The Thin Grey Line

In my best Blog persona I think I’m going to let out a stream of consciousness post about self-promotion. Who saw that one coming? Ok, probably everyone.

I’ve read a few things on promotion in the last couple of days/weeks/months – it’s a hot topic for indie authors. The thing is, on the one hand it’s virtually impossible (but necessary to try and attract a few readers at least) and on the other it goes against the grain so much with the kind of people drawn to writing that it physically hurts. I’ve never been one for shouting “I’m great, I’m great”. I left a good job because the corporate structure of the place meant that career progress depended on doing just that. I’ve always preferred to do my job, put work out, and let it speak for itself – good or bad. It probably doesn’t help that I’m a big self-doubter, so shy away from committing myself to an opinion about me in case I end up looking stupid.

The thing is, without a publisher, I can’t really do that with my book. Well, to be more accurate, I CAN, but word of mouth has to start with at least one person knowing the damn thing exists. I’ve put up some non-committal promo threads on Amazon and even while doing that I felt like a stereotypical film cliche prostitute from a Vietnam movie “mister – you buy book, you love it long time”.

Yesterday I had one of my ‘great’ ideas. I’d write a funny promo thread. It would be a bit tongue in cheek about the perception some readers have of self-published writers (a perception which in some cases is spot on because there ARE some terrible self published writers). I’m a big champion of all things indie, but there’s no point hiding from the fact that not everyone is great. I just think it’s a shame that, as is human nature, the good ones get swept up in the generalisation. So anyway, I put up this thread titled ‘Promo – Woud anyone like to reed are books?’ and satirised myself by mangling a paragraph from ‘Oblivious’. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, I admit, but it seemed funny to me at the time. I obviously then pointed out on the thread I was joking and put the real text in as well as a pointer to some other good indie books I’ve read. Oh dear, I think it’s fair to say it divided opinion.

Within about 10 minutes I’d been voted down by the equivalent number of thread readers. Which is fine, I don’t have a problem with people expressing their opinion. I’ll admit though, for a moment there, with the No votes stacking up and no other comments, I felt like a stand-up comedian being silently heckled. As the day’s gone on, luckily a few people have seen the funny side of it so I feel slightly less out of step with the world, which is nice 🙂

The most bizzare thing is though, my sales have rocketed today. I know it sounds strange to say that wasn’t my intention, but I kind of thought maybe one person would give it a look and the rest would mildly chuckle or roll their eyes at me and move on. Instead, I think I touched a bit of a nerve. Oh god, not sure I’m happy with putting myself out there like that. The first response to the opening post was me again, kind of half embarrassed and kind of wryly laughing at myself that I’d been voted down 3 times in as many minutes. It wasn’t a sarcastic or challenging remark, it was what I always do in slightly awkward situations – point out the elephant in the room and laugh at it. When that got massively voted down as well it had people vowing to check out the book to get back at the people who didn’t agree with my thread. At this point I had visions of lightning flashes and endless copper tubing and me standing prone in a sudden wind “MY GOD, I’VE CREATED A MONSTER!!!” I like my movie cliches today don’t I?

I think I may stay away from the Kindle forum a bit today. Hopefully the thread will experience a brief existence and a pretty quick demise. I do really appreciate the sales, obviously, and thank you to anyone who decided to give ‘Oblivious’ a go – I hope you like it. I don’t think I’ll be doing any more promo threads for a while though. As happens so often in my life, I’ve spent some moments in the last 12 hours wondering “what the hell was I thinking?” 😀

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No Rhyme or Reason

I was reading a great interview with fellow indie author and all-round nice bloke James Everington about promotion where he indicated that some months he puts a lot into getting the word out about his work and achieves few sales, and other months he puts no effort in and sees sales creep up again. I’m now into the fifth month of trying to identify a sales pattern for my work so I can try and target my efforts, and I’m getting nowhere. It’s an exercise in futility. My sales are chaos theory given form…

For example, for two months straight I outsold in the US by a margin of almost 2:1. Why this was I have no real idea as my work seems very UK centric to me. I did find that there were a few sites in the US that streamed books from Amazon so I can only guess the extra exposure on these helped. Last month, however, US sales almost completely dried up. Why? I haven’t a clue.

Throughout March I sold steadily on Amazon UK – the beginning of the month saw the greatest flurry of activity but I was selling at least one or two copies per day if not more. From about the 20th of the month, this slowed to (even more of) a trickle. Nothing for about 5 days straight at the end of the month and then suddenly a late surge of a further 3 on the 31st. (I advertised that proceeds for all sales were going to Japan for March and if anything that seemed to slow things down, which was a shame as I wanted to donate as much as I could).

When I went to bed last night I had sold 3 books – UK only – in April. When I got up this morning it had doubled. One of them was someone in the US obviously taking pity on me. It’s just bizarre. I’m an analyst by trade so I remain convinced there’s a discernable process and underlying cause to anything. But with this I’m at a complete loss. There are agencies out there who will charge you a nice fee to sort out promotion for you, but I find it hard to believe they’ll be doing much more than pissing in the wind based on the incomprehensibility of the appeal my books seem to have, randomly, at times, and in places unknown.

Life as an Indie Author

I posted up my two books for Kindle in December last year, so I figured three months on I should probably reflect on the experience.

On the one hand, it’s easy to summarise: I’m happy I did it. I’m selling copies, I’m getting some feedback, I’m enjoying participating in forum discussions with other authors, and I’m getting out of the house regularly to a writing group now.

How successful have I been so far? Well, that’s kind of hard to say. Partially because I don’t really know what the benchmarks are and partially because, taking cash to one side, how do you define success in something like this?

Let’s be honest, I’m not achieving the kind of sales Stephen Leather published on his Blog. He made somewhere around £10,000 in ebook sales for January. I probably made around £5 or £6. And I could go into a long explanatory whine about how he’s an established author with an existing fanbase, and that he employed viral marketing techniques to get his work into the top 10 for Kindle where his sales then took off over Christmas – which is all true. But here’s the thing: I was inspired to give it a go more by musicians than I was by other authors. Two of my favourite musicians keep releasing CDs when either their audience has shrunk, or as an alternative to the successful career they were having in big bands. Grant Lee Buffalo was a band I followed in the 90’s, and their lead singer still releases music to a smaller audience now because, well, because he’s a musician and that’s what he does. Jon Frusciante from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – the greatest living guitarist in my opinion – released 6 indie albums in a year with music that didn’t fit the band’s genre and then turned his back on them to follow his own course.

These guys inspired me. They don’t do what they do because there are untold riches and worldwide fame in it. They do it because they enjoy it, it’s what they feel they have to contribute, and they do it on their own terms. So I put up my indie books and am happy to see some steady sales and am proud of what I put out. It’s spurred me on in a way I didn’t think it would.

I read somewhere that a bestseller can be categorised as such when sales hit 35,000. But the same article said there are 500,000 books published a year and less than 2% of them will sell more than 500 copies. So if you hit that magic 500 you’re actually doing ok. From the last two and half months it looks like I may hit that -admittedly in about 12 to 18 months time, but there was no timescale to it. And ok, the article was about paperback books, I’m not sure whether the bar would be set higher on 70p ebooks. But hey, I read it and I’m sticking to it as a target, even if that is just because it seems potentially achievable…

At the moment, I’m setting little targets month on month to see if I’m getting anywhere. Target 1 was to sell more in month 2 than I did in month 1. I achieved that quickly, so I edited it to a target to double the sales of month 1. I exceeded that by 4 sales too. So far so good. Because February was a shorter month I set the target lower, but hit it before the month was out. The next target in line was to sell the equivalent of a book per day. I did that in February too – 28. So now I’m hoping to hit 31 in March to surpass that book a day idea by virtue of it being a longer month, and the next target is to sell more than a book a day (even if it averages out at 1.001 or something). Of course, I’m probably setting myself up for a fall as I’ll be disappointed when it all goes pear shaped in April and my sales evaporate completely. But with the paperback coming out, I might be able to push it in other sales avenues now and hopefully keep building.

It might all seem a bit modest to some, a cottage industry I’m running here, but as they say, every long journey starts with the smallest step. Hopefully I’ll still be in the race at the 24 mile mark, we’ll see. (How about that for a couple of mixed metaphors)…

Promoting your book on Amazon

Now, this is a touchy subject. If anyone has been on the Amazon Forums you’ll have seen the absolute rage that self-promotion of an author’s books generates in some readers. And to be fair, in some cases you can understand why. Someone with a passion for books asks for advice on finding a new author that’s similar to the ones they like and suddenly they get inundated with responses from people saying “read mine, it’s only 99p/£1.50/£5.99”. I’m trying to promote my books and that annoys even me…

I’ve been trying a slightly different approach. First of all, yes, I post on those threads on the Forum that say “promote your work here”, “tell us about your self-published novel” etc. Because these are dedicated threads that other Forum users don’t have to read. How effective they are, I don’t know. They don’t seem very helpful to me. Most people (me included) seem to go on there, post an entry promoting their masterpiece, and then leave without giving the other entries the time they deserve.

What I’m doing breaks down into about 4 different areas:

1. I’ve tagged my books with the names of a couple of other authors who I think are similar in style. This just helps perhaps bring a few readers my way that are likely to enjoy what I’ve written.

2. I’ve made some use of listmania, associating my book again to a list of others that I think are similar in style or content.

3. I’m a Vine reviewer for Amazon anyway, so I’ve been upping my game a little bit with reviewing in the hope that other discerning fans of the same things I like may make their way, via my reviewer profile, to my author’s page.

4. I’ve made a conscious effort to participate in the Forums a little bit more. Not to push my own work, but to talk about the books I like and try to make some valid points about them. There’s a satisfaction in helping other people find work they may also like and in talking about something I love – reading. But also, if I’m being honest, it also helps make me more visible which is no bad thing when you’re trying to promote yourself. I’m determined, however, to maintain my integrity and to participate as a genuine fan of literature, not as a thread hijacker… I do recommend books by other independent writers in Forums if I think they’re good, in the same way I do with established authors, and I’d like to think other people would recommend mine if they enjoyed it.

At the end of the day, it’s all about striking a balance. Obviously I want people to read my book, and I need to find ways of drawing their attention to its existence without ramming it down their throats. The hard sell is just counter productive anyway. But this is the approach I’ve been taking – would be interesting to hear what other people are doing…