Surfing the waves of indie publishing and trying not to care if I fall off

Until recently, the narrative I had constructed about my life was that I was a bit of an under-achiever, generally risk-adverse, and very comfortable in a supporting role in life’s events. I learned early on to work hard enough to fulfill my responsibilities (school, work, family) because then I could do what I longed to do most, which for me has primarily meant reading. I followed that pattern throughout my academic and professional career. My mother (a trained social worker) was successful in getting me to spend time away from my books by pushing me to develop friendships, join in on activities, and accept her ideas about social responsibility, counteracting my natural instincts as a shy loner. Thirty years of standing in front of a classroom as a college professor has helped as well, but I still tend to hide in corners at parties. I was a good teacher, but not a particularly innovative one. I have taken leadership positions––usually out of a sense of duty––and, while I have done well in these roles, I am always delighted to hand over the responsibilities to others when the time came.

The truth is that throughout my life I have been personally cautious (I don’t tend to take physical or emotional risks) and not very ambitious. I avoid competition in any form (in sports, academics, and even board games) and, despite the times I have assumed leadership roles, I continue to be more comfortable as part of group enterprises than as an individual who stands out from the crowd. I even saw my feminism (keeping my own name when I married in 1972, constructing, with my husband, one of the most equalitarian marriages I have ever witnessed, deciding to get a doctorate in the male dominated field of history, and working full-time and raising a child) as simply being part of the sixties generation.

But in the past two years I have unexpectedly found myself on the cutting edge of the ebook revolution and riding the fast-moving wave of self-publishing. While it has been an exhilarating ride; it has also pushed me past my comfort zone as I have had to learn how to take risks, promote myself, and come to terms with personal success. What I am going to examine today is why I have been so willing to move outside of that comfort zone when so many of my friends among the writing community are having such a hard time doing so.

Risk-Taking:

For many writers, one of the key attractions of being traditionally published is that, even if your books don’t end up selling, there is the emotional safety of knowing that industry “experts” (your agent and editor) have deemed your writing as worthy of being published. The alternative (known until very recently as vanity publishing) had the risky penalty of acute embarrassment of people assuming your book was crap because it couldn’t be traditionally published. This fear of embarrassment had indeed kept me tied to the idea of traditional publishing for the 20 years between the first draft and the publication of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune.

But in 2009, even though self-publishing still suffered under all the old negative stereotypes and indie authors like Konrath had been self-publishing for less than a year, I decided to take a risk and use the new options that KDP, Smashwords, and CreateSpace offered to self-publish. No one I knew personally had done this, and I had no particular reason to think I would have success along the lines of a Konrath, who was really the only example of success I knew about.Nevertheless, I jumped into this new enterprise with uncharacteristic bravado.

I can look back now and see that one of the reasons I could take this step was because I was at a time in my life when I wasn’t emotionally or materially dependent on achieving success as an author. If the book had garnered only negative reviews, I might have had my feelings hurt, and I certainly would have been less likely to write the second book, but it wouldn’t have negated my sense of accomplishments as wife, mother, friend, and professor. I also didn’t have to worry about the effect of failure on anyone but myself. No agent, editor, publicist, or book rep could stand in my way, but neither could any other individual’s career or bottom line be hurt if my book wasn’t a success.

As a result, self-publishing has made me much more of a risk taker. I have ignored advice that one well-meaning agent had given me about using multiple points of view in Maids of Misfortune, and didn’t worry that both of my books are much longer than the normal word-count average for my sub-genre. I have freely experimented with prices, changed my books’ categories, made editorial changes after a book was published, and tried a variety of methods of promoting my books. In short I have innovated to a degree I never have done in my life before. I need no one’s permission to do so, and the only one hurt if my experiments fail is me. Very liberating!

Self-Promotion:

This brings me to another way that self-publishing has pushed me out of my comfort zone. I have become a blatant self-promoter. If you had asked me (or anyone who knew me) before I became an indie author if I would make a good sales person, the answer would be no. I have never been comfortable selling anything, even girl scout cookies or raffle tickets for good causes, much less been able to “sell myself” or anything of mine. While I wrote a blog post about why I distinguish between selling and marketing, the truth is that is I have found an unexpected satisfaction in learning how to promote my books. Once I started getting positive reviews and lovely email messages from readers this became easier. I had proof that my books and short stories were giving people pleasure, so it felt right to make sure that people who might like my work would hear about it.

I also have found that when I look at promotion from the point of view of a life-long student and social scientist, then marketing becomes even more comfortable. I feel proud of myself for being willing and able to master the skills necessary to set up a blog, create an email signature, organize RSS feeds, design a website, and format a book for upload to KDP. When I experiment with a new price point or a free promotion and then analyze the outcome, I am engaged in an intellectual exercise that, to a degree, counteracts even a negative sales result. In my mind, my book hasn’t failed and I haven’t failed; the experiment has failed and I have learned something from it.

Finally I have discovered that promotion has a lot to do with storytelling, a skill I have practiced all of my adult life. To successfully engage college students who were taking my required U.S. history courses, I had to figure out how to narrate the story of the past in a way that was interesting and relevant. When I write my historical blog posts, I am telling the story of Victorian San Francisco, making the information relevant to the people who have read my books and short stories. When I write blogs like this one, I am telling the story of my journey as a self-published author, and I am successful to the degree to which I entertain other authors and made my experience relevant to them.

In short, self-publishing not only helped me become a risk taker, but it also revealed that I possessed previously unknown skills at promotion. But when my promotions resulted in people discovering and buying my books, it also led to a level of financial success that has challenged me in unexpected ways.

Personal Success:

To be blunt, I never expected to make money selling Maids of Misfortune. I wanted to give the book a chance to find an audience and sell enough so that I didn’t feel like it was an expensive hobby. However, since I only invested in a cover, the cost of hosting a website, and some business cards, I wasn’t going to have to sell very many books to achieve that goal. One of the ways I felt I could give back to the growing tribe of indie authors whose advice and support I had depended on was to do what Konrath and other early advocates of self-publishing had done––provide concrete details on where I was selling my books, at what price, using which promotional methods, and reporting on how many sales I was making.

I am aware of how uncomfortable many authors feel about providing this sort of detail, particularly on sales. Many have been trained by traditional publishers to view information about advances, royalty rates, and sales as private and proprietary. And for many, particularly of my own generation, it just feels like bragging when you are doing well. I didn’t worry about this in the beginning because I didn’t sell many copies the first six months I was an indie author. Then, when Maids of Misfortune began to sell a enough so that I was able to retire from my part-time teaching job, my response was sheer joy at my good fortune and a desire to inspire other writers with the news that someone could make a decent amount of money as an indie author, even if you didn’t have prior name recognition, a traditional publishing career, or a huge social media base.

But then came KDP Select. First of all, in my new risk-taking, promoting persona, I didn’t hesitate to join KDP and give Maids of Misfortune a two-day promotion. Even though there wasn’t much data out and many indie authors were very wary of the exclusivity requirement, it just seemed like another grand experiment to me. As a result, my first two promotions came early enough so that my books benefited fully from both post Christmas sales bump and the very favorable Amazon algorithms that were first in place. As a result, my royalties for January, February, and March were higher than any monthly checks I have ever made in my career as a full-time professor. I was dumb-founded, and I shared the information (why I made the decision, what strategies I used, and what the results were) publically with a sense of how unexpected and wonderful it all was.

But then I began to watch other writers try KDP Select and have much less success. For the first time, reporting my sales numbers did feel like bragging, and therefore very uncomfortable. I am still trying to figure out how to handle this. I do believe that reporting my numbers, good and bad, can be useful to other writers, but I need to find a way to do it where it doesn’t feel like boasting.

In addition, I momentarily began to loose my nerve when it came to promotions. My third promotion done at the end of March produced an anemic post promotion sales bump. See this blog and this for speculations on the changes Amazon has made in the algorithms. I began to second-guess my decision to hold off doing another promotion until the end of May; I worried as my sales rankings slipped (both books are currently ranked in the 25-35 range of the historical mystery bestseller list-where they were before the first KDP Select promotion.) Maybe the wild ride was over?

Then my usual sense of perspective kicked in. Where had my sense of adventure gone? Even if the particular wave of success that KDP Select represented had now finished its course, that didn’t meant I couldn’t paddle on out and enjoy myself waiting for the next wave! And if I never sold another book, this wouldn’t be the end of the world.

So, I decided that if I was hitting the limits to the market for Maids of Misfortune as an ebook, why not try to tap into a different audience? I enrolled Maids of Misfortune in the ACX program (Audiobook Creation Exchange) program, and if all goes well I will be selling the audio version by the end of June. I also plan to try out the new Author Services program that Audible is piloting to help authors promote their books. In addition, I have planned another round of free promotions on Amazon, tweaking my strategy a bit to see if I can at least boost the visibility of Uneasy Spirits, the second book in my Victorian San Francisco series, since I know I haven’t saturated the market for that book yet.

In any event, you can count on me to take new risks, try out new forms of promotion, and continued to look out for the next wave of change in the publishing industry because I’m not yet ready to end this wonderful ride.

7 thoughts on “Surfing the waves of indie publishing and trying not to care if I fall off

  1. Hello M.Louisa! Thank you very much! This blog post encourages me to continue as a writer of gay male love stories. I am German and in Germany it is all new to publish yourself and to read e-books. The most informations and the more readers of e-books came from the US. Now I’ll translate my first story. The way you describe is nice and though I am not that young to run around with my stories and neither willing to do so, it seems to be the right way for me,too.
    Thank you very much! Reg

  2. A very salutary analysis from someone whose reluctance (overcome) might really help me grasp the nettle of self promotion ( a phobia akin to that relating to snakes!) Trouble is my book is not easily targeted, and certainly not mainstream. But your personal story encourages! Your help in relation to all aspects of indie publishing has been a generous investment of experience. Thanks

  3. Mary Lou – your journey is inspiring. And I appreciate your generosity in sharing what you’ve learned along the way. Keep paddling out to catch that next wave – I’ll try to catch it as well🙂

  4. Thank you. My husband has spent the last five years writing a novel which we published on Kindle a few weeks ago. It is going very slowly and we were getting quite despondent. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and making us realise that these things can take time.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experiences in such detail and with such reasoned explanations for why you’re taking these risks. Your thoughts on risk taking remind me of the JK Rowling commencement address at Harvard here she spoke about the benefits of failure. What you are talking about is the willingness to risk failure. Very similar.

    My experiences have closely followed yours, and I’m soon going to have to make decisions about re-enrolling in the Select Program or not. I hope you will share more about your experiences with the ACX Program as I am also seriously considering that route.

  6. What an awesome post. . . this is both motivating and informative. I love how you have shared your publishing journey to us so personally. Thank you.

  7. Hi Mary Lou–Your blog posts are terrific! I’m always pleased to see a new one show up in my inbox. I’m doing SO MUCH better with sales after following your sage advice on how to do a Kindle Free Book Promotion. My downloads were ten-fold greater from the first free promotion to the second one (a month later) after following your steps. And the follow-up sales and Prime rentals are hanging in there even though it’s been more than five weeks since the promotion. My comment is I’m also focusing on writing as quickly as I can–to get my bookshelf beefed up so when people buy a book from my “Islands of Aloha Mystery” series they’ll have something more to buy. Seems the really big-sellers on Kindle (except Darcie Chan, but she’s the exception rather than the rule) all have many titles out there.
    Thanks again for your insightful and encouraging posts.

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