This past June 15th (2019) was the fifth anniversary of the publication of Unlucky Seven.
It came and went without much ado. Mainly because, although Amazon lists this as the date I first hit the go-button on this project, the real work did not start until October of 2014. That is where I feel its anniversary should always be celebrated.
October 4th, 2019 was my first ever public exhibition as an author. The Too Groovy Toy Show. Held in a tiny church hall on Main Street in my hometown. I split a six-foot table with my friend and fellow author Spike Bowen. It was the first time I had personally sold a paper copy of my first run of my first novel to anyone. I handed them a book, they handed me ten dollars. So it began.
I didn’t even start signing them until around the third copy when my 8th grade Honors English teacher showed up, certainly not expecting to see a slacker of a student like me sitting behind a table hocking my own writing. I think I had to borrow a pen from someone because it never even occurred to me that anyone would want a copy of my work let alone one with my scribble of a signature inside it.
[Look, I know and I have been told by more than a handful of people that the tendency toward self-deprecation in my autobiographical writing doesn’t exactly bring in the social media hits but I am describing my earliest days here and my real feelings about them, so just press on reading, it gets better.]
I sold maybe ten books that day. I was walking home with $100 in my pocked even though I had spent quite a bit more than that just buying inventory. The table was $20 split between Spike and I and I had spent $75 on my 24×36 bristol board cover poster. I didn’t know what I expected. I had purchased 25 copies of my book and thought I would be cleaned out of them by the end of the day, walking out of there some kind of hometown hero.
I went home with a bit of a bruised ego which was my own fault for setting the bar high in a setting with which I wasn’t very familiar. I wasn’t sure if I would even bother going out with it in public again until Spike and I conspired to go to our first Steel City Con that December.
In the interim, things were flat. I was obsessively checking Amazon every day for new purchases or reviews. I set up my Goodreads page so that I could offer another avenue for such things. I took time to post in forums about my writing. I posted constantly on social media, plugging and plugging and plugging. I even put the book up for free on Amazon — something I periodically do now but, at the time, made it feel like I was desperate.
I thought that putting my writing out there would be some sort of immediate success. I was gullible and blind. Mainly, blinded by my own ego. Why weren’t more people buying? Reading? Reviewing? Where were the trumpets ushering me in past the gate that I had pounded against so hard in years past trying to get someone professional interested in my work?
Amazon did very clearly state that their publishing platform did not include promotions but surely in the category my book was in it must get some sort of attention. Surely people would come along amidst the sea of self-publishing and recognize that here was a complete and sturdy book, ready for mass consumption, and that I would be discovered sooner than any hack like Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James as the legends foretold. My writing is better than theirs, right? I’ll be the next superstar, right? Let’s start casting the movie!
All this in my head, I tried to keep a level expectation to the public. I wasn’t about to whine or complain about how poor sales were in those earliest of months. Upbeat sells. I knew this from my years in retail. And so came the pitch.
Directly behind me in that church basement was a shelf full of arts and crafts supplies, likely held there for Sunday school and other children’s activities. Realizing I had brought my giant poster but no accompanying price tags or eye-grabbing flavor text, I drew up a sign on the back of a paper lunch bag whose original purpose was likely linked to biblical hand puppets.
Fresh Hot Words – $10
This sign had grabbed a few chuckles at the toy show so, when I set up at Steel City Con for the first time (going in with the same deluded expectations of a giant amazing sell out), the sign stayed.
It wasn’t long before I realized that, despite my meager pile of books, my poster, and my funny sign that I was in Artist’s Alley. Around me rose towers of colorful artwork of people’s favorite characters and there I sat, in the middle of all of them, with really nothing interesting to show for myself. I could have thrown books at people and hit them in very sensitive areas, but would it even make a difference? It would probably drive away business and maybe get me kicked out. It wasn’t until the Saturday afternoon crowd rolled in on day 2 that I got fed up and, realizing what I could do with the sign people chuckled over, screamed for the first time:
“Words for sale! Fresh hot words for sale!”
Heads turned away from the pretty art pieces for a moment just to look at what nutcase was screaming in the middle of a crowded place. This was a con, after all, not an auction house. At shows like this, people weren’t supposed to call out to the clientele or interact unless they spoke to you first.
The thing is, though, they looked.
From there it started to get more personal. I would call out individuals. I started to become the Carnival Barker of Row P. I got more elaborate with my adjectives and soon my pitch became: “Fresh hot organic words for sale! Gluten-free, non-GMO words for sale! Free-range, farm-to-table, locally-sourced words for sale!”
I sold maybe a dozen more that weekend. It felt so unfulfilling. It was early in the game. I was thinking with my wallet rather than my brain. I wanted the fame and fortune that came with being a writer and I thought it would come immediately. This is a thirty-three year old man honestly believing that fame was going to drop into his lap any day now that the book was public. Looking back, I can’t believe how sadly gullible I was.
This isn’t a sob story or a pity party, though. It’s a retrospective.
Cons went on and I continued to measure my worth in numbers of books sold. Eventually, with the encouragement of my editor, I was able to pick up and move on with the story just as I was thinking of hanging up the entire thing permanently. Without her, I would have been lost in more ways than one.
Once the second book was in hand and people actually showed up to get one, I started to become a bit more encouraged. It was at this point that I slowly stopped caring about the money (having long ago given up any idea of ever making the nut) and started caring more about the readers. I might sell a dozen books over a three-day con and, while barely enough to cover meals and a bar tab, that was still two dozen potential readers. Even if they were the book collectors who have that ever-growing pile on their nightstand, at least my books would be somewhere in the mix to be read eventually.
People always ask me at cons about what it’s like to self-publish. They tell me they are also writers and they are working on their stories and they want to know how to do it.
My answer is always akin to this:
Writing the book and publishing it is the easy part. It’s nothing more than importing a document and making a few clicks. If you have anything at all written, it can be on Amazon, ready to rock and roll, in a matter of literal minutes.
There are two very hard parts, though.
One is hubris. Leave it at the damn door. I’m not talking about what I discussed earlier about dreams of fame and fortune. What I mean is you, the aspiring writer, will legitimately believe that everything you have put to paper is without flaw. You have gone over it yourself many times. You’ve revised. You’ve edited. You are confident that what you’ve got is the pinnacle. The one that will be talked about for years.
You are wrong.
I am by no means saying that you are not a good writer. I usually don’t know you from Adam if I’m giving you this spiel. But please trust me when I say that your eye should absolutely not be the only one on your manuscript before you make those few clicks. There is so much you can benefit from having someone that you trust give you the brutal truth.
The first book in the Unlucky Seven series is a key example of not having an editor. Recently, in doing some research for the writing of book three, I went back and read a few chapters of it. Compared to my more recent efforts (enhanced by my editor) it feels like parts of it are straight hot garbage. That’s the author talking, however, and is not necessarily a reflection of the audience’s reception of my work. I still have confidence in every word of what I put down but I realize in retrospect that I was the very person I have given this warning to at least two dozen times. This is experience talking, kids, trust me.
Oh, and if you get a friend to help you, please for the love of the pen, make sure they are going to be honest with you. If you don’t have a friend, there are plenty of writing forums where you can get someone to read your stuff and give you (maybe even more) brutal honesty through the veil of the internet. Regardless of where this comes from, be prepared for this criticism. Yes, your thirty-five chapter fantasy novel may have taken quite some time to write and the idea that you might have to eliminate aspects from the story or blow up entire chapters or even start from bare-bones scratch may be totally horrifying, you will (not may, will) be better for it in the long run.
The original U7 took me ten years to write. It was a 70+ chapter project I started on my LiveJournal (don’t look it up) which took years to write. Eventually, I blew it up and started over from the beginning. When I didn’t like the way that one turned out, I did the same. Three times I started over. Sure, I put it down for a while but when I came back I came back for real. And that was just me editing myself.
My actual editor went through the Obligatory Sequel with me chapter by chapter. As a chapter was completed, I would send it to her for an opinion. Many chapters were blown up and started from scratch during that process. In the end, TOS is a better book for it.
Do not let your pride goeth before your fall.
The second hard part is marketing. We’ve talked some about this but I’d like to expand a bit just to give you the full con-level lecture.
I have noticed at the last few cons a growing number of self-published authors grabbing table space wherever they can, be it in the main showroom or in artist’s alley. I am often curious as to the sales that they gain as, most of the time, they are sedentary and likely falling prey to the first problem I mentioned, hubris.
Just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean anyone wants to read it. Just because you are a writer at con doesn’t mean anyone is going to stop at your table and even turn over your book to read the summary on the back. If you even have a summary on the back (which, like, PUT A SUMMARY ON THE BACK).
Do not think that a video sizzle reel for your book is going to attract attention, either. If you try to let something like that do the talking for you, you’re heading in the wrong direction.
If you are at con, SELL YOUR BOOK. I do this constantly. I have called over and pitched people who had absolutely no intention of walking out of con with more than a handful of autographs and selfies who wind up walking out with all that and a set of my books. Engage. Talk to people. I know this is hard for most of us introverted writer types, but you gotta do it, as emotionally draining as it might be. If you don’t want to talk to people, great, there are plenty of other marketing avenues for you out there but if you set up at con, expect to be social. Demand to be social with your readers, too. You would be surprised what a couple of quick jokes and a frank conversation will do to even the most curmudgeonly of con-goers.
Last piece of marketing advice is pricing. Be real. Yes, I know it took you a long time to write it. Yes, I know you want to try to make your money back on your table and book stock and everything else (this all also falls under hubris). It’s absolutely not going to happen if you’re selling each book for $25. This is not Barnes and Noble and you are not Stephen King. An average con-goer comes in with a budget. One book for that much is not going to seem like a value to them unless they are exactly within your genre niche. Even then, they might give you the old “I’ll think about it” and ne’er return. I make a profit from the base sale of my books but that is only based on what I pay for them to get printed and does not take into account con costs (hotel, food, beers, etc). First you get the readers, then you get the money. Be patient.
If advice to others is the best I can pull out of five years of doing this, then so be it. If you have tactics that work better, good on you. I’m only speaking about boots on the ground sales. Obviously I have not yet mastered the online market, so I would be open to some feedback on how to increase my numbers in that area.
My big takeaway from all of this is that it should not be about the money. If you have to count numbers to make yourself feel good, count numbers of sales in general. Count the readers. Count the interactions on social media. Count the number of people who come up to you and ask for the next one (even if you don’t have the next one yet). Those are the numbers that matter. Those are the most important people to your career. Those are the most important people to your writing.
Thank you all for continuing to read my stuff and support me.
Remember that my door is always open for suggestions and feedback.
Keep fighting the good fight.