I've been called a lot of things over the years (I think my favorite was "Fuckhead". I kinda deserved it.), but a gifted public speaker is not one of them.
This coming Saturday morning, I'm scheduled to give a talk about marketing and promoting self-published books at Alleycon 2015. I won't say that I'm not looking forward to it. I'm honored to have been invited. But I will say that I'm very much looking forward to Saturday afternoon, when I'll either be celebrating a job well done or coping with crippling humiliation at the nearest bar.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, I've decided to scrape together the best of my previously recorded pearls of wisdom from blog posts past, and Frankenstein them together into an outline to guide my talk. So none of what you're about to read will be new, but I'll try to keep it fresh and fun.
As every writer's path is different, I can't tell you exactly how to achieve success as a self-published author. I can only share my own experience and hope you pick up something from it.
Step 1: Write a book.
My own journey began with a quirky little novel about a couple of teenage girls (characters I'd started developing in college) with superpowers called Thicker Than Blood. If you've read this blog before, you might find it odd that there's no hyperlink on that title, because I like to hyperlink my own work any chance I get. Thicker Than Blood doesn't have a hyperlink, because I never published it, because it was shit.
Writing some unreadable shit is an important first step toward being able to write readable shit, then even perhaps salable shit. It's all about honing your craft. The mistake I've seen far too many self-published authors make is slapping a cover on those craft-honing exercises and clicking the publish button. That's fine in the beginning, as I've mentioned before, just to get a realistic perspective on how shitty a writer you are. But once you actually start putting out some quality work, you'll want to pull the shit off the virtual shelves. Quality and consistency are what you want readers to associate with your name.
When I wrote Critical Failures, I knew it was something special. Certainly not for everyone, but I knew there were enough thirty-something gamers and former-gamers with whom my crass band of adventurers would resonate.
Step 2: Edit.
Having written a book that I was genuinely proud of, the next step was to revise it. For that, I needed a second set of eyes. A lot of people will tell you that a professional editor is a must. I'm not one of those people. I like to implement a plan-to-fail strategy in all of my business endeavors. Years ago, when I got it in my head that I wanted to start my own little English teaching business up in Incheon, I insisted on buying a piece of commercial property, rather than rent, so that if I failed, at least I came out of it with a real estate investment.
I failed. But I've still got a piece of property, which I rented out for a few years. Incidentally, if anyone is interested in buying a small piece of commercial real estate, come talk to me after the thing.
Likewise, as an aspiring self-published author, I went into it planning to fail. I didn't want to invest money which I might never earn back in a professional editor. So instead, I found myself a beta reader. She and I swapped and critiqued each other's work, and she showed me that this book that I was so proud of was actually still a big pile of shit. She coached me through a rewrite from the ground up. Shop around when choosing beta readers. The good ones are few and far between, but so worth it.
Step 3: Make a Cover.
Your cover is another area in which many self-publishing gurus will insist you pay to have done professionally, to which I again respond with "Fuck that shit."
That's not to say you shouldn't take your cover seriously. It's the first part of your book that people see, if you're lucky enough to have them see it at all. You want an image which will encourage them to stop and take a closer look. My own cover strategy is simplicity. A single image and a tagline that tells people exactly what my books are about.
Sure, it's not going to be hanging on any museum walls, but I've had more than a few fans tell me via email that they bought my book based on that big fat black d20.
My brother in law (yes, the one pictured above) snapped a picture of a die and threw that cover together for me in a few minutes on Photoshop.
Step 4: Publish your shit.
You have a decision to make when you're ready to grace the world with your literary art. Do you cast a wide net? Or do you go exclusive with Amazon?
It seems like a no-brainer at first. Why would you go exclusive with Amazon when you can publish on Amazon as well as a multitude of other distributors? The answer is that Amazon gives authors certain perks in exchange for exclusivity. You'll have to weigh these perks against the potential sales you'll be missing out on elsewhere. It's a hotly debated topic in the indie publishing world. Do your research, and don't believe everything you read.
I went wide at first, publishing Critical Failures both on Amazon and Smashwords, which, in turn, publishes books on an array of other distributors. After a few months, I found that I was selling a handful of books on Amazon every month, and almost sweet fuck all anywhere else. So I pulled my book from Smashwords and took a 90-day exclusivity chance with Amazon.
I haven't looked back.
Step 5: Spread the good word.
Self-promotion is probably the second biggest stumbling block for most indie authors, the first being writing a not shitty book. With so many options and so much conflicting advice out there, it's hard to know where to even begin. Here are the different ways I promote my own work...
If you're anything like me, you cringe at the very sound of the word. I fucking hate Twitter. I hate everything about it. But damn if it doesn't move some books.
Much like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, there is a growing network of indie authors who do nothing but spam their own book advertisements, and spam other people's book advertisements in exchange for reciprocity. I am part of that network. I'm on there every day, recycling my same list of tweets, complete with pictures and links for my books and blog posts.
The aforementioned self-publishing gurus will be quick to tell you that a constant barrage of ads is not an effective means of selling books, and only serves to make you look obnoxious. For Facebook, I agree with that 100%. But for Twitter? Spamming my shit the only use I have for it. Why does it work for me when it's a pointless waste of time for most others? Because, even with this lowly, bottom-feeding task, they manage to suck at it. To be effective, tweets need to be something more than "Check out my book." followed by a link. With thousands of tweets flying by people's screens at any given moment, you need to give those sad, life-wasting Twitter users (Did I mention how much I hate Twitter?) a reason to stop and click on your ad. A tweet needs to stand out. It needs to make someone stop and say "What the fuck?" Push the borders of decency if you must, but don't be boring.
My Facebook author page is a place where, unlike Twitter, I want to avoid being an obnoxious dickhole. This is where my fans are, and my primary means of interacting with them. Sure, I'll post an ad announcing the release of a new book or a promotion I'm running, but for the most part, I like to post things I think my readers will enjoy. Sometimes it's an update on the progress of the book I'm currently working on. If I happen to have written something that's both funny out of context and spoiler free, I'll often include it. Other times I'll post a link to a new blog post I've written. Or I'll share a funny fantasy-related meme I saw on my own feed.
The point of a Facebook author page, in my opinion, is to build a fan base and keep them entertained and engaged, so that when I do have a new release, they're all ready to pounce on the buy button.
That, and it just feels great to know there are people in the world who openly declare themselves fans of mine.
My strategy behind blogging is a mix of providing the engaging, entertaining, and sometimes informative content I aim for with my Facebook page, and the spamming I do with Twitter, but without being obnoxious. Hyperlinks give the reader the option of clicking or just continuing to read.
I try to stick to a schedule of writing a new blog post every weekend, so that my readers will have something of mine to read while waiting for my next book. A few weeks ago, I even wrote up a whole post on why I think it's a good idea for an author to maintain a quality blog.
D. Mailing list.
I'm a little late in the game with this one. I've only recently created a mailing list, and have yet to send any mail from it. For now, I'm still slowly collecting email addresses. I'll probably use it to announce the Kindle Countdown promotion I plan to run in October, and I'll certainly use it to announce the release of Critical Failures IV. I hear they're terribly effective. I guess I'll find out. In the meantime, you can sign up for mine here.
Amazon has a Top 100 Bestsellers list for books overall, for categories, and for many, many sub-categories. They even have separate lists which only feature Kindle versions of books. Getting your books on some of these category and sub-category lists are arguably the best ways to get your book seen by more people who are browsing for books in those specific categories and sub-categories.
This is were having an established fan base (and, in theory, an mailing list) is helpful. If you can get enough people to buy your newly released book at relatively the same time, it should quickly soar to the top of your chosen sub-sub-sub-category (Sorry Jules!), making your cover visible to people who have never heard of you. If they are intrigued, they might have a look at your Amazon author page and take a look at your other books in the series.
Amazon allows you to choose two categories to place your book under. My own strategy involves having my books in one obscure, yet at least tangentially relevant category, Comedy in my case, so that even a few sales a day will keep them on the list, and one sub-category of Fantasy, so that they will contribute to my author rank. Currently being in the novel-writing phase of the game, and subsequently not having had any new releases for quite a while, I've fallen off the tail end of Amazon's Top 100 Fantasy Authors, but I was on there for a while, and expect to be on there again in the not-too-distant future. And holy shit does it feel amazing to be on a list right behind Neil Gaiman.
Or to have my book surrounded by those of George R. R. Martin.
Mind you, those two screenshots were captured during a particularly successful promotion, but there I was. Just another bald, fat English teacher in Korea, rubbing e-elbows with literary giants. Was it because of the great literature I write? Fuck no. I write fart jokes. This was the result of a combination of all of the things I'm currently listing.
F. Write a shit ton of books, preferably in a series.
At the time of Alleycon 2015, I currently have three novels, eighteen short stories, and three bundled collections of those short stories.
The novels are self-explanatory. People enjoy reading novels, getting caught up with characters over the course of an adventure, and they're willing to drop a couple of bucks for that length of work.
I write short stories, little not-necessarily-canonical side-adventures involving my four core protagonists, as a break between each novel. My more enthusiastic fans will buy them at their higher-than-reasonable listed price, while others will read them for free via their Kindle Unlimited subscription, while still others will wait to buy them when I run one of my Kindle Countdown promotions, and still still others will wait until I've finished six of them and bundled them into a more-reasonably priced d6 collection.
The d6 collections of the short stories are the only books I don't enroll in Amazon's KDP Select program. For those reading my shorts via Kindle Unlimited, I'd prefer they read the individual short stories. Being free for the subscriber, it makes little difference to them whether they're reading the stories piecemeal or as part of a collection, but I prefer to see six of my titles climbing Amazon's charts rather than one collection.
The collections exist for three reasons. 1.) To give readers a more reasonably priced option for buying the e-versions of the books, 2.) To have enough material to make a decent-sized paperback book, and 3.) To have enough material to make a decent-sized audiobook.
While it's nice to have a book ranking high at the top of a list, it's much more fun to take over the whole goddamn list.
G. KDP Select.
Earlier, when I brought up the subject of casting a wide net or going exclusive with Amazon, I mentioned some perks which Amazon bestows upon those who choose to grant them exclusivity.
Having one's books available on Amazon's controversial Kindle Unlimited program is considered by some to be more of a curse than a perk. Readers pay a monthly subscription fee to read all the participating books they want, and authors get paid according to how many pages of their work people have read. This new system is a recent development, and we don't know for certain yet how much we'll be paid per page. But for me, at this stage of the game, the exposure is far more important. These "pages read" keep my books high on Amazon's Top 100 in Comedy list, keeping me visible to potential new readers. And for someone who's relatively unknown, a subscriber is more likely to give my books a try, seeing as how they don't have to pay for them.
The other main perk for KDP Select members is the option to either give your books away for free for up to five days in a 90-day cycle, or run a Kindle Countdown promotion, discounting them for up to seven days. I'll discuss both of those options as separate entries.
H. Free promotions.
Many authors scoff at the idea of giving away your hard work for free, but it can be an effective means of snagging some much-needed positive reviews early on in an indie author's career. Having an established fan base, I no longer run free promotions on my books. I can count on my fans to leave enough reviews on new books to keep the ball rolling.
Amazon has separate bestseller lists for free books, and after a few days of being free, when your books go back to the regular paid lists, they will have dropped considerably in their rankings.
But way back in the day, when I was just starting out, I did some free promos, picked up some nice reviews, and I have no regrets about that.
I. Kindle Countdown promotions.
If I'd had the foresight and patience to wait until now to run a Kindle Countdown promotion, it would have been a nice way to impress you with my books' current amazing rankings. But I've already used my Countdown for this cycle back in July, and I won't be able to do another one until mid-October.
But those are good times, and make for some fun Facebook posts.
J. Make sure to have audio and paperback versions of your books available.
Costing nothing but a bit of time and work to produce via Createspace, it's foolish not to have paperback versions of your books available. Some people just prefer to read that way. I don't sell nearly as many paper copies of my books as I do e-books. It's not even close. But not having them available... that's just leaving money on the table.
As for audiobooks, I put off having those produced for a long time. That's a hell of a lot more work. You have to find someone to read and produce them, you have to go through auditions, you have to figure out how Audible works. And for what? Who the hell even listens to audiobooks? The answer to that question surprised me. Mr. Oldman?
I can't fucking believe how well my audiobooks sell. People complain in the reviews that my entire series isn't yet available.
A few months ago, Audible selected Critical Failures for a Buy One Get One sale, which made for a nice big boost in sales for a couple of days. And the best part is, those paperback and audio sales all count toward my Amazon author ranking. Seriously, get those audiobooks produced, and produced well. I was so lucky that Saturn Five Sound approached me.
K. Amazon's associations.
Another way that Audible BOGO sale helped me is that, shortly after it occurred, Audible and Amazon began recommending my books to fans of some much more popular books, most notably, Ready Player One.
The above screenshot is included in a blog post I wrote about trying to further cement the ties I had with more successful and well-known authors than myself. The results have been mixed, but I made a couple of butt-sex jokes, so it's still worth a read.
L. Back matter.
For your e-books especially, it's a good idea to have hyperlinks to your website, your blog, your Amazon page, your Facebook page, and to all of your other individual books. Make it as easy as possible for customers to find all of your shit.
M. Public appearances.
When I was asked to speak at Alleycon, I jumped all over that shit, knowing full well that it was going to be a source of constant anxiety for the next three months, and that I would hate every sweaty, stuttering moment of it. It's painful to me to think about how bored you are sitting there listening to me read this shit.
But here I am.
Much like writing the unreadable shit I talked about before, I view this unlistenable-to lecture as a step toward being a step toward being a better public speaker at future conventions. This writer business is no easy gig. You have to take what opportunities come your way.
This is my second official public appearance, the first being a book signing I was invited to do at a game shop in Gautier, Mississippi. I had a pretty good turnout, and signed and sold quite a few books, and got to shake the hands of actual fans. It was surreal.
I would normally advise, when doing an event like this, to have a stack of paperbacks on hand to sign and sell. The only reason I'm not doing that here is because I didn't know what kind of turnout to expect, and shippiing to Korea is a little more costly.
When my family and I finally move back to the States, I'm hoping to be able to participate more in these conventions. I've even given some thought to organizing (with the help of my fans) a family cross-country road trip/book tour.
N. Accept those opportunities that are presented to you, and seek out new ones.
One thing I've been looking into a bit lately is short story anthologies (not counting my own). My beta reader, Joan, recently asked if I'd be interested in contributing a short story to a collection she was working on with some other writers, most of whom aren't yet published, self or otherwise. She's hoping to take advantage of my fanbase to provide an initial boost in sales. I was delighted to contribute because of all the help she's given me these past few years.
So when a friend posted a short story contest on Faceboook, featuring two prominent contributors from Cracked.com as judges, I weighed the potential rewards against the time it would take away from my progress on Critical Failures IV, and it was a pretty easy decision to make. Work on CF4 was halted for two days while I spun 4,000 more words of comedy gold. If my story is selected, great. If not, at least I'll probably have had my work read by someone whose comedy writing I admire, and I'll have another short story under my belt.
Due to the length restrictions of the contest, it's too short even for me to consider charging money for, but I've been tinkering with the idea of writing a short solely for the purpose of giving away to anyone who subscribes to my mailing list for a while now. This could be the perfect opportunity.