Some Self-Pub Thoughts

So I’m still a small fish in this whole world of self-publishing.  Others can release a story or two and sell thousands of copies.  Me?  I’m a plugger (anyone else grow up in the 80’s and remember those cartoons?).  I just keep going and going, gaining ground little bit by little bit, trying and learning and adjusting as I go.

This month I finally feel like I’m making some progress with the whole deal.  If I’m lucky and the next four days continue apace, I’ll top $500 for the month, which is a helluva lot better than any other month I’ve had with self-pub.  That’s with sales spread across 27 different titles, five pen names, and six “genres”.  (I put genre in quotes, because three of those are different non-fiction niches.)

Now almost half of that money is going to come from one 8,000-word, holiday-themed short story in a genre I don’t normally write that took me a total of six hours to write and publish.  Go figure, right?

Of course, there’s a reason that story sold well.  I wrote to a few trends.  Holiday-themed?  Check.  Popular types of main characters?  Check.  Popular genre?  Check.

There’s something to be said for writing in a hot market or writing a popular type of story.  It has quick and immediate results.  See above for a moderate example.

But it’s not the only way.  I have a set of stories under another pen name that are what I wanted to write.  They don’t follow any trend of any sort, but the titles I have out under that name will make about $100 this month and there’s no reason they can’t continue to do so indefinitely.

Not as exciting and flashy as that other story, but something that once found generates consistent sales.  It isn’t going to die away like the other story when the holiday passes or the trend passes.

That series of stories IS in a popular genre, so that does help tremendously, but I tend to be on the side of not chasing trends over chasing them.  I figure if I can write well and write what I like that I can slowly build to something that’s sustainable indefinitely.

So, what have I done in the past three months that I didn’t do before this that’s let me actually get some sales?

1. Advertise

I haven’t spent a lot on advertising.  Maybe $100 total.  I used one free sight, another paid site that wasn’t worth the money I paid for it, and another $5 option that I’ll probably continue to use heavily.  (I’ve used them seven times now.)

That $5 site?  Let me give away 600 copies of a short story (whereas I normally give away about 100 without any promo boost).  And I’ve already seen sufficient sell-through to pay for the cost of the ad.  Hell, it probably paid for itself in borrows alone.

Even my M.H. Lee stuff has seen some sales thanks to promos and that seems to be the hardest for me to sell, ironically.  (I like to think it’s because of the issues below and not my writing…)

2. Publish Often

Last month I published twelve titles.  This month I published 11.  (I wanted to publish 17, but the holidays kicked my butt and a few stories got out of my control and wanted to be longer than they needed to be so didn’t get finished.)

I had two pen names with weekly releases throughout November and December and they did the best of all of my pen names.

3. Genre Matters

Of course, those two pen names may have also been doing well because they were in popular genres that are known for buying lots of indie work and doing so frequently.

4. Series/Serials Matter

Whatever you want to call them, when you have stories that lead into one another, you will generate more sales.  I have one set of stories with the same characters and one set that follow a similar theme.  Both have readers that read the entire set in the space of a day.  (We’re talking 5K shorts here.)  It’s awesome to wake up and see sales/borrows of all titles under a pen name.

5. I Do Better Writing Shorter Lengths

I put out a novel this month along with the shorts and a non-fiction book that’s mid-length.  As I mentioned, the best seller I have is a short story.  The novel has done well enough (25 sales/borrows) and I probably have it priced higher than it needs to be so it could’ve done better, but I think I have the potential to earn more per hour or per word from writing shorts (as long as I stick to popular genres/subjects).

(Not that I’m giving up on novels.  I’m just content to pursue trade publishing with those for now.)

I can write and publish a short in a day.  That includes cover and editing and everything.  A novel?  Takes me much longer.  As in months.  I can see that the novel sells more organically than my short works or non-fiction, but I’m not sure that justifies (for me) the trade-off in terms of time and focus.

Especially if I can write a short that hits a nerve and takes off.  I get more bites at the apple with short works than I do with novels.

Now, when I put the novel on a countdown deal in January, I may swallow my words.  We’ll see.

6. KU Has Worked For Me

With two exceptions.  I have a non-fiction pen name and almost all of the revenue from that name comes from sales and not borrows even though all the titles for that name are currently in KU.  Also, for M.H. Lee all the revenue under this pen name is from sales not borrows.  So, at least for me, speculative fiction and non-fiction could stay out of KU and I wouldn’t see a difference in income.

But in other genres?  It matters a lot.  And with the novel because I have it priced as high as I do, almost all of my income is from borrows as opposed to sales.

In total, about 75% of my income for the month will be from borrows.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going to put everything in there and keep it there.  The nice thing about not having an established fan base is that no one hates me if I start with Amazon and then cycle out into other venues.

To me that’s a one-direction choice.  Start in AMZN and go wide, but never try to pull everything that’s wide back into AMZN.  I’ve heard too many horror stories about books not getting pulled for weeks or months at a time.

In January I may start going wide.  As long as I’m following step 2 above and publishing often, I’ll still be able to benefit from KU on my new works as my older works find new audiences.  Theoretically.

And, yes, I’m aware the borrow rate may continue to drop.  Pretty sure I predicted that it would drop to 50 cents at some point when it first came out.  (On an AW thread.)  But I figure most of the borrows I’m getting are boosting my visibility and are not in fact lost sales, so I’m still happy to participate and add new titles.

7. Cover, Title, and Blurb Matter

I still suck at all of the above for the most part, but I do agree that they matter.

Part of the reason I think my one short is doing as well as it is is because I did pretty well with the cover and title.

I’ve played around with covers and definitely seen that they have an impact.  Enough for me to pay for covers?  Not generally.  Two of my covers are professionally done, but neither one has paid for itself yet.

The problem with paying for covers is that you still have to have an eye for what works.  If you don’t have an eye for what your genre requires, you can spend a fortune on a cover that’s completely wrong for selling your book to your target readers.

Things I’ve looked at (not in spec fic, ironically) are:

a. Color Schemes – Some genres or categories have very strong color preferences.  Look at the top 20 books and almost all share the same colors.

b. Font Choices – Do they use serif fonts or sans-serif?  What about cursive or some other style?  In what combinations do they use them?

c. Imagery – Do they use people?  If so, men or women?  Or couples?  Faces?  Bodies?  What kind of posture?  If it’s scenic, what types of scenes are included?  If objects, what kind of objects?

And that’s just what I know to look for.  I haven’t even bothered with text placement or kerning or subtitles or any of a number of different subtle changes that signify a successful cover versus an unsuccessful one.

I’m learning and my covers have definitely improved, but until I feel comfortable that I know what to buy, I’m not going to spend the money on professional covers.  That’s just me.

It’s one of many personal choices I’ve made about self-publishing that I know some don’t agree with.

But, here’s the deal: Self-publishing is running my own company.  And I get to run it any way I want to.  It’s possible that the choices I make will doom me to failure and obscurity, but they’re my choices to make.

If I end up with a trade pub deal, then I’ll be part of a business partnership and have to honor the requirements of that partnership.  Until then? My business, my choices.

And, given that rant, my last lesson learned: forums can be valuable but deadly wastes of time and mental energy.  I don’t know if I’m paying more attention this year or if it’s just getting uglier in self-pub land, but I have seen so many negative, ugly, accusatory conversations this year that it seriously makes my blood pressure rise.

I left the corporate world to avoid all the nasty back-stabbing and attacks and snide comments.  And, joy oh joy, they’re still right there to be enjoyed everyday on certain forums.It’d be nice to just completely disconnect, but I don’t think that’s possible.  So, use them as best you can for the good information and try to stay as far above the fray as possible. (Now, if only I could take my own advice…)Anyway.  Hope this helps someone on their own journey.  It’s been a good start to where I plan to be a year from now.  Here’s hoping I get there.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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6 Responses to Some Self-Pub Thoughts

  1. I must be a fellow plugger (I remember that cartoon) because when you mentioned you made $500, I thought, “Wow! This person made $500! I am in awe! I would love to make $500!” But I know what you mean, you’ve done so much work, you’d like to see more coming in. I’ve never self-published, but am growing more interested in that whole world, so I don’t really have any advice to provide, other than maybe hang in there and success will build over time!

    • M. H. Lee says:

      Haha, true. I’m actually very proud of the $500, but then I read authors on kboards who talk about launching a new pen name with no promo and making $10,000 in ten weeks and I feel like I must be doing something wrong. It took me almost a year and a half to get to this point, but I’m hoping I can keep up the momentum. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. tobycauson says:

    Thanks for this, it was very relevant to me since I just released my book, Patience, on the kindle and soon paperback. I think you have had huge achievements and I would love to have that kind of success, as it stands I am just on the basics and refreshing the page to see no change. But we will see, and the true value has already arrived for me in seeing the work published.
    Thanks again!

    • M. H. Lee says:

      Oh, that was me the first year or so…I don’t think I broke double-digits with a single thing I published the first go-round. Congrats on getting your first book out there!!

  3. mamabro says:

    I wish I could write as much as you. Maybe when I’m older and all my kids have grown some.. I find it hard to write for any significant amount of time with 5 kids, ages 8,7,4,3,1 and one more on the way. I have 2 in the worka but they collect dust a lot:( like I said though, maybe in the future when my children don’t depend on me as much…..

    • M. H. Lee says:

      I’m amazed you find any time to write at all. Wow! Fingers crossed you won’t be home schooling so that once the kids are all off at school you can have at least a couple hours a day to write? (Or wait a year or two and put the oldest ones to babysitting the younger ones…)

      I’d say it’s definitely helped to focus on publishing titles right around the 5K mark because I can do that in one sitting whereas a novel takes weeks of consistent effort. Not that writing a standalone satisfying story in 5K words is necessarily easy, but it’s something I can guilt trip myself into doing in a day if I’ve had an unproductive week.

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