the way the big boys do, nor should anyone necessarily want to.  Meeting with one or two people who are going to tell your readers what they like is something that just goes against the grain of the modern DIY publishers, myself included.  The idea of the buyer or industry executive who dictates the public’s reading tastes, and knows before it’s even published what the next “big thing” will be, smacks of manipulation.  It goes hand in hand with the argument that the publishing industry needs “gatekeepers” to protect the poor, stupid reader from being threatened with exposure to a bad book.  Never, ever use the gatekeeper argument in a discussion with me.  I’ll froth, my eyes will roll up into my head, and I may start speaking in tongues.  Worse, I may start quoting from some of the atrocities committed by our faithful industry gatekeepers.  I shan’t offend anyone by mentioning names, but I’m sure each of you can name a New York Times bestseller which never should have been smothered in its literary cradle for the good of humankind.  I can think of a dozen.  And they’re all in the same series.  Gatekeeping only assures us that all the books published will suit the personal tastes of a half-dozen people.  It’s got nothing to do with literary merit of quality.

Whom you can meet with in order to market your book leads to a couple more lessons learned:

Lesson 2B – Local bookstores have an interest in local authors.  Some of them may not recognize that interest, but many do.   As mentioned above, if your local bookstore is one of a chain, you’re probably out of luck.  But talk to the independent bookstores in your area.  Some of them, especially the newer ones, are aware of how the game is changing, and are eager to offer the works of independent publishers.  They may offer to purchase a few copies at your wholesale rate, or they may offer to take your books on consignment, paying you only if they sell.  Either way, a book on a bookstore shelf is better advertising than a picture of a book in a magazine.  (Please note – once again, I must speak in favor of offering a healthy discount to retailers.  I’ve heard chatter from a lot of small and self-publishers who want to offer nothing heftier than 20% off retail.  To that I say “Do NOT be greedy!”  A self-published author is already making more per book than a “professionally published” author, if you’ve done your pricing correctly.  Your royalty should be in the ten to twenty per cent range, if you offer a 55% discount.  That’s plenty.) 

Lesson 2C –  Libraries matter! A lot of new publishers dismiss libraries because they don’t buy many copies of an given title.  Why sell the library one copy to be read by twenty people, when twenty people might buy the book?  This is the kind of false arithmetic that causes record labels to believe that every illegal download represents a sale they would have had if only the Internet had never been invented.  The fact is that, if something’s free, a lot more people will avail themselves of it than would if they had to pay.  Libraries are a great place for people to stumble across your books.  Libraries keep your book on the shelves longer than a bookstore typically would.  Now that libraries are offering ebooks through services like EBSCO and OverDrive, even storage space and wear and tear on physical copies are no longer limitations to how long your book can stay in a library’s collection.  They can keep your title virtually forever, and at practically no cost beyond the initial purchase.

Librarians have more chance to talk to readers about books, in my experience, than book retailers do.  Even if your bookstore clerk is garrulous as hell, odds are you bookstore doesn’t put in the hours of scheduled programming each week that your library does to share book discussions with the public.  (If your bookstore does conduct such programs, and they’re not focused exclusively on the bestselling books, you’ve got a gem of a bookstore! Keep them in business!)

So share review copies of your books with local libraries, write or email the selectors (and take the time to find out who in a given library actually selects the books in the collection!) and pass on reviews of your book, if it has them.  Encourage any readers and friends in other cities to request that their library purchase your book, also furnishing copies of reviews.  Selectors generally use reviews to gauge whether or not a book falls within the library’s selection guidelines.  Oh, and don’t just blindly donate copies of your book to a library.  In my experience, only a very small percentage of donated books wind up on library shelves.  Most are sold to raise funds to buy new books.

Lesson 2D – Personal appearances ain’t easy, but they’re worth it.  It’s true that most personal appearances, especially those for which you have to travel, do not pay for themselves in book sales.  They’re time consuming.  They can be demoralizing.  An author sitting at a table full of his books in a store or a mall or an exhibitor’s hall, with no one stopping by to talk to him.  Is there a more pathetic site?  (Yes: an author sitting next to Scott Sigler or Peter David, being neglected and ignored by the long line of fans who’ve come to talk to the big name.  I’ve been there!)  Nonetheless, personal appearances are your only real chance to actually be in the presence of people who’ve read your books.  And for all the hell you go through being ignored by the masses, there’s still no greater feeling in the world than being face to face with someone who not only read your book, but loved your book.  They probably won’t buy anything.  They already own the book, after all.  But being told that your work mattered to even one person can propel you through months of sitting, ignored, in a corner.  Don’t discount the importance of your emotional state to being a successful author and publisher.  Besides all that, even if they don’t talk to you, a lot of people saw your name on the sign announcing your appearance (make sure there is a sign!) and, hopefully, a few who’d never heard of you heard you reading from your latest available book.  (Robert Newton Peck advised authors to only read from books that are for sale now, not from books that haven’t come out yet.  I don’t always follow his advice, but Mr. Peck has sold a lot of books in his career, and he made a living as an author.)

Lesson 2E – Customers don’t want to pay for advertisements, and you probably shouldn’t either.   When it comes to advertising, print, electronic or otherwise, I’m not a fan.  Obviously, you want to get your name out there, but I agree with J.A. Konrath that you want to do it in a way that’s not annoying or invasive.  So Internet advertising is out for me.  I’ve rarely seen a piece of Internet advertising that I didn’t find annoying or invasive.  Print advertising I’ve experimented with, and I’ve tried TV and radio advertising for other endeavors.  Here, also, I agree with Konrath.  I’ve never had paid advertising pay for itself.  (And perhaps that’s because I’m not paying enough; but, since my point is to talk about small press publishing, I’m going to assume that no one reading this has “enough” to spend on successful paid advertising, if there is such a thing.)

Lesson 2F – Don’t be afraid to give stuff away – I’ve been told you can never give away too many books, and I believe it.  Each book you put in someone’s hands is an advertisement for your body of work, and an offer to sell more copies of same.  Obviously, you want to be careful about selecting the recipients of free books, but don’t hesitate to put copies in the hands of people who have the power to convince others to buy them – reviewers, librarians, bloggers, podcasters, bookstore owners and fellow authors.  I myself am a little cagey on the fellow authors front.  I don’t like to hand my book to someone just because that someone is more famous than I.  But I will give away books to authors with whom I have a standing relationship, in hopes that I might get a cover quote or some word of mouth, and I will share a copy of one of my books with a celebrity who has expressed an interest in a subject I write about.  I want to especially emphasize the importance of getting copies to reviewers.

Lesson 2G – Reviews, Reviews, Reviews – I’ve heard a lot of my fellows say that sending out review copies is expensive and doesn’t usually get you anything.  Both sentiments are correct, but, when you do get a review, it translates into sales.  This is especially true if that review is in a professional journal.  Libraries especially rely on reviews to make their purchases.  Librarians read and mark up their copies of Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and School Library Journal.  Hundreds of libraries will buy your book if it’s recommended by one of these.  Customer reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble, as well as many other sources, are important as well, but traditional publishing still has enough power that the big guns matter.

Now, as promised, I’ll backtrack to the pre-distribution and marketing phase of creating the book for a final lesson:

Lesson 3 – Editing and quality control are hard work – don’t try to save labor!  I’ve heard it said that no one can edit his own work.  I know several authors who disagree with that sentiment.  Many of them disagree because they have long experience being published by large houses, where overworked editors don’t have time to pay attention.  These editors don’t tend to buy a manuscript that’s not already edited within an inch of its life, and so the authors who submit to them have learned to deliver a very finished product.  It stands to reason that some of them have learned to edit their own work.  Personally, I would never publish something that I hadn’t had carefully read by at least three trusted editors.  I work with someone who I know can do good line editing and proofreading, with someone else who has a strong sense of story structure, and with a third someone who has a great feel for characters.  I also know authors who can turn out very professional work by editing themselves.  The important point is, someone has to do the work.  Someone has to trim the fat, someone has to read the manuscript and the galleys forward, backward and sideways to find the errors, and someone has to have the sense of story to know what works and what doesn’t.  Spellcheck will not catch all your typos, and Word’s grammar check will definitely not find all your ill-constructed sentences.

Similarly, there is no software which can lay out your book for you in finished form automatically.  Yes, software can full justify your text, set your fonts, try and catch widows and orphans, and automatically add headers and page numbers.  I promise you, however, it will break lines in a lot of the wrong places, put hyphens where it shouldn’t, still leave widows and orphans, and not align the bottoms of the pages correctly.  I used Adobe InDesign CS5 to lay out Firebringer’s latest title, Heroic Park by Lance Woods.  ID did a damn good job, too.  But it made plenty of mistakes that only close inspection could reveal.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my most dangerous piece of advice:  Write your own rules.  See?  I told you it was dangerous! If you write your own rules, you’re going to write a lot of them wrong.  No two ways about it.  You’re going to.  But resist the impulse to listen to “wiser heads” who purport to tell you that you must do things their way or you will not succeed.  What worked for them may not work for you.  Or it may work, but not actually allow you to fulfill your goal.  Writing has always been an experimental art.  The only way to know if an audience will enjoy a story, ultimately, is to tell it.  Sure, there are ways to predict what an audience will like.  You should certainly listen to advice from those who have succeeded in entertaining their readers and listeners.  But don’t let them write rules for you.  You don’t have to do it their way.  Look at them and learn, then go see what works for you.

That’s it.  That’s a summary of what I’ve learned along the way.  For what it’s worth.  I admit I’m self-conscious about sharing it.  Giving any kind of advice puts one at risk of coming off as a know-it-all, and I dislike people who think  they know everything.  They’re either wrong, in which case they have a very inaccurate sense of self and should not be trusted, or they’re right, in which case they’re not human.  If they’re not human, well, they’re probably aliens here to turn the planet into an intergalactic on-ramp, and, again, they should not be trusted.  So take my words as you will, and let me know if they’ve helped or if your mileage varies.  I’m interested either way.

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