A Self Publishing Journey
About a decade ago now I finished my first ever full length piece of fiction writing. It was called The Midlife Crisis of Chris Smith and it was about, well a man going through a midlife crisis. It was 300 odd pages of fictional diary entries from this man who gradually spirals into psychopathic depression and turns to murder almost on a whim as the story progresses.
If it sounds terrible that’s because it is.
At the the time though I thought it was incredible and I purchased a copy of the Writers And Artists Handbook 2007 and duly set about submitting this masterpiece to Agents and Publishers alike. Surprise surprise – not even the slightest sniff of interest from anyone, so after a while I abandoned it and joined a rock band instead, forgetting about writing for a good few years because of the lack of progress.
This is all relevant because after finishing up my next book – A Man Who Can See The Future back in 2014, I felt compelled to self-publish instead of seeking traditional publication. See self publishing eBooks is actually pretty simple and back in the day no-one gave two hoots about my first book so I figured why waste time pursuing agents and publishers this time around? Just self-publish it to the Kindle store instead.
So that is what I did – the first book was published in 2014 to the kindle store and a year later its sequel went live.
Then about 3 months ago I took them both down again!
Why? Well I’ll break down the whole journey here, along the way detailing the mechanics and problems that self publishing brings in the modern digital age.
Honing the Manuscript
So I’d written 90k words and honed that via 3 or 4 drafts into a 75k word manuscript I was happy with.
The first step was to acquire some proofreading services to iron out those typos.
I knew I needed this thing checked over thoroughly by an independent party before I published it so I found a couple of freelance proofreaders I could afford on the freelance site peopleperhour.com.
The first person I hired cost about £30 and was about as good at proofreading as you would expect for that price. The second proofreader cost around triple the first one and was actually a lot better, providing a tracked changes document to help me decipher just what changes had been made to my precious book.
Still, I wanted to seek further opinion before this thing hit the outside world so I sent it to a family member and a trusted friend to read and feedback. This feedback was great, positive and encouraging, but between them they still spotted a handful of typos each despite the proofreading services.
I was desperate to get my manuscript as polished and professional as possible so it passed through 2 proofreaders and 2 other independent readers before I uploaded.
Looking back at publishing this first book I do think I rushed it out. In hindsight I was under no time pressure whatsoever, so what compelled me to press publish so quickly is a mystery. Genuine excitement I guess?
I thought running it past four readers was enough – two of them paid for – but the reviews quickly told me it wasn’t.
This mistake I tried to rectify upon the sequel which I published around 12 months after the first.
For this one I not only consulted a better proofreader and an extra friend to read through it, but I also hired a copy editor for the princely sum of £180.
- Outlay for the first book – £110, read by four separate people prior to publishing
- Outlay for the sequel – £230, read by 5 separate people prior to publishing.
The net result of the above process?
Both published books had negative reviews which mentioning spelling / grammatical errors! To paraphrase I had reviews on both books that went something like ‘loved the story but too many spelling mistakes’ / ‘great story but sloppy typos’.
This was my worst nightmare. I assumed on the first book it was due to cheap and ineffective proofreaders and my over eager nature, so I doubled my investment and was more studious on the second only to get the same result.
I must admit at this stage I still don’t particularly know how to combat this problem? Just how much should you be spending to make your draft absolutely perfect and avoid those dreaded reviews, how many proofreaders do I need?
One ultra expensive one maybe?
See I’m no grammar nazis (as this blog will attest), but by the time I’ve written and drafted the thing 3 or 4 times and am ready to seek outside help, you become almost blind to some of the minute errors buried in their.
So you pay someone to find them.
Evidently I didn’t pay the right people? Or I wasn’t thorough enough myself?
Perfecting that script when self publishing is a puzzle I’ve still not particularly solved, short of shelling out hundreds of pounds on professional services.
Leaving the words themselves behind for now I feel I had a lot more success with the covers. My day job involves technical drawing and graphical designs so I felt more than capable of producing my own ebook covers. I’ve also been a budding artist for as long as I can remember so I actually relished the thought of producing them.
So off to Photoshop I went and produced the following for my first book:
I liked it – I still like it – but I thought it wise to seek outside input once again. So I found two graphic designers on freelance site Fiverr and payed for these two to be produced. Sum total of $15.
They are OK, but I preferred mine so I went with it for the first publication.
Ebooks being what they are you can easily change most aspects of your book within a few clicks, so a few months in I experimented with the other covers, using them for a month apiece to see if they had any effects on sales.
Turns out they didn’t, not to any discernible degree anyway, so I went back to my original. I then went on to produce this one for the sequel.
Sure they probably aren’t the greatest covers in history but they didn’t look out of place on the Amazon charts or did I ever receive a bad word about them from anyone.
Anyway, I felt a lot more confidence in the covers than I did with the proofreading and editing.
So when all of that is sorted actually launching a digital ebook is pretty much a button clicking exercise. Filling out a form, writing some blurb, uploading the files, making some choices.
Then suddenly your humble book is available for pretty much the whole world to get hold of.
Its after the book is available that the real problems kick in, see unless I now told anyone about it, or ran some campaigns, then no-one would ever know it existed.
First stop social media and a trickle of curious family and friends all came forth and returned mostly positive opinions. After acquaintances though,a couple of weeks later and the sales figures had evaporated completely, down to 1 or 2 sales per week.
From here I started to learn some tough lessons.
Mainly that unless you have a significant budget and a targeted plan to advertise your book, it’s going to get lost among the masses regardless of its quality.
My main platform was the Kindle store and I signed up for the KDP program which allows their subscribers to ‘borrow’ books like at no extra cost like a traditional library. So my book was up for the humble price of $0.99 but part of the KDP program was a 5 day promotional window in which the book would be free and its presence advertised and promoted on the kindle store.
I.e. a platform for a big sales push.
So I set one such push up around a bank holiday weekend. I scoured some community message boards for tips on low cost, good return advertising channels and turned up a few options. In fact the best advertising I found during my entire self publishing endeavor was called BKknights here, for a measly $5. This place advertises your free book to its readers and I used them repeatedly because for the price they actually had impressive results – pretty much every time I spent $5 with them I would get me 100-200 downloads in return.
So back to my first advertising push – I invested about £100 on various outlets and over the course of the promotional period I obtained around 1500 downloads. I was chuffed at the time and regardless of the fact these were free downloads (and not earning me any return), I was just happy people were actually willing to press the download button and maybe read a few pages.
Time for more lessons to be learnt now though – it turns out 1500 downloads is a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things. Such numbers didn’t even get me close to the top 10 charts on Amazon that weekend or give my book any more attention or exposure.
Soon after the numbers tailed off to virtually nothing.
After some research it became clear that reviews are much more important to your self publishing success than I first realised. See reviews bring traction, tell Amazon people are interacting with your product and send it up their all important charts where it gains more exposure.
I also quickly found out that a wide range of the more established marketing opportunities only consider self -published books when they have 10 reviews or more. I had a long list of affordable and well established avenues for marketing but my book just wouldn’t be considered until i reached that review milestone (which I never actually did).
Strangely it’s not necessarily good reviews that count either. Research told me that an ebook with hundreds of reviews at a 2 ½ star average will still well outstrip a 5 star reviewed book with only 30 reviews.
A book with 500 reviews is a book that’s been downloaded many thousands of times I’m guessing as my 1500 downloads garnered only a single review in the weeks after.
It’s a simple cycle – the more downloads, the higher up the charts the book rises, the more exposure it gets, the more reviews it will end up getting.
So I’ve had a big push and by this point obtained around 1700 downloads in total, garnered 5 reviews (4 ½ star average), but without spending and spending and spending, I didn’t really have any other plan.
So after 9 months or so of watching my book receive about 0-2 downloads per week, and a couple more advertising pushes, I took a bold move and made my book perma-free.
All 75k words of my precious book were yours for nothing.
This is a common tactic used by self-publishers and the reasoning was solid.
What I needed to build my career was exposure and numbers, big download figures that would cement my book on that precious Amazon chart and continue to drive reviews and downloads.
Ultimately I want my work to be read and for every £0.99 download I was only getting 30 odd pence in my pocket anyway so in other words, I wasn’t really generating any money at all and wasn’t likely too. Especially seeing as my only big download periods came when the book was available for free.
I had nothing to lose and by making it free I removed a crucial barrier to put of potential readers.
It would be free on a permanent basis.
Also around this time the sequel was almost ready for publication. A common strategy used by serial publishers is to make the first one free and charge for the second, get them hooked on the free first edition and they will be happy to purchase the second.
This is a well trodden path so I wasn’t doing anything extraordinary here, it works well for many niche serial self publishers according to research.
I wasn’t expecting a dramatic overnight assault on the charts but I expected it to move more copies of my book once the price tag was removed. And to be fair it did – just not enough to really make any difference,
The overriding effect was a general increase in downloads but still nothing to scream about. Per week my downloads would stand at around 10-20 in total now it was free, up from about 0-5 when it was priced at .99.
In reality even with the book free permanently, and its sequel released alongside it, I was still nowhere near achieving big numbers. By the time of the sequel being published my first book had been released for a whole year and achieved little over 2300 download and still only 6 reviews (at a 4 star average).
I was beginning to realise my self publishing dream was a lot harder than I first though. The mechanics of getting your book to market are simple and easy in the modern age but standing out from the crowd once you get there is a whole different ball game.
Skip to early 2016 and the third and final installment of the BIll Paxely story was finished and ready for publication. Instead I didn’t feel like publishing it, at least not online in the same manner. I just didn’t feel it would receive any attention and get lost amongst the masses again.
Also by this point I had realised that I dont have the skills, the budget, or the time to invest in really driving sales and drawing attention to my books. Every time I sat at my PC to research affordable marketing avenues and strategies it felt like time when I could be writing. It felt like I was becoming a worse writer because all my time was being taken up trying to flog my wares rather than create it.
I think what I’ve learnt more than anything is that self publishing isn’t an easy option, indeed in some ways it’s much harder that traditional publishing. Sure there are no barriers whatsoever and you don’t have to get signed or represented – it’s all on you and that is a glorious thing, but you need the right set of skills and the right outlook.
I’m not a salesmen and I’m not even a sociable guy – selling myself isn’t a strength I possess. I can’t bring myself to hawk my wares all over social media and keep up the persistent energy and focus you need to drive your book up the charts yourself.
Also I probably needed a more long term outlook to the whole thing than I had at the time. Leave these books up and constantly and regularly promote them over many years.
By the time two years had passed I’d lost energy and spirit with self publishing and then a particular day changed my mind.
So if you search Amazon for my beloved books you won’t find them available anymore because I’ve unpublished them, they are no longer available to download or purchase anymore.
Well back in November I had an incredible opportunity to spend a day with Penguin books, one of the largest publishers in this country. Based upon my work I was invited to a publishing demystified day via an initiative they are running called Write Now.
Penguin are trying to create diversity in the world of publishing and as such invited 150 chosen applicants to spend a day talking to them, some literary agents,and a few industry experts. All with the aim to guide and mentor budding novelists like myself toward publication.
It was an incredible day and one which taught me a great deal, a detailed breakdown can be found here.
So I spoke to some of the most experienced publishing professionals in the country and what they told me, and what was said regarding the industry, persuaded me that traditional publishing is achievable.
That I can seek and secure an agent, one that will foster my career and lead me towards publication. That my attempts to find such representation all those years ago should not put me off, that my older, wiser and more patient self can find traditional publication.
Us attending authors were given a full beat by beat breakdown of exactly how books go from a laptop to the shelves of Waterstones. Suddenly the veil was lifted and it all seem possible once again.
I also picked the brain of a literary agent over lunch who told me that books already self-published or available will not be considered by an agent and in most cases, will lead to a tarnished reputation for the author.
Either you hit massive download figures and get signed up because of it, a la 50 shades, or you fade into obscurity and will already be considered a failure by industry figures.
Also a different agent offered the opinion that successful self publishing authors are often in niche markets and genres. It can work well for certain types of books that will struggle to find a mainstream audience immediately as it helps grow an underground fan-base before it grabs the mainstream imagination.
If however, like me, you are already writing commercial fiction in a popular genre (mystery, thriller), then you’re going to struggle to lift your head above the masses without significant investment.
It all seemed sound advice and advice that rang true with my self publishing journey so far. I bought two books to market but in such a popular genre that I just didn’t posses the budget or the nous to get myself noticed.
I need expert insight and help, I want to craft the greatest possible versions of my books and to do that I need the help of industry pro’s, the kind of pro’s I spent the day with back in November.
So I unpublished them with a heavy heart and turned my attention back to seeking traditional publication instead. Self-publishing is a great adventure and one I may return to in the distant future, but for now all the signs are telling me I need representation to properly launch and foster my writing career.
In closing don’t let me perturb you from self publishing yourself, or advising other too, just be aware that it requires a lot of patience, a lot of continued hard work and a whole lot of learning. I loved the feeling of my books being available at the touch of a button and felt a twinge of pride when my download chart spiked to ‘big’ numbers, but the kind of writer I want to be and the kind of career I want to forge, will require some representation and some traditional expertise.
It’s going to be an equally long journey and one that will require a whole lot of luck and hard work, but after a scattergun approach in the past few years – my goals are clear.
Wish me Luck.