Launching Your Book Off Right
How to improve your work's chances in that big, cruel world.
December 7, 2013 - 10:00 am
Selling your writing in 13 weeks, week 9
There is something magical about taking a book you finish and letting it out into the world. There is something very scary too.
Back when I was doing only traditional publishing, or as I call it non-Baen publishing (since of all my traditional publishers Baen is the only one I continue to work with because they aren’t like the others) the process often resembled taking your infant and feeding him to the volcano god.
In the later days of the push model – before Amazon forced bookstores to stock in accordance with what was selling and not what the publisher said would sell – you often submitted a book in order to see it endowed with the most absurd cover or edited by a process that made Smashwords’ meatgrinder look good. And then… Nothing. It just vanished without a trace never to rise again.
To call the process soul-killing is to understate the truth. For those of us making a mid-list living and often feeding three or four books – or more – a year into this machine, it became an abusive situation that gave us a feeling of combat fatigue. I found, recently, while looking over my books delivered towards the end of that period, (i.e. when I’d been doing it for a long time, and there was no prospect of indie in sight), that I’d started playing elaborate games with myself, such as including some outrageous detail and wondering if anyone else would notice it. This was, in retrospect, reckless and often stupid behavior. (And no, they were never discovered by the publisher, but that means now I need to discover them myself. No, I didn’t remember most of them.)
So – thank heavens for indie, right? Where that never will happen?
Well, to quote a line from one of my favorite movies (Independence Day) “That’s not entirely accurate.”
Hence the comment about how putting the book out there is very exciting… and very scary also.
Anyone who has put a few stories or novels out there has experienced the weird release that just won’t sell. This is particularly puzzling when you have a following that – generally speaking – will buy at least a few copies of anything you put out. You put the short story or novel up on amazon and… nothing.
Sometimes this is a temporary condition, fixed later as the novel starts selling. And sometimes it just stays that way, and you have no idea why.
Most of the time there really is no answer. I’ve now put out – indie – a couple dozen short stories, a few collections and half a dozen novels. Nothing – nothing – in the world can explain what sells and what doesn’t. If someone can come up with a good formula to explain it, the person will become a millionaire overnight.
The surprises are not just in the negative. My son, Robert Hoyt, has now made enough money off a trunk short story — Bite One, which features vampire shopping carts, (yes, you DID read that right. Vampire shopping carts. Yes, I AM the sane one in this family) — to rival some of the traditional publisher advances for novels. Most of the sales are to England, and every time we think that surely everyone with an e-reader in Great Britain owns a copy of this story, it starts selling again.
I also have a friend whose fifth indie-released novel, after a year and a half of being out and available, suddenly made eight thousand dollars (just about) and then went back to selling in the hundreds of dollars.
I think most of the reason for that is that the ebook market is so wide and so widely distributed that there is no way of guessing it, and also because the main form of promotion that works is word of mouth, it all depends on your breaking into “pockets” of people who will like the story.
I’m not sure, for instance, what it is with Robert’s story, except that it must be a joke we don’t get yet.
Of course no author ever complains of unexpected sales. They might be as puzzled as I am about the continuing sales of Magician’s Throne and Dragon’s Blood – two minor, early short stories that, in retrospect, are incredibly flawed – but they won’t complain.
However, if you have ten or twenty short stories, or novels, or whatever it is you produce out there, and you’re selling maybe a copy a month, you’re going to worry. And if you keep working and working and the sales don’t improve, I imagine the experience will be as deadening as what I went through with traditional publishing in the “bad old days.”
Which is why I’m going to give you some tips that should help improve your ability to sell.
Mind you, this isn’t guaranteed. I – of course – do all of this, and yet, sometimes things don’t sell that I expect to sell, and things sell that leave me baffled. (Of course, I do all of this now, I haven’t gone back to fix the early stuff.)
However, if you follow these things they should improve your sales. They seem to improve mine.
First, and most important and I can’t repeat this enough: the best way to improve the sales of any one story is to have more than one story out there.
Look, remember what I said about the market being so huge and the only effective way of promoting your book being word of mouth?
Right. So, if you have a book out there, you have bought a lottery ticket. You’re betting on people stumbling on your book, and telling a friend who tells a friend, who tells…
If you have two books out there, you have doubled that chance. And if you have ten, twenty, thirty, you’ve greatly increased your chances not only of finding readers, but of finding readers who are committed enough to evangelize your book – that is, to hand sell it to other readers.
So, rule one of improving your indie-sales odds:
1. Write, publish, repeat.
If it’s going to be a long time – say, a year – between novel one and novel two, write a couple of short stories in the same time line, to keep the supply line lubricated, and people buying.
Second, try to look like the traditionally published books in the same genre. Yes, I know, “But, but, but, we’re indie, breaking all the rules, doing our own thing.”
Yeah, and all that and two bucks will get you a cup of non-designer coffee.
Most people out there couldn’t know or care less about the indie revolution in publishing. In fact, most people in publishing are only half aware of what is going on. Three years ago, I took a workshop with Dean Wesley Smith, and he told us we were pioneers on the wild frontier, and that no one knew yet where this would shake out. I thought I was nuts. By that time some people had made millions off indie publishing and I felt like I was the last kid to the party.
I was wrong. I was very wrong. Even now, three (well, two and a half) years later, the entire movement is newer than paint, and is still trying to figure out which way to go.
As for readers, they really don’t know. If they’ve heard about indie publishing what they’ve heard is that it’s this newfangled stuff where people just throw their unproofed, unvetted manuscripts out there. Right?
Right. Because if they bought an indie ebook, and liked it, they assumed it was traditional.
Which is why you’re going stealth.
The first and most important thing is the cover. If you’re doing it as ebook only (or ebook first) the aspect should be 1563 width by 2500 length in pixels. You can get away with a slightly different aspect, but then the book will look “wrong” at a subconscious level and you lower your chances of selling.
I know this because practically all my early short stories are slightly wider, and they sell infinitely worse than the rest.
Also, if you just slap a photo on the cover and the genre you write in tends to have drawings, you’re going to come across looking amateurish. The same goes for lettering, etc, etc. (And the subject of covers is complex enough that I’m going to do a supplemental post on it, just as I’m – yes, still doing a supplemental post on proposals and selling outlines, etc. I am almost back to human. In retrospect, I had an antibiotic-resistant infection that just kept coming back from the grave like an ill-killed vampire (shopping cart.)
Until I do the supplemental post on covers, which will not exhaust the subject, for one because I’m still a newbie myself, before you put a book out look at the books that are like the one you’re releasing and aim for the same feel for the cover.
Also, look at the inside of ebooks. The best (though last week I read one from a traditional publisher that violated this) look like books. What I mean is the spacing between the lines should be around 1.3 or 1.5, it should be fully justified, and there should be no space between the paragraphs. Also use something like Times New Roman, palatino, Helvetic, Georgia or Garamond, for your font. Courier is too spindly, and no, truly, no one wants to read a book written entirely in “Horror scream” font. Go look at what professional books use and do that. (I find Atlantis word processor very useful for converting and saving in book epub and mobi format. It’s affordable too. I wouldn’t recommend working in it, though.)
2. Look like what the big houses are putting out.
The third aspect of this are things like metadata and key words. In every e-retailer in the world, they give you a chance to put in your key words. Some of these are obvious. For my musketeer’s mysteries, I put in stuff like Richelieu and the names of the three musketeers plus one.
But if you want to do well you should make sure that your keywords match their keywords for that genre. You can find the Amazon lists here.
Programs like Sigil or – again – Atlantis, allow you to add keywords to your file itself as metadata, as well as to edit other metadata.
I will guarantee that if you had the book edited, there is a good chance there’s an error in the author field of the metadata. A friend edited one of my books and to this day if I don’t fix that – no matter how many other computers he’s gone through – he’ll show as the “author”. You don’t want that to appear on someone’s e-reader because it looks unprofessional. Also, it will show up weirdly on searches.
So get the thing through a program that allows you to edit the metadata and make sure everything is correct and as enticing as possible, too.
3. Make sure the bits of your book that aren’t obvious are still professional and aimed at the right reader.
4. Promote yourself.
Yes, yes, I know that it’s somewhat embarrassing to say “Hey, you probably will love my other book.” Forget it. You’re a publisher now, and publishers have been doing this forever. Besides, how do you expect total strangers to push you if you won’t push yourself?
The best sales tool I’ve found – and I found it from the other side too! – is sample chapters at the end of a book with a link at the end saying “To continue reading.” That method of marketing has cost me more money as a reader, as I get sucked into the next book in the series without noticing.
Two caveats: first, make sure you have an amazon link in the amazon version, a b&n link in their version, etc. Retailers get testy when you promote a rival. (But don’t have a heart attack if you accidentally put the wrong one up. Happens to the best of us, and even to me.)
A list saying “If you liked this, you’ll also like—“ with links also helps. But make sure you have like-with-like. That is, don’t put your vampire romance link at the end of you children’s book of prayers. Not unless both are very weird.
And then be patient, and keep up with the ever changing market – which is what I’m going to talk about next week: blogs to follow, the pricing debates, setting up a network for multiple comfort and cross promotion, etc.
Remember you can be doing everything right and still be selling very little. You can be a brilliant writer and still be selling very little. Don’t let it disturb you. It just means the right audience hasn’t found you yet.
Keep trying. Never give up. Never surrender. Volume is discoverability, and with each book you write, you’ll be getting better too. Which does matter, because when you’re finally discovered, you’ll be in great shape to take advantage of it!