Saturday, April 21, 2012

Learning Curve

In an earlier post, I described what it was like writing my first book and what my thoughts and feelings were during the process. For anyone else who is thinking about self-publishing some work of their own, I would like to take some time to share a few lessons learned.

First off: You do not need to hire someone to format your book for you. Use Microsoft word, save your work as a 97-2003 document, and set up indents through the Paragraph function. DO NOT use tabs to indent the first line in a new paragraph. This will leave annoying little dashes on ereaders. Don't underline anything, and don't put any text in bold. This will only cause problems for you. Italics is fine, it won't hurt anything. Center your chapter titles, and use left alignment for paragraph text. Use twelve point print and Times New Roman font. These few simple rules will ensure that your work looks and functions well on Kindle readers. The Amazon KDP website has instructions for converting the word document to HTML. I go a step further and use Mobipocket Creator to convert it to a PRC file before uploading it to the website. This allows me to upload cover art as part of the document. A quick web search can usually answer any questions you have about carrying out these functions.

If you don't have the time or the inclination to do this on your own, then there are plenty of people who will do it for you, but be prepared to shell out some cash. KDP has a comprehensive list of service providers. I did the formatting and file conversion for NEH myself, and it worked just fine. Learning to do it on your own is worth the time and effort if only for the money you will save by not having to hire someone to do it for you.

The one area that I would recommend hiring someone, at least initially, is cover art. JA Konrath features his cover art guy on his blog, and I have to admit that although he is a bit pricy, he does great work. Personally, I employ the services of Keary Taylor, a fellow author and talented graphic designer. The cover for No Easy Hope, and the one I just had done for This Shattered Land, were only 90 bucks each. That is a bargain. If you would like to contact Keary, this is her website.!

Now on to less technical matters.

When you first publish your work, you will feel like an idiot. You will feel anxious, embarrassed, and you will doubt yourself. You will ask yourself, over and over again, what the hell was I thinking? Sales will be very slow at first, and you will wonder why you wasted your time. You will find yourself obsessively checking your sales figures every few hours to see if anything has happened, and you will feel despair when you go hours, or even days on end, without any sales. The first few weeks are pretty tough mentally and emotionally. Here is my best advice to you:

Suck it up. Get through it. It was worth the effort, and here is why.

Once the final version of your book is published, no further effort on your part is required. The book is published forevermore into perpetuity, and your work on it is finished. It will continue to be on the market and make money whether you do anything else with it or not. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. If your first book doesn't do well, try again.

Now for a few tips on how to get sales, a subject near and dear to every authors heart (and bank account).

It goes without saying that social media is of critical importance to indie writers. I strongly recommend creating an account on Twitter and Facebook for your work. Facebook is especially helpful because you can create a page for your work. To clarify, I have a PROFILE on Facebook that is just my close friends and family, and then I have  PAGE for my book. You want to create a PAGE, not a PROFILE. A Facebook page is open to the public, and anybody who wants to can like it, and post messages or wall content. It is a fantastic medium for getting in touch with your readers and building a loyal following. Creating a blog, as time consuming as it may be, is also an absolute must. Blogger makes it easy. I would also recommend creating a profile on Goodreads and getting active within that community.

To get an initial sales kick, make sure that you tell absolutely EVERYONE you know that you published a book. I don't care how embarassed or insecure you might feel, just do it. Post it on your Facebook profile and get as many friends and family members as you can to do the same. Plug it on twitter, take out ads on Goodreads if you can afford it, do whatever you can to get the word out. The more sales and reviews you get, the more metadata you create, and the more your book will show up on searches on Amazon and other ebook websites. Amazon searches and recommendations will be your best friend in the first few months. The section titled "People who bought this book also bought..." is pure marketing genius, and the farther up that list you can get, the better off you will be.

Ebooks, like any other product, go through a sales cycle. The holiday season, between the end of November and mid-February, is the peak sales season. Once you get into March, things slow down significantly. That being said, there is no such thing as a bad time to publish a book, but don't skimp on quality, editing, and content just to get a book to market. 

Although my work is available on B&N Nook, Amazon is by far my largest source of sales. If you publish nowhere else, publish there.

A few pitfalls to avoid, and some do's and don'ts.

First pitfall: Despair. Do not give in to it. Remember, you write because you love it. It is a long and difficult journey, but anthing worth doing is life is going to be difficult. If it was easy, everybody would do it and we'd all be millionares. Trudge forward, ever forward, with all the determination and focus you can muster. Let nothing sway you from the path of realizing your goals. If you feel overwhelmed, break the task in front of you down into small component parts and do one little thing at a time. Finish one task, then move on to the next. Whatever you do, make sure that progress, no matter how small, is being made.

Second pitfall: The way you react to negative reviews. When some naysayer comes along and rips apart the prose that you spent so many long hours struggling to perfect, you will want to post a comment on their review and lash out at them. DO NOT DO THIS. You must remain above the fray. Never, EVER comment on the reviews people leave unless you are thanking them for taking the time to give you valuable feedback. Remember, no work of fiction is ever going to please everyone. There will always be someone who will not like it, and will be mean-spirited enough to leave a bad review.

The Stand, by Stephen King, is one of my favorite books of all time. Go on Amazon, and it will have bad reviews.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, is pure Sci Fi genius. Go on Amazon, and it will have bad reviews.

Don't get worked up over bad reviews. Nothing you write will appeal to everyone. If you go to NEH's page on Amazon, you will find bad reviews. Not many of them, but some. I don't worry about the people who didn't like my book because I'm too busy being grateful to the overwhelming majority of readers who did. I read the bad reviews, I take their comments under advisement, and I move on.

DO respond to each and every comment and post made on your Facebook page. DO NOT be rude, vindictive, or disrespectful no matter how vile a comment a person may make. If you reprimand someone for being ignorant, vulgar, or disgusting, you must do so in a positive, constructive way. Stooping to name calling or vulgarity will avail you nothing, and will make you look just as wretched as the trolls who have nothing better to do than slam the hard work of others. Remember, these people have no accomplishments of their own; that is why they try to break yours down. Don't stoop to their level.

Make sure you communicate with the people who read your work as often as possible. This engenders loyalty, a sense of friendship, and goodwill. Give away signed copies, and never hesitate to offer an autograph or a kind word of encouragement. Always thank people for taking the time to reach out to you. 

Some books take off, and some don't. Why, you ask? I believe it comes down to four things: 
Cover art,
and most important of all, Quality. 

Get a good looking cover that embodies the overall theme of the book. 

Write a captivating intro, or get someone to write one for you. 

Edit thoroughly. The biggest criticism I have from NEH is editing oversights. I will be much more careful about this in the future. A good copy editor is worth the price, within reason. 

Last, but most definitely not least, write a good story. It helps if you study what is popular in the literature market and write something that is either very popular, or an underserved market. Zombie fiction is a prime example of this concept. That being said, make sure you write about something you like, and tell stories that you would want to read yourself. Also, don't be afraid to branch out and write in more than one genre, write novellas, or short storys. If you write something other than a full length (at least 100,000 word) novel, make sure you price it appropriately. .99-1.99 is okay for short fiction, 2.99-5.99 for full length work. Only go higher than this if there is significant demand for a book. Personally, I doubt I will charge more than 3.99 for anything in the near future regardless of demand. If you have more than one book in a series, offer the first one at 99 cents to help build a readership. Don't be afraid to use KDP Select to do free promotions. This will help get your name out there.

I could probably spend a couple of days writing everything that could be useful to a new author, but this post covers the most important points. I hope you find it helpful if you are an author, and if you are a reader, I hope this provides some insight into just how much goes into making a book available for you.

It is a long and difficult process, but it is also tremendously rewarding. Keep at it.

1 comment:

  1. Dear James,

    Thank you so much for sharing your hard earned lessons. I came to your blog looking for info on the sequel to NEH and came away with priceless advice I wasn't even looking for.

    I thoroughly enjoyed NEH. NEH was my first literary foray into the zombie apocalypse genre. I've since read a few other stories in the genre and have been generally unimpressed due to: over emphasis on gore, generic writing style, either weak or outrageously unbelievable plot transitions... I was very lucky and it seems to me serendipitous that I picked up your novel first.

    NEH avoided these sophmoric pitfalls and really nailed, in my opinion, what matters: the true horror and pyschological impact of a world changing event and the subsequent breakdown and restructuring of society in a world turned upside down. Thank you so much for the advice in your blog and the time and effort you spent in sharing this excellent story with others.

    Kind regards,