It started publicly in May, six months ago. That was the first time I mentioned here that I’d be publishing Thy Fearful Symmetry this year, with a view to having it ready for Anthocon in November. It seems like a very long time ago now. In May, the book was a series of files on a laptop. In November, I was sitting behind a table at the convention, drinking endless cups of coffee and chatting to the likes of Malcolm McClinton (while being photographed by invisible photo-ninja Susan Scofield, whose picture this is…).
Six months, to get from no book, to a book in front of me at a convention. It feels like a lot longer. It feels, in fact, like Thy Fearful Symmetry has eaten my 2013.
Now it’s time to look back, and wrap up this series of blogs about bringing the book to life. Before I forget, to mark the end of the road I’ve made the novel very cheap indeed for Kindle readers. Go see (that’s the US link, but whatever store you use, the book is ludicrously cheap for the next 24 hours).
I’ve said before, in different times and in different ways, that self-publishing a novel is a much higher risk proposition than the tools to do so would suggest. Actually putting a book together is pretty easy, once it’s written. It’s cheap, and mostly a case of formatting files the correct way. Deciding whether you should make use of those tools is a different matter. The poor quality of many self-published titles – thrown together with little care and attention – has damaged the credibility of indie publishing in a big way. The only thing you can do to combat that is to put time and energy into producing something that isn’t going to embarrass you. That’s the bit that takes six months, instead of five minutes.
Here are some of what I’ve discovered along the way.
You can’t do it alone. The biggest myth of self-publishing is that you can do it alone, that the fact of various tools to produce a book being easily accessible means that you don’t need anybody else’s help. This is just wrong. Traditional publishers combine the skills of several experts to put a book together. As a writer, I’m one of those experts. I put stories together. Other specialists include an editor, a copy editor, a designer, an artist, and a publicist. If you’re pretending you can bluff those other skills, you have a serious knowledge gap about what they are, and shouldn’t touch self-publishing with a barge pole. You’ll let yourself down.
I got some of this right with Thy Fearful Symmetry (and His Work To See, the short short chapbook I also released in support of the novel). The best thing I did was to bring in Emma at Snowangels to design the cover of the book. As a result, it looks great, and sits happily on a shelf next to the best of what traditional publishers are producing. Bringing in Malcolm McClinton to produce original art for the chapbook was a similarly good move. Potential readers put a lot of store in a cover, to inform whether they should pause their browsing and read on – both books have shown they can arrest the attention.
What I got wrong was neglecting the interior design of the book, particularly the paperback. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nothing great either. Spending time with Danny Evarts last month made me appreciate how much a professionally worked interior can add to the reading experience. It’s an area of publishing that I was woefully ignorant of before, and took entirely for granted. Lesson learned. I also chose not to bring in an editor, because the novel had already been edited four times over. I wish I’d gone for a fifth, especially as I made a lot of changes to the text before publishing this version. I may have more or less got away with this, but I’m still waiting for somebody to catch me out with things I missed. It’s a risk I didn’t need to take, and one I won’t make again. Honestly, the paranoia is killing me.
These are all things you need to pay for. There are good cover designers, artists, editors, and so forth all over the internet, all looking for exactly this sort of freelance work. Next time (yes, next time, see further down) I’ll be making sure I bring in the experts at every opportunity.
You can’t do it alone (2). It’s often said that nothing works better for a book than word of mouth, and so authors often try to encourage readers to spread the word themselves. Sometimes readers do. Sometimes they don’t (because, you know, readers have lives, and other things to do). I’ve never really had it happen effectively with one of my own books.
This time it did, and I can now see exactly how true the maxim is. Some of you have gone out of your way to give the book a nudge. Sometimes you tweeted. Sometimes you put a link up on Facebook. A few of you told friends in person that they should check the book out. Sometimes you even sat down and wrote a review on Amazon or Goodreads.
I’m tremendously grateful to every one of you who has done this so far. In the first place, you’ve made the book that bit more visible, and highlighted it to people in ways that would just have been ignored as spam if I’d done them. More importantly though, you’ve managed to somehow make this into a team effort. Self-publishing a novel from a study in India is a tremendously isolated thing to do. Seeing that there are people supporting the work, the book, the story… that’s actually priceless. I know who you are, and I can’t thank you enough for taking this ride with me.
Of course, this is the sort of thing that can’t be manufactured. People will either get behind a book or they won’t. I’m lucky you’re out there.
You can’t do it cheaply. Tying into the above, another of the myths of self-publishing is that it’s cheap. Actually, it can be, but not if you want to do it well. Bringing in outside help costs money. If you can’t afford to pay for it, I’d suggest putting your plans on hold, and saving up. There’s no rush to throw your book into the flooded marketplace. Whenever you choose to do so, it’s going to have a massive battle to get noticed, so you should wait until you can properly arm it with the weapons it needs.
This strikes me as the only way in which self-publishing can work as part of a ‘real’ writing career. There’s an increasing independent industry of freelance professionals hiring one another to pool all the skills publishers used to hoard, to produce the same quality books those publishers could. That’s the self-publishing scene you should aim to be part of.
But it costs. Just how confident are you in your book? Enough to put your money where your mouth is? If you’re not sure, then you probably shouldn’t be publishing it at all. If you don’t believe that much in it, why would you expect a reader to pony up their cash
Get out of the ghetto. If you’re a genre writer, your first instinct (backed up by lots of the advice you receive online) is going to be to go to the hardcore readers of that genre. It’s entirely logical to do this, but I decided to go in the other direction with this book. I mentioned it on a handful of dedicated horror message boards, but I didn’t put much directed effort into pushing people there towards the book. This is partly because these small groups of readers are absolutely inundated with requests from authors to try their wares. They also know what they like, how to find it, and tend to have reading lists longer than all our arms sewn together into a great big arm-worm. If they’re interested in Thy Fearful Symmetry, they’ll find it in good time – and it will likely be via a recommendation from somebody they know rather than an author jumping up and down trying to get their attention. They make the genre their hobby, and are acutely aware of what’s happening in it.
Instead of targeting the faithful, the marketing I’ve done has aimed at broadening my readership. This is particularly true in my choice of reviewers. Sure, the book is sitting with a handful of horror reviewers that I particularly enjoy reading and hope to get a review from at some point – but I also sent a whole bunch of requests to reviewers who might not ordinarily be looking at a horror novel about the apocalypse, and aren’t necessarily the automatic first choice for writers in my genre to approach. It’s been very successful. More than I could have hoped for have been drawn by the cover and the description, and asked for a copy to review. I have to thank all of them for giving me a chance. The reviews the book has received so far – The Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile, The Indie Bookshelf, Bookpleasures – are mostly reaching people who aren’t hardcore genre types. That pleases me enormously. The book is a horror/dark fantasy novel, but it’s being read and enjoyed more broadly than I imagined it would.
Giving it away works. It’s difficult to explain to some people the way that free giveaways work for a book. Thy Fearful Symmetry has been downloaded about 7000 times from Amazon on those days when I set the price to zero, and all some people see are 7000 lost sales. What they’re missing is that those 7000 people wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place. They gave it a try because it was free. In theory, some may be back for my next book, credit card in hand. In practise, more than a few have bought a copy of Cuckoo after enjoying TFS.
The real benefit though, is in generating customer reviews. Stephen King doesn’t have to worry about this. As soon as his latest book is published, readers line up to review it on Amazon – and these reviews signify to readers that the book is worth buying (whether they’re good reviews or bad – potential customers like to see some evidence that other people are also interested enough in a book). If you pop along to Amazon and look at the reviews for Cuckoo, you’ll only see a couple. I didn’t give that book away at all. Thy Fearful Symmetry, has plenty – and the majority are from new readers, who downloaded it for free and found themselves pleasantly surprised. It sends a good signal to the next person who wonders whether to buy my book instead of another one.
Stay focused. I’m pleased I published His Work To See, the chapbook that gives a prequel to the events of the novel, but I don’t think I’d do this again. What I ended up with was two books to promote, when I should have been conserving my time and energy for the main event. It split my focus, and I didn’t really have time or energy to allow myself to do so. I’m also sure that of the various promotional things I’ve done, this was the least effective. While a few readers have been drawn to the novel after first trying the chapbook, most of the people who have bought Thy Fearful Symmetry have done so without first finding HWTS. Lesson learned.
Plan for the loss. As I mentioned above, I feel like this project – publishing and releasing an original novel myself – has soaked up most of 2013. It’s been a massive commitment, and has chipped away relentlessly at the time I have to write new things. For any writer juggling a full time job, a family, and a writing career, this is a huge loss. Be prepared for it.
In retrospect, I’m very glad I entered this whole self-publishing world. The pros for me have outweighed the cons. It’s fantastic having absolute control over a project, and I continue to think that this is a useful way for authors to wrest control of a small part of their careers (which is otherwise governed by others). For me, this remains one pillar of what I want to achieve. I hope next year to be speaking to publishers about taking on a new novel I’m writing, but one of my criteria for finding publishers to work with will be what I believe they bring to the table. Traditionally, writers used to start with the publishers at the top of the tree, and work their way down until somebody took them on (if anybody did). This worked for many, but the desperation of the process also led many authors to join publishers who at heart they knew they would not have considered if the people they really wanted to work with had not said no first.
There are three publishers I particularly want to show my next novel to. If they don’t want it, and I can’t find another publisher that I think the book is a genuinely good fit for, I have options I could never have considered five years ago. Time consuming options, to be sure, but options. All power to that.
At the same time, there’s at least one more novel that I specifically want to self-publish. Whatever happens in my other writing, next year I’ll be inviting you to pay a very special visit. A visit to Craven Place…
That’s next year, though. For now though, we’re all about Thy Fearful Symmetry. You can now get it just about everywhere. On the Kindle, the Kobo, iTunes, the Sony Reader, in paperback. The only big vendor still missing is the Nook, but that should appear in the next week or so. Links for all of these can be found on the book’s own page. Wherever you are in the world, you can get a copy to your door or device right now. Back in May, that wasn’t possible.
I hope you’ll join those who have given it a try, and found it good.
Currently reading: Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin