Monday, March 30, 2015

Camping with a Purpose This Year

So many of us just go through the day fulfilling our own wants and needs. And when we don't get those things, the world can turn pretty dark. That's when it becomes a great time to help someone else and support things that work to give to others.

I'm doing something a little different for Camp NaNoWriMo this year. I've created a sponsor donation page to help support the cause because NaNoWriMo and the camps in April and July have been a lifesaver to me. Without these yearly events, I may never get as much writing done as I would like to. Goals are important, and these events help me meet and surpass my writing goals, even if I think I can't write another word.

I have a relatively small fundraising goal of $500, but I know that even this much can help with getting the opportunity for stories and creativity into the hands of children and adults that can do amazing things. This fundraising will also keep me on track by encouraging me to reach or exceed my goal of 25,000 words for this session of camp. This partial novel will end up being part 2 of my trilogy, which can only bring me closer to getting all three parts completed.

I whine too much about my own shortcomings and what I think I want out of life. So, it's time for me to put all of that focus onto something good for someone else for a change. If you can contribute, please do. If you can't right now, please spread the word or just drop by the page to leave a message of encouragement. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Publishing Year One: Hindsight

**Note to readers: I rewrote this post five or six times. Half of those posts had a positive spin, half went into the other direction. My attitudes about writing and publishing fluctuate on a daily basis. While this post may not be the most positive, know that I do still have moments of unfettered hope about the future of publishing my work. Ask me again tomorrow and the outlook may not be as bright.

Regrets—I have a few. 

It’s a big deal to publish a book no matter how you go about it. But the biggest lessons from it all are the things you have learned while you were standing right in the middle of all that planning and stress and hope. 

There were many things I could have done differently, starting with choosing a completely different form of writing to publish. Haiku is great, but half the world scoffs saying it’s easy, others say that it’s so challenging each one is a masterpiece in simplicity. I’m definitely walking the middle road on that topic, but creating a book of free verse poems or a novel would have probably provided a better vehicle for sales. 

That being said, the book is what it is. I could have tried different ways to advertise the book. I could have given out more free copies to avid readers. I could have made sure that paperback version and the ebook version came out on the same day. I could have just thrown money at the problem with paid advertising and paid book reviews (which I would never recommend). I could have simply waited and waited and waited until maybe someday, finally a real publisher or agent saw some talent in my work. But I didn’t wait around. I self-published because it the best way I knew how to get it out there at the time. 

A Career Changer?

The big question I know that I had at the beginning of this process was whether this would significantly change my career in any way. I’m very open about what I write, how I go about it and the struggles I have trying to make it my life’s work. But even I have to admit when I send a short story or some poetry to literary journals, Unfolding Life is never mentioned in the cover letter or the short bio. Self-publishing still has a stigma because the quality is unregulated. I will tell you this—after spending the past seven or eight years reading A LOT self-published work, the ratio of good-to-bad is about the same as traditionally published books. That’s because it is all about the reader’s perception and how they emotionally connect or disconnect with each story. Yes, formatting and grammatical nightmares are much more common in the self-publishing space, but even a great story can overcome all of that (think of your favorite trilogies-now-blockbuster-movies set). 

Lessons Learned

Learning throughout this process did give me one thing that I don’t regret—it made me happy to know what to expect for any potential future projects. Will I continue to self-publish? Maybe. I would still love to have a traditional contract with a major publisher, but I also know that the contract negotiations would be fierce—I’m no fool when it comes to royalties on ebooks. 

Will I continue to write? Come on. That’s like asking me whether I will continue to breathe. 

My motivation for writing will never change—it entertains me and I can’t think of anything else I would rather spend my time doing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I actually spend enough time writing—it takes a lot to cut through the demands of trying to make a living (not always succeeding at it) and trying to convince everyone around me I’m not at their beck and call just because my office is located where I live. Then when there is a time to write, I feel so guilty that I’m doing something people consider unimportant the anxiety starts to block out all of those ideas that seemed to be good in my head, but once on the paper seem like a whole lot of nothing. 

My motivation for publishing will need to change if I ever want to enjoy the process again. I can’t think about it as just doing this project to get to the next project. Right now I’m still in the mindset that if Unfolding Life had made more money, I could have hired an editor for my novel In Another Life. And if that project sold enough copies, it would give me the money to hire an artist for my comic book project. With the profits from that comic book project, I would be able to finally find a way to shoot some of the short films I’ve written. It’s a vicious cycle, but I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable. It’s not like I thought about making a full-time living from a single book. I’m certainly not that na├»ve. I just wanted to reinvest the profits in future projects which may or may not have led to the one perfect project that finally provided the means to write full-time.  

The self-publishing world will absolutely crush me if I dwell on getting paid what I think my work is worth. Yes, I do believe that writers are more than entitled to make a living from writing alone. And by alone I mean no parent, sibling, spouse, sugar daddy, trust fund, anyone or anything else providing additional financial support. This background support is often hidden by both beginning and well-established writers. Very few actually talk about struggling, which leads me and their audience to believe that they don’t. But they won’t tell you that—they’ll lose their starving artist street cred. 

Most consumers (and *ahem* those who hire freelance writers for their businesses) do not believe that writing can or should be a full-time job, and they certainly don’t want to pay a writer what they are worth. I can’t say I blame them. I am that consumer. The ONLY ebook I have ever purchased is my own to fulfill giveaways and review copies. I have hundreds of books on my Kindle and my Kobo that I downloaded for free. I haven’t bought a physical book in the past three years—I’ve been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to write reviews in exchange for free books, so I am that consumer. Unless the book seems like it will absolutely change my life, I’m a little reluctant to pay for it. I don’t have the resources to make as many book purchases as I want, and there’s your full circle—if I made more money writing, I could buy more books. 

So I get it. I get why this project was not what I would consider a success. 

I’m smarter for going through the process, but I’m also realistic. Whether any future writing will ever see the light of day is a serious question I’m still struggling with. I know that hard work is the key, but when you feel like you have given it more than your all and it still brings no results, you have to keep asking yourself whether it is worth all the time, effort, stress and guilt for not spending time trying to be better at making money instead of keeping focus on being creative.

Previous drafts of this post were a lot more positive, but that attitude made it feel like I was lying to myself and to everyone else. I'm disappointed in the sales numbers. I’m frustrated that even though I know a whole lot more about online marketing than most first-time writers going into this, I still couldn’t get the project in front of the right audience. I’m angry that it feels like there’s some secret to success that I just haven’t figured out. 

Right now, I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t want to spend the next six months working hard on another writing project only to have the same outcome. The future of my career as a professional writer in any capacity is uncertain, and it’s not a feeling I like carrying around each day. It’s decision time and I still don’t know where I’m going. I know that wherever it is I have to move forward in some direction, with or without writing projects in my hand. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Publishing Year One: The Dimming Spark

Now it’s time to get to the deep, painful truth about publishing. You’re not special. I’m not special. So if you think that you can get thousands of sales on Day One with your first published work, you have an overactive imagination. Or you forced your church group/college dorm-mates/professional organization to buy copies. Then maybe you can attain that goal. 

I didn’t expect more than ten or fifteen sales on the launch day of Unfolding Life. Heck, I wasn’t even expecting much more than that in the first week. I did, however, expect to see a steady one or two sales a week throughout the year. Didn’t quite work out that way. I did have a one-year sales goal and I’m so far off from it that I’m simply too embarrassed to give you the number. But we can totally talk in percentages to help me save face. 

The truth is that 22% of my yearly sales happened in the first five days after the book launch. And of the 22%, I bought 6% of the books sold (promotional giveaways). Unfortunately, after the first week of sales, they slacked off. Oh… who are we kidding? They stopped altogether. I kept up my promotional efforts, but I just couldn’t close the deal. 

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Give it Away

So I decided to utilize the tools provided to me by Kindle Select. About a month after publishing, I created a free day to get some book sales, even if they didn’t make any money. For most authors, this tactic is used to boost after-promotion sales. This is the day where I sold the bulk of my yearly sales. The upside of this is that for at least a few hours, my book was listed as the #1 selling book in the haiku category. Three days later, the book slid back into ranking obscurity. 

The downside, aside from the lack of money coming in, was that I used this promotion to boost the number of ever-important book reviews. When I give books away for free, whether through a promotion like this or individually to reviewers, I don’t expect to get 100% of the reviews. I really only aim for a 20% review rate. At this point in the process, I still only have about an 8% review rate—and I’m really lucky to have that. 

Tsk, Tsk Amazon

Although I would rather forget about it, we have to talk about Amazon’s horrible return policy when it comes to ebooks. Amazon has the nerve to let someone return an ebook for a full refund up to seven days after purchase. Um, what? No, Amazon! My book is only 60 pages long cover to cover and the fact that anyone can buy it, consume it, then say they didn’t like and get their money back is just plain stupid. Restaurants may have to do that when you hate your food, but something like a book shouldn’t be given that much time to say, “Oh, nevermind.” Anyone heard of buyer’s remorse? You bought a book you didn’t like. Just suck it up and move on! I have a closet full of terrible books that I purchased. I don’t whine to get my money back. 

This whole thing may make me a little angry, but in reality self-published authors deal with this all the time. My only post-promotion sale ended up being a return. Not only that, it was a return from the person who decided to leave the less-than-stellar review. Now, I think you should be kind enough to choose one or the other. You didn’t like the book? Fine. Either take the $2.99 hit and leave a bad review, or return the book and keep your mouth shut. It’s just plain mean to do both, especially since your review is one of the factors contributing to lack of sales from then on. (*Note: I was a good little author and didn’t engage in a spat over a negative review, especially since it was well written and made valid points. But I did do my research on the reviewer. This person was both a chronic returner AND hated everything they ever read. So there.)

Summer Slump

Then summer came and went. I distracted myself with other projects and didn’t promote Unfolding Life very much. After the free day and the return, I didn’t sell another book all summer. I was a little disappointed because I knew it meant I would never meet my yearly sales goal, even if a miracle occurred. And let’s not waste a good miracle on book sales when I’m still single. ;-)

The only thing I could do was to keep getting the word out. Around Christmas, the opportunity to include the book (as a $0.99 countdown deal) in the Read Tuesday catalog seemed like the perfect way to get holiday sales. I did the countdown deal for the maximum time allowed.  

Not. One. Sale. 

At this point, I was not surprised. Not one bit. Unfolding Life had unfolded, and it lived a very short life.

Absent Stacks of Paperbacks

The one aspect of this process I still haven’t mentioned is the paperback version of the book. I was first confused about KDP Select’s exclusivity rules and thought I couldn’t publish another version for 90 days (turns out it only pertains to ebook versions with other retailers). So I did create a paperback version and put it up for sale on Createspace and through Amazon. I didn’t promote it as hard as the ebook version, and because I didn’t want to have a bunch of copies coming to my door where my family would find out I published something, I didn’t buy any copies to give out or create a Goodreads giveaway with. Yes, they know I’m a writer—but there’s no need for them to read anything I write! I have issues, I know. I still haven’t sold a single paperback copy. Not even to myself.

(*Note: Since originally writing this post at the beginning of March, I have made paperback sales--a nice surprise!)

This was certainly an eye-opener. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about those pesky things I should have done, but didn’t.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Publishing Year One: Marketing Mayhem

Once you write a book, you have to take off your writer hat and put on your business hat. This is true of any creative profession. It’s not enough to just write, revise and edit. It’s not enough to put the paint to canvas. You must go and sell yourself to get anything that resembles success.

Like I’ve said before, I wanted to create this project without spending money—at least not a lot of it. There are so many free options for advertising out there that I knew I could find success without having a marketing budget. I was confident in that. But what I didn’t expect was for free advertising options to have a little bit of class and some standards for what they advertise.

Advertising Options

The main options I looked at were the free/bargain priced ebook newsletters I subscribed to. Most of them had the option to submit your book for free and they would choose whether they wanted to promote it or not. Fair enough. The problem with these newsletters is that they wanted to make sure they were providing quality products to their subscribers (nothing wrong with that). Most of these advertising outlets have a review minimum that you have to meet before they will consider your book. Usually it is 5-10 reviews with a four- or five-star rating on Amazon, or a combination of Amazon and Goodreads. To this day I still don’t have 5 reviews on Amazon and Goodreads combined (considering some reviews are cross posted). And you have to throw out the one less-than-stellar review the book received because it didn’t reach the 4-star minimum.

So this advertising option was out. I then decided to check out my own newsletter option. But there is a big problem with starting your own newsletter. If you go through a service like MailChimp, you are required to provide a physical address that appears on each newsletter. I didn’t want to give out where I lived and I didn’t want to rent a P.O. box where I lived (because, as we all well know, I still don’t want to live here). So I had to toss that option too. 

Social media is free, it’s great and you can utilize it in a hundred different ways. So that ended up being one of my main ways of advertising Unfolding Life. Conversion numbers are really hard to get from this, so I’m not sure how well it actually worked, but I did get new followers who happen to enjoy haiku. Whether they bought the book or not is another story…

Goodreads: Offerings to the Book Gods

The last advertising avenue I put effort into was Goodreads. After all, that’s where I first discovered some of the better self-published authors, and they were doing great on the site. I already had a large number of friends/connections on Goodreads, so I took a personal approach and sent site messages out about my launch day ebook giveaway. Surprisingly, a number of people wrote back telling me good luck… but they were also telling me that they don’t read ebooks, so they didn’t enter the giveaway. 

That’s when I put into place Goodreads Advertising Phase Two: hitting up the groups. I belong to at least a dozen groups, many of which allow shameless self-promotion, providing you post the message in the right category. I went through all of these, posting messages and trying to connect with others. I got a few bites, some people telling me it wasn’t the worst they had ever read after checking out Amazon’s preview (uh, thanks?) and others telling me they would definitely put it on their reading list. I offered a number of free review copies, and some readers surprised me by saying they preferred to buy it so they could support indie authors. But let’s be honest—if their reading lists are half as long as mine, I’ll be waiting a few more years for those reviews to come in. 

Without spending any money (other than on the copy for the giveaway), I managed to get a few people interested in what I had to offer. Would money have changed that? With a niche like haiku, I’m not so sure anything would have changed. Except I would be slightly poorer than I am right now. 

Tomorrow, we’ll take on the hard numbers.