Misconceptions of Self-Publishing

50 dollars rooled upI golfed yesterday at a near-by country club and struck up a conversation with a nice young lady who ran the beverage cart. A recent college grad, she’s now contemplating which direction to take her working career.

The thing that really impressed me about her was that she was like a twenty-something — and female — version of myself! She was thinking about either a career in real estate (I spent twenty-five years as a real estate and mortgage broker) … or what she really wants to do is WRITE!

Of course this immediately got my attention, since writing is how I make my living these days. So I spent as much time as was possible while waiting to tee-off talking with this young lady, and I was surprised that for a young, tech-savvy person, she was woefully uninformed about the revolution in publishing that’s taken place over the past five or six years.

Since I don’t have a lot of time to post today — I do have another book to get out soon — let me just do a brief summary of what is possible today in the realm of self-publishing. (I’m sure I’ll expand on this subject when I have more time.)

1) Anyone can self-publish.

At this time, I’m exclusively using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) to publish and market all my books. Amazon does not screen authors, and they do very little screening of content. Since I don’t write erotica, I do understand they are cracking down on some of the racy covers, which is understandable. But as far as content, not so much. And for authors, you don’t need to submit a resume or tear-sheets or … well, anything. Just your book, novella, short story or article. That’s right, they have all these things on their site.

2) You don’t have to be an expert at marketing.

Some of us have been fortunate to have found success with very little marketing. However, if you consider that Amazon is the largest marketer of books (ebooks and traditional) in the world, just making your book available on their site is like getting your retail product into Walmart. As I’ve noticed, all the outside marketing you can do to gain exposure for your book — outside of Amazon — is just playing around on the edges. If your product can’t make it on Amazon, then no amount of outside promotion is going to make much of a difference.

3) I’ll cover this in more detail in future posts, but let me tell you now what the four most-important elements of your book’s early success are in respect to Amazon.

A) The Title. Every genre has its group of specific buzzwords which attract readers. Whether it’s science fiction, romance, action/adventure or erotica, fans of these genres react to certain words or phrases. It’s important that you know what these are and that your title contains as many of these as possible — without having a ten-word title, of course!

B) The Cover Design. With readers on Amazon normally browsing through the genre bestsellers — which are displayed as twenty-book thumbnails per page — it’s important that your cover and title are prominent and READABLE! Too often I see flowery, italicized titles that can barely be read on the full-size image of the cover, let alone as a thumbnail. They may be pretty and cute, but they’re going to get lost in thumbnail size, and therefore possibly skipped over by the shopping browser. Make your cover brilliant, clean and with titles that can be seen across the room on a computer screen, even in thumbnail size.

C) The Blurb. This is the description of your book that’s on your Amazon product page. Don’t skimp here. I see too many one- or two-paragraph descriptions, when this is your first opportunity to interact with potential readers … your first chance to sell them on your book. There are ways to put boldface and italic type in your blurb, as well as larger type, even in Amazon-orange. (This involves some tricky HTML coding which Amazon doesn’t really want a lot of people to know about, but I’ll show you in future posts!) For the blurb, put in a bold, teaser headline, do the most intriguing copy you can (not, “This is the story of young love gone bad. And in the end, they all live happily ever-after.” Give me a break!) Put in excepts, synopsis … even how the story is unique from everything else on the market. Just look at what’s on Amazon today, and then analyze why you’re attracted to some and not to others. And then copy the format of the ones you like.

D) The Look Inside Feature (LIF). This is the sample amount of your book that readers get when they click on the cover of your book on the product page. Here’s the little secret: the LIF contains the first ten-percent of your book. Why is this important? Because, like every other kind of trailer (which this is), you try to leave the previewer wanting more. If your LIF ends with some downer or boring exposition, then the potential reader is going to likely sigh deeply … and move on to something else. Yet if you start your LIF with a real story-hook and then end it with a cliffhanger or in the middle of some exciting action, then the reader is going to want to see what happens next — and they’ll buy your book. So if you have a 90,000-word novel, see where 9,000 words carries you. This isn’t completely accurate by the way because the ten-percent includes the title, legal blurb, testimonials, as well as other things you put in before the actual first word of your novel, so take that into consideration.

So there are the four-basic elements of marketing ON AMAZON. If you do this right — and your story is interesting and well-written — this should give you a really good start at selling your book and building your fan base.

4) Editing & Cover Design.

The lady I was speaking with said she didn’t have an editor or very much money to pay for one. Honestly, I have a very good editor, and depending on the length of my books, he charges between $250 to $350. That’s not bad. You may also need a proofreader and a cover designer. Proofreaders should run a little less than editors, and you can get  covers designed for less than a hundred bucks. And by the way, the total cost of producing your book and getting it ready for publication shouldn’t run you more than between $500 to $1,000.

Here’s a sample breakdown: Editor: $300; Proofreader: $150; Cover Designer (with image included): $200; Cost to upload to Amazon: FREE!; Cost for Amazon exposing your book to all their millions of visitors worldwide: FREE.* Total Cost: $650.00. (Could be less if you design your own cover and use free beta-readers to do your proofreading.)

*Amazon makes their money by taking a split of the royalties. For books priced below $2.99, it’s 65% and you get 35% of the cover price. If the book is priced $2.99 to $9.99, you get 70% (minus a few cents for file size) and Amazon gets 30% of the selling price. Not bad at all. Example: My books sell for $4.98 and I net out about $3.20 in royalities. I know, this isn’t 70%, but with some Amazon foreign markets, I only get 35%. When this is factored into the total, it’s still about 64% to me.

You only make $3.20 per book, you say? Man, you have to sell a lot of books to make any money. That’s right, but like I said earlier, you have your book listed through the equivalent of the Walmart of book selling. In my first two years of self-publishing, I’ve sold close to 150,000 copies of my books (starting with one book, until now I have six). With the variations in pricing I’ve done through the years — they haven’t always been at $4.98 — this still has me close to $400,000 in paid royalties in twenty-four months.

Having disclosed this (da money!), my advice to the young beverage-cart lady would be this: Keep your day job, but in your spare time crank out your first book. (By the way, it’s always best to do a series. This way you can build an ever-growing fan-base while having readers always anxiously awaiting the next installment.).

I write fun, light-hearted science fiction novels, and you can see what I’ve made. Even if my cart-lady realized even a fraction of what I’ve done, this is way more than she could make selling real estate as a rookie agent. Believe me … I know!

And one last thing: How does Amazon pay royalties?

Amazon pays every sixty days after the completed month of sales. For example, for October, you will receive a royalty check (or direct deposit) at the end of December. This is incredible, not only for the speed in which they pay — as compared to traditional publishing — but also because you will always know to the penny how much you’ll be receiving two months in advance. This does wonders for your financial planning — as well as your piece of mind!

So … WRITE-ON!

T.R. (Tom) Harris

Let me tell you about The Fringe Worlds….

Nov Fringe Cover JPEG (2) (816x1056) (816x1056)The Fringe Worlds is the first book in The Human Chronicles Saga, and sometimes it’s enlightening — and cathartic — to detail exactly how it all began … way back in the wild and crazy days of 2011….

The idea for The Human Chronicles had been swimming around in my head for decades, but it was only after I became convinced that ebooks and independent publishing were here to stay that I decided to commit the time and effort to actually finishing a book. I had been kicking around the writing profession my entire life, from junior high and high school journalism, to college and as a Journalist in the Navy. I went on to do freelance editing and publication design for a number of years before settling into a real estate career — of all things! Yet throughout all those years, I had never completed a single book or sent out a single submission to a traditional publisher. That all changed in 2011.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the origins of the concept behind The Human Chronicles.

I don’t know about you, but I had always been frustrated with the majority of science fictions stories and movies that depict humans getting our asses kicked by either a handful of aliens or by a spore or two released into the atmosphere. Let’s face it, reality could be a whole other ballgame. Just think of a den of lions, masters of the savannah,  fearing no creature. Now what if these lions entered the territory of the humans? What do you think would happen? No matter how strong and mighty the lions may be, it’s a pretty good bet that this encounter would not work out well — for the lions! I believe it would be the same for aliens.

Let’s face it, mankind has dominated everything on the planet Earth, and yet we’re to believe that every alien race we encounter will be able to kick our ass? It hasn’t worked out like that so far on the planet Earth. Here we are the head honchos, the top of the freaking food chain.

My vision of a science fiction story where the humans are doing the terrorizing and ass-kicking came into full focus years ago when I saw a cartoon in an old Soldier of Fortune Magazine. It was of a muscle-bound man standing over a dragon-looking thing and holding a smoking gun. The caption read, “I don’t know what it was, but it’s dead.”

Whether you like it or not, that is probably how it would work out for any aliens we encounter. Either by sheer force or by technology, I’m pretty sure we’ll find a way to prevail … and luck will have nothing to do with it.

So the premise of The Human Chronicles Saga is that Humans are the Supermen in the galaxy. No, we can’t fly and we can be killed, yet as I explain in the books, we come from a heavy-gravity world, helping us to build added strength, durability and quickness. I also remember seeing a study that was done on the bone structure of prehistoric man. As was necessary for survival in those days, their bones were a lot denser and stronger than ours are today. Frankly, you could take a baseball bat to the arm of a Neanderthal, — and even though you may really piss him off — you probably wouldn’t be able to break his arm, and he could probably outrun you, too. So it probably wasn’t such a good idea to hit him with a baseball bat in the first place! Now pretend you’re an alien and we’re the pissed-off Neanderthals….

I use a combination of literary license and suppositions to say Humans are more primitive along the evolutionary ladder than most aliens, like Neanderthals would be to modern man, at least physically. Then add in our heavy-gravity world and propensity for combat, and you have the perfect warriors — the Supermen among the aliens.

So with the premise of The Human Chronicles Saga established, now all I had to do was create a scenario where we would come in contact with aliens on their own turf, along with a way for us to show off our skills.

The Fringe Worlds introduces the readers to the world of Juirean Expansion, an alien empire encompassing half the known galaxy. The Juireans are a race of pragmatic aliens who, as part of an ancient alliance of races, were themselves the primitives among the enlightened. Using their own unique skill-set and warlike nature, the Juireans conquered their fellow alliance members and set about establishing a galactic empire using stolen technology and superior tactics of war. It’s within the Juirean’s efforts to rule a galaxy as a single race of beings that I also explore the difficulties the Juireans had to overcome while attempting to do the impossible. Eventually, their empire evolves into a loose affiliation of planets and coalitions, all under the banner of the Juirean Expansion. For my hypothetical universe, this seemed to work out just fine.

And yet, as always, there are forces looking to undermine the status quo, and that’s where the Humans come in. (By the way, I capitalize ‘Humans’ throughout the books, just as you’d capitalize Klingons or Romulans. It’s only appropriate.) An ancient alien race has discovered the Earth and realize that the Humans might be just the ticket to help them defeat the Juireans. However, like with all living things, there has to be motivation and incentive for the Humans to risk life and limb. And with that, I’ll leave that part of the story untold — until you read the books.

Now back to The Fringe Worlds. In truth, The Fringe Worlds was supposed to be twice as long as it turned out to be, and was to include what would become book two of the series, Alien Assassin. Yet impatience and curiosity got the best of me, and once a logical break point was reached, I decided to put the book up on Amazon and see if anyone cared about what I’d written.

The Fringe Worlds went live on Amazon.com on October 12, 2011, and needless to say it took off immediately. I was not only shocked but amazed at the reaction the book received. Here I was, a completely unknown author having just completed my very first book — ever — and it was selling like hotcakes. Yet this only goes to prove one of the basic tenets of science fiction writing: The Concept is King! If the idea is good, then science fans will flock to it. The story of Humans being the badasses in the galaxy really struck a chord, and now, exactly two years a few days after releasing The Fringe Worlds, there are six books completed in the series, and soon to be a seventh (and probably going to nine and beyond). I’ve sold nearly 150,000 copies of my books in two years, and The Human Chronicles Saga was one of the bestselling series on Amazon in 2012 — and should be again in 2013.

Besides the unique concept of the storyline, I also attribute some of the success of the series to the fact that I write very cinematically (after all, I am a product of the TV age). My writing is bare-bones and without fluff, so much so that many of my fans have commented on how quickly they’ve read my books … and about how long it takes me to write more! But with people’s short attention spans these days, I think readers like books they can blast right through … as long as there is another one available right afterwards.

I also believe in getting right into the story and in keeping the reader engaged — constantly — until the very last page. This comes from my journalism training, where one needs to hook the reader immediately, grab them by the throat and not let them go until they’ve read the entire article. (Well, maybe not so dramatic as that.) But really, I’m not out to impress anyone with my poetic and flowery writing style, or mastery of obscure words no one uses in everyday conversation.  I have a story to tell and I’m going to tell it in the most direct manner I can.

On a personal note, the success of series has allowed me to leave my 25-year career in real estate and mortgages and pursue writing full time — an ambition of mine since I was twelve! Better late than never, right? Also, for you out there thinking about pursuing a career in writing, I’ve pulled in close to $400,000 in two years, simply from my little science fiction ebooks!

And although there will come a time when The Human Chronicles Sage comes to an end (or I take a break from the story of Adam Cain for a while), my writing style will remain the same. I hope my fans will follow me into the future, as I pursue other ideas and create new worlds in which to play.

By the way, there will be a large section in this blog devoted to writing and publishing. Even though my success has been recent, it has been substantial compared to others, and in an effort to keep it going, I do try to analyze everything so I can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Within this blog I will pass along my findings, advice and experiences. I hope all aspiring authors will follow me, as we discover even more writing success … together.

Frankly, being an independent author is the most fantastic job in the world. As I tell others: All I have to do is sit around and make shit up — and I get paid for doing it!

You can’t beat that.

T.R. (Tom) Harris