Self Publishing, Small Press, Traditional - How to decide...

So you've written your first book. What now?

 

If you're like me, I had no idea what to do when I finally finished my first manuscript. I knew self publishing existed, but I really thought it involved owning a physical book press and printer to make the actual books myself. The only other option I knew was traditional publication through a major house.

So what's the third option most people never hear of? Small press. A small press like mine, Hydra Publications, tries to combine the best aspects of traditional publishing with the best aspects of self publishing. Of course, not all small presses are the same, but I can speak from experience about a dozen or more small presses I know and how the business is generally run. Here's what I know from a few short years in the industry and heavy involvement with my own press:

Self Publishing pros and cons: When you do it all yourself, you need to spend a lot of money. Editing can cost anywhere from $250 - $3000, a cover can run from $20 to $1000, formatting will set you back a hundred or more, and that is just to get your work ready for publication. First and foremost, the downside to self publishing for most people is the cost. It can also be time consuming, but pretty much everything in the writing business is. Once you've got everything paid for and your book is ready for sale, you need to do all of your marketing yourself. While that isn't difficult, it could be expensive. Buying tables at conventions, buying all your own marketing material (i.e. bookmarks, posters, banners, cards, artwork, audiobook production, etc.), travel expenses, online advertising, the list goes on and on. For most self published authors, I tell them to have at least a few thousand dollars saved to drop on their expenses in the first year. That should cover all the basics of pre-sale preparedness and cover initial marketing costs. (These costs include the obvious like covers, editing, formatting, etc. and also cover the often-overlooked costs of marketing, first couple hundred paperbacks, a dozen or so tables at conventions, bookmarks, a banner, and other promo items.) The benefits of self publishing? Control, control, control. You make every single decision. For many people, that is the deciding factor hands down. You pick your cover art. You pick your fonts and formatting. You pick your marketing and event schedule. Period. 100% control is given to the author. Again, that takes a lot of time away from writing, but if you want your books to make money like a full time job, they need to be your full time job.

Traditional Publishing pros and cons: With a big publishing house, you don't have the primary benefit of self publishing: control. The house gets your editors, covers, promo material, etc. Furthermore, big houses are notoriously difficult to get into without a nepotistic connection. Even finding an agent can be brutally difficult for many. The pros? Obviously, it comes down to money. You are nearly guaranteed to make more money with this option than any other, especially if you are just starting out and don't have a following. Huge distribution means your books go to all the major retail outlets.

Small Press Publication: With a small press, you get the benefits of control with the benefits of marketing and support like a traditional press. Have your own cover artist or don't want to use the artist employed by your press? No problem. You might have to then pay for it, or at least part of the art, but typically small presses have no problems paying your own artist if they do quality work. The same is true for editing and proofing. If you don't want to use the people already hired by the press, that's fine. You get the control to decide. Again, that might mean out-of-pocket expenses, but many small presses will at least offer to pay your editor the same they normally pay their own. The best advantage of small presses comes in the form of networking and marketing. If you've read my Marketing Series, you know that selling live at conventions is crucial to the indie author's success. Small presses typically buy several tables at conventions and invite their authors to come sell / sign at no expense to the author. Typically, even my food is covered by the press. Plus, you get the community offered by the small press. I've met some of my best friends through my press and we all help each other out every chance we get. Someone finds a promo strategy that works? They tell everyone in the press. Want to bundle your books together to offer a sale? Just ask and the press will facilitate it.

Can a small press get you the distribution of a traditional press? In short, no. But a small press offers one thing that self publishing does not: legitimacy. The average reader (sadly) doesn't respect self published works very much. It can be a detriment at conventions and when trying to get into real stores. Here is a story I've heard pretty often: A self published author gets accepted by B&N. They have to supply 10,000 copies of their book to be sold in stores nationwide. Yay! They spend $15,000 (probably getting a business loan) on book production and mail the books out on their own dime. Guess what? B&N doesn't market for you. If you don't have a BIG following already, your book will rot on their shelves. And since B&N has your books on consignment, they don't pay you until the books sell. So when they don't sell in a year, you have to cover the shipping cost to get all of your books back into your garage. And you are now literally bankrupt. I've met people who have told their similar stories at conventions and literary events, often ending in tears because they lost everything due to B&N's consignment scheme.

So how do you get into bookstores without being traditionally published? Here is where the small press comes in. Small press owners typically go to the store manager personally, pitch the book, and offer to do a book signing / selling event in their store with a few authors, giving the store a cut of each sale. Pretty much every manager is going to take that deal, especially if the books are available through B&N online. Once you set up and sell in the store, offer to sell the remaining stock to B&N at the industry standard 55%, not consignment. Many accept. Obviously, it then comes down to marketing (leaving bookmarks, displays at the cash register, etc.) to actually sell the books from the shelves, but you've already sold them. You transfer the risk to B&N, not yourself. Sadly, approaching stores like B&N with a self published book will usually get you turned down simply due to the stigma. The small press legitimacy gets you in the door. As your book sells and your brand expands, you can approach more and more stores, employ the same method, and before you know it, your books are being ordered by stores in states you've never been to. It grows slowly, but your distribution does grow.

Royalty Breakdown: self publishing offers the best. Period. You don't pay a middle man so no one has their hand in your wallet. Small presses offer the middle ground. You have to pay the press a portion of your royalties, but if you negotiate your contract well  / find a press with a good royalty rate, it turns out very well. Traditional publishing pays very little (I've seen as little as 6 cents per copy sold) but does it on a HUGE scale, often outweighing the small percentage of royalties. 

 

Conclusion: this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of pros and cons. Media rights, translation projects, and all sorts of other things come into play as well. Personally, if you can get accepted by a traditional press, DO IT. But if not, go for a small press. Small presses give you the best combination of both options.

No matter which route you choose, make sure you do your homework first. Know exactly why you are going with your choice. Is the unlimited control offered by self publishing enough to outweigh the initial costs? Is the host of free benefits offered by a small press the deciding factor, even if it means perhaps getting slightly different formatting than you had in mind? Make an educated decision based on your personal goals. My advice should not be taken as definitive. Everything here is simply my opinion after a few years of success in the industry. 


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The Great Myth of Genre

Genre

I've seen tons of online discussions (looking at you, reddit...) pitting genres against each other in terms of sales and profitability.

Consistently, the thing I hear most is this: romance and erotica sell.

Is that true? Can anyone write a romance or erotica story, take a picture of some fit guy's chest for a cover, post it to Amazon, and buy a new Mercedes with their first royalty check? Obviously, the answer to this should be a resounding: NO.

So why do people all over the internet seem to think certain genres are gold mines and others are dusty broom closets full of dead manuscripts?

In bookstores, genre certainly plays a huge part. If 15 of the 100 shelves are full of erotica and romance while only a single shelf in the back holds mystery, guess what? More people will buy romance and erotica. But none of that stuff pertains to the indie author. (If you want to read more about big press numbers in sales, read this awesome article.)

What does genre mean in the indie world?

As an exclusively small-press published author, I live (or die...) in the indie book world. That means attending conventions 30 weekends a year, cold selling my books to people who have never heard my name before, and keeping my travel expenses low by surviving exclusively on Taco Bell. Needless to say, I have a lot of experience in indie books and I know tons of successful and failed indie authors. So here is what I've come to know about genre in the world of indie books: 

Genre means nothing.

Of course, we all have our anecdotes of someone who published in a big genre and saw instant success, and we have anecdotes of the opposite scenario as well. When it comes to selling books as an indie author, finding your audience is everything. If you write paranormal western romance, find conventions geared toward that kind of thing. Yes, they do exist. No, I have not been to one. Yet...

For an unknown indie author without a following (I'm talking less than 10 Twitter followers, no name online whatsoever kind of obscurity) already built up by something else, marketing and quality of product determine success, not genre. Publishing an incredible book is obviously step 1, but marketing that book well and finding an audience are steps 2 - 100. You can write in the most obscure genres out there and if you find your audience, you will sell copies. Similarly, you can write in a very saturated market and have an incredible book go unnoticed. 

When you sit down and finally identify your genre label, you need to then figure out where your audience lives. If you write paranormal western romance, find western conventions. Find blogs about western topics. Go to a UFO convention. Find a reviewer with 15k Twitter minions who loves alien romance stories. Is your main character a cool gunsmith-turned-vigilante-hero type? Try a gunsmith-themed blog for an interview. You can't look for the 6 people who might exist and are in need of your specific book, the handful of people who sit at their desk and Google 'paranormal western romance' every 15 minutes in hopes of finding some incredible new author. You need to look for the thousands of people somewhat interested in your themes and topics and then convince them that your book will fill a deep longing void in their hearts.

Basically, the indie author isn't bound or encouraged by any particular genre. The discussion should not be about genre saturation or genre growth in sales at all. The discussion needs to be on marketing. If you find your audience and have a decent product, genre is irrelevant.


Looking for your next favorite book? Click here.


Marketing, Marketing, Marketing....

This post is primarily addressed to the good people over at www.reddit.com/r/selfpublish. There have always been lots of posts asking for marketing advice and a lot of the advice is either super obvious or terrible. I'm not incredibly successful by any means, but I've made a good bit more than I've put in.

Here it goes...

Step 1: The Really Obvious Stuff

In case you didn't know, you should use social media. You should also have a professional website. If you need a guy to design your website, shoot me an email and I'll hook you up with my web guy. He will get you set up in about a day for $200. Which social media websites should you use? All of them. GoodReads is the most important.  Do some giveaways and start building reviews.

  • GoodReads Pro Tip: at the conclusion of your giveaway, message the winners personally and make sure they like your genre. Do it under the guise of confirming their address. You can weed out the bots and people who actually don't like your genre and just want free crap.

Become active on forums and different writing communities. Join a local author group and make friends. Find the people more successful than you and learn from them. There is a subreddit for every genre - use them! If you write fantasy, hang out and interact on /r/fantasy. After people get to know you, dropping a line or two about your own writing (tastefully...) will be welcomed and respected.

 

Step 2: Printing

If you're really serious about making money in the crazy world of books, you need to spend money first. I highly recommend getting a few thousand (~$100) bookmarks printed at UPrinting that describe your book, have a link to your website, and links to Amazon. If you have multiple series or genres, get multiple bookmarks. Give them out at live events and hand them out everywhere you go. Go to bookstores and ask to leave them by the register or in your genre's section. Drop a stack off at a local coffee shop. Always keep a stack in your car and a few in your wallet to hand out to people you meet who might be interested.

The banner: Having a great banner is critical for live events. A great banner can run up to $400. Honestly, an eye catching banner will not only bring people to your booth at an event, it will sell copies for you.

Here is the basic setup I use at most live events. The banner is behind me and I use 1 or 2 stands to show off my books. I have free bookmarks sitting in front and copies for people to pick up and check out. The table is also covered with the Hydra Publications logo and banner to add further legitimacy. This photo is from a local ComiCon at a small library that drew about 3,000 people. I sold out of books.

Here is the basic setup I use at most live events. The banner is behind me and I use 1 or 2 stands to show off my books. I have free bookmarks sitting in front and copies for people to pick up and check out. The table is also covered with the Hydra Publications logo and banner to add further legitimacy. This photo is from a local ComiCon at a small library that drew about 3,000 people. I sold out of books.

Step 3: Going Live

I've said it before about a thousand times on reddit, live events are the best way to market. Now that you have beautiful bookmarks and a great banner, find every event you can and book a table. If you want to go to a huge event, get other authors to split the table with you and bring down the cost. The table pictured above cost $30 and I made hundreds.

How to sell in person: I've read plenty of posts from other indie authors about how they feel gross selling in person and they can't do it. They don't have the personality for sales. Guess what? The moment you tried to make money from book sales, you became a lifelong salesman. At my first live event, I only sold 3 books. I still blame the frigid weather and outdoors setting for the most part, but I didn't know how to sell. I sat behind my booth and waited for people to come up and ask a direct question. The event drew about 1,000 people and I only sold to 3 of them. Pathetic.

Find people selling books at your own live events and watch them for 10 or 15 minutes to get the feel of how they do it. Observe them make a cold sale to a disinterested passerby. Get a good 30 second pitch down and stick to it. You'll be pulling people in left and right.

  • My actual spiel at live events: stranger walks by and A) if they glance at my banner, ask if they like fantasy or B) ask if they like to read. If they like fantasy, give them a Goblin Wars bookmark and pitch them the book. If they like to read, ask them what genre. I'm in 3 genres, so I can usually grab them from that point. Always end your pitch with a price. Don't make the customer ask for it. Offer them a deal on multiple books, especially if you have 2+ out in the same series.
  • Another great strategy: take pictures (with permission) of cos players at live events and post them to your website in a Convention Recap style blog post. After you take a picture, hand them a bookmark with your address and tell them it will be posted soon. You just sent traffic to your website and every click is a potential sale.

Step 4: What do I write / how much?

The obvious answer is obvious. Write what you love! And never stop. With only 1 book released, physical promotion and live events are tough. People don't take you seriously and you can only market to fans of 1 genre. The truth is, series sell. Standalone novels are outsold by series novels 2 to 1 or better at live events. An article I read once said that you need to spend 90% of your "book time" writing and only 10% marketing. Every time you release a new novel, bump another 10% into marketing. That's a good formula to follow.

  • Don't skimp on a cover and good editing. You'll destroy potential fans if they read your first book and find errors or the cover is crap. The upfront cost might hurt, but you're hopeless without it. If you need a cover artist, I can recommend a few, just shoot me an email. If you need an editor, I know a couple of those too.

Step 5: Online Marketing

Unless you miraculously get accepted to the shrine of holy book sales known only by whispers (aka BookBub), you need to be careful with online advertisers. A few services out there look great, but many of them are expensive scams veiled as instant success. To name a few of the well known scams: Reedsy, BookDaily, NetGalley, etc. Stay away. For a detailed video on how to build ad stacks and make money (including a list of places to use when promoting), check out this post.

  • KDP & Kindle Select - I recommend it. I know a lot of people don't, but I've found the countdown deals to be fantastic.
  • KDP free download days - I sort of recommend it. Only do free days for book 1 of a series that already has book 2 released. You want to gain long term fans. Use those days sparingly.
  • Kindle Unlimited - I recommend it. You still get a cut of the sale price and it encourages people to give it a shot. Plus, there are several websites and subreddits devoted to books on KU and they will advertise you for free. This is especially true for romance / erotica.

Do a blog tour. What's that? Find a blogger (like me) and book reviewers and send them free copies of your eBooks to check out. Ask them to interview you for their blog. Run a giveaway contest on their blog. Ask other authors to be interviewed for your own blog so you can share an audience. Offer to write guest posts on other blogs about anything the owner of the blog wants to read. The more places that have your name and a picture of your book, the better.

Step 6: Mad Profits

Be realistic. Don't set out to self-publish or publish through a small press and quit your day job. Especially in the first year, it won't even pay for itself. Your covers and editor fees will rack up and that mountain of book related debt won't start to erode until you have 2+ novels released. Try to only check your sales rankings once a week and you'll avoid most disappointment. Use your sales rank as a reward: every 10,000 words you write on your work in progress earns another peek into Amazon.com's author central. 

 

 

Feel free to comment and add your own advice. And of course, since this is a post on marketing, check out my books!