*Guest post by Peter Grant, author of Take The Star Road one of those Indie books that have done enormously well — like both of Ellie Ferguson’s books — Peter describes how he came to write, how he came to choose to publish Indie, and what went into making his “overnight” success. Peter’s second book Ride the Rising Tide is now out. I thought you’d enjoy reading about his road to publication)
The Road to Indie
Good morning, afternoon, evening, or whenever it is that you read this. Sarah’s very kindly invited me to contribute a guest article to her blog. She suggested I describe how I’ve experienced the process of breaking into the independently published fiction market as an outsider. I hope you won’t find my story boring. I’ll do my best.
My first book (on a religious/spiritual topic) was published in the USA back in 1984 (I was living in South Africa at the time, where I was born and raised). It sold something like 20,000 copies over the next decade before going out of print in 1994. I wrote several articles for various periodicals at about the same time, but the burgeoning civil strife in my country of birth (caused by the policy of apartheid), and my involvement in trying to help its victims, torpedoed my ambitions to write more. (I’ve written about some of those experiences on my blog – for example, here’s the night Christmas became real.)
Over the next couple of decades life was far too busy and complicated for me to do much in the way of writing. I was active in the business world, the military (on a reserve basis) and humanitarian work through the early 1990’s, when I began studying for ordained ministry. I came to the USA in 1997, and pastored a small Louisiana church and worked as a part- and full-time prison chaplain for several years. (I’ll be publishing a memoir of prison chaplaincy during September 2013.)
In 2004 I suffered a permanently disabling injury, which made it impossible for me to carry out many normal activities for any length of time without increasingly severe pain. At the same time, for other reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I found myself unable to continue in the ministry. I was awarded a small disability pension; but I’d been raised to believe that a man should stand on his own two feet and provide for himself. I was determined to find another way to support myself. Since normal work was no longer open to me, particularly given my new physical limitations, it seemed logical to return to writing. I decided to find out whether I could master the art sufficiently well to earn a living at it.
From 2005-2012 I wrote something like two million words of fiction – most of it execrable! I had to learn the art of not just writing, but also entertaining, and I wasn’t very good at it at first. It was humbling to receive rejection letters, or be told by ‘helpful’ volunteer readers that my work ‘sucked’ or ‘stank’ or the like. However, I knew they were right – and I knew I didn’t have a chance of making it in the book market unless I could produce quality work. I kept plugging away at it. I considered trying to attend a professional writing seminar or course, but those with good reputations were impossibly expensive for someone on my limited income (not to mention the travel and accommodation costs to attend them). Furthermore, my physical restrictions would have made it very difficult to get the most out of them.
As part of my writing self-training, I began a blog, ‘Bayou Renaissance Man‘, in January 2008. I set myself the target of posting multiple articles every single day. My objectives in doing so were threefold. First, I wanted to train myself in the discipline of producing work every day, never slacking off. Second, I wanted to practice actively communicating with an audience. I knew the quality of my work would be measured by whether or not people came back for more. If they didn’t, that would tell me very clearly that I’d badly misjudged either my skills, or the ‘market’ for them in the blogosphere, and force me to rethink my approach. Finally, I was strongly influenced by an article, ‘1,000 True Fans‘, that appeared in early 2008. I’m a former businessman, manager and director, and the article’s marketing perspective seemed logical to me; so I wanted to build my own ‘fan base’ through my blog. My ambition was to have several hundred ‘true fans’ by the time I felt my fiction was of a sufficiently high quality to put it on the market.
I was encouraged by the success of my friend Larry Correia, who self-published his first novel, ‘Monster Hunter International‘, in 2008. I helped him publicize it through my blog, and when he was signed up by Baen Books, a quotation from my blog review of MHI was included on the back cover of its Baen edition. (It’s still there, which pleases me greatly.) Larry was also kind (and funny) enough to base one of his MHI characters on me. (Here’s a hint; his title begins with the letter ‘P’.)
Several years passed. My blog readership grew considerably (I currently have an average of 2,500-3,000 readers every weekday). However, I was getting frustrated about my fiction. I didn’t seem able to craft a novel that would attract and hold a reader’s interest – at least, I couldn’t do so according to my standards. (I grew up in a household with thousands of books, and became a voracious reader. As a result, my expectations of authors – including myself – are very high.) Nevertheless, I’d taken to heart the advice of several eminent authors that if one wanted to write well, one first had to write! Several of them suggested that one had to produce a million words or more in order to develop basic competency. I kept plugging away at it, and slowly, over time, my work improved – although not fast enough to suit me.
A new factor entered my life in 2009. Through a mutual friend I’d made e-mail and telephone contact with a lady in Alaska, whom many of you know through her comments on this blog. Dorothy and I fell in love long before we met – in fact, when I flew to Alaska to meet her for the first time, I took an engagement ring with me. (She was wearing it when I left!) Our relationship was complicated by a heart attack I suffered later that same year, which was probably partly caused by the after-effects of the injury I’d suffered in 2004. Fortunately, I survived the experience, and Dorothy and I were married in 2010. We settled in Nashville, TN, where we’ve lived ever since.
Dorothy doesn’t enjoy military science fiction or space opera, but she heroically set herself to help me improve my writing. This turned out to be a real blessing. Precisely because she disliked the genre, she tried very hard to read my manuscripts with more care and attention than she’d normally have given them; and because she was familiar with other genres in science fiction and fantasy, she could (and did) make very trenchant comments about my shortcomings. (She didn’t pull any punches, either – I think some of my extremities are still a bit scorched!) That sort of input and constructive criticism was exactly what I needed. If I could write well enough to hold the interest of someone who had little or no interest in the genre in which I was writing, the odds were pretty good that my work would appeal to someone who did like the genre.
By mid-2012 I was fairly sure I’d improved to the point that I could produce something publishable. I spent the next year writing the first two books of a military/space opera sci-fi series, and the first draft of a third volume in the series. I also reworked a memoir of prison chaplaincy that I’d written a couple of years earlier. I’d learned from reading about the fiction field that a big part of one’s success or failure would be determined by the volume of material one had on the market. I wanted to be able to put out several books very close together, so as to build up a ‘critical mass’ of work available to my readers. Hence, the effort to write several books before I published any of them.
I knew I’d have to publish my work independently, as it was (and still is) very difficult indeed for a compete outsider to break into the ‘normal’ publishing world. I therefore applied my business background to work out a marketing and promotion plan. It was built around three major elements.
1. I’d rely on my blog readers to be the initial market for my books. My numerous friends in the blogosphere would, I knew, help to publicize my book to their readers as well. I counted on this publicity to provide an initial sales impetus. Blog readers would have to buy enough copies to lift my first book out of the vast anonymity of the hundreds of thousands of independently-published works on Amazon. If I could sell a few hundred copies over a few days, that would be enough to get the book into Amazon’s ‘Hot New Releases’ lists (perhaps even into their ‘Best Sellers’ lists) in my chosen genre and sub-genres. If I could achieve that, I knew thousands more pairs of eyes would see my book and (hopefully) decide to at least skim through the free preview chapters. If my book was good enough, it’d sell itself from that point – and subsequent books would be that much easier to promote.
2. I had to find a way to make my work stand out as being better than the average independently published novel. I did some research, finding that most of the complaints about such books concerned – as one might expect – poor plot, characterization and dialog. I figured I’d learned enough to be at least competent in those areas. However, a pet peeve of many readers was the abysmally poor standards of editing found across the board among most independently published books. It seemed to me that if I put in a major effort in that area, I could produce a book that was as well edited as any professionally published work. That, in turn, would probably attract buyers who looked for such standards. Accordingly, I placed great emphasis on editing as part of my pre-publication preparations.
3. Book covers would be critically important. Dorothy and I couldn’t help but notice that many indie covers are very poorly thought out. They often don’t stand out visually in thumbnail size on Amazon.com and similar Web sites, which are their main (often only) sales channels. Most potential readers will only see them as thumbnails; so unless they capture their attention at that size, the opportunity for a sale will be lost.
We therefore put a great deal of effort into selecting cover images that were crisp, clear and professional, with a central element that would stand out clearly at thumbnail size. We enlisted the aid of our friend Oleg Volk, who’s a well-known photographer and graphic designer. We outlined our clarity and readability requirements, and provided our chosen images. He then edited the images and added fonts, colors and other design elements. I think he’s done a great job with my first two books, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s got up his sleeve for the next two.
I’m very pleased to report that even at this early stage, things are going well. My first novel, ‘Take The Star Road‘, was published in mid-May, and had sold about 3,500 copies by the time my second novel, ‘Ride The Rising Tide‘, joined it last week. As I write these words the second book is selling an average of over 100 copies per day, which is very satisfying for a previously unknown, independently published author like myself. The third book in the series will be published in the mid-November to early December time frame, God willing. As anticipated, my blog readers and those of my blogging friends provided sufficient sales impetus to lift both books into the ‘Hot New Releases’ and ‘Best Seller’ lists within a day or two after publication. I’d like to keep them there as long as possible! There have also been reader comments at Amazon.com praising the quality of editing, which makes all that hard work worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned. Print editions of both books are now also available, although I don’t think I’ll sell as many of them as I will e-books.
In mid-September, I’ll publish my memoir of prison chaplaincy. I have high hopes for that one, too. It’s in a completely different field, but it conveys an ‘insider’ perspective about a hot-button issue in the USA today. I want to contribute to the discussion about crime and punishment, and provide a rather different point of view to those normally encountered.
I hope that by the end of 2013, I’ll have published four books in a seven-month time frame. If they all sell as well as the first two, I should be looking at a solid foundation for future growth. My 2012 business plan had forecast that I’d sell at least 5,000 books (across all titles) during my first year on the market (i.e. through May 2014), and hopefully up to 10,000. It turns out I’ll hit the former figure by the end of this month, and probably exceed the latter target well before Christmas! I’m very happy about that, as you can imagine. I’m now hoping to make at least 20,000-25,000 sales during the first year that my books are on the market.
Most exciting of all, I’m already approaching the sales and earnings figures of a typical mid-list author, and I hope to do even better in future. If so, I can foresee the day when I’ll earn enough from my writing to be able to terminate my disability pension. That means a great deal to me. I was raised to believe that one shouldn’t ‘suck on the public teat’, as my father rather picturesquely put it, except in dire need, and then only for the shortest possible time. Back in 2004, a neurosurgeon predicted I’d never recover sufficiently from my injuries to earn a living through my own labor. I may not have recovered any better than he foresaw, but nevertheless, the prospect of proving him wrong is very satisfying!
G’day Peter. It’s excellent to read about your attitude to work and writing. Well done man. Sterkte.
Thanks, Dave. Perhaps you and I should put our heads together about some fantasy/SF with an African theme. Sangomas in space?
Well, I have got one with a ‘kleuring klonkie’ as the hero in space, based largely on my experiences at sea with these guys, but mostly I’m trying not to dwell in the past too much :-). We’ve been very lucky in where we’ve ended up (yes, some of the ‘luck’ is working hard too, but the island is a great community and I’m both proud of it and very fond of it). This is my place now, and, if I can help it, I’ll die here. But sure, something to show we ex-South Africans can come up with a good story together would be fun.
Peter, it was an honor and a pleasure to meet you and Dorothy at LibertyCon and spend some time with you. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few books and years bring from you!
A hearty second.
This is the kind of post I love finding first thing in the morning, full of good advice and other things to think about. Even better, you give all the rest of us hope, Peter, and not just for the writing parts of our lives.
I’m really looking forward to that memoir of your prison chaplaincy, by the way. Consider the first copy of that one already sold.
Thanks, Wesley. You’ll have to buy the second copy of my prison chaplaincy memoir, though – Oleg Volk has staked his claim for the first one. He says he regards it as a much more important book than any of my fiction, and one that really needs to be published to shed a different light on the problems involved. I hope he’s right!
I must admit, I’m a little nervous that it might not find a ready market, simply because it’s in a completely different genre, and I’m not sure how prospective readers are going to come across it. Hopefully enough readers of my SF will also try it that it’ll be lifted out of the mass obscurity of Amazon’s Kindle store, and make the non-fiction ‘Hot New Releases’ lists too. I guess we’ll find out soon enough . . .
You may not want to change things, Peter, but your difficulty is one of the reasons I publish my fiction under a pen name and non fiction under my real name. I’d hate to lose readers because they went looking for science fiction and got an exposition of the history of water law instead. And vice versa.
And add me to the list of buyers for your non-fiction book.
Excellent advice, Peter! Congratulations on publishing your second book, BTW.
I’m taking a different road. I have a blog, right here on WordPress, and even that didn’t begin as an effort to become a writer. No indeed. I joined Mensa as a lark and as a celebration of turning 70. Then I found myself a moderator on an international Mensa site. I noticed that even most Mensans write short replies, but I was writing 1000-word mini-essays! And they were well received. So I collected them, some of them, and they became the basis of my early blog postings. After that, some were written for the blog, some came from Facebook postings, again long essays for Facebook but short for a blog.
And then came fiction. I tried it, abandoned it, tried it again. Decided to publish my first novel on a free site and see if people would read it. Not a lot of people read my blog, certainly nowhere as many as read yours! Even though I think I’ve invented the science of climate control and a way to counter the effects of global warming. Yes, really.
So the free site was where I went, and to one that’s, charitably, not very selective. That first novel is now rewritten and is running on a better site, Beyond the Far Horizon. Bruce Bretthauer published there, and now he’s publishing via Amazon, as is the site administrator. Meantime, the second novel is running elsewhere, currently 14 chapters and more to come. I can produce two chapters a week of two totally different novels. Writer’s block? Nah.
As soon as the rewrite of the first is done, I’ll be working on numbers two and three. At that point, I’ll see if Baen is interested and if not, I’ll send to Amazon. Meantime, I have readers and I even get fan mail! I suspect all of you know how that feels!
Interesting – I’m a lapsed member of Mensa, too. (My physical limitations make it difficult for me to attend meetings, as I have to get up and stretch and move around at frequent intervals, which tends to disturb whatever’s going on.)
Perhaps Mensa should start an indy publishing venture? I’m sure Amazon would be eager to co-operate and co-brand it on its Kindle store.
Lapsed Mensans only need to send the bucks in to rejoin!
I don’t attend meetings, but I do have a lot of Mensa friends on Facebook, many of them from around the world. Let me know if you are interested in joining my FB group, which is part Mensa, part others, and open to those who request membership. Best group on FB! Addy, email@example.com.
A lot of Mensans write, but whether people would buy if a publisher bore the Mensa imprint is iffy at best. We’re no more than 2% of the population, anyway. That’s not a market, IMO. So Mensans publish elsewhere.
I’ll be happy to sell, once my stuff hits the market, to ANYONE! I ain’t proud.
Me too — mostly because our local chapter isn’t simpatico… 😉
His wife does too like space opera! She’s just… picky… about what space opera she likes, and a fair chunk of it does not overlap with his bookshelves.
Dorothy IS my space opera. Life’s a whole lot more exciting with her around!
I love the way she keeps complaining that she grew up (as a US military brat) determined to become a civilian, only to marry a combat veteran from a different country’s army. Consider me your karma, darling!
And I know where you sleep…
What kind of Space Opera do you like? Doc Smith? Pete Grant? Lois Bujold? Lee/Miller?
Lois Bujold, Sarah Hoyt, Emma Bull’s Falcon, early David Weber (more treecat, less infodump), C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen and some of her merchanter books, Joan D. Vinge’s Psion/Catspaw/Dreamfall series, Mad Mike Williamson (you only have to meet him once to hear him enthusiastically telling this fantastic take. Strong author voice, strength of character, what have you.) Even a little Charlie Stross, in small doses (more than a few chapters at a time, and I can start seeing the timeline of aggregated slashdot articles that make the background ideas and world. Throws me right out of the story.)
” early David Weber (more treecat, less infodump)”
Have you tried his juveniles with Jane (can’t spell her last name), I personally don’t like them because they are fluffy treecat stories, and I’m not a big fan of alien stories? But you may like them just for that reason.
Great background Peter, and “I” for one have enjoyed both books immensely… And also read Sarah’s books too! As you know I have a LOT of time sitting on airplanes. I knew you had talked about the impetus for the blog, but I never really connected all the dots… Congrats to you, and looking forward to both of the upcoming books!