Four Things To Consider Before Self-Publishing

Last year, at a writer’s conference, most of the people I encountered had a very negative attitude towards self-publishing.  “Ugh.  Self-publishing.  Only loser writers who write crappy books would do that.”  I admit that I didn’t want to self-publish because of this stigma.  But that was before I stumbled across a book called Wool this year.

For those of you who haven’t read this book yet, it’s a fascinating story about a post-apocalyptic society that lives in underground silos.  The author’s name is Hugh Howey.  His amazing success has turned him into the poster child for self-publishing.

As a business person, I am completely intrigued by Howey’s success.  It would make a great case study for a business school.  Howey developed a great product (a novella), priced it at $0.99, and then released it directly to customers through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.  Then he just sat back and waited while pure market forces took control.  Sure enough, over time, Wool gathered steam on Amazon.  In fact, it gathered so much steam, that Howey was prompted to write more installments for this series.  He eventually sold enough books to quit his day job and focus entirely on writing.

This is every new writer’s dream come true.  If this is what happens when an author self-publishes, please sign me up!  But wait a second.  Before all of us stampede over to Amazon and unleash our precious works of art on the masses, here are a few things we should consider:  (The 4 P’s, if you’re a marketing person.)

PRODUCT:  Obviously, your story has to be really good.  Like, really, really good.  No one will buy a bad product.  But from a marketing perspective, the product should satisfy a customer’s need.  So what need did Howey satisfy for his readers?  Well, if you’re a writer, then you’re a reader.  What are YOUR needs as a reader?  I think that Howey just wrote a story that he himself wanted to read.  Fortunately for him, there were many readers who shared his interests.  So satisfy your own needs as a reader and trust that on a planet with 7 billion people, there are other readers who will share your interests.

PRICING:  This is an interesting dilemma.  So many authors are using the free/$0.99 strategy to get their books into circulation that they may be sabotaging themselves.  Customers buy stacks of ebooks and let them sit unread on their Kindles.  Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, I don’t want people to just buy a book I wrote.  I actually want them to READ IT.  So, I’m not sure that the free/$0.99 strategy is something I would pursue for all of my content.  HOWEVER, I do think that an unproven author will have to give away some content for free.  But how much?  One chapter?  Two chapters?  The entire first book in a series?  I think it depends on how many books you’ve written.  Howey essentially gave away the first installment in his Wool series and then raised the price in subsequent installments.  This may be the path I pursue, depending on what my finished product (book) is.

PROMOTION:  Let’s get this out in the open.  The dream for any undiscovered author is for his or her book to go viral.  So how does that happen?  I wish I knew the answer to that question.  But I can tell you how it will NOT happen.  By pestering people to buy your book.

No one wants to be pressured into buying something.  How do you feel when someone tries to push a product on you through Facebook or other social media channel?  If you’re trying to sell your book, you probably don’t want to irritate a potential customer.

The most enthusiastic customers find the products that they want on their own.  I think as new authors, we have to send our best efforts out into the universe and then let the readers find us.  This is where I really think “magic” happened for Hugh Howey.  His stories were aimed at entertaining himself, his friends and his family.  Any readers who stumbled across his book were pure gravy.  Obviously, now he’s swimming in a boatload of gravy.

Believe me, this is easier said than done for a control freak like myself!  But I think when you focus all of your energy on selling your book, it takes away energy from actually WRITING your book.  So I’ve been trying to tell myself to trust the universe.  Once I write the book, my readers will find me.  And they’ll find you too.

PLACE:  In marketing, this is really about distribution.  How does a reader gain access your book?  I know this will seem as if I’m contradicting what I said above, but hear me out.  I still think we have to trust that our readers will find us.  But as new authors, we also have to make it as easy as possible for them to find our books.

In Howey’s case, the place was Amazon.  He self-published his first novella in July 2011 and kept on writing other stories.  By October, he noticed that sales of Wool surpassed anything else he had written.  Howey quickly wrote and released four more installments for this series.

So how does this apply to us as new authors?  I know that I have to retrain my middle-aged brain to reevaluate what I consider the optimal location to sell my book.  I have to replace “shelf space” at a bookstore with “footprint” on the web.  And in a cluttered cyberworld, that means creating a series of works instead of just one.  The more works you have, the larger the footprint you’ll have on the web, and the more likely it is that readers will find your work.

TO MY FELLOW WRITERS:  So, that brings me back to the dilemma many of you may face as authors.  The publishing world is changing.  Has the stigma of self-publishing changed too?  Have you self-published your book or are you considering it?  Do you have any helpful suggestions for other new authors out there who are still swirling in this new publishing world?  Please share your thoughts!  I would love to hear them!   

My Three Revelations About Storytelling

I’m starting to realize a few things about writing and storytelling that I wanted to share in this post:

Writing vs. Storytelling

There’s a difference between being a good writer and a good storyteller.  I used to believe that the two were always interlinked, but recent book successes (cough, cough, 50 Shades of Grey, cough, cough), have proven otherwise.  I haven’t read Fifty Shades.  The subject matter doesn’t interest me, but I do admit that I was intrigued enough by the hype to read a preview of this book on Amazon.  I couldn’t get past the first few pages without growing irritated.  Why on earth is this book selling?  The 1-star reviews on Amazon were written more eloquently than the book itself.  (Plus, they were hysterical.)

But, obviously, the international sales figures for this book speak volumes, so who am I to judge?  E.L. James did something right.  If you can look past the questionable writing and subject matter, which I admit was difficult for me to do, she’s a genius when it comes to connecting with her audience.  Readers identify with her characters.  There are plenty of well-written books gathering dust on the shelves of libraries and bookstores across the nation.  I have to give credit where it’s due.  E. L. James is a phenomenal storyteller and I can learn a lot from her.

Scene Construction

My last post on this blog, I Am The Daughter Of Foreigners, received the most response.  People actually read it and sent me positive comments.  That’s huge compared with the crickets chirping after some of my other posts.  So, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out what I did differently on this one so that I can replicate it in future posts.

The bottom line is that I focused on the story.  I wrote for myself.  I had a clear picture of the scene in my head, since I actually lived it.  This post took all of 15 minutes to write.  I spent another 45 minutes polishing it, which included walking away from it and returning to it a few times.  But that post almost wrote itself.

When I went back to analyze it, I noted a few points about how I constructed the scene:

1.  Title:  A few friends told me that they stopped to read it because of the title.

2.  Setup:  The first paragraph setup the story at the Secretary of State’s office and introduced the main characters.

3.  Framing:  I didn’t start the scene too early and I didn’t drag the story on for too long.  I got to the point.

4.  Conflict:  There was an obvious confrontation between me (the Protagonist) and the older couple (the Antagonist).

5.  Resolution:  The “story” had an emotionally satisfying conclusion.  “Justice” was served.

6.  Emotional Premise:  The “racism/immigration” theme of this post would make most anyone’s blood boil.

7.  Information Exposition:  I knew the point that I wanted to make with this post without even thinking about it.

I’m not sure if I can replicate this each time I post something.  Every day of my life isn’t a conflict (thank goodness!).  But I think the takeaway from this is to have a clear picture in your head of the scene and the point that you want to make before writing it.

Selling A Book Will Be Harder Than Publishing A Book

Okay.  Let me be up front about this.  I don’t have a finished manuscript.  I’m nowhere near publication.  But only two months into this blog, I’m starting to realize that it’s hard to get people to read what you write.  There’s so much noise.  How does a person cut through all of that?

As challenging as writing a book is, publication is harder.  As hard as publishing a book will be, selling it is the ultimate challenge.  If I can’t get people to read the FREE content on a 900-word blog, how will I get people PAY MONEY and read 300 pages in a book?  (NOTE:  The assumption is that the free content on a blog is technically well-written and emotionally evocative.  That’s the minimum requirement in this market, and I’m still learning the craft.)

Let’s assume that I’ve written the next Harry Potter book and that it’s been published.  (I know that this is arrogant, but hear me out.)  So what’s the next step?  How do you get readers to actually look between the covers of this supposed jewel if you’re an unknown author?  How did J.K. Rowling, who had her struggles getting HP published, get people to read her book before she became a writing legend?  At some point, no one knew who she was.  How did she break through the barriers to entry?

I’m an engineer.  I like to figure out puzzles and to me, this is the ultimate marketing puzzle.  I will definitely share any insights that I uncover, so stay tuned!  Happy Selling!