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The Awful Mess by Sandra  Hutchison

The Awful Mess

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends January 12, 2014.

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Staying the course

I’m in the midst of (distractedly) grading the final research papers for my four English composition classes, so this will have to be a short post.

My paperbaPaperbackck went live on Amazon this week, which was interesting because, as I pretty much expected, the only people to buy it immediately were my parents. Which is just funny, really.

A few friends and family have requested multiple copies, so there’s that. (Yay, friends and family.)

I haven’t been able to do much marketing to support the release, what with the four classes and the unpredictability of the process, but that’s okay. At a friend’s suggestion I’m trying to throw together a little book launch party, but that’s not looking too healthy, either. This is a crazy time of year to squeeze one more thing in.

And sales even of the Kindle version have been slow. But I need to remember what the agents knew much better than I did: even a good debut novel is a challenge to sell in this market without some sort of compelling platform for the author. And I need to remember: That’s why I’m doing it this way. I can afford to fail and just keep writing and getting stuff out there until I gain some traction. In the meantime, I’m in print. And I’m learning.

So far I’ve actually been pretty fortunate, with more sales than the majority of first-timers, and some very nice positive reviews.

So, I really need to get back to what ought to be my primary focus — getting more books out there. Not that I’ll stop marketing, because that’s just too hard for me to do. It’s part of my professional background after all, so I find it embarrassing to just let it go. (On the other hand, my clients have always had much bigger budgets for marketing than I do.)

So the real focus here has to be getting more material out there.

And now I need to go back to grading (where I just discovered that one of my students and I — since I’d approved her source — were fooled by a fake scholarly journal. There’s another hazard of the brave new world of online publishing!)

For now, I wish you happy reading, and good luck with storms, semesters, holiday prep, and all the rest.

So … here’s my new cover

In the world of indie-publishing, cover reveals are supposed to be a big deal. Authors take great pains to count down to their cover reveals, go on blog tours to announce them, etc., etc.

Not me. Not this time.

Personally, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t go for a more professional cover in the first place. I thought mine did a good enough job. I entered it in The Book Designer’s monthly cover contest and no less an authority than book designer Joel Friedlander said there was “absolutely nothing wrong” with it. He complimented the typography. However, he also pointed out that there was nothing particularly compelling about the cover, either. And noted that rocks didn’t exactly suggest a love story.

But since the book is not really a pure romance, that didn’t concern me too much.

(You see where I’m going with this, right?)

I’m trying to start this publishing career without wasting too much money. To me, my cover was good enough for a first foray into publishing (I think the stock shot cost me about $14 and I designed it on GIMP, which is free design software). I set type back in the bad old days of Compugraphic (no WYSIWYG back then), and I’ve been the product manager or acquisitions editor in a fair number of book cover meetings. So I figured that no, it was not a GREAT cover …but it was good enough.

I was crazy if I expected to hit gold with a debut novel, anyway. I was just going to live with it, and do some marketing now and then, and hope the addition of new titles eventually got me to the kind of critical mass of stuff that allows the kind of cross-selling that will eventually make this a profitable enterprise.

However, having such a great run on my free days and getting such a nice crop of reviews from them has made me a little more ambitious for this first title.

Also, once I made the decision to come out with the paper edition of this book — because too many people just don’t read Kindle and swear they will read it if they can please just have it in paper (we’ll see if that’s true) — I calculated thus:

  1. It really needs to come out well before Christmas (ideally at the beginning of  November, but it’s too late for that).
  2. I’m teaching four composition classes. Four! With research papers!
  3. There’s no way I can format the book and create a decent-looking full cover for it and actually get it done before Christmas.

Ergo, I needed to hire some help. And at least this semester I have some money to pay for it. (I wasn’t expecting two of those four classes when I started out this summer.) So as long as I had to pay for help anyway, I went to the guy whose cover instincts I’ve been admiring for months — Damon Za. It took me awhile just to write up everything I needed for him, but once I did I sent it off and paid my deposit, and after a week or so I got three designs back, including the fixed up version of my own cover that I asked him to do as an option. (I was a little reluctant to throw out ALL my branding to date if I could find a way to make it work.)

One was an honorable attempt to cope with the busy rocks that screamed “this is probably stodgy literary fiction by a woman of a certain age,” so that one I never even showed anybody.

The other was a much improved version of the feet on the rocks with a better focal point and professional type treatment. But those rocks — oh, those rocks. They just make a terrible background for type.

And the third one was striking and sexy and just WOW.

I loved that third one right away — though it also made me a little nervous — but I ran it past my gang because you’re crazy if you don’t seek honest feedback from others in this business.

And of course the gang split.

Turns out a lot of them LIKE bare feet on rocks. Especially the guys, but not just the guys. However, the readers who are probably a little closer to my target demographic tended to go for the one I loved. And told me not to be nervous. Though I still asked Damon if he could do a little strategic blurring, which he did, so now I love it even more.

Of course, whether I love it is irrelevant. (And when I was an acquisitions editor, how dearly I wished my authors understood that.)  The question is: Will it work?

Here’s the deal. Other than the text of the book itself, which is what it is at this point, I see everything I’m doing right now as an experiment. I put out a cover that worked pretty well, especially when the book was free, but not well enough to sustain full-price sales even with a lot of nice reviews racked up and a good ride on Amazon after my free days. Ads of the book at full price seldom got any clicks, no matter what the copy said. Which meant no curiosity was being excited by that cover.

So now I’ll try this one. It will either increase clicks and sales, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, I guess I’ll have learned something valuable.

But speaking as the product manager for my own book, I just think it’s a much better cover. It has excellent, uncluttered use of color and typography, and it has a focal point. As a reader you might wonder why this woman looks so tightly wound — which doesn’t actually literally fit the scene of the book from which this could be taken — but it captures the heroine’s problem at the beginning of this book perfectly. I also think this cover is an excellent, flexible design basis for the books yet to come.

Next time I’ll go straight to Damon Za right from the beginning (if I can afford him, anyway). So, here it is.

Displaying TheAwfulMess3b.jpg

The paperback pages are getting final corrections right now, and I dearly hope it will be available on Amazon before the month is out.

Hate it? Prefer the rocks?

Go buy the e-book quickly and never delete it and reload it from your Amazon account, and you’ll have the old version!

Or, buy the PG-13 edition. (You can only get to that version with a precise search by title, or a link. Confusingly, the sales copy for that edition is exactly the same and warns you about the sex, but if it says PG-13 on the cover it ought to be the clean version. I do not understand the mysterious workings of Amazon in this matter, but with a grand total of three or four sales to date on that edition, I’m not going to worry about it either. That’s also why I don’t plan to change that PG-13 Edition cover. So if you want, get that one. You’ll have to give up a little sex, but that way you can, um, keep your rocks on. Yeah, I actually went there. Sorry.)









Authenticity vs. not being a hack … or a bitch

Some of the unwritten rules for authors that I’ve read: Help each other out, never give a bad review, and avoid getting into hot button issues that might lose you potential  readers.

This is harder than I ever imagined.

First of all, while my first book The Awful Mess is about how people can come together despite having very different religious and political ideas, any reasonably capable reader is going to come to some conclusions about my own beliefs by reading it.

So do I really need to hide them in my social marketing?

I’ve tried picking my battles, but the book is clearly in favor of gay rights and marriage equality and concerned with issues of hunger and poverty, so those I’ll tweet and post. I try to avoid the more overtly partisan stuff, but it’s probably creeping in more and more over time. It’s just really, really hard to not be my authentic (opinionated!) self.

Two, when it comes to helping other authors, I’m happy to help by sharing tips or advice, and I’ll retweet that kind of thing from others very happily, as well as new or free or bargain books if I’ve at least heard they’re good from people I trust. This is especially true if they are coming from people in similar genres, or have come from a site that appears to practice some quality control.

But I’m not going to fill my relatively sparse twitter feed with tweets for stuff I haven’t read, may never read, and have no reason to believe my own readers would read. If this means I’m not playing the game right, I guess there’s some hope I may yet learn the rules. (I’m still new to this.) But right now I just don’t see the point.

Three, I have a really hard time leaving glowing reviews for books that I think have issues. What can I say? I grade students all day. I can’t just be nice — I want reviews to mean something. But me leaving a less-than-glowing review for your book isn’t good for either of us, because then you’re not happy … and I look like a bitch.

This is why I just won’t accept free indie books for review anymore unless an author swears that an honest review or honest private feedback instead is okay, and seems to really mean it. And even then, I think I really shouldn’t. There’s just too much pressure.

If you’re an author, I’d be  curious  to hear how you handle these issues. I also invite you to let me know where I’m going wrong!

My debt to The Scarlet Letter

I’ve been agonizing a bit about whether to get rid of all traces of The Scarlet Letter in my sales copy.

I think it might scare away a lot of readers, especially some romance readers I might otherwise attract, and it also likely means nothing to overseas readers. Certainly BookBub didn’t mention it in their copy, and judging from the response I had to my free days with them, they are true masters of book blurb copywriting … not that it’s necessarily all that hard to persuade people to download something that’s free.

This weekend, as I dipped back into the 100,000ths in Kindle sales rank for the first time since my free days (ouch), I started tweaking my sales copy to take advantage of two sections I hadn’t used before, Editorial Reviews and From the Author, which allowed me to write directly to potential readers.

But it could be I’m just making things worse. I added what you’ll read below to the From the Author section, because 1) it’s true, and 2) I hope it indicates that while I owe a debt to Hawthorne, my book is going to be a different sort of read.

I’ve also added more detail to some of my eight points here, since I’m assuming you might be more interested than the general audience at Amazon.

Here it is:

From the Author

I wrote The Awful Mess: A Love Story as a way of puzzling out why three gifted Episcopal priests I knew would mess up their careers by getting into trouble with women who were not their wives. I also wondered about the women who would mess with a married priest. And since I’m a woman myself and not in even the slightest way a priest, I ended up telling the story from the woman’s point of view.

Eventually I realized that what I was writing echoed The Scarlet Letter in a lot of ways. I began to see this book as my response to Hawthorne from across a century-plus (his was published in 1850). So I reread his book, and decided that…

  1. The Scarlet Letter is so much more fun to read as an adult than as a high school senior.
  2. For a book involving adultery, Hawthorne sure skipped over a lot of the good parts.
  3. Unlike Hawthorne, I was going to have to explain how two people with access to birth control and certain medical procedures could get into this particular predicament.
  4. Chillingworth is a wonderful villain, but not at all typical. It is usually women, not their lovers, who have the most to fear from angry men.
  5. Americans are much more tolerant today, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for bad behavior.
  6. Nobody names a daughter Hester anymore. (Almost nobody. I actually saw the name on a business van at the local grocery store this week! It was for some sort of cleaning service. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I was afraid the owner would come out and demand to know why I was photographing her van.)
  7. No child, even a fictional one, should ever be saddled with the symbolic weight Hawthorne loaded onto poor little Pearl.
  8. I didn’t want the same ending, and in today’s world Hawthorne’s ending wouldn’t make much sense anyway. (It may not have made sense in his day, either — people often don’t realize that this was a historical novel when it was published about a decade before the Civil War.)

That’s pretty much where I stopped for my book page, besides the usual call to action.

Do you remember reading The Scarlet Letter? What did you think of it? If you found it a dreary assignment in high school, you might consider trying it again. (Definitely skip that  deadly-dull introduction “The Custom House,” though.) Even better, you can download The Scarlet Letter free at Amazon.

I found it much easier to read Hawthorne’s later novel The Blithedale Romance. It’s an often quite funny novel about a bunch of mid-nineteenth century hippies living in a commune, obsessing about natural food and seething with sexual tension. In other words, it’s about those crazy Transcendentalists. And it’s free in multiple formats at gutenberg.org. If you’re familiar with Emerson, Fuller, Alcott, and Thoreau, you might enjoy reading it just to try to figure out who might be a thinly-veiled portrait of whom.

My own insights into that gang came mostly from reading the diary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife Lydian — Lydia, actually, but he preferred she go by a less ordinary name (!!!). It was loaned to me by the lovely Prof. Emerson at UMass when I was taking American Lit with him. All I can say is that if you want the real dirt on a man, definitely read what his wife writes about him.

And here’s a portrait of our famous author as a young man. Nathaniel Hawthorne was lucky enough to come from a wealthy, distinguished family that could support him (and, presumably, pay for this lovely painting) before he made a critical success of his writing.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Charles Osgood (1841) in the Peabody Essex Museum (via Wikipedia)

Even so, it’s interesting to read that although it was considered a critical success, Hawthorne sold only 7,800 copies of The Scarlet Letter during his lifetime, according to Kathryn Harrison’s introduction to the Modern Library Edition of 2000.

This is a reason to take heart, downtrodden writers! One of your books might really take off and make some serious money for someone someday.

It’s just very possible that it won’t be for you.

Going viral

Everything I’ve read lately has told me it’s pointless to offer free books unless you have something else to sell people. In fact, I’d pretty much resigned myself to just plugging away on the paperback version of The Awful Mess: A Love Story* (since I’d promised it to some folks), and then getting the next book up.

However, I’d already ordered an ad from BookBub to support free days originally planned for back in the beginning of September, and I was going to lose that investment if I didn’t use it. I’d already required their kind indulgence just to postpone it, something I’m not even sure they’re still allowing now.

So the ad ran Thursday, my first day free, and downloads shot off like a rocket. (Mind you, I didn’t notice this for a few of hours, because I kept looking at the wrong side of the sales report and wondering why I didn’t have even a single download yet.)

The pace slowed Friday, the second day free. This was a day that was unsupported by any ads. However, some odd little sites had picked it up as #1 free download (or #2 or wherever it was) and started tweeting it and such. And maybe other people also check their promotional emails as late as I sometimes do. Because while it slowed, it was still pretty impressive. I did some tweeting too, but somehow I doubt @sheerhubris’s 79 followers had a huge effect on sales.

Anyway, I had gone into this figuring I’d be lucky to get another 6,000-10,000 free downloads. I’d had 6,000+ for my first three free days, using other advertisers as well as some free sites that I was lucky picked me up. Really, I figured it would mostly get me some new reviews, and I was a little worried that they’d be irate that it wasn’t romantic enough, or whatever it is “women’s fiction” readers expect.

But I ended up getting almost 44,000 free downloads — twice what BookBub had listed as the upper range for my list.

I also spent some time at the top of the free bestsellers list, but that is something I also hit the last time I was free, at much lower download numbers. So while it would be nice to think I’m just brilliant and have an excellent book that OF COURSE is going to catch fire, I think it’s clear I was mostly just lucky.

One, the new Kindle Paperwhite had just come out and was being advertised heavily. So people were perhaps looking for ebooks at higher rates than usual. Two, it was just before the weekend and raining and chilly, at least where I live in the Northeast. (Plus there was a blizzard out west!)

Whatever the cause, this time I got to see Amazon’s algorithms really swing into action.

First, in an act of torture, they dropped me down to the 250,000ths in sales rank, which may be lower than I’ve ever seen this book (though I’ve certainly spent time in the 100,000ths). I looked at this figure — which lasted hours, mind you — in disbelief: how was that even possible?

Then suddenly I was ranking in the 1000ths. Here’s where I was as I started drafting this on the Sunday afternoon after my Thursday and Friday free:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,071 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

  • #15 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Romance
  • #39 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
  • #40 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Women’s Fiction

What’s more, if I went lurking in private browsing mode and typed in search terms like “Kindle literary romance” my book was offered right up there at the top!

Which reminds me of another change this time around: I had picked some new keywords. And at least two of them are showing up above. So that probably helped, too. It also helps that literary fiction is a smaller category to begin with — I can shoot to the top of that one much more easily than plain old “romance” or something like that. (Of course, that also means I’m not really anywhere near being an actual bestseller. This is not going to change my life anytime soon.)

At any rate, something happened to make Amazon start actively promoting my book, even though paid sales were fairly strong, but not insane (and there were also the inevitable returns from people who thought they were getting it free). Maybe the fact that I’m at $3.99 instead of 99 cents means those sales are worth a lot more than they were the last time? (I’d dropped to 99 cents to salvage something from my lost two free days last month.) Maybe the pace of reviews pouring in helped? (It’s stunning how fast some people read full-length books!)

I expect this to tail off, of course — I’ve already dipped a bit in some of the lists I was on —  but it’s been nice while it lasts. I’ve also earned over 20 new reviews, all positive except for the sole one-star “boring,” which I knew had to come sooner or later. But it’s so much better to get it now, with 40 good ones already in the bank. And that’s a matter of luck, too!

If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t get my book updated with good promos for the next book, or a better enticement to get on my email list. I’ve been too busy, and agonizing over the cover for the next book, and as time got shorter I became deeply afraid that I might accidentally blow up my book at a Very. Bad. Time. So I let it go.

Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re an indie author going free might still have some uses, even with a solo title. But to get these kinds of numbers, you’ll need to support your free days with good advertising, and that expense may take quite some time to earn back. Also, obviously, your book needs to be in good enough shape to earn good reviews from strangers.

And perhaps most of all you need to be lucky.

So … good luck!

The illustrated version:

Thursday night. Notice that I had 25 reviews.

Top free 10-2013

And here’s what that translated into three days later, when I typed “Kindle women’s literary romance” into Amazon’s search box. The Awful Mess* was right there at the top, right where any author of a literary romance might hope to be. And this time I had 47 reviews.

Pretty heady stuff, when it goes well!

kindle womens romance search 10-13* My book links are Amazon associate links, which means I get a small additional fee if you purchase the book after going to Amazon through my web site. (Your sales price will be no different.)

And … it’s free again Oct. 3 and 4

I had to postpone my Bookbub ad back from when I’d planned five free days, thanks to a certain retailer’s jealous streak. I count myself lucky that I didn’t lose the ad completely.

I should perhaps count myself doubly lucky, actually, because it’s had over 21,000 downloads as of 5:30pm on the 3rd. I’d call that a reasonably productive investment in future reviews and hopefully some sales.

Do feel free to pass the word. (I know most of you reading this either already have the ebook or are waiting for the paper edition.)

This month 10% goes to Feeding America. I earned them far less than the $100 I’d put in initially last month (and it will take 60 days to get the actual money), so it would be nice to keep that fund growing.

If you want it, here’s the US link: The Awful Mess: A Love Story

And the UK link is: The Awful Mess: A Love Story

The really fun part of doing this? I was sandwiched between Jane Eyre and Persuasion at one point today in the free rankings (for literary romances). Ah, such bliss!

Even an interim existence has its charms

My book’s in an odd, interim-feeling spot right now, and so am I.

Technically, I should be promoting the hell out of the book while it’s 99 cents and all profits are still going to Feeding America. However, because I had to postpone an advertising deal with a major advertiser until early next month, pushing it now might just annoy the people who would realize they could have gotten it free for my last two “free” days then. So … I’m not pushing much.

I might try some minor promotions once it’s back to a regular price. But really, my main focus right now has to be on preparing a paperback edition and getting the next book out.

Also, there’s work. And life. Which is also in an interim stage, since we’re planning a move.

I took some quality time out of grading and writing and decluttering this weekend to enjoy the fine fall weather. We live in a lovely part of the country — Rensselaer County, New York, between Albany and the Massachusetts border. After living in the crowded suburbs of New York City, life up here in our very pretty house surrounded by trees and hills still feels like some sort of vacation to me.

At least , it does when I’m not hauling gravel to shore up the driveway. Or trying to play lumberjack. Or checking for ticks.

Nice as our current home is, we’ve realized that a cozy, affordable little house simply makes more sense at this point in our lives. And I’ll admit to fantasizing about a smaller, sunnier, more level garden that no deer would ever think of browsing.

And that is more or less the plan for next year, actually, though I’ll be a little surprised if deer can really be excluded from wherever we land. For today, though, I was happy simply to appreciate the local neighborhood scenery.

Here, maybe you can enjoy some of it with me.

Crystal Lake 031 052 056 077 Happy Fall!

Lessons from a garage sale

Saturday my town held a town-wide garage sale. We participated, since we once again expect to put the house on the market this spring. (That’s a story for another time.)

Photo: Garage Sale Day

Saturday dawned damp and chilly and it occurred to me too late that we could have made a lot more money selling hot cocoa. We did manage to make almost a hundred bucks, though. More importantly, we cleared out a lot of stuff, including a weight bench and weights nobody wanted to have to drag back into the house.

Just before noon my next-door neighbor Chris brought her toddler granddaughter over to say hi and do a little shopping. After checking on our cats up in the house (always a high priority), Lily made it her mission to make sure the scant supply of toy cars and trucks on offer was successfully sold.

In fact, she didn’t want to leave until the very last one was gone. Every person who walked up our driveway she immediately accosted with, “Wouldn’t you like to buy a truck?”

Under that uniquely adorable sales pressure, quite a number of shoppers happily shelled out the required 25 cents, even those who really didn’t need a toy at all. Finally there was only one little truck left, and her grandmother and I agreed it would make an excellent present for her older brother. (Anything to help our ace sales girl and Nana get some lunch!)

Lily put me to shame. In fact, after I saw her in action, I realized I should have had my little postcards for my book out, ready to hand sell to anyone who looked interested in the books we were selling used.

So I went and got them and handed them to a couple of folks who were clearly readers. This may not have resulted in any sales, but the conversations were fun.

Now, I suspect that darling toddlers can get away with more salesmanship than middle-aged authors. Some of my friends are no doubt getting weary of my marketing at this point, though a few will even pitch in, bless them.

But there were other lessons, too. One is that when you really want to get rid of stuff, you price it lower or just give it away. A lot of our crap just disappeared from the end of the driveway in our free pile, even that rusty outdoor table and umbrella set.

Oddly enough, after I took down the “garage sale” sign and piled free stuff at the end of our (long) driveway and started putting other stuff away, we suddenly got more customers than before. And they were actually buying.

Maybe the weather had just improved, or maybe advertising isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Did the pile suggest there was a lot more available down the driveway? Did it suggest the prices would be good? I don’t know. All I know is that it seemed to make a big difference.

A lot of successful self-published authors say the number one thing they had to do – other than writing good books and making sure they looked professional – was get to a critical mass of published titles. Once they achieved that, one title could sell the others. Sometimes putting one free for a while was the best way to goose sales for the others.

But a free solo title can’t sell anything unless it really goes viral, which clearly hasn’t happened to my book at this point. Otherwise, once it’s been given away, there’s nothing to sell. (I certainly could have tried harder to get a mailing list out of it, though — oh well.)

Giving my book away free earlier this month wasn’t a total bust. I netted seven lovely new Amazon reviews from strangers (okay, make that eight lovely ones and one moderately cranky one — and this figure may change regularly) — plus a tiny little burst of sales. I also had some fun conversations. Hopefully more reviews will come, and sales will be at least slightly better than they were before.

But I won’t be feeding as many Americans as I’d hoped. Unless something radical changes, Feeding America is going to have to make do with the $100 bucks I put in when I started this month’s campaign. Hopefully it will grow over time when I add their 10% each month. But I now doubt that will happen in any way that is the least bit impressive until I hit that critical mass of titles.

Then, with any luck, the books can sell each other. Because selling on Amazon when you’re nobody is sort of like having a garage sale at the end of a long, heavily-treed driveway. Sometimes you just have to put out that pile of free stuff to get some buyers to come down and check it out.

So I need more books up. Now if I can just figure out how to fit all this in with the four comp classes, a garden full of produce that needs preserving, and a house that needs to be readied for sale, I’ll be all set.

If you’re interested, here’s my September postcard (I’m mostly proud of finally figuring out what the heck QR codes are and how to use them!):

postcard330resfrontAnd the back (hurriedly revised after my free days appeared to be going kerplooey):


Learn from my newbie mistakes in self publishing

Or don’t. Sometimes you just have to make your own mistakes. But in case you might want to avoid a few…here are some of mine, transformed into words to the wise.

1. Don’t publish before you’ve established a platform.

I didn’t start blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, or Goodreading as an author until I published my book. While this is a fairly unforgivable lapse with a new traditionally-published book (which is likely to disappear along with your writing career if it doesn’t sell in its first season out), you’ll just have to play catch-up if you’ve published it yourself. Self-publishing is very forgiving of this particular newbie mistake. (Yay.)

I also didn’t start because I couldn’t imagine what the heck I would blog about before my book was published. Most novelists seem to end up blogging about writing or writers or books or their genre, or something that might conceivably be of interest to their future readers. It seemed to me there was a glut of that already available. So I waited until, well, I really had to do it.

Newbie mistake, but in my case I think it was fairly unavoidable unless I could come up with some niche I could become an expert in that was related to my fiction. And, frankly, I’m all over the place in my interests, and I’m still not really ready to be pinned down.

At least now my mistakes are providing plenty of material.

2. Don’t get demoralized by your rankings.

If you made the first newbie mistake, you’re likely to see your book rank somewhere in the tens of thousands in the first rush of family and friends (this is at Amazon – other retail sites may have smaller numbers to begin with). This first rush is never as big as you thought it would be based on what people told you to your face. (Shocking, I know!)

After that, you’ll be mired down in the hundred thousandths somewhere. And no one will ever see your book again unless you somehow point it out to them.  That’s just the deal.  Don’t brood about it. Start marketing, or focus on the next book — for which you will finally have a platform. Ideally, do both.

Pssst … need a pick-me-up even more than you need sales? One thing that makes me feel good, even though it’s utterly useless as a marketing tool, is having “Episcopal” as one of my precious seven keywords. This is a tiny category and that means it’s easy to float to the top of the first page with a search term like “Episcopal fiction” when I’m selling anything at all. It means I’m actually keeping company with favorite authors like Gail Godwin and Julia Spencer Fleming! It won’t do my sales a damned bit of good – might even hurt them, as opposed to a more popular keyword – but it has helped my morale immeasurably. In this gig, you take whatever little victories you can!

3. Don’t assume all your friends and family will rush to review it.

They just won’t, just as real readers generally only include a tiny percentage of reviewers. Most people are not comfortable reviewing, especially if they feel they can’t say anything negative at all because they know you. Some people are particularly uncomfortable about it specifically because they DO know you (you can help with both of these by assuring them that you really don’t mind a four-star review or a disclaimer about your relationship – assuming you really mean that, and won’t sulk about it – and be honest with yourself, or you’re not being fair to them).

The reviews you do get may not help in exactly the way you had envisioned. Get over it. Realize that you are blessed by ANY positive review. A lot of mine mention beach reading, which was great in June. Now it’s September. This just means I need to get more reviews.

4. Go out and beat the bushes for impartial reviews from thorough reviewers.

You’re self-published. This is your job. Traditional book reviewers are not going to waste their time on you unless you become a phenomenon, nor should they. Maybe your local paper will take on the local interest angle, but consider yourself lucky if that happens. Kirkus and PW and so forth will happily take your money, and maybe you’ll be one of the rare self-published souls to earn a starred review or some recognition. However, they often don’t star even my all-time favorite traditionally-published books, so I don’t like my chances.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get reviews. There are dozens of groups and web sites and blogs where you can request reviews on Facebook. I think it may be more effective, though, to trawl among the reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, especially people who have written interesting, thorough reviews of books you love (or hate the same way they do). Not counting my friend Nandini, who compared my book to Charlotte Bronte’s (swoon!), the person who gave me my favorite review so far at Goodreads was someone I asked just because I so enjoyed her review of someone else’s book. (She compared my writing to Iris Murdoch’s, which is funny because I’ve picked up lots of Irish Murdoch novels over the years and always decided nah, not right now. Guess I’d better try again.)

By the way, avoid “trading” reviews. How can you be certain you’ll like the other author’s book? There’s a reason self-published “five-star” books are often regarded with suspicion, and it’s because of this organized review trading.

If you have the budget for it, use NetGalley to save yourself a lot of trouble. I’m definitely going that route next time. I didn’t this time around and I’ve done okay, but it was a hard slog. (Also, next time I expect my book to be a bit controversial, so I’m going to need a higher volume of reviews to make up for the people who hate it.)

Hopefully, Amazon will allow pre-ordering for indie publishers one of these days, since that makes all the difference as you gather pre-publication reviews. If they don’t by the time I publish another title, I may go with Smashwords first.

5. Don’t fail to read all the fine print. Then read it again and imagine the worst case scenario.

This applies in all your dealings with giant impersonal commercial entities that shall not be named. Don’t expect flexibility, kindness, humanity, or clear answers that don’t simply repeat the boilerplate language you already tried to parse the first time around and got wrong. Just know that even if there’s a possibility you made an honest mistake, there will probably be no mercy shown.

Try to get a clear answer before you do anything if only to document that you didn’t get a clear answer, not that it will matter. You could still get squashed by a giant foot at the worst possible time. If so, forgive yourself for getting it wrong, apologize to anyone who deserves an apology, and move on.

6. Keep track of every single marketing effort.

Did you submit your book to this web site or that Facebook page? When? Do you need to notify them because you changed a price or did something else that changed the deal? (Perhaps a giant foot suddenly came down and squashed you?) How do you contact them?

Put together a spreadsheet and take careful notes. You think you’ll remember, or you’ll find it in your sent mail, but you might not, especially when you’re in the panicked state of having-just-been-squashed-by-a-giant-foot.

7. Don’t freak out because you didn’t take advantage of some amazing strategy!

The internet and the bookstores are full of advice about all the various opportunities self-published authors are failing to take advantage of every day. Things you didn’t put in your book. Things you didn’t put on your web site.  Things you didn’t put on your cover, or stupidly DID put on your cover. Your purchase of this versus your purchase of that. Failure to network here or friend there. The keyword strategy that would have immediately shot you to the top of the bestseller’s list! The hot new SEO program that would have guaranteed you a thousand new sales in one week! Passive income that pours in without you lifting a finger!

Does something sound like it might be worth trying without requiring a big investment? Okay, so take a deep breath, think about it, maybe try it out. Just test it, if you can. One thing at a time. If you can figure out how, try doing an A/B split (test one version versus another). Try the winner with different slices of the audiences. When you find something that clearly works, roll it out, but keep testing. That is the simple secret of all direct marketing success in the real world. Traditional authors can do this with their own marketing efforts, but they don’t get to play with price or change covers or copy at will. Indie authors can do whatever they want, within reason. (Better keep good records, though, so you can figure out what it means when you’re done. And watch out for those giant feet!)

Is something ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED TO WORK? That’s a huckster claim made by someone who understands effective (if not entirely legal) copywriting. Even if there might be a few kernels of truth being offered, never lay out good money for “guaranteed” riches and you will avoid a lot of pain in this world. On the other hand, sensible advertising for which you can see results may be necessary if you want your book to succeed. Start small and test to see if it works. Do the math and see if it really works in a sustainable way, unless you have money to burn.

I got to see first-hand in my first free promotion what a difference it made to do some modest advertising, because most of it didn’t kick in for awhile: it made a huge difference. Whether that will pay off in actual sales down the road is another question. I have already gained new reviews, so I consider that a win of some kind.

8. Don’t stop writing.

Actually, I’m making this mistake right now, but I knew that would happen when I signed up to teach four classes instead of two this semester. Sometimes financial reality trumps writing time. But a nice cold winter without any garden to care for and the usual reduction in courses that comes  with spring semester may mean more free time. I’ll catch up then by setting ambitious deadlines for myself. I have to, or I’ll pay a hefty price for this inactivity.

If you believe in your work, you have to find a way to keep doing it. That’s why you’re going through all this hassle in the first place, right? That’s the most basic rule of all. (Not that it’s anyone’s business but your own, really.)

9. Don’t make it ALL about your writing.

Those four classes I’m teaching also happen to be the balm of my existence right now. My friends have been so kind, but it’s actually when I’m teaching that I completely forget about any giant feet that might have recently come down to squash me. I get to just focus on my students as writers and forget about myself as one.

Find something that allows you to focus completely on someone other than yourself for at least some part of the day. It’s just good for you.

Do you have any advice to share from your own newbie mistakes?