Self Pubbed & Electronic

I have had a few friends asking in the last few months whether or not it is worth it to self-pub online, particularly on Kindle. We all want an audience. Have I expanded mine? I’ve been wondering for months how to best to share my experience, one phone call and email at a time? Or should I post something on a blog somewhere? And now that I have a blog with writing a platform, I wondered what I could say that wouldn’t be just spewing my opinion.

I have experience in both realms, yes, but honestly no one has an opinion about publishing that is worth a damn these days. All experiences are individual. All opinions are worthless. So little is replicable. So much is crowd-sourced, whether that be in a united front or by some quickly drying hot-glue of kinship that is barely visible.

Self-publishing though? Since I run with a bit of a literary crowd, me with my fancy MFA and all that, it is a concern to a lot of us. There is no arguing that being published by a traditional publisher gives you some validation. It doesn’t mean you are a great writer or that your book is necessarily worth the attention of the masses, but it does mean that someone other than yourself is willing to back the costs of your work’s production. And it’s hard to get a publisher. Those of us who have trudged down the ego-breaking road of romancing a old-fashioned publishing house get a little irked about everyone going straight for the reward.

All that said, my next novel will probably be published by me and through Kindle. I don’t have an agent and even though I’ve had an agent (big fancy New York style, even) I don’t know that I’ll be able to get another, at least not for the novel I’m talking about. Plus I have a couple of projects I want to work on that I think may lend themselves better to Kindle and Nook.

With this in mind I decided to test the eBook market with a collection of pieces that tied into my memoir LIFT, the idea being to offer it in conjunction with the Red Hen Press release of the memoir on Kindle. I wanted to offer the collection RISE to anyone who had read LIFT for free. I gave away freebies through Smashwords, which is a great platform. For the purposes of this post, however,  we are just going to look at the Amazon numbers.

I promoted RISE pretty heavily on Facebook, Twitter and my blogs. I had an online release party and some giveaways. I only gave away about 50 downloads in those first few months and sold a few on Amazon, then in September I made it free to all. Here are what the numbers looked like:

Month Downloads Cost
Jun-11 9 $0.99
Jul-11 27 $0.99
Aug-11 7 $0.99
Sep-11 1244 Free
Oct-11 95 Free
Nov-11 113 Free
Dec-11 134 Free
Jan-12 117 Free
Feb-12 89 Free
Mar-12 124 Free
TOTAL 1,959

Turns out it’s pretty hard to sell things, even for $.99, but I was really just hoping for readership. And a funny thing happened on the way to readership.

I had never published anything through Kindle and on Smashwords before (which distributes to all the other eBook sellers) so I wanted to do a practice run. I formatted a short story which had been published previously (and the rights reverted back), put my dog on the cover and put it up for $.99. It sold a few copies, which surprised me. I wasn’t really promoting it. And it received a few kind words. So I decided to offer it for free.

(The trick to making an eBook free on Amazon is to click “Tell us about a lower price” and give them the link to where it is free on Smashwords or B&N. They will eventually make it free.)

In August my short story, ONE MORE WINTER became free and the numbers startled me. I mean a difference of 17,000 copies, really, in a very similar time period.

Month Downloads Cost
May-11 6 $0.99
Jun-11 7 $0.99
Jul-11 0 $0.99
Aug-11 14,299 Free
Sep-11 527 Free
Oct-11 567 Free
Nov-11 731 Free
Dec-11 738 Free
Jan-12 1355 Free
Feb-12 856 Free
Mar-12 594 Free
TOTAL 19,680

I thought, “WOW, I should do that again.” And so I followed the same model with another short story and put another animal on the cover in similar color tones.

Month Downloads Cost
Sep-11 4 $0.99
Oct-11 2 $0.99
Nov-11 883 Free
Dec-11 198 Free
Jan-12 264 Free
Feb-12 108 Free
Mar-12 159 Free
Total 1,618

And it did even worse than RISE (which I thought did pretty well until I watched the give-away numbers for ONE MORE WINTER).  “Huh,” I thought. “Was it the description, the story itself, that there wasn’t a dog on the cover? What made ONE MORE WINTER such an appealing download?”  TIGER, TIGER had not been previously published. It was a much darker story. It probably wasn’t wise to post something that an editor hadn’t blessed. All the same, I can’t resist a puzzle and I was dying to figure out the disparity between my first two offerings. So I brushed it off and published it. I just wish it had given me more answers.

Some thoughts to consider:

  • Downloads do not indicate readership. Lots of people download without reading, especially if its free.
  • Downloads are triggered by something other than the story itself (because you can’t read the whole thing before you download it)
  • Most of the reviews on ONE MORE WINTER came AFTER the bulk of the downloads, therefore people were not initially downloading based on peer reviews
  • People who download free selections on Amazon are a much different audience than say, individuals who buy everything that Neil Gaiman writes or subscribe to literary magazines
  • In a similar time-frame, the downloads of ONE MORE WINTER are 905% of RISE and 1,116% of TIGER, TIGER
  • What do I know? I’m just a writer.

So will putting a few of your previously published shorts with the rights reverted back help you build a larger audience? Maybe. I love it when authors whose books I already buy offer little tidbits. I’ve been known to download $.99 eBooks and then buy the next three by the author at normal price. But will it help you? Hell if I know.

All these table to say — no matter how I try, I can’t figure out how this shit works. It just does or it doesn’t and what you should do if want people to read your words — is write. Write more, write better than you did yesterday. Be honest, even in your fiction. (and you don’t have to tell the truth to be honest.) Write for yourself, for that lover or friend who you have never met but you know you could woo with words if you caught her eyes, whispered in her ear. Love the audience you have. You owe it to them.

PS– if you figure out what all this means, please tell me. It will just be our little secret. (Until it’s not.)

PPS — I have no idea how to calculate percentage increases. Thank the gods there’s an online calculator for that.

7 thoughts on “Self Pubbed & Electronic

  1. Well, I’ve been meaning to ask you and another writer friend about this. I’ve been thinking about publishing my little book on my own, rather than doing the eternal beg and wait routine that never seems to come to anything. Just publish it, get it out there, and move on.

    I’m afraid your data were of no use to me whatsoever. (grin)

    But what do I know? I’m just a writer. (bigger grin)

  2. Always happy to muddy up a convoluted subject! (Did I mention: SEND TEQUILA!) 🙂

  3. Hi Rebecca,
    I too have been toying with the same subject and your numbers were interesting, but told me nothing as well! :0) I think its a crap shoot. I have friends who have done what you’ve done and had moderate success. I’m still hoping for the big score, as I have an agent, but I still wonder, hmmm, what if?? I have a few short stories that I thought I’d do the same thing. I guess the good news is you are getting books into a readers hands and hopefully if they downloaded it they will eventually get around to reading it. I know I just got a review for a book I’ve had out for over a year after my publisher ran it for free on Amazon. It was a good one too. :0)

    I don’t know what to think. The industry is changing at a rapid pace and my mind spins trying to keep up with it. It’s still a patience game though.

    I did love what you said about writing because you love to write and improving your craft with each attempt. That’s what keeps me going, but I still want to build that readership.

    Maybe some day, someone will find the secret formula.

    Thanks for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading it.
    Kelly Abell

  4. Oh my, those numbers are fascinating. What *are* those downloaders doing with a free read they wouldn’t pay 99 cents for? It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in ten years. . . .

  5. OK I have your answer. Neat experience you’ve had!

    For me this would be just sort of a way to close a loop. David is not having a lot of luck moving In Season and won’t reprint. I don’t want it to die altogether and am betting that life eternal in the Internet might pay dividends in 2-3 thousand years.

    Thanks for your work!

  6. Matt, you will be the first person I tell when I find a reliable cryogenic service to freeze us until such a time when can be thawed and famous authors…

  7. This was a very insightful and helpful article. Both a little scary, but honest and filled with the reality that you just don’t hear enough of. Thank you so much for sharing this.


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