Columns > Published on September 20th, 2012

Adventures In Self-Publishing Part 2: From Art To Commerce

On the evening of September 10th, I submitted my novella to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. By the next morning, it was live (but only at Amazon--more on that later). The Last Safe Place: A Zombie Novella has a handsome little 'buy' button next to it, and I get reports on how many copies have been sold, and someone I don't know posted to my Twitter account that the preview text got her to buy it. 

How cool is that? 

So, what's it about? Glad you asked! 

It's been two years since the outbreak of a plague that turned New Yorkers into flesh-eating corpses. The city’s population has dwindled to three hundred refugees on Governors Island, a park and former military outpost situated in Upper New York Bay, a few hundreds yards from Manhattan and Brooklyn. The survivors struggle with supply shortages and flaring tempers, but the monsters they call ‘rotters’ can’t swim. The island isn't comfortable, but it's safe.

That sense of safety is shattered when Sarge, a former cop and the island’s head of security, comes face to decomposing face with a rotter while on an early-morning patrol. There's no conceivable way for the creature to have gotten on the island. What’s worse is that its stone-like skin makes it much tougher to kill.

Faced with the prospect of an evolving enemy, and desperate to find antibiotics for his dying wife, Sarge has to get into Manhattan, do some recon, forage for supplies, and get out—without drawing the attention of the millions of rotters that now roam the city.

It's really, really satisfying to see a story through to completion. I've written two novels--one that was rubbish, one that needs a lot of work. And here's a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It feels done, and I'm happy to lock it into a static state and move on. I'm high on accomplishment, and that high is pushing me to produce more work, which is a great place to be. 

At the same time, self-publishing feels like a half measure. Not to say I regret doing it, or that I think I should have gotten a traditional deal for it (it's a novella, I doubt anyone would have taken it). But people have been congratulating me on it. My mom even read it (making me regret how many times I used the word fuck). I feel like I accomplished something... but something worthy of celebration? I don't know.  

This isn't to denigrate self-publishing, or to say I don't stand behind the story I told. But I can't help how I feel, and it would be dishonest of me to say otherwise. So many emotions, is the thing. 

What's next?

Now, the artistic end of this endeavor--the writing, the editing, the rewriting, the fear I didn't serve my story--all of that is over. The story is gone from me and in the hands of the readers. People ask me questions and I can just shrug and say: Well, what did you think that meant?

This brings us to the business end of things, into selling this thing. Because I wouldn't have much to talk about here if I didn't do that. So, I figured I'd start with where the book is, why, and my plans for the future (because I'm very serious about this being an experiment in self-publishing--one for all of us to talk about and learn from). 

The eBook is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Both iBooks and Smashword are--I hear--a pain to deal with, and the three stores I'm in have apps for iOS. I'm giving some thought to putting out a print-on-demand edition through Amazon's CreateSpace (a number of people have asked me to print out the book because they don't have eReaders), but I'm not committed to the idea. We'll see. 

As for this column, I plan to talk about the process of marketing the book. I'll tell you what I'm doing to sell it, and at the end of each column, I'll post my latest sales numbers. I'll note if anything in particular led to a sudden rush in sales, but for the most part, we should be able to draw some conclusions about what's moving the needle and what's not.

I'm also setting the goal that I won't spend any money on this (besides what I spent on the cover, designed by Propmaven Media, if you're in the market). I may experiment with Goodreads or Facebook ads at some point in the future, but honestly, I don't want to drop a grand on a blog tour, and I don't want to be one of those people who pays for reviews. I want to see how much mileage I can get for free. I market books for a living at MysteriousPress.com, so I know a lot of the basics anyway.  

Mistakes

Before I get into what I've been working on thus far, I wanted to mention one of the big mistakes I've made already. I posted the book with three freaking typos in it (that I've been made aware of so far).

As I mentioned in the last column, instead of paying for an editor, I asked my friends and colleagues to read it and give me their thoughts, and offered to read their work or do something writerly in exchange.

It was a little harder than I thought. A bunch of people who offered to help ended up not being able to (and no hard feelings there, life gets in the way). I split the editing up into two rounds--for content, and then proofreading. But after I coded the eBook, my wife found a logical inconsistency, which necessitated more changes, which opened the door for more typos. And I couldn't help but tinker with things here and there--more typos, more proofreading required. The novella needed at least one more good, solid read before it went live. 

Shortly after the book went live, my wife's friend notified me to the three typos--two grammatical errors, and one factual error (the model of gun used by the narrator doesn't have a safety).  

Maybe hiring an editor for the final edit wouldn't have been such a bad idea. Not to say I'm unhappy with the work my friends did. I got some amazing suggestions--and a great deal of encouragement. But having a professional set of eyes on it might have obviated the blind panic and rush upstairs to my office to rework the eBook file. 

And I'll try to demonstrate a little more patience next time, always a fault of mine. 

C'mon, Barnes & Noble

I posted the novella to Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble at 11 p.m. on September 10th. By the time I woke up, it was available on Amazon, and the day after that, it was up on Kobo. Barnes & Noble took 72 hours just to approve my account. Then they said it would be another 72 hours before the book was for sale. The entire time I imagined a bunch of Barnes & Noble execs sitting in a room, gnashing their teeth and wondering why Amazon was gutting them. 

What I did thus far: 

The book will have been live for more than a week when this column hits. So here's what I did to promote it: 

  • Three Facebook posts, three Twitter posts (I have 540 Facebook friends and 1,550 Twitter followers)
  • A Facebook and Twitter post from LitReactor (7,480 Facebook likes and 6,100 Twitter followers)
  • Asked the alumni association of my college to post a link on its Facebook page (2,900 Facebook likes)
  • Set up a Goodreads author page
  • Submitted to the Kindle Singles program for consideration
  • Set up an Amazon author page
  • Hooked up with the 1000 Zombies project (head of of the program has 30,000 Google+ followers)

These numbers are rough and doesn't take into account a million different factors, but for the sake of a general discussion, that's an audience of about 50,000 people. And as you'll notice from the sales tally below, I reached barely a fraction of that audience. 

Lesson one of self-publishing: Sales don't just happen. You have to make them happen. 

I'm not surprised that Kobo is at zero (they've got a nice self-pubbing interface but they're just not a big player). I'm a little surprised at the low number from Barnes & Noble, but at the same time, they don't seem to put a great deal of interest into online sales (Amazon's site is amazing at hooking you up with new reading material and making sure you've found what you're looking for; Barnes & Noble, not so much). 

As for Amazon--they're the big guy in this game, so that's where the biggest number sits, and that's not surprising at all. They also offer some fairly current sales reporting, and one of the toughest parts of this process so far is to not sign onto their backend two dozen times a day, to see if I've sold any more copies.

Sales tally:

Discussion time

There's still a lot here I'm figuring out, obviously, and a lot more I have planned, but I think I've rambled enough for this month. If anyone has any questions, please ask. If you think I'm doing something wrong or have some suggestions or anything really, speak up. I'd love to get a bit of a discussion going.

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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