After Action Report: Cover Words & Formatting

I had never previously considered all the extra parts that you must necessarily write, edit, and have at hand when you publish a book. And in hind sight this is something any Indie should be ready to deal with, and have a plan to manage.

Blurbs

These are short, one or two sentence, “reviews” that get appended to the story cover and to book descriptions. At release date you could have powered a zero-point singularity generator with the amount I had. It was not something I was considering, and while I knew they existed, it was in the way a Toyota owner knows that there are American made cars out there.

After ConFusion I am interested in gaining a couple of these. My timeline is open, so there is no rush. The idea is to have them in my pocket and ready to use by the time I’ve got a book or two to package together. Sooner is, of course better, so if you’d like to blurbThe Big Red Buckle” let me know and I’ll get it out on Amazon right away.

Cover Description

This is a short description of the story meant to sell the work. It has to catch the eye while not giving away the story. While at ConFusion I was able to get a little feedback on what appears on the kindle book description and the back cover of the paperback.

For Marco Aguilar, just being at the race’s starting line represents the culmination of two years of careful preparation and training. He feels a momentary pang of guilt knowing that his wife Emma has carried their family while his focus has been elsewhere. But he also knows that winning the Grand Martian Traverse is a shared decision, not just his goal.

Petrus Mandel is a novice endurance sport athlete hoping to soar alongside Aguilar to greatness. He suspects Aguilar may have a solution to traversing the gaping expanse between the distant shield volcanoes and must face his fears and follow his curiosity.

Together, these two Martian-born endurance athletes run and soar in the solar system’s greatest race.

Humanity has survived environmental and atmospheric calamity and begun to move out into the stars. Sport still plays a vital role in our day-to-day affairs. The Big Red Buckle recounts an episode of a single-stage endurance race held between two shield volcanoes on a Mars that is slowly being terraformed. Participants must run and soar over 1,500 kilometers while the solar system watches.

I need to cut this down, it is far too long for its mission and I agree it gives up too much of the story, killing the reader’s anticipation. I’ve reconsidered this bit of sales information and plan on replacing it as soon as my first Amazon Kindle Count Down Deal is completed.

Humanity has survived environmental and atmospheric calamity and begun to move out into the stars. Sport still plays a vital role in our day-to-day affairs. The Big Red Buckle recounts an episode of a single-stage endurance race held between two shield volcanoes on a Mars that is slowly being terraformed. Participants must run and soar over 1,500 kilometers while the solar system watches.

For Marco Aguilar, just being at the starting line represents the culmination of two years of careful preparation and training. He aims to win the Grand Martian Traverse, and take home The Big Red Buckle for himself and for native Martians.

Notice that it is essentially the same thing, only less of the same. There is a little bit of setting given, important to the story, and the focus is on the main protagonist, Marco Aguilar.

Paperback Formatting

I have come to realize that I probably need some help with this. For the most part I was able to take care of most of the formatting issues before CreateSpace got the manuscript, but I also know I missed a couple of things (or maybe they were introduced when I uploaded).

I will reiterate my feature plea to 180g. I would pay extra if they would integrate with CreateSpace and convert manuscripts to print format in selected trim size. And I suspect there would be a lot of other Indies that would do the same if we had a one-stop option for conversion. Want a selling point that no one has yet immitated? There you go. If I worked there and noticed this kind of request it would be a top priority for next release. Got that? Top priority!

Conclusion

So, I suspect that these all fall into the “unforeseen nuisance” category, but they are all also important polish that should be there. I know that now, and I’ll move to correct them as soon as possible. There are a number of people I should thank for helping me sort these things out, but in particular J.C. Daniels/Shiloh Walker deserves special mention.

Advertisements

Don’t Be Jealous

The next person who tells me to “just keep writing” is going to get a punch in the nose. Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. Okay, not “maybe,” it is extreme. So don’t worry, I probably won’t punch you if you tell me to keep at what I’m already doing. But here’s the deal, friends. Since setting out on this path last Summer, all official-like, with the intent to make a go of writing as a career, I have written. I have written when I felt sick. I have written when I was tired. I have written, written, written. I have written from odd locations and under unusual circumstances. I have written. And, as a result of all this writing, I’ve got a pile of words. Some of which I have even edited, packaged, and am trying to sell.

Writing (and reading) are what I do. I take care of chores around the house so I can write. I take advantage of opportunities when my son can go play with kids his age in order to write. I move my calendar around, ask for help from friends and relatives, and re-prioritize my finances all so I can write. I’m writing plenty and I will continue to write.

What I’m discovering is that, just like any other small sole proprietorship (save dealing crystal meth), getting this thing off the ground is a lot of hard work and, more importantly, disappointment. And despite constantly stoking the fire of my small business it feels much like I’m blowing on punky, damp wood. I am trying to understand what I am doing wrong, but honestly, this thing sometimes feels a lot like failure.

Being an Indie is Hard, Really Hard

Society has stacked the cards against self-publishing authors. It is possible that you all have way too much to do, too much taking up your time. A friend posted this image on Facebook today and it illustrates at least in part what mean.

As I got closer to getting “The Big Red Buckle” ready for publication I started to think seriously about the many ways I might get the book into the hands of readers. This blog went through an iterative remapping process (still underway), I re-worked my trail running pages into author pages, and started pouring the foundation of my social media presence as an author. I researched different methods of getting my pages to market, considering the pros and cons of a handful of services. I pulled money from savings to finance imprints and editing.

And I guessed that of the 515 friends I have on Facebook I might expect at least 5% of you guys to say “Oh hey, look what Matt did this time. I might try his book just so I have something to tease him about.” So far 2% of you have earned that leverage.

Come on nerds, if a bowl can get 50k likes why can't my book get 100?

Come on nerds, if a bowl can get 50k likes why can’t my book get 100?

But I understand. I get up in the morning and crawl toward the coffee pot, too. I write to you today at the foot of a mountain of laundry — washed, dried, and folded waiting to be carted off and put away — there are so many thing to be done. So I am eternally thankful to the 2% of you who have bothered to put off your favorite re-run episode of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix in order to spend an evening with my book.

But this next part is for those of you who have expressed interest in this path. If you’re not up for the disappointment of staring day after day at sales numbers that never move, don’t envy me. Not even a little bit. If you’re not interested in trying to find out what will hook people in general, let alone your friends and family, by experiencing failure after attempted failure, then this is not the life for you.

Closed Doors

One of the things I’m discovering about indie publishing is that while some doors have been removed there are a lot of closed doors out there still. While the old game of submitting your work to publishers who will only accept something if you’re a “good bet” is a thing of the past, my experience is teaching me that readers may not accept your work. What this means to you as the writer, and the sole risk taker in your own little enterprise, is that the door just got moved. It is still there. The reading public just controls the knob now. And this means that you’re competing with all sorts of entertainments and distractions, head to head, for their attention. The question, “how am I going to get them to open my door?” keeps popping up.

Then there is the traditional publishing segment of the market. This part of the publishing world has its own institutional inertia. While there are cracks in this particular door it still presents a significant barrier to the self-published author.

For instance, North America’s premier genre guild Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America won’t even consider you unless you meet their bar of selling some number of pieces to a select list of traditional publishers.

“To become an Active member of SFWA, applicants must demonstrate either:

  • Three Paid Sales of prose fiction (such as short stories) to Qualifying Professional Markets, with each paid at the rate of 5¢/word or higher (3¢/word before 1/1/2004), for a cumulative total of $250, minimum $50 apiece; or
  • One Paid Sale of a prose fiction book to a Qualifying Professional Market, for which the author has been paid $2000 or more; or
  • One professionally produced full length dramatic script, with credits acceptable to the Membership Committee.”

And, as if often the case, even other authors may exclude indie authors from consideration. As an example, John Scalzi (who I am a big fan of) has been reviewing and promoting other’s fiction via his blog feature “Big Idea“. He only does this if you sell your book traditionally or if you happen to already be a super successful Indie.

“Works must be published by a third party, i.e., not self-published (Amazon Digital Services, Smashwords, et al are distribution platforms, not publishers in the usual sense). This third party publisher must publish more than one author, must have an editorial staff that is not comprised of the author or their immediate family, and have a Web site which includes its current author slate and immediate release schedule.

“In very rare cases self-published work by authors with substantial, successful previous publishing history will be considered.”

In some small way I can understand why SFWA and Scalzi might not want to deal with the zombie hoards of self-published “authors” out there. Quite often I feel that my book, and my voice, are completely drowned out in a sea of other writers all grasping for “brainssssss” of readers. And I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that fire hose of submissions and requests myself. But it’s a door, a closed one, nonetheless, and it makes life out here in the zombie wilds just that much more difficult.

Incidentally, while I’m not eligible to be a SFWA member my work can still be nominated for the Nebula by members in good standing. As a quick aside, if you’re a SFWA member who would like a copy of “The Big Red Buckle” before February 15th, my email is right here.

The Final Issue

Sometimes, what you must necessarily do and say as an Indie feels a whole lot like panhandling. Really, it does. I find myself swallowing my pride very often lately. Begging for reviews. Or just your spare change.

This is an uncomfortable sensation. I deal with it the best way I can, which is often to write more. Usually with a scowl on my face and potentially a chip on my shoulder. But I like to write so eventually the scowl melts away and the chip falls off.

If you have considered writing for a living and you cannot humiliate yourself to close the deal on a $0.99 ebook than this is not the right career path for you. Also, don’t judge me.

Conclusion

Last Wednesday, while I was sitting at a table typing up a storm at the Rec Center, a lady sitting on the couch in the lobby across from me asked a couple of questions. She was being polite and nice, initially all she wanted to know about was the bluetooth keyboard I use with my iPad. It turns out that her Mother, in her eighties if I recall correctly, loves to write and so, as these sorts of conversations go, we ended up chatting about independent publishing.

Since then the topic has been riding me hard. I’ve even been a little grouchy about the current state of my book and ever so reluctant to keep writing more “sports in space” if “no one is ever going to be interested in the topic” (boo hoo for me). Maybe I should focus on teenage vampires or zombie crushing monster truck kids? But for me, that sort of writing would not be very much fun. It is not what I like to read and it is not what I will write (although monster trucks in a zombie story, I mean, why hasn’t this been done?).

I’m about 30% done with “Up Slope“, as of last night, so it is entirely possible that my Fat-Bike, sci-fi, action adventure will be pressed by April. By that measure, I feel like I am an instant success. In a very short period of time I have completely changed how I live my life, and how I write (from technical documentation and project planning to science fiction). It is not a hobby or pastime. And I’m producing a book about every quarter.

Sales, I know, will come with time, and exposure, and with all the help that you guys will lavish on me. If you haven’t already bought my book, maybe some day you will. That is a fairly heartening thought. Something to look forward to.

Promotions to Book Sales

Boosted

Boosted

When I finished the paperback version, wading through hours of copy-editing, I took some friendly advice. Basically, it amounted to the following, “Plug your book, foo!” Nearly a full month after releasing the ebook version I had friends who had not heard my good news.

I researched my options and quickly came to realize that the best  was probably going to be Facebook. So I plugged the book on my blog, it posted to twitter, and thence to my author page on Facebook. This post, like all blog posts, is also forwarded to my GoodReads author page as well as my Amazon Author page (although the amount of page space granted blog posts is pretty slim) and LinkedIn (when their data connection isn’t borked).

Everything except the Facebook promotion was free of charge. But, and here is the important part, it’s really difficult to get any meaningful information about clicks to the Amazon book page from these media outlets. Facebook on the other hand offers this option (although very rudimentary).

Metrics

Total Reach and Paid Reach

I boosted my “Plugging” post twice through Facebook. What I really want to learn is how to turn my very limited budget of promotional dollars into book sales. The five to six-thousand views are likely a distraction. If you did not click through your scroll finger flew past my post in seconds. So toss those numbers out as meaningless.

“Photo clicks” and “page likes” also are meaningless. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m glad you liked my post about my book, but since I want you to buy my book (for the equivalent of a small cup of coffee) these likes just tickle my ego. A very small tickle.

Now what I want to know is how many of you looked at my book. Seventy of you clicked through. Unless something is wrong with Amazon’s reporting, seventy of you clicked through and then went back to browsing inspiring, viral videos of pandas rolling through pudding and snarky pictures that 97% of people won’t ever repost (supposedly because they’re not brave enough). So at roughly $0.97 a click, Facebook advertising does not seem to be what this Indie author needs to get the job done. Had absolutely all of you bought the ebook version of “The Big Red Buckle” I would have broke even, meaning my book sales would have covered the cost of the promotion.

Okay, so at least we know what not to do to make a living as an Indie.


In other news, I have additional experiments planned for the near future. I have ordered twenty copies of the paperback to take along with me to Detroit. Legendary ConFusion will mostly be a place for me to listen and soak up the finer points of how to make ends meet in this business. But I’m hoping to give away the print version of the book as well in the hope that it will get read and passed along as “worth reading.”

Also I’ve printed off fifty cards with QR codes embedded. They should look pretty snazzy when they show up and the best part is that they are a low cost, recyclable way to get the book out there.

Finally, I’m planning on re-pricing the book with a KDP “Countdown Deal” starting on the 17th. For some period of time I’m going to drop the cost by about two thirds. Coupled with the giveaways, and the cards maybe I can generate some sales this way.

This sales game is a little disheartening, at least right now and from this side. In some ways I can see the advantage of going the traditional route, seeking out a publisher, nailing a contract, and getting that advance. Even if it’s a tiny fraction of what you could make with any particular work your publisher’s focus is on distribution and sales so your’s does not need to be.

That said, I’m holding up well. I know that this is the right path for me, at least right now. I’ve been hard at work continuing to write “Up Slope” and “Jojk” (a second short, companion to “Joulupukki“) although my daily word count is down, the result of moving and other monkey wrench activity in our daily lives, I will continue to write, write, and write some more.

Self Publication Mistakes

There exists a very gray space for “indie” authors. Acting as your own advocate, you must find the sweet spot between advertising your book and bothering your potential readers. I have spent a great deal of time recently watching other “indie” authors in a variety of locations to get a better idea of how to find this balance while expanding readership. Here are some observations I’ve made along the way. What works and what crosses over that line.

Misleading Key Word or Hashtag

I learned my lesson about this one a while ago. I wrote a blog post during the hight of my seizure period in which I complained about “A Fucking Wall of Secretaries” in which I complained about running into officious bureaucrats and busybodies that were universally in my way while I struggled to find help, a diagnosis, and even (a hope in vain) a cure. In 2012, it was the single most searched on post of mine, but not because the rest of the world was running into a similar wall of phone-answering boobs. Rather, some of you watch porn and you search on the terms “Fucking” and “Secretaries” … a lot.

I’ve noticed that there are a number of “indies” out there seeking to capitalize on this phenomenon. About once a day I see this one.

The problem with this strategy is that if you happen to attract Anthony Weiner with this bait, he is unlikely to actually bite your hook. You won’t sell any books to someone searching for “#sex” unless you happen to write erotic graphic novels.

One Book Wonder

In a recent industry guide I picked up, “Write, Publish, Repeat“, the authors, Sean and Johnny, spend the better part of a chapter building an illustrative narrative about anyone’s experience going into an old fashioned book store (the kind with walls and shelves). Within the narrative, they describe the several layers of book marketing that happen for someone searching for their next read. You walk through the door and there will be some choices, usually best sellers, sitting on a table right in your path. They are there because someone, the publishers and their authors, want you to see those first.

Maybe there’s nothing there for you, so you wander over to your favorite section. Genre fiction. Along the shelves you’ll notice that there are a few books with their covers out, but most are only spine out. Maybe you’re interested in a particular author so you side-step down the aisle. Maybe you’re looking for the next in a particular saga. However, in this “indie” marketing mistake, none of that matters because you’re actually experiencing a hallucination. The hallucination is an after effect of the book some overzealous author fired from a cannon at your head when you first got out of your car in the parking lot of your favorite Barnes & Noble.

Yep, there are people out there that write. And then, once the writing is done, they try to sell the crap out of that book. They load it up in their social media shot guns, yell “pull” at the top of their lungs, close their eyes, and pull the trigger. Over and over and over again.

And frankly this sort of self-promotion is annoying. Regardless of the quality or price of your book, the only thing it does is turn people off. It is like trying to attract flies with highly concentrated sulfuric acid or win friends by punching strangers square in the mouth.

And of course I see “indie” authors making this mistake on Twitter all the time too. It has gotten to the point that as I scroll my feed I simply blank them out, already knowing what they’re going to say. I know, when you are the only one at the helm of your little writing and publication company, it can be very tempting to imagine that the aggressive sell might work. You know your book is *that* awesome, if everyone would just cough up the equivalent of half a cup of coffee they too could know the wonders of your imagination.

But folks — and I’m reminding myself right here, right now — if you want your reader’s love and affection, you’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to seduce them. You’ve got to romance them in 140 characters or less. You gotta, gotta, gotta show a lil tenderness. Just try, try a little tenderness, yeah yeah yeah.

Indifference

So you have worked hard. You have written your book or your trilogy or whatever. And you have enough in the way of connections and leverage that as soon as your magnum opus hits the shelves, you have already hit several best seller lists and you’re making plans to attend “WorldCon Where Ever” because there will be a little metal rocket waiting for you when you arrive. And hey, good on ya! Because that sort of fairy tale actually happens so infrequently that it is phenomenal if only for its rarity.

But maybe your modicum of success goes to your head. Maybe you never were a very nice or considerate person in the first place. Or perhaps you are too privileged to recognize what a good thing you have. It is a rare thing when authors actively scare away their fans à la Orson Scott Card style. Most of us will just lose our enthusiasts because we simply fail to recognize that they exist.

This marketing failure is best illustrated by its negative. There are a few very notable examples of what I mean. Near the top of that list are folks like Hugh Howey and John Scalzi. These guys both have earned enviable positions within the publishing world. Yet, both of them have a well oiled socialization mechanism that does two things for them.

First, it keeps them human. Your fans really like to know that you do the same things that they do every day. If they’re like me, if they aspire to your level of success within this business, they’ll want to know the details of each little fuck up or struggle. And you can tell them about these things via your blog, or Twitter, or whatever. They’ll listen.

But with guys like this, who annually receive millions of hits on their sites, it is unlikely you’ll ever get a reply email. Yet it still happens. Even these guys at the top of the game will take a moment to listen to their fans, to their followers. And I think, in some way, they gain something from this interaction, although I suppose no one really expects anything from them.

But then there are guys like Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, and Michael Bunker who are all working very hard at their craft, but who have more nominations than awards. These three examples have built a large and flourishing fan base, but routinely find time to reply to their email, hold twitter conversations with strangers, and are quick to provide a word of encouragement or even publicly acknowledge someone else’s work. That my friends is the stuff of greatness.

Incidentally, if I didn’t mention you here, please don’t take it personally. It is New Year’s Eve and I have had a couple glasses of wine, so much of this is simply coming off the top. I know these authors perhaps better than others (because I’m a fan) and so its easy for me to talk up, not only their work, but also their contributions to other writers. This message is for those of you who *DO* acknowledge their readers, keep up the good work.

Finally, if you’re reading this and wondering “Where are all my readers going/gone?” then you may be illustrating the consequences of not taking care of your readers. Think back: have you ignored someone because it just seemed like too much time or effort to respond? Get followed on Twitter, but refuse to follow back? How about your blog? Do you have followers that you refuse to read? They are all little slights, but even well beyond high school ignoring someone who is just trying to, at the very least, be friendly with you is a fine way to create a foe. They wont forget the slight.

Conclusion

Yes, here is the resolution part. Having thought about these things, in apparently great detail, I also resolve to do my best to remember them. The difficult part of this whole thing for me is the business side of this small business. I can write my fingers off day after day, but ultimately that’s just step one. After the editing and copy work, comes the selling of the books and stories. My intention is to build a loyal if small fan base, and write a mountain of stories. I don’t want to cross that line with any of you, straying into the territory of annoying author/self-publisher, but I sure would love to see more of you reading the stories I have to tell.

Yo-ho, Yo-Ho, A Grinder’s Life for Me

Other things getting done

I’ve been reading a lot of opinions lately concerning the self-publishing and big-ink publishing businesses. There is a lot of focus on who is making money, how much money they might be making, and whether or not they are taking money from other parts of the print world. But much of this focus tends towards the extremes — the head and the feet — of these publishing segments.

I’m doing my best right now to aim for the middle, center-of-mass, of the markets I am beginning to inhabit. For a guy that has previously insisted that he has absolutely no desire to sell anything, this realization came as a bit of a shock. I actually find myself thinking about how I want my books to be situated, what I can do as a writer to cater to the tastes of my reading demographic, and what I am and am not willing to endure when it comes to selling anything to anyone.

From the beginning, the idea has always been to write stories and sell them. The stories were getting written before this, but when writing as a hobby, there was a lot less processing and refinement that happened. I certainly did not look for outside editorial input nor did I seek help with illustration or design. All that has been a new experience for me. I imagine that it was slower the for “The Big Red Buckle” than it will be for future projects.

But, from my current perspective as an independent author and publisher, end-to-end each story must still earn. And while I would certainly appreciate a golden egg to land in my lap, I have an ever growing pile of rejection letters essentially telling me that I’m not a good bet, because I have not published in big-ink previously. This pile of rejection is stifling.

Just as it is for most of you, time is a critical ingredient of this new career recipe I’m working on. As a professional author, independent or otherwise, I cannot afford months or even years of waiting for someone to buy a story idea that I’ve invested so much time and money into. There is too much at stake and too little to gain considering how unlikely the traditional publishing route appears.

I found this from Steven Zacharius CEO of Kensington Publishing on the Huff Book Club. In the article he worries that the glut of simple, free, immediate publishing tools available to indie authors might be watering down the market, and dragging down the price of books.

As a publisher, my biggest concern is the clutter of the books being put out by the major publishing houses along with those that are just put up directly by authors. The established publishers have to charge more money because they have paid the author an advance (for bestselling authors, a heck of a lot). Publishers couldn’t possibly afford to sell the book away for $ .99. If this were the business model and publishers were making greatly reduced revenue on the sales of these titles, the publishing industry would go belly-up. There would be no way for the publishing company to recoup their author advances and as a result, these advances would drop substantially. Free or reduced price books is not a viable business model for publishers.

And he is at least partially correct. If their going to amortize their investment costs over a short period of time they are stuck charging a higher rate.  Plus, there are a lot of hobbyists out there writing and publishing and pushing the average price of a book well below what you might expect if you walked into a store thirty years ago. But in my opinion, the business model has already changed.

Many indie authors see the long lists of stories in their genre selling for anything from pocket change to zero. So we do what is necessary to set ourselves apart. And that is not to give our work away. We write more, we write in series, we build compelling worlds, and we develop working, professional,  independent relationships with people who we can count on to keep that steady stream of fiction rolling off the on-demand press.

I forwarded this read a couple of days ago, but its worth mentioning here again because I think it will make sense to many of us and because Bunker hits the nail squarely on the head. Michael Bunker wrote in his post “Lets Hear from the Middle Class“.

I believe that the fastest growing block in all of writerdom is made up of people like me – writers who are making a good living (or on the verge of doing so) with their writing without an agent or a publisher in sight, and without having a single, outlying, breakout megahit in their whole catalog.

Bunker goes on to say something about not minding a megahit or even finding an editor and an agent, but he insists that any of this would have to be on terms that are suitable for him and to his readers. And, at least from this observer’s point of view, that is the direction my career and much of the market is going.

From my current perspective (on the verge of making a good living), the indie publishing route seems like a much better deal for both my readers and myself. Waiting around for a publisher to chose my writing, a la Jack London style, would just be an exercise in misery and rejection. An unnecessary period of personal sacrifice demanded by a 19th century business model with too much institutional inertia to do anything but die.

The submissions I have out now will all likely die on the vine. They’ll come back rejected and that’s too bad. If I waited for someone to take a risk on me, a former engineer branching out into fiction, I might need to wait a very long time. I’m not willing to wait for someone to make that wagger on my work. Rather I’d rather go it alone and pull myself over that threshold all the while giving my readers first crack at what I produce. Ensuring that they have the means and desire to tell me when they like what I’ve done and when they don’t like it at all is a feedback loop traditional ink lacks.

Working at the bleeding edge of this new way of doing things makes me feel a bit like a pirate. The kind that operates in a grey area creating advantage, thriving when it innovates. I know I need to develop better process and improve my reach, but those are growing pains any independent author/business person must necessarily endure. I believe that the Do-It-Yourself ethic is exposing the once great traditional publishers as little more than an up-scale relative of the “vanity houses” that used to pollute the market.