Self-Publishing & Marketing

Every time I return to this essay I have a little more to say on self-publishing. Now I'm coming to it after embarking on a self-publishing experiment myself.

In previous chapters, I suggested you consider self-publishing as an option only in certain circumstances: where you want to keep the majority of the profit from your sales, while realizing you'll have to drive all those sales yourself through your own marketing. As a platform for any promotions campaign, I arbitrarily made a minimum cutoff of 500 hits a month to your FictionPress stories, or 5,000 unique all-time visitors (depending, of course, on how long you've been on FictionPress, this can be a lot or a relatively moderate amount). However, I have noticed from my own stats that the number of people viewing you profile is nowhere near the number of people viewing your stories, and profile hits are the ones you can use to promote your outside publications. And then, of course, you'll want to attract readers from beyond Fictionpress.

So, say you've decided to self-publish. How do you find those readers and bring them to your book?

It helps if you're working in a genre for which there's already a large market: romance, thrillers, epic fantasy. A series is a great bet for a self-published author, because once you hook an audience you can keep them coming back for second, third, seventh helpings. Getting to set your own price pays off when you offer the first book in the series for free and, once you hook your readership, sell them the sequels and spin-offs and entertain them with behind-the-scenes snippets and factoids on your blog. A series can be both a cash cow and a life partner like that. Or, if like me your mind hops between many different stories, that works too: more publications means readers are more likely to happen upon you.

When it comes to self-publishing nonfiction, you have to be sure to establish credibility in your field. Otherwise your theory about the UFOs visiting from the Pleiades Cluster begins to look like some random nutter on the Internet, you know? Good sellers in nonfiction include self-help and how-to type books. My own experiment with self-publishing is a how-to guide focusing on, fittingly enough, how to get your stories and writing published and promoted. It was inspired in part by the great success of this essay, and I wanted to reach a larger audience because there are still a lot of talented writers who want to use their gift professionally, but don't know where to go! So consider that: what is something you know that the people around you always want to know more about, for which people go to you as an expert?

Remember my warning in the previous chapters, and please don't vanity publish your self-help book; there's a terrible irony in that. And it will definitely not help you find readers.

The major warning sign that you're with a vanity publisher is that you aren't able to set the price of your own book. Naming your own price is one of the major perks of self-publishing (and another is being able to keep most of what you just named). And a Google Search or visit to Absolute Write forum's Bewares and Background Checks section will save you a lot of grief. Before deciding on any printer or publisher, look up some of the books they've released. Do you like the design? Are the reviews pretty good—or at the least nobody's saying the books are filled with basic grammar and formatting errors? And does the price of the book seem fair? If the price is inflated, either the vanity publisher is trying to trick money out of the gullible or dedicated, or the printer has such high upfront costs that authors have to change absurd amounts to break even. You don't want that.

Get yourself a printer and/or distributor. I've chosen to go with Smashwords for the ebook version, and Amazon's CreateSpace for print (and to get in the Kindle store, which is really easy to do simultaneously). Once you figure out its formatting, Smashwords is very upfront and easy to use, but do not expect to make a lot of sales through its site alone. Go for an expanded distribution option. CreateSpace, like Lulu, is a Print on Demand publisher so there's no inventory to worry about and no backlog of unsold hard copies as I'd get from an offset printer. The quality of books is good, although POD books do have a distinctive 'look' (particularly with their glossy, somewhat stiff covers). Given POD is increasingly used by many established writers and even publishers, this is not a mark against it.

Be sure your cover design is gorgeous and will look good when shrunk to a thumbnail on the online store. If you want print copies on brick-and-motor store shelves, be prepared to pitch your book personally to many individual bookstore managers. But given you can offer your readers both ebook and paper copy options with minimal set-up time and fees.

What sort of fees? Well, I raised over $1,000 in preorders and perks to fund distribution, formatting, and cover art. But it can be done for less depending on your goals. Expanded distribution through CreateSpace used to be $25 and is now free. Mind, CreateSpace does offer other services for more, sometimes much more. I'm skeptical about how much they are actually worth. I'm suspicious that this particular side of CreateSpace veers towards vanity publishing, taking advantage of the confusion of new authors to make they pay outrageous sums for services they don't need. They are a business out to make money, and I can respect that. But it's the healthy respect of the sort I give a dangerous, powerful horse that I'm riding. If he'll carry me far, I'll stay in the saddle. But I'm watching out for his hooves and teeth.

In my old days when I was a cheapskate I'd say "Don't pay for any services related to your writing," but I've come to accept some investments may be in order. But invest wisely, and don't pay more than you can reasonably expect to recoup. Getting a good, strong developmental edit of your novel that ensures the plot and pacing and prose are all solid may be an excellent investment. Don't skip on paying a cover artist if you choose one: art and design is difficult. Yet if you have a good, talented artist friend who is willing to do your cover art for nothing but a token fee and you bragging them up on your website and in the acknowledgements, go for that, too! You register an ISBN for your book, which means you'll be listed as the publisher rather than CreateSpace or Smashwords, for around $125 (less if you buy a block of them, which I'd encourage for a longer series or if you're going to be self-publishing a lot of books). But buying your own ISBN isn't necessary if you have to budget your money elsewhere, and I think the impact of the publisher name on the average reader is negligible. Lastly, I strongly discourage paying for publicity, because that is an area where results are hard to measure (there's little record of paid advertising moving a lot of books—mouth-to-mouth buzz, reviews, and setting a good introductory sales price are more important), and you can get plenty of publicity for free on your own. After all, you know your book best, so who else is better equipped to promote it?

Formatting may be worth outsourcing if you don't feel up to being your own codemonkey. If you do your own formatting, your particular printer or distributor should have advice and a style guide. Follow the directions exactly—CreateSpace is particularily unforgiving when it comes to margins and page sizes, which hare easily changed in the 'Page Layout' tab of Microsoft Word. Again, make your investments in according to your expectations. And what should your expectations be? Make them low. Anticipate $200 from stories less than 30,000 words, and $600 for stories more than that. I'd suggest you spend no more than $100 for formatting and pre-publication of your novella, and $300 for a novel-length work.

However, there is one way to get your earnings in order before you have to pay expenses (which is one of the chief challenges of investing in self-publishing). Thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now possible to do pre-orders of your self-published book through your author's site or, best of all, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo.

I have run $1,000+ campaigns on both. Here's what I've learned of the process so far (I also have an entire second essay analyzing the success of my publishing Kickstarter):

First off, crowdfunding is amazing as a way to pre-promote and gauge interest in your book. You can give people the option to pre-order print or ebook copies of your book through funding, and can also offer additional fun prizes, raise interest, and connect with social media. Crowdfunding lets you build your audience while also ensuring you get the most of the audience you already have.

In fact, for anyone planning to self-publish based on their following on Fictionpress, their blog, or another writing-related website, I would suggest you definitely try at least one crowdfunding campaign before you publish. You have nothing to lose and could potentially make considerable financial gains.

You'll need a clear description of your project and a compelling image (cover art if you've got it, something thematic if not) or video. Projects with videos have a higher success rate than still images, but you can get your project done with a still image if that's all you have the time, resources, or production skills for.

If you're going to attempt offset printing, I would especially encourage you to collect preorders thorough a crowdfunding campaign or any other method. And you're going to need a lot of preorders: at least 500, probably a thousand or even 1500. Aside from copies of your book, the 'perks' you can offer in exchange for your funders from the crowd can include manuscript reviews, sneak peeks at sequels or deleted scenes, bookmarks and swag, and even giving the donor the right to name a minor character or include themselves as a minor character in the story. Be creative! Have fun! Promise perks that you'll enjoy giving!

Whether you go with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo depends in part on how much you need and how much risk you can handle. If you don't raise your complete goal on Kickstarter, you won't receive any of your pledged funds. IndieGoGo offers an option for you to take whatever you can raise, minus a penalty fee. On the other hand, IndieGoGo's minimum goal is $500. You can raise less than that, but again, you have to pay the penalty fee (almost 10% of total funds, as opposed to 5% if you meet your goal). If you need less than $500, I'd go for Kickstarter. Yes, you run the risk of Kickstarter's all-or-nothing model, but if you can't absolutely guarantee meeting a goal of $200-$400, maybe you don't have enough faith in your project.

There are a few things about Kickstarter I'd warn about but also several key things that please me. First, as with all crowdfunding, remember it takes some time to disperse your funds—at least 2 weeks after the close of fundraising. And then you'll need to spend more time fulfilling all the promises you made in exchange for funding. This can be fun at times, but it's also a chore. Be sure to communicate clearly with your funders, especially if there are any delays.

As opposed to IndieGoGo, which lets you hook up any bank account (or PayPal if you have a business account), Kickstarter requires you to receive collected funds through Amazon Payments. This means setting up or updating an Amazon Payments account and was, at least for me, a major pain—I had an actual technical error that left me caught in a loop of pages telling me I'd given insufficient verification. A panicked email to tech support got me the help I needed, but if you have fragile nerves or a heart condition, be forewarned.

Once the Kickstarter campaign got up and running, though, it's gone like a dream. Granted, I'm only a few days in, but that means I've barely started my promotional efforts, and already I've raised 15% of my goal from pure drive-by traffic—people browsing Kickstarter who liked the look of my project. I hope this means my project description is appealing! Kickstarter seems more dedicated to creative projects, while IndieGoGo allows funding for a broader variety of projects including charitable causes. If you need more than $500 for your plans but still could use whatever you raise even if you don't meet your goal, try IndieGoGo. For most others, I'd try Kickstarter with as modest a goal as you can manage. Or, in a pinch, make a bet with someone to have them back you the rest of the way if you haven't made it just before your fundraising term expires.

There are some book-only crowdfunding sites, like PubSlush, but they also seem to serve as publishers for successfully funded projects. If you want to be able to pick your own publishing services, these don't look like the way to go. Instead they're hybrids of crowdfunding and either printers or, more cynically, vanity publishers. I'm really not sure of them.


So how do you promote your book—whether taking pre-orders or, most especially, once it's already published?

First, take a deep breath. Remind yourself of how awesome your book is and how your readers will love it. After all, you were driven to write this story for a reason. It has purpose and meaning and value.

Once you've convinced yourself, you're ready to go out and convince others. As you've no doubt heard, the Internet makes this easier. Make sure you have an author's website with interesting content (to be read by more than your mom!). In the sidebar and/or in a separate tab, have a list of your stories and links to read or buy them. Affiliate programs from booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will give you a small commission every time someone clicks through your links and buys something—an easy way to earn some extra money, and at no cost to your visitors who pay the usual price for everything.

Then there's social media. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pintrest, Tumblr…even Fictionpress itself. You can't do everything; there's simply too much ofit. I would pick 2-3 networks where you are most comfortable and concentrate your efforts on them. Do consider making an author page on GoodReads, LibraryThing, and Amazon (and link your blog and other appropriate sites to them). You also might want to make accounts on other social networking sites, even if you don't use them, just to make sure nobody does anything weird with your name. That's usually a problem for more famous people, but then again, we are trying to make you a bestseller here, aren't we?

The best way to promote yourself is to be yourself: offer interesting, engaging content that adds to the conversation while making people want to get to know you. As they look up your profile, they'll see links to these books that you wrote. Awesome! There's no need for spammy messages—nobody likes a spammer, and really the people you reach by being on-topic are the ones who're already interested in what you're writing about (assuming there's any link between your writing and the things you find of interest socially. If there isn't, I humbly suggest you consider forming such a link. You'll be happier and your writing will be livelier for it).

The best way to promote yourself through social media is to offer engaging, interesting content that encourages people to find out more about you. Spamming messages in the hope of people buying your book won't produce satisfactory results socially or in the way of sales. On the other hand, joining conversations not only helps promote your work but also gives you the chance to meet new people and have fun.

In fact, many techniques in the promotional toolkit are fun to use, like giveaways to drum up a buzz and creating bookmarks to hand out. They may not have the greatest practical effect—have you ever bought a book because you received a bookmark?—but from them people hear about your book and remember it. Think of bookmarks like a business card: if an interested reader wanted to follow up on your work and asked for a card, you'd want to have one to give. I've found giveaways on Goodreads do draw reader attention and a lot of people will add you to their "to-read" list, although they rarely follow up. On the bright side, most winners will review their copy, and if they like it then you have some five-star reviews to convince the "to-read" list crowd.

Reach out in your promotional plan with some lateral thinking. Who do you already know who would benefit from cross-promoting your work and theirs? At my small Midwestern college's graduation, all 540 new graduates sat down for the ceremony and found a copy of an inspirational book beneath our seats, a gift of the alumni association. Do you have friends in your alma mater's alumni association, or anywhere else's? And if you're going to link to you books, consider an affiliates program with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo or iTunes. This allows you to make some advertising revenue without being obtrusive (since you'd be linking to those books anyway).

Lastly, one of the most effective means authors report in driving sales of their books is when readers find them through reading more of their writing—books, short stories, even blog posts. So don't get so caught up in promoting one story that you forget to write the next one!

I'm practicing a little of what I preach here-offering free content online to, yes, attract your attention to my own work. Avert your gaze if you don't like advertising-because the advice I've given here is just a taste of the information I have on publishing, revising, and promoting in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers, available through a link on my profile page. The Starter Guide includes almost 50 pages just on ways to promote your book! And it's the book my successful Kickstarter campaign was centered around. So if you find the advice here helpful, and would like to see more, you may like to take a look.