Experimenting in eBooks

Last month, I self-published a contemporary fantasy, THE WOODS, which had been my Masters capstone project.  I teach Creative Writing, and I have had decades of experience in the ‘traditional publishing area, so I felt that for the sake of my students, I also needed to know more about the e-publishing alternative — and experience is always the best teacher.

So I took THE WOODS — which is sorta YA, sorta urban fantasy, sorta dark fantasy, and sorta magic realism (yeah, it’s one of those ‘in the cracks’ books) — and prepared it as an .epub and .mobi.  I signed up with Amazon, B&N, and Apple’s self-pubbing programs, put together a cover, and put it out there.  I’ve since also signed up with Kobo and ePublishing Works (an aggregator which can get it on Sony’s ebookstore), so the book should be in those places Real Soon Now.  I broadcast the news on my blog, to all the fans who have ever sent my a nice e-mail on my books, and on Facebook.  I put in a couple guest interviews on posts where I flogged the book.  I asked everyone I knew to mention it.

Let me tell you this about my experience with self-publishing:  it’s damned difficult to break out past the circle of your friends and family. That’s evident from sales, which over the first month, totaled a grand 25 copies.

I am totally blowing the e-publishing world wide open. Amanda Hocking, look out!

In the last week, I’ve also put up two short story collections,A TAPESTRY OF TWELVE TALES and A RAIN OF PEBBLES.  So far, with the two collections up on Amazon and B&N for three days now (and having flogged the collections via my blog, LJ, Facebook, etc.), I’ve sold exactly one copy of TAPESTRY, and that’s it.

Sarcasm aside, my traditionally-published books will sell tens of thousands of copies — and I have the royalty statements to prove it.  But ebooks…  well, obviously 1) I haven’t figured out how to get the word out effectively, 2) those tens of thousands of reader don’t have Kindles, Nooks, iPads, iPhones, or equivalent apps on their computers and want print books,  3) e-publishing, unlike traditional publishing, is a “long tail” proposition and you have to give word-of-mouth time to build, 4) my covers suck and no one will buy a book with that ugly a cover, 5) my ‘promo’ material isn’t sufficiently ‘selling’ the book, 6) no one wants to read an ebook by me,or 7) all or some combination of the above.

So what are your thoughts?  Anyone else having similar experiences with e-publishing?  Anyone figured out strategies to break out of the “friends and family” circle?  I’m willing to learn…

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  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    Today’s Washington Post contains an excellent article on this topic, an in-depth discussion of why and how self-published ebooks are taking off. A telling comment is a quote from Mark Coker, founders of Smashwords, a self-publishing platform: A significant percentage of Smashwords authors fail to sell a single book.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/novel-rejected-theres-an-e-book-gold-rush/2011/04/09/AFZdqb9F_story.html

  2. 2. Marlene Dotterer

    I notice you don’t have an excerpt available. As a potential buyer, I always want to read a page or two of any book I’m interested in. We always do that in bookstores and libraries. Ebooks are no different.

    I suggest allowing readers a peek at the first chapter.

    As far driving people to your book… wish I could help, but THAT’s a big mystery to me, too!

  3. 3. Stephen Leigh

    Mariene –

    If you were looking on Amazon, I thought I had authorized a chapter as a free download, but maybe not… I’ll have to check. However, on my website, you can read a chapter of the book.

    Yep, mystery to me also. :-)

  4. 4. green_knight

    The sample seems to be very much the key to e-reading habits: several people told me they simply dowload a batch of samples, and when they like one, buy it. I’ve started to do this myself and like it very much as a procedure (no pressure to decide NOW, no bookstore staff giving you the stink-eye), and going off to a website is too much effort – it needs to be right there. I’d aim for about 5K – you want readers to be thoroughly hooked.

    I’m not sure I _believe_ in promotion – I feel I am exposed to far too much of it, including all the unpublished writers with ‘professional platforms’ – oher than random browsing and ‘this sounds interesting’ I’m only buying things my friends reccommend because they have read them – not retweets, contests, or other ‘look at me’ efforts.

  5. 5. Stephen Leigh

    I’d agree that I think that the most effective promotion one (in lieu of having a Marketing Department with an actual budget) is word-of-mouth. That takes time, but of course that’s what e-publishing allows.

  6. 6. Marlene Dotterer

    Yes, I’m looking on Amazon, but I don’t see a link to an excerpt.

    I’m curious about this whole issue. How do your thousands of readers find out about a new print book? What does the publisher’s marketing department do for you, beyond getting the book on store shelves?

    I ask because when I think about my own history as a reader and purchaser of books, I realize that I’ve never had a reliable method of knowing when an author I like publishes a new book.

    We’ve belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club for years and years, and I guess that’s been our main source. We will occasionally browse in a bookstore. But in general, if it doesn’t show up in SFBC, we won’t know about it.

    Since I started writing myself, I have found out about a few new authors through online networking. I also follow a few author’s blogs.

    But all of these methods mean I, the reader, have to be proactive. None of those authors, and certainly not the publisher, are seeking readers out to let us know a new book is available. I’d really like to know if I’m wrong on that. Because if I am wrong, I’ve been missing something really obvious in life.

    Yet somehow the books get sold. How does that happen, and can you use it to sell your self-pubbed books?

  7. 7. Joseph Robert Lewis

    I started self-pubbing novels and short story collections about 6 months ago. At first I was selling 1 book a week. Now I’m selling 3 books a day.

    Strong cover art and book descriptions are important. It also helps to give copies to review sites, or to give away copies to readers in exchange for reviews.

    Paid advertising, such as Kindle Nation, will buy you a small spike in sales but probably with no lasting effect.

    Self-pubbing is a long-term proposition that requires more patience than effort (aside from writing a good book). Many people seem to agree that the best advertising you can do is to write more books, and I have found that to be true myself. I don’t do much active promotion, but my sales are slowly yet steadily increasing.

  8. 8. Stephen Leigh

    Just checked, and there *is* a free sample of the books on amazon — there’s a box below the BUY NOW box called “Try it for free” where you can download a sample of 10% of the book…

    Marlene, the Marketing Department does the job of hand-selling your book to the distributors so that it gets ordered into all the bookstores and hopefully the reps are excited about it. They also send out ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to review publications like Booklist or Publisher’s Weekly as well as the genre magazines that do reviews. They can put out press releases. They can contact bookstores in your area for signings and events. And so on… Having a book on the shelves in the genre bookstores and chains makes a HUGE difference.

    I do try to keep in contact with my readers. I have an e-mail list (which you can join from the front page of my website) where I send out the (very) occasional news. But I’ll admit that marketing is not what I love doing. What I love doing is writing.

  9. 9. Tara Maya

    Cover art is important. Compare the cover of A Magic of Nightfall with The Woods. Enough said.

    But I also notice that A Magic of Nightfall has all sorts of reviews about it already. All those ARCs sent out to reviewers now must be sent out by you, the author. It’s a lot of work.

    The main difference, though, is that the business model is different. Most ebooks don’t open big. The first month I sold my anthology Conmergence, I only sold 14 copies. (My family and friends don’t read much.) The next month, I sold 12. I brought out the first book of my epic fantasy series, The Unfinished Song, and then the second book. Sales started rising. I sold more books in April than I did in all of the previous months combined. I am hoping to do better still in May.

    It’s not easy, though. I still haven’t made as much on all my self-published books I did on the advance from a single title of my traditionally published books. I’m going on faith that this is going to change as the ebook tide sweeps in.

    The Unfinished Song: Initiate (UK)
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate (US)

  10. 10. Tom

    I think Tara is doing one of the best “advertising” efforts I’ve seen. She puts links to her books on her comments in blogs. I can’t tell you how many times I have clicked on one of those “signature links.” I clicked on hers!

    I’ve been watching indie publishing since Hockings and Eisler hit the news a month or so ago. Dean Wesley Smith has several series of blogs/chapters up on his sight about this. So far (except for Hocking) the wirters I see doing the best are long time midlisters, putting up their out of pub books. It also gives them the opportunity to write and sell in cancelled series. Very exciting.

    I’m a published writer, but in short stories. I don’t have that large of a backlist. But I plan to epub (I coined the term “micro-publisher” for myself) them, and a some that got good responses from editors, but didn’t sell. Just to test the waters.

    Like previously said in these comments, it looks like the best promotion an indie writer can do is write more, write tons more. I think it was Joe Konrath’s blog where I read that the take off point is 30 stories for sales.

  11. 11. Daemon

    From the reader’s side of things, I have to say that the lack of a printed version of the book hurts. You automatically lose anyone who isn’t interested in reading fiction on a computer/ereader/etc. Until I moved to Japan making physical copies prohibitively expensive in terms of both money and space I was one of those people.

    Even then, I don’t enjoy book shopping through Amazon, Indigo, etc. I’ll use them to see if new books by favourite authors are out yet, but in that case I’m more likely to be searching by title than by author, which means that I’m simply not going to notice it even exists.

  12. 12. Stephen Leigh

    Daemon — that’s definitely something that the self-published author has to realize: your books are not going to be in bookstores. Even if you pay to have print copies made, it’s likely that only your local bookstore will be amenable to stocking them. Maybe.

    And if you e-publish only, you’re giving up entirely that segment of the readership who won’t/can’t read on an electronic device of some sort. However, that segment (I suspect) is fading as we speak — as you note, you’ve moved out of that group yourself.

    I still prefer reading on paper, but the new devices do a decent job, and I gotta admit that on a long trip, I’d rather take along a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or equivalent rather than physical copies.

  13. 13. Megs

    From what I can tell, your sales are right in the line with what to expect for starting out. Dean Wesley Smith is the one that’s provided a lot of hard numbers on this on his site: deanwesleysmith.com. 25 per month for a novel is the amount to expect starting off and 5 across all sites for a short story, which won’t actually be reported for between 3 and 6 months. Of course, he also includes Smashwords in his distributing, and that increases outlets and sales as well.

    And if you want to do print, I’d suggest reading http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=3968. His whole series Think Like a Publisher is very helpful in understanding how the income works on this.

  14. 14. Megs

    I do agree that you need a new cover.

  15. 15. Stephen Leigh

    “I do agree that you need a new cover.” Man, you folks are harsh! :-) I rather like the cover, but hey, I could do another one.

  16. 16. Steven Saus

    I’ve posted some numbers for The Crimson Pact – an anthology edited by Paul Genesse which I published. I’m assuming that you’ve read Toby and Jim’s reports on their own experiments.

    By and large, the most accurate model of real-world conditions seems to be looking at digital self-publishing as an investment. That is, you’re establishing income streams. By providing new (more) content, you slowly draw in more people. The books never go out of print, so you end up with a steady trickle from each of them – which adds up to quite a bit.

    And even though I’m on their “side”, I treat Coker and Konrath’s numbers with skepticism. They are both primarily in the business of promoting their own business1 or promoting their own reputation as an authority. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong – it’s just a potential conflict of interest.

    (And yes, that means you should treat me with the same skepticism.)

    1 I think Smashwords oversells its ability to get into more markets. Really.

  17. 17. Steven Saus

    Oh – and as far as “breaking out” – honest cross-promotion. Point people at stuff you honestly like. Whuffie is really the best credential out there – but it’s gotta be genuine, otherwise you’re just another used-car salesman.

  18. 18. Stephen Leigh

    Steven — Enjoyed being on a panel with you at Millennicon. Interesting post… I’ve read both Toby and Jim’s posts on their experience, and have talked to them both as well.

    While I nosed around on Smashwords, I haven’t pulled the trigger, largely because I find their site and their information regarding what they do, how they do it, and what their terms are to be both confusing and unclear. I’m trying (as I said above) another aggregator recommended to me to get into Sony and other sites.

    Honest cross-promotion has always been my motto. I don’t blurb books I haven’t read and enjoyed, and don’t mention them on my site unless the same holds true. But I also only rarely reach out to other blogs, etc., to ask if they’d plug my own books. I also don’t want anyone to plug my books if they don’t actually like them.

  19. 19. Mindy Klasky

    Coming to the party late…

    I like the image on your cover, but I find the yellow type to feel “amateurish”.

    I also wonder if you do yourself a disservice with the title – I tried to find your book on Amazon, typing in “The Woods” in Amazon’s search bar and limiting the search to Kindle. Your book didn’t come up in the first three pages (and maybe more – I got bored) because of a plethora of books by Stuart Woods and Sheryl Woods.

    I’ve been trying to get some book-presence-awareness going by creating a personality quiz based on one element of the serialized novel I have online right now. Currently, about 20% of the hits on my website go the personality quiz, while about 15% go to the first chapter of the serial. (Most of the rest go to my home page, which hosts my blog.) What sort of awareness are you getting of the project, if you go by Google Analytics (or other page counter)? That might help you determine whether you’re reaching your audience and they’re choosing not to buy, or if you need to focus more on your audience.

    Finally, who *is* your audience? You describe the book as crossing multiple genres. Have you tailored promotion to online hangouts for each of those groups? Maybe creating different covers for each of them? Cultivating online contacts in those communities? Doing separate blog tours with fashion-minders in each of those communities?

  20. 20. Stephen Leigh

    Hey, Mindy! I’ve been playing with a different cover — the yellow type is entirely my fault: I tend to gravitate toward bright. You should have seen my paintings back when I got that BA in Fine Art…

    Initially, the page on my web site for THE WOODS took off — it was getting around 40% of the hits for the first few weeks; that’s dropped off recently — it’s getting about 10% of the hits now, according to Google Analytics.

    As to the audience — well, for this book probably more than any other, the audience I was writing for was *me*. But aside from that, no, I haven’t done those things. I write because I love writing and because I can’t imagine *not* writing. The process of writing gives me great pleasure. The process of marketing… well, does not. Mea maxima culpa.

  21. 21. Mindy Klasky

    Stephen – I *totally* understand not enjoying the marketing end of things. As I read more and more accounts, though, of break-out self-published authors, they love the marketing side…

  22. 22. Stephen Leigh

    Mindy — Absolutely — if you *love* marketing and you’re good at it, then you stand a chance in the self-publishing world.

    And for the cover haters: hey, I put together a new one! http://www.farrellworlds.com/woods.html

  23. 23. Rob

    I don’t think it’s a failure of ebook publishing. i think it’s a failure of SELF publishing.

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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