Friday, October 4, 2013

31 Days Of Horror: The 31 Dayening: The Horror Of Self Publishing

So not exactly the roaring start I wanted to get off to. But circumstances beyond my control kept me from getting this up earlier. 

A year (and some change ago) I self published the e version of my book Son Of Danse Macabre. If you've ever been to this site before you've heard of it. Since then I've sold more copies than I have friends or family thus ensuring that my head would come out of the oven. I'm modestly in the black and proud of the little bugger. I've received great reviews and pans. In short it's been a blast.

So for the one year anniversary (more or less) I've decided to write up some reflections on the whole ebook thing. Make no mistake the learning curve was steep and brutal. If you're thinking of entering the lofty realm of epublishing, see if you can't avoid some of my mistakes with the advice below. Or just, you know- laugh at my pain. 

So you’ve decided to self publish an ebook! Congratulations. No you’ve earned it. Spending all that time muscling through your first draft. Then taking the time to painstakingly fine tune it through a couple more drafts, to make sure that it was theoretically something people might want to read. Giving it to a few Beta Readers so you can make sure that it’s actually something that people would want to read. Hiring a copy editor to- Wait you have done all this right?

Because if you haven’t that’s a whole ‘nother article’s worth of stuff. This is for after you have already gone through all the travails and psychological damage of actually writing your book, and having given traditional publishing a miss for one reason or another (They didn’t want your book, or you’re looking to take advantage of the exciting new paradigm…they didn’t want your book) you are now actually trying to get people to read it. Because brother, I know you’ve put a lot of work into it already, but we’ve got a whole new mountain to climb.

I published my ebook, Son Of Danse Macabre at the beginning of October, and I’ve learned a lot. True, much of what I learned, I “learned” the way a hapless schmoe learns not to make bets with a bookie he can’t afford to pay when a thug with forearms like Popeye’s shatters his knees with a lead pipe. But learning is learning so lets see if we can’t save you the trouble.

5. It Isn’t Free: If you take one lesson from this article let it be this one. Ebook publishing is “free” the way that digital filmmaking is “cheap.” It’s true in a very loose sense, and you can upload a video of you and your buddies hitting one another with your cars (or whatever the kids are into these days) for next to nothing. But if you want something that looks more professional than sour owl poop you are going to need to shell out some bucks somewhere.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you have a cover? Can you draw? Does your drawing look better than something on the side of a van? Can you ink what you’ve drawn? Can you blend your illustration with a graphics like your title, and author? Can you do this all so it is legible on a tiny ebook screen, and the tinier version that the ebook shop will give it? No? Can your cousin Cletus? Would you buy a book that only had size fourteen Times New Roman on its cover? No? Than why would you expect someone else to? Prepare to shell out to pay for an artist, and if you’re extremely lucky an artist with a halfway competent sense of graphic design.

But lets say that you’re an amazingly talented artist with photoshop skills that would make the angels weep. Do you know anything about coding? Yes coding. Ebooks need to be formatted. No? Are you willing to spend hours wading through contradictory tutorials and advice? Are you willing to spend further hours experimenting with trial and error in order to get something that looks halfway legible up on the mock e-reader screen that Barnes and Noble and Amazon provides (Oh how you will grow to hate that screen). Are you willing to throw up your hands and weep tears of blood when there’s stuff that still just won’t work even after you’ve painstakingly learned the principles and made sure that there’s no logical reason for it not to work. (My author photo won’t show up in my Kindle edition of the book for reasons that no one, least of all Amazon can figure out. In the nook edition There is word that the nook decided should be represented vertically? Why? Why not? Though it was at the beginning of an article on Lovecraft so perhaps I was asking for it.) Would you perhaps like to use that time for something more productive? Like say drinking and staring at a wall?

Here’s another one for size. Are you a good copy editor? No let me ask that again. Are a good copy editor? Not do you think you’re a good copy editor. Do you know you’re a good copy editor. The importance of this is impossible to overstate. I feel like my generation was brought up with a very Laissez Faire approach to grammar. But nothing separates the amateur from the professional quicker than a quick look at the neatness of copy. A fact I learned to my sorrow when I sent my manuscript to an author I truly admire, something of an elder statesman in the field of my book, who sent me back an email that so indignant that one would have thought that I had sent him a slate with that consisted of the single word Cat spelled K-A-T-T with only a crudely etched picture of Mr. Whiskers beneath to give him the context I felt he needed to decode the work.

And in all fairness, he wasn’t the only one. The copy editor I sent the book to for triage sent me letters that often sounded as though he was considering seppuku rather than finish my work. Because no matter how many times I went over the book with a fine tooth comb there came a point of saturation when my brain was simply reading what it wanted to be there instead of what was actually there. This is common. No matter how talented of a writer you are. Trust me.

Which brings us back to our original point, lets say that you’re lucky enough to know three dependable people who can help you out in these areas. Let’s take it a step further and say that you know three people who will help you out in these areas for friend prices (Because I don’t know about you guys but I like to pay my friends when they do work for me. I’m funny that way) as I was, farming my cover out to a talented web comic artist  and the copy editing out to a seasoned copy editor I was lucky enough to know (The formatting I did myself but it wasn’t fun. Trust me.) You’re still starting out two to three hundred dollars in the hole. And that’s assuming that like Disco Stu you have decided not to advertise.

4. Pricing Mysteries

“Well that’s no problem!” you say to yourself. Three hundred bucks I can make that back in no time! I’ll just price the book at .99 cents and three hundred copies later whammo!  (We’ll strip you of that delusion when we get to number three.) I’ll be swimming in profit just like the swells!” Why you have started talking like Frankie from The Goon is a separate issue, and this article cannot help you with it.

There are several things wrong with this line of thinking but let’s tackle the biggest first. Let’s try a little thought experiment shall we?

Lets say you are walking down the street when you pass a shady looking character sitting atop a large red cooler, Tilde Cap pulled down over his eyes, handle bar mustache waxed to a gleam, only the absence of a Pabst Blue Ribbon makes you think he’s not a hipster. “Psst… Buddy,” he whispers, “Wanna by a human liver?”

Being a sharp fellow with an open mind you stop in the street to consider, “Welllll…” you say stroking your chin, “I do like a good human liver? How much is it?”

And that’s when the guy grins, “That’s the best part chum. It barely costs nothing! Just .99 cents.”

Which is the part where you cry out, “Aw nuts to you!” and keep making your way down the road, grumbling, “Who does he think he is, gonna offload his lousy busted human liver on me. What does he think I was born yesterday? Never bought no black market organs before?” Down the block you meet a second gentleman, very much like the first, who offers you a human liver for 100 bucks, “A hundred bucks!!!” You exclaim, “Now thems’ human liver prices!” You put the liver in your pocket and walk away whistling, “Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing!)”.

The point is that we as human beings immediately assume that if something is cheap there is something wrong with it. Or in the wise words of Lt. Aldo Raine, by whose model I always attempt to live by (the rash of recent scalping in Austin TX has nothing to do with this) “If it sounds too good to be true, it ain’t.”

Assuming that you can sell a lot of copies by making your work unbelievably cheap is foolish. All you’re going to do is make potential customers think that you don’t believe your work is worth very much. And if you don’t think its worth anything, then why the hell should they?

To make matters even worse for you, you have to remember that it’s not like you  get all the money you make off your ebooks. Amazon and Barnes And Noble aren’t making giving you a publishing platform because of their altruism (trust me I worked for Barnes And Noble, Ebenezer Scrooge was a more generous employer) They’re doing it to make money, and because of the smaller amount involved in a .99 cents sale they take a larger cut of the royalties. As in a seventy percent one. So lets say that you did sell your three hundred copies in the first month (you won’t) that wouldn’t get you the needed 300 dollars to cover your expenses. It would net you closer to 90. Still 210 in the red. And it’s not like you’re getting the money the next day either, it takes two months for the big two to cut you a check, assuming that you’re using direct deposit and assuming that your book has made the minimum amount of money for them to bother.

Thankfully there’s an easy solution, raise your price, at least to the point where you get a seventy percent royalty. Go on be a man, stick out your chest, tell the world “I deserve it!” That’s what I did, taking my book all the way up to the giddy heights of 2.99. Isn’t that still pretty cheap you say? I’m glad you asked oh hypothetical guy who lives in my head because that brings me to my next point.

3. Know Thy Audience Or Lack There Of.

Part of the reason that my book was so cheap was that it was a work of criticism. More specifically a work of criticism on the last thirty years of the horror genre. Covering films, comics, games and literature.

I know what you’re thinking, “Oh man he must be rolling in that Lit Crit money!” It’s true it’s true, with the obscene amount of wealth I’ve made from my royalties from my Literary Criticism I’ve been able to buy a gold plated Audi which uses Evelyn Waugh’s writing desk as the passenger seat. The back seat is filled with crates of The Complete Poetry Of Czelaw Milosz. I throw them at the heads of random passersby screaming, “EDIFY YOURSELF.” It’s a fine life if you don’t weaken.

The point is that my book is selling not just to a niche, but to a niche within a niche within a niche. Not just to horror fans in other words, but horror fans who care to read what someone else things about horror, and furthermore care to read what I think about horror. It’s only fair that I meet them halfway, hence the low price point.

You should also make sure you know what you’re getting into. For all the wonderful democratizing elements about electronic self publishing, readers still treat Publishers as gatekeepers who ensure a minimum standard of quality. They see buying self published work as a risk. And in all fairness, they’re not wrong.

Of course some readerships are more open to it than others. As a rule Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy readers are all relatively open to the prospect since they are the readers of work that is pretty much on the fringes anyway. This is the same reason why these are the only genres that are able to support anthologies of short fiction (barely). They are genres built on a readership that knows the rewards of taking risks.

If you’re working in general fiction, mystery or various non fiction sectors (A Modest Proposal: Was John Swift Really That Far Off The Mark?), I’m sorry to say you are facing a much bigger uphill climb. Which funnily enough brings me to my next point…

2. Be prepared to whore thyself in new and Interesting Ways.

Lets get this out of the way, advertising for books doesn’t really work. It was something I was eager to experiment with. I bought space on the popular cult film web series The Cinema Snob. It resulted in zero sales. After that I tried a campaign on Facebook. It also resulted in zero sales. After that I tried working with Project Wonderful, and when I awoke from my nightmare coma (seriously don’t work with Project Wonderful) I found it had resulted in zero sales.

I’m currently running a campaign on Goodreads, a campaign that has thus far resulted in, let me just check the numbers here real quick... Ah yes. Zero sales.

The point is that traditional advertising doesn’t really work so well for books, or at least for ebooks. Another avenue is of course trying to get your work reviewed by web sites and magazines. You should totally do this.

But as Brian Michael Bendis (back when he was still interested in telling stories that other people hadn’t already told a million times before) wrote in his comic memory Fortune And Glory, you should do this with the same attitude of sending out a resumes. Send a hundred out in the hopes of landing one return response. Of the magazines and bigger sites I’ve sent my work to, I have been reviewed in a grand total of two and one was pan (And I know I shouldn't respond to bad reviews but Henry Potrait Of A Serial Killer was completed and screened in 1986, Hammer is British thus doesn't have any bearing on my thesis and I didn't cover short stories because I was following King's structure. That's why.) Don’t get me wrong I did the Snoopy Dance when I landed both, but it was a matter of playing the percentages. And trust me, seen that way it took a lot of work to get those two reviews.

You can also try reaching out to smaller blogs, but don’t expect a much higher rate of success. As anyone who has blogged and had any semblance of a readership knows, the second more than a dozen people who were searching for monkey porn and accidentally stumbled across your blog and start reading you, you are instantly inundated with requests to review everything from student films, to well… monkey porn. Often the monkey pornographers compose themselves with more dignity. It quickly becomes difficult for even the most modest blogger to respond to these people, let alone review them. However, if you have an ebook to sell I hope you treated these folks kindly, because in a nightmarish act of Karmic Retribution you become one of them. Clogging folks emails, the way you yourself have been clogged.

You can only depend on the kindness of strangers, and hope that they aren’t actually dragging you off to a mental institution.

So if advertising doesn’t work, and reviews are at best a crapshoot what does that leave you. Well unless you’re a complete sociopath (and lets face it this is the internet odds are about 50/50) you probably know some folks on the internet. And chances are if you know them on the internet, they probably have some sort of web presence as well. Use that.

By far my biggest boosts in sales came from my friends. Guys like the twin national treasures of Tim Brayton and Bill Ryan who were generous enough to give me plugs. Guys like the dudes I podcast with at the On The Stick collective, who let me flog the book relentlessly on their various shows. Or stand up fellas like JD. LaFrance or Le0pard13

Get creative, if you’ve written an entire book, chances are its not the first thing you’ve written. Maybe you’ve written for a website, maybe they’ll let you write about the book ( Maybe you’ve written for a paper, maybe they’ll have someone review the book. ( Why the hell not? Stranger things have happened.

1. Prepare for Exhilaration When You Sell.

So right now you might be wondering why you should bother at all. After all, You’ll have to shell out cash, work really hard to get the book seen by people, work even harder to get them to buy it and even harder than that to get them to read it. And if that all goes right you probably won’t make much money at all doing those things. So why the hell should you bother.

Because I guarantee you, that if you stick with it there will come a day when you look at your sales figures and go, “Wait a minute. I don’t have this many friends and one side of the family is no longer speaking to me. So that can only mean…” And then it will dawn on you. Someone, multiple someones, who you don’t know, have paid there good hard earned money to read what you have to say, and they have not apparently demanded there money back. There’s no other feeling like it in the world. It makes crack cocaine feel like a sip of O’Douls. Is E publishing worth the giant pain in the ass? Oh yes my friends. Yes it is.

And if you're one of the people who gave me that charge, thank you, thank you, thank you.


Neil Fulwood said...

So you're the guy who outbid me on Evelyn Waugh's writing desk. I was gonna sand it down and use it to make a bread bin.

Bryce Wilson said...

No love for The Loved One?

Neil Fulwood said...

Great little antipodean horror movie ... oh shit, you mean Waugh!

*gets coat*


Bryce Wilson said...

Well there's a Silltoe reference in there too so hopefully that balances things out.

Neil Fulwood said...

You know me too well ...

Jeff Pike said...

Hey, in the interests of practicing the very difficult rites of self-promotion you discuss above, let me yelp that I reviewed it here:

It's good stuff (your book). And congratulations on wading through the work of getting it out. Many returns to you!

Bryce Wilson said...

Many thanks Jeff, I really appriciate you helping to spread the word. Glad you enjoyed it.