Celebrating little successes

If you’re a self-published novelist or published through a small press, there’s a pretty good likelihood you’ve wallowed in a fair amount of self-doubt and self-pity.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

I think most indie authors discover that finding and connecting with potential readers is a more challenging task than writing the book.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of “success” when I first published Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria. I mean, obviously I wanted to sell a million copies and be on the NYT bestseller list for years. But I suspected that wouldn’t happen.

Now, after two years and four published books, I’ve learned that you have to find success where you can. Maybe you even have to redefine what success means. Otherwise, it’s easy to get terribly dispirited.

In June I had a pretty good run of “little successes.”

Toward the end of May I realized I was coming up on a milestone – 1,000 books distributed through Amazon. Around the first of June I achieved that milestone when I distributed my one-thousandth book. That’s not 1,000 sales, and that’s not all the books I’ve sold or given away, but it’s 1,000 books through Amazon (paperbacks and Kindle ebooks) both paid and free. The majority were free, but that’s okay.

Then over the course of the rest of the month, as I periodically checked my sales reports, I realized that I was having a good month. Again, this is scaled because we’re talking about a good month for me, not for Stephen King. But I was consistently selling books through the month of June and – by far – had my best sales month ever.

My month of little successes kicked off at the end of May when I received an email from a reader who contacted me through this blog. He’d read all three of the Jackson Speed novels and was complimentary. He favorably compared them to George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman books (which is high praise in my mind, because Fraser is among my favorites).

Fraser died in 2008, and for his fans it was devastating to know there would be no more Flashman books.

As I’ve noted before, I patterned the character of Jackson Speed after Flashman – a coward and a womanizer. As I’ve written the novels, I’ve felt that Speed has developed more into his own self, but the comparison to Flashman is obvious and will always be there.

Anyway, the email closed with: “Thanks for filling the void, but making it your own.”

That’s enormous praise. I can’t ask for anything more than that. If a Flashman fan thinks I’ve filled the void left by Fraser’s death, that’s as much as I can hope to do.

Still, it scares me to think that fans of the Flashman novels would read a Jackson Speed novel, because truthfully they must be disappointed. I’m not half the writer that George MacDonald Fraser was.

When compared to a lot of other indie authors, I know my sales seem pretty weak and my little successes insignificant (especially after two years of this), but I’m still feeling pretty good about the way June went.

So, I’m filing this under advice for indie authors: Don’t get bogged down in the disappointments. Whether you set small goals (1,000 books distributed) or just celebrate unexpected victories (a reader who enjoyed your book reaching out to let you know), I’m convinced that the people who achieve success as indie writers (or, really, anything) are the ones who persevere through the tough days so that they can enjoy the good days.

Indie authors should give it their Best

I suspect that there is a sense out there among many people that if a book is written by an indie author then it probably means the book wasn’t good enough to get published by a legitimate, traditional publishing house.

Well, let me tell you about James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper.”

Author James Best

Author James Best

A few months ago I decided to purposely try to find some indie authors to read. I feel compelled to support fellow indie authors because we share a struggle.

After searching around a bit, I landed on the Steve Dancy novels by James Best. I clicked on the “Look Inside” button and after perusing the first couple of pages of the first book in the series, I bought all three of the Steve Dancy novels. I couldn’t wait to get into the first book in the series when “the box with the smile on it” showed up at the door.

Seriously, “The Shopkeeper” is what every indie author should hope to be writing. It’s compelling fiction. It’s well written. Nothing about the book suggests that Best is an indie author. Best (who I’ll soon be interviewing for a post on the blog) has published the Steve Dancy series through Wheatmark.

I’ve only seen the print books and not the ebooks, but Best’s print books are professional in design and layout. There are not weird formatting problems that leave the impression the author has never seen the way a book is laid out before.

Also, the books are well edited, avoiding another complaint readers often have of the self-published and indie authors: There aren’t a lot of typos or mistakes that will hang up a reader.

But more important than the layout and design of a book is the content. If it’s a good story, I can get past a widow here or an orphan there.

“The Shopkeeper” is great on content. Best’s characters are well-developed, his plot is unique and engaging. At no time reading his book did it cross my mind that I was reading a book by an indie author. I found myself caught up in the story to the point that when I got to the last few chapters I abandoned all other plans for the day and just read until I finished the novel.

Best’s “The Shopkeeper” is the quality we should all be aspiring to. It’s a good story and it’s well told, and it will disabuse readers of the notion that indie authors aren’t good enough to be published by traditional publishing houses.

Let’s face it, publishing, like any other business, is driven by trends that produce dollars, and not all books – no matter how good they might be – are going to hit the bestseller lists. Publishers aren’t looking for a good book as much as they are looking for a book that will sell.

If you don’t believe me, then explain how it is that the pop star Ke$ha has a book published by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Is this quality literature or is it something that offers Simon & Shuster guaranteed dollars because Ke$ha brings a fan base?

So, as an indie author, I love it that there are books out there like James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper” that dispel the notion that indie fiction can’t be good fiction.

If you enjoy a good Western, do yourself a favor and order “The Shopkeeper.”

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

New indie-authors shouldn’t obsess about marketing

Five months after self-publishing my first book, I’m learning what hundreds of self-published authors before me already know: Writing the book was the easy part.

One of the several reasons I chose to self-publish was that I really didn’t have any interest in sending out hundreds of query letters to publishers and agents and getting back dozens of rejection letters and hundreds of nothing. I didn’t want to go through the effort of trying to market my book to publishers. I just wanted to write.

Honestly, I don’t know if my book is good enough to find its way to the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble through a traditional publisher. I know I wrote a book that I would enjoy reading, and I think it’s pretty good.

So to claim that I “chose to self-publish” might be a bit misleading – the choice was never to publish the traditional route or self-publish; the choice was always to self-publish or put my novel in a desk drawer and forget about it.

As I said, writing the book was the easy part. Selling the book is the hard part. Maybe I didn’t want to have to try to market my book to agents or publishers, but as a self-published author I find I have to try to market my book to readers.

As most or maybe all self-published authors will tell you, very quickly you exhaust the sales you’ll get from your friends on Facebook and Twitter. If you offer your book for free as a Kindle download, you’ll have the joy of watching your book climb steadily among the rankings on Amazon.com, but at that point whatever lingering sales you might have had among your friends are gone.

With tens of thousands of self-published books coming out all the time, trying to find readers and attract those readers is worse than a fulltime job. Literally, for many self-published authors, I suspect it becomes an obsession.

You spend all your time reading blogs. You do internet search after internet search after internet search for “book marketing” or “self-published author marketing” or “how to market a book” or some other such thing.

You visit a thousand websites that claim they will connect authors to readers. You sign up for everything free that they offer and wonder if anyone will ever find your book posted at shvoong.com.

The blogs tell you that you must have reviews on Amazon.com. So you post it on Facebook and Twitter: “If you’ve read my book, please take a second to post a review at amazon.” For each twenty times you post this, one friend writes a review. Even friends who sent you messages and said they liked the book don’t post a review.

So you search for “book review” websites and each time you click a link to one you pray that it’s not “paid book reviews.” And often as not when you find some that claim to be free, you submit your book and wait two months and then get an email that says all their reviewers are backlogged. But don’t be discouraged! For $150 you can try their express two-week service and get a guaranteed book review.

The websites will nickel and dime you to death!

You can buy an ad for your book here for $10, or here for $25, or here for $75. You can be on this website’s front page for a month, or this one’s side rail for two weeks. Some of them are so awful looking that you’re certain the website was designed by a 3-year-old with a Crayon, but you dutifully cough up your $15 and wonder if the ad will produce enough sales to cover the price of the ad.

I’ll give you a hint: It won’t.

And you’re pretty sure, too, that the only traffic coming to any of these websites is other self-published authors just like you who have a book they want to sell, and they’re not looking to buy a book any more than you are. And you’re right.

And finally, you reach a point where you’re ready to scrap your book and figure out how to write YA fiction or something about vampires or (gasp!) erotica, because that stuff seems to be selling like crazy. I’m Rob Peecher, and my erotic novel “Whipped: Jackson Speed and his Slaves” is due out later this year.

Hmmm … actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll note that in my little black book of book ideas.

Here are the things that I think you’ve got to do (and nearly every self-published author has already done them because these are the first steps we all seem to find as we start with our searches):

  1. Start a blog to write about book stuff. Review other books. Invite other authors to guest blog. Host stops on a blog tour. Write about writing. Write about selling books. Whatever – you need a blog so that readers can find you. And fill your blog with links to your book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
  2. Do the Amazon.com author page.
  3. Have a Facebook account that you use to promote your books, along with a fan page. I’m not sold that Twitter or Pinterest are necessary, but if you’ve got the time to devote to that much social networking, then have at it.
  4. Do the whole Goodreads.com thing – author page, author Q&A, giveaways. Of all the websites I’ve tried out, Goodreads.com does seem to actually, in some cases, connect readers to writers.
  5. Book a blog tour, preferably using blogs specific to your genre. If you’ve written Historical Fiction, don’t do a YA or paranormal blog tour.
  6. Find anything free you can do: Author interviews and free book listings. Maximize the opportunities that someone might accidentally find your book, but don’t expect any of this to catapult you to the NY Times bestseller list.

If you’re self publishing, I think these six steps are the bare minimum that you absolutely must be willing to do. However, Numbers 5 and 6 I would do only up to the point that it is not overly burdensome. Judging from what other self-published authors have written and my own experiences, I suspect that your book sales will continue to be disappointing even after you’ve done these things. I would strongly recommend that you do not invest too much time and energy into these things.

I have not paid for any book reviews, so I cannot comment on the value of paying for reviews. It seems seedy to me, and my understanding is that Amazon.com only allows paid book reviews to be posted on its site from Kirkus Indie and Foreword Clarion. Those reviews are expensive, and I can’t afford to put that much money into a hobby. I also understand that Amazon periodically purges other, cheaper paid reviews, so whatever you paid for that review it is now all but worthless.

It seems to me that a lot of the self-published authors are probably people who really love their project and are emotionally invested in it. I can understand how they might easily be lured into advertising on various websites or spending money for reviews. I honestly cannot imagine that this money is well spent.

After months of obsessing and searching the internet for the magic bullet that will help me boost sales of my book, I’ve pretty much decided to give up trying to market my book, at least for a while.

I will continue to do those things among the six “bare minimums,” but I do not think these are things that will skyrocket my book sales. When I have the chance, I’ll do author talks and book signings. But for the present I think my time and money are better spent just simply writing books.

The really successful indie-authors have at least one thing in common: They have written a lot of books. Often, these are authors who have written several books over the years and finally get that one hit. At that point, too, they usually find sales of their earlier books increasing.

“Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria” seems awfully lonely out there by itself, just hanging out at Amazon.com as the only book by Robert Peecher.

In the coming weeks I hope to have the second Jackson Speed novel available. “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” – a novel about Speed’s involvement with Allan Pinkerton in foiling the Baltimore plot to kill Abraham Lincoln prior to his inauguration.

And after that, I plan to publish a collection of my newspaper humor columns “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings.”

I am convinced that indie-authors who self-publish through Createspace and have no connections in the publishing industry are probably deluding themselves if they’ve published one book and hope to see it sitting among the bestsellers.

So my advice to the newly self-published and indie authors (with five months of experience to back it up, don’t ye know) would be to not obsess over sales or marketing. Spend your time writing books. Do the basics, those things that must be done, but don’t waste your time and money pursuing readers who are probably not perusing shvoong.com looking for their next book to read.