This week I'm going a bit off on a tangent. Rather than write about history or my current story, I thought I'd discuss my experience in getting publishing, and in particular in getting self-publishing. I do this for two reasons: One, because I'm lazy and don't want to write another essay tonight; and two, because I think some of you who love to write might be interested in self-publishing. So, here's my essay, which I'll also put under Resources if you want to read it there.
Things to Consider when Self-Publishing
Getting your novel published is much easier today than in the past. Self-publishing through a variety of companies is available, and Amazon, of course, leads the way with CreateSpace. Not only is it relatively easier and cheaper to self-publish today than in the pre-internet era, it's also more respectable. However, I should warn you that there is a downside (or two) to self-publishing.
The major downside is getting people you don't know to read your book. Unfortunately, if you're like me, you probably don't know 99.99...% of the seven and a half billion people populating the earth.
Some think that the solution to this problem is to go with a self-publishing or independent publisher, like Xulon, that offers all sorts of advertising services to get your book into the hands of avid readers. Of course, these services are not free, and soon you realize, like me, that your bill is in the thousands and not one book has been sold.
Yes, let me tell you my story as an illustration. My first published work was an academic one: Hippies of the Religious Right. Being a scholarly work, it's informative but not fast-paced. Nevertheless, it sold well enough by my standards. Hmm, I thought, why not write an intriguing action book set in the Middle Ages. So, I reworked a story I had written for my children, one that they liked, a bit in the spirit of the Princess Bride, which was very popular back then. The title of this work is the Crystal Keep. I even wrote up a compelling back cover synopsis and my wife found an engagingly mysterious picture for the front cover. I thought, "With the millions of people who shop Amazon books each year, there will be a small amount, maybe just 500, who will stumble across the Crystal Keep and purchase it. However, as a precaution, I participated in virtually all the advertising programs offered by Xulon Press, through whom I published the book. Yes, when combined with their fees for publishing the book, we're talking a few thousand dollars. After a year, I had zero sales completed through Xulon's services.
Over the years, all but a handful of the Crystal Keep copies I sold were to people I knew or met. Nevertheless, since then, I have self-published two other books: Neither Angel, Nor Beast and Life in a Casket. Neither Angel, Nor Beast is a translation of André Maurois's Ni Ange, Ni Bête. I published it for my students and I make no money off of it. (I use any income from it for the local National History Day competition). It's a delightful little story, but it doesn't really sell outside the classroom.
Life in a Casket I wrote to entertain myself and others, so I hoped it might sell. I've sold a hundred or so copies, which is much better than the Crystal Keep, but I have made no net profit off of it. To promote Life in a Casket, I attended nine author signings, twice driving more than three hours to get to the venue. At five of these 'meet the author' events, where I just sat down at a desk alongside a host of other author-hopefuls, patiently waiting to sell and sign books, I averaged a sale of one to three copies. I met wonderful people, but I hadn't made enough money to cover my fuel cost, so I probably won't get to see them again.
At three of the other four outings, I sold ten copies or more. What was the difference? I was the sole author present, therefore I had an attentive audience, so I was able to give a little talk explaining my books and, most importantly, able to read from my work. This let my audience know my books were written well enough and could be entertaining.
The remaining outing was unusual. I was the sole author present and I gave a little lecture, much applauded, and I read from my book. I only sold one book as I recall. Why? Because I was not allowed to formally sell books at the venue, the host had a contract with a publisher that only allowed books of the publisher to be sold on site. I was self-published. Lesson learned: If the books aren't immediately available to the audience after your presentation, don't expect the audience to remember to order a book after they get home, fix dinner, take out the trash, walk the dog, do the dishes, and then collapse onto the bed and fall fast asleep.
I do have another work that is not self-published. This is Knight Time for Paris, which was published by Athanatos Publishing. Athanatos is a small Christian press and does not have the means to force my book onto the shelves of Barnes and Noble or advertise it big time on Amazon. With Athanatos, I will need to drive the advertising alongside my publisher. I knew this from the beginning and am happy to do so. As I've been pushing Life in a Casket so far, I haven't had time to do much Knight Time campaigning, though I've sold a few copies at the successful venues mentioned above.
I will add that Knight Time for Paris was runner up in the Athanatos writing contest. Life in a Casket was short listed for the Laramie writing contest. Participating in contests and getting recognized gives you more confidence in your book, but it won't guarantee that your book will sell well.
So what's the take-away lesson from all of this? It's this: Unless you get a national press behind your work, to advertise it and put it on shelves in airports and elsewhere, you probably won't be selling any books, no matter how much better your novel is than the top five found on the New York Times Best Seller List.
Therefore, you'll need to become the advertising agent for your book. If you're comfortable and successful on social media, that will be a big plus. You'll have to exploit advertising campaign programs on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, and the like.
Before you strike out to publicly present your latest novel, however, you should gather as many good reviews as you can. This may sound simple, but it actually can be very difficult. For one thing, readers like to read, they don't necessarily like to write. And even those who wouldn't mind writing a review, just don't think about it. It's only when I became a writer that I discovered I had never written a review. Naughty me.
Getting reviews on Amazon can be especially tricky. For example, Amazon does not allow authors to trade reviews, and yet authors are the ones most willing to write up a review. Of course, Amazon also tries to weed out reviews by family members. Finally, if Amazon doesn't see in its own records a purchase of the book executed by the reviewer, then Amazon won't list the review as a 'Verified Purchase', which makes the nice review sound like a review that someone did because he got the book for free if he would do a nice review.
So, what to do? I put a bookmark in my novels requesting readers to post a review, if they like the book. At a reading, if I remember to mention it, I ask purchasers to write a review. I keep pounding away at this, but still it's difficult to inspire a reader, no matter how much he or she loved the book, to write up a review. But keep at it nonetheless. Sometimes it works.
Now that you have some decent reviews, you can use them at speaking engagements to underscore how interesting your book is. I just print them up and pass them out for people to peruse.
This brings us back to the subject of outings, which you'll need to make to promote your book.
Let me be frank, you'll have to set up your own 'meet the author' events, and at them, as suggested above, you should be the only one presenting. If you're a capable reader, exploit your talent. If someone says you read like a robot, you may want someone else to do your reading for you.
A good place to start for setting up a 'meet the author' event would be in local libraries: nearby Auburn (population 3,500) and Nebraska City (7,500) were great venues for me. Otherwise, consider speaking at club meetings, particularly if it's a book club, like my wife's Tuesday Club. History and literary or art associations can be helpful. The Brownville Fine Arts Association hosted me in Brownville (population 148), and packed the house. The Homestead National Monument in Beatrice invited me to speak on preemption and homesteading, and we had a good turnout, largely due, I suppose, to the Omaha World Herald publishing an article announcing my lecture.
Finally, though you may continue sending off query letters to big publishers, you should appreciate the readers you have. It may be a small local group, but these are friends and family, and there's a fellowship with them that is probably more rewarding and fun than any connection you might have with a hundred thousand readers that are only so many pairs of eyes.
This blog principally relates to my writing, or writing in general. Feel free to ask questions or comment.