Personal

Lessons learned from self-publishing my book of essays and stories

Today marks seven months since I published my book, A Place to Start: Stories and Essays from Down the Road. Publishing my book and trying to market it has been interesting and I’ve learned a lot.

It has not, however, been lucrative. I make a fine living at my day job, so thank heavens I wasn’t counting on this book to feed my family. Nevertheless, I’m disappointed.

I did the whole job myself: writing, editing, page layout, cover design, submitting to distributors, and marketing. I chose to have the paperback version of the book printed on demand so I would not have to put up money for a print run and manage the inventory — and possibly not sell through, be out the money, and be stuck with a bunch of spare paperbacks.

I learned a lot about self publishing, and will be able to do it more efficiently and effectively next time. I also learned a few things about book marketing that I’ll use for my next book, too. The rest of this article explains my experience and lessons learned in detail.

Writing and editing

Even though I was publishing material I had already written, it was challenging to figure out how to organize it. The way I ordered the stories and essays in the published book is the third complete organization of the material I tried.

I also heavily edited each story, and even rewrote a couple. I’m a much better writer now than I was in 2007 and 2008 when I first published them on my blog. I did a reasonable job of copy editing and proofreading and don’t regret doing that myself.

I also now think that including so many stories about my faith might have been a mistake. Several readers and reviewers said things along the lines of, “I enjoyed the book even though I don’t share your faith at all.” Some even said they just quit reading that section a couple articles in.

After arranging and editing the stories, I found it surprisingly challenging to write the back cover blurb. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what the book was about. It needed to be about something! I finally figured out a “getting through hard times” theme, and that’s what I wrote about on the back cover.

Lessons learned: I am strongly considering hiring an editor next time, even if it means I take a loss on the book. A skilled outside perspective should help me find a stronger voice among the stories and essays I’ve written so I can create a more compelling book.

I am also strongly considering making my future books be centered on topics, rather than just collecting stories by year as I did this time. I could collect my stories about parenting as a divorced dad into one book, my stories and essays about living the Christian faith into another, and so on. I think that will help my books be appealing beyond my existing audience, and target my marketing more precisely.

Finally, I will think about the back cover blurb all the way through the writing and editing process. I need to determine what my book is about very early in the process, and thinking about the back cover blurb should be a powerful way to figure that out.

Making the book

I used Leanpub to create my book. For about $9 each month, they give you good tools to create a print-ready PDF, a PDF for reading on a computer, an e-book for Kindle, and an e-book compatible with other readers.

You can write your book directly in Leanpub’s editor, but instead I did it in a text editor on my computer and copied the final files into Leanpub’s editor. I did this because I thought I would use Leanpub’s GitHub integration. I never did, but I checked all of my book’s files into a private GitHub repository anyway. GitHub is a source control tool popular with software developers, but you can store any kinds of files in it.

Leanpub demands some specific text markup (a version of Markdown, for the geeks in my audience) so its layout engine knows where the chapter titles and headings are, and how to pull in image files. It was simple enough to learn.

Leanpub offers only limited choices for a book’s interior design, including typefaces. I thought even the best of their interior designs were pretty boring. I could have created a far more attractive layout myself in Microsoft Word. (I have mad Microsoft Word skills and have used it professionally to lay out very attractive books.)

The e-book files Leanpub generated rendered all of my images at a very small size. It took me considerable digging through Leanpub’s forums to find an answer to that. The fix meant downloading a tool that could edit the e-book files directly, and changing a particular setting on every single photo in the book.

However, Leanpub was a reasonable sales platform for my book, and I like very much that I was able to sell a PDF version there. Turns out I can upload finished book files to Leanpub and use it only as a sales platform.

I made the cover in Adobe Photoshop. I’m sure it would have been easier in a desktop publishing tool, but I don’t own one. I made one version of the cover for the e-book (a front cover only). I created two full covers (front, spine, and back), one for Amazon and one for IngramSpark (which lets me sell to retailers and libraries). The two companies have slightly different requirements for covers, and because they use paper of different thickness, I had to adjust the spine width to fit.

I paid a nominal fee for both companies to send me proof copies. I was disappointed in the print quality of my photographs. To keep the book’s list price reasonable, I opted for black-and-white printing, and neither printer did a great job converting my color photos to black and white. They were especially muddy in the books Amazon printed.

Lessons learned: I think I would have spent the same amount of time and gotten a much more attractive paperback had I laid the book out myself in Microsoft Word, used existing conversion tools to generate basic e-book files, and manually tweaked the code until those looked the way I wanted them.

If for my next book I create the files myself, I might still sell my book on Leanpub. I like being able to sell a PDF of my books, and Leanpub handles delivery for me. Also, I like Leanpub’s ethos.

Next time I will convert color photos to black and white myself so they look good, as there’s an art to that. I’ll generate print-ready files using the converted photos. I’ll generate the e-books and the PDF with the color photos.

Finally, I might hire a graphic designer to create the cover next time. Maybe. I really like doing it and I think I did a reasonable job of this cover. But a skilled graphic designer can do better.

Distributing the book

I offered the book for sale as a paperback, e-book, and PDF, and I chose to distribute via Amazon, Leanpub, IngramSpark (which sells only to retailers and libraries), Apple Books, and Google Play. I chose these distributors because they handled delivering books for me, and are popular ways to buy books online.

Because I was going to sell my book on platforms other than Amazon, I needed to buy ISBNs for each edition. These are unique numbers that identify every book available for commercial sale. There was a steep discount for buying ten ISBNs, but even then they were 30 bucks each. I bought ten and used two, one for the paperback and one for the generic e-book. (You don’t need an ISBN for Kindle.) I can use the other eight ISBNs for future books.

It was an enormous pain in the rear to publish my book on Apple Books and Google Play. Half of that pain was in signing up for these services, which was surprisingly not intuitive and complicated. Just finding where to sign up to publish on Apple Books took some doing.

It wasn’t complicated to make my book available on Amazon or IngramSpark. Each had their steps and rules, but I handled them with little fuss. IngramSpark charged $49 for the privilege, which stuck in my craw.

Lessons learned: I am strongly considering publishing initially only on Leanpub and Amazon from now on.

Apple Books and Google Play were a great deal of hassle, and I didn’t sell any books on those platforms anyway. To be fair, I barely promoted those channels. I also never figured out how to attract retailers and libraries to my book, so publishing via IngramSpark was a waste of time and money.

However, if a future book ever sells well, I could easily release them on these platforms to increase their availability.

Marketing

I suspected I would not enjoy marketing my book, and boy was I right. As a result, I didn’t give it my all. To be fair, this is a side project and I have limited time for it. But weak marketing is surely one reason my sales have been meager.

Author platform

The best marketing advice I got was to build an “author platform,” including a Web site and an email newsletter. The idea is to build a base of people who really enjoy my work and want to follow me. When I publish something new, that base is more likely than the regular public to want to buy it.

At the moment, I’m using my blog (this site, blog.jimgrey.net) as my Web site. That’s not ideal, because it is not primarily about me and my books. It is set up scroll-style like the blog it is, and it covers a wide range of subjects beyond my stories, essays, and photographs. To help with that, I added a banner announcing my book, and a pop-up asking people to sign up for my newsletter.

I launched the newsletter, Back Roads, in May of 2020. I write on about the 20th of each month, telling what I’m working on and giving a more intimate look into my life. I also use it to announce new publications. I have 216 subscribers so far. If you’d like to subscribe, click here. I think I’ve done an okay job with this so far but I’d like to make my newsletter more engaging.

You may not know that I also have a blog about what I do for a living, software development. It’s URL used to be softwaresaltmines.com, but recently I moved it under the jimgrey.net tent as dev.jimgrey.net. I’m not sure how that fits into an overall marketing strategy yet, but at least that blog is firmly in the family now.

Lessons learned: I’ll keep working to build my author platform. I think it’s my best play, because I can do it within the time I give to my side projects.

I consider my newsletter subscribers to be my core followers. If only 10 percent of them buy my next book, but I have 1,000 followers, I will instantly have sold more of my next book than of this one. At my current newsletter growth rate, if I do nothing more to publicize my newsletter, I will attract 500 total followers this year, and another 500 in 2022.

It’s on my to-do list to rework my main site, jimgrey.net, to be a landing page that markets me and my books. My early road-trip writing is on that site, and those articles still get read every day. I’m slowly bringing them over to this blog, but that project will last well into 2022. Search drives most traffic to those articles; perhaps I can figure out how to leave them up and build my new site around them.

Content marketing

This is a kind of marketing where I create content for another platform, such as a blog or a podcast, and plug my site and my book.

I’m connected to the owners of a few very popular film-photo blogs. I reached out to the owner of one extremely popular blog that is a great fit for what I do, and asked if I could write a guest post. He was enthusiastic and eager to help. Here’s the post I wrote. It led to exactly zero sales. It might have led to blog or newsletter followers, but I don’t have good ways to track that.

I found plenty of blogs and podcasts by writers in my genre or in related genres, but they were either part of those writers’ author platforms, or they were about writing and publishing. My content marketing is not a fit, and people I think would enjoy my book are not in those audiences.

I also looked at sites and podcasts about subjects related to what I write about, such as parenting after divorce, Christianity, and humor. Most of them were a poor fit for various reasons. For the rest, each would have required I write a custom pitch, including finding some angle to my work that resonates with that writer or podcaster in what they are doing. I prejudged that I might get one guest post or podcast visit for every ten or twenty pitches I made. I might be wrong about that, but I decided to abandon this idea anyway. Creating those pitches would take away from my ability to work on my blog and on more books. I’d rather create new stuff. That limits my reach, and I’m going to have to be okay with that.

Lessons learned: I will seek to guest on relevant blogs and podcasts when I know about them, but I am unlikely to cold-contact blogs and podcasts. I will research other ways to do content marketing; perhaps I’m missing something.

Other marketing

Miss Midnight Star

I created a Web site for my publishing imprint, Midnight Star Press. It’s here, and it lists A Place to Start and my two earlier books of photographs. My imprint is named for Missy, by the way, a black Labrador retriever my family had when I was a kid. Her AKC name was Miss Midnight Star.

I bought ads on Facebook and Amazon, which generated zero sales. I know what I’m doing with Facebook ads but not with Amazon ads. It’s possible I could optimize the Amazon ads somehow to generate some sales.

I announced my book in various Facebook Groups where either I’m well known and/or are about a topic I write about. I was pleased with the encouraging comments people left. I see that some clicked into my publishing imprint’s Web site, and I see that some clicks to Amazon followed that, but it doesn’t look like any of those people bought the book.

I created a Facebook Group for people who like to read personal essays and stories. It’s here. I share my essays and stories there, each one with a link to where you can buy my book. I can’t track any sales this might have generated, but it is at best a handful of copies. My hope is to attract other writers in this genre so they can share their work, as well, and build a good community.

I didn’t figure out how to make retailers and libraries want to buy my book, but in fairness, I spent very little time at it.

Lessons learned: I’ll learn more about Amazon advertising; perhaps I didn’t target it right and missed my audience. Those ads are surprisingly inexpensive, so I’m willing to experiment. I’m unlikely to use Facebook ads again. I’ll continue to publicize on relevant Facebook Groups, and I’ll keep trying to grow my Group for personal essays and stories. I’ll commit to learning about enticing retailers and libraries to buy books.

Sales

Finally, the brass tacks. As of today, I have sold 68 copies of my book and, after the distributors took their cut, I have made $375.52. Here’s a breakdown of where the sales came from and in which formats:

DistributorFormatsCopies SoldRoyalties
Amazon.come-book (Kindle) and paperback45 paperback
16 e-book
$329.98
Leanpube-book (Kindle and generic)
and PDF, as a bundle
7$45.54
Apple Bookse-book0$0
Google Playe-book0$0
IngramSparkpaperback0$0

You can buy from any of those sources except IngramSpark, which sells only to retailers and libraries. Click here for links to where you can buy.

There were costs associated with making this book, roughly $225. I’m pleased that made a small profit. But when I account for the cost of my considerable time on this project, I totally took a bath on it.

Lessons learned: Limiting my distribution to Amazon and Leanpub will let me be where my readers are, and will save me considerable effort and time. Should I be fortunate to build a large enough following someday, I can always go back and release my books through other channels.

I wish there were another viable way to offer a print-on-demand paperback to individuals. A couple people told me they’d love to own a copy of my book, but they don’t buy from Amazon on principle.

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Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now his younger brother has graduated college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 11,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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Personal

Graduation day

When my older son graduated college two years ago, the ceremony was in a giant auditorium. I tried to photograph my son walking across the stage to collect his degree, but even with my lens zoomed out as far as it would go I wasn’t able to get photographs worth a darn. We were just too far away.

The pandemic has put a stop to ceremonies like that. My younger son’s school did something innovative for their graduation ceremony on Saturday: a car parade around campus. There were stops along the way for photographs, as well as a stop where students got to cross the stage to collect their degrees.

The school did a wonderful job making this fun. Thank heavens the skies were clear! This would have been miserable in the rain.

At one stop, students had the opportunity to have their portrait made. A large, gray backdrop had been set up, and a professional photographer was on hand. Because I had my 70-300mm zoom on my Nikon Df, I was able to make my own portrait from afar.

Garrett was so happy on Saturday! He was all in for whatever the ceremony had to offer.

He received an empty folder when he walked across the stage — he’s a few credits short. He’s taking a class in his school’s “May semester” that he believes will put him over the top. Then he’ll start looking for work. He’s eager to live on his own and build his life.

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COVID-19, Personal

Freshly tuned bicycles

Picking up our bikes from the bike shop

I picked our bikes up from the shop on Monday after having them tuned up. The shop was inundated with repairs. The owner told me that she had 450 bikes for repair hanging in the back, plus a hundred or so in the front of the store. There was a single path from the door to the counter, there were so many bikes in there. She said it has just been crazy this season with people wanting their bikes made ready for the warm months.

I like my Schwinn but it is 35 years old and has old-bike issues. I hoped the shop could resolve, or at least improve, some of them.

I had to air up my tires every few days last season. The tires and tubes dated to my last tuneup in 2011, so I asked for replacements. I was thrilled when they said they had gumwall tires in stock for it, since that’s what my Schwinn had on it originally. But then they called to say my tires were in fine shape and didn’t need to be replaced, unless I was dying to have gumwalls. I decided to save a little money and just had new tubes fitted.

My brakes were very weak, so much so that I wouldn’t ride this bike in city traffic as there is no way to stop fast. The bike has a front hand brake and a rear coaster brake. The coaster brake is part of the three-speed hub, which is sealed. The remedy is replacement, and I wasn’t prepared to make that kind of investment in the Schwinn. So I asked them to either tighten or replace the front brakes, whichever it took to make them stop surely.

I also mentioned that the gears came out of true a lot last season and I was constantly adjusting them. They noticed that the cable was very loose and they said they’d tighten it, which should do the trick.

They clearly tightened the shift cable, which I hope lets the bike’s gears stay true this season. They improved the front hand brake slightly, but not nearly enough. Stops are still far too long. I’m disappointed in that. But they didn’t write my instructions for the brakes onto the work order. I feel sure that by the time they put my bike on the bench, they’d forgotten all about what I’d asked. I don’t want to schlep the bike all the way back there, so I’ll see if I can tighten the brakes up a little more myself. There’s plenty of pad left, I think I just need to bring the calipers a little closer to the rim. I used to do that to the 3 speed I had as a teenager.

It’s likely I’ll continue working from home most or all of this summer, which will let me ride a lot again this year. Before the pandemic, I worked in the office every day, and seldom found time to ride. I used to manage a half dozen rides every season. Last season I made that many every week, because I could go out on my lunch hour. It was glorious!

I’d love to buy a new 3 speed, to escape the old-bike blues. I’m fixated on 3-speed bicycles because not only do I love their upright riding position, but I value the simplicity of the sealed gear hub over a derailleur. I’ve owned two bikes with derailleurs and both of them dropped their chain from time to time. What a pain in the rear. Also, I hardly need more than 3, maybe 5, speeds here in flat Indiana. I once had an 18-speed bike and it was just too many speeds. I keep drooling over this Bianchi 3 speed. It looks just right!

I’ve been given the option of working from home full time when the pandemic is over, but I’ve decided not to take it. Instead, I’ll work in the office about four days a week and at home about one day. I can ride on my lunch hour on work-from-home days when the weather supports it, but I’m not sure how I’ll ride as often as I’m getting to now thanks to the pandemic. I’m not sure it makes sense to invest in a new bike unless I’m going to ride it frequently.

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Tug of war

Tug of war at Field Day
Kodak EasyShare Z730
2008

When my older son was in the fifth grade, I think it was, his school held a Field Day and invited parents to come watch. I took the day off and went with a camera.

That’s my boy there in the orange shirt. That’s such a normal look on his face, when he was doing fun things with groups of kids — happy as a clam to be a part of the crowd! When he was smaller, I’d take him and his younger brother to the park to play. He was a surprising kind of leader at the park — he’d gather all of the other kids who happened to be there and get them to figure out a group activity, which he would then participate in as an equal with everybody else. He didn’t particularly want to lead the group, he just wanted there to be something fun to do with everyone and he could see it would be up to him to organize it!

He grew up to be as introverted as his dad; his favorite place to be is at home. But he still plays in groups, just online in MMOs and D&D games.

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Personal, Photography

single frame: Tug of war at Field Day

Tug of war on school grounds.

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