June 28, 2013 by James Calbraith
A year ago today, I published on Amazon my first novel, “The Shadow of Black Wings” – book 1 of a planned long-running saga, “The Year of the Dragon“. Since then, I published a few more books – three more books of the series, a short story collection, a fantasy novella, and a bundle of the first four volumes of “The Year…” combined.
For the first three months I haven’t even sold a hundred copies; but eventually the trickle turned into a river. I have now sold 8000 copies of all my books put together; a vast majority on Amazon Kindle, about a hundred so far on Kobo and in paperback. That’s sold – not given away – and not for peanuts, either; my average royalty on these was about $2 per book, pre-tax. You can do the math yourselves.
Now, in terms of commercial results, this isn’t an indie success story people like to read about: not only I’m not the next Hugh Howey, or J.A. Konrath, I’m not even in the same league as the dozens of romance or thriller authors who consistently sell hundreds of their books every week. I am, however, quite satisfied with what I had achieved so far. This is, after all, my first year of publishing; these are my very first books written in English; the genre I write is not a bestseller genre – if you look at the Asian Fantasy lists on Amazon, my books consistently occupy the first places both in free and paid categories: there just doesn’t seem to be that many more readers interested in these kinds of stories. You could say I broke one of the main rules of making money off self-publishing: “choose a popular genre”.
8,000 copies sold is more than enough to pay the proverbial bills; it is an extra income that enabled me to embark on the summer journey around the UK coast that I’ve always wanted to make; it is an extra boost of confidence which enables me to continue writing more books (whenever I have the time :). It is, finally, a lot more than I had ever expected to sell when I started this journey, shortly after settling down in the UK.
If you are a starting self-published writer, you are probably constantly looking for advice on how to sell more books. I don’t know whether, in a world where some authors sell millions, a meagre 8,000 sales can interest anyone, but if it does, then sure, I can tell you how I did it. But only if you promise me to read this post to the end, to find out why it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else did to sell their books.
In the beginning, I tried many things; anything that anyone advised, I did it. I bought books, I read blogs, I studied business cases. Social media. Paid ads. Free ads. Blog posts. Blog tours. Guest posts. Short stories. Wattpad. Figment. Goodreads. Shelfari. You name it – I was there. The one thing I never tried was the physical part of book selling: I never did any signings, never pushed my paperbacks into bookstores. That was something I knew from the start I would not be any good at.
Almost none of it mattered, in the end. In hindsight, if I look back at what I’m certain I did right over the last year, it can be summed in the following 5 points:
- Write a series of good books.
- Prepare professional publishing package (formatting, cover, editing).
- Push the first book out with free and paid promos. Make sure you get what you paid for.
- Keep writing and releasing books, pushing each release forward with a set of promotions.
If I felt like creating some kind of rule out of it, I would call it “The V3 method“. The V3 was a Nazi super-cannon based on the principle of multiple charges: each missile was propelled along the way in the barrel with explosives in set intervals; the result was an artillery piece that could shoot at London from over the Channel.
I could do that; I could probably write a book about it, and try to hawk my “V3 method” as the “Only True Way” to sell books. But that wouldn’t feel right.
Because what I did worked only for me. And I have no way of knowing for certain whether it would work for anyone else, or indeed whether it will continue to work for me; this is, after all, a very quickly changing business. My books may stop selling at any moment, and I will remain just as clueless as I was a year ago.
Things work differently for different people. For some, using Facebook or Twitter will be a path to success. For a chosen few, it will be a place like Wattpad or Figment where they may find their audience. Many authors swear by Goodreads. Personally, neither of these did anything for me, and I count my time spent there as an author and publisher as very much wasted. I guess I just don’t have the right kind of personality. But that doesn’t mean I would go around dismissing any of these channels of publicity; obviously it works for some. And conversely, my way of doing things may not suit others. Perhaps not everyone feels comfortable with releasing a book every few months, or with scouring the internet for the best places to buy advertising from.
There is lately much talk of survivor’s bias in self-publishing, and I couldn’t agree with this assessment more. As with every new, emerging business, the tales of true success are still few and far between. The statistical sample is far too little to make any assumptions. Nobody knows for certain what works, and what doesn’t. I had offered you my opinion of what worked for my sales – but I could be wrong; it may have been something completely different that I did at some point, and now don’t even remember. Or – very likely – it may have been pure chance. In fact, pure chance may still account for all the success stories out there, including all the great ones; we may try to use hindsight to figure out what went right or wrong, but the truth is, we just don’t know.
So while it may sound depressing and underwhelming for somebody who’s looking for a quick way to win in life’s lottery, there is a positive lesson to learn here: do whatever you feel like doing. Stick to what you do best; if something just doesn’t seem to be working out for you, don’t push it. It may never work out, and you’ll only be wasting time. But, if your book is out, and you’re prepared to spend some time and effort to present it to the world in a professional manner – I’m pretty confident it will start selling in the end.
And when it does, I’m pretty sure deep down you’ll be as clueless as to how it happened as we all are.