Adventures of a self-publisher
This page logs lots of information that I discover on my self-publishing journey, which I hope others following in my footsteps might find helpful.
Rules for schools: The main markets for children’s and YA novels are schools and libraries. Teachers are always looking for good new books to use as texts. Most high schools have a fantasy component in the curriculum, particularly for Years 7s to Year 10s. They also often have visual literacy components, which offer opportunities to discuss covers. High schools are now buying boxes of GOM’s Gold to use as texts and invite me in to conduct talks on topics ranging from “Myth and Fantasy” to “Judging a book by its cover”. Primary schools are also keen to have authors come in an talk and the children are great and really enthusiastic at all ages. Book week is usually a good time of the year to book talks although there’s no real best times. Authors such as Stephen Herrick are booked two years in advance. Typically authors charge ASA rates for appearances or organise a book-buying deal to cover the cost of the appearance. The Australian Society of Authors occasionally conducts courses on marketing to schools.
Distribution diary: It’s been a while since my last update but I think the most interesting news to date is that I have just signed a book distribution contract with INT Books, a small distributor based in Victoria that specialises in schools and libraries. I am really hoping this will spread the word into different states. I decided that, as a self-publisher, it was way too difficult to establish and manage distribution outside my local area in any way that could establish momentum. But by using a distributor, instead of a publisher, I still got to maintain greater control over the product – chose my own illustrator and created the book and the brand that I desired. That was important to me. I am also planning to sign a contract with Woodslane, a distributor into bookshops, newsagents, Big W and other companies. Generally, distributors require exclusivity but because these two cover different territory, they are happy with the arrangement. As a rule, distributors take 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the recommended retail price, which includes the bookstores’ margin – typically 40%, although Dymocks stipulates 45%. It will be very interesting to see how it all goes.
Quality control: Well, I have been pedalling GOM’s Gold around the bookstores for a couple of weeks now and have noted a general reluctance (but not refusal) to take on self-published books. It is strange because there is also a general reluctance to write you off completely either. It is kind of schizophrenic. The bookstores are reluctant to take self publishers on because they have had bad experiences, particularly on the quality control front. They often end up having books returned because of issues such as too many typos and poor layout, and then having to deal with the resulting administrative and financial challenges. On the other hand, they are keen to support local authors, and have a special offering in their stores and would hate to miss out on the next J.K. Rowling. Unfortunately, good, professional authors are tarred with the same brush as the amateurs because many bookstores just don’t want to spend the time sorting the chaff from the hay – and they are very busy. Having said that, many bookstores are still stocking GOM’s Gold so my advice is to make sure you do the following: hire a manuscript assessor such as LYNK and, after you’ve improved the manuscript, send it to the assessors again. Then after you have critiqued and cut ruthlessly, send it to a professional sub-editor to critique and cut ruthlessly again. Then send it to all your friends and family to proof. Then pay a proofer. Even then, the work may not be perfect but it should at least be of a professional standard. Remember, the bookstores do want to help out but you have to help them out in return by ensuring you have a professional product. By failing to spend the money up front on professionals, you are just shifting the risk associated with that expense onto the bookstore, which means they end up paying it in employee hours, disgruntled customers, refunds and administrative expenses. They will be unlikely to give you a second chance.
Awards not so rewarding: Just discovered I can’t enter GOM’s Gold in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards because the book is self-published. Awards are a tricky thing. While many awards don’t specify that a book must be published through traditional publishing channels to be eligible, they might as well do. For example, those that require votes from the public require that the book has already been widely distributed in its first year of publication. This is a hard thing for a self-publisher to achieve (but not impossible depending on your publication date) without going through either a publisher or a distributor. As most awards are based on the first year of publication, one can’t submit a book once volumes rise in following years. The awards system also tends to favour established authors in this respect given they receive a greater proportion of the publishers’ marketing dollars and distribution efforts. Don’t despair though. I did manage to submit an entry to the Ditmar Awards in the US and there are many options available if you Google hard enough!
The cult of personality: It has been duly and regularly noted by publishing professionals that readers don’t buy books, they buy authors. My experience is that this is very true. Turnover of GOM’s Gold in bookstores to date has been sluggish. However, book signings have been very successful. I am lucky to have a beautiful, professional cover and great banners, which have served me well in the Big W signings. The banner is placed in the Woollies vestibule a week before the signing with a sign noting the date and time of the event. People are very curious and relatively keen to chat and buy a book. It’s a great experience for all. An author’s physical presence (with professional merchandising) gives people the confidence to buy a book and the author gets to meet lots of would-be fans and fellow locals. Often, readers who bought a book at a previous signing will go out of their way to tell you how much their children or grandchildren (or they themselves) enjoyed the book. It’s great.
The power of distribution: In GOM’s Gold’s view (my view), the main difficulty self-publishers face is distribution. Authors, generally, can easily and cheaply write and market their own novels on the proviso they have reasonable public relations and marketing skills. But distribution is where the hard work lies. A friend who published his first novel through Pan McMillan said he sold 4,000 copies on the book’s first day on the shelves – not because of great marketing but because it was out there. I figure that level of distribution will probably take me a year to reach.
Slowly the articles flow: The Blue Mountains Gazette published an article about GOM’s Gold on December 23, which was great, and the EFT Universe in the United States posted an article on their website. I have been keeping p.r. activities to a minimum over the Christmas/New Year period as most people aren’t around to read the papers.
Brave new world of cyber marketing: The EFT Universe posting (mentioned above) is of particular interest from a marketing viewpoint. GOM’s Gold includes elements about tapping and energy healing, and EFT Universe is one of a handful of tapping organisations globally that have many followers around the world – online subscribers – that I felt would be the perfect target audience for GOM’s Gold (outside the traditional target markets of children and young adult fiction readers). This was one of the reasons I wanted to self-publish – so that I could experiment with the new world of cyber marketing and test out its distribution powers. In the United States there are also many organisations with “marketing alliances” that take a commission on any content they promote, on any number of subjects, which could prove a great distribution channel for writers that feel confident marketing their own novels.
Hot off the press: Blue Mountains news organisation Fresh Air Daily were the first to report on GOM’s Gold. I am a journalist by trade and I know how important it is to gain media coverage. For example, Dymocks’ Sydney store says it may stock the book but they wanted to see a publicity plan and marketing campaign, which I sent them pronto.
Local yokel: Bookstores are very supportive of local authors. Megalong Books in Leura, The Turning Page Bookshop in Springwood and Gleebooks in Blackheath were all very quick to stock GOM’s Gold on their shelves. However, I was passing through Mosman and the local bookshops there would only accept books that had gained publicity in the Mosman Daily – which is fair enough. Wouldn’t it be nice if, one day, they came knocking on my door in the mountains – it’s starting to sound like a once-upon-a-time fairytale.
In the words of Big Kev: I’m excited: The first online book sales for GOM’s Gold started rolling out in the past two days. The first two were from old school friends in Melbourne and then I received my first order from a complete stranger, a gentleman who lives in Sydney.
Book signings: I think I got really lucky on this front. Big W at Katoomba has a marvellous customer care manager who works tirelessly to make Big W a pleasant place to visit and she very kindly organised for me to sign books in the vestibule, even though I am too small and insignificant (but not for long) to be stocked in the store. It is all part of their drive to support the local community and local creatives. The funny thing is that I then approached another local cultural organisation, which I thought would naturally be very supportive – as a book signing of GOM’s Gold (which is set in the area) would be a perfect fit for them – said it wasn’t really the sort of thing they do. So the lesson there is that you never can pick it, just approach as many people as you can. P.S. You can set up signings in the local supermarkets if you have public liability and apply to council for permission.
The big day: The book launch went really well – sold lots of books and had a rollicking good time. I wanted to play the Happy Song and get everyone to dance but I chickened out. The book launch is an important occasion for any self-publisher. It lets the world know you are serious and gives you a photo opportunity and news event for promotion purposes. However, it isn’t cheap. There’s venue hire, food hire, champagne and all sorts of things to pay for. If you are lucky like me, some great friends like Renae and Clint (not to mention your spouse and relatives) will help with the catering and service.
Watch the exchange rate: In March, 2014, I was given a rough quote of $1.40 to publish a 250 page book. Unfortunately, I experienced delays and by October, the $A had fallen, the price of paper had risen, and the cost of printing the book jumped to $1.70, blowing my budget out by about $2000.
Not everyone is as keen as I am about my book. Dymocks Parramatta only takes books through distributors. Most bookstores take 40 per cent. Distributors take at least an extra 20 per cent, and some take as much as 40 per cent. There is no doubt that distributors add value. On the first publication day of my friend Stephen Measday’s book Send Simon Savage, it sold about 4000 copies, thanks to the reach provided by distributors. But I will persevere on my own, just because I choose the challenge.
Interesting: Booktopia also demands self-publishers go through a distributor, which makes listing on their site 20 per cent more expensive than in a bookstore. This differentiates them from other online book retailers like Fishpond and Amazon that welcome self-publishers and offer a range of options.
I really don’t have a print run big enough to handle an unexpected run in orders (it’s not as if they are taking the publishing risk or giving me an advance) so for now I’ll just sell it where I can.
Print on demand: It appears a popular site for print on demand in Australia is Lightning Source, an international group which also claims to have the world’s largest distribution network.
Let’s get physical: Publishing a printed book is far more satisfying than publishing an electronic book. The excitement of having a truck pull up and deliver two palettes full of boxes (which are full of your treasured oeuvres) and drag them into your garage is a real buzz. Then comes the joy of getting a knife and slashing open the nearest book so you can hold it in your hand, take a selfie, and post it on your Facebook page! E-books, in comparison, are so ho-hum.
Spine tingling: The post office is very helpful. Did you know that if the spine of your book is 1.8cm or less it is treated as paperwork and can be posted as a letter. This I suspect is only useful in the early days of publication. The gentleman at the post office advises that, if items exceed 100 a month, it’s best to contact head office for a bulk business rate.