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My First Year In Self-Publishing (8,000 Sales On)

Polish-born British author James Calbraith condenses his experience of his first year as an indie author into five top tips that worked for him.

Photo of James Calbraith, author of sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk

James Calbraith reviews his first year’s success

A year ago, I published my first novel, The Shadow of Black Wings. Since then, I have published a few more books; I have now sold 8000 copies of all my books put together. That’s sold – not given away – and not for peanuts, either; my average royalty on these was about $2 per book, pre-tax.

Now, in terms of commercial results, this isn’t an indie success story people like to read about: I’m not the next Hugh Howey, or J A Konrath; I am, however, quite satisfied with what I had achieved so far. This is, after all, my first year of publishing, and the genre I write is not a bestseller genre. If you are a starting self-published writer, you are probably constantly looking for advice on how to sell more books. I don’t know whether, in a world where some authors sell millions, a meagre 8,000 sales can interest anyone, but if it does, then sure, I can tell you how I did it.

What Worked for Me

Cover image of The Shadow of Black Wings by James Calbraith

James Calbraith’s debut novel

In the beginning, I tried many things; I bought books, I read blogs, I studied business cases. Social media. Paid ads. Free ads. Blog posts. Blog tours. Guest posts. Short stories. Wattpad. Figment. Goodreads. Shelfari. You name it – I was there. Almost none of it mattered, in the end. In hindsight, if I look back at what I’m certain I did right over the last year, it can be summed in the following 5 points:

  1. Write a series of good books
  2. Prepare professional publishing package (formatting, cover, editing)
  3. Push the first book out with free and paid promos. Make sure you get what you paid for
  4. Keep writing and releasing books, pushing each release forward with a set of promotions
  5. Profit

If I felt like creating some kind of rule out of it, I could do that; I could probably write a book about it, and try to hawk my method as the “Only True Way” to sell books. But that wouldn’t feel right. Because what I did worked only for me. And I have no way of knowing for certain whether it would work for anyone else, or indeed whether it will continue to work for me; my books may stop selling at any moment, and I will remain just as clueless as I was a year ago.

What Will Work For You?

Things work differently for different people. For some, using Facebook or Twitter will be a path to success. For a chosen few, it will be a place like Wattpad or Figment where they may find their audience. Many authors swear by Goodreads.

Personally, neither of these did anything for me, and I count my time spent there as very much wasted. I guess I just don’t have the right kind of personality. But that doesn’t mean I would go around dismissing any of these channels of publicity.

And conversely, my way of doing things may not suit others. Perhaps not everyone feels comfortable with releasing a book every few months, or with scouring the internet for the best places to buy advertising from.

As with every new, emerging business, the tales of true success are still few and far between. The statistical sample is far too little to make any assumptions. Nobody knows for certain what works, and what doesn’t. I offer you my opinion of what worked for my sales – but I could be wrong; it may have been something completely different that I did at some point, and now don’t even remember. Or – very likely – it may have been pure chance; I may try to use hindsight to figure out what went right or wrong, but the truth is, I just don’t know.

Do What  YOU Do Best

So while it may sound depressing and underwhelming for somebody who’s looking for a quick way to win in life’s lottery, there is a positive lesson to learn here: do whatever you feel like doing. Stick to what you do best; if something just doesn’t seem to be working out for you, don’t push it. It may never work out, and you’ll only be wasting time.

But, if your book is out, and you’re prepared to spend some time and effort to present it to the world in a professional manner – I’m pretty confident it will start selling. And when it does, I’m sure deep down you’ll be as clueless as to how it happened as we all are.

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16 Responses to My First Year In Self-Publishing (8,000 Sales On)

  1. Brian Robertson July 9, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Just brilliant! Honesty shines from every word. If it is any comfort I have a traditionally published book Digger’s Story on Amazon ebooks and while it did quite well in Australia as a “real” book it has been languishing at the 200 000 to 300 000 rank as an ebook. I don’t have any control over it of course because the publisher has all the rights. I don’t think I will be selling my ebook rights so readily again.

    • okmike July 9, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      You have all the control over marketing. Nothing is stopping you from marketing the book by doing everything or anything mentioned in the above article.

  2. Jane Davis July 9, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    I probably shouldn’t reply with this, but feel compelled to. I congratulate you on your sucess for self-publishing is about more than sales: it is also about integrity.

    Yesterday I received a rejection letter from a literary agent and, for the first time, I can honestly say that I don’t feel remotely disheartened. It would appear that I have, as I was advised to, grown the skin of a rhino.

    I recently self-published my novel, These Fragile Things, which examines an idea as old as the Bible: that a teenage girl might risk ridicule and scorn – knowing others will be affected besides herself – to voice a seemingly impossible claim, that she is seeing visions. In the 80s. And, in Streatham of all places!

    Having already been told that my novel was ‘too quiet for the current market,’ I was not actively seeking representation, but I received a personal introduction via a traditionally-published author to an agent of the young and passionate variety. The type who is still building his list.

    Not wanting to waste his time, I came clean about my writing history (winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award, as a result of which my first novel was published, but having subsequent work rejected because it didn’t fall into the same genre). I was also very open about the reasons why other agents have continued to reject my work, to which my young friend responded by praising the intensity of my writing and saying that he thought I had been very hard done by. (Others might be encouraged to know that, far from being put off by the fact that I had self-published, he also praised my energy for having followed an alternative route.) And so I sent him my manuscript, thinking that I might have found someone who ‘got’ me, for want to a better phrase.

    The writing, he tells me, is ‘very good indeed.’ (Note the ‘indeed.’ I particularly liked that.) His reservations lie elsewhere.

    The plot, he feels, would suit a more contemporary setting. I had several reasons for rooting my story in the 80s. The main one was that I wanted to write about an historic event I had borne witness to; an event that seemed so catastrophic at the time (although it has since been dwarfed) that it truly felt as if an Old Testament God was seeking vengeance on his disobedient off-spring: the Great Storm of 1987. That date – together with the dates of other real-life events that my teenage prophet Judy spoke of – was pretty much immovable. This criticism, I felt, was subjective. A question of taste, if you like. To a twenty-something, the 80s may feel like history. To a forty-something year old -my age, and the age of the majority of my readers…

    The second point that he made is that Graham, the father in my story, appeared to convert to Catholicism ‘too easily.’ (In fact Graham deferred making good a promise given while his daughter was in the operating theatre undergoing life-saving surgery for over a year.) In my mind, my agent friend missed the point that it was Graham’s conversion that provides the source of tension and conflict between husband (who supports his daughter) and wife (who blames her husband for his influence over their daughter and seeks a medical explanation). And apparently I am ‘notably strong when it comes to forcing the pace of the narrative and sustaining the tension.’

    So we come to the third point: ‘To create suspense I wanted to have the sense we were going to find out some dark truths about a seemingly normal family set-up. That kind of psychological suspense is proving popular at the moment.’ At this point I should perhaps point out that:
    • The mother in my seemingly normal family set-up just happens to be a sex addict (some might call this a ‘dark secret’).
    • That the mother is completely confounded by her daughter’s revelations, which also prove to be an embarrassment to the Church.
    • Added to the boiling pot, we also have the intrusion of the press, growing religious fervour, Judy’s followers camping on the grass verges outside the family house, none of which makes the family popular with their neighbours.
    As writers, we all have to compromise to a certain extent. I have already done a certain amount of ‘beefing up.’ I have already deleted five chapters in order to cut to the chase. However, there should be a point at which every writer refuses to become the lady writer Michael Chabon describes in his rather wonderful ‘Wonder Boys’ who touts her one novel around writing conferences year after year, having made yet more adjustments to suit the whims of individual literary agents. This lady is seen as an eccentric. A little bit of a laughing stock. But it may simply be that she refused to conform to publishing trends. In other words, no one could fit her work into a box and stick a label on it.

    Since I chose to go public with the strange workings of my brain, I have built up a small but loyal readership, and something precious has happened. Ordinary people have begun to entrust their extraordinary stories to me. One man recently confided in me about his teenage son who, having suffered from epilepsy since childhood, is now going through a series of psychotic episodes during which he thinks God is speaking to him. As an atheist, the man is struggling to come to terms with this. He has not provided his son with any sort of a religious upbringing, but he now wants to know what books he should read so that he can try to understand what his boy – his beautiful boy, who he has had to watch trying to set fire to himself – is going through. It is not a priest he is turning to for advice. He is turning to me, because something I have written makes him think that I will understand. Choosing religion as a subject carries with it certain responsibilities, which the level of trust he has placed in me only amplifies. I feel it would be insulting to people dealing with similar issues in their own lives to ‘introduce a new angle.’ It would be as if I were saying to them, ‘I’m sorry. You’re not suffering enough.’

    And so my book may remain a ‘little’ book, but I hope that it will feel authentic.

  3. Dianne Ascroft July 9, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Very interesting post, James. Can you tell us which advertising sites you have found most effective to promote sales?

    • James Calbraith July 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

      I would be loath to advise even on that, as the market here is very fluid. At the moment, BookBub seems to be all the rage, but last year it was KND, Ereader News and Pixel of Ink. The readers roam from one place to another, and it’s one of those things you need to keep track on yourself all the time.

      • Meg Justus July 11, 2013 at 12:29 am #

        How do you keep track of which sites *are* the current rage?

  4. david james July 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    I like it, James: the answer is there is no answer. Try everything but don’t expect anything.

  5. Susan Yanguas July 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I needed to hear this. It’s something I instinctually knew, but was nice to hear it confirmed by someone who tested the theory.

  6. L.M. Steel July 9, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    This is good advice and so very honest.
    So many blogs and advice reels and books tell you how they did it, and most are very different.
    I’m still plodding on and hoping for the best, I hope in a year I have that many sales.

  7. M.H. Vesseur July 9, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    A very stimulating post. There’s something to be said for endurance (or perseverance, what’s the word). Thanks for sharing this – I will keep your tips in the back of my head as I go along. I’m on the free promo thing now and if I read your post correctly, paid promos are the next thing I need to look into. I believe the 8000 is huge. Congratulations with this astonishing result in one year!

  8. Tom Barry July 10, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    Great post. Looking back over my two year journey to publication, 99% of the things I have done other than creative writing were time wasted, 90% of the money I spent other than paid promotions was money wasted. My experience is
    1. Get your product into the best shape it can be (compelling writing, cover, title.)
    2. Advertise it in places where high volumes (10,000+) of readers will see it with a click to buy option.
    If your product is good and free you will get thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of downloads; if your product is 99c you will get hundreds, maybe thousands, of downloads.
    3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with additional product (ideally in the same genre).

    • Nathan Dylan Goodwin September 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      Hi Tom

      Could you suggest any good websites which offer high volumes of readers with the click to buy option?

      Thanks

      Nathan

  9. Sue Noye Clark July 10, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    I do love what you’ve written. I’m at the point now where I’ve got my book (“Dependence”) on Kindle and waiting for it to be self-published with Matador in November, and feeling very much overwhelmed with the realisation that marketing is so important.
    I’ve created a Facebook page, even though I don’t like Facebook and I’m not at all interested or enthusiastic about it. (In fact, am thinking of getting rid of it because what’s the point in using something that I have no liking for or interest in?)
    I’m in the process of making a blogsite, but as I’m not at all savvy in that department, it’s taking me ages; and then I’m thinking to myself, perhaps I should be getting a website together before a blog and oh…….
    I so agree with you when you say “do whatever you feel like doing”. I know we have to broadcast the fact that we’ve written our books, and to let people know that they’re out there waiting to be bought, but I do feel it’s essential that whatever way we choose to do our marketing, should be a way that we care about and gives us at least some pleasure, rather than just being an irksome chore that doesn’t inspire us in any way.
    So I shall continue searching for “my way” – I know I’ll find it eventually.
    Thanks, James, for what you’ve written, and wishing you continued happiness and success with your writing

  10. Peter Prasad July 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Thank you. A candid narration of what’s worked for you over the last year. And you are brave enough to share it. That’s the sign of a good man and a good writer. When you write from a perspective that we’re all in this together, then your craft genuinely shines. More power to you. Indie Authors Rock!

    http://www.amazon.com/Goat-Ripper-Sonoma-Knight-ebook/dp/B00DQ3FI0A/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1373818915&sr=1-1&keywords=Goat-Ripper

  11. Tina Pisco July 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    Thanks for that-couldn’t have come at a better time. After spending the last 2 years getting all my stuff on Amazon and setting up an author “platform”, I ran my first promotion last week: kdp select free download for 5 days…I’m still making my way through the stats to try and make sense of it. Surprises abound:
    -I had more interest in a Goodreads giveaway of a print book (aprox 2000) than a free ebook (1000 downloads in the US)
    -I sold books in Germany! (I have been published in German but this was an English language ebook)
    -I had 22 downloads in Canada?

    For my next promo, I’ll try 5 free days over a longer period of time to see the difference….

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