Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Indie Publishing: What I did right, what I did wrong, and future plans.

What I did right
  • Learned how to write a book first. I had to put this one here, because I think it's the most important. I had over ten years' experience struggling through first drafts and revising and rewriting and working with critique partners, beta readers and editors. I knew how to put a story together, and that knowledge was half the battle (and the reason I wrote the series so fast). I'm not Shakespeare, and I've had my fair share of bad reviews, but I always try my hardest to put out my best work.
  • Wrote in a series and published consistently, constantly re-evaluating my goals and brainstorming new ideas. I made a plan and readjusted it as I went along, and ultimately planned to play the long game.
  • Paid for professional covers and editing. I made sure my first venture into indie publishing was one I could be proud of.
  • Had realistic expectations. I didn't expect to sell a million copies. It probably helped that I'd had a different series published with a small press, so I knew what to expect from the first few months (and was pleasantly surprised with the results).
  • Used 99c sales (with advertising), cross-promotion and newsletters, rather than spending money on other promotional services which haven't worked for me in the past.
  • Ignored spam emails from marketing companies. Seriously.
  • Quit Goodreads (as an author). I love the site as a reader, but I'm so much happier not reading reviews...
  • Used trackable links (smarturls) to figure out which promotional methods actually lead to sales. (Spoiler: not much, aside from ads.)

What I did wrong
  • Wrote cross-genre. You can have a truly amazing premise, but if it doesn't fit into a recognisable sub-category, readers will struggle to find it unless you're already established. Of course, there's a chance it might be a runaway hit regardless, but given my track record, I'll be sticking to clear sub-genres in future.
  • Wrote novellas and short stories. Prequel novellas have worked very well for some authors, but for me, they've been my worst-selling titles to date. Because I charge less for them, it's impossible to break even on a novella unless you do your own cover art, which I really should have considered beforehand.
  • As for short stories, they work as an incentive to get people to sign up to my newsletter... possibly. I've only had one person contact me to say they enjoyed the story, out of over a thousand subscribers, and based on my trackable links, nobody who downloaded the story went on to buy any of my books. I find short stories more time-consuming to write than novels, so I probably won't be doing this again.
  • Published widely and only moved to KDP Select later on. I wanted my books to be widely available, but ultimately, most of my sales came through Amazon. Based on my time in KDP Select, I could have done much better if I'd opted in from the start, especially with Countdown Deals.
  • Committed to a long series without breaking even. This is a tricky one. I love the Alliance series, but the fact is, if I wasn't still living with my parents and didn't have any disposable income to invest in publishing once my setup budget ran out, I couldn't have afforded to publish six books in a series that was never going to make back the initial costs. However much I love a story, I never want to be put in the position where I'm forced to let fans down. Publishing is a harsh business.
What I'm planning to do in future
  • Publish shorter series. I'm writing an urban fantasy trilogy which I plan to publish in 2016-17. If it does well, I have outlines for two follow-up trilogies set in the same world and ideas for other spinoffs, too. If it doesn't do well... I'll move onto something else.
  • Pay more attention to the market. Enough said.
  • I'll only be doing paperback versions of books if there's strong reader interest.  (Partly because of extra costs for paperback covers, partly because of the time formatting takes. None of my books have sold more than ten paperback copies in a lifetime.)
  • If a marketing strategy or promotion doesn't work, I won't try it again with the same series. (This means things like pre-orders, paid advertising, etc.)
  • Looking at my current sales figures and the amount of time I have available, there's a strong chance I won't be putting out all three remaining books in the Alliance series next year. Naturally, each subsequent book in a series sells fewer copies than the previous volumes, and I'm already finishing one series next year (the Darkworld series). Production costs are high, and most promotional tactics aren't having the effect they might have done a couple of years ago. (Even sales and freebies.) The remaining books will be published, because it's only fair to the readers who want to finish the series, but unless the books dramatically take off, I'll be putting other series first.
I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who ultimately wants to write full-time, or at least have the main part of my income from selling novels. (At the moment, it's something like 80% freelance editing income, 20% book sales, with all my book earnings going back into production costs. And I've been published for over two years, with eight books currently on shelves.) I love what I do, and I'll continue to write fun side-projects as well as series, but I know I need to be more strategic about what I publish and when, if just to make this sustainable.

I'm sharing this because I read a lot of posts from self-published authors who are doing really well, which is great -- except it can seem to the rest of us like we're doing something wrong, even after following tips that have worked for other authors. Publishing isn't easy, and neither is building a fanbase. It's possible that some of these methods might actually work for authors who have fans who'd happily buy their grocery list, but after two and a half years of working overtime on promotion and making entirely too many sacrifices, I'm rethinking my strategy.

There are a lot of reasons books don't sell, and I can't pretend to know all of them, but I do know that luck is a major factor in a book's success. A lot of advice says "write what you love", but it tends to come from people who wrote something they loved that happened to be commercial. That isn't the case for all of us. And though a lot of factors can affect a book's success, once you've hooked a large number of readers on one book, it's much easier to sell future books to that audience, especially in the same sub-genre. On the other hand -- and this is from direct experience -- if a book isn't selling, it's extremely difficult to revive sales on a consistent basis without pouring more money into advertising and digging an even deeper hole.

Right now, my focus is on hitting the tipping point where my books sell themselves -- not necessarily in huge volumes, but enough that I don't feel like I'm throwing money away when I publish more sequels. So I'm putting my more commercially viable ideas first (though I admit all my ideas are pretty weird, and it's impossible to judge beforehand which book might inexplicably take off). I do have some other experiments in the works, too, so 2016 is set to be an interesting year. We'll see how it goes!


  1. I always thought I was doing something wrong because I sold so few books, but after reading this I feel a little better. Totally agree with luck being a major factor - sometimes it feels like a total fluke when books take off. Thanks for this post!!

    1. No problem! I'm glad it helped. It's hard when some books just take off out of nowhere, but luck really is a major factor!

  2. "Intelligent fast failure" looks like the order of the day. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Wonder if your target audience for the first series will still show up for you at some point.

    1. The great thing about e-publishing is that ebooks last forever, so there's always a chance the series will take off in future. Thanks for reading the post!

  3. I really enjoyed this honest post. It really is a hard balance between writing what you love, writing what you know will sell, and determining which ideas are most viable in the current market-- which is, at least how I see it, always changing. Or always pointed toward genres I (again, me at least) don't write. THIS IS A HARD BUSINESS. I'll be sad to wait for the Alliance series books, but I am SO excited to see what you've got up your sleeve. Everything you write is fun and fantastic! I can't wait to see what you'll be up to in 2016. Until then... *dives into DIVIDED*

    1. The balance is SO hard! I get drawn to cross-genre ideas a lot... which makes marketing even harder.

      There won't be really long delays - probably 5-6 months between each book (so, April 2016, September 2016, February 2017 for books 4-6). I just realised I'd have to delay my next series if I wanted to publish all three next year. If I launch my next series first, I might be able to bring new readers in before the series finale.

      I hope you enjoy Divided! :)

  4. Tons of great info here, Emma! I found myself nodding and smiling with much of this because I've gone down a very similar trial and error path myself.

    I began self-publishing with a novella serial series--which I thought was a great idea (in theory). They are short, introductory reads for my style and wouldn't be as expensive or time consuming as launching with a novel series. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH *head-to-desk*

    Er, I mean, that wasn't really true.

    Like you, I discovered shorter stories somehow take longer to write and polish. Plus you have proportionally the same editorial and cover costs, and many (MANY) readers simply will not read shorter fiction. Especially from an unknown.

    So that was a huge misstep in a way. (BUT, I did learn a whole bunch about writing and publishing along the way, which I'm still waiting for the big payoff on. LOL)

    There's definitely an 'indie mindset' you have to have, and that mindset has to make business sense if you're going to be successful. I need to be more mindful of genre tidiness as well.

    I tend to want to blend things I love, but that doesn't always lend itself to marketing. My urban fantasy is a little intense--like horror. My contemporaries have romance, but are probably more commercial fiction. I need to figure out that recipe for future releases for sure.

    1. Trial and error really does seem to be the only way! I've learned a lot, even though it hasn't been easy.

      I'm trying to stick to one sub-genre per book in future. We'll see how this goes!

  5. I appreciate your insights and echo many of them. (Especially the cross genre mutts. They're hard to market.)

  6. A lot of great insight here. I've heard having multiple books helps discoverability. I hope the masses discover you soon!

    1. Things have definitely improved since I published more than one series. I hope so, too! :)