As some of you may know, I am going to be a panelist on e-book publishing at the Virginia Writers Club annual writers symposium, Navigating Your Writing Life. Becky Mushko, author and panelist moderator, asked if I would mind posting both a Q&A of my self-pub experiences and a resource sheet I put together for the participants. Hopefully, both attendees and non-attendees should get a kick out of some of the answers and some mileage out of the resource sheet.
Matthew Iden writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist. He is the author of the Marty Singer detective series–A Reason to Live, Blueblood, One Right Thing—all of which have been in Amazon’s Top 100 for Hard Boiled Detective fiction.
Why did you decide to go the e-book route?
I tried to achieve publication through the traditional means over the course of about six years: pitching agents, attending conferences, the whole nine yards. While reactions were favorable, I never made it past the first or second rejection letter. In mid-2011, colleagues in the Northern Virginia chapter of the Writers Club began experimenting with self-publishing and started seeing results quickly. They weren’t getting rich, but their books were selling and they were building up a readership: exactly the things I wanted.
I dipped my toe in the water with a series of short story collections, then went all-in with my first Marty Singer novel in early 2012. The more I learned about traditional publishing–the way it plays favorites, drops what they consider non-sellers, and hamstrings innovation–the happier I was to have taken control of my own fate and go indie.
What format/formats did you use and why?
I’ve experimented with most of the major distributors–Smashwords (thus iTunes, B&N Online, Sony, Diesel), Kobo, Amazon–and can honestly say that none can hold a candle to Amazon’s tools for exposure, marketing, and fulfillment. Each one has their one problem or hang up, but collectively they’re getting their lunch eaten by Amazon and should. Smart indie writers should follow a winner.
Did you have any problems setting up your e-books for publication?
I do my own covers and formatting, but I have a background in web design, so many of the technical hurdles many authors face were fairly normal issues for me. I would encourage anyone with some tech savvy to give at least the formatting a try using one of the many good guides available.
Conversely, if you’re intimidated by technology, cut your losses and hire a good cover designer and ebook formatter to do the work (some resources for finding good help are listed below). Both can be had for under $200. You shouldn’t skimp in this department. If your book isn’t worth a modest investment, then you aren’t really serious about entering the marketplace.
The above advice applies to digital formatting only; if you plan to have your books printed (like through Createspace), I would only tackle formatting your own books if you are comfortable with technology.
How do you promote your e-books?
- Social media is by far the highest value for the smallest cost. However, find a social media tool and stick with it rather than scatter your efforts thin. I find that I like blogging and Facebook, but don’t understand Twitter, tumblr, or Pinterest, so I don’t use those tools. Naturally, balance your cost in time spent away from writing with promotion.
- Begin building an email newsletter once you have a readership. Use it sparingly, to announce new releases only. This will become your direct, pro-active line to dedicated readers (as opposed to passive social media, which the reader has to actively engage with for it to be useful). I use Mailchimp for my mailing list–it’s free until you pass 2,000 subscribers.
- Ads are useful, but only at the point where you have decent reviews and ratings (10-15 reviews, 4 star avg. or better). Bookbub.com is currently the king of this particular hill and, while pricier than most, the results are usually worth it. Stick with online ads and avoid print, at least at first, since you have a barrier to fulfillment (i.e., the reader can’t click on paper) and no way to measure return on investment. Understand and accept that you will be spending a chunk of change for good ad space–this is an investment, not a tax.
What advice do you have for those considering the e-book route?
- Leave biases at the door. All indies had to overcome the stigma of vanity publishing the first time they hit the “Publish” button, but it’s a necessary leap if you want to sell books in the 21st century. Also, Amazon is a successful, mega-billion dollar company not because it wants to rule the world, but because it has an amazingly successful model. If Amazon has the lion’s share of the market, it’s not because they’re bullying others into accepting their system, it’s because Amazon’s competition isn’t living up to the name. I’ve had to overcome my own angst on this topic, especially with the advent of KDP Select, but I’m on board now. Amazon will have to prove to me that it’s the Dr. Evil so many people say it is.
- Read widely about the industry in both its traditional and new, indie aspects. I haunted www.kindleboards.com (now www.kboards.com) for a year before I felt I even had a handle on what I was doing–and I still return to ask sticky questions or get up to speed on industry news. Several good guides (see below, Understanding the Industry) can help you navigate what’s currently a market that’s up for grabs.
- No matter how tech savvy you are, it’s likely you’ll need to engage the services of an editor, cover designer, ebook formatter and others at some point, which is perfectly fine. But be very, very cautious about succumbing to any “packaged services” or “self-publishing agencies” that want to offer you the whole thing for one low, low price (see a list of companies to be beware of, below). The vast majority of these businesses are, if not outright scams themselves, deliberately misleading and will bleed you of thousands of dollars, often without even producing the book, or doing such a poor job that you wish they hadn’t. Sadly, many of these self-publishing scams are actually owned by traditional publishers like Penguin, who know that desperate would-be authors will hold out hope that their manuscript will be seen by an editor on the top floor. It won’t. Don’t waste your money on these losers.
Understanding the Industry
Kindleboards’ Writers Cafe (http://www.kboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html) I’ve already mentioned. It is a message-board style website that is the first place I turn to for indie advice.
David Gaughran is an author and leading authority on all-things indie. Visit his blog at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com and I can’t recommend his books Let’s Get Digital (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005DC68NI/) and Let’s Get Visible (http://www.amazon.com/Lets-Get-Visible-Publishing-ebook/dp/B00CPQ6YYI/) highly enough.
Other good sites include author Joe Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/), The Passive Voice (http://www.thepassivevoice.com/), and Dean Wesley Smith’s blog (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/).
Formatting – Services
I do both my own formatting and covers, but I have friends and colleagues who recommend Polgarus Studios (http://www.polgarusstudio.com/), which has great prices and quick turnaround times.
Many colleagues have used Streetlight Graphics (http://streetlightgraphics.com/) and absolutely love them. They can do covers, ebook formatting, print (CreateSpace) formatting, websites, the whole shebang for a reasonable price (between $260-500, depending on how much you want them to do). They are in great demand, however, so your wait time might be large.
You can also skim a list of freelance formatters author Elizabeth Craig created: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0At-RSfaoYUZbdE0xNkZza053VEFBei1pZUZncXdmYmc#gid=0.
Formatting – DIY (Editing, Cover, and Description)
- See “Freelance Editors” under https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0At-RSfaoYUZbdE0xNkZza053VEFBei1pZUZncXdmYmc#gid=0
Cover (tips, examples)
Description (Importance of, picking keywords and categories for your book)
- Picking the right sub-category: http://mlouisalocke.com/2011/10/24/categories-key-words-and-tags-oh-my-why-should-an-author-care/
Services to Avoid or Question
- Archway Publishing (Simon & Schuster using Author Solutions for fulfillment)
- Authonomy (Harper Collins)
- Author Solutions (owned by Penguin; parent company of other disreputable firms: AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford)
- Book Country
- Writer Beware – http://accrispin.blogspot.com/
- Preditors & Editors – http://pred-ed.com/
- (lesser extent) Passive Voice – http://www.thepassivevoice.com/
Descriptions of Scams, History
Understanding Amazon Rank, Sales, and Popularity Lists
- Link to Amazon Kindle Best Sellers: http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/digital-text/
- Link to Amazon Popularity list (unranked): http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks/ (then navigate to a sub-genre)
- Link to Amazon Author Rank: http://www.amazon.com/author-rank