Year One: My First Twelve Months in Self-Publishing*
A billion Red Chinese may not give a shit, but a few people did.
*Hitherto forth “self-publishing” shall be referred to as “author-publishing” because it’s time we all upgraded/updated the concept.
*Credit Chuck Wendig for “author-publishing,” or at least I first read the term on his Terrible Minds blog.
Last year, after testing the waters by publishing a short story for Kindle, I decided to digitally author-publish my speculative fiction novel The Failed Cities.
It was a first for me. Although early on I podcast a lot of my stuff as audio fiction, that was always a free promotional device and/or strictly a creative pursuit.
This would be about making books and making money.
On my own.
The Failed Cities went live on November 14th, 2012. I made it available in all digital formats through my own website, Amazon, and Smashwords. In the twelve-month period since then I’ve released one other full-length ebook, six short stories, and one novella.
This is what happened.
PROMOTION & MARKETING
My primary marketing tool was and remains Twitter (I wrote a whole thing about that aspect of self-promotion a while back if you care). I doubled down with Facebook, but I’m not as strong there because I find it all so fucking annoyingly heinous I don’t pay enough attention to it.
I did one interview about The Failed Cities for the SFX Magazine blog (which you can read here just for shits and giggles and because it’s actually one of my favorite interviews I’ve done). I semi-regularly host a writing podcast with author Mur Lafferty called Good Cop/Bad Cop and I mentioned the book there.
That was it to start.
It’s also worth noting that The Failed Cities was an established property with longstanding built-in fans when the ebook was released. It was a weekly podcast in 2006 and then a podcast novel, which is still freely available on Podiobooks.
A particular marketing strategy/tool worth mentioning is one I fell back-assward into when Podcastle bought the audio rights to my short story “Sundae” and published it as a podcast. I was still selling the ebook, and the amazing job they and narrator Dave Robison did with the story brought a legion of new fans to it that bought the book and got into my other stuff, as well.
I’m not much with math, but I’ve done my best here.
The Failed Cities has sold 2,081 copies as of this writing. Deck Gibson: The Complete Scripts has sold 383 copies. “Sundae” has sold over 3,000 copies. My other assorted short fiction has sold a little under a thousand copies collectively.
In my first year I’ve grossed a little over $24,000.00 USD. After taxes and commissions and paying editors, formatters, and cover artists, my margins ended up being about 60%, which means my net profit is around $14,400.00 USD.
That’s a decent secondary income (despite the fact it was my primary income for a little while there). I’ve never understood “authors” who self-publish a work and then reject the process when they don’t do best-seller numbers. Ignorant, entitled jackassery, that.
Amazon accounted for roughly 30% of my total sales. The rest were direct sales via services like Payhip, which I’ve been using for four or five months now and really dig. It’s easy, has great user tools, only takes a 5% cut, and I haven’t had a single customer/reader complaint.
Smashwords was a waste of my time. I think I sold, in total, less than ten copies there.
The Failed Cities accounted for roughly 85% of my total author-publishing gross.
Short fiction was 4% and the Deck Gibson ebook was 11%.
I didn’t do the Deck book well. In the end I just needed to get it out to get a new revenue stream rolling in. It needed more time, more editing/clean-up, more noise made. It’s also a very specific, niche book of radio scripts and I overestimated its audience, or at least the level of outreach needed to make its audience aware of it.
My short story “Sundae” was actually my biggest seller, but at $0.99 a shot with a 30% royalty it didn’t light up my bank account. As a promotional aid, however, it was a valuable property. People fucking love that story. They review it, they talk about it, they make their friends read it. One reader’s son renamed his teddy bear after the main character. That’s worthwhile stuff.
I set the retail price of The Failed Cities at $9.99. I wrote a whole thing about that which you can read here if you’re interested.
Would it have sold more at a lower price point? That whole, “Dude, if you’d sold it at half the cost you would have sold ten times as many” gag? Initially I don’t think so. I believe it had a locked in fanbase. The people who knew about it and were going to buy it were going to buy it regardless.
The whole point of doing this initially with this book was to maximize return with as little of my time consumed as possible, because I didn’t know if it would do anything (which may sound arrogant to you, but I write for a living. A lot. That whole “time” thing is a big deal to me). This wasn’t about building a new brand or “getting myself out there,” this was about making money with the existing material I had that was just sitting on a shelf.
Now, as the year progressed and word-of-mouth spread and more and newer people became hip to me as a fiction writer, would lowering the price point have made sense? Maybe. I recently cut the price in half as a limited holiday promotion and it is reinvigorating sales as I type this. But that’s not guaranteed, and I also didn’t want to piss on all the people who paid full cover price.
And there’s the whole “principle” thing I established. Because I’m an asshole.
The last thing to add to that is the book is still selling a year later. That’s huge. All of my author-published stuff is, albeit a lot more slowly in every other case, but new people join the party every week.
It’s still possible The Failed Cities could hit a major stride. I’m not counting on it, but it’s alive and well and continuing to evolve.
I was having a shitty winter in 2012. Freelance work was dry. My spec scripts still weren’t selling. I was rapidly transitioning from lean to desperate. Author-publishing was one among many ideas I had to generate some immediate revenue with available resources, namely a body of work I’d compiled over years which I hadn’t monetized (the fiction I wrote specifically for podcasting).
And it worked. The bulk of The Failed Cities’ sales were in its first few months of release. It sold its first 1k copies in four months. The next 1k trickled over the rest of the year. The return was instant and bountiful.
It was invaluable to me because it was there when I needed it. It got me through a rough winter. It paid all my bills. It gave me pride and dignity and hope and confidence and a renewed interest and energy in/for fiction writing and publishing.
Those are real things to consider. Traditional publishing takes a long fucking time. It can kill your soul to spend half-a-year or a year writing a novel, then however long it takes to actually sell it, then another year or two on top of that waiting for it to be released.
And then it only sells marginally well and you’re right back where you started.
And the hard truth is that’s not only the typical publishing scenario; it’s being more than a little kind to it.
INTEGRATING TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
I’m unwilling to explore author-publishing physical books on my own, for two reasons: Logistics and quality.
Quality is a big deal to me. I’ve had publishers turn my work into cheaply made, cheaply designed books before and I hate it with the rage of a thousand blue-balled Roman gods. Amazon and Lulu and all of the available services that will print and sell your books for you fucking suck. I’ve seen their products. They’re cheap Chinese-made crap. I’m not Café Pressing a book I’ve written.
I can control the quality of a digital product and produce it to my standards. I can’t do the same thing with physical books, especially not without a fuckload of overhead. That’s too risky for me. I’m not going to sit in a room with boxes of books that may never sell at this stage. I also simply do not have the knowledge, experience, or facility to design and create a physical book.
But I do love print books. I always wanted The Failed Cities to be a proper before-the-internet novel. So I signed with award-winning British specialty publisher The House of Murky Depths to produce a limited edition hardcover of The Failed Cities after its release as an ebook. The hardcover was released in May of this year. It’s one the best decisions I ever made. The book is incredible in every facet. I get excited every time I hold it in my hands.
With that we’re not just integrating physical books, we’re integrating traditional publishers and publishing into author-publishing. I didn’t give up my digital rights to Murky Depths. I only sold them the hardcover rights. I continued to sell and promote my ebook while they did the print version in a completely separate deal.
Promotionally it was a good move. It gave me a new Failed Cities talking point after I’d been relentlessly beating the drum for months on end and people were sick of hearing about the ebook. Having a publisher and a professional print version gave credence and legitimacy to the digital version. It reignited sales.
Years back I shifted my focus from literary publishing entirely because I came to the conclusion the business was a joke, a sucker’s game for an author. Of course, if a publisher came along tomorrow and offered me a six-figure book deal would I take it? Fuck yes.
But a $5,000-$20,000 advance against a 10% royalty? Fuck no. I can do far better than a standard publishing deal on my own, retain complete control, and not be anyone’s fucking employee.
Still, I really liked the model that was created when I worked with Murky Depths.
I decided to use The Failed Cities as a proof-of-concept and pitch another book to larger publishers. I sent several proposals to some mid-range publishers basically saying, “Hey, I did this, we sold this many. I can produce/promote digital copies. You can produce physical copies. They’ll each promote and feed the other.”
They reacted like I was insane, of course. Publishers make huge bank off digital rights at the moment. They share criminally little of it with authors who are in general ignorant, frightened, and happy to give their money away. Publishers aren’t giving that up to some schmuck with a few thousand sales.
Only it’s not insane. It’s not insane at all. Louis CK did the exact same thing with HBO with his last one-hour special. He told them they could buy and broadcast the special, but he needed to be able to retain and sell the digital himself. It wasn’t worth it to him otherwise. If they didn’t agree he’d walk. They agreed.
He’s Louis CK and I’m Matt Wallace so the publishers told me to go screw. I get that. My numbers are too small and it’s too soon.
The point is, the model is workable. And an author with way more leverage than me is going to get a publisher to agree to it.
I am willing to be partners with a publisher, but I will never again be their employee. It’s a grossly disproportionate business relationship by any standard/definition. They are not worth it, in my opinion.
Can they, under ideal circumstances, help you achieve greater recognition and higher volume? Absolutely. There is value in a traditional publisher. Just not enough for me.
I’m not advising anyone to do or not do anything with his or her own work. I’m simply presenting my story, my views, and my data for consumption and thought.
In the next year I’m going be releasing a new novel and a collection of new short stories.
The real test, I think, will be putting out this brand new novel-length work not based on any previous or existing property and seeing what happens. Without the small number of fans of a work I spent five years building will the new book tank? Or will more existing fans who’d simply had enough of The Failed Cities come to the table for something new from me?
Have I built a new audience this year that I’ll retain and expand upon? Or were the majority of them one-time users?
These are all questions worth asking, and they’ll all be answered next year.
In conclusion, what have I learned about author-publishing in my first year?
- It’s worth doing. There’s an audience. There’s return, and that return exceeds time and money invested.
- I believe it absolutely is scaleable. I haven’t proven growth yet, but the sustainability of my current product gives me hope.
- Quality matters. Professional cover, professional editing, and professional presentation, I believe, are essential. I cannot overstate that enough. I’m going back and cleaning up existing products to improve those attributes (which is another advantage of digital distribution).
- As far as price point goes, fewer than three dollars is far too little and ten dollars is probably way too much, however boldly I made the argument. I’ll probably end up settling between $4.99 and $6.99 if I keep doing this.
- You are your own best marketing tool. I haven’t spent a single dollar on advertising or marketing, and I don’t believe I will, either. I grow my social media slowly and discerningly. I’d rather have a thousand people who will all buy and read what I sell than have twenty thousand people following me with a two-percent retention rate.
- Hire good people. Pay them as well as you can. Maybe you can do everything yourself and do it well. Bless your heart. I can’t. Without Scott Pond’s amazing cover art/design, Brand Gamblin’s ebook formatting, and Terry Martin and a host of other folks’ copy editing, my products would be shit and would not have sold as well, if at all.
- Have fun. Hey, if you know me at all, you know I’d just as soon shove a cliché up your ass sideways than perpetuate it. But I mean this: HAVE FUCKING FUN. Take joy in what you’re creating. Not just the story, but the entire ebook and experience. Revel in every aesthetic and functional feature and choice of your book. Realize and remember that none of this would exist unless you’d created it. You didn’t rifle off a .doc file and wait. You MADE something, motherfucker. From scratch. And carried it across the goal line. It’s the party to end all others. Have fun with it.