Ten Things We Learned About Self-Publishing

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Like many writers who have been around the block a few times, my backlist was spread across a number of publishers and territories, including the UK, USA, and Canada. In 2013 my Canadian publisher ‘ceased to trade’ and my agent and I took this as an opportunity to pull my backlist rights back to where they belonged – with me. I decided to create ebook editions of four of my backlist novels, Where Does Kissing End?, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Weird Sister, and A Little Stranger, and to time this re-launch of my backlist with the trade publication of my new novel, Landing Gear in the spring 2014. My 2009 novel The Mistress of Nothing remains in print and e-book with traditional publishers across a dozen territories.

I worked on this project with Joanna Ellis of The Literary Platform; to be sure, I would not have been able to get this off the ground without Jo’s help. Despite what you might read elsewhere, self-publishing is not easy. It’s time-consuming and it can be costly. Several months into the process, it became clear that while my new novel, Landing Gear, was coming out with Doubleday, Penguin Random House in Canada and Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster in the USA, it was not going to secure a UK publisher. So we decided to add a UK-only e-book edition of Landing Gear into our publishing programme by buying the e-book file and cover design from Doubleday.

We learned a few things in the process which we thought we would share.

1. Expect to spend more than you are expecting to

I was working with four novels that had already been published, so there were no costs around editing, copy-editing, and proof-reading, all of which can be expensive. If you want to produce ebooks that are a pleasure to read and resemble those that a large publisher would create, attention to detail is key.

2. Update and save, save, SAVE!

Make sure to update your writing documents and files regularly, and store latest/ final versions in more than one place. I had print copies of the four backlist titles, but no digital files for three of them, despite having been written on computers – perhaps not all that surprising given that one of the books, Where Does Kissing End?, was first published twenty-one years ago in 1993. If you’re in the same boat, getting books re-keyed to create digital files will be an additional cost.

3. Go broad…

It’s easy to think that it’s all about Amazon, and don’t get me wrong, Kindle accounts for a significant proportion of sales of my books both in the UK and internationally, but we were pleasantly surprised by the sales through other channels, especially the library sectors in the UK and North America.

Our strategy was simply to not cut off any sales avenue open to us. The ebook retail ecosystem is more diversified in territories outside the UK and, despite what anyone might proclaim, no one really knows how it will shakedown in the next few years.

We did identify and prioritise the retailers who offered the best opportunities for my books. As a Canadian, with Canadian and US deals for my new book, we wanted to harness the interest in my new book in these territories to direct readers to my backlist. Practically this meant prioritising Kobo, a significant player in Canada and supplier of ebooks to Canada’s biggest book retailer Chapters Indigo; iBooks, the second biggest ebook retailer in the US; and Nook, suppliers of ebooks to Barnes and Noble; alongside Amazon.

4 … and go direct where you can

Our advice is to go direct with as many retailers as you can feasibly handle in order to maximise your margins and retain flexibility and control over metadata and pricing. But, as well as that, use a distributor to help with access to retailers and aggregators who don’t deal directly with individual authors, and for platforms where the process is, frankly, finicky.

We used a distributor for iBooks (Apple’s terms and conditions are labyrinthine), Overdrive (who distribute to Waterstones.com and libraries in US, Canada and the UK but don’t deal directly with individual authors) and, as of the end of 2014, subscription services Oyster and Bookmate. In retrospect we should have used them for Google Play too – the publishing process on this platform is far from painless.

Most distributors charge a per title/ per year fee, a cut of sales or some combination of the two. We went with Ebook Partnership who supply a large list of retailers and aggregators and who have been very supportive and helpful. They are also reasonably priced, the only downside being that they charge to change metadata and prices. Retailers Ts & Cs require you to supply the same price to every retailer, so if you change the price of your books with the retailers you supply directly, you have to change them with your distributor, which for us means paying a fee every time we experiment with pricing.

We also went for a direct sales platform on my own website. I decided to do this as it seems to me a logical extension of the idea of having control over my backlist – why not sell the books directly to readers via my website as well as via the retailers? This entailed yet more expense: we used Digital Product Delivery, which is a neat, cost effective solution for selling ebooks online, the main outlay was paying my web developer to integrate the shopping cart into my existing website.

I began to doubt how worthwhile selling direct would be for me soon after it was all set up. Sales from my website have almost entirely been to people I know who were buying directly because they a) knew me and b) wanted me to get a larger cut of the sale price (thank you!). Building and maintaining a network of readers who are loyal enough to buy directly from you is hard and time-consuming work, especially if, like me, your books are very different from one another, and therefore your readers are likely to be too.

If I was already having doubts about selling directly then the new VAT regulations on e-services (which includes online ebook sales) have confirmed them. I won’t go into detail, for that I refer you to Suw Charman-Anderson’s excellent, sweary post, but suffice to say these new regulations place an additional administrative and financial burden on individuals and small businesses selling ebooks. The upshot is I’ve called a hiatus on my short-lived online shop. This isn’t to say it won’t worthwhile for you, just that in retrospect it shoudn’t have been a priority for me, and my advice would be to consider carefully whether you have the time (and patience) to do it justice before you fork out your cash.

5. Play with price

Which brings us to pricing. We took what many indie authors would consider a conservative approach to pricing, with backlist titles at £3.99 for the most part, and the UK ebook edition of my new novel at £5.99. While these prices are high in the current ebook market, I sometimes wince at how low they are when compared to buying print books in bricks and mortar bookshops. But we have remained flexible with pricing, experimenting with lowering the price of different titles at different times. For example we lowered the price of my new novel to coincide with Canada Day and Summer Reading season, and we lowered the price of my gothic novel, Weird Sister to coincide with Hallowe’en.

In my case there has been little evidence to show that lower prices drive an uplift in sales. However many indie writers are also genre writers, publishing Romance, Mystery, Crime and Science Fiction/Fantasy, and price might be more of a draw for readers of those genres. Literary Fiction does not have a great sales record in the world of self-publishing, in fact literary fiction suffers in the online retail environment because the descriptors – keywords and tags – that are used for searching for books online are much more difficult to figure out for literary or general fiction than they are for, say, a ‘teenage vampire love story’.

6. Have a plan, keep active and don’t forget the old levers

We don’t mean stay fit, though that’s a good idea too. For Jo and I, activity seemed to be more effective in driving sales than price: we ran a pre-publication give-away of my new novel on GoodReads, a Hallowe’en give-away of my literary horror novel Where Does Kissing End? on Noisetrade, and a Facebook advertising campaign for Landing Gear – which has a gloriously sunny cover – over the summer, and I wrote blog posts and did interviews and sent newsletters to my email subscribers.

With the UK-only ebook edition of Landing Gear we were lucky enough to get reviews in Stylist and Red as well as a substantial review and podcast interview in the Guardian. We did not attempt to get reviews for the new editions of the backlist; all of the (modest) publicity budget went on Landing Gear, and the effectiveness of established media outlets was borne out with spikes in sales.

On a practical note, we found an activity calendar really helped to keep us focused and tie-in with other relevant events, and to ensure a good spread of activity throughout the year. We created a simple excel grid detailing month, events (e.g. Summer Reading, Black History Month, Hallowe’en, Cybermonday, Christmas etc.), focus title, price drops, promotions and PR.

7. Expect things to change, fast

Don’t become too reliant on any one outlet or tool and try to keep abreast of any major developments (especially the legal ones!). For instance, Vook established a fantastic author portal that enabled authors to draw all their sales data into a single user-friendly dashboard. Due to factors beyond Vook’s control, this dashboard stopped working and was pulled. Retailers change their terms and conditions; for example, we didn’t participate in Amazon’s Kindle Select programme, but if we had, the books would have been added to their subscription programme without our direct consent. Then there were the changes to the VAT regulations on ebook services which came into force in January 2015, which meant we had to rethink direct sales. Keeping abreast of it all can be a challenge, keep a close eye on notifications from the platforms you are using and check the Alliance of Independent Authors and The Bookseller sites regularly, they will cover any major  news affecting independent authors.

8. Get friendly with Excel

As an independent author you have access to more granular sales data in a more timely fashion than do most publishers. This is fantastic as it enables you to identify which of your activity is most effective and do more of it!  However pulling that sales data together so you get a handle on which titles are selling through which platforms in which territories is a laborious affair which involves downloading sales data from individual platforms plus your distributor, if you’re using one. We would strongly recommend setting a regular schedule for downloading and saving your sales data for safekeeping as it becomes unavailable from some platforms after 2-3 months.

9. Print still reigns in some settings

We’d always planned for the backlist editions to be digital-only and haven’t spent any time at all investigating print options. However, with Landing Gear in the UK, it soon became clear that not having a print edition can put you at a disadvantage: mainstream press and many bloggers want reading copies in print, you can’t offer ebooks in a Goodreads give-away and at readings and festivals print copies remain the only way to proceed. We were lucky enough to be able to use US and Canadian hardcover print editions to send out,  if reviews, Good Reads, and readings/ festivals figure prominently in your promotional plan it might be worth exploring the print options available to you. One thing I found useful on my Canadian tour for Landing Gear was having a bookmark that featured my backlist titles which I slipped into print copies of my novel at signings to serve as a reminder to readers once they got home.

When Doubleday brings out their paperback of Landing Gear in 2015, I’ll give them the right to distribute in the UK; I don’t expect this to mean it will be displayed in shops but, at the very least, UK readers will be able to buy the print edition online.

10. And finally… be in it for the long run

While sales have spiked around activity, even during quiet periods the books still sell. Although it will take some time to pay off my investment in the backlist, I feel a good deal of satisfaction in the knowledge that these four backlist titles are available to readers once again, and hopefully for good this time.

You can read about the digital genesis of Kate’s novel, Landing Gear, in this article.

Kate Pullinger is Editorial Director of The Writing Platform and Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University.

She writes for both print and digital platforms. Her most recent novel, Landing Gear (2014), won the Anne  Green Award and her previous novel, The Mistress of Nothing (2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her digital writing projects include Letter to an Unknown SoldierInanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel.  You can find out more about Kate and her work over on her site.

Joanna Ellis is a partner at The Literary Platform and co-founder of The Writing Platform. She has worked in publishing for 16 years and was the marketing director at Faber & Faber prior to joining The Literary Platform.

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