Self Publishing for Fun and Profit

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

I spent most of my career in sales. When I retired to devote myself full time to writing, I did not expect that my experience would translate meaningfully into my new venture, especially when I decided on self publishing. Writing is art, after all, and not to be sullied with coarser toil like selling stuff. Now, a dozen-and-a-half months since self publishing my novel, Deadly Portfolio, reality has settled in, and I fend off disappointment with humor over the naivete of my initial assumptions.

As a salesman, every year I was required to ask myself, “What do you want to achieve?” To answer, I needed to hammer out specific, quantifiable results to be attained within a specified period of time.

The self publishing author must do the same thing—set out results that are realistic and achievable. I wrote fellow author Steven Moore that I wanted to sell 15,000 copies of Deadly Portfolio. His response was the essence of tact. “You may find that a little ambitious.”

I picked my number out of thin air. It seemed like a nice round figure, one that would certainly justify the time and expense that I had put in getting my book into the market place. Outskirts Press priced my book at too high for the market and paid me less than $.37 royalty on each. More research disclosed that other quality publishers would pay more than $1.50 per copy. I changed publishers and revised my target. 15,000 at $.36 per volume yields total royalties of  $5,400, which probably would be less than minimum wage for all the time that I put in writing and promoting my book.  My new publisher, createspace, paid $1.73 per book. Thus, my target total sales could be revised downward to 3,200 books. Even at that, I did not question whether a goal of 3,200 books was realistic.

Realistic and Achievable Objectives

Aspirations are one thing, but it takes research to establish realistic objectives. A handful of self publishing authors have racked up sensational sales records. Their records, however, are only an indication of what, despite all odds,  is possible. The novice must first determine what is realistic given a start from dead stop as a complete unknown.

An average book by a famous writer will outsell an excellent book by an unknown. Baldacci, Patterson, Koontz and others pump out the occasional volume that would be just so much cannon fodder if submitted to an agent or traditional publisher by an unknown. The debuting author must find out what credentialed reviewers think of the product—no easy task. The number of books landing on reviewers’ desks, even for a small city newspaper, is overwhelming. Many publish-on-demand publishers will, for a fee, send out volumes to a stable of reviewers known to them. The additional cost is worth it, and the reviews usually appear online and can be reprinted on Amazon and other sellers. A book needs to achieve an average rating from reviewers of at least a strong 4 stars out of 5 to be worth the effort, time and money to promote it.

An inferior product from an unknown will not sell. Reviewers do know best. No publicist’s effort, no amount of blogging, Facebook “likes,” tweets, book signings, review swapping and other tactics will make any difference. When an excellent book by an unknown does not sell, why hope a mediocre offering will fare better. If a horse can’t run well, it shouldn’t be on the track.

Formulas for Success

A writer should set modest goals for the first year. All the surprises—the good news—need to come as upside. The fiction writer must start with the recognition that there is no sure-fire guide to achieving a desired result. In sales work, for example, formulas could be worked out to show the salesperson how many encounters with prospects are necessary in order to produce a sale. Those ratios, to the best of my knowledge, do not exist for selling books. If, for example, 10 published positive reviews would produce 1000 sales, or 100 books per review, then it would follow that the author should work for 10 published reviews of the book. But reviews, even very good ones by respected critics, do not necessarily sell books. Yet a single well-placed review may sell thousands. It is far better to have several reviews than none at all. Once all the reviews the publisher kicked up have run the course, time online will lead to other sites that offer review services.

Website interviews do not necessarily sell books, but it is better to have them than not. The same can be said for radio or pod casts. Guest posting on web sites does not necessarily sell books either, but again, far better to guest post than to turn down all invitations. This may read as if there is little that the writer can do to promote sales. A direct cause and effect relationship that demonstrates the efficacy of one tactic over another may eventually emerge but none is apparent now. Now, everything counts, yet the are no guarantees.  Doing nothing, of course, produces a predictable result—no sales whatsoever.

Selling to Friends and Family

I have tracked my sales for 18 months now and can find no cause and effect relationship between what I did and how my book sold, save the days when I put in book signing appearances, or emailed all 104 of my graduating high school classmates. I sold six books to my class and was dismayed to find that many had read the book as it had been passed around among them. I sold several to my golfing buddies also. I grin through my teeth when someone who was not a buyer of it tells me that he could not put my book down once he started it. Fine praise, indeed, but not a sale. All the rest of the promotional work bears little testimony to the efficacy of one approach over any other.

People have praised my web site, complimented me on my writing style, and yet I cannot confirm that the web site has had any impact on my sales. I opened a discussion on LinkedIn among writers who posted regularly on their web sites. None had anything different to report. I have guest posted on other web sites, been a guest for pod casts, and responded to interview requests, but again, no sure-footed pattern emerges to give direction to my future efforts. Setting realistic target sales figures for a book assumes some knowledge of which marketing and promotional efforts will be the more productive. Yet it is nearly impossible to set up a hierarchy of best practices.

Too Many  on the Shelf

Bookstore owners, to illustrate, are great for a dose of reality when it comes to projecting sales. Writers wanting their books offered on consignment will fine that owners often volunteer a number for an initial inventory and the number is usually 4.  “Too many on the shelf,” one owner advised me, “looks a bit desperate.”  Four is about what a good store will sell for an unknown author over a 12-month period of time. If the writer-turned-salesperson were to rely only on bookstore sales and the desired first year sales figure was set at 500 books, then 125 independent bookstores need to hold the book in inventory for a year. Not every bookstore will jump at the chance. Perhaps only four out of every five independents are willing to carry the book. Thus, to find the 125, the writer may need to call on 156 bookstores. In a salesperson’s planning, calling on five bookstores a day, a pace only possible in large metropolitan areas, it would take almost 31 days to make the rounds, and the effort must be undertaken without any assurance that the numbers will actually support the expected outcome. This is selling based on faith, not logic.

The great thing about bookstore selling is that the results can be tracked. One of my best selling stores is not a bookstore at all but a novelty/tourist shop. The bookstore in our village has only sold one copy last year whereas the novelty store has average more than one a week. Everyone who clerks in the store has read Deadly Portfolio, and they love it. They display it prominently with a sticker on the cover that I found on eBay that proclaims “Signed by the Author,” a little step that added $.40 to my costs. I throw in a bookmark with my picture and other data about me to round out the package. I can’t afford to do this in 83 stores. The next nearest store from my home is 36 miles distant. Traveling there costs about $9.00 for gas and a buck for parking, so I had better sell at least two books to pay for the trip.

Literary versus Commercial Success

I wanted Deadly Portfolio acknowledged as a literary success. The last thing that I wanted to hear was that it sold really well but was not worth the time to read it. Forced to decide between literary merit and a commercial success, I would always choose the former. Thus, to put all of my promotional efforts into perspective, I accept that I am working to become better known to others, preferably many others. Then, perhaps, I can boost the sales of my book. Then, perhaps, I will have a better platform for my next work now a work in progress. I am building my reputation as a man who writes. I no longer invest in any other outcome.

EDITORS NOTE: I work alone. I do not have an editor. I compose my posts using Word and transfer to the word-processing program available through my web site manager. I use the spell check facility on both programs. Some spellings are personal preferences, such as “advisor” for “adviser.” (Either is correct.) I intentionally use incomplete sentences or fragments as a stylistic choice. As writers seldom are good proofreaders of their own work, I welcome all corrections regarding errors in the text and apologize in advance for any oversights on my part.