When you probably shouldn’t self-publish (and when it might be best)

When is self-publishing going to be more trouble than it’s worth, or downright counter-productive? Here’s when:

#1 You just want a single book to share with friends and family

Everyone tells me I should write a bookLet’s say you’ve written a memoir about your long and interesting life, and you want to be able to share it with people you love. Everyone tells you that you’ve really had a fascinating life, and you really have. But you don’t plan to make a career out of writing, and you don’t want to make a career out of publishing, either.

Unless someone who does have some knowledge of publishing (traditional or self) gets excited about your book and wants to get it out there, you’re going to be better served just getting some books printed up and understanding that this is really vanity publishing. Which is okay. That’s exactly what it exists for.

Yes, you can do vanity publishing cheaply through self-publishing outfits like Createspace or BookBaby, and you may want to take advantage of some of the extra services they offer to help you create a nice book. But since this isn’t going to be your career, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to research the market. You don’t need to study up on everything, or buy your own ISBN at $125 a pop. You just need a physical book friends and family can read.

For many people in this situation it might make more sense to use a local vanity press. In my area, the folks at Troy Bookmakers know what they are doing and can guide you towards a nice paper book. You’ll pay more than you will going to a big online firm, but you’ll get more personal help along the way. They’ll stock it in the two related independent bookstores, and you can have a signing in one of them. A lot of local bookstores are developing this kind of service.

Unlike some other operations — Author House, iUniverse, etc. — they won’t try to sell you over-priced or fraudulent services or suggest that you could experience great publishing success. (Tip: Any time you’re asked to put significant money into a publishing undertaking, check Preditors and Editors to see if there are complaints about that company or individual, and evaluate other books that entity has published.)

And although most presses and publishing services will make it an option, maybe you shouldn’t create an eBook. Think about it: If you’re someone who doesn’t have any social media marketing savvy and has never even read an eBook yourself, trying to sell one is going to require a tremendous learning curve. Is that something you want to undertake for one book?

#2 Your fantasies include book tours, bookstore signings, or seeing your book on the shelf.

That isn’t going to happen with 99.9% of self-published books, except perhaps in your local bookstore with a kind and supportive bookseller. It doesn’t always happen even with traditionally published books.

So if this is what you really want, your best bet is to slog through the traditional publishing process. Revise and polish that novel (or novels, if required), build your platform, network in your genre, get an agent, get a contract, and work like a demon to promote the book so that you can continue writing and publishing that way.

And no, as Jane Friedman has explained quite well, self-publishing is not a shortcut to traditional publishing. Not an easy one, anyway.

#3 Literary status matters to you.

Untitled design-1Maybe you’re secretly competing with that guy in your writing group who got a three-book deal, or maybe you need publications in order to get that teaching job you want, or maybe you just really, really want some official affirmation of your talent. Self-publishing will not serve your purpose. The stigma associated with self-publishing is not as bad it once was, but it’s still there.

If this matters to you, but you’ve had no luck getting published mainstream after a heroic effort, you might find your goals can be met by a university press or well-regarded regional or small press. You won’t always need an agent to sell to them, either. (Some previous literary publications may be required.) Just be careful out there.

#4 You don’t want to give your precious creation to “those blood-sucking Big Five publishers and agents.”

This is where we find people pointing out that self-publishing pays a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers pay, or asking why they should give an agent 15% of their writing income, or bringing up bad contract clauses.

And some of the people saying these things are published midlist authors and they may have some legitimate complaints, but what you need to remember is that if they were at any time midlist authors they were by definition already doing better than the vast majority of self-published authors will ever do.

Both agents and traditional publishers bring substantial expertise to the publication process. They will usually help you publish a better book than you can publish on your own. An agent will also usually get you better placement and a better advance than you would have gotten on your own.

Second, earning 70% on an eBook is no substitute for a good advance, especially since most self-published eBooks sell fewer than 200 copies. Even with a bad advance, your publisher is better positioned to sell your debut novel successfully than you are. (Remember, advances don’t have to be paid back.)

Publishers make money by putting out a bunch of new books each season, a few of which do very well and keep the lights on, a few more of which do well enough to keep that writer publishing, and a good many of which fail. They try to pick the best bets. It’s a tricky business, with low margins, and the pressure to meet corporate and individual goals doesn’t exactly foster risk-taking. But it’s not, in fact, a conspiracy to defraud authors of all the fruit of their labor (not that this means authors should be willing to put up with some of the more egregious contract terms). Most people go into publishing because they love books.

And only traditional publishers can easily distribute to bookstores, which still drive a lot of the book business. (Bookstores also exist because people love books.)

It’s a no-lose situation, because having a traditionally published book or two to your credit is an advantage if you eventually choose to self-publish. Those traditional titles are a badge that says “This author doesn’t suck.” (Just make sure your contracts don’t bar you from going indie in the future.)

But yes, there are still some GOOD reasons to try self-publishing

Just understand the #1 requirement for all of them:

You are comfortable either doing or supervising every step of the publishing process, from writing to editing, cover design, interior design, proofreading, distribution, sales, promotion, and finance. You have reasonably good knowledge of the genre you are publishing and how readers find and purchase those books online.

Furthermore, if your goal includes making money from it, you must be willing to keep doing it on a steady basis until you have published enough books in the same genre to reach a critical mass and begin to gain some traction in the market place. (This actually applies to traditional publishing, too.)

Beyond that, maybe you fall into these groups:

  • You already have a base of readers who appreciate your work as a consultant or speaker or blogger, and your book will complement that area of expertise and sell alongside it. Ideally, you also already have a nice long list of email subscribers. Furthermore, you couldn’t find a good traditional publisher for this book even with that excellent author platform.
  • You’re passionately writing types of books that traditional publishers have no interest in because the market is too small, or they think it’s too small, but you are certain it could find an audience online. (Think Amish science fiction.)
  • You write for a voracious niche of the eBook market. Furthermore, you write and publish good books fast. Ideally, you write highly addictive series.
  • You have a whole stable of out-of-print traditionally published books you’ve regained control of, and you want to give them a second life as eBooks.
  • You’ve had one or two failed books in traditional publishing and nobody will talk to you anymore, so this is your only option unless you change your name, and you don’t want to change your name.
  • You want to take your time building an audience instead of feeling under pressure to succeed with that first book or two, because you know that if they fail you’re probably done. (Of course, if all your eBooks fail, that won’t help.)
  • You enjoy publishing in itself (I thought this was me, but I no longer fantasize about publishing other people’s work. This is mostly because I’ve discovered I hate accounting. I already put it off until tax time for my own books. That won’t fly if I’m publishing other people.)
  • You don’t have the years that it may take to find an agent, get a sale, and wait for publication. Maybe you’re ninety, or you have a degenerative illness, or your book is extremely topical and truly won’t interest people a year from now. All good reasons to just get it done.
  • You’re more interested in gaining readers than literary status or income, and you won’t fret about your sales rank or compare yourself to other authors. You’re willing to give books away to gain more readers, and even after a bad review or two, you consider it all great fun. (This is what I try for on a daily basis, though I won’t claim to have reached quite this level of Zen contentment yet.)

Your thoughts?

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

Scurrying back into the warm(er) embrace of Kindle Select

That’s what I’m now doing with the second novel. At least for a while, even though my inclination is against exclusivity. What changed my mind about it, at least for this book, was a recent 99-cent promotion of the earlier novel “The Awful Mess” to all the retailers. Along the way I discovered some things that surprised me.

Which retailers give you a better “sales tail”?

For the Canadian market, Kobo supported by BookBub proved a touch stronger than Amazon — but Amazon appeared to reward a strong performance better. I sold 77 copies of “Mess” at Amazon Canada during its recent 99-cent promotion (supported by BookBub to Canada). This landed me — very temporarily, of course — at #1 in literary fiction.

ingoodcompanyincanadaFor days after the promotion, I was still floating near the top. Almost a month later, it has sunk to #28,000 and my discoverability there has pretty much evaporated. But I’m still selling the occasional copy.

On Kobo during that same promotion, I sold a little more — 80+ copies in Canada. But while those sales were being racked up, my sales rank just kept worsening. Since then I’ve sold more — yes, there’s been a bit of a tail, probably from also-bought appearances. I have gotten a couple more ratings to add to what had been the solitary review there. But to this day, my sales rank has only worsened.

It’s as if sales simply don’t matter to Kobo, or maybe sales outside the U.S. don’t matter (one single sale, about a month ago, did suddenly halve my sales rank). I’ve noticed this for months now. And although I did have some promotional support across retailers for a U.S. sale (just not from BookBub), not a single copy sold in the U.S.

The truth is that without actually putting in my name or a title, I can’t browse to my book in the Kobo store no matter how hard I try — during the promotion, after the promotion, privately in the Canadian store, or here in the US store. Furthermore, browsing women’s fiction means plowing through endless public domain versions of the same Jane Austen novels. Who’s going to bother? (This is on my PC. I suppose it may be completely different on a mobile device.)

It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when selling a few books on Kobo could push me into the Top 100 at least temporarily. People would see the book. It’s almost as if Kobo has redesigned their algorithms to punish promotions, or redesigned their store front to discourage browsing for anything but top titles.

I asked them via Twitter about this. No response. I tried to ask them on my dashboard, even though the character limit there makes it difficult. Also no response. No doubt I could try sending an email, but … meh. Maybe they’ll read this and explain what is going on.

With BookBub support I also sold more than 200 copies in the Amazon UK store, more than double my Canadian sales, although my rank didn’t get quite as impressive. (I sold four copies in the UK via Kobo.) And there have been some continuing sales, as well as a couple of reviews.

003Back home in the U.S. at Amazon.com, where I had some promotional support from eReader News Today, Fussy Librarian and Read Cheaply, I sold just over 160 units during the promotion. Not too exciting at a 35% royalty. However, today, three weeks later, I can do a search for humorous literary women’s fiction with four stars or more (granted, this is fairly specific), and “The Awful Mess” shows up on page two. I’ve also sold copies of my second novel there in the days since, presumably to people who wanted to move on, though it’s impossible to know for sure.

Now, none of this changes my mind about where “The Awful Mess” is — widely available. That’s backlist for me, now, and it does sell here and there without much work on my part.

But that second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has sold exactly one copy at Kobo since I made it available there, despite at least one (non-BookBub) multi-retailer promotion. Last time I tried to follow my link to Ribs at “Nook” it wasn’t even available, for reasons I don’t know (my price promotion at Nook with BookBub didn’t take because they didn’t change the price fast enough.) No doubt it’s possible I screwed something up. But that’s another reason it can be preferable to keep things simple.

At iTunes (via Smashwords, since I don’t own an Apple computer), I saw some nice sales of  “The Awful Mess” during my promotion — over 80 copies sold.  Before the price promotion, I was actually seeing some fairly steady downloads of my free single on iTunes, and usually a few of the people who downloaded the freebie would move on to buying one of the novels. But since the price promotion? Crickets.

I’m probably promoting the freebie less, but clearly there’s no tail from the sales I earned. I don’t shop on iTunes myself, so I don’t know how discoverability works there. From where I sit, though, I’ve not only got none, I’m actually doing worse than I did before the promotion.

And then there’s Google Play. I sold 11 copies during the promotion. Not a single one since. Only one or two before the promotion. (Ever.) However, I spent hours trying to get my price discounted properly for the promotion, and more hours trying to get it back to where it needed to be to prevent price-matching from Kindle.

Which brings me back to Kindle, with its simple and responsive author interface. Sales since the promotion have been fairly steady, if not exciting. I feel I’ve been rewarded for the promotion and ongoing sales with decent discoverability (of course, I also recently discovered I’d left my royalty at 35% by accident, so I suppose they might have been more excited about promoting it because of that.). I feel the kerfuffle over Google Play’s discounting was handled in a friendly manner once I got past the vaguely threatening first warning email.

Unexpected pleasure in Kindle Unlimited

The other thing that attracts me to Kindle Select right now, though, is exactly what drove a lot of folks out of it recently: the joy I’ve taken in watching the occasional Kindle Unlimited reader finally taking on my second novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” from back when it was available that way.

I love watching that blue line. I especially enjoy watching people read the book in two or three days. I  don’t know how that translates into money, but at this point in my career, money is secondary to simply knowing that I’m being read — and, usually, being read all the way through. (As I’ve noted before, I take evil pleasure in holding readers hostage.)

Harnessing the power of free

And, finally, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that not offering “Ribs” free while I could reduced its sales potential. Going free is still the best promotional tool for an unknown indie author short of a U.S. BookBub price promotion, which I haven’t been able to get.

Granted, my review average is undoubtedly higher now than it will be after going free (you get a few nasty folks who don’t bother to read descriptions during free days, perhaps because they enjoy being outraged). But that’s just the price I’ll have to pay. This title hasn’t had a chance to really catch on the way it might if thousands and thousands of people download it and at least a chunk of those people actually read it.

That’s assuming I can make that happen. I still don’t expect it to do as well as the first book did. It’s gotten a lot tougher out there, by all accounts. This book is less of a crowd pleaser, though some readers think it’s better (I include myself in that). But I’ll never really know until I give it a try. So,although I’m still a bit wary, I’ll be setting up a free promotion eventually, and the only easy way to set that up is through Kindle Select.

In the meantime, going to Kindle Select also lessens my product management duties and simplifies my marketing.

Now, ALL of this promotional effort is still a bit premature in the sense that I only have two novels and the third isn’t ready for pre-order yet. If you really want your promotions to work for you, you need a stable full of books that can sell along with whatever you’re promoting. But letting the few you have put out sink into oblivion doesn’t make it any easier to resuscitate them when the time comes.

So I’ll work with what I have. And at this point, Kindle Select simply looks like the best deal for a title that hasn’t found its legs yet. What do you think? Does your own recent experience match this, or vary from it?

Trying an international book promotion across multiple retailers

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryDo you sell books across the world? I did sell a book this week in Finland (through Kobo). But that’s far from common for me (Finland OR Kobo). Of, course I’d like to change that. That’s why “The Awful Mess” is going to be on sale across the globe August 22-24.

BookBub turned it down the last time I tried, but accepted it not long after when I tried again for a promotion just to the UK, Canada, and India. I do have some other advertising support set up in the US — eReader News Today, The Fussy Librarian, and Read Cheaply — but that’s probably not enough to make things go crazy hot here on an older title. But is it possible a good sale in other parts of the world will also boost US sales? It should be interesting to find out. I could have set up a whole lot more in the way of promotion, of course, but I’m honestly just more focused on writing right now. None of this promotion will matter a whole lot until I get a critical mass of books published.

cover for book The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra HutchisonThis will, however, be my first promotional support for Google Play sales, and I’m very interested to see if it makes any difference. (So far I’ve sold a grand total of ONE book there.) And will any of this bump up sales of my more recent novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”?

It would be nice for something to work. I’ve been wondering why my Kindle sales came to a dead stop Matildachicklitfinallast week, and I think I finally figured it out. My perma-free romantic comedy “The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter” got put back at 99 cents at some point (without any notification to me). I could look at this as a favor, really, since I’d just as soon not have a free option distracting folks when I am offering a great price on another book, but I have to wonder how many Kindle readers  I’ve misled and possibly annoyed in the days it took me to notice this.  Lesson: Keep tabs on your perma-free status.

Anyway, here’s the pssst just for you part: It can take a week for price changes to filter through to India’s FlipKart, so “The Awful Mess” is already 99 cents at Smashwords and some of the services it feeds into, like iTunes. So you could go grab it at a good price right now!

By the way, if anyone is willing to help me get the word out on the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th, I’d be grateful. I will be happy to share detailed results with those of you who do. Just contact me offline or comment on what you’d be willing to do in terms of retweeting or FB posting or sharing or whatever and I’ll try to make it super easy for you to do.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer! I’m prepping my courses and have managed to turn the corner into the last major act of “Bardwell’s Folly.” I don’t expect to make much further headway with it while teaching four comp courses, but you never know. It’s been my observation over many years now that ridiculously busy people often actually accomplish a whole lot more than those of us with less pressing schedules.

 

 

 

Is it the cover? A PickFu polling case study

by Sandra Hutchison

It became clear during my recent Kindle Countdown Deal that my second novel was not catching on as well as my first. Intellectually, I had expected this. It has a literary title, it doesn’t cross over into romance, and I never offered it free.

Emotionally, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d crippled it in some way. Was the problem possibly just the cover?

One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that my “also boughts” on the first book all have a certain look that my books don’t have. (They are also all indie titles, which is an indicator that when you’re an indie most of your sales come during promotions to the same lists of willing indie readers.)

Alsoboughts

My covers are a little edgier, which may be appropriate, or may just be scaring people off.

Sandrasbooks

It’s also true that guys are often scared off by books with females on the cover. This may not be terribly relevant since most book buyers are women, but some of my most satisfied reviewers have been men, so I hate to cut off that potential audience if I don’t have to.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my covers. I think Damonza.com has done a great job, hitting a nice compromise between literary and women’s fiction. (They didn’t design the last two shorter, lower-cost titles, since I did them myself, but as you can see I have tried to maintain some branding.)

Something else had happened recently, though. I’d been playing with cover concepts for my third novel and asking for feedback on my Facebook profile. Two of the thumbnails had women on them. The third had an “oilified” plantation house. And most people, including loyal readers, had come down in favor of the house instead of the women.

That got me wondering if I’d gone the wrong way with the first two covers. SHOULD they look more like those books on my “Also boughts”?

That’s when I remembered getting a code for some free PickFu polling from a Tim Grahl post.

PickFu is an internet polling service. It’s incredibly easy to use and very reasonably priced. How well it lines up with my target audience is another question. But I decided it was worth trying out the service to see about two other possibilities for covers for “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

One was my best shot at a thumbnail using an “oilified” generic street scene that matches the neighborhood in the book, similar to the plantation house cover that my readers had liked for Bardwell’s Folly. So after narrowing in on that with my Facebook friends, I tested it versus the current cover on PickFu. (This would normally cost $20, but I had credits.)

thewinner

The results? The current published cover won handily. But when I dug down into the demographics, my target readers of women who are little older and perhaps a little more educated seemed to prefer the street scene.

demographicsThe comments were also fascinating. One thing became clear: My current cover is considered bleak. The title also puts off and confuses some people, suggesting to them that it’s either about eating disorders, a “trashy romance,” or erotica, none of which is true.

I knew I didn’t have time enough or money enough to act on the title (new titles require new isbns), but I’m definitely storing this away for the next time I’m trying to decide on a title.

Now, I’ve actually dealt with horrifically expensive, possibly flawed market research in my past life in publishing, so I knew (as PickFu will readily point out) that this poll of fifty people was not a scientifically valid sample size. I also had no idea how self-selected the audience might be. Given all that uncertainty, the time and money it would take to create a new cover based on this less than resounding finding seemed unwarranted.

That’s when I wondered how much damonza.com might charge me if I tested one of the original cover design options I had turned down (not without some trepidation). To my delight, they said they would provide it at no cost. And so I ran another test of that versus the neighborhood cover I was considering instead.

This time the results were clearer. You can see the whole case study here: a second A/B test at PickFu.

cutoffsversusoilified
So I switched my cover.

And nothing much happened. At that point, Amazon was still giving the book some play, but I saw maybe one day’s uptick in the trends, which could have been completely random.

So I’m back to the original cover now, because it’s a lot of work to go through everything I’ve done so far and switch the art out, and if it’s not going to make a significant difference  I’d just as soon put that effort towards my next books, “Missionary Dating and Other Stories,” which is available for pre-order now, and “Bardwell’s Folly,” which is still months out.

That’s not to say that someday I might not decide to put in the effort to switch over, because I do truly like the other cover. It’s definitely less bleak. But I’m still wondering if some women’s fiction-y neighborhood cover might not do better with my target audience than either of them.

So you’d better believe I’ll be testing different approaches with “Bardwell’s Folly” before I publish. Depending on how that goes, I might then work backwards on the other covers.

What do you want to know about your books before you publish?

If you’d like to give PickFu a spin, the folks there were kind enough to offer a discount for the first 50 readers here — just use the coupon code HUTCHISON and you’ll get 20% off your first poll. (I get no affiliate income from this. At least, I don’t think I do.)

If you find it useful, let me know! I know that back in the days when I was a marketing manager and an acquisitions editor, I would have really loved having access to a fast and easy tool like this.

Now if PickFu could just find a way to poll avid readers of our genre, we indie authors would truly be in data heaven…

 

Having trouble getting images to show in a revised Kindle book?

The only reason this is here — midweek, off the regular schedule — is so I can find it again someday. But who knows, maybe you’ll have the same problem I did. I’m quoting these instructions from “John_Ha” at an Open Office forum because it literally took me hours to figure out why the revised Word file I was uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing wouldn’t show the images once it was converted. He finally gave me the answer.

When you’re updating an existing file that has images, you have to organize the upload zip file a certain way. I’m sure this will be mere common sense to people with an intuitive understanding of html. I am not one of those people. So I needed this:

Books with images:
Creating a zipped file of your book contents

If your book includes images, you’ll need to create a compressed file of your book for it to work on Kindle. To do that, follow these steps:

1. Go to the folder where you saved your book (by default, Word will save your files in ‘Documents’ so if you aren’t sure where it is, this is a good place to look).

2. You’ll find two files with the name you used: a folder containing your images and an HTML file containing your book.

Right click on the HTML file, scroll over “Send to” and on the menu that appears, click ‘Compressed (zipped) folder’

4. A new folder with the same name will appear with a zipper on it.

5. Drag the folder with your images in it onto the new zipped folder.

This zipped folder will be necessary when it comes time to upload your book to KDP.

Cover of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda WalterBless you, Jon (or John) Ha. I didn’t want to have to pay for formatting, since I hope this updated version of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter will soon be perma-free once again. (It already is free at Smashwords.) It has a new chick lit cover (mine, but done with a lot more care than the first cover) and updated back matter.

It also has an intelligent Table of Contents … or it will after I fix the one on Amazon. Smashwords is already fixed, since they wouldn’t take it the wrong way. (Doing a proper linked table of contents is another how-to, but you can find that one pretty easily by googling for it. If you’re anything like me with technical instructions, I recommend going for a YouTube version.)

 

 

 

The five stages of grief of being rejected by BookBub

1877 etching of Andromache grieving for Hector

“Grief of Andromache for Hector” from The Peep-Show: Amusement and Instruction for the Young, circa 1877. This and the background art below courtesy of reusableart.com.

  1. DENIAL. This stage can’t last long. The email is right there and pretty easy to read. Writers generally have good reading comprehension skills. You can spend some time scanning it for clues, but if you’ve gotten this email more than once you know it’s boilerplate language. You may wonder why it got sent to you on a Saturday morning. You try to imagine who’s making these decisions, and how late they are working, especially since they apparently mulled it for three days. Was it like that time you sat in the jury box all day during jury selection before getting kicked out in favor of someone who hadn’t seen her brother hit a motorcyclist? Or did it just take three days because they are inundated?
  2. ANGER. Oh, writers are surely used to this. It’s why a lot of us self-publish. Back when I was still trying to find an agent or publisher, I would get some lovely and encouraging rejections. A persistent, resilient, emotionally healthy writer probably would react to these by thinking, “Oh, X likes my writing, so I should try with another book!”
    Then there’s me. I usually think something like “If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next one. A writer’s style is her style and her subjects are her subjects. So let’s not waste any more of each other’s time.”
    I teach literature as well as writing it, and the one thing my students and I always notice after a while is that the most acclaimed writers are almost always driven by something a bit dark. Of course, I refuse to believe this about myself (see “denial”), but if I were not driven by some unmet need of some kind, wouldn’t I be out spending my time actually being in relationships instead of sitting in a room writing novels about them? So, I must rationally conclude that I am probably about as prickly and neurotic as the next writer.
    It’s tempting to react with anger to BookBub, too, especially since their short, 30-day submission window means giving up many other promotional opportunities with longer windows in an attempt to nail theirs down, especially while trying to triangulate with Kindle Select and past promotions.
    If I hadn’t already had success with BookBub on the first novel, I might well decide to forget even trying in the future. Which would be stupid. Not all books are going to appeal as well as others. Ideally I’ll translate any anger into determination to “show them” (“them” being every person or entity who has ever not been immediately bowled over by my genius — sadly, there are legions of these people).
    3. BARGAINING. This is when you might be tempted to send an email back asking what it would take, or perhaps expressing some of that anger or desperation you feel, as if you could elicit some pity or even shame someone into doing what you want. DON’T DO IT. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor, the least pleasant part of the job was dealing with writers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There is absolutely no way to do this and sound like a person anyone would ever want to work with in the future. You’ll be remembered, all right, and not in a good way.
    4. DEPRESSION. As an indie author rejected by BookBub, I have suffered the loss of some future income and reviews. The trajectory I had hoped for (and that I had the pleasure of experiencing before) is just not going to happen. Whereas last year I turned a small profit on this enterprise, this year I can now forecast that I won’t. Even though the writing income was never going to be enough to change my life significantly anyway, this requires some grieving. I just found this out, so the publisher in me is still grieving, because she would really prefer to be able to strut around a bit. The writer in me is, thankfully, already focused on the next two books. But she’s still a bit bummed, too. Writing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. Publishing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. You must decide for yourself whether the joy outweighs the grief.
    5. ACCEPTANCE. There was an interesting post by RJ Crayton on Indies Unlimited this week about people getting fed up with the hard work and poor returns of writing and/or indie publishing and quitting (aptly titled “Self Publishing Shouldn’t Be Miserable“). If you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, or give you status, you’re going to hit this point a lot sooner than someone who’s writing because she has something she really wants to say. Unless you’re very lucky or unusually brilliant, or perhaps awesome at marketing, there’s a long, long road to success as an author. Many never get there. For some, getting there is sadly temporary. Those of us who are older understand that we might well die before we reach the magical golden land of steady book sales to hungry readers.
    But I’m okay with that. This is a road that has its own rewards.
    The Only Way To Get There

 

Living out loud, or why I don’t hide being self-published

Publishing expert Porter Anderson had an interesting post recently, asking if it might be time for self-publishing to get over itself. He points out that:

  1. Yes, obviously, indie publishing has become a respectable option for a number of writers, including many who were once traditionally published.
  2. Readers have never particularly cared who publishes books.
  3. Why call attention to it (or, worse, get militant about it) when you could instead put that energy towards writing more books?

It’s a valid question.

My answer to him (literally — I commented on the blog post) was this:

…I have a friend who asked me why I didn’t just fake it, since my books could “pass” for traditionally published. And he had a point. But I’d be nowhere without the helpful information provided by indie authors who went before me (and are still figuring things out faster than I am). So I feel an obligation to participate as well, to the extent I can, as a matter of paying it forward. I also find it genuinely interesting. (I have a background in traditional publishing, so I find the whole industry interesting.) I do think it is unfortunate when self-publishers get militant about their status. I understand the temptation, but I think it’s rooted in insecurity. There’s nothing inherently evil about traditional publishing. Or about agents. Or about bookstores. How many of us would be writers today if we hadn’t benefited from that low-margin book industry all our lives? Yeah, it can be corporate and risk-averse, and some of those contracts bear close examination. But the Big Five are not in a deep, dark conspiracy to ruin authors’ lives. If we care about literature, we should hope that they and bookstores continue to prosper, and that we all find our way to eager readers.

(He responded, if you want to check it out.)

Now, my personality is part of this equation. I compulsively truth-tell for the most part — sometimes unpleasantly so. My mother practices the fine art of being a polite Southern lady, but I think I have taken after my journalist father — we’re both prone to occasional crankiness and self-righteousness. (Yes, Dad, I said that.)

Over a decade ago I remember telling an agent at a conference that I wouldn’t self-publish because “that way lies madness.” And in those days, that was true. Self-publishing was largely the realm of crazy people utilizing vanity presses, stocking boxes of books in their garage, and hand-selling to everyone they knew. Then Amazon and print-on-demand technology changed all that.

I do remember still feeling an inhibiting shame about self-publishing, even after I’d decided it was something I would probably enjoy doing, until I came up with the name Sheer Hubris Press. That gave me the freedom to just do it. Yes, people, it says —  Yes, I’m publishing myself! Yes, I think my stuff is worth reading!

I just can’t fake anything, and I don’t want to have to. Yes, I know there are things that are definitely Too Much Information or too cruel to say, and I’m not recommending you tell your boss you can’t stand him or her before (or even after) you have another job lined up, but for the important stuff, the stuff that gives life meaning, I want to be my genuine self.

There is still sometimes an element of shame involved. For me the worst shame was discovering that my proofreading of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire was not at all up to snuff. Fixing that meant sitting with perhaps the most visceral feeling of shame I’ve ever experienced — literally, I put off the work for days because of the awful feeling I got in my guts. I had prided myself on being a better publisher than that.

So, yes, sheer hubris can lead to spectacular failure. Except… so what? Ultimately, it was just another hard-won lesson along the way. The book has been fixed (mostly — there are at least three typos left, which I’ll fix when I add the information about the next book). And it’s doing well enough critically to make me happy, even though I doubt its sales will ever match The Awful Mess, which has the great advantage of crossing over into romance.

As I once told a library audience when presenting about indie publishing, there are people who will react to a self-published book as if someone in the room just farted but they’re too polite to say anything about it. What I didn’t say is that I don’t give a flying **** about those people. They care more about status than whether a book has something valuable to say.

"The dog did it ... I swear!"There’s enormous joy in living your life the way you want to live it — living out loud — and sharing what you’re good at with others. If you can accept that publishing is hard work if you plan to do it well, puts you out there where not everybody will be kind, and is extremely unlikely to result in fast fame or riches, then you’re going into this with your eyes open. If, knowing all that, you still feel called to do it, go for it.

One of those 2015 resolutions: building my email subscription list

Jo-Anne Kern won the first quarter’s $20 Amazon Gift Card for being a member of my email list. (This is not the same list that gets you this blog sent to you in your email, just in case you’re confused about that.) If you’d like to be entered for the next quarter’s drawing, subscribe. You’ll need to confirm your subscription for it to really take. I send out occasional news and give you access to bonus materials and stories.

I’ve been investigating how to build the email list. There seems to be a whole industry of authors who claim to have the magic secret of doing this, which they’re happy to tell you about (and you can learn more for only $____!) One of them involves adding annoying pop-ups or slide-overs to your web site. I may yet try this, but I’m not at all convinced it would help. I click out of those sites fairly often.

One thing that would help would be having a web site that is actually up and running fast enough. Bluehost has been letting me down this week. Sorry about that.

A signed-copy giveaway

I decided to run another Goodreads giveaway for a signed copy of Ribs (for US readers only). Naturally, I just read a book promotions expert saying that you should never give away books unless you can get an email address in return. (On the other hand, giving away books is exactly how I managed to do quite well with The Awful Mess.) If you’d like to enter for this, here’s the information:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra Hutchison

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends April 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Showing some love to … Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

Novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980). From the home page of The Barbara Pym Society.

If you don’t know who Barbara Pym is, you’re missing out. I’m going to give you a quick introduction here in the hope that you may enjoy her books as much as I have.

(This is the debut of a new series of blog posts in which I share some of my appreciation for my favorite authors or books or other cool things out there. My theory is that if you’re curious enough about my stuff to pop in here, you’d probably like some recommendations of stuff I like. I may be inviting some fellow authors to guest post in this series, too.)

If you love Jane Austen for her social commentary and not just her romance, you’re likely to love Pym. Like Jane Austen, Pym was English, though she was born over 130 years later. Both write about gentlewomen in distress. Their heroines struggle for dignity and love in a society that has little concern for single women of limited means.  Many of their heroines have either seen a reduction in their status, or are at great risk of it.

Austen and Pym are also both very, very funny.

In Austen’s novels, a love-match to a good man of property is what signals the heroine’s ultimate triumph. In Pym’s novels, first published mostly in the.1950s and 60s, there is not always that definitive a resolution, but there are certainly plenty of romantic longings, and much finely observed social comedy along the way.

Pym finds both delight and absurdity in the rituals of daily life. Her characters are often fellow parishioners in the local Anglican Church (either in villages or London neighborhoods) or anthropologists on the hunt in one way or another. Her men are caddish or hapless but somehow still appealing. Her supporting women exhibit various degrees of thoughtlessness, clumsiness, competitiveness, or eccentricity, while her heroines strive to maintain a sort of cheerful, desperate dignity.

Pym’s take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Here she is in probably the first book I ever read of hers, Excellent Women:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Jane and Prudence might have been next, or perhaps A Glass of Blessings, but I really became enthralled when I got to An Unsuitable Attachment.

In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.

Ha! It boggles my mind that this was the novel, after six others found publication, at which her publisher and all other British publishers balked, sending Pym into an exile from her readers that she found baffling and distressing, as any author would. She didn’t stop writing, though.

Where to start reading Pym probably depends on your tastes, but if they are anything like mine, do not begin with either The Sweet Dove Died or Quartet in Autumn, the more modern novels that she published after both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil called her “the most underrated novelist of the century” and rescued her from obscurity. These are not typical works of hers and definitely not my favorites, though I do not regret reading them.

My favorite Barbara Pym novel of all — and I am probably in the minority in this — is A Few Green Leaves, the one she rushed to finish before she died of breast cancer in 1980. In this village story, a lonely anthropologist longs for a close relationship with any man, though the sweetly hapless local vicar is clearly a better sort than another potential candidate. As in many Barbara Pym novels, love and the local parish are a source of both comedy and pathos, but their treatment strikes me as more affectionate here than in any of her other books.

There are many other books I haven’t even mentioned, of course. Crampton Hodnet was released posthumously, but it was an early one by a younger Pym and it’s quite funny.

I can’t help reflecting that if Barbara Pym had hit that brick wall with the publishers in our time, she could have turned to self-publishing to keep her loyal  fans reading. (Of course, I suppose we could also worry that she might have published the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle too soon and never gotten properly edited or found a wider audience at all.)

If you can’t find Pym in your local bookstore or library, you can find her in the online bookstores today, though not all of her books are still in print, or even available on Kindle, at least in the United States. I hope that is changing, since I do see a few available that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that in a world gone so crazy for Jane Austen (who well deserves it), Barbara Pym isn’t at least fully in print.

Pym’s work also strikes me as great fodder for some fine comedic British costume dramas set in the 50s, like Call the Midwife only less sappy. I’m surprised no one has done it yet (unless they have, and they just haven’t made it to the United States). I do think she could be a little hard to translate onto the screen as fully as one might like, because so much of the humor is going on in people’s heads. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall a la Frank Underwood in House of Cards (but, of course, not at all like Frank Underwood in House of Cards) might help.

(If there is anyone out there who wants to pay me handsomely to have a go at it, just let me know.)

Barbara Pym's take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Click To Tweet

If you’ve read Pym, let me know your favorites. If you have another favorite little-known or out-of-print author, I’d love to hear about that, too!

Goodbye, ABNA. Hello, Kindle Scout. (For some.)

As I wrote last year after my own experience with it, I thought Amazon Publishing’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was a brilliant way for them to acquire new authors of quality work, usually without the fuss of agents, while building engagement among its self-published authors and readers.

But last year, it turns out, was the final year for ABNA. This January Amazon announced that it has essentially replaced it with Kindle Scout, an ongoing submission process in which authors can put up their books in pursuit of a contract with Kindle Publishing.

How it works

Kindle Scout How It Works -- Amazon illustration

Illustration from Amazon’s Kindle Scout “How It Works” page

Authors upload a copyedited Word manuscript, a short blurb, a description, a cover, and a bio plus author photo, and try to get readers to nominate their book for publication.Those who generate enough buzz to get noticed and meet Kindle Publishing’s editorial requirements might just be accepted for publication with a small advance and what I would consider reasonable contract terms for authors who don’t mind being exclusive to Kindle.

Kindle Scout appears to be a similar to ABNA in that it forces authors to pursue social engagement. It’s also much faster than ABNA — in thirty days, a work has either made it or not (though it may take a little longer to get the final word, and then it goes into production). Certainly, it’s a route to publication that is much faster than a search for an agent and traditional publication.

There’s also an incentive for readers to check those books out — they get the book free if a book they nominated is accepted for publication.

Those are all good things.

But I’ve also seen ABNA fans complaining about some big changes:

  • Books cannot have been published at all before, not even self-pubbed, except in avenues where no money is being earned. ABNA was awash in already self-published books (including mine and the one that beat mine and the three other semifinalists in General Fiction last year).
  • The only genres welcome are romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. (Edit in May of 2015: Amazon has added “literature and fiction,” which includes contemporary fiction, action and adventure, and historical fiction)
  • Authors must have US social security numbers or tax ID numbers. So most foreign writers need not apply. (Edit: But I’m told there are ways to work around this.)
  • There’s no formal set of feedback on the excerpt for those who make the first cut, and no Publishers Weekly review of the whole manuscript for quarter finalists (not that this was ever quite as exciting as it sounded).
  • There’s no official social component for contestants who want to discuss the process with each other, though I’m sure authors will find other ways to discuss and collaborate.
  • It’s not obvious how any given book is doing, unless it makes it to the “hot and trending” list. There’s a definite limit to how much you can flog a book to your friends and family, so authors with an existing readership are at a distinct advantage — surely a benefit to Amazon.
  • Authors take on all the cost and risk of cover design, while Amazon gets to sit back and see what works. Most submissions I see appear to have professionally designed covers, so people are obviously investing in this. (Of course, that means  they’ll also be all set to publish whether they win a contract or not.)
  • Quite a few authors say they will miss the motivation of the yearly deadline for ABNA. Kindle Scout is a rolling process you can begin at any time.

I suppose there may also be some ineffable damage done to an author’s relationship with her local bookstore or potential future agent or editor if she were to be published exclusively by Amazon, but ABNA and Kindle Select are just the same in that. (I also suspect all parties concerned would quickly get past that if they thought there was money to be made.)

I left Kindle Select with the first novel last spring and haven’t regretted it. While I haven’t exactly burned down the town at the other retailers, my last 99-cent promotion did bring in some very nice extra crash from Nook and iTunes (especially Nook), making the advertising investments that much more profitable (especially since BookBub and Fussy Librarian carry all the links, not just Kindle). And I feel a bit less vulnerable to sudden changes like the advent of Kindle Unlimited, which has impacted the income of many indie authors.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

I do still have the second novel in Kindle Select to begin with because I still think it’s the best tool to get this book discovered and reviewed. I’ll be able to judge whether I was correct about that by next month (assuming it’s a title that can gain any momentum at all), but in the meantime I’m just working on another book. As most successful authors will say, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time and money on promotion until you have enough titles out that they can cross-sell each other.

If you have other wisdom or opinions on ABNA or Kindle Scout, feel free to comment!

Which reminds me: A fellow author I respect recently told me I’m making a big mistake associating myself so clearly with self-publishing when my stuff could pass as professionally published. I told him I would miss the interaction with other self-published authors far too much to try to pretend I wasn’t indie. (Also, I told him I just can’t keep my big mouth shut. I fear this may be the one big thing I have in common with all my heroines so far.)

Happy publishing, however you get it done!