Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Self Publishing: The Undiscovered Country

 You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I recently had a novel published.  (If you somehow missed out on this, today is your day to discover If You Can Get It out from Ignatius Press.)  It's been a fascinating experience helping to market the novel, but one of the things that I discovered as I dug into resources for authors promoting their novels is that many of them are written by and for self-published authors.  If you're curious to read on the topic, this site by Nicholas Erik is the most comprehensive by far.  Of course, the trick is that self-published authors can do things which traditionally published authors can't.  For example, they can adjust the price and run promotions.  They can insert a live "subscribe to my newsletter" link into the ebook's backmatter, etc.

Needless to say, there are things which a publisher does for you which represent a clear advantage versus self-publishing.  They pay you an advance on royalties, cover the expenses of cover design, copy-editing, typesetting, etc., and do a certain amount of marketing themselves.  But having just gone through the experience of launching a book while not being a publisher, I'll admit I was curious to try it as a publisher.  

One night, as I was looking at Amazon Sales Rank data and talking about things it would be interesting to be able to do, it clicked with us: We have multiple quality manuscripts sitting around, waiting to be revised and to find their way to readers; we have enough money to professionally package a novel and market it; and we now have spent a good deal of time researching novel marketing.  We could do this.

And so we are.

MrsDarwin's mashup of Hallmark Christmas genre and King Lear, now titled Unstable Felicity, will be coming out this fall for your Christmas reading pleasure.  It has been entirely revised from its original draft version of two years ago, and we'll be bringing it out in ebook, paperback, and professionally narrated audiobook.  

This endeavor, and potential future ones from either one of us, required a name.  Normally an author might create an email newsletter and gather a subscription list simply to promote his or her own writing.  However, since in our case we are both novelists and we believe that our writing shares enough essential characteristics that readers of the one might be interested in the other, we decided to create our own private little imprint.  Meet Oak & Linden Press.  And indeed, if you'd be interested in being kept up to date on these fiction endeavors via you inbox, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter.  We certainly won't spam you.  The newsletter will go out roughly once a month with occasional extra newsletters around novel releases, and it will feature book reviews and personal news as well as occasional tactful encouragement to buy our novels and get everyone else you know to do so as well.

But of course, we're also bloggers to the core.  So we'll also blog the self-publishing process as transparently as possible, including discussing the costs involved our what things worked and failed for us as we go along.  

Part 1: You've Got To Have Money to Make Money

I'll be blunt while hopefully not being jerky: this is not something we could have afforded ten years ago. The world of self publishing on Amazon is such that one could publish a book for next to nothing: make your own cover, be your own copy-editor, etc.  However, to put out a book which is going to look as good and be as well marketed as a professionally published book takes money.  In our case, we decided to plow money that I made form my advance for If You Can Get It into this new venture, along with the money that MrsDarwin makes for singing weddings and funerals and recently reselling some homeschooling supplies.  

When we decided to try this, I started out with a Google spreadsheet where I calculated the costs of putting the novel out, planned prices for different formats, tried to estimate the number of copies of each format we could sell from Nov 1 to Dec 31 and accounted for royalty rates and advertising costs.  

We'll be investing roughly $2,550 into getting this book out.  The breakdown for that is:

Cover Design: $800
Copy-editing: $500
Audiobook Production: ~$1000 (roughly $300 per finished hour, and this is quite a short book at just over three hours)
Book layout software (Vellum -- strongly recommended): $250

Obviously, some of these are choices.  There are places one could probably get a cover done cheaper, but we have a graphic designer we want to work with and really believe in.  Doing an audiobook is perhaps an extra complication (and clearly an extra cost) but we wanted to learn how to market an audiobook in connection with ebook and hard copy, and we had a narrator that we really wanted to work with.  

These expenses represent the sunk cost, money that we need to spend before the book is even available.  But of course, it's not true that "if you build it, they will come".  Any kind of internet sales (as Nicholas Erik notes in the novel marketing site that I linked to above) consists of three basic elements:

1) Drive traffic to a site where you hope to make a sale
2) Convert those visitors into actual sales
3) Calculate whether you made a net profit

Driving traffic usually costs money, though there are ways to drive traffic "organically" which do not necessary cost much.  Converting visitors into customers involves having a product that people still want to buy once they see more details about it and the price that you're charging.  And whether you made a net profit has to do with whether you are successfully charging a price to cover the expense of getting the customers there plus a portion of your original production costs.  

And thence the spreadsheets to try to balance all those factors and make the venture pay.  I'll discuss that business plan in the next installment.


Agnes said...

This looks like an interesting venture! I'm thrilled that there will also be an audiobook as I know it's rather more costly to publish. I look forward to reading/listening! Cheers!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

This is exciting! Self-publishing is something I used to dream about back in the day. I shall watch your future career with interest.

Kelly said...

I'm not sure if you're interested in my experience because it's non-fiction but I thought it would be an interesting comparison. When I self published my book I already had a ready made audience through my blog. Because I'm a regular participant in groups related to the topic, I have a steady flow of traffic to my blog through personal online interactions.

I did not pursue traditional publishing because the number of international adoptions decreases every year so there's not really a market for new books on that topic. In addition, things can change quickly which makes the ability to update material in the book almost instantly very useful.

I had zero start up costs. My husband formatted the book for me. He and my daughter designed the cover. Advertising is entirely word of mouth. I got enough pre-orders that it was a "Hot New Release" in the adoptive parenting section the month it was published and over four years later the ranking is still pretty respectable, but I think that reflects the niche topic rather than overall quantity of books sold.

Paperbacks have always sold better for me which I found surprising because the production cost is relatively high due to the length of the book. It's $15 for paperback versus $5 ebook. I think it's because people want to be able to make notes in the book and pack it for their trip. I make a few cents more on the ebook.

My annual sales have consistently been about 10% of the number of families who adopt from China each year. However, because the number of adoptions has declined steeply each year that means I've gone from over 200 sales the first two years to under 30 this year (which I think of as the Year of Zero Adoptions). I've sold around 640 books total for a profit of around $2200. I'm happy with my decision to not invest any money in publishing it.

Darwin said...


Thanks for sharing those details. That makes a lot of sense to me, for a non-fiction book with a clear specialty market such as that.

I should probably clarify somewhere that the approach I'm laying out here is specific to novels. And whether it works for those... We'll find out.

John Farrell said...

I think you both need to give serious thought to also spending (probably up to $2000 or even more) on a seasoned fiction editor to make sure your every novel actually 'works'. Not a copy editor--who's just going to make sure the manuscript is free of typos and rewrite a sentence here and there. A fiction editor. Someone who's going to take a scalpel to extraneous dialogue, poor transitions, question your plot points where they don't add up, and suggest major revisions of plot/character/theme where needed.