Welcome to my fourth and final(?) part of this series on writing insights, where I go over all the things I wish I’d known about publishing a book before I became a writer.
Before I begin, it bears mentioning that I’ve written more on this topic than any other. My blog is one long history of writing about publishing, and the talks I give are usually about publishing. Attempting to consolidate my thoughts into ten mere insights has been a task of omission.
So I cheat a little with some insights-within-insights. My goal here is to distill all my thoughts into the most important advice I can give a writer, wherever they are on their journey. I wish you the best on yours.
Insight #31: Only ONE Publishing Decision is Forever
This is by far my most important insight when it comes to your writing career: Unless you sign away the right to make future decisions, no publishing decision is forever.
I can’t overstress the value of this insight. All the insights that follow are secondary, because if you make this mistake right off the bat, then none of the rest of my advice matters. Everything is negotiable until you negotiate away your right to negotiate.
When you sign with a publishing house, you no longer have control of your published work. You may no longer have control over your writing career. Many publishing contracts include no-compete clauses that preclude your ability to publish elsewhere for fear of competing with the work they are acquiring. Some publishers worry you’ll have too many works coming out in too many places! Greater market penetration is incorrectly seen by these publishers as a problem.
Great agents can get harmful clauses removed, if you can land a great agent and your work and name have enough clout to warrant the leverage. But in most cases, signing with a publisher is the last decision you’ll get to make as a writer other than to stop writing.
If you don’t like your cover art, you may get stuck with it. If you don’t like the title they suggest, it may not matter. I’ve had to fight like hell with major publishers over these decisions, and I’ve lost some of those battles even with hard-won contracts that stipulate my final approval. The publisher will always retain the option to drop marketing support or not publish the work at all. They may even ask to have your advance returned to them.
Assuming you haven’t signed away the rights to your work, no decision you make today is a final decision. You can always decide later on to sign the work over to a publisher. This is why signing with a publisher should be the last course of action you take, because it’s the last one you can take. Exhaust all the other options first while they’re still available.
Let’s say you followed all the advice in this series, and you wrote twenty books, and none of them have taken off yet. Guess what? You haven’t done your career any harm. Nobody has heard of you. Your books haven’t been considered and rejected by readers, agents, or publishers. They’re still brand new! First impressions can still be made.
Maybe you’ll go back and give your early works another pass with all of your acquired writing talents. Perhaps you change titles, or your author name, or the cover art, or all of the above. You can make your entire oeuvre free for a period of time to increase your chances of gaining readers. Or make some works free, some inexpensive, and some priced higher as an experiment. The choices are all yours. Because you’ve retained them.
Ownership is everything. Once the books are written, you now have a product you can market and sell for the rest of your life. If you sign ownership away, a publisher can limit your ability to market and sell your works. This doesn’t mean signing with a publisher is always a bad choice; it just means you should carefully consider all avenues before you pull the trigger. In the previous part of this series I urged you to be patient when it comes to publishing your work; now I’m urging you to be patient when it comes to how you publish.
Insight #32: Understand your goals as a writer
With your final manuscript in hand, you now have two major paths forward:
1) Query agents and publishers
The first path means writing query letters, which is like a pitch and a resume all rolled into the most difficult and uncomfortable single page you’ve ever written and edited a billion times over in your entire fucking life. You’ll then send these query letters to dozens of agents and publishers, and hope one or more of them asks to read a sample (or a full copy) of your work. If an agent chooses to represent you, you’ll wait as they pitch your project to publishers (you might have to do numerous rewrites first). If you then get signed, you’ll work with the publisher to get your work out to market (you might have to do numerous rewrites first).
It sounds straightforward. It’s nearly impossible.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Thousands of books are published every year, and quite a few of these are from new authors. If you followed all the previous insights about outworking your peers, putting in the hours to observe the world around you, study great writing, read voraciously, write furiously and consistently, then your chances of being one of these authors is quite good. You may need to write a dozen novels and leave many of them in drawers as you improve your craft, but this is the price the successful are willing to pay. The only person stopping you is you.
However … if you’re willing to do all of that hard work, the self-publishing route offers numerous benefits. The major ones are that you have the creative freedom to write whatever you like, not what agents and publishers are currently looking for. Agents and publishers often go through phases and they chase fads; readers, meanwhile, continue to want books in a wide variety of popular genres. Urban fantasy and dystopia novels remain very healthy markets, but publishers have moved on. You don’t have to.
Self-publishing also means keeping more of the proceeds. You can price your works lower while still earning more per sale. You’re also likely to get more overall sales due to affordable pricing. Publishing houses have a lot of overhead and cannot compete with self-published authors on price; I often find myself recommending a great ebook to friends who balk at paying $12.99 for a digital book. Many of us remember when paperbacks cost half that.
Another area publishers can’t compete is the frequency of publication. Publishing houses are glacially slow; you’ll likely be limited to one novel per year, and your first novel will take a year or more to hit the market. Many successful self-published authors publish several novels a year (or even more!). Keeping readers engaged is a massive benefit. You can also follow up successful works quickly.
Querying and self-publishing. There are other options, but these are the two main paths open to you. You’ll notice that I left out options like: Get your books in bookstores. Publish with a large publishing house. Publish with a small publishing house. Sign a movie deal. Make millions of dollars. Get famous.
The reason I didn’t mention them is because those aren’t options. Those are opportunities. The only choice you get to make is whether you do this yourself or whether you try to squeeze through a handful of tricky gates. Which one you choose will depend on your goals as a writer. Next up, I’ll try to lay out the best steps forward and the pros and cons for each goal that you might have as a writer. But first, an insight-within-an-insight:
Most mistakes writers make arise because they want it all. They want a literary writer’s respect, a presence in bookstores, the glow a major publishing house bestows, millions of readers, piles of money, awards, movies and TV shows, and a phone call from Oprah. The hubris that leads us to write in the first place comes with the kind of psychological baggage that gets overage fees and well-deserved TSA checks at airports. Greediness leads to terrible career decisions.
For many years, the authors who achieved all of the above went through the querying -> agent -> major publisher route. Well, no wonder. That was the only route at the time. But this has changed. New paths are opening up faster than stigmas are falling. There are now just as many writers who achieve all of the above by going it alone as those who query agents. Even with a century-long head start, the query path is now falling behind.
Having it all is a fine dream, but dreams are things you hope might happen to you while you’re working toward your goals. Goals are solid and achievable. Embrace the difference. Don’t stop dreaming, and don’t stop working. Grab your goals through diligent effort and hope that you get lucky and the rest of your dreams come to you. This is similar to the old saying that the harder I work, the luckier I get. Each goal drives you closer to your dreams.
The realistic approach here is to rank your goals in order of importance, and choose the path that gives you the best chance of netting you your highest goals. Let’s look now at a handful of goals and my advice for each:
1) Your goal is that you want lots of readers. If so, my advice is to write a lot of works and give them away for free or on the cheap. Publish on Wattpad, Medium, Facebook, and all the major ebook retailers. Price as low as possible. Free has enormous benefits for obtaining a wide readership (more on this later). Short works are also great for achieving this goal.
2) You crave awards. This is a strange goal to have, but I mention here because it unfortunately plays into many a writer’s decision making process. The top awards in many genres used to be unattainable for self-published authors, but this is changing rapidly. Self-published works have now won most of the literary awards out there. Hopefully fewer and fewer authors will make poor decisions out of fear of passing up on acclaim from readers and their peers.
3) You want to be in bookstores. If you want to be in a lot of bookstores, you’re going to want to go the query route. The chances are still slim, but if you apply yourself there’s a good chance you can do it. There’s a reason I rank this almost as low on my personal list as garnering awards, something I go over in detail in a later insight. For now, it’s worth mentioning that most books these days are sold online. Getting into bookstores is a vanity goal. Yes, it can increase awareness and add to sales, but not enough to offset the revenue lost from a lower royalty rate.
4) Your goal is to land an agent or get a deal with a major publisher. And I don’t mean as an avenue to any of these other goals (getting readers, making it into bookstores, making money). Some people have this as a goal, period. They are willing to have fewer readers and make less money, because the need to feel validated is stronger than any other goal. The problem I have with this goal is that there is no validation more important than what you get from your readers.
5) Your goal is to become a full-time writer. When you look at these five goals objectively, it isn’t a fair fight. If you love writing, what’s better than having the freedom to do more of it and only it? Earning a living doing what you love is most people’s goal in all walks of life. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it isn’t work. Becoming a full-time writer means earning money with your art. While you may think awards and bookstore shelves are a shortcut to making money, you’d be wrong. The shortcut to both is winning over lots of readers and being brave enough to put a price on your art. Earn a living first. That’s your goal. The rest is dreaming.
Insight #33: Don’t quit your day job. Yet.
You might think writing a book is a quick path to riches. Books sell millions of copies, right? This work of yours is genius, and everyone is going to love it, and you only need to reach a fraction of the billions of people on the planet, and you’re going to be rich, rich rich!
If you think this, you’re dead wrong and you’re going to be dead broke. Building to a writing career is a long game. With your first manuscript under your belt, now is the time to live frugally, find a day job that gives you time to work on more stories, and keep writing!
If you do this, you stand a chance of transitioning to a full-time career as a writer. It’s certainly easier now than at any time in human history. That’s because more of the money readers spend on books now flows to authors rather than middlemen like bookstores, publishing houses, and agents.
Another insight-within-an-insight here: The only two parties who matter in this game are the writers and the readers. Everyone else needs to prove their worth. Do not let headlines about the health of publishers, or the number of bookstores, or what Amazon or Barnes & Noble are doing, distract you. Care about readers. Care about writers. Demand that everyone else in the business service these two groups, and don’t feel bad for those who don’t and go belly-up as a result.
Readers and writers. Make this a mantra.
Lost amid all the distractions about the health of publishers and bookstores is the fact that most bestselling authors still have day jobs. Even if you develop a steady career with a publishing house, and they buy a book a year from you, a great deal might provide $50,000 per book. This might last six or eight books if you are very lucky. That’s not a great living, and it doesn’t last for long. More common than not is what’s known as the “death spiral,” where subsequent books do less well, so bookstores order fewer copies of the following book. so advances go down, which means less excitement, fewer books ordered of the following book, even lower advances, and repeat until you are dropped by your publisher. This describes the vast majority of writing careers, among the tiny fraction who get the opportunity in the first place.
Relying on publishing contracts is a difficult way to make a living. Many of the successful self-published authors I know publish several works a year until they have a dozen or several dozen titles available. Each of these titles might only bring in a few thousand dollars apiece per annum, but those streams really add up. Trickles become torrents. One or more of these titles will usually outperform the others and really give flow a boost. Sometimes, it’s like a dam bursts. I’ve seen it happen over and over to hardworking writers.
All this is possible because the cost of materials is plummeting and buying habits are changing. Audiobooks are now more often than not delivered digitally rather than on CDs in jewel cases. Ebooks are just electrons, which makes for fat profit margins. The print book is the outlier, in that per-book printing prices are worse with modern print-on-demand (or POD) technology. But this is more than offset by no longer needing to outlay thousands of dollars for a large batch of printed books which may not sell (or just as bad: having demand but not enough books).
The lower cost of materials and the generous cut of the retail price provided by online retailers means you get a tidy sum per book sold. Most retailers pay about 70% of the list price for ebooks. That means earning over $2 on an ebook priced at a rock-bottom $2.99! That’s as much as a publishing house pays an author per hardback sold, if the hardback is priced at $24. You have to somehow cajole readers into spending ten times as many reading dollars just to earn the same income!
As a self-published author, it’s best to look at these numbers as if you are a publisher, because that’s exactly what you are at this point. This makes for an interesting comparison. When I worked as a bookseller, we paid publishers roughly 55% of the retail price of their books. Basically, we were getting anywhere from a 40% to a 50% discount when we made an order. Now I’m on the other side of this equation; I’m the publisher, and a website like Amazon is the bookseller. Instead of giving them 40% to 50% of the list price for helping me make a sale, I’m only giving them 30%. I keep the other 70%, which is much more generous than the bookstore model.
The modern online bookstore is far more democratic as well. Product pages between various books look similar. Your book can march up the bestseller list and be indistinguishable from the biggest names in the game. Going from a career as a bookseller, and seeing all those spine-out books that nobody would ever see, to seeing my books on Amazon with a very similar presence to everyone else, was an eye-opening experience.
So how much can you expect to make as a self-published author? It depends on how lucky you get. Luck always plays a massive role in these things. But the more you publish, and the more you hone your craft, and the more attention you pay to the market and your readers, the luckier you’ll get. It’s almost impossible to publish twenty works of fiction with great cover art and book descriptions and not make enough to pay a bill or two every month. It’s possible you’ll make more than this. The chances here are much better than you’ll find along the querying route, where most applications are denied before you even get to the published-book part.
My advice to myself and others has always been to write because you love it, but position yourself to make a living if possible. The freedoms afforded by self-publishing allow you to do this. You can work as hard as you need and take time off when you have to. It’s a lot like starting your own business, with the same kinds of risks and rewards. The self-published author is his or her own startup. That might make it sound like there’s a ton of work involved in self-publishing, which is certainly true, but then there’s this…
Insight #34: You’re going to be doing most of the work either way
However you publish, you are going to be doing most of the work if you want to have any measurable success. This was one of the things I didn’t understand when I was just getting started. I thought if I worked really hard in the beginning and got an agent and a publisher that I could eventually “just write.” I still hear this from authors who shy away from self-publishing. They say they want to just concentrate on the writing. It would be nice if it worked this way, but it doesn’t.
When publishers began courting me for my works, some of the things they wanted to know was how many followers I had on social media, what my plans were to announce and market my next release, how many writing friends I knew that might blurb the work for me. They were interested in my blog and my online presence. Many of the things I hoped a publisher would provide were instead expected of me.
I have New York Times bestselling author friends with major publishers who have to pay for their own book tours, their own way to writing conferences, their promotional material, even additional editing. You won’t hear many authors complain about their publishers because reprisal is very real and very damaging, but once you get through the door the chatter is everywhere. There are horror stories.
I have plenty of horror stories of my own, and my journey has been absolutely charmed compared to most. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing publishers. But painting a rosy picture is a disservice to rising authors. And I care about writers far more than I care about publishers. I see many ways in which publishers can improve, and I want them to improve. I don’t think coddling them or sucking up to them gives them incentive to make things better. The main thing forcing publishers to compete and improve today is the explosion in self-publishing; it’s the first real option writers have had in decades.
My advice to authors along either path – querying or self-publishing – is to approach both paths in largely the same manner. If you want to query and land an agent and a publisher, I suggest the same level of revisions and professional editing that a successful self-publisher employs. Yes, I’m suggesting you hire an editor before you query. I’m suggesting you invest in the business of you-as-a-writer.
Working with editors is an opportunity to hone your craft. For some reason we go bonkers over writers paying for their own editorial services, but people are applauded for taking cooking classes for the joy of it. Invest in furthering your education. The bonus is that if you approach the querying path with the same rigor as a self-published author, you’re going to have a ready-for-market work sitting right there if you don’t land an agent, or if your agent doesn’t strike a deal you like.
For self-published authors, the advice is the same: Approach your career as if you are going to publish with Random House or Hachette. Take your author photos, your website, your social media presence, your email habits, just as seriously. You never know, you might end up publishing with a major house one day. Even if you don’t, author platforms are critical. You should want your cover art, product pages, and personal pages to reflect the highest level of professionalism. This doesn’t mean be stodgy. Know your audience and be yourself. Be playful, sarcastic, sexy, juvenile, dorky, provocative, but do it with professionalism and self-respect.
All of these things are necessary to become a successful writer, and you’re going to be expected to do them however you publish. Working with an agent and a publisher on the query side is similar to hiring an editor and uploading final copies on the self-publishing route. The difference with the latter is that you are paying one-time costs for products that you own and profit from forever. Agents and publishers will continue costing you money, even though they largely offer the same one-time services.
Insight #35: Only YOU have your best interests at heart
I don’t have much cynical advice, because I’m not a cynical guy. I’m an optimist. That’s why this insight has been one of the biggest surprises I’ve encountered over the years, and it’s why it’s the saddest for me to relate. But it’s the honest truth, and your career depends on understanding it.
You will have many publishing partners over your career, and most of them will spend most of their time assisting you in garnering more sales and readers. These publishing partners will include fellow writers you collaborate with; retailers you sell through; publishers you sign with; agents you employ; assistants, editors, and cover artists you hire.
It would be nice to think that your goals will always align, but they won’t. For instance, your agent might be asked by a publisher to send them the latest thing in a particular genre. Your project might not be on the top of their list. This is obvious, but it’s worth keeping in mind. When you work directly with a retailer or a marketer, you know your work is represented to its fullest – by you. With your agent, you need to hope this is the case. You aren’t in the room when discussions are being made.
The far worse realization is that your own publisher often has conflicting interests. Every publisher has “frontlist” titles. These are works that get the highest level of promotion (they are situated early in quarterly release catalogs, hence the name). If your work is not frontlisted, it won’t be pushed as heavily as those that are.
Where this gets especially nasty is when you would love to discount your published works to boost sales, but publishers will not allow it. This is because they worry about gutting sales of current releases by making backlist titles too inexpensive. The number one complaint I hear from authors about their publishers is the inability to discount their works.
This is what I mean when I say the decision to publish may be the last decision you ever make. You think all future decisions will be for your benefit, but there are conflicts of interest. A new release from a hot new author may take precedent over the book you released last year that didn’t do so well. Publishers will always pin their hopes on the next new thing rather than figure out how to give backlist titles another chance. This is a massive flaw in their business philosophy, and one you shouldn’t expect them to fix anytime soon.
There’s also the problem of staff turnover. The editor who excitedly purchases your manuscript may not be around for its release and marketing, or be there when it’s time to negotiate for a sequel. You’d think this would be a rare occurrence; it’s not. I’ve watched editors shuffle within and between publishers like a game of three card monte. It’s not uncommon to find yourself down the road with an editor who hasn’t read your work, or find yourself jumping between publishing houses along with your favorite editor, which means fewer cross-promotional opportunities. Think about this when you sign away lifetime rights; a lifetime is a lot longer than these editors spend on any one rung of their careers.
Having been a little cynical, let me now give you some hope. There are fantastic agents and publishers out there; I’ve been very lucky to work with a few. The right agent will more than make up for their 15% commission. The right publisher can help boost your career. In both cases, however, you’re better off when you can approach them from a position of power. Here’s your next insight-within-an-insight:
YOU hire your agent and your publisher, not the other way around.
That’s right: they work for you! Too many writers get this the wrong way around, and it leads them to accepting the first offer of representation they can land, or the first publishing deal they can get. I’ve made this mistake in the past. I was lucky in that my first attempt to query led very quickly to a publishing contract. I was even luckier to get the rights back to that work. That work has since won me many readers and made me a lot of money. But early on, I thought I was the one getting hired. I had it all backwards.
Once I figured it out, I stopped looking for agents and publishers. I concentrated on finding readers. They are my real boss; I work to keep them entertained and informed. After amassing a lot of readers, I started getting inquiries from agents, and now I could have my pick. This is exactly how it should work. Agents and publishers can boost an existing career more readily than they can create one from scratch. Hire the best. Put them to work for you.
Insight #36: Understand the market
Books are no longer just printed tomes. You may prefer to read print books or ebooks, but don’t let this bias close you off to a large segment of readers. Audiobooks are exploding in popularity. Ebooks sales have overtaken print books in most genres. And print books still rule when it comes to book signings and many promotional opportunities.
Each medium has its readers and its advantages. And there is plenty of crossover. Keep the physical limitations that some readers have in mind. Not all readers live near a bookstore, or have the eyesight for the small print of most published books, and some have no eyesight at all. Ebooks have been a boon for older readers, both for the large print and the weight reduction. Audiobooks have opened up worlds for the visually impaired. Online shopping and home delivery are the only option for millions of readers.
The point is to not assume and to not let your personal reading biases color your professional writing decisions. Instead, treat the trifecta of book publishing as equal sides on a triangle: Print books, ebooks, and audiobooks. You should offer all three formats to your readers, and give all three formats your close attention.
The Self-Publishing Trifecta: Ebooks, Print, and Audio
Of the three dominant book formats, Ebooks are the simplest to create, but it’s easy to get them wrong. You can upload an edited word document right to KDP and other ebook retailers, but automated conversion can make many mistakes. I highly recommend using an ebook formatter like 52 Novels to create perfect ebook files.
You’ll want two types of file formats: .epub and .mobi. The former is used by a larger number of retailers. The latter is used by Amazon, which means it’s used by a larger number of readers. Mobi files are basically .epub files with a few added features. A must-have tool for converting these file formats is the free program Calibre. Consider supporting the developers of this program as you begin to rely on it. It’s pure gold.
There are countless outlets for your ebooks, including the ability to sell them directly through your website. In order of popularity (ie sales), the top options are: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, and Kobo. There are also aggregators like Direct to Digital and Smashwords, which allow you to upload to a single place to reach multiple outlets. But I find the control and better royalty rates makes uploading to each site separately more than worthwhile.
I’m sure this sounds daunting, but it really isn’t. Learning how to write a query letter and researching which agents to send them to (and keeping track of your submissions and responses) is far more work. You can learn to publish on Amazon’s KDP site in a single weekend, and the ebook will be available to readers by Monday. If you have an Amazon account, you already have a KDP account. It’s the same login and password. You just need your polished and edited work and some cover art.
Print books are a little trickier to create, but not much. You’ll want to generate a PDF of your book. (Two PDFs, actually. One will be the interior; the other will be the full cover wrap, which includes the front, spine, and rear in a single splay). The great thing about PDFs is that they print just how they look. What you see on your screen is what you’ll see on the printed page. You can use a company like the aforementioned 52 Novels to create your PDF, or you can learn to play around with it on your own. I love and have used 52 Novels, but I’m a huge advocate for doing it yourself. For me, the layout of my print book is the final interface between me and my readers. How the fonts look, how the words are spaced, which sentences end on certain pages, how hyphens are used, all of this is as important to the reading experience as the words themselves.
The best artists stretch their own canvases and have opinions on which way is up when the painting is hung, how it is lit, how prints are matted and framed. The same can and should be true of authors. If you take your career seriously, consider learning about kerning, widows and orphans, pagination techniques, typography, even book binding. Even if you don’t do these things yourself, you’ll have the vocabulary and knowledge to communicate with those you hire to do it for you. This goes back to our insight in part one of this series about standing out from your peers by working harder than them.
The way your print books will be created and sold is different from what self-published authors had to do in the past. Gone are the days of ordering boxes of books that sit in your garage and that you sell out of the trunk of your car at trade shows. Now we have print-on-demand technology. This is partly a miracle of printing automation, but mostly a miracle of on-time production and delivery. Soon after uploading your book in PDF form to a print-on-demand facility, your book will go on sale. When a customer buys a copy, the book will be printed, bound, and shipped that same day. You’ll get a percentage of the sale in a month or two. This means your books never go out of print, and you don’t spend money on tons of books that go unpurchased.
There are a few print-on-demand companies out there, but only two that I recommend you look into. Lightning Source is one owned by Ingram, and they provide a lot of options on trim size (the height and width of your book), and binding (hardback, paperback). They can make your work easily orderable by bookstores (though almost no bookstore will make an order unless you talk them into it in person, or a reader goes in to order a copy rather than get it online). The disadvantage of upfront cost at Lightning Source is partly offset by a higher per-sale payout compared to the other option I recommend.
That other option is CreateSpace, which is owned and operated by Amazon. This is by far my runaway choice for my own works, and it’s the one I would recommend to most writers for most purposes. The simple fact is that most books are now purchased on Amazon, and CreateSpace provides a tightly integrated experience for both you and your customers (the readers). Your print books will show up on the store more quickly, and they’ll never show a low stock quantity. They’ll ship faster (especially to Prime members), and they’ll sometimes go on sale while giving you the same percentage of profits. You can also order copies for yourself directly from CreateSpace for direct sales, author events, and book signings.
Since you own your rights, feel free to try both and compare. Or use both, one for Amazon sales and the other to make your books available through Ingram’s network of distributors.
Audiobooks are the biggest challenge, both in getting them right and affording someone who can get them right for you. A professionally narrated audiobook can cost a self-published author several thousand dollars. It takes a lot of sales to earn that back.
Cheaper options exist, including narrating the work yourself. Some authors have built a career on their podcasted auidobooks. You can also try to sell audiobook rights to publishers based on the sales of ebooks and print books, but this can take time and the rates won’t be as good as doing it yourself. The production quality will likely be very high though.
The best option for high quality and low price is to go through Amazon’s ACX platform. This is a self-publishing platform for audiobooks. The ACX platform helps authors match up with narrators. You can pay them outright for the work and keep the royalties for yourself, or you can share the royalties evenly with narrators who do the work at no upfront cost. This is a great way for authors on a budget to offer options to their readers. But my advice is to save up and pay for great narration on your own. It’s an investment in your career, and it will almost always pay off in the long run.
If you look at my advice above, the trifecta of book formats comes down to a trifecta of Amazon offerings: KDP for ebooks, CreateSpace for print, and ACX for audiobooks. This is no accident. Amazon has become by far the #1 outlet for book sales in all formats. This is where readers are getting their stories, and Amazon has worked hard to improve the author and customer experience at all three platforms. I’ve used every outlet out there, and my current advice is to focus on this trifecta. Of course, that could change in the future. Which leads us to my next insight…
Insight #37: The Modern Book is Forever
One of the truths about modern publishing that’s almost impossible to fully appreciate is that books are now on the market for the rest of time.
I list this insight very high on my reasons to self-publish, and I owe this insight to my years as a bookseller. Part of my job at the bookstore was to shelve all new incoming books from publishers. A less enjoyable part of my job was to then box up unsold books and ship them right back to those very same publishers.
The average time a book spent on a shelf was around six months. Some only lasted three months, at which time the next batch from the quarterly catalogs arrived. It was rare that a book spent a year on the shelf. Most books that end up on the store shelves for longer are age-old classics or the mere handful of top bestsellers that are destined to become classics.
This is one of the heartbreaking things to watch from the inside, especially when you appreciate all the obstacles authors overcame to get this far. To miss their chance to find a readership and only get a few months spine-out on a bookstore shelf is downright depressing. Working in a bookstore and seeing this day after day helped me lower my expectations as an author, and it made me steadily devalue the ability to get into bookstores at all. I realized those shelves were not a panacea for sales and readership.
You might console yourself by pointing out that these returned books are always available online, but this is only as long as publishers keep printing them. Unfortunately, they don’t do this forever. Not all publishers take advantage of print-on-demand (POD) technology, so some books just disappear in paperback form and remain as ebooks only. For the authors whose primary goal is getting into bookstores, you may sign over lifetime ownership of your art for a mere three months of spine-out visibility. This is why goals and dreams must be kept separate. Careers can implode when they aren’t.
If you self-publish, your works will be available forever. This is why the long goal of writing a dozen or more novels is viable. When one takes off, all the other works are still fresh. The online retailer’s algorithms will make sure readers know about your other works. Success seems to come all at once to authors who amass a library of quality titles. The great thing about today’s publishing tools is that if you don’t give up on yourself, the technology won’t either.
Insight #38: Diversify! (And consolidate)
This insight goes against much publishing advice and a lot of common sense, but I strongly suggest that you refrain from writing in the same world and about the same characters over and over. The only time to do this is if your first release has a massive amount of success. If this happens, keep striking while the iron is hot and turn your work into a long series.
A big mistake I see from too many aspiring writers is to follow up their first work with a sequel, and turn that into a trilogy, and write a fourth and fifth book while they plan their sixth and seventh.
There are three reasons we fall into this trap. The first is that ex nihilo creation is more difficult than working with something we already have, and writers tend to be paradoxically lazy when it comes to creativity. The second is that all writers are readers, and as readers we love revisiting beloved characters and worlds if possible (and now that we’re the writers, it’s very much possible). The third reason we fall into this trap is that we witness the major successes from the publishing world, and those authors seem to release another book in their same series year after year.
The problem with this third reason is selection bias. Publishers reinvest in their rare first-time successes, and they ask for more of the same and heavily promote these lucky authors. This means we naturally end up with big careers based on book series that run out of numbers and letters for their thematic titles. The self-published author is unlikely to have success with their first title, but they have as a filtered example from publishers the careers of those who were fortunate in this regard. All the authors who didn’t have this one-off success are gone and invisible, not to be emulated.
If you fall into the trap of writing a series out of the gate, the problem you’re creating is that you have to promote the same first book in the series with every new release. If it hasn’t taken off yet, it might not ever. Your writing is going to get stronger, but that first book isn’t. You’re left hoping that readers will force their way through to where the series really takes off. Don’t hope. Plan.
Plan on writing many great books about many awesome characters. Plan on writing three different trilogies in three different genres. Sequels aren’t bad; in fact, they can be critical to your success. What’s bad is only giving readers a handful of avenues into your imagination. Give them as many onramps as possible. Write short stories as well as novels. Write in different genres. Experiment and adapt to your sales and any critical feedback.
This is where we can emulate publishers. Major publishers invest in a wide variety of books, publish them all, and see what sticks. They reinvest in those that do. You should adopt the same strategy.
At the same time that I suggest you diversify your books, I highly recommend that you consolidate your brand. The only good reason I know of for multiple pen names is to keep adult work separate from all-ages work. If you write in different genres, don’t assume it’s necessary to keep up with multiple pen names. Readers are far more adventurous and diverse than publishers give them credit for – most of my readers read right across my various genres. All it takes to distinguish your content is appropriate cover art and product descriptions. Diluting your name is a huge mistake. It robs you of the advantage of critical mass when something takes off.
While I’m on the topic of diversifying and critical mass, I should mention my habit of serializing some of my novels. I’ve been hugely influenced by comic books and television, both of which offer lengthy plot arcs made up of smaller plot arclets (to coin a word). This works well if you can make each arclet a satisfying and holistic experience. Each arclet should have its own beginning, middle, and end. If not, you risk upsetting readers and appearing as if it’s a ploy to maximize profits.
What serializing really does is maximize visibility. WOOL, SAND, and BEACON 23 were all originally released in five parts. This meant five times as many impressions as readers scrolled through bestseller lists. There were other advantages: I could price these works more affordably, which served to draw in more readers to the first part. If I lost readers there, they save money in the long run, and I end up with superfans by parts four and five.
But the biggest advantage is all the creative advantages. More parts means more plot climaxes. It means nail-biting cliffhangers. It means being able to shift the tone and perspective between entries. It means more frequent releases, so the passion remains high both in you, the writer, as well as the reader. Amazon’s algorithms in particular love new releases, and so serialized works continue to tickle that beast’s digital belly.
All of this was discovered by accident when I followed up a short story, WOOL, which was taking off on its own. I was writing a wide variety of stories, and when I saw one gain steam, I started shoveling coal. You might discover a very different insight through your own experimentation. The point is that you never know what will work, so don’t limit yourself to one or two ideas. Be creative. Experiment and adapt.
Insight #39: Packaging and Retail Decisions
The adaptability mentioned above is possible because of the flexibility we now have with story packaging. The words that form our stories are important, but how they are packaged and delivered is equally important. A great example of this is among audiobooks, where aficionados look for their next purchase by searching for their favorite narrator, rather than their favorite author. That’s a packaging decision, and it can overpower every ounce of your writing efforts.
There are so many other examples. Take your print and ebooks, and the sudden shift in philosophy behind cover art. That shift occurred the moment online booksellers took off, and suddenly your print and ebooks had to stand out while being seen online as a mere icon. If you can’t grab readers’ attention with your online packaging, the story you slaved to write may never get a chance.
The size of online cover art is why typography has become so critical, far more critical than the artwork. I urge authors to stay away from thin, cursive fonts. They will disappear when readers see the cover on Amazon as they’re scrolling through lists of books. Your name and the title should jump out. The biggest mistake I see (and have made) with cover art is to think you need a fancy illustration. After laboring over this illustration, or shelling out big bucks for the art, the author’s name and the title shrink to the top and bottom of the book, terrified of obscuring the artwork. This is completely backwards. Cover up that artwork. Splay your name and title in big block letters right on top of it. Take time once a month to scroll through the bestseller lists in your genres to see what jumps out at you and what looks half-baked. Study these examples. You’ll note most major publishers slap their typography right over the art. Most successful self-published authors do the same.
Here’s a trick you can try with any of your cover art ideas or existing novels: Bella Andre and I were at a book conference once, and she’d given a talk about her cover art (she does her own, and it’s some of the best in the biz). That afternoon, a young writer came up to us with a copy of her novel and asked us what we thought of her cover. It wasn’t bad as a print book, and ten years earlier it would’ve have affected this author’s career. But for a modern book, it was a disaster. To show her why, I took the book and began walking away from the author and Bella. I asked Bella to stop me when the book was “Amazon size.”
“Further,” Bella said, waving me back. “Keep going. More. Back, back. Okay, right there.”
She turned and looked at the author who had come to us for advice. Suddenly, we could both see that this writer no longer needed the advice. She saw what we saw. That is, she saw what readers were going to see online. “Got it,” she said, nodding, with the sort of can-do attitude that let us know she’d go back to work, punch up the typography, and get a new version out there.
I’ve gone through several packaged versions of my works over the years. HALF WAY HOME is on its third cover. The WOOL OMNIBUS has had four. My MOLLY FYDE series has a new set of covers from one of my favorite artists. THE HURRICANE and THE PLAGIARIST are also different from the originals. It doesn’t cost much to make these changes. For publishers, the cost would be prohibitive. They only do this when a book has a movie tie-in, or hits a major list or gets unreal blurbs it wants to add. Anniversary and special editions, that sort of thing.
But you can change your covers on a whim. An unintended side effect of this? You create collector’s items out of print-on-demand books. I’ve seen some copies of the original WOOL novelette sell for hundreds of dollars. For a little fifty page book! It’s not just the monetary value either. Early readers of my MOLLY FYDE series take great pride in the original copies with the old cover art. It’s proof and reminder of when they got into the books.
There’s so much more we can do with print-on-demand, so much untapped potential. You could celebrate a particular month like Black History Month, or put out a limited edition tied to a charity and give the proceeds for that month to the cause. You could update the cover every month with a different reader’s Amazon review blurbed on the cover, and then send the fan an offer of a free copy (this might held encourage more reader reviews). How about including a doodle in the book that animates as you flip through it, down in the corner of the book like those flip-books we made in school? You could commission one of these from an artist to celebrate an anniversary of release or a sales milestone. Show it off to readers and offer it for a limited time.
I remember a challenge I had years ago, when I had the opportunity to speak at a Boing Boing event and give away something in their swag bag. These were tech-savvy folks, and I thought about a flyer with a download link for some of my ebooks, but how boring is that? I wanted to get creative and make them feel like they’d received something special. So I had some business-card-shaped USB drives custom printed to look like ID badges worn in the silos of WOOL. They had a fallout symbol on them and were made to look worn and old. I loaded the full trilogy on the drives and included instructions on how to sideload the files to pretty much any reading device.
The fallout USB drives were a massive hit. When my readers saw them, they wanted to know how to get one of their own. So I had to print up another batch and sell them direct from my website. When orders came in with requests that I sign the drives, I realized what I’d inadvertently done: I’d given substance to electrons. I could now sign and give away my ebooks. The packaging drove sales and awareness.
Ebooks, audiobooks, and POD have allowed short fiction to become viable again. As long as the price is commensurate, and the shopper is well-informed, we no longer have to write for the very limited scope of old-school physical packaging. But it’s not just short fiction that’s affected. One of the most powerful tools in marketing and sales these days is the ability to delivery LOTS of written words all at once.
Multi-author boxsets are allowing dozens of writers to hit national bestseller lists by combining their marketing powers. It’s also possible to include every book you write into a single product, selling this library of works at a discount. In the old way of publishing, every page cost money. Publishers would shrink down the font and squeeze the margins to save pennies per copy (resulting in a worse reading experience!). And if the author sent in a manuscript that was too short, the publishers would spread the text way out to justify the same $25 price on the hardback. There was no creativity with the containers. Bean counters decided the package, and the authors and editors were forced to comply.
But now you can add as much content as you like to your works. Do you have a rough draft that is wildly different from the original? Include it at the end for a behind-the-scenes look. The reader can skip it or peruse it; their choice! Did you cut out a lot of scenes from your epic fantasy to improve the reading experience? Maybe punch those up and release them as short stories, or tack them on at the end of the book! Write a blooper reel for your novel that comes after the credits. (Has anyone done this yet? Why not!).
The point of all these ideas is that we are creatives. That’s what we’re trying to make a living doing. So be fucking creative. There is no box to think outside of anymore. Stand out.
Insight #40: The Power of Free
When I completed my first book, all I wanted was to have it read by as many people as possible. My goal wasn’t to make a lot of money; I just wanted to see if a full-time career might be possible. So I emailed the draft out to anyone willing to read it, and I made a plan to serialize the book for free on my blog. I knew of a few science fiction authors who did something similar; a couple of them had released their books as weekly audio podcasts.
In the end, I was pressured by some early fans to submit the manuscript to publishers. I was told that giving my book away for free would harm my career, not kickstart it. One of the early mistakes I made as a writer was to listen to people who weren’t having any luck along the querying route and follow their lead. I should have trusted my gut and my observations of those who had broken convention and had found success.
Giving away my work turned out to be a very powerful tool indeed. In the early days of Amazon’s KDP service (their online ebook platform for self-publishing), they provided a handful of “free days” for every 90 day enrollment period. KDP authors soon learned that giving away their works led to more sales. The danger in the arts is not in having your works devalued; it’s having your works undiscovered.
Free has other advantages, ones long ago discovered by sales forces in other industries. Free lowers the barrier to entry. It’s like an app you can download on a whim, and if you love the demo, you can pay for more levels. My first WOOL story has been made permanently free, with the hopes that those who enjoy it will seek out more. When WOOL was first taking off years ago, readers joked that I was a digital crack-dealer, giving away samples. It was a terrible analogy!
It was also a perfect analogy.
Another benefit to free is market research. People who don’t like something offered for free are less likely to leave a bad review than those who paid a lot of money and were dissatisfied. Reader reviews have become the single most powerful force driving book sales. The road to going viral with your works relies on writing a work that elicits raves from readers. Pulling this off is harder than you can possibly imagine. Free books will help keep review averages high, and hopefully get word-of-mouth started. I remember seeing people on social media urge their friends to read WOOL, and part of their sales pitch to their friends was that it was short and didn’t cost much.
Free has always been controversial. Many writers hate the idea of free, and most publishers don’t understand its power. Neil Gaiman once fought tooth and nail with his publisher to give away copies of his book AMERICAN GODS. It wasn’t selling as well as he thought it should, so he wanted to just let readers enjoy it online at no cost. His publishers balked, but Neil persisted. To humor him, they agreed to do it for a month. During this month, paid sales of AMERICAN GODS increased 700%! Neil was vindicated and thrilled, but his publisher had spent the month agonizing over all the “lost sales” of each free download. At the end of the month, they terminated the experiment. Paid sales dropped back down. They’d somehow seen enough by not paying attention.
The new controversy is all-you-can-read services like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Some authors loathe the service, and most publishers refuse to participate. It’s the same debate I saw play out over free books years ago. Kindle Unlimited allows readers to pay a $9.99 monthly subscription and then read as many books as they want. This has been a boon to voracious readers, and a bonanza for the authors who get discovered and paid through the program. The problem with Kindle Unlimited, for an author, is that they have to make their works exclusive with Amazon. Hence the balking from many authors.
Exclusivity is my last insight-within-an-insight, and it’s related to the paradox of free. Just as free can lead to more paid sales, limiting the distribution of your books can lead to more readers. This may not always be true, but the current publishing market certainly makes this the case today. It’s been the case for most authors over the last two years.
Let’s imagine that Barnes & Noble offers to carry your book, but you can’t make it available anywhere else. If you agree to this, they’ll put your book in the store window and run special promotions on your book to drive lots of in-store sales. Most authors I know would jump at the chance, even though it meant not being available on Amazon, or in small independent bookstores. The opportunity to stand out and win special bookshelf placement is worth taking books out of markets where they are practically invisible. This is how Kindle Unlimited works. You trade exclusivity for greater visibility in the number one bookstore in the world.
This may not always be the case as more distribution options become available. The point here is not that Kindle Unlimited is a shortcut to success, or that if you give your books away for free you’ll make lots of money. My point with free and Kindle Unlimited is that some of the best decisions you make in publishing will be illogical on their surface. You have to be brave and experiment; try different things. The beauty of our first insight in this part of my series is that you didn’t rush off and give away your freedom to make these decisions. You can jack up the price of that free ebook and one day make it free again. You can take your ebooks out of Kindle Unlimited and see if other distributors have upped their game. You can put them back into KU at any time.
The choices are all yours. The technology is waiting. Readers are waiting. You are lucky, because there’s never been a better time in human history to be a reader or a writer. And there’s never been more ways to bring these two parties together.
Bonus Insight: The secret to marketing
There’s one more facet to publishing not mentioned very much in this series, and it’s something I’m saving for a future series on book publishing, and that’s marketing. The secret to marketing is to not market so much. Don’t spend time marketing that you could otherwise spend writing. There is no marketing force as powerful as another book to publish. Period. End of story. Mic drop. Please make me stop repeating myself.
This doesn’t mean marketing isn’t important. It just means that marketing can more easily get in the way of success as it can provide a path to it. I’ve seen too many writers market the hell out of their first novel, or first trilogy, and get frustrated with disappointing sales and never write the work that would’ve gone viral on its own if they’d just kept pressing forward.
Go back to my first part of this series and you’ll see the advice I give to have the long view, to write twenty novels before you analyze your potential to make a career of this. I mean every word of that. This detachment from sales will allow you to persevere. When you see a writer blaze past you on the road to successville, understand that they are lapping you because they set out a long time before you even laced up your writing shoes. You didn’t see them go through the same struggles you’re going through now. You don’t know their full history any more than they know yours. Assume those histories have much in common.
The time to start marketing is when you have lots of works to offer, or one of your works takes off, or you land a special deal somewhere with an agent or publisher or media outlet. Until then, the way to market is to be yourself and to put that self out there. Get engaged in the writing community. Use your writing to make a mark on social media and your blog. Lay a foundation on which future marketing endeavors may rest. The goal isn’t to sell your works but to establish yourself. Much more to come in my marketing insights series, which I’m not even considering a part of this series, because you shouldn’t be thinking about it.
You should be thinking about writing.
So what are you doing here?
Get to it.
Finish what you start.
Work on your craft.
I believe in you.
Believe in yourself.