Monday, February 17, 2014

Guest Post by Curtis Edmonds

From author Curtis Edmonds.

What I've Learned From One Year of Self-Publishing

I self-published my debut novel, RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, one year ago today, on February 17, 2013. That was a mistake.

What I meant to do was launch RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY on March 1. In order to prepare for that date, I uploaded the Kindle version of RAIN ON MY WEDDING DAY to Amazon on February 17. I wanted to have a page ready to go on Amazon so that people could pre-order the book before the release date. Except that I couldn’t figure out how to do that. (You may not be able to; I’m not sure.) So when you look at the Amazon page for my book, it says it was published on February 17, not March 1.

That was one of the many mistakes that I made with RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY. It wasn’t my first mistake, and it wasn’t the last one. In the past year as a self-publisher, I have made a lot of mistakes. Some of them have cost me time, and most of them have cost me money in some way.

I read Joe’s blog, and other resources, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get my book to market in the best possible way. I still made mistakes. Most of them were well-meaning, I think. I like to think I’ve learned from them, and I am hoping not to make those same mistakes with my next novel.

In this post, I cover four things I did with RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY that turned out to be mistakes, and discuss why I am not going to repeat them. (Two quick caveats, though, before I start. First, these were not all of the mistakes that I made, only the ones I am comfortable telling you about. Second, if any of these things sound familiar, but they worked out for you in your career, that’s fine. I am just talking about what I think I did wrong with my book.)

MISTAKE NUMBER ONE: I wasted a lot of time before I got RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY published.

I finished the first draft of RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY in March of 2011, about two years before I self-published it. I recognized right away that the book needed some work, so I hired a copy editor. Around the same time, I hired another freelance editor that I knew to take a look at it as well. It ended up that I was doing two rounds of revisions on the novel from two different editors at the same time. This was not a good idea.

After I got the novel into shape, I started querying on it. I did my querying slowly, taking my time, researching possible agents. I found an agent early on who asked to see the full manuscript, and I stopped querying at that point. She ended up passing on the book. After that, I went to a writer’s conference in New York, met with some agents, and decided that the novel needed more work. I spent the winter of 2011-12 on revisions, and then started querying again. I got a couple of nibbles from other agents, but they passed on it as well.

I eventually hired a developmental editor to help me polish the book. He worked on a couple of chapters, and then decided that he didn’t have time to finish, and refunded my money. So I hired another developmental editor who helped me out a great deal. Once I worked through those revisions, I started querying again in the fall of 2012. Again, a couple of agents looked at the full manuscript, but none of them decided to represent me.

I decided to self-publish in January 2013. I hired a cover designer who put out what I still think is a great cover. I hired someone to format the book for me. Six weeks later, RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY made its debut to an indifferent world.

I made three rather large mistakes here. First, I wasted a lot of time and effort hiring all these different editors. I think I got my money’s worth out of all of them, but the entire editing and revision process ended up taking a lot longer than it needed to. Second, I drizzled out the query process for far too long. I basically stopped querying whenever I got a request for a full manuscript. This was not a good idea. And finally, since I was spending all my time on revisions and querying, I wasn’t writing anything else. I didn’t start on my next book until last summer, and I only finished the first draft in January 2014.

What I’ve learned: Once I get my first draft polished, I am going to hire one editor, and then query to see if I can interest an agent, and if that doesn’t work, I am going to try to get the book ready for publication as quickly as may be. But not too quickly. Why?

MISTAKE NUMBER TWO: I got RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY published much too quickly.

And yes, before you say anything, before you say one single word, I recognize that this mistake cuts against the previous mistake. I get that. Really. Here’s the thing. Once I decided to self-publish--that is to say, once I realized that the very last lingering opportunities to get my book traditionally-published had burned away--I did it in kind of a big rush. I got the cover designed and the book professionally formatted and did everything I could to make the book presentable and desirable. And then I got a little impatient. I put the book up on Amazon without doing anything much to promote it ahead of time. I did a cover reveal on Twitter and mentioned it on Facebook but otherwise didn’t let anyone outside of my social media following know that the book was coming out.

This was a mistake, and it showed up in early sales. By which I mean there weren’t any sales, or not very many, not at first. Since there weren’t any sales, there weren’t any reviews, so the few people who looked at the Amazon site didn’t know if the book was any good or not. Not to mention BookBub (just to name one example) requires a minimum number of reviews before you can use their service.

Over the last year, over a hundred people have reviewed RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY on Amazon, and more than half of them gave the book five stars. But it would have been helpful to have at least some of those reviews in place before I launched the book.

What I’ve learned: This time, I am going to contact the book-bloggers that have reviewed RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY and let them know that the new book is out, and contact some additional bloggers as well. I am probably going to try to build buzz on Goodreads through a giveaway. I am going to have at least some kind of plan in place for marketing, which I didn’t have at all for RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY.

MISTAKE NUMBER THREE: I didn’t put RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY in the appropriate category on Amazon.

This makes me sound slightly more stupid than I actually am, so let me tell you a little about my novel, first. RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING day is the story of Will Morse, a former NFL player who has had three of his four children die. Will is estranged from his fourth child, who seeks to reconnect with him on the eve of her wedding. He is wracked with pain and anguish and guilt, and spends most of the story in an isolated cabin in North Georgia, brooding over his losses. It is--and I say this as the author, and an advocate for the novel--a bit of a downer.

When I tried to pitch RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY to agents, I had the idea that it was in the genre of upscale commercial fiction, like The Kite Runner or something. You could call it “book club fiction” if you wanted to. The only problem is that when you list a book on Amazon, you can’t list it under the category of “upscale commercial fiction,” because it isn’t there.

I listed RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY as women’s fiction. I did this because I hoped that women would buy it. (This seems to have been a good decision--the people who have the book listed as “to-read” on Amazon are overwhelmingly female.) I also listed the book as literary fiction, even though it really isn’t, because I liked the idea of being a literary fiction writer a lot better than I liked being a women’s fiction writer. And in the description, I said that the book was a “modern Southern gothic” novel, which I guess could be a genre if there were other books in that genre, but I don’t think that there are.

What I learned: My next novel will be listed firmly within a recognized genre that is going to help me sell books. That gets me into the next mistake.

MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR: Since I didn’t realize what genre I was writing, I didn’t conform to the basic conventions of that genre.

I read my reviews. I treasure the good ones, and I try to learn from all of them. What I learned was that some of my readers considered RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY to be a contemporary romance. I never thought of the book that way. I never queried it as a romance novel. I would not have ever imagined myself writing a romance novel. And here I am, and people are calling the novel I spent years on a “romance novel,” and I am sort of, well, not horrified by that. (Whatever you think of the “contemporary romance” genre, it sells more books than “modern Southern gothic” does.)

The other thing that some of my reviewers were telling me was that they don’t usually read books by male authors featuring male characters. They’d made an exception in my case, and they liked my book. But I came to the conclusion that if these reviewers were somewhat turned off by having a male protagonist in a contemporary romance novel, there were at least some people out there who didn’t read the novel because of who I am and who the protagonist is.

I am not criticizing anyone on their reading habits here. People can read what they want, with whatever characters that they want. But if I’m in the business of selling romance novels--and it appears, to my great and unending surprise, that I am in the business of selling romance novels--then I need to do a better job of managing reader expectations.

What I learned: The next novel has a female protagonist. It also means that I am thinking about writing it under a female pen name. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am about this, but if it helps me sell more books, I have to at least consider it.

A BRIEF CONCLUSION: Thanks if you’ve read this far (and thanks to Joe for letting me post here).

RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY has not, so far, been a success. I have not quite made back the financial investment I have put into the book, and there is every possibility that I won’t. I have given away far more copies than I have sold. If the information in most surveys is correct, I have probably sold about an average number of copies for a self-published novel, which of course is not very many.

I am not happy about this. I am glad that I chose self-publishing over the alternative of leaving RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY in a drawer somewhere, and I’ve been very gratified by the great reviews the book has received, but I am unhappy that it didn’t sell as well as I thought it might.

But it’s only been a year. I hope to have the next book out before too much longer, and that should help sales. Maybe I’ll get lucky. All I can do is try to write the best books I can, and do my best to find an audience, and identify the mistakes I have made so far and try not to repeat them. I don’t think that’s a formula for success, necessarily, but maybe it’s a formula for avoiding failure more completely.

Joe sez: I try not to give unsolicited advice when someone guest blogs. If Curtis wanted my opinion, he could have asked for it.

That said, I'll offer some general advice that I believe all new authors can benefit from. If your well-reviewed book isn't selling:

1. Change the cover. You may think you have the greatest cover in the world. And maybe you do. But I've changed covers on some of my titles more than four times. A cover image you like can be greatly enhanced with different font, added blurbs, different framing, etc. If your sales are weak, why settle?

2. Change the price. Try raising it. Try lowering it. Try putting it on sale. Try something.

3. Change the product description. Look at bestselling ebooks, and copy the style they use.

4. Change the category and keywords. This should be a no-brainer. Keep tweaking until you notice a boost.

5. Write more. Nuff said.

6. Don't give up. We all make mistakes. The goal is to learn from them and move on, rather than lament what was (or what currently is). Fix it. Change it. Experiment. Tweak. Evolve. Ebooks are forever. Every title has more than one change at success. In fact, it has many, many chances at success.

As I write this, my horror novel TRAPPED is #49 in the Top 100 Bestsellers thanks to a BookBub. It has gotten 570 reviews, averaging 4 stars.

This book was rejected by the Big 5, but it has cracked the Top 100 four or five times, months apart. 

Yesterday, RUN by Blake Crouch was in the Top 100. It has hit this list several times. And THE SEX CLUB by LJ Sellers is also in the Top 100... again. I've lost count of how many times I've seen her Detective Jackson Mysteries in the Top 100. 

In the old days, when the only way to reach readers was by tattooing ink onto dead trees, 99% of books sold best shortly after they were released. Then, if the author was lucky, sales would gradually trickle down to the point where it was regularly stocked on a bookstore shelf. If the author was unlucky, the book wasn't stocked anymore and went out of print. If they were REALLY unlucky, the book wasn't stocked anymore, but the publisher claimed it was still in print because the ebook was still available, and the rights never reverted.

These days, you can make a big splash during a book launch, but that isn't the only splash your book can make. Sales look less like a long tail, and more like a heart monitor, spiking every so often. 

This is a marathon, not a sprint. A lot can happen during eternity. In fact, EVERYTHING you think of can happen when infinity comes into play.

The trick is to be alive to see it happen to your books. And you can improve your odds by heeding my advice above.