***DISCLAIMER: This is actually a happy post because I’m very happy with where I am right now.***
On March 27, 2011 Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl With Scissors was released into the world with grand fanfare. There were ticker tape parades, breaking news updates and a whole host of community events focused around the novel. People from all walks of life were seen standing in lines to purchase this book, talk shows were all abuzz, and apps were created for the iPhone. There was even talk of a Made-for-TV movie.
When I woke up from that dream, I had sold one copy online. It was exciting. I knew for a fact I was going to see my numbers exponentially rise week by week to unheard of heights. So, week by week I watched the numbers…rise, fall, rise, fall, stay steady, disappear, come back, go around a corner and hide then peek out for a day or two. Months and months later, I still expected that exponential rise in numbers. Word of mouth would be the book’s savior if not my mad marketing skills (or “skillz” as my oldest son would write). It was going to happen.
As it is, Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl With Scissors has not achieved the numbers I dreamed of back in March 2011. In fact, it has so far failed to achieve anything remotely resembling a “success” in terms of sales. So…what did I do wrong? For that matter…did I do anything wrong, or can I call this whole experiment a success as I decide what that is?
Let’s back up a minute. What defines “success?” To you, it’s likely something different than what it is to me. Then again, it may be the same thing. Stephen King is, no doubt, successful. He’s written many things, made much money, and gosh darn it, people like him. Even Glenn Beck is successful, if what you define in terms of success is something akin to being well-known and/or rich but much vilified. The point is, success is not always what the world wants us to believe it is. Is Nicole Polizzi (Snooki…and I can’t believe I just used that name) successful? According to the world, she is…or was. To me, she’s no more successful at being an author than the guy who paints “Kidz With Kanz” on the side of a train in a downtown Los Angeles train yard.
You see, what what I didn’t do when writing/editing/publishing Castles was this: I didn’t define what I would term its success. I didn’t say “a hundred books a month” = success. I didn’t say “fifty five-star reviews” = success. I didn’t say “making it to Oprah’s reading list” = success. What I did was akin to throwing a baby in the ocean and expecting it to swim to Cuba in an hour.*
So what did I do?
Rather than give you another blog post about how to sell your books like a self-publishing genius–and haven’t we all read enough of those?–I thought I’d give you a little view into how not to sell a book. Or, in Pooh terms: How to Fail While Really Trying. In other words, these are all the things I tried, how I tried them, and how they failed.
Step 1: Edit, Edit, Edit. Was Castles edited? Hell, yes. The novel was written over a period of seven years, and during that time so many eyes looked on it the thing has a complex. On the final edit, only two egregious errors were noted out of 50,000 words. That’s, um, 0.004%. Not too bad considering the four errors I noted myself in the last Simon & Schuster novel I read.
You know editing is important. I know it’s important. That’s why Castles was edited to death and then microwaved on high for hours. Is it really spotless? Is any book spotless or did it finally escape the editor’s pen?
Step 2: Make a Pretty Cover. I’m not a graphic designer by profession, but I believe I have an eye for art, design and complimentary colors. If I don’t, my significant other (the wife of wonders) does have a collegiate education in the field of graphic design and marketing. I did a lot of research on how my cover should look and leaned on my wife for guidance. What did similar titles look like? What fonts were used? Was it simple or complex? All of these things factored into the cover currently in existence, to include the psychology behind the white background. Does it capture your eye?
Judging by sales, however, the cover isn’t a selling point.
(My wife is also a counselor, which helps in more ways than you think.)
Step 3: Write a Description that Sells. The description for Castles, much like the novel itself, was written over several years and vetted by many, many people–and I don’t really like those people much. When I hear someone say “that synopsis has me hooked” then I know it’s okay.
Is it perfect? No. Could it be better? Yes. Did Elaine from Seinfeld write it like she did that wonderful catalog copy back in the day? If you answered no to that question, then you’re old enough to have watched the show. Anyway, it’s all subjective, isn’t it? There are books out there I’ve picked up in spite of the description, not because of it. There are also books I’ve picked up because of the description and have been really, really pissed off about.
I guess it’s all a game, isn’t it? You can write a description until your eyes bleed, but it won’t be the same thing the next guy wrote.
Step 4: Solicit Reviews. I admit: I’m not very good at this. In the beginning, I sent out a few requests with the obligatory free copy of the book. I asked a few author friends I knew to read it and give me their feedback. However, my view of reviews is probably different from most self-published authors: why solicit them when the ones that come in out of the blue from total strangers are probably more representative of reality?
The reviews I’ve received for Castles have been wonderful. Very few of them were solicited. That, in itself, makes me happy…but it doesn’t sell books.
Step 5: Solicit Interviews/Guest Blog. Now this is where I really failed. I think I expected people to knock down my door and ask to interview me. Since this didn’t happen, I decided to ask if anyone wanted to interview me for their blog. Now that sounds pretty desperate, doesn’t it? “Hey, you. Stranger. Can you interview me for your blog because no one else wants to talk to me?” Well, the two or three or four interviews I’ve done so far have been more than fun. They’ve been awesome.
Anyway…are interviews the key to getting your name out there? Does writing a blog post on another person’s page (who probably gets as many views as you do) really pave the way to Amanda Hocking fame and fortune? I guess that’s an honest question to ask, but I’m in no position to debate it since I failed miserably at this step. Still, I’m guessing it doesn’t have as much of an impact as the pundits say it does.
Step 6: Buy Advertising/Send out Press Releases. I did this. I bought targeted Facebook and Goodreads ads. I think the only thing these ads did was increase the exposure a fraction of a fraction of a percent. I certainly didn’t see any increase in sales. I didn’t even see an increase in sales of other books, which would have indicated the click-thru netted some attention. Clicks on paid ads were not worth it. Why?
Well, I had to step back and examine my own time on Facebook or Goodreads. Do I even look at ads? Not really, unless I’m trying to find a way to hide a flashy one that’s give me seizures. So, if I don’t do it, why would the rest of the world do it?
What about those Press Releases? You know the ones: they’re a pain to write, they sound fake and they’re eventually sent out to the press in a shotgun approach hoping it nets at least one kill. Did I do this? Not with the shotgun method. I did sent out a few, but they were very targeted to the publication. The net result of my efforts: 0.
Step 7: Schedule Book Signings. People scare me. Actually, if I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d probably be a recluse with long fingernails, yelling at the sidewalk people.
Step 8: Run Contests/Do Giveaways. Since Castles has been out, I’ve given away more books than I’ve sold. This is par for the course, isn’t it? The idea behind contests is this: the winner of a contest is so excited to have won something, they will immediately read your book, like it so much they tell their friends, and then those friends will tell other friends until–BAM!–your book is optioned for a movie staring Brad Pitt.
Guess what? All contests do is create one fan, and that fan may not be a fan after they’ve read your book and thought it was about puppies when it was really about killing puppies. Contests are confidence builders (“I’m a WINNER!”)…but not necessarily for the writer.
Giveaways are totally different. Giveaways (or free promotions) get your work out to the world by the hundreds or thousands. Think of all those people who downloaded your free book from amazon.com? Those 500 people are going to read your work and want more! Then they will buy the rest of your books! Then they will tell their friends! Then those friends will tell their friends! Then…
Did you catch my sarcastic tone? Giveaways do the following: they enhance your sense of potential, give you an idea of what it’s like to see your sales jump through the roof, make you swoon. But think about it: if ten percent of the 1,524 people who downloaded your free book during a promotion actually read it and aren’t of the variety that thinks filling their Kindle with books is cool…and if ten percent of those people like it…and if ten percent of those people tell a friend they read a book and liked it…and if ten percent of those friends actually go out and purchase the book after the giveaway has ended…
…you’ve gained 0.1524 fans. Congrats. I have a few of those.
Step 9: Social Network Like a Pro. See Step 7.
Step 10: Publish So Many Books You Look Like J. A. Konrath on Steroids. I’m not a fast writer. In fact, I’m slow. Castles was written over 7 years. My second novel, Sketches from the Spanish Mustang, took only 2 years. My third novel, A Difficult Mirror was started 22 years ago and finished in 2013.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll take 7 or 30 years to write the next book. In fact, my average for publication (not writing) is probably around a year for a good novel, edited, vetted, polished, done. In contrast, there are authors we’ve all heard of who write a book a month. If you have 10 of those books available, and each one sells a copy a day, you’re selling 10 copies a day or 300 a month. If you have 20 of those books, 600 copies a month. I think you can do the math for 30 books, etc.
Writing, to me, is an art form. It takes time for me to form the words right and get the story on the page the way I want it to look. That said, I pushed Sketches from the Spanish Mustang out over year in increments, like a serialized novel that’s not a serialized novel. The expectation I had was what you’d expect: have more books out and people would buy more.
What do you think this did for the sales numbers on Castles?
Step 11: Passive-aggressively Fill Your Blog Posts. I’m not. So there.
Step 12: Get Lucky. I’m not.
*I have never thrown a baby in the ocean. Just so you know.