Getting hung up on the wrong things

Further to the epic rant I shared last week, I listened to Mark Dawson’s interview with the mysterious Data Guy this morning. I got up at 4am, drove to the city to drop off my husband to the bus to Canberra (where he has a course this week, so has to start early), went back home (still very dark), walked to the gym (scared the bejesus out of a possum in the dark, or maybe it scared me), where it was still very empty at 5.15am. I always listen to podcasts at the gym, because gyms are boring and I can learn something while I’m there.

An interview with Data Guy is a real scoop for the show. I guess Mark knows who he is, but we’re all speculating. In short, every three months, he rents hundreds of servers for an hour or two and they crawl across the entire book section of whatever site he chooses (mostly Amazon US, but he’s done others) and collect publicly visible data. Title, author, publisher, ranking. He does this for an ever-increasing portion of the books for sale. He uses this data to create an immediate snapshot of the industry. The book industry at large is now beginning to see the value of this, because all of the data they can collect does not offer them as complete or immediate a picture.

Data Guy writes the quarterly Author Earnings reports together with Hugh Howey, and these reports give a lot of insight into what’s happening in the book industry. Too much to mention here, but everyone should read them, whether you have a publisher or are self-published. If you’re really keen, the data is publicly available, so you can download it and play with it.

Back to the podcast.

Apart from all the things I mentioned in the rant from last week (people don’t use ISBNs and those books are not counted; people buy even their print books online), I’d like to highlight this quote from the transcript (bolding mine):

James (interviewer):
Is there a particular area do you think you could point people towards they should be looking at?
Data Guy:
Absolutely, and that is marketing and advertising. What is conventionally understood by traditionally published authors to be important absolutely isn’t. Newspaper and radio ads, book signings at the occasional book store, they’re fun. They are enjoyable. I’ve done them. I’ve really enjoyed as an indie author signing at Barnes and Noble. But 70 books in a day in print, where you basically earn very little with your POD books, is not comparable to selling 1,100 or 2,000 books in a day, which is what you can do with an online promotion without too much difficulty if you plan it right. Focus the energy on what works today.

Yet, I see authors getting hung up on in-person sales, signings, presence of their books on shelves, con appearances etc. every day.

This stuff is FUN. It strokes your ego. For sales, it does diddly squat.

Next month, I’ll go to Supanova on the Gold Coast. It’s a tax-subsidised holiday. That’s it. It’s fun. Yet at these events I meet people who don’t even have ebooks. Or who have their ebooks farmed out to daft third party joints that are inflexible and expensive.

Selling print books at stalls or signings is successful when you sell 50 books or more. During my biggest sales day online, I sold 3046 books. In a single day. I can go back the next day and sell 1000, and the next day, and the next day, and…

Ebooks, online, that’s where it’s at. That’s where you should advertise.

Yes, it was still dark when I got home at 6.30. The possum was gone because the rubbish trucks were prowling the streets. We need the end of daylight saving, please?

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Writing or Marketing?

If you poke around the internet, you will find posts by various wise writers exhorting you to spend x amount or proportion of your time marketing and the rest writing. Often it comes down to 80% writing and 20% marketing.

I think these sorts of enforced schedules miss a really important part of being a writer:

Marketing is not some evil thing that should be avoided at all cost, nor is it something that takes you away from writing, or something that needs to be rationed.

Marketing augments your writing. Marketing sells what you have already written, increasing the value obtained from your intellectual capital. Marketing can also help you decide what to write next: see what sells best, and then write more of that.

How much time do I spend doing either? However much is necessary. If I’m in the middle of an early draft of a book, I’ll spend next to no time marketing, but when I need to think about how plot threads fit together, I move to do more marketing, because most of it involves interacting with people and it takes your mind off thorny plotting problems, and that ironically helps you see the solutions that have been staring you in the face all the time.

Expenses–and books don’t sell themselves

I came across this post in my Twitter feed.  TL;DR: an author lamenting how much it costs to produce a book, and how little she has sold.

The expenses side in her post looks fine. I tend to budget about A$1500 per book for editing, cover design and formatting. I have a line editor/proofreader who also formats my books. I use a variety of cover artists, and this is where the main variation in expense comes from. I’ve also recently started working with a paid content/developmental editor.

A$1500 per book serves me fine. This, of course, is a one-off cost and the more books you sell, the more you get out in profit. It is also where cover price affects your bottom line. At $2.99 per copy, I need to sell 750 copies to cover my costs. At $3.99, I need to sell less than 500. Everything else is gravy.

But the trick is: how do you sell 500 books? It is in this part of the equation that you can make a huge difference. To me, it sounds like the author of that blog post has not done an awful lot of effective promotion.

Promotion is not yelling at your social media friends. It’s not bookstore visits, blog tours or signings. It’s not even incessantly buying ads. There are only a couple of sites that are effective anyway.

Promotion is:

  • A good self-hosted website that you use as platform for:
  • Your mailing list signup form
  • Listing all your books and places where people can buy them
  • Write an engaging series of a couple of books
  • Make the first one free, and link to your mailing list signup in the front and back of the book
  • Now advertise the hell out of your free book.

A good dose of patience is also required. And writing a couple of books per year.

The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing

Copied from a post I made at the Kindleboards. Posted here to give it a more permanent home.

I started self-publishing in 2011 by putting up some short stories from trade pub where the rights had reverted back to me. For at least the first year and a half, I published a lot of what we shall call “random crap”, most of which is still online in one way or another, but I knew squat about series and branding and all that stuff. I didn’t really understand any of that until late 2013-ish, when I started making a decent effort towards completing and branding series.

I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, everything under one name. I have no pen names to speak of, or at least none that I’m doing anything with. That may change, but I find it annoying to have to double up on everything.

On Amazon US, my books usually hang out between 50k and 300k. I’ve never had a book in the top 1000 on Amazon US (I have in the UK and other countries. France!). I’ve never had anything that you can remotely classify as a bestseller. But I have been #1 in Fantasy at Kobo, does that count? 😛

I sell on all platforms and am direct where I can. My Amazon sales have varied from 5-50% of my total sales. Yes, you read that right, 5%. It was in the Kobo heydays when 80% of my income was from Kobo. I have no true dud platforms. I sell at least a few hundred dollars worth on each of: B&N, Apple, Google Play and Kobo. My current income is 3-5k per month and has doubled every year.

Enough about me.

For the purpose of the plan I’m going to make some assumptions:

  • That you can produce four books a year, or an average of 1000 words of edited fiction per day, averaged over the year. Not write 1000 words of fiction, but add 1000 words of completed manuscript every day, for 365 days a year average.
  • That you are willing to work pretty damn hard
  • That you have done the nitty-gritty about learning to plot, write and sustain interesting stories.
  • That you write in a genre that both holds your passion and that is reasonably popular.
  • That you are willing to edit you ebooks properly and give them decent, genre-appropriate covers, and pay for this if necessary.

A small word on the last point. I am not one of the “OMG, you must absolutely have this done by someone who charges for it!” crowd. It *is* possible to self-edit to an acceptable standard. It is possible that you have the skills to make covers that sell (my overall best-selling books still have covers I made). It’s totally possible to format your own books.

But. Big but.

All of it costs time. Is it the best use of your time to force yourself to read your manuscript backwards in order to find those last few typos? At some point, the answer becomes a solid: I don’t think so.

You need to write four novels a year after all.

If you have trouble reaching the four novels a year goal even without distractions, you need to write more. I know it sounds like the ol’ squeaky wheel, but it’s true. Write more = more skill, both in writing style and in plotting a story. And finishing the book without getting side-tracked, starting over ten times or writing meandering stuff that never goes anywhere (believe me, I’ve done all those things).

TL;DR:

Four novels a year.
Editing, good formatting, good, genre-appropriate cover.

OK, here goes the plan.

Part 1: the product.

  1. Write a series of three books in a genre you like. It’s best if the books are full-length 70-80k at least. There are people who can get away with novellas, but selling well gets harder the shorter your books are. Unless, maybe, your genre is erotica or romance. Maybe. Just make the books full-length, OK? It makes life so much easier (insert whisper that sounds like Bookbub).
  2. Make the first book free.
  3. Play around a bit with advertising if you feel so inclined (I mean–why the hell not?), but don’t worry about stuff that takes you away from writing too much.
  4. Make sure you have the following in all your books: a link to your mailing list signup form, and, at the end, a live link to the next book in the series.
  5. When you finish the series, or even while you’re writing it, start a next series. Make it a slightly different subgenre, or use a different setting and characters. Make sure that people don’t need to have read the other series in order to follow it. Write three books. Make the first book free.
  6. Repeat 5. Twice, if you can. Three years @ 4 novels a year = 12 books = 4 trilogies.
  7. Advertise your freebies, but don’t fall down any rabbit holes that take you away from writing for major chunks of time (insert snort that sounds like Facebook advertising).

Part 2: the marketing.

  1. After a while, your mailing list will start to build up a bit (see point 4 above). Get a paid account at Mailchimp or wherever you are. If you are not at a list provider that allows automation and segmentation, and most importantly, automation *based on* automatic segmentation, move your list. Yes. Mailchimp and Aweber & co are not the cheapest. The cheapest providers suck for the purpose I’m going to show you here.
  2. Set up mailing automation. When people join your list, send them an email with the freebies, even tough they’re already free. Don’t email the freebies to them, but include download links in the email. Then booby-trap those links so that you can track who downloads what. You’ll be using this later.
  3. Next, send your subscribers to an automated program that sends them something at regular intervals (Amazon genre newsletters arrive every two weeks, that’s good enough for me). What do you write about? About you, about your fiction, free short stories, you ask them questions, tell them about tidbits of research you’ve done, or places you travelled for your writing. Tell them about box sets you’re in, and even plug your friends with similar books. Anything. Boobytrap any links to your books so your mailchimp/Aweber/whatever account knows who clicked what.
  4. Siphon people who clicked all the links to series 1 (and downloaded the freebie!) off to a side list, and say three months later send them an email saying: hey, this is book 2 in the series. Do this will all books 2 in all your series.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4. Create new emails, use the links and who clicks them to segment your list and send them further information based on who clicked what.
  6. Presto! You have now created your own marketing machine that crawls like a giant slug over your subscriber list.

Part 3: your tasks.

It’s now really clear what you need to do:

A. Keep writing new books that people want to read, continuing your most popular series, starting new series maybe (make book 1 free again). Add new emails about those books to your mailing sequence.
B. Keep feeding people into your giant mailing slug.

Doing A is pretty simple. Stop series that sell the worst and continue the ones that sell the best. Start new series.

Do, however *finish* each series, don’t abandon it. Series planning should include having several rest points where most plot threads are resolved and where you can walk away from it for a while or forever. Also, don’t unpublish the books. And don’t stop advertising book 1 (see below).

How do you do B?

Easy:
You advertise. Any old way will do. Bookbub is pretty good for getting new people on your mailing list. So are cross-promos. The more freebies you fling into the world, the more people will sign up. ENT is pretty good as well.
Put your mailing list signup everywhere on your web page and then drive people there using interesting blog posts, and linking your blog to Facebook and Twitter.
Advertise your list directly. This does not need to remain limited to Facebook. Be creative.

There you go. That’s the plan. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme (that’s where the “three year” bit comes in). In fact, it sounds an awful lot like hard work.

No bestsellers required. I would love it if one day I published something that went into the top 1000 at Amazon and stayed there for months, but the thing is, that’s a dream. I can try for it (I will with the planned launch of my next series), but it may fall flat on its face. I’ve seen that happen often enough to know that there is no such thing as a guaranteed success.

But even if I never have a bestseller, all these steps outlined here will guarantee me a pretty darn solid and even income.

The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Should I self-publish, the 2016 edition

I’ve made two posts with the title Should I self-publish? before, a few years ago. The focus of the first post was shooting yourself in the foot with the publishing industry which, once upon a time declared you persona-non-grata if you self-published a single thing. Remember that time? Ridiculous!

The second post was about concerns of quality of self-published books, when we were all having “oceans of crap” conniptions and we wanted to stop the great unwashed putting up crap. You know what? Crap got published, a lot of it. We didn’t all drown in a vast sea of word-vomit.

Yes, you should be concerned about the quality of your book if you self-publish. But be concerned about the quality of books that other people publish? Nup. You have better things to do.

OK, so since this post is not going to be about those things, then what is it going to be about?

It’s about career choices.

It is about: if you want to have a shot at achieving an aim, should you self-publish?

First: define the aim.

What do you want to do achieve with your writing?

Let’s walk through a few scenarios that will hopefully make the choices and opportunities clearer.

1. Do you want to win awards?

The literary and award circuit relies heavily on a peer review network, even if this is not immediately obvious. Voters for voted awards are predominantly other writers. Judges in judged awards are often writers, too. Behind the scenes, everyone knows one another. Nor in a bad way, but simply because the scene is small.
It is incredibly difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to get into this circuit if your works have not been peer reviewed (as in: selected by an editor, who is also part of the network).
If winning awards is your game, don’t self-publish.

2. Do you want to see your book in a bookshop?

Often I see questions from people who have self-published who dream of seeing their name on bookshelves for the world to purchase.
I have my book on some very pretty worldwide bookshelves. They’re called Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google Play and Barnes & Noble. You can even buy a print book at some of these places, delivered directly to your door.
Oh, you mean real bookshops?

It’s not impossible. A number of years ago, before ebooks, I published a non-fiction book. It pitched it to publishers, but they all said no* and I thought screw it, I know where the market is, I’ll do it myself. So I did. I had the book printed in full colour in Hong Kong, and then manually wrote to 800 Australian bookshops. Sold a buttload of copies. My book is in something like 64 public libraries in Australia, and most university libraries.
Sounds like a lot of work? You bet it was! I was lucky because I wrote non-fiction in a niche subject where there were no other books. If you write fiction, bookshops have many other, similar books than they can stock and that are much easier and less risky for them to keep on their shelves. They have accounts with books distributors who give them at least 40% discount, and have this awful thing called a returns policy that allows the shop to return the book if it doesn’t sell within 30 days.

Schlepping physical books to bookshops is soooo 2001. Returns and accounts are an absolute pain in the butt. They might be interested if you’re an authority on a non-fiction subject, but they probably don’t want your self-published fiction unless you’re a friend or a local.
We have ebooks now. They cost nothing to send and nothing to print. Self-publishing means overwhelmingly selling ebooks.

Want print books on bookshelves? Find a publisher to handle all this crap for you. They have the inroads, they have the reps, they have the computer setup.

3. Do you see writing as a fun hobby?

One assumption embedded in this question is that you have sufficient income and have no necessity or great wish to make money from your writing.
You are totally free to submit to publishers to see if you can crack the door, or to self-publish and become part of the community.

Most likely, you will have a day job so not much time to devote to writing and publishing-related things. This will limit your sales, especially on the self-publishing side.
But, you know, you can publish a book and see what happens, or at least allow all your friends to get a copy.

4. Do you eventually want to pay some or all of your bills?

This article made some waves when it came out. Shock, horror! Authors don’t make a liveable wage! There was also this article for Australian authors, with even worse figures of only $12,000 per year. Both articles are about traditionally published authors only.

Author Earnings is attempting to fill in some of the strange omissions made by people who report on the publishing industry. About 30% of ebooks on Amazon don’t have ISBNs and get omitted from the publisher reports. The ISBN-less books are almost exclusively self-published. In one of the latest Author Earnings reports, they estimated the income of bestselling authors of all types on Amazon, without having to rely on self-reporting by those authors.

OK, this is about authors who already sell well. What about if you’re just starting?

This is a balanced view of your choices

I quote from the Huffington Post article:

7. Believing that “traditional” is better, no matter what.

This mindset will limit your publishing opportunities. I’ve seen authors languish for years (literally) in the space of trying to find an agent or waiting for an agent to secure a publishing deal. Traditional publishing is also suffering in two distinct ways: the barriers to entry are so high that it’s alienating its base; and it’s so focused on author platform and “big books” that it’s losing relevance fast. Many more authors than ever before are opting out of traditional publishing for more control and better profit margins on their sales. It’s cool to aspire to traditionally publish, but if you’re not getting bites, don’t let your book die on the shelf just because you harbor some sort of judgment about alternative publishing paths.

If it is your goal to make money from your writing, do you have the years and years it takes for a publisher to come to the table… to then be given a $3-5000 advance (or no advance at all)… that may or may not earn out… that may or may not be paid on time. And if, after a period of a few months, the publisher didn’t like your sales and stops promoting your book, do you have the years it takes to get your rights back?

Even if you get 70% of a sale of a self-published ebook and 25% less agent costs from a publisher?

An advance of $5000 is rare these days (well, in SF/F at least). It’s more like $3000. When I sell a self-published ebook at $3.99, I get about $2.50. If, instead of sending it to agents, I hire an editor and self-publish, I can have it available within weeks. If the book earns $100 per month, I need to sell for 30 months to earn out. Oh, add $1000 for cover, editing and formatting, so 40 months. If you submit to the traditional industry, you wait 6 months to find representation, and your agent waits six months to get the go-ahead from the publisher, and they take a year to publish it, after which it doesn’t do much and you take 5 years to get your rights back. That’s more than 80 months.

There is also the publisher-saturation issue. Publishers have many authors, which means that for each individual author, they will only buy a limited number of books per year or even ever. If you can write four or six books per year (and saying you want a $5000 advance for each, this is what you’ll need to earn anywhere near a liveable income–and yes I’m assuming a worst-case scenario that this is all the books will earn, which may be true a lot more often than it isn’t), you’re going to run out of publishers who want to publish your books pretty darn fast, especially if you were daft enough to sign non-compete clauses and right-of-first-refusal clauses.

There are not enough publishers to sell 4-6 books a year (in SF/F at least) who will pay you a $5000 advance and will not ask you to sign stupid exclusivity clauses. Which means you’re banking on your books to earn out. As much as we’d all love to believe we sell awesome bestsellers, the reality is that it ain’t gonna happen for most books, and you really don’t know whether your books will or won’t until you’re a few years down the track. You can’t pay your bills with hope and crossed fingers.

Want to pay your bills? Self-publish, or a least start off self-publishing. If it is still your wish to find a publisher, you are in a much stronger position if you can offer them just one of your series, and you know that your work sells, and you have your own mailing list.

But. And there is a big but.

How do you get your book to sell at least $100 per month? (actually, once it starts selling, it will probably sell a lot more).

Point one: product. A single book rarely sells. A series has a much better chance, and then only if you promote book 1. But it’s even better if you have more series.

Self-publishing = high production schedule.

Point two: marketing.

If you self-publish, you’re the front and back end of the business.

You need to have the interest in learning marketing. There are a lot of places on the web where you can do this either as paid course or for free by just being a fly on the wall. There are sites and courses that are geared towards selling fiction.

You HAVE to devote time to this.

Most books don’t sell themselves, at least not initially, and I seriously pity people whose first book takes off like there’s no tomorrow and have no idea why, have no idea how to capture those readers and hold their interest after they finished the book. Because when, inevitably, the time comes that the book stop selling, and you don’t know how to run Facebook ads without blowing your budget, you have no idea where to advertise, you don’t have a mailing list, you haven’t capitalised on ANY of the attention you got while your book was out in the sun and receiving algorithm love from the big retailer websites, then when your book stops selling, you’re up the creek without a paddle and it’s a very long, muddy and humbling slog back down.

You HAVE to learn how to do this stuff, not to make your book a great bestseller, but to determine what works for you and where you can reach your audience so that you can keep steady sales going.

If you produce books at a decent rate in series, and if you are happy to learn the best marketing practices and implement them, then the world really is your oyster.

If not, you can still self-publish, have fun and wait for lightning to strike while you treat writing as a hobby. Or you can find a publisher.

* Ironically, one of those publishers wrote to me last month, asking if I wanted to write the book I originally pitched to them. I told them no, they were about ten years too late.

Should I self-publish, the 2016 edition was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

The “I made it” syndrome

One aspect of self-publishing that not many people mention as disadvantage is that you are largely unsheltered from the highly erratic nature of the market.

Another aspect is that many people don’t like “marketing” and wish to stop doing it as soon as they can.

Enter the “I made it” syndrome.

It looks like this:

After X number of months (or, for that matter, years) a writer achieves a level of sales that corresponds with that writer’s ideal of earnings.

Bingo! The writer has made it. For now on, sales will take care of themselves. The writer can relax and stop the annoying marketing and pull out of advertising.

Yeah–right. Remember the first line of this post?

Here are a few further truths about ebook sales:

1. The “floor” number of sales is zero. Seriously. The fact that your book has sold X number of copies last month means squat for this month’s sales.
2. You may get a sales boost from publicity events like a blog tour or a review, but this doesn’t last, especially if not followed up with new releases or further low-key involvement from your part.

Unless you start selling thousands of copies a month (and probably even then), your direct involvement will make a difference to sales. You need to maintain and herd your books. I don’t mean market them to death. I mean maintain their pages at various sales platforms, garner reviews, register with new opportunities as they open up, take part in relevant communities and make use of all the free listings you can get. You need to be on the ball.

A few good months mean nothing and is no incentive for you to count on the money, to assume that sales will always rise, or give up your dayjob. Ebook selling is a game of cliffs. Sometimes we go up, sometimes we fall down.

Self-publishing successfully, seven further thoughts


Publishers are only evil gatekeepers that stop people from recognising your genius? Think again! Publishers have huge marketing networks and have accumulated much experience about what works in terms of selling books. Quit blaming them for all your ills and watch what they do and how they do it, and how long it takes them to do it.


One of my most popular writing posts is Ten Home Truths About Starting out in Self-Publishing which I wrote a few months ago. In it, I outlined in a nutshell my feelings about the average self-publishing no-name author. It’s awesome to see all those points agreed with and elaborated on by Mark Croker from Smashwords in his free guide The secrets to Ebook Publishing Success

Awesome.

But, OK, you’ve self-published. What next? Here are a few more observations.

1. Experiment with your books’ listings
Use some of your earnings to design a more striking cover. Try a different sales blurb. Ask random people for their opinion. Do they find the cover attractive? What genre do they associate with the image?

Make sure you fill out all fields relevant to your book in Amazon’s Author Central page. Change the categories your book is listed in from generic to more specific. Prepare some books for a print version.

2. Giving away books helps sales
This one sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. Don’t be stingy or demanding about copies you give away for the purpose of getting the book reviewed. Many people won’t get around to reading or reviewing. Get over it. Give away some more books. Saddest thing I ever heard a self-published author say: “Let’s face it, your friends and family will be the only ones to buy your book.” No. Your friends and family should get the book for free. At this point in the game, the word is generosity. Getting your stuff read. Give lots of freebies. This month, I’ve given away over six thousand copies of various pieces of fiction.

3. Don’t sweat the numbers
Especially if those numbers are Amazon sales rankings. Who cares? Who of you intended audience browse by popularity anyway? Most will browse by genre and author name.

4. Don’t talk back to reviewers
Even if they are clearly wrong or show no sign of even having read your book. It just make you look like an arse. Online bookselling sites are the domain of readers, not writers. Don’t be creepy and look over the reviewers’ shoulders. Browsing people can see that some reviews make no sense. Trust their intelligence. I don’t remember who said If you fight with a troll, you both get dirty, only the troll likes it

5. Work to make your name memorable in a good way
Love your work, be proud of it, and develop it as best as you can. Be interesting. Don’t spam people with Buy-my-book messages. Your Twitter and Facebook followers know who you are. There’s no point in spamming them.

6. Write more fiction
So that the people who have liked your freebie can buy it.

7. Start over with point 1
Selling fiction takes a long time, but put yourself in the best position for when an opportunity comes along.

Selling fiction–anywhere, self-published or traditional–is like bashing your head against a wall. You will see cracks every now and then, but few of the bricks ever fall out. “Will this book sell?” is the eternal question, even if you have had fiction successfully published with large publishers.

The marketing gurus are all wrong

Every day, we’re bombarded with messages: Market your book! Use Twitter to increase sales! And a never-ending stream of tips,do-s and don’t-s, which go from plain common sense to very strange indeed. Apparently, according to one site, you are not supposed to have dates on your posts. Apart from the fact that I can’t delete mine, I have no idea how this is going to help you. Sure, a reader won’t be able to see if he or she is visiting an older post, but then again, if they can see it’s an older post, they may just as well be tempted to look at newer posts… wait… I think I’ve spotted the problem.

*sigh*

Sorry, but if you have to resort to such strange things in order to get people visiting your blog, there must be some other problem.

As far as I know:
– People detest being marketed at
– That doesn’t mean that you should never do it
– As long as you do other stuff as well
– If the big publishers haven’t been able to figure out why a book suddenly takes off, what chance does anyone else have?
– In other words: NOBODY KNOWS!

I heard interesting discussions on the subject of sales, or not, between self-publishers. Some people are convinced there are seasonal patterns. Other people mentioned how they’d been sick or otherwise away from the marketing effort, and had suddenly gotten a lot more sales.

Some anecdotal truths:
Most people report better sales the longer a book has been available. It seems a book needs to be available for at least six months before any kind of word-of-mouth is happening.
Most people report better sales as a result of having more items available.
Most people can’t pinpoint sales to any activity.

I want to offer a one-word analogy: mushrooms.

As some of you may know, I also sell books on natural history. This includes guides on identifying fungi. You know, toadstools. Mushrooms. Seeing as it’s autumn and the weather is cooling down, these things are making their mushroomy appearances all over our lawn. In fact, some were already doing that a few months ago. The mushrooming is likely to continue for the next few months. In the nature strip in the next street, there is a mushroom that is so incredibly hideous, it looks like someone has left a baseball glove on the grass (about that size, too). Some years it’s there, some years it isn’t. Some years it’s late, some years it’s early. But one thing is for sure: at some time during the colder months of the year, there will be a day or two that everyone is buying mushroom books. It’s like everyone is saying to each other ‘hey, let’s get a guide to identify fungi’. There is no pattern other than that it usually happens in the cooler months. That is what sales are like.

Like mushrooms: you can keep the soil moist, but no one can predict when and where they’ll appear.

How do you decide what to read?

This is the flipside of book marketing. If you understand why people read what they read, then you have a better handle on where and how to market.

For me, it looks somewhat like this:

I buy my first book by a particular author book because I have heard of the author, and I’ve heard that he/she writes what I enjoy, and I’ve heard that other people have enjoyed this author’s books. This ‘hearing’ of an author happens informally, usually in cyberspace. The author might be part of a forum, the author might write an interesting blog or I might have attended panels by the author at a con, or other such interactions.

I rarely (almost never) pay attention to reviews (don’t read them). I target the books I buy, regardless of the book’s ranking on Amazon or elsewhere.

What about you?

it’s only useless banter

Facebook, blogs, Twitter, it’s all a load of useless banter that keeps me from writing.

Or is it?

Let’s take a step further back:

Marketing yourself as author.

I think far too many people assume that marketing is a nebulous thing that gets done by the publisher after you’ve published a novel. After all, they’ve got the budget, the flyers, the posters, the connections with review sites and publications. Do you know it costs to get a review in a publication as lowly as your local free newsrag? That’s right, the one with all the ads? Who reads this anyway? How many copies does that stiff and formal type of advertising sell? To make the question a bit more personal: have you ever bought something based solely on an ad in a formal publication?

Ahem. Insert resounding silence.

So how do you decide what books to buy? In my case, it’s because I’ve heard someone talk about the book in one of my networks. Sometimes I’m familiar with the author. Very often, the author is on my f-list, or I’m a member of their site, or something similar.

I largely buy books from authors who are out there themselves marketing their own books, even if only by offering ‘useless banter’ on a blog. I am allergic to formal, publisher-vetted-and-sanctioned promo-blurb blog entries. I can smell a commercial a mile off, and will run, but I love connecting with authors and reading about their writing, their dogs (or ferrets), their kids and their bird-watching habits. If I’ve seen the development of a book blogged, I am likely to be interested in reading it, because the author’s blog entries have made it real to me.

But how does that work for a new, relatively-unpublished writer?

Well, large networks do not pop out of the ground like mushrooms. You have to work on them. You have to keep posting content that engages people. When it does, more people will come, but none of this happens quickly. Today’s unpublished authors are tomorrow’s stars. Today’s agent-assistants are tomorrow’s hotshot agents. Today’s small press is tomorrow’s hottest-thing-of-the-year. The cohort of writers with whom you are going through the learning process will contain a few people who will make it big in one way or another. I can guarantee that there will be people who decide to start a small press voracious for new writers, who will be more inclined to give your work a break because they already know you. There will also be people who become editors. These contacts are extremely useful, but you must keep cultivating them, because you don’t yet know who these people are going to be.

And all the rest of your hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ and your Twitter followers? Well, they’re your potential readership. Entertain them, and they will follow. If you’re on the cusp of a publishing deal, and you can offer the potential publisher a ‘friends’ list with two thousand members, they may well be more inclined to sign on the dotted line.

So… useless banter? Not in the slightest.