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!
Regular readers might have picked up from recent posts that I’m having a bit of a crisis about my writing and whether to continue. It’s not about whether I can write: I think I can, and have published some good stuff. Readers love my books and tell me so. No, it’s not about quality, it’s about commitment.
When I decided to write my first novel, about ten years ago, I seriously underestimated how long and how difficult it would be to finish and get it published. I thought I would find a publisher – wrong. I thought it would fly off the shelves – also wrong. Getting it into print, into bookshops and into readers’ hands was all more difficult than I anticipated.
I anticipated an easier ride the second time around, so I wrote another one, then another, and so on. Now my sixth novel ‘Burning Secrets’ is out, and although the process does indeed feel a little easier, that’s mainly because I’m no longer surprised by how much time it takes.
In the years since I started writing I’ve established a loving relationship, nested happily into my new community, and retired from my education consultancy. My life is happier and more settled than it was, but now I want to make sure that I’m pursuing more of my interests, without the writing becoming the cuckoo in the nest that pushes everything else out.
I’m probably thinking too much about it, so I’ve decided to stop deliberating for a while, enjoy the summer and then come to a proper decision. To help the process, I’ve booked myself into a four day writing course in September, away from home, with unfamiliar people, to let the right choice bubble up into my mind more clearly than it’s doing now.
It’s an Arvon course, which is some guarantee of quality, although as I’ve learned before, you’re still dependent on the skills of the tutors and and the commitment of the rest of the group. I paid a lot for one Arvon course that was not well led, and distracted by group members who seemed to have come for the entertainment and late night drinking. I spent the whole time in my own room writing. My mood was reflected in what I wrote that week – the darkest passages of my first book ‘A Good Liar’.
One of the tutors in September is the author of one of my favourite books – ‘The Pike’ by Lucy Hughes Hallett. It’s non-fiction, but such a great read that I’m sure I’ll learn from her. I just hope she’s a good a tutor as she is a writer. The components of the course look useful too – plotting, narrative voice, dialogue, and more. And no doubt there’ll be discussion about publishing, promotion, and other aspects of the business of taking a book to market.
My hope is that by the end of that week my mind should have cleared, and a decision about whether to continue will have materialised out of the current fog. It could go either way.
The story so far… I tried putting one of my books on the Kindle free list. 115 copies were downloaded, and quite a few readers were reading ‘pages’ during the four days of the promotion and shortly afterwards. No way of knowing whether there will be a longer term impact on sales.
Last week I tried another of KDP’s suggested strategies, where the price gradually increases over four days – I think. Seemed complicated, but I gave it a go with another of my books and kept my eye on the ‘promotion’ results. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. Not a single download, at any of the ‘staged’ prices, and no impact on the ‘pages read’ numbers. I deliberately didn’t do a lot of Tweeting etc about the ‘promotion’ as I wanted to see whether price alone was the reason for people choosing to download.
The conclusion of these two deeply unscientific investigations is that you can guarantee a high level of interest in your ebook only if you give it away, for free. I find that pretty depressing.
In the past week I’ve experienced another form of ‘promotion’, which started small and then stepped up. Much of my readership is based in Cumbria, where all my books are set. Many of my readers are pre-digital, and the limit of their internet engagement will probably be Facebook, reading but not posting. There’s an FB page run by a a group in my local town and I use it to check dates, events, things for sale. I posted that my new book would be out on June 6th and a few details about it, and the post was shared quite widely. One of the people who saw it was obviously a local reporter looking for a story, and he rang me and asked a few more questions. The exchange took about five minutes and I thought no more about it.
The following day, this was the front page of the North West Evening Mail, based in Barrow-in-Furness and read all over South West Cumbria. There was a fuller article on an inside page, with quotes from my website and more information. It doesn’t raise my international profile, but the people who read this will get their signed paperback copy and pay the full price on the cover. Maybe thinking small and local is the way to go.
Well, I put ‘A Good Liar’ on the Kindle free ebook list last week and 115 copies were downloaded over the five days of the offer. At the same time the number of (KENP) pages being read of both ‘A Good Liar’ and ‘Forgiven’, which is the next book in the series, both went up markedly. There may or may not be a connection. This week I’ve tried another Kindle promotion strategy, putting ‘Forgiven’ into the process where the price progresses from low back to the ‘normal’ of around £4 over four days. No noticeable increase in downloads as yet, but I admit I’ve been too busy to do anything about telling anyone about the promotion. At least there’s some income from this strategy, but it doesn’t look particularly effective so far.
More news on that next week. In the meantime, I’ve sent the new book ‘Burning Secrets’ to the printers and can do no more with it until the delivery arrives on May 31st. I know I should be more proactive about promotion, but I need a break after the struggle to get all the production stages completed on time and make all the necessary decisions. And I had a big birthday party to organise and then enjoy – which I did, very much. Loads of people came from away, and it was great to have a steady flow of visitors on the following morning, so we could catch up properly.
I could have put flyers about my new book on the tables at my party, and made a little speech about it, and had a draw for a free copy, but I just didn’t want to to do that. This was an important personal occasion, and the books are about what I do, not who I am. Does that make sense?
Hitting the big 70 puts things in perspective, and running around pushing people to buy my books isn’t top of my priorities. There are many readers, especially in Cumbria, who enjoy the books and say so, and have been anticipating the new one for some time. I’ll do the usual round of meetings, talks, festivals and radio, and hope that will draw some new readers in too. The ebook and Amazon sales will be picked up by my US distributors Fahrenheit Press and its charismatic MD Chris McVeigh,who knows the book selling business far better than I do. I could do with a similar ‘champion’ here in the UK – someone who loves my work and knows how to promote it – and does so for love, not money. Maybe that’s unrealistic, and lazy!
When I produced my first book in 2012 I was so taken up with the final stages of publication and all the detailed stuff that most writers – me included – find so intimidating, that I didn’t even think about a book launch. Then I came across a friendly local PR person, who gave some free advice about a ‘launch’, and I did as she advised. It seemed like a lot of work – press releases, emails to heaps of people I’d never met – and the outcome was deeply disappointing. I didn’t realise then what I know now, that self-published novels are two a penny and rarely make ripples on the local news scene. I also know now that many self-published novels deserve to sink without trace.
In my early innocence, I was surprised that the local media weren’t very interested in my book, and nor were local bookshops. The only people who agreed to come to the launch were friends and family, and it would have been easier and more comfortable to have a party for them at home. It felt as if we were putting on a show in front of a non-existent audience. On the way home I recall feeling wretched about the waste of money and the sense of humiliation – a far cry from the achievement of a life-long goal that I might have been celebrating.
With the second book I tried again. This time the local paper sent a photographer and there was quite a good write-up, but again it felt like an anti-climax. With Book 3 I didn’t bother with a launch. The book just appeared in the shops and as I toured the libraries and local groups talking about it, the local paper would appear and publish a photo. So the same end was achieved without the expense and awkwardness of standing around pretending to have fun.
Books 4 and 5 went the same way. Now the concept of a ‘launch’ has been so negatively affected by previous experience that thinking about ‘launching’ the new book fills me with dread.
This fear may be irrational, as the situation is quite different than it was in 2012 when I started down this road. I now have a considerable local following of readers who are anticipating the next book, having read all the previous ones. It’s hardly the Harry Potter phenomenon, but local booksellers tell me that they are regularly asked when the new book will be out. My readership has grown through word-of-mouth not as a result of serious promotion and marketing. The area of interest is regional to Cumbria, but there is a Cumbrian diaspora too that reads my stuff, and visitors to the area sometimes come across my books too and spread them further afield.
The region at the heart of the interest, however, is largely rural and thinly spread, with no obvious population centre where a launch would naturally happen. So what to do? Is a one-off ‘launch’ worth what it would cost, in both cash, time and anxiety?
The publication date of the new book is about two months away, and I have a decision to make about how to mark the event – if at all.
Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.
We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.
Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective
More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.
From my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of course close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.
The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.