Everything I did wrong and more besides

Lots of talk about how much money people can make – or not make – from independent e-publishing lately. Author Hugh Howey launched a site called Author Earnings, which uses some maybe-representative-maybe-not data to create complicated reports suggesting that self-publishers can make pots and pots of money. But in the same time period I’ve read a bunch of blog posts by various writers (none of which my amateurish Google-fu can seem to turn up right now) talking about how little they’ve made from publishing their own work on the Kindle Store or wherever.

Where do I fit in? Interesting coincidence that you should ask that, as I just did my monthly update of my sales- (and cost-) tracking spreadsheet. I’ve been doing the self-pub thing for nearly four years now, and I have some numbers to share.

In 2010-11 (because I track by Australian financial years) I released Hotel Flamingo and Godheads and made $171.98 from them (gross, not net). In 2011-12 I published The Obituarist and made $228.74. In 2012-13 I put out (to no great fanfare) Nine Flash Nine and made $122.71.

And in the eight months to date of 2013-14, I have made a grand total of… twenty-five dollars and thirty-three cents.

Amanda Hocking I am not. Especially since I racked up expenses of $1037.98 creating and promoting those four books, which means (I’ll spare you from doing the sums) I have lost almost $500 doing this whole self-pub thing and would certainly be better off financially if I’d simply spent 3.67 years sitting in a dark room huffing paint with my underpants on my head.

I mean, okay, I could have done that and published unsuccessful books, but you take my point.

Fortunately my Google-fu is strong enough that I can find tonnes and tonnes of advice about what I can do to guarantee hundreds and hundreds of ebook sales. Well, frankly a drunk kitten could find that advice; Google ‘self-publishing’ and you’ll get a million hits of people telling you how to make it big.

According to various places on Teh Intarwebs, here’s what I should do in order to be a runaway success:

  • Spend more money on marketing: Sure, I bought ads on Goodreads and War Rocket Ajax, but I should have done more and directed ads towards people who would really dig the premises of my books, such as crime fans, horror readers, undertakers and flashers.
  • Spend less money on marketing: No-one reads ads! That’s the old way of thinking! I should have focused on engaging directly with customers through things like witty blog posts, outright begging and investment of time – because time is nothing like money, nothing at all.
  • Use social media more: I’m on Twitter and Facebook, even on Google Plus (ha ha), but I should be in other places – where’s my Pinterest board? And I should use what I have more aggressively, sending out press releases and links several times a week/day/hour.
  • Use social media less: Twitter’s dead! Facebook’s dead! Shut off the social media hum and just write write write; if you write it, they will come! (Having somehow learned that you did write it through mysterious means, possibly involving blood sorcery.)
  • Use word-of-mouth and the personal touch: If I’d just reached out to every person I knew and got them to buy my books, I’d be sitting pretty. Especially if I’d then nagged and cajoled them into writing reviews and pressing them on others. It worked for Dianetics.
  • Automate all that marketing shit: Robots is where it’s at! Why speak to a human being when an automated bot can spam reviews onto a bunch of sites or auto-DM anyone who even looks at my Twitter profile for five freakin’ seconds?
  • Write more books: Readers respect dedication. They want to keep reading more books from authors they trust. They want to print out your books and build houses with paper walls thick enough to stop mortar fire. That’s why Robert Jordan was so popular.
  • Write fewer books: If I’d written just one book, I could focus all of my marketing and promotional activities on it. I could tweet the same information about it every week! Mention it in every discussion! Tattoo the cover onto my eyelids and blink constantly!
  • Go exclusive with Amazon: Exclusive deals are the strongest deals. KDP exclusivity opens you up to a huuuuuuge market of people who only use Amazon Prime, don’t want to pay full price for ebooks and are generally disinterested in anyone but bestsellers!
  • Publish in as many places as possible: I’m on Amazon, and Smashwords to 12 other outlets, but is that enough? What if I sold PDFs through RPG stores? Epubs through university libraries? Animated GIFs through Tumblr? Braille on posters? What else?
  • Establish my personal brand and platform: I need to create my own unique identity, one similar enough to other, more popular unique identities that I will be accepted into their tribe. There’s still time to murder Warren Ellis and wear his beard like a suit.
  • Eschew concepts like ‘personal brand’ and ‘platform’: Hollow buzzwords! Marketing 101 crap! People engage with personal, genuine, artisanal work; if I grew idiosyncratic sideburns and wrote my novels in Moleskine notebooks, I could find a whole new audience
  • Charge more for my books: The era of 99 cent/app-style pricing is OVER! Customers want to feel like books are priced like quality products for discerning buyers. Plus, if I sold just five novellas for $15 each I could totally afford some really good scotch.
  • Give away more free books: People love free books! People read free books! People review free books! Freebies definitely lead to hundreds more sales, rather than dozens of unread MOBI files gathering electron dust on Kindles just like mine!
  • Blog more: …I’m not sure I can.
  • Blog less: …I’m still not sure I can.

Here’s what I will be doing:

  • Shrug and keep writing.

Lots of people are willing to tell me what I’m doing wrong. But the only person who gets to decide what’s right for me is, well, me.

I’m not getting rich. I’m not breaking even. I’m not reaching the largest possible market for my work. But I’m writing the stories I want to write, telling the stories I want to tell, and making enough from my day job that I don’t feel I have to justify my time by making much (or any) money out of it. Which is a pretty sweet place to be.

None of which means I wouldn’t like more sales, because more sales mean more readers and more people (hopefully) enjoying my work. And, okay, perhaps more people getting interested in Raven’s Blood and making it more attractive to a publisher, or looking forward to The Obituarist 2: The Secret of Curly’s Gold when I self-publish that around June/July. Those would be good things.

If I can get those things doing just what I’m doing now… that would be good too. So I’ll try that.

2 thoughts on “Everything I did wrong and more besides

  1. I think you’ve got a pretty solid brand already, though I’m not saying the Ellis face-scalping thing couldn’t work for you.

    I’m not in the trenches of self-publishing, just watching from the periphery, but from what I can see the only factor that you have any significant control over is volume.

    (Also making sure that what you write isn’t unmitigated garbage, but you’ve got that one covered.)

    More books means more chances that one of them will catch some attention and take off (in more or less the same way that buying lottery tickets more often technically improves your chances of becoming a sudden millionaire). The stellar success stories all seem to have gotten there more or less by voodoo, but the solid career-building e-midlisters all seem to be capable of cranking out a new title every four or five months.

    (My novel just hit the three year mark and it’s at least two more major edits away from the point where I would dare mention it in the presence of a publisher and/or consider slapping a dot-epub on the end of it. So I’m maybe not quite there yet).

    FWIW the first chapter of Raven’s Blood you posted up was as good as anything I’ve seen in the YA fantasy space, either pro- or self-published. You can never tell what’s going to take off, once it’s out there.

    (You know at this point I am going to be bitterly disappointed if that’s not the real subtitle of Obituarist 2, right?)

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