*Peter Grant is one of four writers (I think it’s four. I made arrangements when I was less than all here, so who knows?) who will be rotating here every week on Fridays. So, welcome him. Peter is an amazingly focused and hard working man, and I’m looking forward to his columns.*
Ten Months of Lessons Learned
by Peter Grant
On May 14th 2013 I published my first SF novel on Amazon.com. Since then I’ve put up two more in the Maxwell Saga (the third in the series, ‘Adapt and Overcome’, was published last month) plus a non-fiction memoir of my service as a prison chaplain. This week I passed the milestone of 20,000 books sold across all four volumes – not nearly as good a performance as some top authors who got their start in self-publishing, but a lot better than others, and certainly putting me firmly in ‘mid-list author’ territory as far as traditional publishing perspectives are concerned. In my pre-publication marketing planning (which I described in these pages some months ago), I estimated I’d sell a minimum of 5,000 books during my first year on the market, and hoped to sell 10,000 if things went very well. To have doubled my best estimate with two months still to go in the first year makes me very happy!
I’ve learned a number of useful lessons during the past ten months. I’d like to offer them here for your consideration, and to give those with more experience a chance to respond.
1. First, pre-publication planning really pays off! I prepared a detailed analysis of my potential market and readers, and built my marketing plan around my blog and the blogs of friends and fellow writers. I’m very pleased to say that this worked even better than I’d hoped. If I’d published something without any marketing plan, I daresay I wouldn’t have done nearly as well.
2. It’s important for newbie authors to keep up a high rate of publication, so that they stay in the public eye. I’d thought about this, and pre-wrote sufficient to bring out three books within six months (the first two SF novels and my memoir). However, I hadn’t thought it through far enough. In the first place, a change of genre didn’t translate to sales success. The prison chaplaincy memoir hasn’t sold very well at all by SF standards (although it’s done quite well by the standards of its genre and categories).
Furthermore, I decided to delay the publication of my third SF novel so that I could work on improved characterization and plot development. This meant that there was a gap of almost eight months between Volumes 2 and 3 of the Maxwell Saga, during which sales fell to negligible levels compared to earlier in the publication cycle. I hadn’t expected that big a drop. (Fortunately, when Volume 3 came out almost six weeks ago, it immediately zoomed up the charts and took sales of the first two books with it, so I can’t complain there!) Clearly, I’ve got to try to maintain a publication pace of no longer than 4-5 months per volume over the short to medium term in order to maintain market momentum. I’m in awe of authors (like Kevin J. Anderson – wow!) who can write hundreds of thousands of words in a month. I’m not among them! Nevertheless, I hope I’ll write faster as I gain experience. I may get up to a book every quarter in due course.
3. The price of e-books is another important consideration. I set my first two SF novels at $2.99 each after reading widely about market penetration by new authors, and the importance of not asking too much when people don’t know your work. That seemed to be an appropriate level – at least, market acceptance didn’t indicate any resistance. For the third novel I moved to a $3.99 price point, which seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ according to many marketing surveys. Again, user acceptance has been very good at that price point. However, I don’t think I’ll try to go any higher unless and until I’m selling at a considerably higher volume. I note that many independent authors in my sub-genres are asking $4.99 and up for their books. I’d rather go for more sales at a lower price, and make more money that way – at least for now.
4. Another lesson learned is that reader reviews can be very useful – but also a depressing factor if you let them get to you. I’ve learned a great deal about where I need to improve by studying carefully the criticisms of my first books offered in reader reviews at Amazon.com. I used them as a primary resource when trying to lift Volume 3 of the Maxwell Saga to a new level. However, some of the reviews were so strange that I really couldn’t understand why someone would write them in the first place. I’ve since learned from other authors that there will always be such reviews. One must simply learn to shrug one’s shoulders and accept them as part of the deal. (However, I don’t agree with those who say you should simply ignore all reviews – perhaps not even read them. I’ve found many of them very useful, and hopefully they’ll continue to help me become a better writer.)
5. Next, I found that one needs as much time to edit and polish a book as one does to write it – sometimes much more. Maxwell Volume 3 ended up taking far longer than I’d expected, because it was in serious need of improvement. Fortunately my beta readers were able to point out where that was necessary, and I was able to use their input (plus feedback from reviews of the first two novels in the series) to make the necessary changes. Still, that delayed publication for over two months, during which time I couldn’t work on the fourth novel in the series.
I’m considering how to move to a process where I work on more than one book at a time. That way one could be with beta reviewers for feedback, I could be editing another based on their comments, and I could have a third in the first draft stage during my copious free time. I don’t see my way clear to setting this up without incurring a three- to four-month delay in the publication process; but that might be a worthwhile penalty if it streamlines future production. Do other authors have any suggestions about this?
6. My wife Dorothy (whom many of you know through her guest articles here, and her comments here and on Sarah’s blog) has been extremely helpful and supportive through this whole process. She has a better understanding than I of SEO (search engine optimization), search algorithms and other technical aspects of what Kristine Katherine Rusch calls ‘discoverability’. She’s been invaluable in researching relevant categories and keywords on Amazon.com and adjusting my books’ market positioning accordingly. I credit her with at least a 25% improvement in sales since she started making my books more ‘discoverable’. It’s driven home to me the importance of understanding these aspects of marketing. An added benefit has been that her help has freed me to concentrate on writing, leaving such aspects in her very capable hands.
7. Finally, I’ve found it absolutely essential to get more exercise. It’s too easy to sit for hours at a desk, becoming very unfit and making my existing health problems even worse. I’ve invested in a treadmill desk, and both Dorothy and I are using it daily. I think it’s an essential part of a writing lifestyle (although if I wrote less and went outside more, that would also help!).