7 Lessons I’ve Learned Since Self-Publishing My Debut Children’s Book (And What Other Writers and Authors Can Learn from My Mistakes)
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On December 6th, 2016, I self-published my first book, a middle grade fiction novel entitled Breaking Away: Book One of the Rabylon Series via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as an e-book. Soon thereafter I published a paperback version (via Amazon CreateSpace on December 12th, 2016) as well as an audio book version (via Amazon’s Audible on January 31st, 2017) and since then I have learned quite a bit about self-publishing, independent book promotion, and what it takes to make it as a self-published author in today’s uber-competitive and tech-savvy world. It is what I’ve learned that I here to share with you today, in the hopes that it will help you, my fellow writers and authors, to avoid making some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past five months and to find success of your own.
LESSON # 1: E-BOOKS ARE, BY FAR, THE MOST POPULAR (AND BEST-SELLING) KIND OF BOOKS AVAILABLE TODAY
In March of 2017 (my highest-sales month to date) I sold a total of 98 net copies of my book. Of those 98 copies, 88 of them (a whopping 89.8%) were Kindle e-book copies, 10 were paperbacks, and none were audio books. My April 2016 ratio of e-books-to-paperbacks sold was very similar.
E-books are, by far, the most popular form of book available online today (and that goes not only for books for teens and adults, but for books for children ages 9 and up as well), and while I cannot speak from experience for the Children’s Picture Book or Beginner’s Chapter Book categories, I can say, with 100% certainty, that if you are an author who is in any way motivated by profit or a desire to earn a living from your book(s), you must publish an electronic/e-book version of your book, lest you can expect to earn only a tenth (if that) of what you could conceivably earn. Furthermore, unless you have an explicit need to produce a physical paperback or hardcover book, you may wish to skip producing one altogether and stick with publishing an e-book alone, because why waste money creating a physical book if you have no use for it and don’t think you are going to make money from it?
LESSON # 2: AUDIO BOOKS ARE NOWHERE NEAR AS POPULAR AS YOU MAY THINK THEY ARE
To date I have only sold two copies of the Audible audio book version of my book, a fact which, I must be honest, is quite disappointing to me, especially whereas I spent $1000 USD having the audio produced/recorded by professional voice actor Peter Baker from the U.K., not to mention countless hours reviewing Mr. Baker’s audio before giving him my final approval, and whereas I’ve also posted the complete audio of Chapter 1 of the book as a free sample for my readers/listeners to listen to on my Manifestation Machine YouTube channel.
While it certainly be nice to know that you have an audio book version of your book available for perhaps blind or seeing-impaired fans of your writing and for anyone of any age who simply prefers to listen to books rather than read them, unless you are already a well-known or established author with a notable following/fan base, audio books are not worth the cost to produce them and the vast majority of self-published authors would do well to spend their time and money on the production of an e-book (and perhaps a paperback, too) and advertising/promotion for their book instead.
LESSON # 3: BOOK TRAILERS ARE NOT A GOOD INVESTMENT
In preparation for the release of my book, I looked at all available methods of self-promotion and one of the methods I came upon was the creation of something called a book trailer, which is like a trailer for a movie, except for a book instead, and is apparently something some big-name publishers actually still do for some of their big-name authors.
At first, I didn’t think producing a book trailer would be a bad idea (assuming I could get one done for a good price) since I had a decent budget for promotion and could afford to experiment a little (and I figured that such a thing could potentially give my book a presence on YouTube, at least until I could replace it with a sample of my audio book), and so I set off to find someone on Fiverr.com that could get the job done and, lo and behold, I found a great little company that could.
Several months later (and, thankfully, not a whole lot of money down), the two versions of the book trailer I had produced (one with the voiceover done by the trailer creator and the other done by another gentleman on Fiverr who does amazing voiceover work exclusively) have no views really to speak of (save for those I attained via using them as paid advertisements on my Manifestation Machine YouTube channel) and, as far as I can tell, have had absolutely zero impact on either my books sales or brand awareness.
No one cares about book trailers (except for the people paid to create them), and so if you’re hoping to have one produced for your book in the hopes that it will help you “get the word out” about your book, increase awareness of you or your brand, or make more sales, you are very much deluding yourself and would be better off looking into other methods of promoting your work (which I will discuss in more detail later in this post) that are not only more cost-effective, but more effective in general.
LESSON # 4: GIVING YOUR E-BOOK AWAY FOR FREE ONLINE WILL SEE YOUR BOOK PIRATED/RE-PUBLISHED WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION ELSEWHERE ON THE INTERNET
Shortly after publishing the e-book version of my book via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and agreeing to make my e-book available exclusively via KDP as per Amazon’s KDP Select program’s terms and conditions, I took “advantage” of one of the “benefits” of the KDP Select program, which was an opportunity for me to give away my e-book for free on any five days of my choosing out of my first 90-day term with the program as a means of “getting my book out there” and increasing peoples’ awareness of it before Christmas 2016. While I could have chosen any five days of my first 90 days I wanted, and while I could have split them up, as I was not required to make the days consecutive, I opted to giveaway my book for free for five days in a row from December 18th through December 22nd as somewhat of a science experiment, primarily to see if peoples’ sense of urgency would increase as the promotion got closer and closer to its end (which I suspected it would).
By the time my five-day-free-book-giveaway promotion was over, I had given away hundreds of copies of my book and was not surprised in the least to find that my suspicions had been correct and that peoples’ sense of urgency had indeed increased significantly in the final three days of the promo (and especially in the last 48 hours of it), with the vast majority of my “buyers” downloading the book right before the promo ending (and some even apparently paying full price for it by accident after the promo had ended), but I was surprised by what happened in the days and weeks following the promo: My e-book began to appear on a number of websites (many of which did not appear to be based in the United States, which is where I am from) as a free download.
Any time you give your book away for free, whether it’s the electronic version online or a paperback or hard cover copy in person, there is a high likelihood that the person taking your freebie is either an opportunist who simply wants to add your book to a catalog of free downloads on some suspicious (and most likely illegal) website of theirs (with the intent of using your material simply as an attractant to others looking for free stuff that they can earn advertising income from or whose computers they can infect with virus which they potentially attach to your book) or an Amazon, Craigslist, or E-Bay re-seller who is going to take your book and immediately turn around, throw it online, and try to re-sell it for a small profit.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing really depends on what your goals are. If you are like me—an unknown, first-time author with no little prior writing experience and no connections within the publishing industry—and your primarily goal is not so much to earn a profit (at least not immediately) but rather to build awareness of your book and name recognition for yourself (so you can sell more books perhaps a year or two from now), then you should be thrilled that others are helping you spread your work around, whether or not you are being paid for it, and essentially giving you free advertising. On the other hand, if you are primarily concerned with earning a living from your book and squeezing as much profit out of every copy as you possibly can, then the idea of someone “stealing” or “pirating” your work and using it in a way that benefits them as much if not more than it benefits you will likely terrify and/or infuriate you, in which case you should make it your personal policy to never give your book away for free in any way, shape, or form (keeping in mind that even people who pay for your book can still re-upload it or re-sell it without your permission and understanding that trying to keep everyone from doing so is truly fighting an uphill battle that you can never really win).
LESSON # 5: UNLESS YOU HAVE A GREAT DISTRIBUTION DEAL (OR A VERY LARGE FOLLOWING), TRYING TO GET YOUR PHYSICAL BOOKS IN STORES IS FUTILE
Over the course of a couple days in late April of 2016, I contacted every book store in my state (Wisconsin) and offered them a deal I honestly believed they couldn’t refuse: I would provide them up to five free paperback copies of my book, which I would then allow them to sell at full price ($7.99 apiece) and keep 100% of the profits from, in exchange for prominent placement of the books in the store (and perhaps some signage indicating I was local, if they felt this would help sales), plus a chance to develop a long-lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationship with them (for in the event that they happened to sell all five books). The result? I only got one response (despite having contacted at least ?? stores) and it was from Daniel Goldin of Boswell Books in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (one of the best bookstores in the entire state, if not the entire Midwestern U.S.), and he informed me of the following (which I found to be very helpful):
- He believes that I will be “starting from scratch”, so to say, if I start selling through physical bookstores and that I’d be better off concentrating my forces on online sales (at least initially)
- In his experience, self-help book sales in physical bookstores are driven by big-name authors and celebrities who smaller, unknown, or debut authors like me have to fight for shelf space (he shared this as he was apparently under the mistaken impression that because my brand, Manifestation Machine, is a personal growth and development brand, that my debut book is a self-help book, which it’s not; it’s a middle grade fiction book)
- He wouldn’t want to take any free books from anyone to sell in his store unless he knew that he could not only sell them all but also get a great deal on more copies if he needed them (which he doesn’t feel he can get through the Ingram “expanded distribution” offered through Amazon to self-published authors)
- He believes that debut authors like me who are interested in getting their books into physical bookstores should focus on getting their books into the stores closest to them (such as in their own city or within, say, a 30-40 mile radius of them) and, assuming all goes well, expand from there (I completely agree with him)
- He very much recommends that anyone serious about writing children’s books joins the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) (which I am proud to say I’ve been a member of since 2015)
Unless you are a celebrity, very well-known, or already have a large, dependable following, and unless you have an amazing distribution deal that can guarantee a bookstore owner the profit they want and/or need for their business to flourish, bookstores are not going to touch your book with a ten-foot pole—even if you offer it to them for free.
Bookstores are, generally-speaking, a very low-margin business, meaning that when they sell, say, a copy of any particular book, whether it’s J.K. Rowling’s newest Harry Potter novel or a brand new release from a completely unknown, local author, they make next-to-nothing in terms of profit from that sale. This being the case, for a bookstore to survive, let alone thrive, it’s all about the quantity, and not necessarily the quality, of the books they sell, and so if, as Mr. Goldin mentioned above, they can’t fathom selling enough copies of a book to warrant ordering at least 30 to 40 copies of it at a time, they won’t bother ordering even a single copy. As such, you are most likely better off focusing on online sales (or sales through speaking engagements and events you personally appear it).
LESSON # 6: ADVERTISING YOUR BOOK VIA FACEBOOK AND TWITTER (OR REALLY ANY SOCIAL MEDIA NETWORK IN GENERAL) IS A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME MONEY
To date, I have spent around $8000 on Facebook and Twitter ads (with the vast majority of my advertising dollars going to Facebook), because, at least until recently, I was under the same impression that most authors who use social media are under, which is that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks, in general, are a great way to network with and connect to potential readers and therefore that the self-serve ads they allow us to create are an equally (if not greater) way to do the same, so I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I woke up the morning of April 14th, 2017 and read the following headline on CNET.com:
As the above article (which you can read in its entirety at https://www.cnet.com/news/facebook-knocks-down-spam-network-fake-accounts/) points out, dating back at least six months (thus, before I started advertising with Facebook in mid- to late-December of 2016 and until I stopped advertising with them in April of 2017, after reading this article), Facebook had been aware of and actively working to purge its social network of millions upon millions of bots (i.e. fake accounts) that it knew were artificially inflating the Likes on the pages of countless businesses—yet, for reasons currently unknown to me and, I would assume, all of its self-serve advertisers during this time, it apparently felt absolutely no need to inform its advertisers—many of whom have, I’m sure, spent even more than I have on their self-serve ad platform—of this situation.
Had I known in December of 2016 what I know now, I would not have spent a single penny on advertising with Facebook or Twitter (which, as my research has revealed, has its own bot problem which it is well aware and yet, like Facebook, feels apparently no need to inform its advertisers of), and perhaps not even Google (which, despite not being a pure social media entity, has had more than its share of issues with bots), because when I spend money on advertising on any medium (whether it be social media, search engines, newspapers, radio, television, etc.), and unless the terms and conditions of my agreement to advertise suggest otherwise, I assume (and I believe quite reasonably so) that my ads are going to be viewed (or clicked on) not by bots and fake accounts run by A.I. (artificial intelligence) programs but my real flesh-and-blood human beings who—wait for it—actually have the desire and/or ability to purchase my products or services.
Unless you like to throw your hard-earned money and advertising dollars by paying to promote your book(s) to bots which cannot, do not, and will never possess the ability to give you a positive return on your investment, you would be best to avoid social media like the plague. In other words, run, and don’t walk, away from all social media advertising schemes (I don’t care if it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) and look into spending your hard-earned money on much more reliable and time-tested mediums (such as physical newspaper, magazines, and newsletters or television channels or radio stations), or perhaps on Amazon’s AMS platform or Goodreads.com (where real people actually go to read and buy real books) which you know (or at least can reasonably assume) will be seen/heard not by bots but by real flesh-and-blood human beings that can actually buy what you’re selling.
LESSON # 7: WHEN IT COMES TO PROMOTING YOUR WORK, WORD OF MOUTH IS KING
I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that what has gotten me and my new book the most exposure (as well as the most smiles, the most requests for autographs, and the most new friends) since I first held its paperback version in my hands has not been any number of ads or amount of money spent specifically on trying to generate sales, but rather the actions I have taken to simply get the book into peoples’ hands, even if it meant losing some money in doing so (or, in many cases, giving it away for free).
Since the release of the paperback version of my book, I have ordered 2000 copies of it for myself (at cost) through CreateSpace, and while I initially intended to donate most of them to charity (while giving the rest away to friends and family or sending them off to be reviewed by magazines or entered into contests), I ultimately became much creative with what I could do with them as I Google-searched terms such as “places to donate books” or “places to donate children’s books” and discovered that there are countless organizations not only in my home state of Wisconsin but nationwide that are in need of books, not to mention countless events where one can volunteer his or her time to help sell books and raise money for worthwhile causes (such as library reading programs for children).
With a whole array of options available to me, I decided to do a couple things that most authors would probably never think of doing, but which have helped me enormously, in terms of raising awareness of who I am, what I believe in, my Manifestation Machine personal growth and development brand, and the fact that my debut book is available:
- I began dropping copies of my book off in Little Free Libraries all over my state (starting at the locations nearest to me and then fanning out into the surround areas with the highest concentrations of the Libraries), which look, in many cases, like big birdhouses that house books and act as what the name suggests, little free libraries, where people can “take a book, leave a book” and encourage/support readership in their communities.
- I reached out the local shelters in my area and worked out a situation where I am now not only allowed but encouraged to visit at least once a month at Golden House, a domestic abuse shelter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I am provided an opportunity to not only discuss my book’s inspirational messages and hand out free, autographed copies of it to the resident men, women, and children, but to also share my life experience (which includes going through a rough, emotional divorce at age 24, defeating alcoholism several years later, and achieving my dream of becoming a published author in the face of much adversity) with in the hopes of inspiring them onto greatness.
- I volunteered to work five out of the six days of the BIG Book Sale at the Brown County Library in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin this past month as both a “transporter” (helping to carry or cart sometimes hundreds of books purchased out to peoples’ vehicles) and a “bulk sales” assistant (helping to do the same for “bulk buyers”, such as Amazon.com, Craigslist, and E-Bay book re-sellers, who buy massive quantities of books on the first day of the sale), where all of the proceeds of the book sales go to support local reading programs geared towards increasing literacy and encouraging readership amongst children and adults alike, and where I was able to not only donate a few of my books for the sale, but to also give some away to my fellow volunteers (who were some of the most avid and influential readers I’ve ever met, I must add).
Thinking “outside the box” and doing unorthodox things to get you and your book in front of people can provide you opportunities to increase awareness of who you are, what you believe, and of the fact that your book is available that “traditional” marketing methods, such as simply throwing some money at advertising and hoping it will stick, never could, and so if you haven’t started “thinking outside the box” yet with regards to your own book promotion, you need to, lest you should vanish into the sea of other authors and writers who are all trying to swim “inside the box” with you and drowning each other in the process.
Now, I must point out that the 2000 copies of my own book I purchased has cost me over $3000 and that I understand that most authors and writers don’t have nearly that much money to spend on giveaway copies of their own books—either that, or they’re simply not willing to spend that much on such things, even if they could—and so I completely understand if you who are reading this don’t believe that doing some of the things I’ve done are realistic for you to do. That being said, in my honest opinion and based on my experience over not only the past five months but the past ten years as well (which have seen me promote my own music and a successful YouTube fitness channel before I ever thought about writing a book), you will be doing yourself and the book(s) you’ve worked so hard to create a huge disservice if you don’t at least attempt to do these types of things at whatever scale you can afford to do them at because, as eluded to earlier, your only other options for promoting you and your work are the same options that every other author thinks they have, and you know what? Those other options don’t really work all that well for creating Word of Mouth (which, as I’ve learned, is the only thing that really sells books these days).
Now, why is this, you may ask?
It’s because everyone is using those options, most likely because they just don’t know any better or are not creative or daring enough to try anything else, and because everyone is using them, they will do nothing to separate you from the proverbial pack or to show readers how you’re different than the next guy or girl or why they should buy your book instead of someone else’s—and that is exactly what you must do if you are to have any hope of selling more than a couple copies of your book and becoming just another writer that never made it.
Now, the other things I’ve mentioned—the guerrilla marketing tactics, if you will—they will separate you from the pack, because they will allow you to not only get your books into the hands of people that you know either love to read or will appreciate what you’ve created, but also provide you an opportunity to let people get to know you—the face behind the book—and that, my friend, is worth far more than any amount of advertising you could ever buy, because that, my friend, is what actually sells books. Not ads, not a big, flashy marketing campaign, and not the type of support that only a big-name publisher could provide, but you.
So the next time you head out into the world and catch yourself thinking “How can I sell more books?”, I suggest you ask yourself a better and, in my opinion, much more appropriate question: “How can I increase peoples’ awareness of who I am, what I believe, and of the fact that my book is available?” Trust me, once you ask this much better question, you will—I guarantee you—get a much better answer…or two…or ten…or twenty. And those answers, my friend, while not necessarily leading you to riches directly will put you on the only road that will ever lead you to them as a writer: The one that adds value to the lives of the people you wrote your book for in the first place.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here today! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Please leave a comment below and tell me how you feel about this post, or better yet, visit its sister thread in the Manifestation Machine Forum and join the discussion about the topics covered herein. I can’t wait to hear from you, and neither can the millions upon millions of your fellow Mechanics!