22 January 2012

What I Learned My First Week of E-Publishing

A week has passed since the official release of my novelette “Farewell to Tyrn” as an e-book. (Purchase it for Kindle here, all other e-readers here.) This is my first venture into the e-publishing world; indeed, my first time self-publishing anything. It was, to put it mildly, a crazy week for me. Crazy out of proportion to reality, because although the sales of “Farewell to Tyrn” have pleased me, it hasn’t emerged as The Next Big Thing or tranmutated me into an overnight sales and marketing guru. Nor did I expect it to. The “crazy” comes from jumping into a new world filled with tools that I’ve either never touched before or only picked up briefly to use for different purposes. Entering into e-publishing is like grabbing a megaphone to give a speech to a massive crowd, when previously you only used a megaphone to shout over the fence at your neighbor to tell him to please turn down the damn TV.

Question: What have I learned from this first week in the e-pubbing universe?

Answer: That I can’t learn anything definite in only a week.

But . . . I can make a few guesses, and a few observations. For anyone else debating releasing an ebook, some of these first-timer experiences may help you out.

Realistic Expectations

You’ve heard the lavish success stories. You’ve heard about Amanda Hocking and John Locke (the e-book seller, not the Enlightenment philosopher). I’ve heard about them, too. (I’ve heard about the Enlightenment philosopher, but he doesn’t otherwise affect this conversation.) And I did not for a moment pretend that kind of success was going to happen to me right from the starting blocks, if ever. Instead I established a modest goal: sell fifty copies of “Farewell to Tyrn” in a month.

A week later, I’m more than three-fifths of the way to that goal. Victory! Aim modestly to keep your spirits high.

Research! Research!

I didn’t leap into e-publishing “Farewell to Tyrn” and hustle it out in a week. I made the choice to go this route in October of last year, and more than three months passed before I was able to post on Facebook the link to its Amazon page, thus making it public for the first time. Between those dates, I devoured as much information available on e-publishing as I could uncover. And that’s a lot of information. ‘Cause Internet and stuff; a wild place where everyone has advice.

The most helpful resources I found are two books by Mark Coker, owner of Smashwords, Smashwords Style Guide and Smashwords Book Marketing Guide; and Stephanie Zia’s How to Publish an Ebook on a Budget. The two Smashwords e-books are free, and I can’t think of a better place to start for any author. Coker explains formatting for Smashwords in detail, but this formatting will help make an effective e-book for Kindle as well. Zia’s book takes off from there, explaining how to take the Smashwords document and turn it into a perfect Kindle document, as well as all the other steps necessary to get a work prepped and ready to go. These two books were all I needed to make “Farewell to Tyrn” ready for battle and get it up on both sites.

However, those books don’t cover the marketing aspects of e-pubbing, which is where the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide comes into play. Formatting “Farewell to Tyrn” was the easiest part of all this; it took time, but it only involved following simple steps. The next e-book I publish will require only half the amount of time I spent on this one. The tricky part was figuring out how to promote the book once it was on sale. Again, I prepared myself before publication with extensive research.

Aside from the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, another work I found useful is How to Really Sell EBooks by John F. Merz. It costs $2.99 on Kindle and is quite short, but Merz packs in the information, wasting no time with anecdotes or bragging. It was just what I needed to start navigating self-promotion: straightforward tactics and tips in condensed, easily accessed form.

Perhaps I don’t need to mention Joe Konrath’s blog, since many writers found their way to e-publishing through him, but here it is anyway. Konrath’s attitudes can chafe with many readers, and I don’t find myself in agreement with all of his positions, but there is so much information on his vast blog that any writer will find some useful tactics to pull from it, plus good coaching to keep your morale high. I like that Konrath doesn’t take a “get-rich-quick” poise, and admits it took him many years to get to his level of success. In this business I don’t need marketing gurus to pitch to me, I need someone who’s fought long and hard to get to success. It isn’t magic, it’s work.

A Great Cover Does Help

“If you’re going to spend any money upfront on your e-book, the cover is where to spend it.” This is a paraphrase of advice I’ve seen on almost every blog about electronic self-publishing. When I decided that “Farewell to Tyrn” was going to go the e-book route, the first action I took was to contact Fred Jordan, the artist who illustrated “An Acolyte of Black Spires” for Writers of the Future Vol. XXVII. I loved the work Fred did for that story, so I wanted his same touch applied to “Farewell to Tyrn.” Fred agreed to it, and produced a stunning work of art to act as the avatar for my story.

Has the cover helped sell copies? I can’t yet quantify something that subjective, but I’ve received comments from viewers on forums and on Facebook who thought it was the best cover they had seen on an e-book. That’s enough to assure me that the cover is doing what it should be doing, and will help keep “Farewell to Tyrn” visible.

How much did the cover cost me? Fred wasn’t inexpensive, nor should he be considering his talents. But in this arena I was fortunate: the cover cost me nothing. Having a supportive family is one of the great gifts a writer can have, because my relatives pooled together to purchase the cover for me as a holiday gift.

But what about the next book? I can’t depend on family charity every single time, and now I’m attached to getting an amazing cover for each new work I publish. This is one of the reasons my mind was a maelstrom during this week. I’ll figure it out somehow.

Amazon’s Sales Ranks Are Addictive

. . . and I must wean myself from them.

The moment that “Farewell to Tyrn” sold its first copy on Amazon, it gained a sales rank number: where it stood among all the “Paid Kindle” books on the site. The number changed each hour, reflecting new sales, and the moment I saw the rank start dropping lower (meaning it was selling better) I turned into a Sales Rank Junkie. In one day, I watched my ranking go from drop almost twenty-thousands ranks. I flipped out, flush with a sense of best-seller success, and researched all the Top 100 lists I might break into, checking on the #100 book on each list to see what its sales rank was. If I could get lower than that, I was golden!

Then my sales ranks started to fluctuate up and down, going on wild swings—and I went casually mad.

I recovered, and once the straitjacket straps were loosened, I took away this lesson: ranks change fast, and so far they do not indicate a pattern. I was wasting too much time watching the movement of my sales ranks as if it were a race at Aqueduct. I’ve eased back to checking only once a day and putting my energy elsewhere.

Tweet Responsibly

I got a Twitter account two years ago, then let it lie fallow. In October, the same day I declared, “As Zeus is my witness, I will publish this story as an ebook!” I finally started to use it. For three months I have cultivated followers and formed relationships with them. I worked to get more quality followers, not the numerous spammers sold on eBay for $5.99 a thousand. I made the effort to connect with people on Twitter and not turn into an infomercial.

It’s paid off: using the website bitly.com to create trackable links for Twitter, I know a good amount of my sales have come from my tweets. The people I’ve befriended and retweeted are generous in retweeting my links. And I keep gathering more quality followers, averaging thirty a day. The best part is that I discovered I enjoy using Twitter and meeting people through it.

Michael R. Hicks has some great advice on Twitter use for authors.

A Forum Post Worked Better Than Expected

A common bit of e-publishing advice: have a presence on forums where people who might want to read your work hang out.

So far, my post about “Farewell to Tyrn” on the Kindle Boards hasn’t seemed to have a great impact on my sales, although I did get a compliment about the cover. But I haven’t interacted much on the rest of the site yet, so I’m not a known commodity over there. Time will tell.

However, a post on another forum ended up benefitting me enormously—through merely one sale. I posted about “Farewell to Tyrn” on the Writers of the Future forums, where I’m known because I am a contest winner and some of the other posters have met me in person. A forum reader—someone I did not know personally—saw my book listed, bought a copy, and then put up a five-star review at Amazon. If that’s the only sale that comes out of posting on the WotF forums, it was worth it. A review like that is a confidence booster, for me and for readers.

E-Publishing Inspires

The best gift I’ve received from this first week in the e-book world has nothing to do with sales, or with marketing experiences. It’s the inspiration it gave me to write more. Within days of releasing “Farewell to Tyrn,” I started planning a new e-book project based on one of my novellas. I sketched out two more novellas to match with it to create a full volume, and immediately began to write the first one.

I didn’t stop dead after publishing an e-book (sales rank checking excepted). I started running ahead with more energy than before.

So it turns out I wasn’t telling the truth when I wrote at the top of this post that I learned nothing definite from this first week. I learned that e-publishing inspires me to get working at the greatest job anybody can ever have: inventing stories to tell to others.