If you like what you read, consider checking out his website for more. Better yet, buy his book!
I Self-Published a #1 Amazon Best Seller, but It Was Dangerous. Don't Try This at Home . . .
by Gruff Davies
In November 2010, I held the launch party for my debut science fiction novel, The Looking Glass Club. About six weeks after launch, the book became an Amazon best seller. In fact, it reached #1 on Amazon UK's genre best seller lists (Science Fiction > Mysteries and Crime). The CTO of Amazon actually tweeted that he'd started reading it! I was beyond ecstatic as you can imagine. You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm now a card-carrying member of the self-publishing movement, but I'm not. This is my account of just how tough the whole process was and how close it came to being an absolute disaster. In retrospect, it was a rash and dangerous choice that could have destroyed my writing career. Hopefully, this story will help you decide whether trade publishing or self-publishing is the right route for you, and if you do decide to self-publish, maybe you can glean from my experiences what to do and what not to do to give your book—and your career—its best chance.
Firstly, let me say up-front: I have a respectable strike rate with agents. I'd already approached what I considered to be the top UK literary agency (for SF) with one of my science fiction stories early in my writing career and they loved it and asked me for more. Years later when I'd finished writing a mature draft of The Looking Glass Club they loved that too, calling it 'a corker'—at first anyway. Recently, I submitted a sample of my second novel—again to just one agent—and received extremely positive feedback. I've only ever contacted six agents in total, and achieved a 1 in 3 strike rate, with two 'bullseyes' on first subs. So why on Earth would I choose to self-publish in the first place?
Beware of the Hype
Well, partly, I was taken in by a lot of hype about how easy it was to do. By all the success stories. And it's true. Partly. It is easy. But publishing a book is not the same as marketing a book and making it a success. And if you self-publish, this is an enormously difficult thing to do, and it's getting harder, not easier.
I realise now I was extremely naive about the work involved in publishing a book in today's market. Understand that getting an agent interested in your novel is really just the first step in a long process. It can take years of work and rewrites after you finish writing what you thought was the 'final' draft to get it on the shelf. Publishers receive enormous amounts of submissions, and use agents as a quality filter. Some publishers only accept submissions from agents. Agents therefore receive enormous amounts of submissions too. They read a huge number of books per week each. One I met claimed to read ten novels a week. That's two novels every day in a five day week! They are not reading your work the way a reader would, for pleasure. They're not reading your work to 'get it' they way you intended it when you wrote it. Agents live on the commission they earn from books. They skim read.
They read to reject. They have to, to get through their workload. And they have a glut of choice of talented writers.
They're looking for commercially viable prospects that will feed and clothe them and make them money in an increasingly difficult market. Even if they've expressed initial interest in a book, if you are not willing to mould that book (and indeed yourself) into something that they think will fly commercially, they will rapidly lose interest. It can be a bit like X factor for books but without the dramatic music and fireworks.
I didn't understand any of this. It was my first book. I had a vision for it that I didn't want to let go of. I was attached to it being my book, my way. I made major revisions to the book twice over about 18 months based on their feedback but I didn't rewrite it the way one of the agents wanted. He'd basically asked for a complete rewrite and a simplification that I felt totally compromised the integrity of the book. In the end, it became clear the relationship was going cold and, frustrated and exhausted by five drafts over six years, I finally snapped and decided, what the hell, I'll publish myself. I didn't use any of the existing services for authors though, like Lulu. They seemed expensive and low quality. I wanted to be totally professional—I wanted to publish as if I'd published it traditionally. I was just making my own a shortcut. I took advice from a friend who was very senior at Bloomsbury, hired an editor, set up my own micro-publisher and tried as much as possible to mimic the process of trade publishing to ensure the same quality. Paying an editor was a great decision. But trying to mimic trade publishing marketing was a big mistake, and I almost totally messed up the marketing side. It could have ended my career instead of boosting it. I was lucky.
Very, very lucky.
The Uncomfortable Truth About Publishing
When I started out writing around 1999, I was warned that new novels sell fewer than 2,000 copies on average. Around 2005 I was told that a quarter of a million books were now published per year - a figure that staggered me. In 2010 more than three million books were reported published. Average annual sales for U.S. non-fiction books are now fewer than 250 copies. I believe it's now about 400 for novels. It's hard to get reliable data though. That two-thousand-sales-for-a-debut figure is now considered to be well above average. Averages are, of course, drastically affected by the explosion of new self-published books, but, the uncomfortable truth is: the more books there are published, the more competition there is in the market and the lower sales will be overall per book. In this new global world, you're competing with every other English language writer in the world. There's no escaping this fact. It affects you as an author whichever route you take. And to make matters worse, people are reading less and spending more time online.
It's not all bad news. The industry still generates billions in sales, but the best-selling books dominate those sales completely. In the few graphs of (questionable) data that I've managed to hunt down, even when you plot the volume of sales against sales rank on a logarithmic scale, the relationship is still one of exponential decay. It's a double exponent. If that's just maths gobbledegook to you, all you need to know is: if you're not in the top 1% you won't sell enough copies to cover your marketing costs. Let me paint this another way: the Fifty Shades trilogy accounted for 1 in every 20 book sales in 2012.
Statistically speaking, most books lose money. Publishers are very open about the fact they expect to lose money on new authors' first books. I can tell you first hand this is true because I did. Fortunately, I had prepared myself for this and viewed it as an investment in my career and a risk I was willing to take. The Looking Glass Club was not merely in the top 100 books on Kindle in Amazon in the genre lists, it was #1 (I took a screenshot that day), how could it lose money?
I hadn't any idea how hard it was to promote and market a book before I tried it. Naively, I figured, hey, I'm an experienced entrepreneur, how hard can it be? I've been on BBC Tomorrow's World (twice), Bill Gates presented one of my inventions at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2003. If I can get his attention, surely I can get anyone's; it's a great read. A unique story and there's even a competition relating to the theme*; I'm well-connected thanks to my education and social circles; I could pull some strings, ask for some favours... You get the idea. I completely bought my own hype. And I misled myself almost catastrophically as a result.
Promoting a new book isn't like promoting a new business, product or invention. All new novels are competing for the same marketing space. All new products are differentiable in their marketing promise. All new novels are conceptually the same: they promise to entertain you while you read them. You're competing for attention with every other novel published - now perhaps millions per year. Agents and publishers know this instinctively because they do this day-in, day-out. I didn't throw a huge amount of money at marketing my book, certainly not enough, but I did ask favours of people: three wonderfully generous friends in PR in the UK and US agreed to help. The reaction from press editor they contact on my behalf was almost unanimous: practically no-one in the major press wanted to know about it. It sounded too complicated (a self-published SF book about physics and philosophy in this TV era where TOWIE, X Factor and Britain's Got Talent reigns?). Journalists are busy trying to save their own careers from the tectonic shifts of the technology era where profits from paper sales are dwindling to nothing and few in publishing appear to have successfully worked out how to monetize the web.
Getting Reviews is Almost Impossible
After many weeks of zero press responses to read requests (baffled apologies from my PR friends who are all very successful at promoting other things), I began to panic. I started to realise no journalist was even going to waste time turning the first page of a long, complex novel by an unknown author. Why would they risk the time? I'm not Stephen Fry or Jordan. I had three people on the case, and zero results. I woke up in a cold sweat one morning realising the whole project could tank. Then I remembered an old friend from University wrote for New Scientist. Could he help? I emailed him: No, he'd already left to become a doctor, a more reliable career than journalism. Fortunately for me, he offered to pass my details on to another journalist for the magazine, who, solely trusting the relationship, agreed to read my book.
After months of graft, one journalist had agreed to read my book. And it was via a personal contact of mine.
Realising I was going to have to take massive evasive action to avoid a total disaster, I started to contact my own network in earnest with thinly disguised pleas for help. Various people at my alma mater, Imperial College, fortunately, were delighted to help - especially since the novel is partly set there. In the end, I even hosted the launch party at Imperial. I'm eternally grateful to them.
Meanwhile weeks past and nothing from New Scientist. I almost panicked as the launch date approached. I was committed. I recontacted some people that some of my PR friends had and tried again. Fortunately, another PR hit: a book had gone missing and I was asked to repost it in time for a Science Fiction special. The editor emailed me a week or two later to tell me it he'd found it such an exciting read he actually switched off X factor to finish it. A hint of sunshine in the gloom. He ran a whole page on me and the book, but this was relatively small circulation magazine. It was great PR but this wasn't going to turn into sales.
Then out of the blue, I heard back from New Scientist. She was only half way through the book but the journalist not only loved it, she thought New Scientist readers would too. Especially the puzzle aspect. This call came five weeks after sending the book off (during most of which time I was panicking). To my inexpressible relief she told me she was wanted to set up an interview and planned to write up a review of The Looking Glass Club in New Scientist's Christmas Special. New Scientist has a global circulation of about 130,000 readers - many of whom are the just sort of people I knew would love the book. I was overjoyed, but mostly I was relieved.
Luck, Luck, Luck
As a result, shortly after Christmas 2010, The Looking Glass Club went soaring up the best seller charts to reach the #1 spot on Amazon UK's sub-genre category: Science Fiction > Mysteries and Crime. My credibility as a writer was salvaged. Had I not pulled out all the stops and achieved a glowing review in a major publication like this, my book and career would have completely bombed. The web is full of people who will tell you that the stigma of self-publishing is changing (and I believe it is, slowly) but if my experience is anything to go by, don't think for one minute that you will find it easy, if at all possible to get reviews in anything with a decent circulation. Editors and journalists are bombarded with book review requests from trade press as well as people self-publishing. They simply don't have the time to check if your self-published book is any good. Requests from trade press are simply a safer bet: they've been through at least three experienced human quality filters that they respect: an agent, an editor and a publisher. If you self-published, you are very unlikely to get reviewed by a major publication. You need to factor this into your marketing. You need to do it differently.
So, I'd managed the highly-sought-after Amazon #1 ranking (on a sub-genre list mind you, not a major genre or their overall list, these are in turn orders of magnitude harder to get ranked on), now what? I hadn't a clue. I had no idea how to profit from this result and turn it into more PR and more sales. I floundered. I had nothing left in my PR sleeves apart mini-competitions which generated piddling results by comparison. Two weeks later, I lost the #1 position and I never regained it. Sales during that time accounted for the vast majority of the sales of the book to date.
The following year, with Christmas approaching, I thought I should employ a PR company specialising in books to run a six week campaign to promote the book again. To be fair to them, they advised against the timing and suggested a post-Christmas campaign would be less likely to get lost in the noise. I made the mistake of ignoring that advice. Thousands of pounds later the result were: one radio interview on barely known European station. Again, by using my own contacts, I managed to get a second higher profile interview myself.
Now, I know The Looking Glass Club is niche, but it is (apparently) a bloody good read if you happen to be my target market (it gets consistently high star ratings and excellent reviews on Amazon and Good Reads). I'm no celebrity, but I am quite well-connected. The problem wasn't with any of this. As an experienced entrepreneur I thought I understood business and marketing, and that was my mistake.
The problem was—is—the unique nature of the marketing landscape for novels.
Pushing Boulders Uphill
Remember tragic Sisyphus, pushing his boulder uphill for all eternity? Well, for authors that hill is has the shape of the double exponent decay curve I mentioned before. It gets steeper as a double exponent as you try to push your sales up and your rank down. If I hadn't managed to get that review in the New Scientist Christmas Special, my book would have sold minuscule volumes.
And, even during the period where The Looking Glass Club was ranked as a #1 Amazon Best Seller, I'd set pricing as low as possible to make the book attractive - I was barely making a margin on each sale. My books were all print-on-demand which is cripplingly expensive. Kindle sales made slightly more but not enough to compensate. I didn't have the time (or knowledge, or money) to do a guerrilla web-marketing campaign (I'm doing more of that now and it seems to be a far better option for both publishing routes).
So do I regret self-publishing? Oddly, no. I still think it was the right choice for me at the time. After six years of pain, I was done with the book. I needed it out there. I needed to know there was a market for my writing. I needed a confidence boost: you don't really know if you can write until you have book sales and fans writing in with wonderful praise. And you don't learn how to handle negative criticism until people scorn your work publicly either. Yes, so far, I've lost money self-publishing The Looking Glass Club but sales pick up for all books when authors publish subsequent novels. It'll pick up again. What I gained was self-confidence, very public praise for my work, credibility as writer, proof there was market for my voice, and a brief but fantastic #1 ranking. But more than that I gained an education about the reality of book publishing.
I've mentally put my losses down as the "course fees" for that education. I hope this blog post will save you paying the price I did for those lessons. The good news is: self-publishing can be a platform to help you on the route to being trade published if your book does well. 16 of the top 100 books on Kindle for 2012 were self-published, of which only 5 remain self-published. That figure is encouraging but do keep in mind the vast number of Kindle titles self-published that year.
I'm happy to be wrong, but the data support me in this: there aren't many options if you want to be a self-publishing success story:
- Be very famous already (or have a large following somehow)
- Write dozens and dozens of fun, easy-read, cheap novels very quickly
- Write well, have connections and money, and work damn hard on marketing, or
- Just be very, very, very lucky.
Whatever you do, set your expectations for the long haul. Believe in yourself - if you don't others won't. Don't rush the process. Don't "end game"—enjoy the writing process itself, because if you're going to be a writer, statistically speaking you're probably not going to make much money from it, if any at all. You may even lose money so treat it like a hobby that you'd spend money on. If you write for the love of writing, the other rewards are plentiful.
And if you work very, very hard at it. You might just be lucky enough to get into that top 1%.
Gruff Davies is an inventor, entrepreneur, and novelist and the author of the Looking Glass Club. He's currently writing a second novel, Supernova. A keen linguist, he’s also the co-founder and CEO of Bitesized Languages, Kwiziq and French-test.com. He invented the Exertris Gaming Exercise Bike featured on BBC Tomorrow's World and presented by Bill Gates at the Consumer Electronic Show in 2003.