How giving my book away free on Amazon actually worked

People imagine that writing a book and finding a publisher is kind of like this. 

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I'll be honest. It's definitely more like this.

Twenty months ago I hit a brick wall.

I had worked hard for months on a young adult manuscript and had eagerly sent it out to publishers. After many rejections, finally, an editor from a major publishing house loved it. In fact, she'd even cried over it (in a good way). The possibility of publication was definitely there and I was super excited.

A month later I had the same manuscript in my hands, and a rejection letter from the editor. It was polite and generous, but it was a rejection nonetheless.

There was nowhere else to go.

Except into the dark, dangerous world of self-publishing.

I never wanted to be a writer who published her own stuff. It seemed embarrassing. Naff. The sort of thing people who weren't real writers did. Having a proper publisher sent a message. This is worthwhile. This is a good book.

What I didn't know is that the reality is: even if your stuff is good and editors cry over it, if it doesn't match up to the 'list' the publisher is pushing that year, it won't get picked up. Also, two more things: just because a publisher takes it on doesn't necessarily mean it's good. AND, being published doesn't necessarily mean you'll see any money or get any publicity or sell heaps and heaps of books.

Which, obviously, is what I want to do.

So my entry into the world of independent publishing was reluctant. Well, I'll give it a go. I won't have lost anything, anyway. It's better to be 'out there', wherever that is, than sitting in a closed file on my computer.

Right? 

Now, please bear in mind that everything I've done to self-publish has been haphazard and random. I've done it all from my own research which has been neither methodical nor thorough. I have been a babe, wandering wide-eyed through the woods of indie-land, picking up bits and pieces here and there.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I would give my book away for free. Because if the first one is free and people like it, maybe they'll buy the second one. 

So this is what I did.

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1) Got an awesome cover. Honestly, I'm so pleased with the cover of Invisible, which was done by a graphic designer friend with experience in book covers. I think it's gorgeous. I love the colours and the images. 

2) Distributed as an ebook. I formatted my novel for Smashwords.com first and uploaded it. This gets it distributed to iBooks and Barnes and Noble and a bunch of other reputable ebook retailers. I set the price for $0.00.

3) Uploaded to Amazon.com. The formatting is slightly different for Kindle Direct Publishing so I fixed that up and loaded it up only to find that I couldn't set the price to $0.00. $0.99 was the only option. I googled a bunch of sites and couldn't find any solutions to my problem so I set it to $0.99 in frustration and thought, "well, at least it's cheap."

Happily, to my surprise a couple of weeks later I noticed that the price was back at zero. This is because apparently Amazon will price match. When it sees the same book at Smashwords for a cheaper price, it sets its own price the same. This is called (by the people on the Amazon forums) setting your price as 'permafree'. It's different from when you're part of the KDP Select program (which I'm not because then I can't be on iBooks etc) and can set it on free for a specific period.

4) Formatted as an actual book and published on lulu.com. This is a short run printing service that prints and binds your book so you can have a paperback (or hardback or whatever) copy in your own hands. I've been able to print 10 to 20 copies at a time that I can sell myself.

5) Did a couple of book blog tours. Cheapies. I basically had no budget for publicity.

6) Advertised a couple of times on Facebook. I targeted the ads to fit my demographic of young teenage English speaking girls and spend teeny tiny amounts each time.

7) Entered the MS in some (free) competitions. Most of these came to nothing but the book got to semi finals status in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award which was pretty exciting.

8) Set up a mailing list. Readers can sign up for news about my writing and keep up to date with what I'm doing and when new books are coming out. I wish I'd done this from Day one. I missed so many opportunities by only getting to it about 15 months in. But as I said, haphazard and random. At the moment the list is growing by about two or three a week.

9) Set up an author facebook page and a twitter account with links from the back of the book. I get a few followers a week on twitter and one or two a fortnight on facebook. I hate twitter, but I try to tweet once a day and put something on FB at least every two or three days.

10) Asked for reviews in the back. It was something like this: 'this is a free book and if you liked it I'd really, really, super appreciate it if you'd leave a review.'

11) Answered every single fan letter and email. Every single one. At reasonable length and with a very friendly voice, thanking them for reading and telling them I really appreciate it. 

12) Wrote another book. And put the first chapter of it in the back of Invisible so readers have a taster. 

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Twenty months later, where am I at?

Quite a good place, to be honest.

In the first couple of months Invisible was featured in the iBooks 'Breakout Books' section and at one stage ranked at #12 in the Free Books list. On Amazon it got to a top ranking of about #112 for a day before stabilising somewhere between #200-300.

And the reviews were rolling in. Amazon ended up winning in the review stakes. At the time of writing the book has over 730 reviews, of which the vast majority are 4 and 5 stars. There are a handful of 1 and 2 star reviews and a couple of recurring complaints (the most common being that, apparently, I can't spell. I'm going to have to put an Author's Note in the front and tell my (mostly American) readers that Aussies spell things differently. Doesn't mean I'm wrong.)

The reviews on Goodreads (which I also joined and put my books into) are a lot tougher. My average is about 3.7 stars there, but the Goodreads crowd are pickier than Amazon readers.

I found that people who like the book really, really like it. They 'get' it. It moves them. Sometimes it even changes their life. The people who don't like can't stand it. "No plot, too slow, boring..." But that's okay. Or, I should say, I have learned to be okay with that. At first a harsh review put me out of action for a couple of days. Now I look at it as a sign of whether that person is in my 'tribe' or audience.... or not.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel was a big deal for me. It gave me affirmation as a writer, which was what I'd been wanting all along. It also gave me the courage to bite the bullet and finally, a year and a half after it was published, put a price on Invisible.

On June 13 I changed all the prices so that readers now pay the princely sum of $2.99 to read my baby. Immediately, the ranking dropped drastically, but I was expecting it so it wasn't a big shock. What didn't change was the number of reviews that came in, still at the rate of a couple a week.

Of course the big question is: what are the sales like? Well, happily, it has sold at the rate of about 19-20 per day, which brings in the same amount of money as a one day per week job for me. So it's a good beginning to my 'try-to-become-a-real-writer' plan, in which I'll be able to support the family with writing. It means I might not have to go get a proper job when my preschooler heads to school in eighteen months time. Interestingly, quite a bit of the money I've earned so far has come from lulu.com. As the book has taken off on Amazon, people have been ordering paperback copies of their own, which Amazon orders from my lulu account. Win/win.

Is it a raging success? Well, no. I wouldn't call it that, but it's the beginning of something that can definitely get better.

Unfortunately my second novel, Love and Muddy Puddles, hasn't sold so well. I'm surprised. I think it's funnier and sharper and I really enjoyed writing it, but it is quite different from the first book so perhaps people who love Invisible aren't going to be as attracted to it. It needs a bit of a 'break' somehow. I'm not quite sure how to do it, but right now I don't have the time to put into pushing it because I've decided to write a sequel to Invisible, following many, many requests from readers. Hopefully that will do as well as the first book. 

Things I'd love to do next time include having a really great book launch weekend. The inimitable Katie J Cross is the Queen of the Indie Book Launch. I wish I had as many friends as she does... and I'm seriously considering hiring her to organise mine later this year.

I'd also love to be brave enough to insert myself into local bookstores and say, "Hello, I want to have a book signing right here, next week." I'm still a bit terrified when it comes to asking for help from bricks and mortar retailers.

Things I plan to do include getting Invisible translated (when I've saved up enough money), maybe into Spanish to begin with....) and made into an audiobook. So there's still more I can do with this little novel.

Would I self-publish again? Well, yes. Actually, I think it's pretty good. It could be because I don't have a lot to compare it to, but I do know that because I carry the burden of the books myself I'm way more invested in promoting and publicising them than I would be if the publisher was responsible for them. I also like seeing how many I'm selling on a daily basis. With a traditional publisher, you find out twice a year just how many have sold, by which time it's too late to do anything about it.

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If you're a person who wants to publish a book, please allow me to offer, unsolicited, 

Cecily's haphazard, unmethodical advice for a newbie self-publisher

1) Write a really good book. Really, really work on it. You'll never be able to get any traction in the market if it doesn't have something special going for it. Get all the advice you can, pay for professional advice if you can afford it and don't be afraid to go back over it and over it.

2) Get a really, really good cover. Spend the money, get the result. People DO judge a book by its cover.

3) Publish on Amazon, smashwords and lulu.com (or it's equivalent). Put plenty of links to your blog, social media pages and, most importantly, your mailing list, in the back of the book. 

4) Build a mailing list. This is really important. I wish I'd done this months ago. Every person on that list is someone who WANTS TO KNOW when you're writing something else. They like you!

5) Do social media as much as you can. Build relationships with other authors. I haven't quite worked out how to do this, but there are networks and things. Vague? Yes. Having said that, I've got two online indie author friends who I love and who love me, and I got a commendation from uber-author Cathy Cassidy for Invisible through Twitter.

6) Book tours? Decide for yourself. I'm unsure if I'd do it again. But then again, maybe I would. It depends on the budget you've got really.

7) Be nice to fans. I love mine. They love me. I'm genuinely excited and scared to share new work with them. I so desperately want them to love it!

8) Write another (really good) book. See step one. Rinse and repeat.

And good luck, from one indie author to another.


Are you an indie author? What's worked (or not worked) for you?