All self-published writers know that the hardest part of the whole process is not the writing, which is creative and challenging and satisfying. The bit we struggle with is getting our books into the hands of readers, and having those readers pay a price commensurate with the effort and energy that’s gone in to the book.
Obviously, much will depend on the mode of publication you choose. With an ebook there’s no physical product, but readers still have to know where to find your book, and choose it over the masses of others that are available, especially in the crowded market of genre-fiction. Some ebook authors use price as the come-on, but that quickly turns into a race to the bottom and the pressure to charge a derisory amount or nothing at all.
If you choose, as I did, to create a physical book as well as an ebook, there are more routes to sales, but most of them still fundamentally depend on ‘visibility’. I advertise my books on my website and on all the flyers and bookmarks I have printed. I also get orders through Amazon, and through the major book distributors such as Gardners Books in Eastbourne. In Cumbria, where I live and the books are set, distribution is handled by Hills Books of Workington, which supplies almost all Cumbrian bookshops and other outlets, but beyond this region getting my books onto bookshop shelves is almost impossible. Readers can order them of course, and do so, but the supply chain is long with discounts at every stage.
The bookshop contacts their wholesaler, who contacts me, who posts off the requested amount, which then goes back to the wholesaler, then to the bookshop, and finally into the hands of the reader. With postal charges rising all the time, any supply chain that relies on the self-published author fulfilling such orders by post means precious little profit.
An efficient and profitable selling route for me is via my website direct to the reader, using Paypal for payment. I could invest in a card reader, but that in turn relies on a good mobile signal which can never be assumed either in my home or when I’m out on the road meeting potential readers. Maybe it’s something I need to investigate again.
The main problem is the very slow traffic to my website and how to increase the website’s ‘attractiveness’, a task so far from my original passion for writing that I constantly put it off. Everything I know about the internet and how to use it I’ve had to learn in the last twenty years, and much of it still frustrates me. I have a Twitter account with over a thousand followers, but won’t play some of the games that seem to required to grow that number. I use FB too, but am wary of it and share only with a limited number of people already known to me. The key issue may be that the generation that reads and loves my books is, like me, a pre-internet generation. Why else would people sometimes tell me that my books are ‘hard to find’ when a ten second online search using just my name would give them all the information they need?
Why do they go to a bookshop and order, when they could go straight to my website and its online ‘bookshop’ in half the time? Of course I’m keen to preserve local bookshops, but I wish more of them would stock good self-published books like mine.
Fortunately, I really enjoy doing presentations about my books to groups large and small, meeting readers and potential readers. Almost all of these are in Cumbria, but that’s where my books are already known. Without a publisher or an agent, it’s well-nigh unheard-of to be asked to present self-published work at any of the major events and book festivals, unless you’re very well-connected, which I am not. For me, an added frustration is that after thirty years as a professional presenter I know I could do as good a job as most of the authors I hear talking about their work, and better than some. Even with a restricted field for selling, however, direct sales account for a major part of my sales every year, and the most profitable.
Of course I’m contacted regularly by people offering to improve my website’s effectiveness, at a price. Is it worth it, in terms of time as well as cost? Life’s too short to spend too much time on things I really don’t enjoy. My problem is patience: I couldn’t be bothered trying to find an agent after the first few generic rejections. Nor, I fear, can I be bothered to spend precious hours growing my website traffic when I could be crafting another story. So, I’m a bit stuck. My books sell, but not as well as they should!
I’m trying to keep my ideas open and fluid around the issue of future writing. At the end of the last post I wondered whether I could sell copies of my backlist books if I didn’t have a new book to add to the list. Now my conversations with myself, and with others in the writing business, are revolving around whether readers will stay loyal if a new book doesn’t appear for a couple of years.
Whatever I do in the future, I need to get off the treadmill that this focus on the next book has become. Having been divorced and self-employed for most of my adult life, I respond badly to pressure from external obligations – which is not the same as avoiding responsibility. Responsibility is fine, so long as its a choice, not an expectation.
The unsurprising conclusion is that my motivation is almost entirely intrinsic, not extrinsic: clearly I need to write because I want to, not because I have to.
So, is all this incompatible with life as a self-published author? If I take my time to decide what to do next, will it matter if a new books appears in two years rather than one? If I want to play around with genre, regardless of whether the outcome will sell well, does that matter? I wrote ‘Burning Secrets’ with an eye on a continuing crime-fiction series, but my current thoughts are veering away from that towards something more character-driven and less concerned with police procedures.
Above all, I’m asking myself whether my books sell – which they do – because of the genre, or because they have my name on the cover? Without any real marketing, and with no budget for promotions or advertising, sales are slow but keep going, and readers who pick up one book usually come back for more.
If there isn’t a new ‘Ruth Sutton’ book next year, of course readers won’t just wait, twiddling their thumbs. Of course they’ll migrate to other authors. But readership isn’t a ‘zero-sum’ game. If existing readers are looking elsewhere for books, that doesn’t mean they’ll forget about mine, and when a new book appears, with a modicum of publicity, they’ll be interested. New readers may need more persuasion, but the backlist is there, waiting for their interest to be piqued, and curiosity about what else I’ve written might well overcome the unfamiliarity of a different genre. Genre boundaries are so artificial anyway.
So another option opens up for me. Delay the decision about whether to write again. Turn away for a while, do other things, scratch the itch. If something really attractive begins to bubble in the writing brain, follow that lead, but don’t force it. Don’t be bound by past decisions about genre. You can’t force inspiration into being, it has to be allowed to develop, even it that takes a bit of time.
There, I’ve convinced myself that’s it’s OK to wait. Let’s see if I feel the same after the week’s writing course I’m starting on Monday.
After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.
Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.
After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.
The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.
Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.
Last year I heard about Unbound publishing for the first time. At first it sounded like a scam, reminding me of when someone I know went to work for an insurance company and pestered all her friends relentlessly to buy a policy so she got the commission. Crowd-funding a book? I couldn’t understand why someone would pay money for an unfinished product and get nothing in return.
Recently, I’ve learned more about Unbound, and the picture is getting clearer. Firstly, Unbound have to be convinced about the quality of an author’s writing: it’s not in their interests to be promoting and publishing poor books. Secondly, people don’t just send money, they ‘pledge’ an amount of their choosing, depending on the ‘level’ of return they want. They can pledge for an ebook, or a special edition hard back, possibly with their name in it as a ‘subscriber’, or even an invitation to the launch party It’s the way commercial publishing was managed in its infancy, more like a ‘pre-order’ process with bells and whistles. If the necessary level of funding isn’t reached, subscribers can ask for their money to be returned, or transferred to another ‘project’. While the writing is in process the author will keep subscribers in touch with how they’re going, probably through a blog like this one – ‘writing about writing’.
So much for the subscribers’ reward, what does the author get out of it? For a start, they get 50% royalties, which is a vastly better deal than the norm, and could be seen as payment for the effort the author undoubtedly will put into the raising of the initial money. They get more of a partnership with the publishers, and a really well-produced edition of their work which their readers will look forward and value. They also get – as far as I understand – a ‘trade’ edition of the book, published in paperback some months after the hardback, and distributed through Penguin Random House. Yes, Penguin Random House – doesn’t get much bigger than that.
There’s the upside. What’s the downside? Well, if you want to go down this road as an author you’ve got to be happy to promote the funding campaign by any and all means short of pestering and alienating your friends. You do the video explaining your writing life and your hopes for the new book, you talk to people directly and through social media, you invite people to feel part of the project you are undertaking. If this sounds tacky, or scary, or beneath your dignity, then don’t sign up for crowd-funding.
You may have gathered that I’m interested in Unbound. If I get the chance to work with them, I’ll take it. It’s not for everyone, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. It would also give me the chance to reach a much wider readership than I have been able to reach so far, without sacrificing my hard-won self-publishing independence. I would relish the sense of involvement and partnership and appreciate the help with the technical aspects of book production. Wouldn’t you?
I wrote a good post this afternoon, illustrated with the cover of my new book, ‘Fatal Reckoning’ – due out end of November.
The post was full of wise words about the need for visual images, that I learned in a workshop on blogging at the Killer Women event in London. I edited my new post carefully, previewed, then hit ‘Publish’, and it disappeared. Part of the now invisible post referred to my technical inadequacies – ‘quod est demonstrandum’.
So I’m having to do it again. How embarrassing. But I’ve managed to insert the images, which is something. The Killer Women event was really good, by the way. Check their website. More next week when I’ve recovered from the frustrations involved in putting this together.
Last week someone whose name I’ve already forgotten wrote a piece about all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly self-publish her ‘literary’ fiction. I read it expecting to find the usual catalogue of poor information and ill-disguised intellectual snobbery, and there it all was, again. Not sure why anyone gave the piece an airing, except that they probably knew it would cause a stir, and here I am responding to it like a fish to bait.
Whenever I read or hear these well-worn points I wonder who the writer has been talking to. It’s obviously someone who doesn’t care much about the quality of their writing, can’t be bothered with a proper editor, goes straight to ebook and spends much energy manipulating the publication figures to make their stuff appear to be a best-seller. Granted, living as I do in beautiful West Cumbria, I don’t know many writers, but I don’t recognise this person at all.
Here’s an alternative view of self-publishing, from my own experience.
My naive expectation that any agent would be interested in the early draft of my first novel was quickly dispelled. I could have spent more time trying repeatedly to find an agent – far more time incidentally than I have ever spent on promoting my books – but preferred to write the novel rather than begging letters. I’ve never had much patience, and like to manage my own affairs, and both of those propelled me towards self-publishing, along with a little money to invest with which to ‘back myself’ as my accountant put it. ‘If you cover your costs,’ he said, ‘you’ve succeeded.’
From the very start I wanted to produce a book to the highest standard I could manage. It had to be the best writing I was capable of at the time, well-edited, well-designed and look good on the shelf. This would be my legacy and I had to feel happy about it. Self-respect matters in self-publishing.
Among my oldest friends are two people who edit and design books, mostly non-fiction, but I trust and respect them for their passion and their skills. We have worked closely together on each of the four novels I have written so far, with the fifth due out in November 2016. After the first one took three years to write, it’s been one book each year, and hard work. Most of that time is spent on research and planning, the writing and editing will take around five months, and I’ll fit any promotion activities around the core business. All the books are on Kindle, and in paperback. My sales come from local shops, a Cumbria-based distributor, the usual national distributors, Amazon and my website as well as ebooks, which tick along at about 30 each month with very little push from me. Last year I also made over £2000 selling direct to people I met while doing talks to groups around Cumbria, almost all of which were in the evenings when I wouldn’t be writing, and were also very enjoyable. I’m on Twitter and half-heartedly on FB, have my own website and write a weekly blog post. My limited social media activity is mainly about keeping up with family news and promoting my beloved Cumbria.
Each book costs about £5000 to produce and print, and various running costs include a small amount for storage and help with fulfilling orders and keeping track of the finances, neither of which I want to do myself. It’s hard to quantify precisely, but I just about break even. The first book ‘A Good Liar’ has already been reprinted, and the second is down to the last few dozen copies and will be re-printed shortly, with a new cover incidentally as I’m not convinced about my original choice. Reprinting is much cheaper than the first run, while the selling price remains the same. ‘You do the math’. Each new book stimulates sales of the previous ones and increases my ‘shelf-presence’ as an author. I make all my own decisions about the content and production of my novels: they may not be the best choices in commercial terms but they are consistent with my own values and notion of quality, and I’m happy about that.
Do I make much money? No. Do I feel proud of what I’m doing, after a life-time of longing to write fiction? Yes. Do I recognise the self-publishing writer portrayed in the post I read last week. No. That’s not me.