Thursday, August 01, 2013

Guest Post by Sabrina Chase

Joe sez: I'm going to be taking a blogging break during August, but I've got twelve guest posts scheduled this month, so they'll appear as slotted.

Today it's Sabrina Chase...

“For Sale: steerage-class Titanic ticket, never used.”

Greetings, Konrathians!

Let me tell you a story...a tale of a voyage through time, space, and the publishing industry. My name is Sabrina Chase, and I write adventurous science fiction and fantasy. Although I never had a book published in the legacy system I consider myself a demi-hemi-quasi-hybrid author anyway, since I was offered a contract with a major publisher for The Long Way Home.  I turned it down even though I was desperate to be published, that’s how bad it was. That was in 2006.

I started indie publishing in November of 2011, inspired by our Fearless Host Joe and others, and in that time The Long Way Home has earned me more than the 5k advance the publisher offered (plus I didn’t have to share 15% with my agent). It’s still selling well. I got exactly the cover I wanted (thanks to my long-suffering artist Les Petersen), and I hired a professional editor who also works for legacy publishers. And it started selling the day it went live.

This was not due to a Cunning Plan on my part, or massive publicity, or melting down Twitter with buy-my-book noise. I was in cheerful “let’s see what THIS button does!” mode, and just had fun with it. Every copy I sold was a victory. And when I realized my book sales were paying my mortgage, it was like winning the lottery. Every MONTH.

How did I do it? I honestly don’t know. Here’s what I suspect happened:

·        I was experimenting, but I also did the best job I knew how at the time. Professional editing, and because science fiction readers expect original covers, quality art. Since I write software for a living, formatting clean HTML for ebooks was trivial. And I tested my ebooks on actual devices.

·         I started at the right time. I didn’t have much competition then on Amazon in the SF and fantasy categories, so it was easy to stand out enough for people to give my books a try. Then they would get HOOKED, bwahahahah.

·         I priced my books at MY easy-purchase comfort level.

·         I wrote the stories the publishers didn’t want, but readers craved. Characters that were fun to hang out with having amazing adventures and actually accomplishing something at the end. As the man says, remember you are competing for beer money. This means competing against something fun and entertaining. (It is trivial to compete for vegetable money. Be more fun than a vegetable!)

I’m still trying new things, too. I did an audio version of Firehearted, and all my books are available in print. A group of author friends that write in a similar vein have gotten together and organized what we are calling a “Garage Sale,” where we all set at least one book at $1.99 or lower for a week (starting today!) and cross-promoting on our respective websites (mine is here). My latest work, a collection of short stories titled The Bureau of Substandards Annual Report, (art by Chris Stewart) is in a genre I can’t even classify. Paranormal bureaucracy? Adventure nerd? Bureau-punk? Rampant silliness? You tell me.

In the end, I’m glad I missed that legacy publishing boat. Sure, I missed a cruise everyone said would be historic, but I also missed out on the midnight ice bath. And all the time I spent waiting for a “real” book contract I used to write MORE books, so I had a nice trunk collection ready to go when I decided to indie publish. I have seven books out now, and more on the way.

I’d like to emphasize something Joe keeps saying over and over again. My success happened without an established fan base--nobody had ever heard of me before I indie published that first book. This guest post is my first conventional promotion effort.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a lot of help. The indie community has a well-deserved reputation for being generous with advice and encouragement, and it makes me very happy that I am now in a position to help others start their indie publishing voyage.

And in conclusion, Alzheimer's must be destroyed!  (Thanks, Joe!)

Joe sez: One of the most common complaints from authors who resist self-publishing is: "I don't want to do all the promotion on my own, that's why I'm holding out for a legacy deal."

That is a wrong assumption on two fronts. First, because you'll do just as much self-promoting your legacy book as you would your self-pubbed book. Second, because it isn't necessary to promote ebooks.

Ebooks sell themselves.

Amazon and its competition make it very easy for readers to find the type of books they want to read, and in most cases those readers don't know the author's name until the stumble across the book. While it is necessary to be visible (on the genre bestseller lists, on Customers Also Bought), it requires minimal time and money (occasional Facebook and Twitter updates for sales and new releases, a newsletter, and various ad sites like BookBub, Book Blast, etc.) to get your book in front of browsers' eyes.

Sabrina said she didn't do any sort of promo, and somehow readers discovered her.

Though the meme won't die that my popularity is because legacy publishers made me a "name", the truth is that the vast majority of people reading my books are discovering me for the first time. They stumbled across my work while surfing on their Kindles, or on, and then go on to buy more of my books because they liked what they read.

Since publishing Whiskey Sour in February, I've sold 45,000 ebooks. These readers are all new readers. My fans discovered the book back in 2004 when it was first published, so it isn't my fans who are buying it. (Incidentally, my publisher only sold 30,000 ebooks of Whiskey Sour in six years.)

I'm not selling well because people know who I am. I'm selling for the reasons Sabrina states: good books, good covers, low prices, lots of titles. I don't do a lot of promotion, other than the occasional sale or free period, because I don't need to. 

So why are many indie authors selling poorly?

I've always said that luck was a factor. But sometimes the reason a book is doing poorly is obvious to everyone but its author. It could be:
  • A bad cover. I've seen many indie authors who love their covers when they shouldn't. 
  • A bad book. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but maybe the reason you aren't selling well is because people downloaded the sample chapter and hated it.
  • A bad product description.
  • The wrong category. If you aren't careful with your keywords and bisec, your potential fans might not ever find you.
  • A small niche. Sometimes your genre may not be what people want to read.
  • Not enough books. I have 60 titles available. Obviously I have more visibility than someone with 2 titles.
  • No experimenting. If you're failing, try something else.
Now maybe you've written a great book with a great description and a great cover and it still is only selling 1 copy a month. But how can you be sure it's a great book and great cover? The only way to be truly know is to get the opinions of strangers and/or professionals.

Self-publishing has made it easier than ever to reach readers. That's a blessing for good writers. For so-so writers, it's a curse. Because a so-so book gets so-so reviews which leads to it selling fewer and fewer copies. Just because you can self-publish doesn't mean you should. I was lucky that my first novel never sold, because it wasn't very good. And knowing me, if Kindle had been around in 1992, I would have self-pubbed it to lackluster reviews and poor sales. It wasn't until my fifth book that I started getting good.

If you are convinced the writing is good and the cover is good, then you just have to keep experimenting with new work and new ways to get visible until luck finds you. But before you blame the universe, or the competition, get the opinions of strangers and other writers. Join a writing group. Trade manuscripts with a peer and edit each other. Post three possible covers on Facebook and let the majority decide which is best. Rewrite your product description, and play with sale prices and freebies.

And, of course, keep writing.


A.R. Wise said...

And to add to what Joe said, once you put out your first SP book, don't sit back and expect it to start making money. Move right on to the next book, and finish it. I've met so many writers that complete one book, put it up on Amazon expecting massive sales, and then get deflated when the sales don't come. That's one moment where you find out if you're cut out to be a writer. If your solution to that crisis is to give up and stop writing, then perhaps this career isn't for you.

As has been stated on this blog countless times, the more books you have the better chance you have of getting discovered by a new reader. So don't publish a book and then sit back and wait for it to sell, publish a book and then get right to working on the next. If you don't find success until you have ten books out there, then who cares? You still found success. And if it seems daunting to hear that... If you find yourself groaning at the thought of having to write five or even ten books before you see any money, then perhaps you're not cut out for this job. The most successful writers I know would write (and have been writing) despite not making money at it. It's just what they do, and they don't want to stop.

Joshua James said...

Curious, Sabrina, you worked with a freelance editor... can you name that person and do they take other work?

Or can anyone else refer an affordable freelance editor?

Jude Hardin said...

Be more fun than a vegetable!

Words of wisdom.

I've always maintained that fiction--whatever else it might aspire to do--must first entertain.

Great post, Joe and Sabrina. Lots of good reminders for those of us who have been at it for a while, and for those just starting out.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Joe, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I currently have 8 titles out (2 novels, 2 novellas, 4 short stories). I don't sell much. A total of 45 units in 2012. A total of 49 so far in 2013. There aren't many reviews. But the few I get are very positive, nice things said, mostly 4 or 5 stars in ratings. I love writing, so I go forward. But naturally I'd also like more sales!

David L. Shutter said...


Congrats for everything and thanks for sharing your story!

And this...

"...and because science fiction readers expect original covers, quality art."

Cannot be stated enough, for both Fantasy as well as Sci-fi works. These genres have a long history of lush, brilliant illustrative covers and the avg. stock plus fonts just doesn't cut it anymore. Scalzi's library is a very strong homage to this and, I think, it's what readers equate to quality at first glance. Reflecting what Joe said in a previous post, I think that when it ocmes ot being in charge of your own cover too many indies love their ugly babies.

When I started reading indies (pre-Wool and "Thrones" dominance) there were a lot of very generic SF covers topping the lists. I can scroll through my Kindle and see a lot of unfinished books with public use NASA pics with powerpoint fonts from those days. A lot of bars have been raised though and that kind of thing is fatal today.

I bought some of your work, looking forward to them. All the best.

Alan Tucker said...

It's hard not to wonder "What am I doing wrong!" when the sales aren't spectacular. Sometimes things just don't click. But, unless you change something, you'll never know what might work.

sabrina said...

Joshua James -- my editor is Deb Taber, and she's great! She can be reached here. She can get busy at times but is very open to new contacts.

David, thanks and I hope you enjoy the books!

Anonymous said...

As a big buyer of indie books, I would like to add my voice to Joe's on the topic of book descriptions.

I consider it no-risk to download a sample and see what I think. Half the time I buy the book after reading the first page.

Here's the catch. I won't even bother with the free sample if the description is bad. Things that turn me off: a huge block of text in the description with no white space, run-on sentences, and too much backstory.

As a reader, I can see that the author was a little too much in the woods when they wrote the description. But it indicates that they are not editting enough.

Nancy Beck said...

@Anonymous 11:04,

I'm in the same boat as you, I just have fewer titles out there. (But I'm working on getting the first book up in my next series.)

Anyway, something that I have to struggle to keep in mind: this is no longer a "produce" type of publishing environment. In trad pub, if you're not selling a boatload of books, you're considered failure. Crap on that, I say.

I suggest you experiment with what Joe and some others have done. Go free with one of your books for a time (do that on Smashwords, and maybe Amazon will match). Work on the blurb/description some more. Try a different category on Amazon. Try a different cover.

I've tweaked the description on the first series a couple of times, and I had the covers done by a cover artist (the 3rd one was pre-made, and she adapted it when I contracted her).

It may just be that you and I and many others won't find our stride (that is, selling a decent amount on a regular basis) until we have 10 or more books out there. Or maybe changing genres will be the ticket.

Who knows? At least you know your ebooks are there for as long as you want them to be there and not sent to the remainder bin after a few weeks.

BTW, trad pub is not for me at this time because I'm too much of a personal control freak. :-)

Mean Teacher said...

@Anonymous 11:04 - Post a link to your book on Amazon and I will tell you 3-5 things that turn potential readers off. I bet any money the cover is bad...or at the very least not pro looking.

Michaela Debelius said...

To Anonymous 11:04, you're set up to sell more this year than you did last. Don't beat yourself up! It doesn't sound like you're doing anything wrong. Like Nancy said, try experimenting. I found when I went with KDP and gave away freebies (sometimes asking bloggers for help, other times just letting KDP work on its own), the sales picked up a bit. I'm about to release my third novel on the 7th, so I don't have a huge background to reference. But I can tell you I've sold more in my first go around with KDP than I have in my first year with all major distributors, and it was with no more effort than giving away free copies. In my novice opinion, I believe persistence is 80% of the game. Good luck!

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Another great guest post! Thank you, Sabrina. As an SF author, I agree that quality cover art is critical... I'm convinced that the first book in my recent series - "The Sky Used to be Blue" - is selling so well in part because I used Mike Tabor, who does art for Hugh Howey.

To Joe, thanks again for all these guest posts. I'm a little bit glad that you're slowing down in August... so I can finally catch up with all the good stuff here for the reading!

Geraldine Evans said...


Great post.

It strikes me you have the right attitude and enough gung-ho spirit, to make a go of this indie thing. You DEFINITELY sound more fun that a vegetable. :-)

Good luck to you.

Anonymous said...

>>Hey, Joe, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I currently have 8 titles out (2 novels, 2 novellas, 4 short stories). I don't sell much. A total of 45 units in 2012. A total of 49 so far in 2013. There aren't many reviews. But the few I get are very positive, nice things said, mostly 4 or 5 stars in ratings. I love writing, so I go forward. But naturally I'd also like more sales!<<

I'd suggest that you use your name when commenting. I'm a reader, not a writer (at this point) but I can't tell you how many books I've purchased and downloaded after reading someone's comments and checking out their titles. Just a thought...

sabrina said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone -- especially Geraldine's extravagant praise ;-) I am having fun, and I think it percolates to my writing and my readers have fun.

And for Anonymous, without knowing more about your books it's difficult to give advice--but are you being properly seductive? (NOT an oxymoron). Does your cover entice the reader to look at the blurb? Does the blurb entice the reader to read the sample? Does the sample get them so enthralled they don't even look at the price when they buy it? That would be my suggestion on the order of things to examine and possibly fix.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, all of you for your encouragement and suggestions. I was having one of those dark moments of the soul. Should I really "de-cloak" for feedback? Or retain my anonymity so that my lapse passes largely without ripples into the past?

bettye griffin said...

Sabrina, you're reading my mind. I am planning on holding an eBook sale with some romance writer friends from Black Friday through Cyber Monday this November and am getting excited about it!

Joshua, try Karen Rodgers at Critique Editing Services:

Joe, enjoy your time off! That scheduling option on Blogger is pretty nice, isn't it?

Unknown said...

Great post. I love that I chose self-pubbing...and I self-pub through my own publishing company that cost me only $54 to start. I only have three books published so far. They're selling all right, but as you said, I need more books. So that's what I try to spend most of it working on.
Thanks for the post.

Lesley said...

Well Joe. That's it...Fuck it! I'm in.

I was at such a low motivational point that I actually thought about ceasing to work on my Paranormal Romance series.

The reason (s) being; I'm already established in a well paid career, it took something like 15 years to get here. Also, research, blogs and forums have led me to the conclusion that if I follow the traditional route, I'm going to work my butt off for peanuts, yeah I love to write but I have a life and if it isn't going to pay off eventually...?

This site has given me hope. I'm burned out and need to get out of my career. Hopefully one day I will also be a guest blogger!

Thank you to you and your guests, the gift of hope is priceless.

Nancy Beck said...

@Anonymous with the books - Go ahead and decloak - I promise not to send the Federation after you. ;-)

John Erwin said...

I'm using one free Kindle day today to try to encourage some downloads of "Into the Snow" which might result in getting enough reviews to qualify for Bookbub -- I've got four now and would like to have at least 5 more before I do a major promotional effort via Bookbub, etc. along with an extended Kindle freebie period. So, if anybody wants a free "Western" and would like to comment, grab it now!(Click my name for the Amazon link). I would like any feedback I get, however harsh. Joe and others have shown me that self-pubbing can be profitable -- now I just have to figure out how to make it work!

Anonymous said...

Ha! @Nancy Beck You're making me laugh! Okay, decloaking now. Here's the link to my page at Amazon's Author Central. I'm interested in hearing feedback from you and anyone here who cares to give it. :D

Nancy, you just paid a visit to my blog via Joel Friedlander. Hello again here!

Sabrina, I think you were in a workshop I attended last summer on the Oregon Coast. Great to see how your career is moving forward!

Anonymous said...

Whups! Forgot all the HTML I needed to make the link live. Decloaking onece more. :D Amazon Author Central

Jude Hardin said...

@JM: If your books are self-published, you might want to try pricing your short stories at $.99 and your novels at $2.99-$3.99.

I don't know anything about the genre, but you you also might want to think about some new covers. Maybe a cohesive theme binding them together.

Who is your target audience?

J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

@Jude Hardin Thanks for the feedback! My target audience: adults 28+ who enjoy YA fantasy by authors such as Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper.

Jude Hardin said...

My target audience: adults 28+ who enjoy YA fantasy by authors such as Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper.

That sounds backwards to me. Shouldn't you be marketing to 12 and up? I would think that a spill-over into another demographic would be a bonus to hope for, not your core audience.

Snarkatron said...

J.M, Yes we were! very useful class. (Dean Wesley Smith's "Blurbs & Pitches", if people were wondering)

Lesley, Yay! Welcome to the club, and your decoder ring will be delivered via ninja tonight.

J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

@Jude Hardin About half the people reading YA are actual young adults. The other half are older. So it's not a spill-over audience.

Lesley said...

Thanks Snarkatron. Ring received. Ninja's successfully navigated suburbia and two Labradors during the night.

Over for now.

Lesley said...

P.S. Snarkatron, also the Pacific Ocean since I'm in Australia.

Mario Jannatpour said...

Joe's points about having a good cover are right on. I have one book and it sells well, I think, for a few reasons. It has a good cover, stands out on Amazon, my title is catchy for my space--"The Honest Real Estate Agent" and my book is written in first person, not lecturing people.

I am feeling the pressure now for my second book---I believe I have a good title for the genre the book is for but I need to make sure I come up with a good cover and product description.

Question: How do you come up with a good product description without giving away too much of the story?

Clyde said...

Hi Sabrina,

Loved your Sequoyah trilogy.I grabbed the ebooks almost as soon as they came out and finished Queen of Chaos last September. It provides a very satisfying finish, but I noticed that you left a couple of threads hanging. I hope that means you are thinking of spining more books in that universe? (Polite hint. ;-) )

Concerning discovery: As a reader I confirm that a good cover and a good description are key elements. But for me opinion of people I have some trust in is a big help. But where does one go for good advice on books? Recently I find I quite often find useful references to books I would like at at places where people talk about books. Examples are, Baen's Bar, and individual author's sites like this one. (Thank you, Joe!) Specifically, I found out about Sabrina's books in a discussion thread over at Sarah Hoyt's place (

You keep writing em, and I'll keep reading em.

J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

"I was having one of those dark moments of the soul."

Happens to the best of us, and it happened to me! :D

I'd like to report that my sales started recovering in August.

I really only gained traction this May. Before that month, my sales were very sporadic. Weeks would go by without any.

Then, in May, every 3 or 4 days, there'd be a sale. Or two. Or three!

Was it a fluke? I wondered.

But the same thing happened in June. Cool!

Then July hit me. Going from 18 sales in May and 15 sales in June to 5 sales in July was rough.

But August ushered in 13 sales. And now (in early September) I'm seeing a surge of visits to my blog, plus higher numbers of page views on Smashwords than I've ever had before.

I think I really have achieved traction. Tiny traction, compared to many. But traction! Where before I had none.

This indie pub gig really does take time for many. Not everyone hits big right out of the gate. :D

J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

It looks like my follow-up comment got lost in the ether, so I'm going to try again. :D

As I suspected, July seems to have been just a seasonal downturn in sales. August saw a recovery, and September is looking better as well.

As Nancy said: "It may just be that you and I and many others won't find our stride (that is, selling a decent amount on a regular basis) until we have 10 or more books out there." I think that's right.

And, in the meantime, as Michaela said: I'm "set up to sell more this year than [I] did last." Very true.

Plus, just this month, one of my newly released POD books started selling in Europe. Surprised me!

Kris Rusch just did a post today in which she mentioned that small businesses usually take about 3 years before they turn a profit. Indie pubbing is a small business. And I've not yet reached the completion of my second year. Time to buckle down for more writing and stop looking for results at this early stage.