Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing… #6: Put The Book Up and Leave It.

Myths ignore facts. Myths are often beliefs built from fear or past actions.

In this series, and in the previous series of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing, I call the myths that control writers “Sacred Cows.”

Writers hold onto myths like lifelines that are keeping them from drowning in a raging river of information. Sometimes sane people in the normal world will follow a publishing myth that makes no sense at all because it has something to do with the publishing business. And they follow the myth without thought.

So this new series is an attempt to help the new world of indie publishing with the growing list of myths that plague it.

And the sixth myth to hit indie writers is this: I CAN PUT A BOOK UP FOR SALE AND LEAVE IT FOREVER

…or conversely IF I PUT A BOOK UP FOR SALE, I HAVE TO CHANGE IT EVERY WEEK.

This double-headed myth is a real killer to income and books.

A paraphrased conversation I had with a friend sort of sums up this myth.

A friend of mine said, “Joe Konrath say that as indie writers, we must tend our gardens.”

I agreed, but added, “And we need to learn when to leave the garden alone to grow as well.”

I have heard both sides of this myth a lot, and I’m sure early on in this new indie world, I advocated one side or the other a few times myself, more than likely far more than a few times.

Now I advocate walking a line on balance.

Some History

For a century and more, books had no staying power, for the most part. There were always books that survived in the used and rare world. Sure. But rarely did a book outside that world survive in any fashion, with a few exceptions.

The exceptions were the very, very unusual books that found new readers generation after generation and that publishers kept them in print.

In modern publishing, those books tended to be classics, or young adult books. In fact, for a few decades, the backlist (older books) in young adult sold better than the front list (new books put out that year).

Sadly, very, very few genre books were kept in print for very long. Even classics and major award winners are lost and out of print, unless brought back into print by a small press.

But the publishers of those books that had a long life were doing what indie writers need to learn to do. Every four or five years, they would put on an updated new cover, or reissue the book with some sort of fanfare, or some other new promotion. (Note: I said every few years, not every other month.)

But for the majority of all books published in the last century, the print runs were either limited, or the book was considered disposable.

The disposable aspect of books came from two major places. First came World War Two, where paperbacks were included as supplies to the soldiers to be read and passed around and then tossed away. Second, publishers started to just ask for covers back of many books in the returns system to save on shipping, so the bookstores would strip the covers and get credit for the unsold books.

After decades, books to traditional publishers became like bananas on a fruit stand. If they didn’t sell quickly, they spoiled and thus were destroyed, put out of print, and forgotten.

Books became produce. (And sadly, to traditional publishers, they still are. Plus they have become assets of a corporate balance sheet even if they are out of print or only for sale in a bad and expensive electronic edition.)

Up until the last five years or so, and the rise of the electronic book, this was the feelings for books and how authors felt about them as well.

I can’t believe how many times I heard from authors in traditional publishing that you were only as good as your last book. (I’m sure I said that myself a few times along the way, and I believed it because I worked in traditional publishing.)

So this idea that indie writers now have books they can publish and keep in print for a long time is great. But they publish it and then what do they do? And here comes this duel-sided myth.

Indie writers tend to fall into two crazy camps.

Camp One: They put the book up and change the price weekly and the cover monthly.

Camp Two: They put the book up and forget it.

There is a balance point in the center of the two camps, which is where the analogy of tending a garden comes in perfectly.

Indie writers, in this case, must learn from the way that traditional publishers treated classics and bestselling young adult books. The traditional publishers kept those books alive and selling for decades.

Indie writers can do the same thing if they know what they are doing.

The Silliness of Both Sides

To start off, you must learn to look at books with a long view into the future. Very few writers do this.

Very, very few.

Almost no writer I know looks at books as an investment that could pay off over decades.

So let me use the “tend the garden” analogy to show the two extremes.

The Care-Too-Much problem.

You plant some corn seeds in your garden. (That’s publishing your book to be clear.)

Come back the next day, nothing is happening to the seeds in your garden, so you give them more water, sit in the window watching, nothing happens, water it more, watch more.

On day three, since there is nothing happening yet, you decide you must have planted the seeds in the wrong place, so you dig up the seeds and move them, give them more water, plant them again.

Sit and watch for something to happen. Maybe you put the seeds too deep, so you dig them up again and bring them right to the surface.

Watch. Two days later nothing.

You panic.

So you dig the seeds up again and bury them deeper because you read on a blog somewhere that’s what you should do.

And on and on and on.

You get the picture I hope. Books are like corn. They are not magic, they take time to find an audience. Books take time to grow an audience.

So what about the other side of this? The Put The Book Up and Forget Problem.

You decide to plant corn in your garden. You plant the seeds. (Again this is publishing a book.)

You walk away from your garden and go back to work and don’t even bother to water anything or weed anything. In six months or a year or two you look at it again and the corn is dead, buried under weeds.

Note that neither extreme works well.

Most indie writers I have met are the first example, not giving anything time to grow or live, messing with it all the time.

I tend to fall in the second camp far too much because of my training that books are written and then gone. So I plant seeds and forget them and do nothing to help anything along.

Both sides of this myth do not produce good LONG TERM product year after year.

A Way Out of the Two-Sided Myth

Perspective is the way to the center from both sides of this myth.

And continuing to learn about how book buyers find books helps as well.

So using Kris and myself as an example here, and what I did when electronic books got started, let me show you some aspects of both sides, and the problems of both sides.

Way back when Kindle first opened the KDP program, a friend taught a number of other writers and me how to get books onto Kindle and Smashwords. (I have detailed in other places how I slowly came to realize how my backlist, with this new system, was a gold mine waiting to be tapped.)

So as with most things I do, I jumped in and went to work. My attitude back then was I needed to get as many titles up as I could as fast as I could.

It was just me doing all the work, and I was putting up my own stories and Kris’s short stories and then eventually we started putting up some backlist novels.

And one and a half years later, I had over 200 titles up on Kindle, Smashwords, and B&N.

I had not gone back and looked at a one of them. Just put the book or story up and moved to the next one.

After a year and a half, the books were making enough money that we could hire some fulltime help. Since we had started a major publishing company once before (Pulphouse Publishing in 1987), we knew where this was heading, so we created a corporation and found the best person to run the business.

All paid for because I had pushed over 200 plus titles up and left them alone.

Allyson Longueira came on board and after looking at everything for a month and getting herself up to speed, she came to me and Kris and said simply, “We need to change everything, every cover, everything we have up so far. And we need to reproof everything and redo all the blurbs.”

In other words, I had paid no attention to the garden and it was covered in weeds and the income was about to be choked off if we didn’t do some weeding and new planting and repairing.

You see, my covers sucked. I had done them in Powerpoint quickly. And the blurbs I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to, and proofing was lax on those early books. We often used the traditional publisher printed versions of our stories and those, as are most traditional published books, were riddled with mistakes.

Allyson was right. At the two-year mark after I started putting stuff up as fast as I could, we needed to tend that garden.

She started fixing things, and we put up some new books as well, and we started working on the old blurbs and took off the worst offending covers fairly quickly. By the time she had been with us for six months, our title count was up to 250 titles, and she wasn’t a quarter of the way through fixing the old stuff.

But the garden was starting to look better at least.

And the income was increasing, especially since the new work we put up was much better in look, blurbs, and proofing.

And readers of indie books were starting to expect better at this point in indie publishing and we were shifting to give it to them.

The extra money coming in allowed us to hire more help in WMG Publishing. About a year after hiring Allyson, we had enough to start the audio department as well.

After one year, we had managed to fix all but a few of those early titles I had done quickly, and our title count was over 300 titles.

That’s a very large garden, let me tell you.

Now, another year plus has past, we are over 400 titles and climbing, and almost all but a very few have been touched and fixed from those early days. And many of the first changes Allyson did when she started have also been changed out again.

We have branded the covers and books on the major series and are in the process of branding to series and to genre the minor series as well.

We have a proofreader on staff, a full-time promotions person coming on board in a month, and a second and third sales team members coming on board this fall.

Now understand, when I say the word “we” in that above story, it’s not me anymore doing much besides writing checks. Sure, I do Smith’s Monthly covers and layout and I help edit Fiction River and that’s it.

In fact, right now I spend most of my daylight time working on online workshops, which I love and which keep me learning.

Kris and I do not run WMG Publishing and haven’t now for more than a year. Allyson is the publisher and CEO, we call her the boss, and she runs the business and the seven or eight employees and works with the authors in Fiction River and so on.

Kris and I created an indie/traditional publisher hybrid.

Honestly, many bestselling authors who are leaving traditional publishing are doing the same sorts of things in various forms, hiring help for many aspects that are needed in this new indie world.

Kris and I let the money coming from the indie publishing build the business. We plowed every cent back into the growth. And we still are.

In other words, we are investing our income in our future.

So now our garden is well-tended, unlike what it was back three years ago. It is expanding every month as Kris and I continue to add in new backlist and keep writing new front list books and stories as well. I would imagine our title count will be past five hundred by the end of 2014.

And Fiction River has brought in many other authors and editors and WMG has plans to expand into many new projects as time and money allow.

How did we do this? Honestly, we found a balance between leaving the garden alone and spending too much time on every title.

At four hundred plus titles, we can’t pay attention to every title, and yes, some get forgotten for a time, so we still lean a little too much to the put-up-and-forget side of things. But that will be changing a lot as 2014 goes on.

 Suggestions to Find a Balance.

The WIBBOW test was coined by professional writer Scott William Carter. WIBBOW stands for:

Would I Be Better Off Writing?

For indie writers, the answer is almost always yes. As I discovered as I pounded up over 200 different backlist titles from Kris and my decades of writing, new product sells old product.

The best promotion is always the next book.

But covers must be tended to and as your knowledge grows about covers, you must fix covers every three or four years. Sometimes genre trends just move in looks. You need to stay abreast of the changes. (That takes research time as well.)

As you get better at writing active sales copy instead of dull, passive plot summaries, your blurbs need to be fixed.

To get the book in the right place, you also need to keep learning genre. That’s critical to sales.

And then there is that ugly topic of pricing, which I will talk about in the 9th Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing coming up shortly.

So here are my suggestions to find a balance, since I have been in this since the beginning of this crazy movement, and also spent decades in traditional publishing.

1)           Publish the book with the best modern-looking cover to genre you can do, with the best blurb, and with luck in the right spot in the bookstores.

2)           Get the book into as many places as you can, from Kindle to Kobo to B&N to iBooks to Smashwords to audio to paper editions. Everywhere. You must try to find as many readers as you can.

3)           Tell your social media, your friends, your family, get it to a few bloggers, and other minor promotions you may do, and that’s it. WIBBOW test.

4)           Go back to writing. Write the next book. DO NOT TOUCH THE PREVIOUS BOOK.

5)           Check your sales every month at the end of the month. Not sales numbers, but income from that book. Let me say that again. Track INCOME. You need to track what each book (title) is making you per month total from all the sites. (TrackerBox program can do this for you.)

6)           After one year, look at the sales figures for each of your titles. If one title is not selling hardly at all, time to take a look at it. Check first the location on the shelf, the genre. Have a friend read it and see if your idea of the genre matches your friend’s. If it does, then look at the blurb. If it is full of plot and passive verbs, learn how to rewrite that into sales language. Then have someone look at your cover and tell you the truth about it. Somehow who knows commercial book covers.

7)           Fix what needs to be fixed on all under performing titles, and go back to writing. In other words, tend the garden and let things continue to grow.

8)           With every title, novel, short story, or collection, check the sales after one year to see if they are on track.

In the next Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing, I talk about the myth of small sales numbers. So that will help you understand how to judge when a book is selling well and when it is under performing and needs tending.

Summary

 This myth can really kill sales and entire writer’s careers.

On one side, the example of waiting for growth every few days in a garden, the myth can cause extreme disappointment. And frustration. And it can kill writing of new projects and titles.

The other side of putting up and ignoring doesn’t allow your books to change with the times, doesn’t allow you to follow and fix under-performing titles, and flat isn’t good business when you have a valuable property.

Each title is a property. Remember that. Putting the title up and ignoring it for too long would be like building a house and then just letting it sit, not doing anything to it to keep it up. It might be fine for a time, but eventually it will need work and repair.

So find a balance between too much change on a title and too little change.

But my biggest suggestion to everyone is think of publishing as a long-term business.

Think in units of years, not units of days.

Give readers time to find your work, to read your work, to enjoy your work.

Tend your garden. But don’t overwater it on one side, or let the weeds and lack of care choke it out on the other.

Find a balance.

And have fun.

 

 

 

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29 Responses to Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing… #6: Put The Book Up and Leave It.

  1. Marimba Ani says:

    Thanks for the TrackerBox link! The might be just what I was looking for.

  2. Michael Peck says:

    Great insight, as always, Dean.

    Quick question, though: Of the 400-plus titles you have selling, what percentage drives most of your income? Does it fall along the lines of an 80-20 Pareto? And are there any clear indications of novels vs. other lengths or print vs. ebook vs. audio, etc.? (And I realize it’s easy for me to call that question “quick” when it requires a lot of number-crunching, but I assume you guys are looking at that already.)

    • dwsmith says:

      Novels are the top sellers, followed by Fiction River, then by collections such as my Smith’s Monthly and other short story collections, then by nonfiction books. Stand alone short stories sell as they sell. I have some short stories that haven’t sold a copy in a year, but at this point, that doesn’t bother me much. We have plans. (grin)

      • Michael Peck says:

        I look forward to seeing them. And this is helpful—thanks. It’s also encouraging since novels are what I’m doing for now. (I’m just getting started; putting up my first in the next couple of weeks, and then I’m diving into the next.)

        Thanks again for all of the info sharing.

  3. Lee McAulay says:

    I ‘dig’ this gardening analogy (sorry, had to be done!) :-)

  4. Vera Soroka says:

    Very good post. I’ve barely started so I’m better of writing. I only started a little over 3 months ago. I have made a total of 3 sales. I get frustrated when I go to Smashwords. There are a lot of sample downloads but no sales. So I made a promise to myself to stay away from there and concentrate on the writing and getting my garden larger.

  5. Dave Raines says:

    For writers who don’t have the income flow you have, do you still recommend using PowerPoint and stock photo sites to put together the covers? (Man, I am SO mired in 2011!) Or is that just for short stories, while one hires graphic designers for novel covers? I read this as “get stuff up as best you can, quantity and quality; then strive for incremental improvement as time goes on.” Is that right?

    • dwsmith says:

      Dave, yes, basically, but I would no longer use PowerPoint. I would just jump to InDesign since it is cheap these days at $29 bucks per month. And you can learn the program from tutorials on Lynda.com. But five years ago PowerPoint was a great shortcut to covers. But not so much anymore.

      As for art, I would recommend stock art sights because you have control over what you are getting, but that’s from my days of hiring artists to illustrate covers and then not getting what I wanted or awful art. I got soured on it and also that’s a ton more expensive. Stock art sites, which there are a lot of, are great, and art can be changed by learning Photoshop elements as well. And it is reasonable for one time nonexclusive use.

      So yes, quality as best you can, product up important. Don’t skimp on proofreaders. You don’t need editors, but you need a proofreader/copyeditor.

  6. Tori Minard says:

    Laura Resnick left a wonderful suggestion once on one of your earlier blog posts: that you try to reproduce professionally done covers as a way of practicing design (obviously you don’t actually use the knock-off for your own book—you just copy to acquire those skills). I took her suggestion and it’s made a huge, huge difference in my covers. I still have a long way to go, I’m sure (grin), but boy have they improved. I’m still using her method to pick up new skills. Of course, you have to already have a few photo-manipulation skills to do this, but you can find all kinds of tutorials free on the web.

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, if you like the look of a cover done in traditional publishing, imitate it. It will be different and you are not violating any copyright. Copyright is the form of the content. You can use the same font, same look, everything, and because your name is on it and your title and new art, it will be fine. So don’t just use that to learn, which is a great idea. Use it to help your own books sell better.

  7. Tori Minard says:

    One other thing—-maybe this isn’t the right post since you’re going to talk about sales in the future. But my sales dropped off a cliff when I had a major health issue come up and my publishing speed slowed down. At least, I hope that’s why the sales dropped, because that’s something I can fix. Even though I think the glacial publishing schedule might be the reason for the slow sales, it really hit my confidence hard and sometimes I struggle to believe in myself as a writer. Has this happened to anyone else?

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, that’s part of what tending a garden is. If you don’t put up new work (plant new seeds) the results just drop off to a base floor. The base floor is pretty much what you can count on dripping off into the future. But to keep sales active, you have to keep having new product out, especially early on.

      And a suggestion. Stop looking behind you. Look forward, plan forward. You can’t change that things dropped off because of a health issue, but you can change your reaction to it and look forward and plan more books and have fun. Just a suggestion.

    • Linda Jordan says:

      Tori,
      Yes, it’s happened to me this year. I went five months without putting anything new up, because I upped my required word count for each week in January and was so busy writing new stuff and couldn’t figure out how to coordinate the two. All my extra time went into writing and sales took a dive. A deep one.
      So, I’m just putting in lots more hours getting the publishing work done and putting things up. It’s going to be a long upward haul. And it’s time to redo all my covers. I took the online Covers Workshop (which was fabulous) and that was part of me not putting things up.

      • dwsmith says:

        Yup, it’s a balance, of that there is no doubt. A couple writer friends of mine tried something that worked for a time. They wrote six days a week and had a “publishing day” one day per week. Seemed to allow the focus and the writing and was a good balance while it lasted for them.

      • Tori Minard says:

        Thanks, Dean and Linda, for responding. Dean, I hadn’t thought of what I was doing as looking back, but it seems obvious now. ;) I realized today that I’ve been doing that a lot—-I really got stuck in that trap of looking behind me, reworking/rewriting stuff, just screwing myself over in a number of ways. I’ll be moving forward from now on.

  8. Ken Talley says:

    Hi Dean,
    I’ve got a question on covers, specifically for short stories. You recommend InDesign, which costs $29 a month. Not a high cost, but–from a bottomline business perspective–still a significant amount ($348 per year) when you’re just starting out and just starting out with short stories. What about GIMP, which is free, and Page Plus, which is less than $100 and you get to own the software? Do you have an opinion on those two products? Or others? It just seems like paying even $29 a month for InDesign is a significant expense. I do realize how important covers are for sales success, but is InDesign the only/best way to go?

    Thanks,
    Ken Talley

    • dwsmith says:

      Ken, there are other programs. A lot of drawing programs can do the same. And a lot of designers use PhotoShop. But since we use InDesign for all our books into paper, it’s a value to us. But I’m sure there are others out there that work fine that are shareware. I don’t know what they are. Maybe someone can help you here. Folks?

      • Kaz Augustin says:

        I’m almost exclusively a Linux user and use Gimp. It’s available for Windows as well. It’s complex, as complex as Photoshop, so don’t think you’ll be able to bang out a cover in half-an-hour. But you can open PSDs, use Photoshop brushes, and so on.

        Gimp is free and there are masses of tutorials out there. All the Sandal Press titles (bar one) have been done by myself using Gimp. But you will have a learning curve. Best of luck, Ken.

        • Liana Mir says:

          Just a thought. How fast you are at covers is based on experience, not the complexity of the software. I’m very experienced at graphic design and I can bang out a cover in ten minutes with Corel PhotoPaint, which is a comparable alternative to PhotoShop. On a day when I can’t find quite the right art or I’m going for a more complex effect, then it might take a half-hour or an hour.

          The cover of Dowse and Bleed, for example, took about an hour, and the rest of these covers between 15 and 30 minutes: http://www.amazon.com/Liana-Mir/e/B00AV2G5IS/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1377654606&sr=8-1.

          So it’s really experience that matters. Anything can get to be old hat.

          • dwsmith says:

            Liana, I totally agree (not about the software because I don’t know it) but about how experience, having templates, and so on can make doing covers a very, very quick thing. Exactly.

          • Kaz Augustin says:

            Liana, I was referring to Ken’s specific situation. If you’re already familiar with Word, I think you’d be able to use Powerpoint (say) and put together a cover in 30 mins, just playing around. However, not having been exposed to Gimp before, I don’t think you can do the same.

            Once anyone is familiar with something, all bets are off.

      • Lee McAulay says:

        I use InkScape. It’s a free download and there are lots of tutorials available online. Layers, filters, lots more features that I’ve yet to investigate. Still trying to get a handle on the “message” a good cover (and a bad one!) sends to the reader, but that’s a different subject altogether.
        (Tried GIMP, couldn’t get on with it, but by then I’d already used InkScape so maybe I was just confusing myself.)

    • Angie says:

      Another thought, especially if you’re not doing a bunch of covers every month, is to use InDesign but don’t have it all the time. You’re just renting the use of it anyway, so only rent it when you need it, and batch your covers. So say you’re putting up 12 books per year, if you plan ahead and do them in batches of four, you only need to pay three months’ rental on InDesign, spaced throughout the year.

      Angie

    • Jim Johnson says:

      There are a number of other software options you can use. Paint, Photoshop, GIMP, etc.

      If you’re planning to do print copies of your titles in addition to covers, though, it’d probably be worth it to get InDesign for both its cover design use as well as its interior print layout options.

    • Will Overby says:

      Ken, I use Photoshop Elements exclusively for working with covers. You can usually buy it outright for less than $100 and it produces files that are compatible with regular Photoshop if you ever need to use a professional designer. Again, there is a learning curve, but not near as large as the one with Gimp or regular Photoshop. You can find many tutorials online for free on Youtube or other sites just by googling the effect you’re trying to create.

    • Aman Uensis says:

      Pixelmator if you have a Mac.

      https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pixelmator/id407963104?mt=12&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

      Like Photoshop but easier to learn in my opinion. Plus at $29, can’t be beat.

    • Teri Babcock says:

      Just a note about programs-
      GIMP is an open-source ‘Photoshop’ program, not equivalent to InDesign.
      The free open-source programs and their ‘equivlalents’ are:
      GIMP–Photoshop
      Inkscape–Illustrator
      Scribus–Indesign

  9. Just wanted to say thank you. I needed this post.

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