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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Blogosphere

Do you write? Would you like to write? Would you like to write more and better?

A few years ago I took an online writing workshop that taught me how to write more words in less time with no loss in quality. That was huge for this blog: my six-day-a-week schedule was taking far too much time. I couldn’t sustain it. But thanks to that workshop I was able to dramatically cut the time it takes to write this blog.

That workshop is being offered again starting this October 5, and I want to recommend it to you. It runs for five weeks, one session per week, plus homework.

Johanna Rothman created and leads this workshop. She makes her living in large part through her writing, both non-fiction and fiction. Her non-fiction writing is how I came to encounter Johanna; she writes a great deal about software project management, a topic I care a lot about in my professional life. She’s bright, engaging, and funny. She made this workshop great fun.

This workshop also helps you build a strong writing habit, structure an article that draws readers in and keeps them engaged, edit your own writing effectively, and find ways to get your writing published beyond your own blog.

After the workshop, Johanna will invite you to join a private Internet forum for everyone who’s ever taken this workshop. It’s a place to continue the conversation from the workshop and to share your work and seek feedback.

There’s a fee for the workshop, of course, but I got far more value from it than it cost. If you’d like to write more, and write more engaging and interesting stuff, give Johanna’s workshop a look. She limits the workshop to 12 participants at a time, so if you’re interested, act fast! Check it out here.

Recommended: Writing workshop

Aside
Excel and PowerPoint

My secret life as an author
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor
Kodak Tri-X 400
2017

I used to edit and, sometimes, write books about popular software applications.

I started doing this in 1994. It was the job that brought me to Indianapolis from Terre Haute, at a time when the “For Dummies” franchise was red hot. That job turned out to be a sweatshop grind, and I left it after just eighteen months. Shortly I made connections with a competing publisher and edited on the side for several more years.

The two pictured books have my work in them. The PowerPoint book was originally written by the two other authors listed on the spine. But PowerPoint marches on, and new features are added. The publisher paid me nicely to update the entire book for what was then PowerPoint’s latest version. You don’t see my name on the Excel book’s spine because I was a ghost author, contributing to about half of the chapters.

My favorite work was technical editing, which made sure the books were accurate. Nobody wants to spend $30 on an instructional book only to have it steer them wrong! The publisher paid me by the page, and I was fast, so my effective hourly rate was high.

I gave up the work near the end of my first marriage, as I wanted my nights and weekends back. My first wife and I paid down a lot of debt from editing money. I wouldn’t mind picking up a little side editing now, for the same reason.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

single frame: My secret life as an author

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Photography

More lessons learned in self-publishing

My book, Exceptional Ordinary, has been on sale for a couple months now. And it’s just not selling.

BookPromo

I’ve managed to sell nine paper copies and two PDFs. Which isn’t bad, considering that I’ve barely marketed the book.

I’ve pitched it here four or five times. I mentioned it a couple times on Twitter. I shared images from it, plus a link to buy it, on Instagram a handful of times.

That was my entire marketing push. Holy wow, does this stuff ever take time. And that’s the lesson learned: marketing takes creativity, effort, and persistence.

It probably also hurts that I chose such a niche topic with no obvious market beyond people who already know and like my work, and perhaps other film photographers and Pentaxians.

It certainly also hurt that I gave away the PDF for two days after announcing the book. But I knew that would hurt. About 50 of you took me up on it. And I figured this book wouldn’t sell well as a result of it.

It doesn’t matter to me. I actually achieved my goals with this book: to experience the self-publishing process. Win!

I have ideas for a future books. I’d like to re-survey the Michigan Road in 2018, which will be ten years after I did it last time, and publish a book of interesting photos from the tour. The market there is people interested in Indiana history, and people who live or have lived on or near the road. I’d also like to do a book about the many farms that lie inside the city of Indianapolis. It’s surprising to many just how many farms have an Indianapolis address! That market could include people who live in Indiana, and people who have an affinity to farms, and people who enjoy landscape photography. And maybe there’s a book in photographs of the repurposed stores of the defunct Roselyn Bakeries of Indianapolis. Their buildings and signs were distinctive; the dozens of them that remain are easy to recognize. Some of them went on to good, noble uses; others not so much. It’s a study in urban architectural reuse, and people interested in that might buy such a book.

So my refinement for my next book is to have an addressable market in mind, and a plan for addressing it, before I publish.

Thanks to on-demand printing, it’s never too late to buy my book. It’s reasonably priced at $15.99 for the paper copy or $8.49 for the PDF. I’d love for you to hold a copy of my work in your hands. You can do that by clicking the cover below.

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Film Photography

Lessons learned in self-publishing

I created my book about photography with the Pentax ME as an experiment in self-publishing. (If you’d like to buy one, either paper or PDF, click here.) After all, the Internet and print-on-demand technology mean you no longer need a traditional publisher. You can do it all yourself: writing, layout, marketing. But that’s the rub: you have to do it all yourself. It sucks down large quantities of time at things you may not enjoy or be good at.

I’ll do it again. But I’ll do some things differently next time. Here are some things I learned.

Rife's
A photo from the book

Choosing the photographs was the hardest part of the project. Because this project was about experiencing the bookmaking (and selling) process, I chose to use photos I already made. It was surprisingly challenging and time-consuming to pick through all the photos I shot with my Pentax ME. All of my insecurities as a photographer came out. What if this photo, which I love, isn’t actually all that good? Am I leaving out a photo that is truly good? Fortunately, a reader (who probably wishes to remain anonymous in this forum) offered to edit out the photos that shouldn’t make the cut. That advice was invaluable.

Choosing Blurb as my publisher was easy. I chose Blurb largely because Mike Connealy has published two books that way (go buy them; they’re lovely). My copies of his books are of acceptable quality for the cost. And from his experience I knew that the process for making and selling the book would be reasonable.

Blurb is a decent choice for an image-intensive book. I think there are better choices for text-intensive books. I’ve been investigating CreateSpace, for example, for a text-intensive book I have in mind.

Laying out the book was the least rewarding part of the project. I used Blurb’s BookWright software, which is a lightweight page-layout tool. It works, but it lacks much of the power I hoped I might get based on my past career experience in publishing and technical writing. As I’m still on the tool’s learning curve, I may yet find features I wished I knew about while laying out this book. Primarily, BookWright’s page templates didn’t function as I expected and offered no good way to apply a template change across the book. Blurb allows upload of PDF from other layout platforms and I may try that next time.

I had to rescan several photos because BookWright warned me they were too small for successful printing. I don’t understand that. The film lab scanned those photos at about 1500×1000 pixels, and I’ve successfully printed 8x10s from such scans before. But just to be safe I dug out the negatives and rescanned them at larger resolution on my Epson V300.

I won’t put off titling the book next time. I don’t enjoy writing titles, and when no title easily came to me I decided to figure it out later. Later came right at the end, after everything about the book was finished. I dithered for a week over the title. I don’t love the title I chose, but it is by far the best of a dreadful lot I brainstormed.

The book is priced far higher than I want. Ideally my slim volume would be priced at less than $10. But because Blurb makes its money selling books that people like me create, a book’s base price includes their profit. My book’s base price was slightly more than $10. Any profit I take has to raise that price.

I knew I wanted to make a small profit on each book sold — enough, I decided, to buy myself a roll of Tri-X. That seemed reasonable.  That’s why the book is priced at $16, and even the PDF is $8.50. That’s too much, if you ask me.

Pricing is a black art. Even people who do it all the time struggle with it. When I worked in publishing, I remember difficult discussions over whether a particular book should be $14.99 or $19.99. $14.99 might lead to greater volume at lower margin, while $19.99 brought greater margin at the likely cost of lower volume. A wrong choice could cost us big.

Eric over at Little Black Star recently self-published a delightful little book of his recent work. He charged $7. That tiny price made it so easy for me to click Buy! I assume he took on some or all of the printing and binding himself, however, and that’s a lot of work. I bet he also has to keep an inventory. I have none of that with Blurb. When you order, they print one and send it to you.

I’m not enjoying marketing the book. I don’t enjoy sales or marketing and don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I’m hawking my book here (and, by extension, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+) and am telling friends and family as I see them, and that’s it.

The other book I have in mind would deserve, I think, a more serious marketing push. I’d want to distribute that book through Amazon.com. I might create a Facebook page for it and pay to have posts on that page promoted.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

How to blog more often

As I’ve been celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with posts about blogging, a few of you have asked me how to blog more often.

I haven’t always published six days a week. At first I published sporadically, as little as twice a month. In 2010 I committed to three days a week. In 2014 I bumped up to six days a week.

The benefits have been clear: the more often I publish, the more pageviews I get. That’s because frequent publishing makes your blog look more serious to the search engines. And when you publish regularly and write compelling posts, your readers come to look forward to it. You gain regular readers.

But publishing frequently takes time. At present I give this blog as much as ten hours a week. I’d like to produce the same output in no more than six hours. I recently took a nonfiction writing workshop that gave me some solid techniques that should help me get there. But when I started posting six days a week, it took me far more than ten hours a week to deliver the goods. I’ve figured out how to write more in less time.

Here, then, is how I do it.

blogideas
My sticky note of ideas for this series

Write down ideas as they come. You’ll always find two or three sticky notes on my desk filled with blog post ideas. I write down potential titles, which is usually enough for me to remember what I was thinking. When I sit down to write, I have plenty of ideas ready to go.

Brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I make time to imagine a series of posts I might like to write and just think up (and write down) titles.

Set aside specific regular times to write. I write 30 minutes to an hour (almost) every morning over breakfast. I also set aside at least a couple hours on Saturday morning. Writing regularly is important because it helps keep your pump primed. The more you write, the more you have to say. Make a regular writing schedule that you can stick with.

Freewrite in 15-30 minute time boxes. I’ve only recently started practicing this technique, and it is allowing me to write more posts in less time. I’ve always edited as I go, which slows me down, gets me stuck in the word-choice weeds, and blocks the free flow of thinking about my topic. Perfectionism kills creativity and can lead to writer’s block. I start by writing down my high-level ideas about what I want to say, and then I write about each idea without judging the words I type. I allow myself to move sentences, paragraphs, and sections around for better logical flow, but I do not let myself change or rearrange words. If I’m struggling to write, I make myself keep going for 15 minutes and then stop. If I’m able to freewrite easily, I’ll use all 30 minutes. I generally stop at 30, but if I still have time and I know a whole bunch of things I still want to say, I’ll write until either those words or my time are exhausted.

Let unfinished posts stay unfinished until the next time you write. An unfinished post will frequently keep percolating in the back of your mind until you come back to it. I’m astonished by how often I return to an unfinished post I had been struggling to write to find that I now have plenty of good things to say.

When the words come to you, make time to write them down. Sometimes post ideas and the words that go with them just come to me in a flood. I make every effort to set aside a block of time as soon as I can to write them. I love it when this happens, and when it does I can suddenly find myself with a month of posts queued up.

When the well is dry, choose a photograph you took and like and write a paragraph about it. Sometimes you just can’t think of anything to write about. Write about a photograph to prime your pump. If you’re not a photographer, write about a song or a book or a favorite possession. Tell something about it, or what was happening in your life when you photographed it/first heard it/first read it/first got it, or how it makes you feel now. It hardly matters what you write, just write it and publish it.

Edit separately, lightly. After you’ve written a post, set it aside for a while. I often use a future 15-30 minute time box for editing. And I generally edit lightly. This is a blog, not high literature. But my freewriting lets my personality shine through and I hate to edit that away. I start by making sure I like the way the post is organized; if I don’t, I move things around until I’m happy. Then I tweak the words, sentences, and paragraphs to make them flow better.

This is what works for me. Take what works for you from this and leave the rest. But if you try any of this and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d come back to this post and say so in the comments!

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