Saturday, June 1, 2013

Brownie Cameras, Tin Lizzies and Self Publishing

I've been reading a bunch of stuff about the "costs" of self-publishing, and, if I didn't know better, I would be discouraged. I see numbers bandied around from $500 a book to over $5000 for a "quality" product. As I read through these writings, I realize that these authors might be good craftsmen, but they lack some basic business sense.

Let's look outside of literature for our inspiration for a moment. Ford did not
Photo by beckstei
make the first automobile. There were other auto manufacturers around the world. His innovation was the Model A, sometimes called the "Tin Lizzy." It was a car built on an assembly line using cost-cutting measures in such a way as to make it affordable to the average working family. He didn't start with the Lincoln Continental. In fact, if he tried that, he probably would have gone out of business like many of the other "high end" car manufacturers did.

Another good example is the Kodak Brownie camera. It was cheap, it used low-cost materials, and it was uncomplicated. It was point-and-shoot simplicity, and it made photography accessible to everyone. Not only did Kodak sell a ton of these "inferior" cameras, they also sold billions of feet of film.

So, what does this have to do with self-publishing? As I read these authors, it looks like what they are saying is: "Until you can build a Cadillac, don't build anything."

The problem with all of this is a very basic principle of business.

Profit = Price - Cost

Now, with ebook publishing there is virtual no cost in terms of materials. In that sense, the royalty paid by Amazon, Barnes Noble or Smashwords is pure profit. However, every penny you spend on the "essentials" touted by the "experts" (most of whom are associated with businesses providing one or more of these services) such as hiring a developmental editor, content editor, proofreader, cover designer publicity expert, manuscript formatting specialists, graphics designers, etc. reduces your profit substantially.

Okay, I've only been at this in a major way for about eight months, but I went from 15 sales a month to an average of 400. I'm at close to 3000 sales at this point. The most I spent on any one of these books was about $50 for a picture from iStockphoto for cover art and $20 or so for Facebook advertising. Many I did without spending a single dime.

Now, are my books perfectly edited? No. (But then I'm reading a book now from a mainline publisher, and I find a few errors in each chapter. It may shine a bit better than mine, but I paid $14.00 for it. My readers pay $3.99 and less.) Let's go back to the cars and cameras. A Brownie isn't as shiny as an expensive camera. The pictures it takes are inferior but they are affordable and sell way more units than the expensive cameras. The Cadillac has more features and fancier upholstery, but it also costs several thousand more than the Model A Ford.

Here's a simple fact of life. The more money you put into a book, the more you will have to charge for it. The more you charge for a book, the less likely a new reader is to take a chance on your book. Are you really that well known that people will pay $4-5 dollars per unit more for your books than mine in order to have a slightly more dramatic cover design or a couple of fewer comma splices?

I'm not saying you should present a shoddy product, but you can produce a basic product at a price that makes you a profit and reduces the reader's risk.

So, how do you do this? Well, do a lot of things yourself. Cover design, for instance, is pretty easy. Go to a commercial stockphoto site plug in your keywords, find a single picture that conveys the main idea of your novel, and then add your title to it using a photo editor. has a good online editor that can do this. If you prefer working offline, you can download GIMP, which is basically a free clone of Photoshop.

Kindle now has a cover creator. You can use their designs with your photos or use their graphics.

If you got a decent grade in high school English, you can probably check your own work for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. You can start with the grammar check tools found in MS-Word. It doesn't catch them all, but it catches many of them making your life easier. (BTW, I left out two commas intentionally in the above portion of this article. Did you notice? Did it make you stop reading this article or make you want to never read any of my work again? Unless every line contains an error, most of your readers won't notice the occasional missed comma or grammatical whoops. And if they do, you can go in and correct it.)

Use beta readers and critique groups for feedback on the story, writing style, etc.

Offer to trade services with other writers. Offer to read their work and edit it, if they will read yours.

No, you won't have the Cadillac or Nikon of ebook publishing, but you will have something that you can sell at an attractive price, build a fan base, show a bit of profit, which you can later use for that Cadillac you have on the drawing board.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss some basic issues as self-editing, cover design and manuscript formatting. 


  1. Makes excellent sense, Terri. Since I'm so horribly non-techno (but brave?), I'm going to e-pub my hubby's memoir for my first publishing experience, and your article has made me decide to do it ACAP (as cheap as possible). From there, fully savvy, LOL, I'll try my novel next.

    1. You don't really have to be techno-savvy. If you can use MS-Word and follow basic formatting instructions found on the Kindle Direct Publishing Site in their Help section, you can do it. You just upload your MS-Word file. I would suggest using the cover designer for your first cover. Just choose a design and a picture then fill in the blanks so to speak.

      You don't have to write code or anything like that. Here are the basics I remember when preparing my copy for Kindle.

      1. Don't use bullets use asterisks or dashes.

      2. Don't use tables. If you have a chart you want to include, create the chart in a separate file, then use the snipping tool found in Windows accessories and create a jpg file by selecting it and hitting save. Then insert it as a picture inline.

      3. Don't wrap text around pictures. You want to keep all format liquid so it can resize to different screens. So, just put your text inline. That means hit the enter key after the last line of text, insert your photo, then hit enter again.

      4. Highlight each chapter heading and click on Heading 1 for each chapter. Then you can create a clickable table of contents when you finish (instructions can be found at a link on the Kindle help page).

      5. Not necessary, but I like to get an idea of what everything will look like more or less as I'm formatting everything. So, I set the page layout to no margins top, bottom, right and left and the page size to 5.4x8 inches.

      I have also started setting my indents to .2 instead of the default .5 . It looks a bit better with the shorter line length.

      Those are the basics. Good luck.

  2. Thank you so much for saying this, Terri. There's so much out on the internet criticizing indies for not paying for all of the professional services and putting out terrible books, it's intimidating for those of us who expect to earn a profit from our writing.

    When I decided to self-publish my mystery, I opened up a business bank account with seed money from last year's tax refund. That would set a limit on the amount of money I would spend on self-publishing because, although I wanted to do it right, I didn't want to go broke doing it.

    I did use a member of my local Sisters in Crime chapter as my content editor with the promise to do the same for her book when she was ready. I opted to use a (reasonably-priced) cover designer because, on a scale of 1 to 10, my graphics skills are probably -5. My biggest expense was a professional copyeditor. This was worthwhile because I couldn't see my own mistakes in some areas. I did all of my own formatting because a)I'm a computer geek, b)I use Scrivener, which outputs clean Kindle and epub files with little effort, and c)I can follow directions.

    Now that the book is published and I can see actual sales numbers, which are quite low because I'm not spending much time or money on promotion, I'm rethinking my plan. At the rate I'm selling, it will take a long time to recoup the cost of that copyedit. For book two in the series, I doubt that I'll have a professional copyedit done. I made notes on the corrections the first one did (my particular favorite "weasel" or filler words, comma errors, etc.) and plan on using those notes to edit the sequel myself. I'll probably use the same cover designer for this book, but not the third book I'm going to write.

    Hugh Howey, who recently signed a six-figure deal with Simon and Schuster for print-only rights to Wool, spent zero on his self-published books until he started earning money. Like you, he did everything himself. He just kept writing and publishing books. Wool was the eighth book he wrote. His covers weren't great, but his writing was strong enough that he built a following over time.

    I'm not the most patient person in the world, so I have to keep reminding myself that I want to be like Hugh and not like some of my traditionally published friends who had to spend their entire advance on promoting their books to make their agents and publishers happy. I think it's the wiser course in the long run.

    1. I also spend very little on promotion, but remember this, one book won't make you money. One person said the tipping point was 10. That tracked for me as well. I can't tell how many copies I have sold of any one of my books. I don't track that (although I can because I get all the records from Amazon) as much as I track the total. One reason is the fluctuation in sales. For instance, there's a novel I have out. Not my best work, honestly, and maybe not as well edited as some of the others. It's outselling some of the more "polished" novels. But it's a contemporary cozy mystery and some of the others are science-fiction mysteries. But for a couple of months, the sci-fi mysteries outpaced it. Then this month, each of the sci-fi mysteries dropped through the floor and the contemporary mystery shot up again. But this is a few weeks after Mothers Day and all those Mother's Day Kindles need filling. Contemporary Cozies are more popular with women.

      Right now, the only "promotion" I've done is post announcements to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and I run free giveaway days. Those are my best promotion. People get acquainted with my work and in the back of each book are direct links to my other books. If they like it and want more, they just have to click from within the reader.

      The other thing, the absolutely most important thing, most people ignore totally in promotion and which I spend my biggest promotion time on is optimizing the sales page for the Kindle search engine.

      That means basically packing the description with the key words people are likely to search for when they come to the Kindle store. Consider this, say you buy an ad on Facebook (and I do this using the promoted posts function) you can read a few thousand. If you spend a hundred bucks or so, maybe 20-30,000. Do you know how many people visit Amazon each month - 70,000,000. That's unique visitors. Most view 12 pages per visit and most visit more than once a month.

      If only .1 percent are looking for a book in your genre or subgenre just once a month, that's 70,000 people. Improving your chances of scoring a place in the top 200 listings in each category improve your chances significantly.

      There are many factors considered, but the most important one is that your keywords show up prominently and often on your sales page. I wrote a small book about this on Kindle Called Point of Sale. It sells for 99 cents. It talks about optimizing for the search engine, pricing, promotions and other things you can do to increase sales.

      Given the importance of showing up high in the search engines in your genre, you would think people would spend more time on honing that page, but most just rush through it or treat it like a book jacket copy. Many write beautiful, compelling, descriptions of their novels, but they are never seen because they don't show up in the search engines. I did that for a time.

      But then they go on blog tours, send out press releases, accept any blog interview, buy advertising, and yet ignore the single most powerful sales tool available to them. It's like you are invited to come into the bookstore, stand next to the book counter with your genre and give your pitch to anyone you can get to listen to you, and you blow that off to set up a display giving away bookmarks on a street corner down the alley and two miles away telling them to go to the bookstore and buy your book.

      ON another subject, don't, don't, don't, depend on one book. Write it do a basic promotion (Facebook, TWitter, maybe a press release or two) then start on that next book. And don't ignore short stuff. One of my best sellers is a little Bible Study 50 pages long on Prayer. Made more money off that than any one of my novels. And aside from an announcement when it came out and a couple of free giveaway days, have done no significant promotion.