To anyone considering self-publishing, you have to realize that you are becoming an entrepreneur. Almost any business startup requires someone to risk money upfront, and in this case it’s the author going it alone. If you go the traditional route, the publisher takes the financial risk by paying you an advance against future royalties that may never cover the expense. In addition, they print up books that may never sell and sink costs into editors, copyeditors, cover designers, and a myriad other employees whose talents might in the long run have been put to better use on other projects. So giving you a chance means taking a chance on their part. Sometimes it works out to the tune of 50 Shades of Gray, and sometimes it means taking a bath on the entire deal.
When you go the self-publishing direction—whether it’s by choice or because it’s the only option left as it was for me—you are now the one taking the financial risk. You can certainly edit your own book, proof it yourself for typos, design your own cover, format it, and post it online, but for most people that results in a substandard product, not to mention the non-trivial time you’ve spent not writing the next book that could earn you money. An alternative is to pay fees to a freelance editor, a copyeditor, a graphic artist for the cover, and someone more technically adept than you are to format the book so that it’s readable as an ebook.
So one way or another you have a quality product that you believe people will enjoy. Great! How does the book find potential readers? A traditional publisher may reach out for publicity in major newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and TV stations, as well as spend money on advertising. If you’re lucky, the publisher will put bucks into placing your book at the front of stores with a juicy “20% off” sticker slapped on the cover. Or maybe the publisher will feature your book on the splash page of Amazon or B&N’s website (yes, that online real estate is for sale).
As a self-published author, I looked into all of these options. Without going into specifics, I can tell you these kinds of promotional efforts can easily balloon into the tens of thousands of dollars. Even free publicity will cost you because you usually need to pay an experienced publicist with great connections to get featured in anything worthwhile.
Social media and blogging have been godsends to self-published authors because they are cheap ways to reach many readers. And the response can be instantaneous. If you post a popular blog or a Tweet that gets Retweeted by Justin Bieber, your book sales can spike within minutes because nothing’s easier than cruising over to the Kindle or Nook web page, particularly if there’s a link to your book.
However, those kinds of windfalls rarely happen. So that leaves what options for getting the word out about your self-published book?
Like it or not (and there have been billions of pixels spilled on this topic), last year Amazon introduced KDP Select. Kindle Digital Publishing gives you the option of enrolling in the program in exchange for ninety days of exclusivity on the Kindle platform. You get two exclusive items in return: the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the option to offer your book for free for five of those ninety days.
Books in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library are available only to members of Amazon Prime, their free-shipping program. Every time your book is loaned out, you get a percentage of the pot Amazon has set aside for these authors (it has averaged around two dollars per loan in the past, but may increase for the next few months as Amazon has doubled the pot available) (note to Washington and Colorado readers: I don’t mean that kind of pot). So every loan means money for you even if the reader doesn’t buy your book.
The five free offer days are even more interesting and somewhat disconcerting for the author who has spent a year or more crafting a novel. Why should you give away the book you’ve sweat and cried and labored to produce? To build readership. I know several authors who’ve done very well with this tactic and ended up selling thousands of books after the giveaway ended. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I think it’s worth a shot. That’s why I’ve decided to offer The Roswell Conspiracy for free starting Wednesday morning (12/5/12) and ending on Friday night (12/7/12). Anyone with a Kindle can download my book for absolutely nothing, and I want as many people as possible to do so.
One reason for trying to maximize the free downloads is the whole obscurity issue. Although I’ve built up a loyal following of readers, I think the market for the type of book I write is exponentially bigger than I’m reaching. My Tyler Locke series of archaeological thrillers with a techno edge is in the same vein as some authors who sell a million copies or more in the US. I think those readers would also enjoy my books, but many of them simply don’t know I exist. Readers are more likely to try a free book from an author they’ve never heard of or read before.
The second reason is word of mouth. According to Smashwords, a third of book buyers make their decision based on the recommendation of another reader. You want to find those readers who will tout your book online or to friends and family. If, say, ten thousand people download The Roswell Conspiracy this week for free, perhaps two thousand of those people will end up reading it (you’ll find that many readers download hundreds of free ebooks, many of which wind up getting deleted before they’re ever read). Of those two thousand, if I’m very lucky half will love the book. Of those thousand people, maybe ten percent will be so ecstatic about the experience, they’ll become evangelists for the book. Give or take on my assumptions, that’s about hundred people out of ten thousand spreading the word, which is why I want as many new readers as possible.
The third reason is that readers who love one book are likely to try more books by the same author. I have four other books for readers to try, so giving away one may lead to sales of the others.
To reiterate, though, however good all the benefits sound, I am taking a calculated risk. To take advantage of the free offer, I have to give up sales through other channels (Nook, iBooks, and Kobo) as well as potential sales to readers who might have otherwise have paid for my book. In addition, The Roswell Conspiracy’s paid ranking in the store will drop during the three days it’s not on sale. Once the giveaway ends, my ranking may well have plummeted, which means I will need to build up my sales from scratch.
But that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’m betting that in the long run I will find many more readers than would otherwise have heard about me. And if the risk doesn’t pay off? That’s why I’m writing the next book.