Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reflections on My First Year of Self-Publishing

If I remember correctly, yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my career as a novelist.  (Or, more specifically, when I put my first novel on sale.) It's hard to believe how fast time flies and how quickly things have changed - all for the better, in my opinion. Bearing that in mind, I thought it was worth a quick look back to see what a difference a year makes.

Books Published
The natural assumption is that I started off with one book published. In truth, I published two books - Warden (Book 1) and Sensation - in such close proximity that it's almost like I started off with a double bang.  (This was more by accident than design: I used the service Amazon offers on CreateSpace to format my first book for Kindle, but it took about 6 weeks. By the time the first book was ready for Kindle, I had finished the second and had it ready as well.)

Anyway, fast-forward a year and I've got 7 books under my belt: four in my Kid Sensation series (plus a boxed set) and two in the Warden series.  Not bad in my opinion, not to mention the fact that I'm on the verge of publishing the third Warden book. (I did a cover reveal here recently, which is something new for me.)

Books Sold
I've been blessed in that my books started selling almost immediately. Readers seemed to enjoy my work, and I was fortunate to find a number of fans early on.  The first month, I sold a couple of hundred books, which was quite a shock (in a good way).  As of yesterday, I had sold almost 23,000 ebooks and almost 400 paperbacks during my first year. (This is not counting borrows from when I was in KDP Select or returns.)  Altogether it came to a total of over 23,000 books sold over the past 12 months. (I had been shooting for 25,000 books sold, but you can't have everything and I'm super excited about the volume I did have.)

Lessons Learned
Needless to say, I feel like I've learned a lot over the past year - so much in fact, that I don't think I could possibly reduce everything down to written words. Nevertheless, I'll mention a few of the things I found to be most important.

Lesson #1: It's a Volume Business
There are some people who will write a novel and immediately hit it out of the park, selling tens of thousands of copies of a single tome in just a month or two.  I haven't been fortunate enough to be one of those people (yet), but not being in that rare stratosphere has taught me something: the number of books you write affects your long-term success.

A few months back, I wrote a post about Making a Living Selling 3 Books Per Day. The premise of the post - and you can run the numbers - is that if you could write twenty books and sell about 3 copiess of each of them per day, you could earn in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year.

Moreover, I've found that each time I publish a new book, my overall sales typically increase. That, in and of itself, is another reason to keep producing new material. In short, always stay focused on getting the next book out.

Lesson #2: Get Professional Help
Despite the ease with which you can now get a book on the market, publishing is still a professional endeavor and you should treat it as such. That means getting quality help with all phases of your novel, starting with editing/proofreading.

Simply put (and I've probably said this a hundred times), it's almost impossible to edit your own work. You really need to have it done by a professional - not just to catch typos and such, but to see the amount of value that they can add. Personally, I use Faith Williams at The Atwater Group, and she has been worth her weight in gold.

Likewise with my cover artist, Isikol (whose gallery of work is on deviantART). I know the limits of my own skill, so I set out to find an artist who could capture my vision. Isikol did that and more. Thus, if you're terrible in terms of cover art, don't try to do it yourself thinking that the great story you wrote will overcome the shoddy cover. It won't. Bottom line is that if your cover is the artistic equivalent of a leper, then readers will treat it that way and keep away out of fear that they'll contract something vile.

In short, you wouldn't give yourself a root canal or open heart surgery just to save a few bucks; you'd turn to the professionals. Not that a book rises to the same level of importance, but you need to be willing to get expert help if you need it (and let's face it, most of us do).  Needless to say, hiring professionals will cost you.  However, in my opinion, you'll be far happier in most instances with the end product you get from them than something you got on the cheap or put together on your own.

(In addition to Faith and Isikol, you can find other useful links for publishing here.)

Lesson #3: Write What You Love
I know that we all want to make a living as authors, so it's only natural to feel the temptation to write in the popular genres, like romance.  My personal feeling is that writing is not only hard, but also a highly personal endeavor.  There are some novelists who write only for money and are very successful (the great Jack Vance was one, for example), but I think that most people in my position (those who are indies) are writing because they have a story to tell.  Thus, I think you need to focus on telling that story - not the one that you think will sell a million copies, but the one that's been rattling around in your head, making noise, dying to get out. The one that you have to write.

In short, write what you love. If you have to write other stuff for commercial or fiscal reasons, there's nothing wrong with that, but somewhere along the way you have squeeze in the stuff that you want to write about.

Lesson #4: Treat Writing Like a Business
Like lots of indies, I have a day job. However, since I'm trying to become a successful author, I have to treat my writing just like a business, with me as the owner.  Thus, I've got to keep regular hours, work at a steady pace, and keep manufacturing products for my clients.

In essence, it is a tough row to hoe, but that's what you have to do if you want to be successful.  The most obvious complaint in adhering to this principle, of course, is the lack of time.  However, in my experience, people can generally "find" additional time by cutting back on one thing: the amount of television they watch.

I recall reading that the average American watches something like 34 hours of television per week - almost the equivalent of a full-time job. Even if someone could just cut that number in half, that would be an additional 17 hours per week that could go towards writing.

Of course, it's not television for everyone in terms of where you can cut back or find time. For some people, it might be working in their garden. For others, it might be happy hour with friends a few nights per week. Regardless, we all typically have something that we can trade in order to get the time we need to write. One you know what it is - and are willing to make the sacrifice - you'll be surprised at how productive you can become.

That's about everything I can think of off the top of my head. All in all, this last year has really been a thrill ride. I haven't had a Harry Potter-esque runaway best seller, but I'm fortunate to have enjoyed a modicum of success and count myself lucky. Hopefully, as I continue to write, I will be able to build on the number of readers and fans I have such that the next 12 months are even better than the past 12 have been.

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