Friday, 31 October 2014

Full On - The Rush to Self-Publish

This week has been really crazy. My son was ill, work was busy and...I crashed my car. Driving out of the garage. Yes, you wouldn't think it was possible, but I can tell you now, it is. So I have a massive dent in the side door and damaged plasterwork on the side of the house.  Why did I do this? How did I do this?

It was because my head was full.  The kindle format had not uploaded properly and I was worrying about a plot point in the novel I was planning, and my son wanted to watch a video because he was feeling poorly and I needed to write an overdue report for work. Unfortunately, little things like steering just went out the window.

So, here's a warning. Your first trip to self-pub land will take longer than you think. It will be more complicated than you'd realised and you'll spend more time worrying about it than you had thought you would. But on the plus side - there will be more fun times and excitement than you'd planned for, too.

The Trip to Self-Pub Land

Today, I have just pushed the 'Publish' button on my first self-published novel, Inner Fire. Very exciting! In my next series of posts I will discuss the stages I've gone through to get it out into the world. I will try and give you pointers about What Went Well and What to Avoid. (Believe me, there are a lot of things to avoid.)

However, before even pushing the 'publish button' there's an important decision point you have to reach.

Will you, or not, do it yourself?

These are the steps I took to reach this decision.

Quality Control: You can purchase Inner Fire here . And if you buy it you'll be able to find out if all the things I talk about later in this blog have been worth the effort!

Before Self-Publishing

1.  Write the book. This sounds obvious, and of course it is, but my point is more the sequence. Experienced self-published authors begin with marketing this new, yet-to-be-written book well in advance of writing it. I did not; partly from a superstitious fear that to do so might somehow jinx the process, and partly from a reluctance to commit to a deadline too early on.

2.  Approach traditional publishers. There are advantages to trad publishing, as discussed earlier in this blog, but at some point you need to make a call as to whether you will continue to approach them or not. Because my last experience with traditional publishers involved manuscripts sitting on editorial desks for 8 - 12 months, I was hesitant about approaching trad publishers. I did not want to wait nearly a year before putting a book on kindle. So instead I compromised and sent copies of Inner Fire to five agents. One was semi-interested, but said the market was for contemporary drama at the moment (The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and so declined it. The rest took either a long time to respond or declined within four weeks, which was great. Agents are a lot faster than editors about rejecting material!  However, the first agent I approached, whom I already knew personally, has offered to assist with promotion, so who knows where that might lead. That's the beauty of self-pub. You continue to own the rights.

3. Really think hard. Is it good enough? There might be a reason why agents have declined it, quite apart from the market not being right. Use critique partners; give the novel to a trusted friend; use a manuscript assessor. In my earlier posts I discussed how to find critique partners, and you can access assessors from the New Zealand Society of Authors. There are two reasons why you need to consider the quality of your work. The first is because if the novel is bad, it won't sell, and you could spend a lot of time and effort for no return. The other reason is because it is horrible horrible horrible to get bad reviews. The beauty and the problem with the world wide web is that everybody's opinions can be shared in an unfiltered and unbiased way and when it's your own creative work, this can hurt. The worst thing, I find, is when a reviewer picks up on some flaw in your work that you really wish you'd seen and corrected. So do think hard before self-publishing.

I had just won a major award and had been shortlisted for several more, all of which gave me a little more confidence that yes, I might actually be able to product a quality work, regardless of whose brand was on the cover. So I decided that hey, what do agents and publisher's know? I liked the work. And I thought it was worth trying the process with it.

4. Decision point reached: Yes or No.

Best Moments so Far?

  1. A box of fantastic-looking books arriving by courier.
  2. My first sale. 
  3. An email from a reader in the Philippines who said she 'loved it!'. 
  4. And my first five-star review.

Over the next few weeks I'll talk through the steps I've taken to get Inner Fire onto book shelves. I'll let you know which steps went well and which did not. So stayed tuned.

And in the meantime, drive safely.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Getting Personal

It's hard to move from the elevated world of strategy to the up-close and personal worry of betting my own time and money on a marketplace.  It's also hard to publicly admit failures so I'm kind of nervous about this next series of posts. But, as I said last week, it's all very well to analyse the market, but the test of success only comes by playing in it.

So this next series of posts will be about the process I have taken to enter the self-pub marketplace, and what I have found in doing so.

I've found two books to be really useful:

Both of these writers are established self-published authors of commercial fiction, and put their experiences and learnings into these books ('In a gold rush, sell shovels,' said my MBA lecturer). 

There's also an interesting article in the Economist which is worth looking at (plus, it has a pretty cool interactive graph).

And before even starting on the self-pub route, there's a few skill sets that you need to have. Here's a list of questions to ask yourself.

Do I have these 10 Attributes ?

1.  Can I write? 

I had just won a major prize - Best First Novel at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for my first novel, A Necklace of Souls, so I thought yes, I probably could. 

But if this is your first manuscript the chances are that, no, you probably can't. Sorry. Most writers have a few failed scripts in boxes somewhere. If this is your first manuscript, and its your first draft and you are planning on self-publishing I really suggest that you DO NOT ask people to pay for it - i.e. don't put it onto Amazon or ibooks. If you really think the idea is good (in between the normal 'it's crap' feeling that every writer has) I would try and get a Critique Partner, or put it onto WattPad or Fan Fiction - anything to get feedback. And do a course of study. Believe me, study really helps.

My last series of blog posts deals with the writing process, and includes tips on how to find a Critique Partner.


2. Do I understand the publishing process?

Commercial publishers are very unlikely to publish even your final draft. Before it is set to print your book will have at least three edits - usually by three different people:
  • a structural edit - where the structure of the plot, the characters and so forth are analysed and recommendations made on how to strengthen them 
  • a copy edit - where the spelling, grammar and so on is checked
  • a proofing edit - check for final errors

If self-publishing, you would be wise to follow this process. Otherwise your book won't be as good as it could be. Which is bad for reviews, bad for your reputation, and just bad for the reader. But be warned, professional editorial input is not free. It's worth it, in terms of product, but you may not get your money back in sales.

3. Are you comfortable with the internet?

If you're reading this on a blog site, chances are you are quite comfortable on a browser. Just be warned: self-publishing is a global industry and unless you want to pay someone a lot of money to do everything for you, you'll probably need to do it yourself. This means that invariably, you'll be on the internet a lot.

4. Are you comfortable with e-books?

Self publishing is really about e. The future is p, too, I think, but we're not there just yet. So if you're planning on self-publishing, make sure you enjoy and are familiar with reading on an e-platform. This means you'll have a greater understanding for the importance of layout, and you'll be more careful when it comes to formatting. Also, you'll be making purchasing decisions similar to your readers.

5. Do you have a kindle account?

Currently, Amazon is the dominator of the self-pub industry. According to Gaughran, this is because their algorithms don't favour established publishing houses - they only favour reader choice. Which means that self-pubs have an opportunity to compete. iTunes is coming on strong, too, but more people still read on Amazon apps or kindles. Nook isn't really a favourite of self-publishers. Gaughran says this is because its algorithims favour publishers, as they pay more for the opportunity to use the platform. So if you're really wanting to self-publish, I do suggest you become familiar with the Amazon store. Understand how books are presented to purchasers and download a few yourself. Get a feeling for what you like, and what features you don't. It is different to navigating your way through a bricks and mortars store.

6. Do you have a basic understanding of finances?

Here's a lesson for you. I have an MBA and I buy products professionally for a living, so I thought, well, no problem. I'll be fine here. And yet - I forgot about the exchange rate! I can't believe it, but I did. The problem is, Amazon presents all its prices in USD. For some arcane reason. Like, yes, everyone in the world uses USD. So when I calculated the costs of CreateSpace, I forgot to convert. This meant a price inflation of around 20%.  

7. Do you have time?

Self publishing your first book will take you ages. Well, it's taken me ages. Everything is new. I don't know how to use the technology. This is what I have had to learn so far:

  • how to download a mobi file
  • how to read a mobi file
  • how to format to a print-ready proof
  • how to format a word document to smashwords requirements (don't believe them when they say their Style Guide is easy to use. It isn't)
  • how to organise a press release
  • how to create, and edit, an .html document. 
  • What is bleed?
  • How long are delivery times?
  • What does a book distributor do? What does a book marketer do? How much do they cost?
  • What is an ASIN and what is an ISBN?
  • What paper thickness do I need? Do I need matt or gloss cover? What is a laminate?
  • How do I get an EIN?
  • How to organise a blog tour
  • What is a marketing plan and what should it look like?
  • How much should I price my book?
  • How many copies should I order?

8. Do you have a healthy dose of scepticism?

In this industry - in most industries, really - there is no 'get rich quick' scheme. Yet, when you read the websites of Smashwords or Amazon, they say just upload your manuscript and click the 'publish' button and voila, your words in your way, ready to be read by the world. Don't believe them. Don't believe anyone when they tell you that it's simple. By the time I get to book number 5, it will be simple. Unless, of course, the industry changes, which is very possible. But right now, I'm on a steep, slow-climb up the learning curve.

9. Do you have a background that includes any or all of the following?

The following skill sets are really, really helpful. If you have some or all of these, you'll find the route to self-publishing so much easier.
  • Scientific/Analytical
  • Commerce/finance/marketing
  • Legal
  • Project Management
  • IT
10.  Do you have enough money?

Self-publishing is not free. Well, I don't think it's free. Costs include time, of course, but there's also editorial, book covers, printers (if you get printing done), marketing and anything else you care to spend. You can do it on a really tight, tight budget of perhaps $500 USD, but some people pay a lot more. I have allowed for about $5000 for my first self-pub. The following novels will be less, because I won't do everything I've done on the first one. But the good thing is, these costs are all tax-deductible. One bonus of writing - you might not make much money, but pretty much everything you do can be claimed as a deduction.  

And on a Positive Note

The ten qualities above are mostly personal qualities. They do not involve spending enormous amounts of money, or hiring employees, or building plant or buying expensive equipment. They do, however, involve spending large amounts of time. 

Next post I'll go through the first steps to self-publishing - actually putting these skills into use.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Am I An Oracle?

To use Business-Speak, my last few posts have been a situation analysis: a review of current state of play of an industry and a prediction of what is to come.

I do this all the time for work, and I love it! And as I have said so many times in this blog, wow it is so scary when you are proved right! Makes me feel like I'm some sort of oracle or something.

Of course it's nothing like that, it's just understanding basic business models and economic theory. Most industries are fairly predictable.  It's just that people get swayed by emotion (also predictable) and hope that they can get onto the next best thing before everyone else can.

Want to hear a definition of an economist? Someone who won't bend to pick up a dollar on the sidewalk. Why not? Because he knows that someone else will get there first.

I think this is really funny, but then I know a lot of entrepreneurs, all busy bending for the dollars.

economist cartoon humor: Careers advice centre
From Jantoo

Okay, so here's my final industry overview, and my predictions for the future.

Predictions for the Future of Publishing

1. The shake-up for traditional publishers will continue

I do not see, both as an outsider and a supplier to the industry, the changes required by trad publishers  to survive. And yet their pricing remains high (one of the arguments by Amazon in their ongoing dispute with Hachette), they are not developing new talent and there is a definite trend to outsourcing their supply chain. Access to available substitutes (e-books or POD) is increasing. Trad publishers of mass-market fiction have limited Unique Selling Points (USPs).

Personally, I think this is sad. Publishers do bring a lot of benefits - for one, they ensure the reading public receive a quality experience. They are arbiters of literature, and literature both defines and shapes a society.

2. The business model for publishing will change

Traditional publishing houses do have some competitive advantages and these will continue in the longer term.
  • Access to high performing authors
  • Rights 
  • Competitive printing costs
  • Distribution channels
However, the relationship between author/publisher will change. It is likely that there will be a shift to partnership models. Author-as-venture-capitalist. The author may part fund the publisher. This would be a massive shift for the industry, taking the writer from supplier to partner. There are signs this is emerging already: Ingram has announced a joint model with Barbara Freethy

Other organisations may also enter the market. Printed books are still the widest form of reading and are still where the margins are, so companies with strengths in print and distribution when combined with a high-performing author's stable could do well.

I think it will be an interesting time.

Similarly (as discussed earlier), there will also be a rise in indie publishing houses. The innovative will survive. Note to self: Keep an eye on IPOs for these ones - there are likely to be some very smart operators emerging in this space.

3. The demise (or plateauing) of Amazon as a digital publishing platform

I'm nervous about this prediction, as I'm also aware that Amazon is one of the smartest companies around. But Google is nothing to be sneezed at and increasingly, authors are looking at Google books.  Similarly, the new iOS from Apple included ibooks as a standard app. And with the rise of tablets and smart phones as reading devices, kindle is loosing its edge. The irritation by authors with Amazon should not be understated; the perception in the industry that Amazon is 'arrogant' and 'in it for the money' (Duh!) has been stated by a number of very influential opinion-leaders. At best, this is massively bad publicity. At worse, this could lead to anti-trust suits.

From A Snapshot of Reading in America, 2013
4. The smartening of authors

Twenty years ago, only the desperate or the marginal thought of self-publishing. Now, it's accepted practise, but you need to know how to navigate the process. Authors will have to become business-savvy to survive. There will be more people entering the market, and competition will increase. Already, most of the best sellers (including the traditionally published) are extremely smart business people. So, in addition to the smartening-up, I predict an increase in self-help tools for authors, including quasi full-service publishing houses.

5. Mainstreaming of Indie

Books are sold through personal experience and through word of mouth. And if good writers are self-publishing, good readers want to find them. Mainstream arbiters of taste, such as Publishers Weekly, are now offering reviews to self-pubbed authors. Goodreads, purchased last year by Amazon, offers the social media experience, directly connecting readers with writers.  My prediction is there will be more 'established' platforms reviewing indie works and that the quality of indie works will rise. The term 'indie' will truly mean 'independent'.

This isn't a comprehensive list. I haven't talked here about pricing models or changing platforms (audio, streaming) or non-English speaking markets, although these are also trends worth watching.

Up Close and Personal

So where does this leave me, in my quest for financial security?

This is the last situation analysis post. From now on, it will all be personal. Because analysis only takes you so far. I have a feeling for where the opportunities are now, and I need to try it for myself. Stay tuned!

PS - if you're interested in reading more about strategy and industry predictions, have a look at Porter's Five Forces, a business model developed by Michael E Porter in a seminal paper in the Harvard Business Review.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Show Me The Money

Over the last few posts I've made statements about the future of publishing, the risk to authors, the rise of the self-pubbed industry and the decline and reshaping of the fiction market. It's easy to make such statements; harder to support it with proof.

However, I have been reviewing some data sets, which I'm going to share with you. Feel free to click on the links to get more details.


The market share of indie writers to trad publishers appears to be increasing.

When I say market share, I mean the percentage of dollars going to indie authors. This was reported by (click on the link to read the report), although they note that this is just based on two data points and two data points does not a trend make. It does, though, make an encouraging sign (if you're an indie publisher. Not so fab if you're a traditional publisher!).

Also of note is the rise of the small to medium publishing houses. As I've already stated, they have many advantages in this brave new world.

Mark Coker from Smashwords also reports similar findings. You can download his dataset and have a play with the figures if you feel so included.

Of interest is that while number of titles in the best seller lists are increasing in the indie and small or medium groups, they are decreasing for the big 5. This suggests that the smaller, more nimble sectors are replacing the larger incumbents. They are competing and winning.

Again, it will be interesting to see if this is just a blip or if its a trend. My gut feeling is its a trend, but I'd need to dig into the annual reports of the big 5 to see this and right now I don't have the time.

A quick aside for the non-financially literate: companies that are publicly listed on a stock exchange have to product annual reports. There are often little gems in these reports, and if you're seriously interested in a sector, it pays to have a read of them. Note to self: get the Amazon one.


The big 5 make their money from only a few authors. This is hardly startling news - I said at the beginning of this blog that writing is a tournament market place and in a tournament the 80:20 rule definitely applies; 80 percent of the earnings will be derived from 20 percent of the population (look up Pareto's Theorem for more information).

If you are not in that crowd, your opportunities to earn a living wage are low. You may be better off in the self-published group.

Furthermore, if you have a backlist to which you have the rights, you might be even better placed to consider self-pub, at least for your backlist. Why? It's off the backlists that the publishers make their money. Why shouldn't you?


The reason so many of us are thinking of moving to self-publish is because the earnings in trad are not that stunning.

Take a look at this graph from Author's Earnings

If that were to change, its possible that many of us would shift back. So, here's a thought for publishers to consider. Perhaps more innovative ways of payment - such as profit sharing, co-investment, rebates/discounts, supply chain partnership - might be worth considering

A note of caution:

As more and more people begin to self-publish, it's inevitable that opportunities for profit will drop off. Glory days of double digit growth always, always come to an end. That's what markets do, remember?  So don't go thinking that self-pub is a get rich quick scheme. There is no such thing. But there are always opportunities. Personally, I think it's worth digging into the data to know what and where these are.