Been awfully quiet around these parts, hasn’t it? I know you’ve all been absolutely petrified with worry, but I have great news: I’m okay! Sorry for dropping off the face of the Earth for a while, but between a heavy dose of frustration, some meandering background projects, and a pair of kidney stones the sizes of Deimos and Phobos, I somehow forgot I should be here smiling and wishing y’all a howdy-doo.
So, in order to get the chitting and chatting back a’-rolling, I thought maybe I’d reprint a post I made over at io9 a few months back, in response to an article there about the handful of successful self-published authors that everybody hears about over and over again, ad nauseam. I thought the readers there might be interested in hearing what the experience was like for someone who ranks a teeny bit lower on the sales charts.
And now, I figured you lords and ladies might also be interested in the same. Read on for the harrowing account of how I tapped violently at keyboards and eventually sold a few books…
I’m not one of these best selling writers, but I thought I’d share some of my experiences slowly climbing the heap, in case anyone’s interested in seeing what the other side of the curtain is like. I apologize ahead of time for the length.
First, a little bit of biography: I’m a half-latin kid from a staunchly liberal, middle-class family. I grew up in the SF Bay Area in a house where massmarket sci-fi books and copies of Omni were always kicking around underfoot, and it’s no surprise that I’ve been in love with both science-fiction and fantasy since before I could read. Also being an excessively wordy little bastard, I knew from an early age that I wanted to spend the rest of my life making up weird worlds of my own.
My friends, family, and teachers all seemed confident I’d make it someday. No one ever talked about “if”, but rather “when”… and in retrospect, knowing what I do about the publishing industry now, that’s a hell of a thing to do to a kid. It’s like casually assuring them they’re going to win the lottery someday.
Like most new writers, I’d originally intended to go the traditional route. Everyone wants their book to earn its place on those dusty shelves, and I’m sure each of us have taken a moment away from browsing to find the spot where our own books will fit in. Mine was was just left of Melanie Rawn, and I used to push her books an inch to the side to make way.
So, I spent my late teens and early twenties trying like hell to finish an avant-garde fantasy novel that was doomed to failure (hindsight being 20/20 and all that jazz). When that book finally breathed its last breath, I kicked its bloated, pustulant corpse aside and started work on the space opera that would eventually be my first completed novel.
Fast forward to late 2007. After having chained myself to the desk for three straight months, I found myself in possession of a finished manuscript, a good attitude, and a hunger to get started. I did my homework, hammered out a synopsis and cover letter, and received my very first form-letter rejection from an agent in December of that year.
For the next month or two, I avidly followed agents’ blogs and studied their mysterious ways. When one of those agents opened her box for submissions again (ooh, that sounds wrong), I fired my packet off (still sounding wrong) and waited. I was immensely pleased a week later to receive an email requesting a 50-page partial manuscript.
Sitting there with a drunken smile on my face, I was at that moment blissfully unaware that I would spend the next six months waiting in terrified silence for her to make a decision. I was on the hook, aware that I’d been incredibly lucky to attract an agent’s attention on my second swing, and also adamantly set against simultaneous submissions for fear of ruining my reputation among the people who controlled the future of my career.
Those six months sucked. They really, really sucked. At the end of it, she sent me a very kind rejection letter that assured me the book was marketable, but just not for her. It wasn’t me; it was her.
I remembered all the stories I’d read about the sci-fi greats of the ’50s and ’60s. Some of those books had been rejected forty, fifty, sometimes a hundred times before finally finding homes. I did some very rudimentary arithmetic and I realized I could die from old age before striking paydirt. Even if I’d written the greatest sci-fi novel in history (and I most assuredly hadn’t), it didn’t change my chances. I was playing a lottery, and I’m not a notoriously lucky guy.
I wrote some shorter fiction and submitted to magazines in hopes of starting a little lower on the ladder, but magazines were in the process of imploding, and it was difficult to even figure out which venues were open to submissions in any given month.
The picture kept getting more bleak. I watched a good friend go through hell traditionally publishing three books that never found any traction in the market. His last was published by a press owned by Barnes & Noble, and he couldn’t even get Barnes & Noble to stock it. I’d like to say I became disillusioned with traditional publishing, but militant is probably a bit more accurate.
Then, in late 2009, I noticed the ebook revolution beginning to gain momentum. With my head all full of anger, resentment, and a bunch of Cory Doctorow’s scribblings on copyright, I began to rethink my plan. I set my pride aside and gave up on the dusty bookshelf, and in return I got to be in charge of my own success. Such a thing is truly a blessing for someone with my luck.
I started small in 2010 with a novella, something simple that I could use to get my feet wet and figure out how the system works. Later that year, I ran a (failed) Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising advertising funds, but paying for banner-ads didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination for some reason. Then I released my novel that Fall under the terms of a fairly permissive Creative Commons license, and I’ve been plugging away at it ever since.
There are now more than 20,000 copies of my debut novel out in the wild, although the vast bulk of those (>95%) have been free downloads distributed through Feedbooks, torrent sites, and promotions at Amazon. In fact, my most successful free sale at Amazon served another 3,600 copies, briefly placing me at #1 for free space opera and #103 free overall in the Kindle marketplace.
A year ago today, I was making around $30 a month in royalties, plus an occasional $20 donation from generous readers who wanted to thank me for a free book. This year, I’m pulling down closer to $400 a month, and the numbers are trending upward. That growth has come about entirely thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Select Program, and the free promotions that come with it. Every sale has been more popular than the last (ed: that trend has reversed direction more recently), and I see a huge surge in real-for-money-sales after each one. Bouyed by that one big promotion, I was #64 on Amazon’s space opera chart, wedged between Lois McMaster Bujold and a Star Wars novel.
There are infinitely worse places to be.
Of course, the whole task still feels like pushing a big rock up a steep hill. Amazon’s ecosystem is an echo chamber designed to maximize the visibility of already popular works, but it does virtually nothing to gain exposure for the vast sea of undiscovered books sloshing around at the bottom of the charts. As a seller, you’re constantly fighting against the surge of other books’ sales, and it seems like you’re only ever an hour away from slipping down the hill and back into obscurity.
Other opportunities for promotion are thin or non-existent. Reviewers have little interest in self-published works. Forums that are popular with readers are sick and tired of self-published authors flooding the network, and they now enforce strict rules against self-promotion, or else keep self-pubs safely quarantined from the rest of the site. I can’t blame them at all for that, honestly; conversation and community suffer horribly under the assault of a bunch of self-obsessed hucksters.
I’ve experimented with buying ad space, but it’s been about as effective as prayer. At least prayer is free if you skip the live animal sacrifice.
And that just about sums up where I am right now. Sales are okay and improving. I’ll have another free promotion in three weeks, and another three weeks after that. Eventually, I’d like to transit away from Amazon’s market and build my own system–something engineered to pull good books up out of obscurity, rather than promote what’s already popular–but that’s still a way off. In the meantime, I’ll be here writing and looking forward to the day when my name pops up in one of these articles.
If you made it all the way through this gargantuan post, you might be interested in some of my work. You can find my work at (surprise, surprise) Amazon.
If prices seem too high, you can always wait a few weeks for a sale, or just pester someone for a copy. It’s all CC licensed, and pirate friendly.
Cheers, and thanks for reading!