Last year I wrote a couple of articles about failed projects/brands I was involved in. The first article discussed my friends’ record label, the second talked about a mobile bakery I was involved in.
Following these articles – and considering they are some of the most viewed posts on SirThorney – I decided to write about the time I tried to be an “independent publisher” (kind of).
It’s worth mentioning that this happened several years ago, and I definitely learnt from my mistakes and successes with publishing which then helped when releasing my own books in 2019.
So, how did it begin?
In college I went to a creative writing class. Everyone in the class was pretty talented, but one guy in particular caught my attention. His name was Josh, and his writing was unlike anyone else’s in the room.
Most of the talented writers in the room were clearly celebrated from a young age for their abilities and had become intoxicated from the praise. Despite only being 17, most of the students in the class were already content with their writing, and were never interested in pushing boundaries or tackling topics out of their comfort zone. It was typical teens trying to be deep.
Everything they wrote was vanilla to me. Don’t get me wrong, vanilla is tasty, but nobody is flipping tables talking about how amazing a flavour it is.
Josh, on the other hand, was tabasco. This guy was writing about taking corpses for days out to the beach, accidentally killing your neighbour’s cat, and detective thrillers staring real life pornstars. The stories, whilst ridiculous, usually felt relatable, and like they had been ripped out of a Black Mirror episode.
At the time I was at the peak of my gaming blog’s success, with my writing getting thousands of reads each month and a handful of people in college talking about my website. I was very excited about the concept of independent distribution, and the idea that you could now release your ideas to the world without needing a publisher or help from someone in the industry.
Whilst I was releasing content regularly on my website, I loved the idea of publishing a digital magazine. Because of this, I began to research how to publish a book independently. I found Kindle Direct Publishing, giving me my means of distribution.
Whilst I was excited about releasing my digital magazine to the world, I also realised this meant I could publish other people’s work onto the Kindle ebook store.
Of course, Josh was the first person I was interested in offering this opportunity, allowing him to distribute his upcoming book of short stories to the ebook landscape.
The idea of independent publishing being a potential way to make money was based on a few things. Firstly, my naivety as someone discovering these tools and using them for the first time. Secondly, because of the success of my gaming blog in terms of growth in viewership.
I looked at my website visitors and thought that this would be comparable with the potential reach of the ebooks. I was having 2,000 viewers a month on the website, which meant that getting 2,000 purchases a month per ebook was within the realms of possibility.
This was a massive overestimation of both the popularity of Kindle as a reading device, and of how easy it is to sell a book.
Getting website viewers is like having a free buffet; as long as you have something people like they’re going to try the food. Getting Kindle purchases is like having an upmarket pigs’-feet restaurant; you’re going to struggle to get people to look at the menu, let alone pay the price.
Even though it’s a small fee of £0.99, it’s a big ask considering that you’re in a sea of other ebooks at that same price and the potential reader has no clue who you are.
In terms of marketing the ebooks, my plan was simple. Upon release (when they’re on the “new releases section”) do a limited time promotion making the ebook free. People will then download the book, give it a read, and then begin to tell their friends about how great the book is. By this point, the limited time promotion of the ebook has stopped, and the people who learnt about the book via word of mouth would then have to purchase it.
The first releases I did was my gaming magazine, and looking back at the statics these actually performed okay, with the second edition of the magazine doubling the first release’s reads.
If I discovered how to publish magazines earlier during my time in college, I could have kept these regular releases going and gained a decent amount of readers. As gaming magazines weren’t being released on the Kindle store at that time, it was a relatively easy niché I could potentially fulfil.
The next release that was coming up was Josh’s book of short stories, which I was much more optimistic about than the magazine releases. I even suggested inflating the book’s price because I was confident in its ability to sell through word of mouth following the free book promotion. The book was shocking, and I was confident that people would want to tell others about it following them being able to read it.
Josh was excited about getting his book released, and even got a friend to illustrate the front cover to make it look as professional as possible. The front cover was dark and ominous, reflecting the book’s mysterious short stories.
After several revisions to the book and adjustments to the front cover, we were ready for it to go live and the world to see our masterpiece.
Once the book released and the free promotion began, I was disappointed to see that it didn’t gain anywhere near as much traction as I anticipated. I was literally giving the book away for free and nobody was downloading it; this was obviously a really bad sign.
Following the promotion it sold a few copies (literally three) and was then dead in the water.
After a few months following with no purchases, I decided to do another free book promotion. This time, the promotion went even worse, with only three people downloading the free copy, and one person purchasing it afterwards.
I initially was planning on releasing my own short story (BENCH), but following Josh’s book flopping so hard it made me hesitant about doing another release.
What would I do different?
Hindsight is 20/20.
Last year I released two books, with both performing infinitely better than my attempts when in college. With this in mind, there’s a few things I would have done differently knowing what worked on my own books.
Firstly, all of the front covers were bad. All of them were overcomplicated, and the magazine covers were simply ugly. Which is funny because the photoshops I did for the articles on the website were actually good. Realistically, I should have just recycled one of these for the cover.
Josh’s book cover, in particular, was not fit for purpose. Whilst the cover would have looked fine on a paperback book in a shop, it didn’t work when shrunk down to an Amazon thumbnail. You couldn’t even make out the title.
It simply didn’t catch people’s attention, which is why the free releases didn’t go as well as I had hoped.
So the first thing I’d focus on would be making the front covers have more appeal, potentially something simple like a 3 colour illustration of a dead cat with tyre marks over it (which is a scene from one of his stories). The way I phrased that sounds dark, but there is definitely a way to make it playful and not too grizzly for the front cover.
The second big change I would make is how I categorised the books.
How you categorise your book has a significant effect on its chances to get on the bestsellers list for Amazon, and thus gain more traction. The less broad a category you choose, the more likely it will get on that category’s bestseller list.
Amazon uses parent categories and subcategories upon subcategories. So, for advertising, it goes “business, economics and law” > “marketing” > “advertising”. Any book you categorise for advertising will also be categorised in “marketing” and “business, economics and law”, but there are much less competition in that subcategory.
If your book does sell well, you’ll find it will be in the subcategory you selected, and all of the ones above it too, thus significantly increasing its list coverage and increasing people’s chances of finding it.
Likewise, if Amazon features it in one of their “best under £5” or “best new releases” or other sections, it works similarly to the bestsellers lists (you can feature in multiple categories at once).
At the time I put my magazine and Josh’s book as a broad category (e.g. “short stories”) as opposed to finding a niché that better fits the content. Which probably had a big effect on how people discovered the books, and also whether they considered buying them.
Lastly, utilising tools like Amazon Advertising would have been a huge help. No need to really flush this out with an explanation; if people can’t find the book they won’t buy it.
Whilst I think these changes would significantly improve the performance of the books back then, I don’t think the books would have been a huge financial success in the long run.
Ultimately, there’s not a massive amount of money in books unless you have a following you can directly market to (which will also help the book gain traction outside your following). Without this, it’s not a particularly good revenue steam. I’d say it’s worth it if you have an idea for a book, but not worth publishing other people’s books and/or marketing them for a profit split.
Whilst the books’ sales last year has now paid for several rounds at the pub and a few haircuts, it’s definitely not bought me a new car. Writing should be a passion project, and if others happen to enjoy your content too its a bonus.
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