Adventures in Self-Publishing
On June 26, 2012, I self-published my first novella. St. Peter in Chains had gotten great feedback from the places I’d submitted it, but its odd length and gay protagonist had landed a lot of rejections. “Love your style, but this piece isn’t right for us. Send something else,” was the sum total of my responses. So finally, out of frustration, I self-published it on Amazon Kindle.
Or rather, my husband did.
Scott is in marketing, so he did some serious research and began strategizing. He found review outlets and planned free promo days in advance to give various sites time to add my work to their lists of free e-books. Worked a charm. By the time I put out my two Sherlock Holmes stories, the machine was running pretty smoothly.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are still my best sellers. I think this is due in large part to the fact that Holmes has a built-in fan base that is ravenous for content. And the stories feed off one another, too; when one is free, sales of the other also spike. As a marketer, Scott keeps telling me I need write some more Holmes. That’s where my bread is buttered, at least thus far.
But St. Peter has done well, too. Well enough that people have asked what happens to Peter and his lover, and so I’m planning a sequel. Well enough that I adapted the novella into a short screenplay and that screenplay won an award and had a professional table read at Sundance Film Festival last January.
In short, here I am nine months after my first self-publishing venture, and I’m closing in on 20k sales and downloads. And what have I learned?
Marry someone in marketing. Or have a friend in marketing, or hire a marketer, or be willing to devote some serious time to doing it yourself. Writers (and I realize this is a generalization) mostly want to write. Especially when time is limited, they’d rather use that little bit of time to write than to do PR. But you gotta do it. Even an hour or two a week. Set it aside, just like a standing appointment, and focus on marketing.
Find reviewers. Real reviewers. You know the guy who writes movie reviews for your local newspaper? You either love him and share his views or you hate him and trust someone else’s opinion more. Well, it’s the same for book reviewers. They have people who love them, people who hate them, but a lot of people read them. And that’s how you get people to hear about your book. You may have a “platform” to shout from, but these reviewers have a pedestal.
And speaking of platform, use that platform wisely. If every tweet and every Facebook status update is about your book, one of two things is going to happen:
You will fatigue your market and/or you will lose followers and friends. And if you’re using Twitter and Facebook, be sure you’re supplying more useful and interesting content than simply posting incessantly about your book. Post links to related books or topics, to other reviews, whatever. Once people know you have real content on your blog, Twitter feed or Facebook site, they’ll be more open to what you have to say when your next words are, “Hey, and I also have a book, in case you’re interested.”
Marketing research shows that people have to come into contact with something seven discreet times before they’ll act on the information. That means, on average, they need to see and hear about your book seven times before they’ll buy it. And those seven times should not all be from you. In fact, studies prove that doesn’t work. Seven tweets about your book get you ignored at best and unfollowed at worst. BUT a tweet from you, then one from someone else, and a mention on a friend’s site, or a review on a blog this person frequents, a book trailer, an ad in a magazine . . . Do you see? After seven instances of hearing about or seeing the book, the person finally says, “Hmm. I heard about this book . . . Maybe I should read it.”
Did you say ‘ad in a magazine?’ I did. Because sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I’m not saying put a full-pager in the New York Times. But look into local papers or other regional magazines (there are numerous Patch papers) and see what ad rates are. Even some reviews blogs will prioritize your book listing for a small donation. Reviewers may or may not agree to review your work, but almost no one says no to a little money. (Note, however, that you should never pay for a [good] review. Advertising or listing? Yes. Review? No.)
On the flip side, since writers (especially the self-published kind) don’t make a ton of money, be sure you’re investing in the right places. It may be cheap to put an ad in the Penny Saver, but no one reading it is looking for book recommendations either. It’s worth the extra to put that ad in (naming one of my local magazines) San Francisco Book Review. Because it all goes back to finding and knowing your audience.
Oh, and by the way, know your audience. This is what will help you find reviewers and readers. Don’t submit your space opera to a reviewer who loves high fantasy but has panned every sci-fi book. Really, know your reviewers, too. Look over their sites thoroughly and follow their submission instructions. Show them you’ve done your research by saying something to them like, “I saw you loved [book they reviewed that is similar in genre or tone to yours] and thought you might also like [name your book].” As someone who has worked as an actual reviewer, I can say: Please don’t just randomly send your book to someone. They have a stack of stuff already, stuff they’ve agreed to read and review, and when something unsolicited arrives in the mail (or as an e-mail attachment or whatever), it gets shoved to the bottom and may never get looked at. Unless their guidelines state “just send it,” always query first.
Cultivate other connections. Hit up a local book club and offer copies of your book to them if they’d just be willing to write a review online. Approach the local paper and suggest your book as a human interest story. Ask your library and/or local bookstores if you can do a reading, or even a signing if you’re doing a printed version of your book.
Figure out what sells. Hence Scott’s continual urging for me to write more Holmes. But even if you aren’t tapping a beloved existing character, you can make your own characters just as compelling so they become just as beloved. Remember that this is what keeps publishers in business: Identifying trends and marketing to those audiences.
But don’t write what you don’t love. Because if your heart isn’t in it, it will show. I could write another Holmes story, sure, but I’m not inspired by that at the moment. So I won’t write another one until I “feel” it. Else I’ll disappoint my readers and myself (and may end up with bad reviews besides).
And keep writing. The way to build a solid audience and regular readers is to keep giving them stuff to read. And always leave them wanting more.
Author bio: M Pepper Langlinais is an award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright, and bestselling author. Her latest novel is the contemporary fantasy The K-Pro in which ancient gods disrupt a modern-day film set.
And just for fun: Adventures with Sherlock