My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

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dgaughran
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My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 2nd, 2011, 7:43 am

Hi,

As some of you may know, I decided to take the plunge into self-publishing at the start of April, beginning with some short stories to test the waters. I self-published my first title on May 4 and my second on May 21. A few days ago, I pulled my novel from the four agents that were still considering it, as I had decided to self-publish that too.

I wrote a post on my blog today, fulfilling a promise I had made to my readers that I would publish my sales figures at the end of each month. I thought those who are considering self-publishing - or those curious about it - might find it useful, so I have cross-posted it here, in full (it's quite long). If there is interest, I can come back each month and do the same, but without the long preamble next time!

Dave


My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results

I started this blog at the beginning of April at the same time that I made my decision to self-publish. I thought I would document the process of an unknown, unpublished writer as they attempted to get noticed out of the near-million items in the Kindle Store.

People warned me that there was so much crap out there that I would sink to the bottom unnoticed. However, that just strengthened my belief that if you put out a professional product (well-edited, good cover, competitive price, catchy blurb, clever marketing), that you would stand out even more.

Right from the start, I promised to give you my sales figures, warts and all. There were times this month that I regretted that pledge. I went four days when I sold nothing at all in the US, and a whole week in the UK, but my sales pulled through in the end and I comfortably beat my targets.

Too often the talk in self-publishing is about people at the very top of the bestseller charts whom we have no realistic hope of matching, or people who don’t approach this professionally (i.e. poor editor, crappy design etc.), and sell nothing at all.

I don’t think either extreme is particularly useful for the average unpublished writer who is considering self-publishing.

What first made me sit up and take notice of self-publishing was the amazing figures being posted by people like Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke.

However, what convinced me to take the plunge was the much more widespread success of previously unpublished writers on the next “tier” down: David Dalglish, Victorine Lieske, HP Mallory, Michael Wallace, Christopher Smith, Mel Comley, J. Carson Black, David McAffee, Sibel Hodge, Imogen Rose, and many more.

Robin Sullivan of Ridan Publishing regularly posts monthly totals of some of the top-sellers she has information for. But even more convincing than that was the monthly thread on Kindle Boards, where people published their totals whether they were selling big numbers or not. (Like this one: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/t ... 390.0.html)

Two things became clear to me. First, there were a lot more people making good money from self-publishing than I realised. Second, the sales curve for self-published work is completely different to traditional publishing.

In traditional publishing there is a massive push in the first week and the first month to sell as many copies as possible. Good numbers are crucial in preventing booksellers from returning the books to the publisher, so all the marketing push is focussed on those opening weeks.

If the first month is a good one, the hope is that momentum will carry the book through a few months good sales before it dies down to a trickle. If it’s a bad one (which is far more likely), the book is written off and destroyed.

However, in self-publishing, it is completely different. Virtually every writer who posted their sales figures had a slow build, with each month gradually improving before some kind of jump after five, six, or seven months.

None of them could really put their finger on what led to the boom, but many felt it was their cumulative marketing efforts finally finding their audience.

This is a great boon to self-publishers. It removes the insane pressure for instant success, and give you time to find the pricing and marketing strategies that work for you. It also negates the unrealistic expectations that hound trade published writers, where their book is deemed a hit or a flop in a matter of days.

All that said, it’s time for my figures.

I launched my first e-book If You Go Into The Woods on May 4 & my second Transfection on May 21. Both titles are short stories. The first has a length of around 4,000 words, the second, closer to 6,000. Both are priced at the minimum 99c.

I had some fears that I would sell only a handful because of the sheer amount of full-length novels, many from bestsellers, available for the same price.

Full Breakdown for May

If You Go Into The Woods (on sale since May 4)

Amazon US 88

Amazon UK 15

Amazon DE 1

Smashwords 4

Sub-total 108

Transfection (on sale since May 21)

Amazon US 40

Amazon UK 2

Amazon DE 0

Smashwords 3

Sub-total 45

Total 153*

*That total includes 13 copies gifted through Amazon, but doesn’t include free downloads on Smashwords or copies given away through other means.

“Real” Total 140

With both titles there was an initial burst of sales, then nothing, then a slow build (with ups and downs).

Neither title is in the Smashwords Premium Catalogue yet, which is cutting out 20%-30% of my sales channels (I am international so can’t list direct with Barnes & Noble and must go through Smashwords).

Sales of Transfection have been much stronger in the US. In fact, overall sales have collapsed completely in the UK, with only 1 sale in the last week of May. I haven’t figured out why yet, although 99% of my promotional efforts are focused on the US.

There was zero spend on advertising, until May 27, when I took out a cheap ad on the KU Forum which has had zero effect on sales.

I made a couple of mistakes, which had an effect on sales (not least running a competition on Twitter and sending 70 US readers to my Amazon UK listing – ouch).

I had a couple of breaks with some nice reviews in book blogs towards the end of the month which will hopefully lift sales (or keep them at this level) in June. I got a very nice review from SIFT Book Reviews two days ago, and I’m hoping that will have a positive effect.

Obviously, it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but the reviews are building nicely, and some people are starting to say some nice things.

Personally, I am delighted. It’s far more than I could have expected.

Out of all the promotional things I attempted, the second most effective was competitions. The first, by far, was releasing a new title. The sales of If You Go Into The Woods jumped when I released Transfection, even though they are different genres.

When I started on this path, I was unknown and unpublished (aside from few stories in magazines). I also had no platform. I started a blog in April about a month before my first release.

It grew pretty fast – I was hitting 1000 views a week by the release of If You Go Into The Woods, and it’s approaching 2000 views a week now.

My recommendation to anyone considering self-publishing is to start building that platform now. I only joined Twitter 3 weeks ago, and I should have done that a lot earlier. Blogging too.

There are tons of (free) promotional avenues I haven’t explored yet, and I am still experimenting with what is an effective use of my time. I should have a clearer picture in a few months.

But overall, I’m very happy with the way things are gone.

Cold Hard Cash

So what’s that in dollars? I make 35 cent per copy sold in the US, about the same from the UK, a little more in Germany, and a lot more from Smashwords. In total I cleared over $50.

I’m not driving a gold car yet, but it’s a good start. Remember, self-publishing is all about a slow build. To give you a comparison, John Locke made less than that in his first six months. He made $126,000 in April.

To put it another way, I covered 50% of the costs of the first story in 3 weeks. The second one was a little more expensive to produce and will take longer to cover costs, but then everything after that is profit. Forever. With no further costs on my side.

The plan is to use these shorts as a springboard to tap into the higher royalty rates. I’m never going to get rich making 35c per e-book.

My next project will be priced at $2.99 and that will make me over $2 a copy. The next release after that will be $3.99 or $4.99 (haven’t decided yet), and that will make me $2.79/$3.49 a copy.

I view the stories as “loss leaders” for the longer work (even though it looks like they will turn a profit). Longer work tends to sell much better, plus you get the 70% royalty rate instead of 35%.

The hope is that readers who aren’t sure whether to take a risk at a higher price, have a lower-priced alternative to sample my writing.

Plus, they will see the reviews of the lower-priced stuff (which has done well in that regard so far). Essentially, the short stories are like ads for the rest of my stuff which will come out this summer.

Also, I will bundle them into collection of 5 for $2.99 too, which will also tap into that higher royalty rate.

That’s speaking with my business hat on. I love writing shorts just for the fun of it too.

So, how do I feel overall? Well, I’m beginning to build an audience, I’m starting to get my name out there, and collect some good reviews.

But you know what? If $50 is all I ever make, if I never sell one more copy, I will be out about $140. Even if that happens, the experience (and the education) will have been well worth it.

I see these sales as the start, not the end. There is huge potential here. I just can’t wait to bring out longer work and see what level my sales could rise to.

June, here we come!
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by Mira » June 3rd, 2011, 5:20 pm

Wow - D. Thanks for sharing!

I love the optimism and upbeat feeling I get from reading about your journey!

Good luck - I'll cross my fingers for your continued success!

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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 3rd, 2011, 5:27 pm

It's because I am having a blast.

And it's easy to be optimistic when you have a novel and a non-fiction project written and slated for release this summer. Longer work can sell better by a factor of 5-10.

When I look at other writers and how they built their sales, I think I'm doing very, very well for my first month. Especially considering these are only short stories, and can be a tricky sell with so many novels, some by bestselling authors, at the same price.

Plus, I'm still figuring out which promo stuff works best. I should have that all pretty clear by the time the novel comes out in a couple of months.

Dave
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by Mira » June 3rd, 2011, 5:34 pm

I can tell you're having fun with it!

It's like a whole new world of creativity out there. I think I see the whole project as creative - especially if it's low pressure and experimental.

Sounds fun. I might wade in soon myself with something really tiny just to have the fun of it. It would be exciting.

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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 3rd, 2011, 5:40 pm

Starting with a short-story is a pretty low risk way to see if it is something you enjoy, you are good at, and whether it's a viable choice for longer, more valuable work.

I recommend that to anyone. I screwed up a couple of things with my first release. Because it was a short story it kept the freak-out at Level 3, as opposed to the full-blown Level 5 if it had been my novel.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by Quill » June 3rd, 2011, 9:09 pm

Yeah, it's a fabulous story, your journey to publication. Thanks for sharing it.

Bet your great covers help. What's your opinion on that, is a great cover a big plus for an e-short story? For an e-novel?

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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 3rd, 2011, 9:27 pm

In all the reader surveys I've seen, covers are the #3 reason people buy a book (#1 being they read something by the author before, #2 a recommendation from a trusted source).

It's the only one of those factors you can directly control.

Covers are crucial for the success of all books, whether shorts stories or novels, e-books or print.

I'm positive that a large portion of my sales can be chalked down to someone liking the cover and checking out my book as a result - and the emails and reviews I've received support this.

Too many people don't realise this and skimp on the cover. That's a mistake.

A professional cover is (not so) subtle cue to the reader that you have taken equal care with the editing, formatting, and story.

People judge books by their covers. Fact.

Some people think that's unfair. Other say that they have read plenty of awful books with good covers (and vice versa).

But that misses the point. If you want to draw attention to yourself in the self-publishing soup, if you want to stand out in the near-million items in the Kindle Store, if you want to try and overcome some of the residual stigma attached to self-publishers, if you want one simple way to say, "I'm a professional", hire a professional book cover designer.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by chvyg80 » June 3rd, 2011, 10:01 pm

I think it's great that you have the will to venture into the unknown, and share your results with us. I have to admit that your numbers are a tad better than I would've expected. You might be on to something and I hope you keep us posted. Good luck with everything!
Chavone
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 3rd, 2011, 10:06 pm

chvyg80 wrote:I have to admit that your numbers are a tad better than I would've expected. You might be on to something and I hope you keep us posted.
You and me both!

It's a hell of a thing.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by polymath » June 3rd, 2011, 10:37 pm

I read the Kindle sample. Bit the bullet and all that downloading a Kindle PC app just to read "If You Go Into the Woods." I found the sample up to par style, craft, and voice-wise. However, I wasn't sufficienty enticed to spend a dollar reading "If You Go Into the Woods." It was a close run thing, though, that fell barely on the decline side. I'm a poor underemployed slob on a tight discretionary spending budget. A dollar here and there adds up to missed meals and late rent payments.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by Mira » June 3rd, 2011, 11:19 pm

Polymath, you're going to love the Kindle app. There's tons of free books. I went alittle crazy when I first got it!

David, I downloaded your short stories. They look great.

I know this isn't an original thought, but it's possible that self-publishing can be a place for short stories to find an audience. Which is pretty cool.

In fact - polymath, have you considered publishing some stuff? For one thing, it would be cool if it were available, and maybe you could make some money...just a thought.

This self-publishing thing is fun.

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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by polymath » June 3rd, 2011, 11:24 pm

Mira, I have not yet satisfied my writing goals prior to debut. Close. I can taste the light at the end of the tunnel. I've been premature before. I don't believe I am at this time.

Oh ho, just got notice a library book I've wanted and reserved is now available. John Gardner's, The Art of Fiction. Yippee. First thing in the morning. I'm still partial to a physical book. Kindle as a last resort. I spend the better part of my waking day reading from screens. A printed book is a staycation from work.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 4th, 2011, 6:36 am

Hi Polymath,

One of the frustrating things about the Amazon system is that they only let the reader sample 10% (and I think that is 10% of the file rather than the word count), so for a short story, a reader isn't given enough to be hooked. I'm sure that has an effect on sales.

On Smashwords, I can set the sample size, and I make it three times longer - and I have nearly a 50% purchase rate on those who sample, which is very high.

You can read longer samples of both stories on my blog, if you like.

If You Go Into The Woods: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011 ... -gaughran/
Transfection: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011 ... -gaughran/

Dave

P.S. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner is excellent. I have only read certain sections so far (and keep meaning to read the rest) - but the parts on "psychic distance" are superb. Someone once told me that you should't read it until you have written a couple of books, as you need to be able to argue with him. I think you will do just fine.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by dgaughran » June 4th, 2011, 6:38 am

@Mira

Thank you very much! I hope you enjoy them.

Some people in indie circles are talking about the rebirth of the short story. We shall see. I'm more excited about the rebirth of the novella - a form that has produced some of my favourites books but that has been marginalised by commercial concerns.

There are so many possibilities now.
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Re: My Self-Publishing Experiment - Initial Results.

Post by Leila » June 4th, 2011, 7:55 am

I second Mira's wow. It's great hearing about your journey and getting a real feel for what's involved. Thanks for sharing.

I wish you the best of luck going forward and I'm so happy you're really enjoying the learning. That's nine tenths of the battle.

Polymath - I would also love to see your work in print. I hope that light at the end of the tunnel is a big, bright, shiny one.

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