October 11, 2011

Clawing my way to the middle, or Lessons in Independent Publishing

Just six short years ago my writing career was going gangbusters. I’d been publishing contemporary romances since 1998. In 2005 I broke into my first love, women’s fiction, and for the next three years I did a book per year in each genre.

The first bomb dropped in 2007, when my romance publisher dropped me. They gave no reason, other than they were currently drafting a letter to me (it came just eight short months later, so I'm glad I didn't hold my breath on that one). I continued with my women’s fiction, had a hit in 2008 with a novel about four friends from childhood and the challenges they faced as they faced their 50th birthdays (Once Upon A Project), but by 2010 things were looking pretty bleak. My numbers were down. I found myself wondering if I would still have a contract after my present one was fulfilled. But I kept writing.

After getting yet another rejection for a marriage of convenience story I really liked, I decided to publish it myself, in print and in eBook form. It did well enough where I proceeded to get my rights back to my other romance novels (a process that took quite a while to complete, since the more recent books were not yet eligible for rights reversion) with the plan to re-publish them myself.

A few months after the publication of my well-received mainstream novel Trouble Down The Road in 2010, the other shoe dropped. Despite submitting a proposal that my editor loved, she was not able to convince management to offer me another contract. I was on my own.

Since then it’s been a whirlwind of learning. A few things I’ve noted as I’ve clawed my way to the middle of the indie publishing world:

  • The immeasurable value of a good cover, good cover copy, and good content. I know, you’ve heard this one before. There are still a lot of people who are skimping, but it’s got to be the trifecta, folks. Focusing on the content but not the outer appearance can result in being ignored by readers. Face it, it’s human nature to be drawn to the pretty and reject the ugly. (In other words, people tend to be shallow.) On the other hand, focusing on the outer appearance with an unedited, poorly formatted content is the equivalent of that guy from high school who played basketball all afternoon and then put on clean clothes and went to the party without showering first. (In other words, it’s going to stink.)
  • Experienced New York-based freelance editors can be very expensive. When it looked like my usual editor might not have the time to devote to a 95K manuscript, I asked a freelance editor for a quote. The number was less than what I’d put down on a new car, but not much less. Most writers cannot afford this. Try English majors at the local college, or English teachers. And be prepared to work harder. If you’re not using an experienced editor experienced with plot development, you’ll have to make sure that your story flows well and that the plotting makes sense. It's not enough for a book to have few or no typos or other errors, all that will be for naught if the plot is convuluted. It's true that the Big 6 have also skimped on their editing lately as well (I’ve read books by bestselling authors that I suspect were simply spell checked and then sent to press; the decline in the writing quality was that obvious), but that’s no excuse. Just like Presidential wannabees always get in trouble when they compare themselves to JFK or Reagan, it won’t behoove the lesser selling writer to compare themselves to huge names. These folks will likely continue selling big, even with declining quality. On the other hand, readers are not loyal to authors new to them, so put out a quality product and make them want to read everything you publish.
    Fortunately, cover designers are more affordable, particularly if you are doing an eBook. I personally don't feel that a cover designer should charge as much for an eBook, which is a front cover only, as they do for a print book that needs a back cover and a spine. You might have the talents to do this yourself, but be honest about any shortcomings between your cover and that of a professional. Remember: Homemade brownies are good; homemade book covers not so much.
    Most writers can manage to create good cover copy, but do edit and improve upon it frequently before you publish (of course, eBooks don’t actually have back covers, but you’ll need this to promote the book). You also might want to avoid anything that starts with: "Eva Mae Smith had it all..." because that's been done so often. Likewise, formatting can also be learned by the author, if not mastered, and because of that I’d recommend going into the Preview screen at each individual retailer and checking the formatting thoroughly for anything that's out of whack. If it proves to be too much, there are services out there who offer eBook formatting.
  • Cross-marketing can help sales. If one of your critique partners is ePublishing, or if you know an indie published author, ask if they would consider swapping excerpts; you will include an excerpt of their work at the end of your eBook if they will include an excerpt of yours. Obviously, this works best if you write in fairly similar styles (not just genres, which can be broad). You wouldn’t want to include a sexy romance sample with a sweet, not-much-sex romance, or pair Christian fiction with a violence- and profanity-ridden crime story.
  • Once you have enough eBooks, consider publishing bundles at a price cheaper than it would be if purchased separately. Once people start reviewing your books, new readers might decide to take the plunge and buy the bundle. This is especially effective for books with related plotlines, for instance, a previously published rights-reverted novel paired with brand a new indie published sequel, but is not a requirement. You’re in charge, and you can do what you want.
  • Since you're in charge, give pricing very careful consideration. Charging more than $4.99 for a short eBook, or one riddled with errors, or both, is not a good idea. Of course, no writer thinks their work is riddled with errors, but a good way to make the determination is by asking yourself if anyone else besides you has proofed it. Less recommended, but equally effective, is to simply wait for the reviews and see how many of them complain about the misspellings, typos, and repeated and run-on sentences in the content. Would you pay a premium price for a floor model that’s been on display for months and has a few dings in it? No, you’d want them to knock off 15% or 20%. So why pay extra for a book of less than stellar quality? You can always increase the price of your book once the kinks are out.
  • If you're a slower writer who tends to be longwinded, like myself, consider writing a shorter novel or even a short story to keep readers happy between full-length novels, perhaps a prequel to an upcoming book or to one you've already written, and price it accordingly.
  • If you're reissuing previously published works, ask yourself if it would benefit from being updated…or at least stick a date at the beginning to inform the reader of the setting, i.e. “2002.” My heroine in A Love of Her Own (originally published in 1999) “had been meaning to get one of those new cell phones” and drove an Oldsmobile, ha! And yes, I did make the story more current. Life has changed a lot in the past dozen years.
  • Remember that the opportunities for making improvements in eBooks are endless. Found an error or two in your text that you and your editor missed (or that your editor caught but you missed when making corrections)? Download a new file so new readers won’t see it. Cover copy can continually be tweaked, and so can the cover itself. I do have one cover (the one for my indie publishing debut, Save The Best For Last) that looks gorgeous in person but doesn’t photograph all that well, and having the designer tweak it is on my to-do list. The same holds for formatting. I used to format with the first line of each new paragraph indented, until I noticed on the Kindle preview (the actual preview authors can view after downloading, not the preview you see when you sample a book, which comes out differently) that any new paragraphs that fell at the top of the Kindle page were not indented. Unclear paragraph breaks will confuse readers, so I changed all my indie eBook formatting to the block paragraph style with an extra space between paragraphs. (The Kindle preview potential buyers look at as samples is formatted differently, putting in both indents and an extra space between paragraphs, which to me looks awful, but that’s out of my hands.)
  • Remember that Kindle isn't the only game in town. There's the Nook and the Sony reader. You can be missing out on potential sales by publishing only in one format. Sure, you can tell non-Kindle owners that they can download the application and read it on their computer screen, but I know I wouldn't do this. If it's not available for Sony I won't be reading it. I do take my time about getting my book listed in the Smashwords catalog until I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten most of the kinks out. Once my eBooks are picked up by Sony, Kobo, Diesel, etc. I’m not sure if they can be tweaked, so I’m very cautious.

This is an exciting time to be an independent author, and I plan on making the most of it, because with the speed with which things are changing, who knows what things will be like in another year?


LaShaunda said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I will be forwarding this to my readers.

bettye griffin said...

Glad you enjoyed it, LaShaunda, and thanks for sharing it!

Shelia Goss said...

The tides are shifting in publishing. I noticed a few of my favorite writers are no longer putting out books. I'm glad that the digital world has offered or opened up opportunities that may not normally be there. Printing books can be expensive and that's ot adding in the costs for other stuff that has to happen before sending it to the printers.

Glad you didn't stop writing and publishing books.

bettye griffin said...

Shelia, hopefully your favorites are preparing to bring out material on an independent basis. My agent did inform me that there would probably be a lengthy wait to get my rights back for my Arabesque romances because they were being inundated with requests. It can take a long time to get started, because most established authors want to take their time and put out a quality product rather than jump in and put out crappy work.

As for me, I'm just as happy as you are about digital opportunities. Not only will I be releasing my backlist in eBook form, but I'll also be putting out new material as well.

I'll be writing as long as I can hold a laptop in my lap and can dictate into a microphone clearly, LOL! And I wish you continued success. You were one of the first to get into digital, and you are going gangbusters, and I'm so happy for you...and proud of you!