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The top ten lessons I’ve learnt since indie publishing The Big Smoke

Today marks one month since I independently published my debut novel, The Big Smoke, so I think it’s a good time to give you an update of how it’s going and what I’ve learnt so far.

I’m sad to report that I’m yet to overtake 50 Shades of Grey in terms of self publishing success – but I live in hope ;-). As you would imagine, one month ago, I had some expectations about how my experience of independent publishing might go, based on what I’ve read about others’ journeys (both the stellar and not-so-stellar). Some of those expectations have been met, others haven’t. Here are my top ten learnings so far, in no particular order.

Learning 1: despite what everybody says, your e-book sales will not necessarily outpace paper book sales (at least not initially). 

Pretty much everything I’ve read has said that e-book sales are where it’s at for independently published books and that paper books are a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’. This hasn’t been the case for me.

So far, I’ve sold a total of 162 books (told you I’d be honest!) and 78% of those have paperbacks. Of my e-book sales, 75% have been through Amazon US. The rest have been through Smashwords (8%), Apple (8%), Barnes and Noble (3%), Amazon UK (3%) and Amazon DE (3%) . I’m yet to sell any books from Kobo, Diesel or other Amazon country sites.

However, this trend may be short-lived, considering almost all of the paper books I’ve sold have been to friends, family, acquaintances and friends of friends and family. If The Big Smoke is going to be commercially successful, it will need to spread beyond this circle, and I still think that’s more likely to happen online than through paper book sales. I’ll keep you posted as things progress…

Learning 2: a big online book launch doesn’t necessarily equate to big online sales.

As my regular readers know, I put a fair amount of effort into my online book launch. I held a blogfest which included a reasonable prize ($20 Amazon gift voucher) and had a 15-stop blog tour which included interviews and guest posts on a variety of topics. I have no idea how many people this tour would have reached, but I imagine it would have been quite a lot.

But as you can see from my figures, it didn’t produce mountains of online sales. Why? There are probably a number of reasons for this. Here are some that spring to mind:

  • Most people who read blogs are other bloggers, and while we all want to be supportive, we hear about so many books, we can’t possibly buy them all.
  •  The blogs I posted on were all over the place in terms of writer genre (for example, I posted on blogs that primarily discuss science fiction and fantasy, while The Big Smoke is contemporary realism). If I was looking at things purely from a marketing perspective, I’d say this wasn’t the smartest move.

I don’t regret doing my blog tour by any means because I love the writing blogosphere and get so much out of it other than sales. I really enjoyed sharing my experiences with the people who have supported me since I started this blog. Next time I launch a book though, I will have different expectations about what a blog tour might achieve.

Learning 3: don’t rely on advertised shipping times

Apologies to those who have read about this already in interviews I’ve done, but it’s too big of a learning not to share here. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced on my self-publishing journey so far involved having to confront the possibility of having a book launch with no books. Createspace’s website says that you can ship books to Australia within three working days, but when I tried to place my order on Tues 16 October for my book launch on Sat 27 October, the estimated arrival date was Wed 31 October. Um, excuse me?! I knew that the three working days didn’t include printing, but I didn’t think that printing could account for the extra seven working days Createspace was saying it would take for my order to reach me.

I sent an e-mail to Createspace explaining the situation, and they essentially said there was nothing they could do because they don’t guarantee timeframes for wholesale orders. What the?! Where exactly does it say THAT on your website?! Panic stations!

And, of course, because Australia and America’s time zones are so different, I received this email at 2 a.m. Naturally, I woke Mark (my husband) up so we could try to figure out what to do. We discussed postponing the launch, trying to find a local printer who could print the books within the timeframe, going ahead with the launch without the books (Mark’s crazy idea), but eventually we discovered that if we placed several orders of smaller quantities, it would bring the delivery date forward to Fri 26 October — the day before the launch. Cutting it very fine, but that was our best option. So, at about 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning, we placed four orders and went to sleep. One of those shipments arrived on Fri 19 October and the rest arrived on Mon 22 October (much earlier than Createspace predicted). Crisis averted! Thank goodness!

The lesson? Don’t rely on advertised shipping times. Be on the safe side and order as soon as you possibly can.

Learning 4: book stores finalise their Christmas purchases in late October to early November. 

In mid-November, I approached a number of book stores in my local area to see if they would be interested in stocking The Big Smoke. They all said that they’d finalised their purchases for the Christmas period well in advance, and they asked me to come back in January.

This means that, unfortunately, I’ve missed out on the casual bookshop browser choosing to buy The Big Smoke for a Christmas present. Obviously it’s hard to know whether all stores work to the same timeframe but I thought I’d share it in case you’re interested in publishing independently around the Christmas period in the future.

Learning 5: the waiting time to get into local libraries (in my area) is 6-12 months.

Another time-related learning. When I approached my local council library last week, they told me that they have one reader who assesses every book to see if it’s suitable for their shelves and that the waiting time can be 6 to 12 months. I’m assuming this is only for independently published books (can’t see them holding back best sellers for 12 months!), but had I known about this earlier, I would have approached the libraries as soon as I received my first shipment of books.

Learning 6: Australia Post is ridiculously expensive compared to similar services. 

As some of you know, I’ve set up an order form on my blog for Australians and New Zealanders to order copies of The Big Smoke. One of the reasons I did this was because I thought it would be a lot cheaper for customers if I had books shipped to me in bulk numbers and then I mailed individual orders within Australia/New Zealand. However, would you believe it costs $13.50 to post one book from Brisbane to New South Wales (a neighbouring state), while someone in New South Wales can order my book direct from Amazon US for $9.98 shipping. Where is the logic in that?!

Granted, if someone orders it direct from me, it will get to them faster and I will get more royalties, but it still seems pretty nonsensical to me. So now I only recommend people purchase the book direct from me if they would like it signed or want it in a hurry (or they live in Brisbane and can collect it from me).

I’m interested to know whether this is similar in other countries or whether it’s just an Australian thing (I wouldn’t be surprised because we’re pretty expensive compared to other countries for a range of products and services).

Learning 7: You can get a refund on an e-book seven days after purchasing it from Amazon. 

I don’t understand the logic behind this one either. I think it’s good that Amazon has a return function because it’s easy to accidentally purchase an e-book with their one-click functionality, but I don’t get why you would give people up to seven days. If you were so inclined, you could read an entire book and then ask for a refund. You certainly can’t do this from a physical book store or practically any other store I can think of. Even if you didn’t like the book, is that grounds for a full refund? After all, you can’t go to the cinemas, watch an entire movie, and then ask for a refund because you didn’t like it.

So far, eight purchases of The Big Smoke have been refunded. This concerns me. I’m very happy with the content of the book so the only reason I can think of (other than people buying the book by accident or being cheap and nasty) is that my marketing material (cover, blurb etc) is giving people the wrong impression of the book, so their expectations aren’t being met when they start to read (you’d think the lengthy free sample would alleviate this, but perhaps not everybody looks at that).

If you have any thoughts about my marketing material or other theories on why people might get a book refunded, let me know.

Learning 8: casual readers are much more likely to rate your book on Goodreads than write a review on Amazon.

Initially, when readers told me how much they enjoyed The Big Smoke, I would thank them profusely and ask them if they would be so kind as to write a review on Amazon. While a lot of people said they would, few actually did.  From what I can tell, there are two main reasons for this:

  • To write a review on Amazon, you must have purchased a product from Amazon in the past. This may be common in other parts of the world, but apart from those with Kindles, not that many Australians have bought Amazon products. I didn’t realise this initially because I have a Kindle and even before then, I’ve bought books from Amazon to feed my reading habit.
  • Writing a review on a site like Amazon can be confronting for people who don’t regularly post online. Those of us with blogs don’t really bat an eyelid over it, but if you’re not used to writing stuff that is available for everyone to see, it can be a little intimidating.

Recently, I’ve changed from asking people to write a review on Amazon to simply rating the book on Goodreads. Here’s an example of my reply to a comment on my Facebook author page:

“Woohoo! So glad you enjoyed it! If you have a couple of seconds, it would be awesome if you could rate it out of five on Goodreads. You can sign in instantly with your Facebook account. I’d really appreciate it! 🙂 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16037996-the-big-smoke

That is so much easier and so much less confronting for people, so it’s no wonder they’re more inclined to do it. I’ll definitely continue to take that approach from now on. 

Learning 9: Getting low ratings without reviews is frustrating 

While we’re talking about Goodreads ratings… The Big Smoke has received a few two-star ratings in the past month (four two-star ratings out of a total 27 ratings No one-star ratings so far!). I know that people have different tastes and so I always knew to expect some not-so-favourable reviews, but I hate not knowing why someone didn’t enjoy my work. What was it about the book that didn’t click with them? The characters? The plot? The overriding themes? My curiosity overwhelms me and I have to stop myself from writing them a message to ask. (I’m assuming that wouldn’t be cool…)

Learning 10: I’ll never get sick of hearing people say how much they enjoyed my book.

Okay, so this one isn’t too surprising, since I probably would have guessed before publishing that I’d continue to enjoy hearing from people who like my work. Who doesn’t? But still, it’s nice to know that the warm fuzzy an unprompted reader compliment gives you doesn’t diminish after you’ve received a few of them. I think it’s pretty safe to say that comments like this will always bring a smile to my face:

Thanks for a great read. I have really enjoyed “The Big Smoke”. Loved the Characters (even the not so nice ones!) and I even had a tear in a couple parts of the book. Well done!  [This comment was made on my Facebook page by someone I went to school with twelve years ago and haven’t seen since.]

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So there you have it. My top ten learnings from my first month of having an independently published book on the market. If there’s anything I haven’t covered that you’d like to know about, please don’t hesitate to ask. I know many of you have been curious to hear how it’s all going and I’m more than happy to share. 🙂

Next week, I’ll post what my next steps are for marketing The Big Smoke so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Your turn

Does any of what I’ve learnt surprise you? Did you know that you can get a refund from Amazon up to seven days after you purchase an e-book? Any thoughts on why people might be getting a refund on The Big Smoke? Are you surprised that my paperback sales are currently outpacing my e-book sales?

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