Face facts: You’re not going to become the next Amanda Hocking, the young doyenne of self-publishing who parlayed a series of Kindle e-book novels into a $2 million book deal. Hocking is an outlier (not as in “troll,” although those creatures feature prominently in her paranormal young-adult stories). She hit the jackpot after uploading her stories to the Kindle store and over time watched sales take off with virtually no marketing on her part. You, on the other hand, will amost definitely have to fight for every download of your self-published book. If you’re lucky you might eke out a few bucks.
Still, with traditional book publishers scaling back on the numbers of books they release and the size of advances to authors they publish, self-publishing is probably your only option. Hustle, and you can make it work, says self-published author Charles Orlando, who has written two volumes of The Problem With Women… Is Men: The Evolution of a Man’s Man to a Man of Higher Consciousness. Orlando, a self-described former womanizer turned “author, relationship expert, social inspirationalist” has sold upwards of 15,000 copies of his work as a Kindle, iPad, and iPhone e-book, as well as a traditional paperback, generating around $130,000 since its release in November 2008. We asked for his thoughts on navigating the new e-book, DIY landscape.
FAST COMPANY: You walked away from a traditional book deal. Why?
CHARLES ORLANDO: My agent was successful in garnering interest from a division of one of the major publishers. As negotiations started, however, it became clear that my revenue percentage was going to be very low with nearly zero marketing/PR support from the publisher. Moreover, I would be lucky if my book would be released within 18 months, as it needed to be put into the queue. I released my agent and elected to self-publish, keep control of the process, retain more of the revenue, and get the book out on my timeline, not someone else’s.
After you made the choice to do it on your own, what did you do?
I didn’t just need the book printed. I could do that at Kinko’s in a three-ring binder. I needed the finished product to look like a professionally published book–professional look/cover, professional illustrations, perfect binding, back cover quotes, etc. This was an effort to build the right perception and position in the marketplace, and I couldn’t afford to have it looking like someone just ran a ditto copy off a 1979 thermofax machine. I looked at every possible offering, from DIY publishers like Lulu to small presses, but they all had the same problem: no distribution. I was going to have to buy hundreds of copies (read: order and hold inventory), create a website and online/offline advertising plan, set up an online shopping cart with merchant services and (uh oh) what about fulfillment, shipping, returns and chargebacks… oy! No. Way. I needed a real partner with real distribution.
Which self-publishing service did you choose?
BookSurge Publishing (now CreateSpace). BookSurge was partnered with Amazon.com, and once I was published, my book was automatically included on Amazon.com (this was 2007/2008, before there was a real e-book publishing effort). It was print-on-demand with really good quality, so I didn’t need to hold an inventory and I didn’t need to be part of the backend stuff: shipping, fulfillment, returns, chargebacks, etc. Plus, I would get all the benefit of being grouped with best-selling authors, receive reviews, and more. They had multiple levels of service–editing, marketing, public relations, custom covers, and much more–but I elected to go with a flexible offering (allowing me a custom interior, custom cover, and no more than 10 interior illustrations).
What did all this cost?
Editor: $500 (flat fee)
BookSurge publishing package: $900 (now priced lower)
Cover design and all artwork: $750
25 copies (for review): Free.
After you had a finished book to sell what marketing strategies did you adopt?
I started a blog: three posts a week. Simultaneously, I spun up my Facebook and Twitter efforts and started publishing my blog posts to my Facebook Page. But I could see that readers had to leave Facebook or Twitter to interact with what I had written. As a test, I just wrote on Facebook, using the Notes application on my Page. And… voila… increased engagement and interactivity; more comments, more sharing on individuals’ Walls. I took down my blog at the end of 2009 and in an effort to meet my audience where they “lived” I transitioned all my efforts to Facebook (and some on Twitter). My Facebook Fan Page was now a few hundred strong.
Then it took off.
I built my fan base from 600 in March 2010 to a few thousand within a month. Fan Pages then went mainstream, and allowed for a ton of customization–custom tabs/pages, the ability to program in HTML for unique look-and-feel, the potential for lead generation, etc. With these capabilities, I got creative and even with my extremely limited knowledge of HTML, put up a basic tab on my Facebook Page to see if I could drive conversion to a purchase of the book. This basic “Buy Now” page led to my book on Amazon.com. Tested for a week: 47 books sold with two posts on the Wall to drive Fans to that area of my Fan Page. I decided to include short snippets of content none of which were from my book, all unique content they could only get from my Facebook Page. Some were funny, others serious and thought-provoking, others advisory … but they all were in my voice and represented my thoughts/opinions on the subject at hand.
My fan base then went from 5,000 to over 59,000 fans in a couple of months, and kept growing, averaging 3,000 to 5,000 additional fans per week, and they were coming back to read and engage, as shown by my 70% monthly return rate (according to Facebook Insights).
This created more opportunities for you.
The part-time publicist I hired for 10 hours a month at $100 an hour started getting more traction, and radio and TV interviews continued to come. The proverbial Snowball Effect… to an extent. More writing and articles, more growth, more sales, but Social Media is definitely not a magic bullet for sales. Today, the book’s fan page has more than 577,000 “likes,” more than 14,000 Facebook users “talking about this” with each post generating 80 comments or more.
How much do you earn on each sale?
The retail price of my book on Amazon.com is $14.95, and I earn $6.23 per book. Considering I get all the benefit of Amazon’s backend fulfillment, I feel it’s fair. Other stores and sites are also distributing for me (Barnes and Noble, bn.com, bookdepository.com). The royalties are lower for these mainstream distributors. It’s also available for the Kindle (on Amazon) and on the iPad/iPhone (through the Apple iBooks Bookstore), which I did myself.
Is it enough to live on? No, but there are many other benefits and it all leads to a bigger picture for me: screenwriting, a second and third book, a possible TV show and radio show, and more.
What advice would you give to other authors looking to replicate your success?
If you’re looking to self-publish, the path I took is still clear and safe today but it takes time. Before turning to social media to further sales, you need to think twice. Don’t bother unless you’re serious and willing to put in the time. The overarching reason my efforts have proven successful is because I am personally engaged and dedicated to the process. I put in a lot of time and effort testing, re-testing, taking risks, and engaging with my audience. If you aren’t willing to do the same, you will probably not succeed. And this holds true whether the brand you are looking to build is a person, company, or product.
Be wary of social media gurus who want to “help you” build your brand. Research shows that if the number of self-proclaimed social media experts keeps growing at its current rate, the number of experts will outnumber the number of actual social media users in very short order. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and social media will give you a platform, but it’s up to you to find your voice. Don’t sell using social media. Engage. Sales will come later.
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Flickr user Andrew Bossi]