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February 5, 2016

Power, Pricing and Control in Self-Publishing

by Chris




As some of you are aware, in November of 2011, I started creating a fictional world. I was inspired to take part in NaNoWriMo, which had been going on for a while at that point, by a good friend whom I had just left behind when I moved from England to the United States. This fictional world became the epic fantasy series I’m currently working on, The Redemption of Erâth. So far the series comprises of two published volumes, and a third coming out this February. The point of telling you this isn’t for self-promotion, but to give you some background into why I ended up doing what I did.

When I first started writing, it wasn’t with any particular idea of publishing in mind. I wrote it for myself, my friend, and my son, who was enjoying books like The Lord of the Rings at the time. But as the book progressed, I began to think that there might be other people out there who’d be interested in my book as well. Naturally, I started to think about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing, which even five years ago was not what it is today.

I’m not setting out here to settle this difference—what works for one may not for another. Rather, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my own experiences, and the reason I ended up following the route that I did. Perhaps it can give some insight into the publishing world of today, from the point of view of an unestablished author.

iUniverse and Vanity Publishing

Consolation
I completed the first draft of The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation in the middle of 2012. As I neared the conclusion of the book, my mind began to reach out to the possibility of actual publishing. I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing industry, of course, but I began to have dreams of seeing my book on library shelves, in the fantasy section at my local bookstore—even at the front door of Barnes & Noble! I started doing my online research, and discovered that most ‘publishers’ wouldn’t accept manuscripts, and that I’d have to go through an ‘agent’. And everything I read told me that landing an agent was a crapshoot at best.

In the sidebars of book websites and Google searches, though, I began to see advertisements for self-publishing companies. As I began to read about them, it sounded like a fast-track to a printed book—and I gave in to temptation. The first company I contacted was called Trafford, and they made a compelling argument for publishing with them: high-quality editing, industry contacts, and top-notch print quality. In the end, I ended up choosing to work with a company called iUniverse, as at the time they had some deal or another that brought their prices down.

One of the questions I’m often asked is why on earth I would pay to publish a book—surely you’re supposed to make money writing books, not spend it. The truth is I was naïve, hadn’t had good experiences with short-run print companies, and wanted something professional without the wait or the rejection. And I did get quite a bit for my money, the primary value being something they called an ‘editorial review’. Short of a professional edit, it highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the story, and made suggestions how to bring it in line with industry standards.

This editorial review was immensely helpful, but left me with a great deal of work to do nonetheless. Since they hadn’t actually edited the manuscript, I still ended up paying a professional editor to review the entire manuscript (something that everyone should do, by the way). During the writing phase, I had stayed up every night past midnight, typing madly away, exhausting myself for the sake of my craft. I thought that had been difficult, but it was nothing compared to the editing and review process.

Eventually—and it took two further years—I had the manuscript in a state that I was satisfied with, and qualified for iUniverse’s Editor’s Choice award—a distinction given to books that are of industry quality. I thought the day I held my book in my hands, the little award symbol on the spine, was the most exciting day of my life. Though I had been cautioned not to get my hopes up, I couldn’t help but dream of instant success. Success that, so far, has failed to materialize.

Nancy Chase and The Seventh Magpie

It turned out that writing a book was a walk in the park compared to selling a book. And marketing was something I had absolutely no experience with, and something iUniverse weren’t paid to do. I waited, day after day, month after month, for the sales to start … but they never did. So far I’ve sold less than thirty copies across all platforms, including digital and print, in almost two years. I felt like a failure; here was a project I had poured my life and soul into, and not one single person was interested in it.

The Seventh Magpie
While I was trying to get people to buy my book, another newcomer caught my eye. Through a Facebook writing group I became connected to Nancy Chase, who was working on a dark fairytale called The Seventh Magpie. Right away I was intrigued, by nothing more than the name. And then she started posting some of the illustrations that were to feature in her book, and I was hooked. The beautiful, black and white ink drawings of princes, ships and castles drew me into the world she was creating like nothing I’d ever known. Over the course of several months, I grew to anticipate the release of her book, and when it was finally done, I was one of the first people to devour her story. And oh my, was it good! Not only were the illustrations gorgeous underpinnings, but the fantasy, darkness and sadness were epic—in a book that was barely a hundred pages long.

But here’s the thing—Nancy has, in half as much time as I’ve had, sold over a thousand copies. It’s a number that is, to me, simply staggering, considering she self-published from start to finish, using the free resources that are available to every new author such as Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. I was humbled, inspired, and just a touch jealous. What did her story have that mine didn’t?

Over time, I’ve come to the realization that in fact, her story doesn’t possess any particular ‘magical’ quality that guaranteed its success. Although it is of course imaginative and well-written, it’s a different kind of story to mine. In terms of pure artistic value, our two books have equal merits in different areas. It wasn’t the writing, I believe, that helped Nancy. It was her marketing.

Both prior and after the release of her book, Nancy has spent a significant amount of her time on marketing her story, both to reviewers and distributors. And it isn’t a numbers game, necessarily; I have an equal number of Facebook likes on my author page, and a successful blog with over 2,000 subscribers. No, it’s a question of time, and to a lesser extent, money. Not how much, though—Nancy and I have probably spent equally in the course of our publications. Rather, it’s to do with being smart about it. If Nancy spent anything, it was on getting the book more widely noticed. I spent it on getting it made in the first place.

Writing the Second Book

Exhile
I wasn’t idle while waiting for my book to take off like a New York Times bestseller; despite my disappointment with the first book’s sales, I knew that I had to continue the story. It’s something I suppose many writers face: do you continue, when it appears no one’s listening? For most of us, I suspect, the answer is yes; after all, no one was listening when we wrote the first word, were they? So while Consolation was failing spectacularly to sell, I was writing its sequel, Exile.

Into this second book went a great number of tips and tricks I’d learned from the first book, and in particular, my editor. The biggest concerns in the first book had been dialogue and flow. The characters spoke excessively proper, with nary a contraction in sight. I thought I was harking back to the style of the fantasy greats like Tolkien and Lewis, but I was actually just making my characters sound like stuck-up, pompous asses. As for flow, this was something easier to manage. I had been inspired in the first book to write along the lines of Dickens’ serial novels—a chapter a week, each one a mini story in itself. But it was too tidy; there were no cliffhangers, no reasons to want to read the next chapter.

All of this was fixed in the first book over time, of course, but it went much more naturally into the second. And here is where I again can’t understate the value of hiring an editor to go over your work. Beta readers and friends’ comments are fine, but no one is going to break it down to you in as real a way as someone whose job is getting books to be their best. My editor is exceptionally good at what she does (I met her through J.B. Lynn, another prolific and successful self-publishing author), and I value her opinion and input enormously.

I also learned from the first book that quality is preferable over quantity. Brevity is the soul of wit, so to speak. I cut the first book down from 110,000 words to a little under 100,000; the second book from over 150,000 to around 135,000. While this does still make the second book almost a hundred pages longer than the first, there is of course more content—more stuff happens.

And so I’ve learned from the past. And probably the biggest lesson was that, as much as you have to write for yourself, you also have to write for your audience. Going into the second book, I was able to bear this in mind and produce a story that, to me at least, is even more engaging and exciting than the first. This isn’t to say that I don’t like the first book—I actually love it. I think it has a small, homey feel to it. Exile, on the other hand, is as epic as you could ask for. And the remaining books of the series? They’re only going to get better.

Doing It On My Own

So now I’m at a point where I’m ready to launch the second book of the series, and I’m going it on my own. And of course, I couldn’t do it without the advances in technology that have come in the past ten—in fact, five—years. Print-on-demand services are coming cheaper every year; it only costs me around $10 per copy to produce Exile, and the book’s 500 pages long. But it isn’t only printing technology that’s made it possible to go it alone; whereas in the past I might have needed skill and knowledge in InDesign or Quark, now all I need is my Mac and Pages for all the formatting, layout and design that I could wish for.

One of the benefits of working with iUniverse is that they did, at least, give me some nice ideas for the internal layout of the book. They sucked when it came to cover design, but they came up with clever little graphics throughout the manuscript (e.g. flame icons to separate sections and start chapters), and I’ve borrowed this idea as I foray into my own design work.

The History of Erath
The first book I published myself through CreateSpace was the companion book, History of Erâth. I used trees and leaves as the graphic elements, and a lovely photo of a tree I took for the cover (the theme of the book is growth, life and death). For this book I didn’t do any particular marketing; I didn’t announce it, or sell it to anyone. I didn’t even ask for reviews. While this is partly because it’s an earlier work and rougher around the edges, it’s also because I was testing the waters. I wanted to see what was possible. And I discovered that I can produce a high-quality, low-cost book that I actually get to hold in my hands.

The good news about this is that with Exile, I’ll be able to pitch the book not only to reviewers and online digital retailers, but the production cost of the book means that I can reasonably expect local bookstores to consider stocking and selling it. After all, I can probably convince you to pay $10 for my book; I doubt you’ll part with $25. And I intend to do so: as soon as it’s launched, I’ll be heading down to my nearest local to show them what I’ve created.

And this gives me hope, ultimately; I feel safe in the knowledge that I don’t have to spend a fortune to make a book, and I don’t have to play the rejection game with agents and big-name publishers. Maybe one day I will, but for now, I’m happy to create what I’m working on and sell it on my own. I’m not in it for the big bucks; after all, Tolkienesque epic fantasy is hardly a mainstream market.

So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me with three books, two self-published, and a world of possibilities ahead of me. I’m in full control of the design, the publication, the printing and the distribution of my work. I can set reasonable prices, and make the changes I want to change without needing someone else’s approval.

Having said that, there are things I learned from the process. Most important among them is the need for strong, ruthless editing—something you’re unlikely to be able to do yourself. It helps if your editor has worked in the industry, as they’re more likely to have a feel for what a strong, concise storyline is like (mine worked for Simon & Schuster). I think a lot of self-published books lack in quality not because the author can’t write, but because they can’t edit. I’d like to think my own books aren’t falling into that trap.


Still, there’s a lot of work ahead of me; I need to find consistently viable ways of marketing my work to as many people as possible, and ultimately convincing them to actually read what I’ve written. I’m convinced people will enjoy it if they do; after all, I’m writing the stories I’d want to read. But getting them to commit to it is a different story entirely. It’s not just a question of money; I’d offer my books for free if I thought it’d get people to read them. But somewhere in there is the magic combination of marketing and writing, and I’m on a mission to find it.


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