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The main obstacle to self-publishing is the publicity. How do you hook people into reading your stuff? Way back in 2012 I was desperately trying all channels to publicize my book, Hillary’s Angel. An IT friend persistently told me to start a blog. Eventually, six months later, I did.
It was scary. Blogging didn’t come naturally at first, but one day I woke up with the realization that it had become a hobby — something I actually enjoyed. However, 18 months later I still have no way of knowing if it has helped sell any books. I tried unsuccessfully to get feedback from Amazon (at one stage there was a nifty chart on my Amazon author’s page, which sky-rocketed whenever I made a sale, but that was taken down for “upgrading” months ago and never replaced) and I’ve not had a whiff of a royalty from them to date.
The idea is (or, rather, MY idea is) that people who read my blog will think WOW I’d like to tuck into more stuff by this magnificent blogger and will then click on and download my Wonderful Book. Certainly I’ve really enjoyed several self-published books that I found on WordPress. Some great writing is not being published via the old-fashioned/conventional channels. In fact, it’s often better than the stuff in the bookstores (and a whole lot cheaper). But in my case I only have positive evidence that blogging has helped me sell one copy.
In another way (ie not sales related) I do have concrete proof that blogging has helped me publish. Early on it connected me with another first-time self-publisher who was far more blog-literate than I was and incredibly supportive with no prospect of financial reward (which still amazes me).
Indirectly, thanks to her encouragement, on 21 December I finally delivered another book. This time I published with Smashwords (following my blog-friend’s example) in ebook format only. This is SELF-PUBLISHING in the true sense of the word. Along with the (minimal) effort and the risks involved it has one major advantage: I can now tell exactly how many books I sell. This time around I’m not uploading to Amazon and I’m not asking folk to review me (if they do it will just be a bonus). So for me 2014 will be an honest experiment to see if blogging really DOES help self-publishers connect with readers.
That said, I can tell you what (in my experience) does NOT sell books. First and foremost, a book launch. Rubbish. I had a great party, but didn’t sell a single copy. In fact, if you asked my friends I don’t think they’d be able to tell you why we had the party in the first place. Secondly, book reviews. I had at least three four-star reviews but suspect I was the only one who read them. Next, bookshops. As a self-publisher I found it next to impossible to get bookstores to sell my books. (Another reason why I’m opting for ebook-format only this time round.) I sold three books at each of the two stores that very kindly put Hillary’s Angel on their shelves.
Then we come to “friends and family”. All the publishing guidelines recommend that you do NOT give friends and family copies of your books. Thing is, they don’t tell you how to get these friends and family to buy their own copies. In the end I gifted copies to most of mine.
So what do I hope to achieve by the end of 2014 (apart from the obvious massive sales to all you supportive WordPress bloggers)? Well, firstly, I’m already deep into a Mills and Boone type romance (publish or perish) to be published anonymously. And secondly (and sadly) I’m thinking of awarding a special prize to my friends for the most inventive excuse for not buying my books. The list is growing daily. (And yep, that would be a book prize.)
On a more serious note, so far I’ve sold two whole copies of my new book Upside Down. Both to family, who bought them solely in an attempt to “cheer me up”. One was bought by my daughter, who doesn’t read books anyway, and one by my husband when he heard I’d reduced the price to $1. No, these are not tears of joy …
Twenty-two is a magical number. I had a “book signing” at a local fete on May 1 and I sold a whole 22 books. This might not sound like a lot, but in context it’s not that bad. South Africans don’t buy books. I was told by one of my customers that the South African representative of a well-known international publisher (I won’t embarrass them by giving their name) claims that 10000 South Africans buy one book a year and that only 1000 South Africans buy one book a month. In addition, most of these books are also non-fiction. So given an annual total of 22000 books for that well-known publisher, for me to sell 22 books of contemporary literary fiction in my five-hour stint was nothing short of miraculous – or magical, if you prefer.
One key to my success was possibly the spice cookies in the shape of little angels that I used to entice customers to come and chat to me. People like free stuff. People also like food. And these spice biscuits are made from an old and irresistible recipe that I won’t be publishing here. I have to admit that a lot more people came to chat and sample the biscuits than actually bought books. Also, those who bought the books weren’t always enticed by the cookies. But it certainly made my day more interesting.
Another factor that helped was that this fete was in aid of Irene Homes, an organisation that actually inspired my book in the first place. So perhaps the people who were there had a special in my subject matter to start with.
Now I must get on and finish my next book before the end of the month. This one’s called Upside Down and it’s based on Truman Capote’s premise that “all literature is gossip”. As in Hillary’s Angel, I’m using true stories to tell a fictional tale. Despite the figures quoted above, a recent South African best-seller (Spud – also fictionalised fact) is said to have sold 69000 copies in one year. At least that’s what the statistics say. Sounds like a far more magical number than 22 to me.
No, the verb is “cook up”, not the other thing. Although my choice of vocabulary may be revealing. The problem is – I’m in this Alone. My husband refers to it as “your launch”, which makes me feel like the QEII in drydock. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve organized lots of parties over the years: children’s parties. I have the cake photos to prove it. Can’t remember baking them – or even which birthday they celebrated. But never, EVER an adult party. Not even when we got married. Like Eva Peron, you could have knocked me down with a feather when my husband-to-be proposed, if I hadn’t been in bed at the time. There was no time to plan a party. We were too busy finding a registry office that had an opening before the end of the tax year. Ended up going hundreds of miles to the back of beyond. Our witness was a clerk at the magistrate’s court, and we spent the night at a dubious motel just outside the gambling Mecca of Sun City. Oddly enough, over the years, that motel has acquired something of a reputation for wedding receptions – no thanks to us. At the time, our only companion in the dining room was a cockroach, slowly climbing up the wall.
Back to “the” party. As you can see, we have a lot of celebrating to catch up on. And, after all, this is the greenest launch ever — the closest thing to a book will be the menu, because the shipping costs (another nasty nautical image) are almost double the price on the jacket. I’ve settled the menu, more-or-less. (Do you think we need a CAKE? I could possibly stretch to a Titanic, stern uppermost, on a sea of blue icing.) My favourite guitar duo, CH2, are coming to play. (See pic.) I’d happily park my broomstick behind their door any day. They have an album called “It’s about time”, which seemed appropriate. Guests? No, I haven’t forgotten! I’ve picked kind-of-adopted family; people who’ve invited us to their special events over the years, been “there” for us, or nudged some self-respect (ie work) my way. That’s about the sum of it. But I’m still jittery.
What can I “do” to make it a success? The dress code is jeans or tiara – I’m not specifying. I said no speeches, but if I can’t avoid it – anyone know any publishing jokes? And, should I have a poster showing the cover of the book and the publisher’s website? Or flyers? Saying what, I wonder. Or should I just confine myself to pouring welcome drinks and wine (nothing dry about this boat). If I provide all the ingredients (quick check) will the magic just happen, as it does with a play? You fret yourself to a frazzle and then to your amazement it all comes together on the night. To return to my cake metaphor – is the best I can do “Mix well” and hope for the best? No more ocean liner metaphors for me; if I do bake a cake it will be a great big, swash-buckling, flop-proof treasure island with a Jolly Roger on top.
I have a special box under my desk. It is an unstained, untreated carved camphor box, crafted by a friend and neighbour who died a few years back, and inside is a confused collection of notebooks and manuscripts that I’ve written over the years.
When the opportunity came up to self-publish, I chose Hillary’s Angel because I believe it’s the best thing I’ve written. I put a lot of energy into the research at the time (about 15 years ago), and last year, when a publisher offered me what seemed like a good deal, it was more-or-less ready to go (no minor consideration).
This can’t be a sales pitch, because I’m going to give away the ending before you even begin to begin. That’s because I don’t want you to buy my book for the wrong reasons. You probably won’t enjoy Hillary’s Angel unless, like me, you “take life too seriously”.
Hillary is hoping to be rescued. She is looking for an angel. The irony is that the angel is there, waiting, ready to be discovered the whole time.
Hillary always misses the point. She doesn’t quite get it. Until, perhaps, the very end – although even that’s not conclusive.
Hillary’s angel is not a husband or lover, a child, a friend, a priest, a pet, or a project (like a career, a mission, a book or even a blog). Her angel, like ours, is that something that still speaks to us even when we are cut off from family and friends; when we have been abandoned or rejected by church and creed, society and its institutions. Our angel is what keeps us humane in the very best sense. It gives meaning to our lives in the worst possible circumstances and keeps us keeping on. Happiness? Yes, let me stick my neck out, happiness. It’s there if we look for it, despite everything – pollution, bad politics, poverty, sickness, brutality – that beautiful, indestructible thing, the human spirit. But we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we can recognise it in each other.
The best of us are not the winners of the rat race. The best of us are those people who don’t come out of concentration camps.
Instead of reading my book, which is a fluffy romance by comparison, you could try (if you haven’t already read it) Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
If you’re wondering – Why a picture of a mare and foal? Well … because life goes on, and what more beautiful proof than this.
As a self-publisher I have to do my own marketing on a limited budget. Now I face the option of paying someone to review my book. The question is: Is it nobler to sink or swim with no-one watching, or should I cough up good money and run the risk of sinking anyway – and in full view of anyone who happens to be watching? The thing is, with my sales figures sitting at the grand total of “Nil” (that can’t possibly include the Kindle books because even I’ve bought one of them), how else do I tell people (besides my mom) that my book’s out there?
A superficial google indicates that a favourable (and there’s no guarantee that it will be favourable) review only increases sales by between 130 and 300 (plus-minus) books over a year. As one writer estimated, even with a profit of $1 per book it would take forever to recoup the costs of a $450 review. I don’t dispute the price. A friend painstakingly pointed out that it takes time to read the book (that’s assuming I get a “genuine” reviewer) as well as considerable thought and skill to write the review, depending on the length required – and then there’s the borrowed prestige of the newspaper or magazine. I’m not saying that reviewers don’t deserve their money. I’m only wondering if the end result is worth it.
Maybe I’ve just got to take a deep breath and pay up. After all, even if I do sink, the chances are that no-one’s watching anyway.
Well here I sit, still wondering how to publicize my book. Aha! I apparently get a few free review copies to distribute. If you take a look at the blurb on Amazon, or download a sample from Kindle and decide you’d like to read it, you could send me your name and address so I can send you a copy. I’m hoping you’ll like it enough to recommend it to a friend or write a review for me on Amazon. So have a look see. It’s called “Hillary’s Angel” — and that’s not the one about Hillary Clinton’s body guards!