[updated June 2012] What follows here was mostly written in about September 2011 and describes my first 18 months to 2 years of epublishing. I am still quite a random publisher, not keen on marketing and promotion, probably doing a lot of the wrong things. I’ve published four novels in my mystery series now. Getting the fourth one out there has provided quite a boost to overall sales, currently running at around 450 a month on Amazon UK, with smaller numbers on Amazon USA and the Smashwords outlets (Apple, Sony, Barnes and Noble).
Interrupting the series with a romantic suspense novel ‘Murder in the Midi’ was probably a mistake but in my opinion worth a try. I have another potential series in my head that I might allow to escape later, and I’ve been working for some time on a recalcitrant historical novel that will be published under my own name in due course.
The main thing I’ve learned from all this is to keep writing and to keep publishing. Let the readers decide!
[an update from March 2012]
I thought it was time to review my publishing progress over the past few months and bring the story of my ’empire’ up to date.
I am very pleased with sales of my quirky mystery series but even more pleased with the positive feedback I’ve had on them. The first in the series, ‘Crime in the Community’ is still very popular as a free download. During New Year week over 7,000 people downloaded it from amazon.co.uk, and it has been popping in and out of the top 100 free ebooks chart ever since. It had 30 reviews on co.uk the last time I looked. It has also been downloaded from amazon.de, amazon.fr and amazon.es.
In December, January and February I’ve had sales of the second and third in the series that are far beyond my expectations , particularly on amazon.co.uk and on Barnes and Noble and Apple (via Smashwords), with my Apple sales mostly in Canada and Australia. I wouldn’t say my sales were spectacular by many people’s standards, but I am happy with them and I hope they will improve again when I release the fourth in the series, ‘Death at the Happiness Club’.
I actually received a royalty cheque from amazon.co.uk on Hogmanay, which was a nice surprise.
Meanwhile I’ve enrolled my sci-fi novel ‘The Mountain and the Flood’ in the KDP select program, which gives me the chance to choose up to 5 free days every 3 months. Although I consider it my best novel so far, it wasn’t doing all that well, so I am happy to say there were quite a number of downloads when I made it free at New Year, and someone gave it an excellent review.
In the autumn, as well as working on another quirky mystery, I published my romantic suspense novel ‘Murder in the Midi’ which I am still not entirely satisfied with as I’ve thought of an alternative way to develop the second half of the plot. I don’t know when I can fit that into my packed schedule! Still in romantic vein, I contributed a story, ‘A Romantic Quest’, to a collection published by Kindle Users Forum for Valentine’s Day which has been quite successful and a good experience. I like the characters and want to write more about them.
As well as ‘Death at the Happiness Club’ I have another novel sitting on my computer waiting to be finished. This is ‘Song of Vanora’ which started life as ‘A Place of Conflict’ and was then re-entitled ‘Scottish Fantasy’. It’s a historical novel with elements of fantasy. I hope to complete it after ‘Death at the Happiness Club’ is published. I think it deserves to see the light of day: I am impressed with it every time I re-read it!
What next? I would like to write a novel about the characters from ‘A Romantic Quest’, and I think I could fit this into Camp NaNoWriMo in the summer, saving November for another quirky mystery novel. I am also hoping to write another short story for another collection.
One thing I’m very thankful for is that I haven’t yet begun to run out of ideas! The main problem is finding time and what one of my work colleagues calls ‘mental space’ to develop the ones that show promise.
I built my publishing ’empire’ in the following way. Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily recommend that you do the same, or at least not if you want to be recognised as a professional writer. The timescale of the process has been nearly 2 years so far.
Step 1 Good price point for a beginner
I suppose I fell into epublishing sort of by accident. I had been writing for years, on and off, and in a more organised way for the past few years since I started taking part in NaNoWriMo and producing novels every November. One of my NaNoNovels was a sort of cosy mystery/thriller. I wrote a short story late in 2009, using the same characters and entered it in a competition run by Alibi (the cable tv channel which specialised in mystery and crime dramas. I was actually very pleased with the short story and quite cross when it didn’t get to the final. At around the same time, someone on a writer’s website I frequented (authonomy) mentioned Smashwords (www.smashwords.com) as a way of self-publishing ebooks. I discovered you could publish short stories there and either charge people for them or give them away for free. I decided to give this a try with my short story to see how many free downloads I could get. Smashwords doesn’t just sell ebooks on its own site but it distributes them to Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and I think a few other sites including iTunes and Amazon.
I was soon logging on to the site every day to see what my ‘sales’ graph looked like – although I wasn’t actually selling the story. It was quite exciting to see it climb, although I admit it took some time to reach 1,000 downloads (I realised later this figure was only from the basic Smashwords site, and in fact B&N seem to have recorded over 4,000 downloads for this first story and the next one).
After a while there was a favourable review by a reader as well! I had hit the big time.
Step 2 Let’s try a whole novel this time
My cosy mystery/thriller was then more or less ready to go. By now it was the first in a series as I had written a sequel during NaNo 2009. I debated with myself whether to try and sell this one, but decided to make it available for free too.
I uploaded it to Smashwords and was pleased to find people starting to download it before I had even written the blurb!
That reminds me to mention that there is a very well-defined format required for Smashwords, and some people find it difficult to cope with. Basically you shouldn’t have any extraneous tab characters or page breaks. But there’s a guide on the Smashwords site that leads you through the whole thing, including what to put at the start and how to cope with chapter headings.
This one was quicker to get going than the short story had been. After a while I was pleased to see a 5 star review for it on the B&N site, although there were also some terrible reviews! The worst comment was that it was boring, from which I deduced that someone outside the target audience had accidentally got hold of it.
Note: I didn’t do any promotion at all of either of these ebooks – just being available for free seemed to be enough. One of my reviews said the reader would look out for more books by ‘this author’ which was encouraging.
Step 3 Swimming with the big fish
Soon after that I found out more about Kindle Direct Publishing and decided to give it a try. I chose (perhaps this was the wrong decision) to start with my sci-fi novel (NaNo 2006) but because it was published under my real name and the others were all under a pen-name, this caused a bit of confusion with Amazon at a later stage, and I would advise anyone else to stick to one name for their writing if possible. I published it in December 2010. [I had already tried submitting this novel to a few publishers but it met with instant rejection everywhere.] Kindle formatting is also quite specific but in a different way from Smashwords (of course). Again there are guidelines, on the Kindle Direct Publishing website.
I did get some sales, mostly in the UK, of my sci-fi novel, but they more or less fizzled out after the first few months, partly because I had a terribly busy spell at my day job and had to go and give a presentation at a conference in Germany in March 2011, which took a lot of extra preparation work and left no time for any promotional efforts. But I wasn’t down-hearted! I was just happy to have got it ‘out there’. I still sell a copy every now and then.
By that time I had worked out that the best way to get a good readership on Amazon was to publish a series, and fortunately this also fitted in with my strategy on Smashwords, where I was already planning to sell the cosy mystery sequel. I published the second in the cosy mystery series in June 2011 on both Smashwords and Amazon, charging 99 cents. Results on Amazon were reasonable for a new author (not sure what they are for Smashwords and its other channels yet as they haven’t all reported back since about July), but it was when I decided to add the first in the series to Amazon that something odd happened.
Step 4 Riding the cosy wave
I hadn’t wanted to put the first novel in the mystery series up for sale on Amazon, because I was giving it away for free on Smashwords and that didn’t seem to be fair on readers. However, I realised it would be better to have both on Amazon to get the benefits of the ‘series’ effect, so eventually at the start of August I added it to Kindle at a price of 99 cents, the same as the other one. This is the minimum price you can set on Kindle, but now read on.
Within days, Amazon had ‘price-matched’ it and made it available for free but only on amazon.com, not on co.uk. I was absolutely amazed by the number of downloads – about 1,000 a day for the first week. This had a bit of a knock-on effect on the second one in the series, not that I’m getting thousands of sales of it, but it has kept selling at about 1 every 2 days since the start of August, which is quite reasonable by my own standards although might be disappointing to someone with higher expectations. I’ve also had 3 reviews of the first one on amazon.com (two 4 stars and a 2 star) and these have kept the momentum going.
[this paragraph edited October 29th] On amazon.co.uk things have improved vastly during the month of October. After waiting so long, I was thrilled to see my first novel becoming available for free on the site, and this has given a massive boost to both my sales and my confidence. Readers in the UK have generally been much more enthusiastic in their response to the novel and its sequels (I released the third in the series a couple of months ago) than these in the USA. This isn’t surprising as they are in many ways archetypal ‘British’ mysteries.
Step 5 What more can I do?
I don’t think I’ve done nearly enough to promote my writing but here are a few things I have done:
- Set up 3 interconnected blogs which talk about writing as well as other stuff
- Become active on Kindleboards (USA) and Kindle Users Forum (UK) – in many ways a waste of time! But you can learn a lot there from other writers
- Try to contribute to appropriate threads on Amazon discussions – this is fraught with difficulty as some readers don’t like writers! Incredible, isn’t it?
- Give printed copies of some of the novels to friends and work colleagues to read – again fraught with difficulty, especially when you’ve spent years hiding the fact that you write! [printed copies obtained in small numbers via Lulu.com] Great fun to discuss the novels with friends – the sci-fi one is particularly popular.
- Have some tiny cards printed with information/pictures – moo.co.uk – not enough confidence to hand them out yet though…
- Offer to write a guest post on some complete stranger’s blog – scary!
I’ve tried hard not to do these things:
- Annoy people on Twitter by going on and on about my novels
- Ditto on Facebook – have probably carried this too far, ie tried too hard to keep my writing secret!
I would still like to do some of the following:
- Get a real-world audience locally
- Sell printed books, for people without ereaders
- Increase my web ‘presence’ somehow but without having to do any pushy selling.
- WRITE MORE BOOKS! This one is actually the easiest for me – publishing some novels has given me a huge incentive to write more, and at the moment I have one novel in the editing process (thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo in July) and another in the planning stages for this year’s NaNoWrMo in November.