Writers: Are you waiting to be discovered?

Out of curiosity I visited Amazon.com to see how many books were being sold (I chose Amazon because it is the largest sales platform for books online). I scrolled to “Shop by Department” and found the “Books” section. The numbers were mind boggling. As of today August 2nd, there are about 25.5 million paperback books, close to 8.9 million Hardcover and 1.4 million Kindle Editions.

Screenshot from Amazon.com
 As a reader, I was overwhelmed that there are so many books available for sale just on Amazon, and competing for readers’ attention. No wonder most readers get their books through recommendations from family and friends (See Pew Research and graph in blog 1). I started this blog topic because I wanted to talk about:

Issue 1: How some aspiring authors like me are singing exclusively in the shower but hoping to be discovered on American Idol (metaphor if it isn’t obvious);

Issue 2: How some authors are relying solely on sales platforms e.g. Amazon or expecting traditional publishers to provide comprehensive marketing for the public to discover them.  

Self-Publishing Checklist

We love the line from Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Barbosa says “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Where writing and publishing is concerned we prefer guidelines to rules. Guidelines provide flexibility to artistically express yourself. In the spirit of providing guidelines for new and aspiring authors interested in the self-publishing route, here is bookowl’s Self-Publishing Checklist.

Before we get there ye mangy writers, let it be known that there are perils aplenty in here publishing waters! Before you dive into these waters, read How do I get published? to get a sense of what other publishing routes are available. If absolute control over your product including funding your book’s editing, illustration of book cover, marketing and promotion, and figuring out your distribution channels is not too much for you, then by all means, self-publish.

Recently, we've heard the phrase, “self-publishing is easy” thrown around a lot. Not so. Uploading books online or printing a book today is easy. Rather the statement should be that the mechanism for self-publishing is easy. Actually creating a well-edited, professional book and selling many copies of your book is hard work. We've met a number of self-published authors who are not ready when it comes time to creating and selling a well-planned book. We fell into that category when we started this blog process.

We've come to expect “hope and prayer” as the central theme for most new self-published authors, even if they are atheists. Prayers won’t help your self-published book sell once you put it on Amazon. In fact, a more useful prayer would be to ensure that people do not return books on Amazon once they’ve purchased and read it (Note- it does happen).

Let us back up our reasons with some stats. We came across a presentation from the 2014 Digital Book World conference, which included a few startling stats we found from a survey they conducted of over 9,000 authors - of which 88% were fiction writers.
1.   The annual writing income of approximately 76% of surveyed self-published writers was less than $1,000 compared to about 54% of traditionally published authors.
2.   For surveyed traditional writers, approximately 62% did not get any advances, which if you are a self-published author might help you breathe a bit easier.

However, if you are self-publishing to make a living, let's assume you start out with the following budget of $5,000 for a really good copy editor, book cover, formatting, marketing and some physical copies to sell at festivals or give away in promotions. Based on the stat on the annual writing income of $1,000, you are looking at recouping your costs in 5 years.

Still convinced that this is the route for you? Great! Successful self-publishers are doers. Below is a Self-Publishing Checklist we put together to guide our self-publishing journey. We’ll blog about each of the topics. We'll discuss our strategies and how they are working or not for the self-published book our guest writer is currently marketing. Our aim is to fine tune our marketing strategy to see if there are any takeaways that we can share with other self-published authors.

How do I get published?

In my opinion, the decision of which publishing model to choose boils down to two essential things: ‘control’ and ‘who pays’. An appropriate visual would be the graph I've drawn below. Think of any publishing model as falling between these two variables. Basically, I think of control as referring to who owns the rights to the book and with that comes publishing responsibility (couldn't resist riffing off the Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility”). The other variable, ‘who pays,’ is simple - it’s either you and/or someone else. There is a reverse side to the ‘who pays’ coin and it is ‘who benefits.’ The more you pay, the more you control issues such as royalty and profits.

What about literary agents? Where do they belong on this graph? Some workshops I've attended think of literary agents as a subset of traditional publishing and I tend to agree with this categorization. Literary agents are the gatekeepers to some publishers. If you manage to land one, great! If not, don’t sweat it, according to a literary agent I spoke to. Anecdotally, only 5% of North American books published go through literary agents. On the ‘who benefits’ side of the coin, note that literary agents usually get 15% commissions on domestic sales of your book, which will come from your pocket. However, like any expert, they will leverage their connections to ensure your book succeeds, and some may do editing. An agent might be well worth the back-end investment.

Who is interested in reading your book?

Who is my audience? As an aspiring or newly published author you might be asking yourself this, wondering how you can connect with those interested in reading your novel.  Regardless of whether you self-publish or publish traditionally, I believe this is the most important question that an author has in mind when selling a book. I know lots of authors write because they just want to tell the story they had envisioned. However, do you find that after you have written your story, you may be having a problem selling your book?

Assuming you just got the itch and after writing your story were looking to sell your book, how do you identify your audience? From what I know and have heard, writers rely on those closest to them - typically family members, friends and writers groups. That is great support, but is it enough? I’d actually suggest that family and friends are ‘supportive’ and should not be considered as an appropriate audience unless you are writing specifically for them. Writers groups are great at critiquing your books but at the end of the process do you find that a few may buy your book and others are interested in selling you their books?  I’ve had a writer describe this to me succinctly as “a cannibalistic writers-marketing-to-writers situation.” Although you could be selling books worldwide, your audience and understanding of them is limited because you start your book off with a group that does not encompass a spectrum of ages and gender. Have you limited your initial audience such that you are having a problem with discoverability?

Let me say upfront that this blog is not for writers seeking to share their story with only a small circle of friends and family. If your aim is to write for a personal group or your consumption, please don’t change a thing. This blog is for writers seeking to share ideas on how to make their stories stand out and to share their creativity with an erratic world; a world, which is looking for a quick sound bite and is saturated with books, among other forms of entertainment.

Most writers I’ve spoken to have a general idea of who they are writing for.  For those interested in traditional publishing, publishers will want to know who your audience is and their demographics through the book proposal you send to them. In other words, can the book sell and to who? For some self-published authors, I’ve heard that question come up again during the marketing stage. A bit late? Maybe. More importantly, what would prompt any author to seek to understand their audience better during the marketing stage? I’d guess that their books are not selling as expected. If this describes you as a writer, then it sounds like you have not made your work stand out for the public. Your book is buried under an avalanche of other books on Amazon or even in bookstores. At least 3 ‘successful’ authors (success defined as ability to sell books consistently) I’ve met or listened to are good at marketing. This means that they have found ways to make themselves and their book stand out from the crowd.