Monday, June 20, 2011

Indie Author Mailbag: "Can you tell me the best way to ensure the success of my book?"

In a word, no.

If I've said it once, I've said it too many times to count:
There is no one-size-fits-all, by-the-numbers success formula for indie authors. There is no specific template or blueprint that will guarantee lasting sales or readership for any book.

Assuming for the moment that your indie book is exceptionally well-written, immaculately edited and sports a compelling cover, it's just a matter of getting the word out about it and pricing it reasonably, right? Wrong.

Every author is different, every book is different, and every sales climate is different. Consider the (originally self-published) book which launched me into a life of publishing punditry and activism, The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use. This was clearly a simple case of the right book at the right time. Writer's Digest Books was happy to pick up the rights and republish the book in a revised edition because interest in self-publishing is at an all-time high right now and they viewed it as the only truly comprehensive how-to, nuts-and-bolts book on the subject.

Had I self-published the same book just five years ago, neither Writer's Digest Books nor any other mainstream publisher would've been interested in picking it up. The self-published edition of the book wouldn't have been very successful either since self-publishing was widely viewed as a fringe activity up until about two years ago, engendering dismissal at one end of the opinion spectrum and open scorn and ridicule at the other.

Let's take a look at some of the supposedly surefire success strategies for indie authors, as they apply to this book and my other, still indie novels.

1. If You Build A Quality Author Platform, You'll Succeed.
I cannot deny that for anyone seeking a mainstream publishing contract, platform is key. Mainstream publishers want to see a pre-existing audience, and the potential to grow that audience exponentially. However, even for me, a retired software engineer with web developer skills of considerable sophistication, no amount of web presence or social networking savvy would've made my book a success five years ago. Even today, no amount of platform quantity or quality would make my book a success if it were poorly written or didn't contain the specific information the target audience wants and needs.

With respect to my novels, platform has not, in and of itself, made much of an impact. Not only do I have a custom, professionally-designed author website, I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, I'm the founder and Editor in Chief of, I'm a Technorati BlogCritic, on the Board of Directors for the Association of Independent Authors, and...well, I won't bore you with the rest of this litany. Yet despite all this "visibility" and "web presence", my novels only do fair-to-middling business unless I'm actively and specifically promoting them. Why? Because the bulk of my platform activity pertains to serving the needs of self-publishing authors, not readers in general.

So yes, platform is important. But just getting your name and face and the titles of your books out there isn't enough. Your platform activities must be targeted, with each piece of the platform puzzle helping to support the others. At this point, if sales of my novels were to become a priority for me, I'd launch a secondary platform strategy just for them because I know my established audience for The Indie Author Guide is more or less indifferent to my novels.

2. If You Price Your Kindle Books At .99, You'll Succeed.
All of my indie Kindle books have been priced at .99 for over a month now, in a kind of pricing experiment of my own devising. Sales have ticked upward a bit, but not dramatically. It's definitely worth experimenting with different price points on your Kindle or Nook book, since it's easy and low-risk to do so, and you can see (and interpret) results of price changes pretty quickly. But it's a mistake to think that a .99 pricetag is the shortest distance between you and blockbuster sales.

3. If You Make Your Books Available In As Many Formats And On As Many Sites As Possible, You'll Succeed.
My novels are listed on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Createspace, Scribd, GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, and, covering the spectrum from hard-copy through ebooks and even audiobooks. Yet no one on the NYT Bestseller list is quaking in his boots from fear of me and my novels. Sales of The Indie Author Guide, on the other hand, have benefitted greatly from the book's visibility across multiple bookseller and book review outlets. Its availability through the Writer's Digest Book Club has made a big difference as well.

Yes, it's important to get your work out there and available through as many outlets as are feasible; just don't assume that doing so will guarantee significant sales growth.

4. If You Get A Lot Of Good Amazon Reviews, You'll Succeed.
My indie novel, Adelaide Einstein, has 47 Amazon reviews with an average star rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars. My other indie book, Snow Ball, has 16 Amazon reviews with an average star rating of 4.43. Adelaide has more and better reviews overall, yet it sells at a fraction of the numbers I see for Snow Ball.

When both books were first published in 2008, Adelaide Einstein sold better than Snow Ball. Now it's just the opposite. I can only speculate as to why, but if pressed, I'd say that the chick-lit and hen-lit genres into which Adelaide fits are somewhat played out, whereas the mystery genre to which Snow Ball belongs is less trendy. It could also be that Snow Ball's darker tone of humor is more appealing to readers in these trying economic and social times.

5. If You Do All Of The Above, You'll Succeed.
I'm already doing all of the above, and my novels aren't doing gangbuster business. But that doesn't mean the work and time I've spent on all of the above was (or is) a pointless waste.

Since you've read this far, I'll share a little secret with you. There actually IS a surefire success strategy that works equally well for any book, movie, game or music release. And here it is:

Capture the zeitgeist in your work, then maximize
your work's exposure.

Yep, all you need do is figure out what the majority of the Western world's populace will be interested in at a given point in time, create a work or product that serves that interest, time the release of the work to coincide with when interest in its content will be approaching a peak, and then make sure as many people as possible know the work exists.

It's that first part that's the tricky bit, the whole "right book at the right time" part. Then, for fiction at least, there's the matter of actually caring enough about the work to imbue it with passion and soul. But even if the Fates smile upon you, you actually have the right book at the right time and it's filled to bursting with passion and soul, the second part of the equation is just as important: maximizing exposure. So while none of the supposedly surefire success strategies is any such thing for books in general, couple the right book with the right time and #5 above, and you're well on your way.

Unfortunately, since you can't know if you've captured the zeitgeist until after your book is published and you've maximized its exposure, you're pretty much stuck working every exposure and sales angle you can to find out. And even if your book hasn't exactly captured the zeitgeist, if it's a quality book in a broad-based genre, there's no reason you can't drum up respectable sales and interest through your efforts. But it will be an effort, you will have to pursue every promotional avenue available to you (given your personal time, skill and financial constraints), and there's just no way around that.

If you're looking for shortcuts or get rich quick schemes, you're in the wrong business.

Friday, June 3, 2011

All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

Self-publishing, that is. Or at least, it can seem so. There are the breakthrough success stories at one end of the spectrum, bitter tales of sales disappointment at the other, and between the two, a generous smattering of testimonials from indie authors who aren't earning enough to quit their day jobs yet but are covering the rent or groceries each month with proceeds from their book sales. Suddenly, if you're not releasing a Kindle or Nook edition at the minimum, you feel like you're missing out on a huge opportunity. The pressure to rush to market is great, but you must resist it until both you and your book are truly ready for prime time.

Is Your Platform In Place, Focused and Growing?
Releasing your book before you've made it easy for readers to connect with you online, whether via a blog, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), or an author website, is a big mistake. Readers have come to expect authors to have an online presence of some sort, and not having one paints you and your book as a bit more fly by night.

I'm not saying prospective buyers will check for platform before making a purchase decision, but platform is what spreads the message about you and your work, pulling more and more readers into your fold and making those readers feel you care about their reaction to your work. Building a community around your work makes each subsequent book easier to promote, and creates a cheerleading section that will do a fair amount of promotion for you.

Is Your Book Still In Beta Test, Or Should It Be?
If you just completed your draft a week ago, I don't care who you are or how fantastic a writer you are, it's not ready to be published. Don't scrimp on the workshopping and rounds of critique, and don't let your sense of urgency about publication color your rewrite decisions.

Let's say the majority of your workshop/critique readers agree the second act needs a major overhaul, and a certain character needs to either be significantly expanded or cut entirely. Your heart sinks as you realize you're staring down the barrel of six weeks or more of rewrites, followed by another round of review, which pushes your publication date back by three months or more. It can be very easy to become so focused on your target publication date that you give short shrift to any feedback that could possibly interfere with that date.

Just keep reminding yourself: releasing a book that's not ready will lose sales and fans. And if it's your first book, readers aren't likely to give you a second chance. There's just too much else out there for them to choose from, and at bargain prices.

Have You Succumbed To The "Good Enoughs"?
Your manuscript is all formatted for print or ebook publication, and for the most part, it looks great. There are some inconsistencies in your formatting, like maybe most passages written in the voice of your protagonist's deceased son are italicized as you've intended, but a few have been left in standard type. Maybe most of your paragraphs begin with a .25" indent but non-indented paragraphs are scattered here and there. Maybe most of your line spacing is 1.15, but here and there you've lapsed into 1.5, and it's barely noticeable. Readers don't care about these things, right? Most of the book's formatting is correct and consistent, and that's good enough, right? Wrong.

You know a quality cover will elevate your book above the crowd, but you have no art or typography skills to speak of, don't have the money to pay top dollar for a professional design and don't have the time to search out a freelance artist you can afford. So you get your artsy sister to create a cover image for you, and it may not look like a slick mainstream cover but it's not bad. It doesn't scream "my sister designed this for me," and that's good enough, right? Wrong.

Again, don't let your sense of urgency about publication set an unprofessional tone.

Are You Prepared To Promote?
The book's been workshopped, polished to a high gloss, has a fantastic cover and attractive, consistent formatting, and you've got an author blog, Twitter account and Facebook page set up. Time to publish? Maybe, maybe not.

Are you prepared to invest the necessary time and effort to post to your blog regularly and acknowledge comments left there, to tweet quality messages and links, and respond to Facebook messages and wall posts? A neglected platform can actually be worse than no platform at all if it makes your readers feel snubbed.

Will you be able to do some guest blogging or write some articles to help get the word out about your book? Can you find the time to reach out to book bloggers and other reviewers, and are you prepared to send out free review copies of your book?

Platform maintenance doesn't have to be a fulltime job, and you can calibrate your platform activities to match your available levels of time and energy (e.g., maybe you can do Twitter or Facebook, but not both; maybe a static author web page is best for you because you don't have the time to blog, etc.).

What's important is that you're not going into publication with an expectation that once the book is out there, your job is done and all you need do is wait for the glowing reviews and royalties to start rolling in. Raising and building awareness doesn't happen by accident.

Are You Going To Make The Rest Of Us Look Bad?
Whether for any of the above reasons or something else, if you're not prepared to do a professional job of preparing your book for release and promoting it afterward, don't publish. While indie books and authors are gaining widespread acceptance, every amateurish indie book has the power to create or reinforce an anti-indie bias, and that hurts all of us.