How I Failed My Way Into A Book Deal – Guest Post by Matt Ellis

I first met author and editor Matt Ellis last summer through Twitter.

We exchanged a few emails, after which Matt posted a thoughtful review of one of my short stories, If You Go Into The Woods.

In that some post, Matt aired some of his concerns about self-publishing, not least how the promotional burden can chew up precious writing time, and we corresponded about that for a while.

Several months later, after an underwhelming experience with self-publishing, Matt made a radical decision about one of his books. Here’s Matt to explain what he did, and why he did it:

The Joys of Unpublishing, or, How I Failed My Way Into A Book Deal

This winter, my life’s dream was realized: my novel was accepted for print publication. The road to the book deal was long, and fraught with uncertainty and second-guessing. Like many authors, I had initially put my work out there as a digital original when I met with rejection from traditional publishing houses. As an indie author, I beat myself up about the fact that I wasn’t marketing my own books effectively. In its six months on Kindle, my novel Lumpen: A Novel of Prague, sold just eight copies. I tried to prime the pump with a book giveaway, but nobody signed up; I built a following on Twitter and blogged with equally dismal results. I researched keywords and comparison titles, but this all proved ineffective – in other words, I was a failed indie author.

I have always been on the creative side of the writing business: I worked in the editorial office of a major publishing company and later as an author coach and manuscript editor to many indie authors. For me, the real writing starts and ends with the book itself – the rest is just a necessary nuisance. The whole experience of self-promotion left me uneasy, and for good reason. The new dual role of author/marketer is engendering quite a few misplaced priorities, mostly arising from the groupthink enabled by Twitter and the indie success stories picked up by the media. My experience was the opposite of every other success story. Here’s what I learned.

1. The Route to Print Publication is Not Solely Through Sales

Most indie writers will never achieve the kind of sales that garner a book deal. Overpowering sales are impossible to resist for any publisher, so – yes – if you are selling hundreds of thousands copies of your book, it will get noticed. Otherwise, you are not much more than forward-thinking slush. Publishers have and always will be drawn to thoughtful narratives and lively prose. Handheld readers, indie publications, and the Web are changing the way books are delivered, but they have not shaken the foundations of good storytelling, nor have they revolutionized what goes into crafting a beautiful sentence. I would venture to say that knowledge of story structure is more valuable than ever, as genre writing dominates these new platforms. And genre writing relies more on lean efficient structure than it does bumps in the night.

2. Genre Chasing is Futile

Owing to my work with genre writing and indie writers, I am privy to some of the keywords indie writers use in hunting Google for advice. Such combinations as “dystopian or paranormal” and “top paranormal novel sales” are typical examples of keywords by writers of highly suspect intentions. Writing in a popular genre to increase sales or get a book deal is the tail (the tale?) wagging the dog. By the time a genre is ‘hot’ and by the time you write a decent novel in that genre, you can be sure the world has moved on. True, you will see some sales from hardcore fans of that genre, but most consumers tend to move with the trends: they liked zombies today, they will like reincarnated Greek Gods tomorrow. Following the latest hit may provide you some kicks in the short run, but won’t give you much juice for the long-term life of your career.

3. The Route to Success is Not Through Following Other People’s Formulas

My failure was not solely due to my lack commitment to the promotion process. Right now, I could go on Twitter and collect enough free reading material to last me a year. Most indie writers are following the same formula of giveaways and contests to promote their books. And in addition to these promotions, they are blogging about tips to help other writers promote their books, replicating the same moldy formula in hopes of having the link passed around. I think these tactics worked when there was less competition, but the next wave of successful indie book authors will find vast sales by discovering the next promotional innovation.

I understand the tangential value in some of this marketing: it is social. Writing is lonely, but the marketing involves other people with whom you can connect and who will respond, even if it is only because they are in the same boat. A support network is invaluable for a writer putting material out there for judgment. The danger is when the job of promoter becomes much more seductive and rewarding than that of writing.

The antidote for all this is the same as it always was: boring and old school hard work. You can ‘game’ Google and keywords, but you can’t game readers. With that in mind, I have a few guidelines I use for myself when starting a new project:

1. Write a novel, not a ‘WIP’. Acronyms release you from responsibility. Works in progress are temporary; novels are forever.

2. Don’t ‘sprint’ or otherwise rush through the writing process. Effective writing can cause riots, ignite revolutions, and induce love. Treat the form with respect.

3. Despite what you hear to the contrary, there is no substitute for having an editor. The only reason not to hire one is monetary — editors are expensive because they bring real value to the project. Professional editors who publish their own work have editors. Self-editing is as useful as talking into a mirror and trying to be your own psychologist.

4. Rewrite. Do not use reviews by customers as a basis for that re-write. Anybody who buys your novel deserves to see it at its best. The first draft of Lumpen took six months to write; the rewriting took a year and a half, using advice from Beta-readers and a professional editor.

5. Get your work out to everybody possible. This is where indie writers really get it right. Lumpen was only discovered because I wasn’t shy about passing around links to my work.

I have nothing but respect for people who can wear both the writer and promoter cap. But – in writing and in a writer’s life – there is also value in discomfort, and value in honest failure. The only joy that matched publishing Lumpen digitally, was unpublishing it, so it could have a second chance.

* * *

Matt Henderson Ellis is an author coach and manuscript editor at Word Pill EditingLumpen: A Novel of Prague, will be released by New Europe Books, in the USA, in February 2013.

* * *

Today’s guest post is a little different and I hope it will generate a good discussion. Matt has chosen a different route than most of the regulars here, and I want to thank him for a thought-provoking post.

And I hope Lumpen is a smash on re-release next year.

61 Replies to “How I Failed My Way Into A Book Deal – Guest Post by Matt Ellis”

  1. Love the guest post, but I’m waiting for the end of the story! Mr. Ellis presents a lot of great advice, and his experiences are a good antidote to some of the “rush out there and write a book a month, then tweet Pinterest Tumblrr fb YouTube yourself to fame” recommendations you hear elsewhere. But I’m not clear on how he was actually discovered. He sold eight copies, and wasn’t shy about passing around links to his work. Presumably, one of those copies or the link went to an interested party who finally bought the book. Certainly congratulations are in order! It must be a good book, and I look forward to checking it out in 2013.

    And yet, there is a faint whiff of condescension to this post. Now Mr. Ellis will be a “real” writer, with a print book contract, an advance, and the prestige that brings. Not like the lumpen rest of us self-publishers.

    The sale of eight books doesn’t support an author. Nor do most traditional advances and low-percentage royalties.

    Most of us write because we have stories to tell. Our stories may come out as “genre” fiction, or as literary fiction… but they are, one hopes, the stories we want to tell. I like reading and writing a good thriller; I don’t do it for the money. The money is a means to an end — to allow me to eat and pay my mortgage so I can write more stories. I’ve never hunted Google for advice about what is the hottest thing to write. Maybe I should! It did cross my mind to write something like “Starvation Games,” or “Fifty Shades of Beige.” But the blood, sweat, tears and time it takes to write a novel keep me on the straight and narrow — I couldn’t force myself to write something that didn’t seem worth wasting my precious time.

    So congratulations to Mr. Ellis, and I’m happy that your book will be (re-) appearing soon. The rest of us are happy in our little lumpen proletariat lives, writing and reading the books that feed our storyteller’s souls. And we are not ashamed, as the money trickles and flows and overflows our bank accounts.

    1. Hi: I think the is condescension you may feel comes from my habit of dispensing advice. I have been a free-lance editor and/or literary review publisher for 10 years now, so I don’t mince words about my thoughts regarding how to approach writing a readable piece of work. As for being a ‘real writer’, I never let anybody define that status for me. I was a real writer as a teenager. I was a real writer as a failed indie writer. This title (label?) is for you to decide, otherwise you are letting other people define a core aspect of your self. But you are right, I do like the validation a print publication confers on me, and it does feel good.

  2. While I didn’t agree with all of these points, I thought this was an interesting post. I do think you can chase genre successfully. There are plenty of writers out there who are slapping a genre book up every few months and making a good living at it. It’s not the path I would choose, but it is working for them.
    At any rate – I wish you the very best of luck, Matt. It took a lot of guts to share your “failure” with us. Thanks for sharing the story!

  3. I’m a painter, a visual artist, but I follow David’s blog because I find the whole phenomena of the publishing potential of the internet so interesting. Thank you, Matt, for such a cogent article. I have seen the phenomena of marketing overtake artmaking, and I find it a mesmerizing tightrope to walk. So much is directly transferable to painting. I’d like to adapt your framework to apply to painting, with links back to the your original article and proper attribution, with your permission. I didn’t really get the “condescending” aspect; it was clearly a painful process to unpublish and try all kinds of things that didn’t work. Thanks for your honesty and clarity.

  4. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but I didn’t get any condescension from Matt’s post. I don’t agree with parts of it, but that’s okay.

    That aside, I thought this was a particularly interesting comment:

    “Handheld readers, indie publications, and the Web are changing the way books are delivered, but they have not shaken the foundations of good storytelling, nor have they revolutionized what goes into crafting a beautiful sentence. I would venture to say that knowledge of story structure is more valuable than ever, as genre writing dominates these new platforms. And genre writing relies more on lean efficient structure than it does bumps in the night.”

    It prompted a thought. Certain genres clearly went digital first – romance, thrillers, science fiction – but others are noticeably lagging behind, e.g. non-fiction and literary fiction. I have my own views on why that is, but I would love to hear Matt’s (or anyone else’s).

    1. Okay, so now I feel bad. (Hangs head and blushes.) Maybe it was that tooth extraction that left me in a surly mood…

      I am sure Matt doesn’t mean to diss the self-publishers among us. After all, he tried it himself. And I certainly agree that we can learn from his experience.

      I have two remaining questions… the end of the story, please?

      How did Matt’s book end up being considered by a traditional publisher? And was there any problem with the fact that it had been available electronically for a time?

      There’s a lot of talk about how, if one sells enough books independently (over 50,000 a year is a number I have read), a publisher might be attracted. Perhaps this is a case where the publisher, once interested in the book, was reassured for precisely the opposite reason — that few books were sold.

      1. Don’t worry at all. No harm done.

        I believe Matt is in Australia, and with this post going up later than planned, and the time difference, he probably hasn’t seen it yet. I’m sure he will be along at some point to answer all these questions (I’m interested myself).

        As for numbers attracting interest, I’m sure numbers far less than that would do the trick, in fact I know of several writers who leveraged sales less than that into a deal or representation.

        1. Hate to disillusion you, Dave, but I live in Australia and saw the post about 6 hours ago at approximately 8.30 AM my time. It’s still a great post … I would say enticing. We are suitably hooked and waiting with bated breath for the next instalment.

    2. David: I have wondered about this as well. I do think it has to do with the object itself. Perhaps we identify ‘genre’ type entertainment with electronic media like the Internet, so it is easier to enjoy over a hand-held device. To clarify: video games and films have more n common with genre writing than they do literary fiction, and we already consume these over computers, so the transition is easier to make with genre fiction. But this is just a guess.

  5. Lots of great advice here. Especially about not using Amazon reviews as your editorial guide. (Do people really do that? Yikes.) Or doing the freebie thing because it worked for X and Y two years ago. It’s about doing good work. That’s all that matters in the long run. Thanks for sharing your story, Matt.

  6. Interesting things to think about. I have a question why did you think you could sell it traditionally when you weren’t digitally and did you let the agents/publishers know you had it out digitally first. I guess I am trying to imagine how that query letter must have went “no one seemed to want it, but I believe it is wonderful!”. Actually the story kind of makes my twisted side very pleased.
    I am not sure I agree with everything you said, but I appreciate a fresh perspective.
    P.S. I like your photo, it has that old world mystique.

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment. I just got back from deep Austria, and am only now tuning in to LGD. I was lucky enough to have the publisher find my site and request the novel, which fell within the scope of their mission. I gave up on trying to find an agent for this book long ago. As for the author photo: it was taken in Budapest, so it is old world indeed!

  7. Publishers are still necessary when it comes to vetting and launching serious literary fiction. High-profile books like “The Art of Fielding” or “The Marriage Plot” would likely languish in obscurity if they were self-published. It takes a publisher to get reviewed by the NY Review of Books or short-listed for the National Book Award. It’s analogous to a scientific paper– in that world, you’ve got to be vetted by a peer-reviewed journal to be taken seriously.

    Most of us indies have different goals– we’re aiming for another market entirely, which is (first and foremost) Kindle store browsers. To succeed in this marketplace, we must have–in addition to a good book–a catchy title, eye-grabbing cover, and an enticing description.

    1. PS– forgot to say, congrats to Matt Ellis for trying self-publishing, and succeeding in an unexpected way. It sounds his book needs a publisher’s reputation and professional connections to reach the right audience, and I hope it works out well!

    2. I can’t agree with you more on the subject of literary fiction. We have some great submissions in the “Literary” genre at our site. Unfortunately, we just don’t see the same volume of searches coming in from those titles as we do for Romance and Paranormal.

      A traditional publisher can pull the strings to get you a review in The New Yorker. Those who are in love with traditional publishing and the feel of the printed page still possess shelves that remain to be filled with ink and dead trees.

      There is plenty of room for the eReader addict and the shelf stuffer in today’s market.

  8. I’d love to hear from Matt or someone else on how my strong selling and very highly rated novel (A Real Piece of Work) can find its way to publication with a mainstream publisher. Agents and publishers, take notice.

    I would like to hand over the print publication to a professional company because I’ve discovered, like Matt, that the opportunity costs of trying to do all of the promotion, publication, etc.—while also trying to write—are too high.

  9. Yeah – I didn’t get a condescending vibe from the story at all. In fact, I see a lot of value in what he wrote – particularly about the roles social media and self promotion are playing right now. Self publishing and self promotion are both *hard* to do – and even if you do it well – you’re not guaranteed 40 acres and a mule, success or even an atta-boy.

    I think what I took from this was the following:

    Don’t get discouraged. Find new ways forward. Your story doesn’t live and die by Twitter alone.

  10. It’s good to see some comments from writers who are succeeding in earning well with their books. Self-publishing does seem to suit genre fiction because that has a feel of ‘disposable entertainment’ so readers are more likely to give an unfamiliar author a try. There’s not much to lose as they know certain expectations will be met. But if a book has literary leanings, it’s a much harder sell to the masses.

  11. “I have my own views on why that is, but I would love to hear Matt’s (or anyone else’s).

    Here’s my opinion:

    Readers who eschew genre writing, I think, have less time to surf for the latest and greatest. Not that they wouldn’t if they had the time, but time is a commodity in short supply. So readers of nonfiction or literary fiction or any other “non-genre” already know what they want and stick to more traditional ways of getting and holding it. A book in the hand might really be worth two in Amazon bush. I also believe that “intelectual” readers will move to digital books as soon as they become available.

    Love the blog! Thanks, David.

  12. As somebody who finds the whole sell, sell, sell thing repugnant, and finds great difficulty in begging people to tweet me, FB me, buy me, and who was told by a marketing expert that to give something away for free is asking for an opinion of ‘Free? What’s wrong with it then?’, I related to Matt’s post from the get-go. I was also unable, on a re-read, to find any condescension at all.
    As Matt says, I just try to write a damn good story and hope when I publish that some people will pick it up and enjoy it. Fortuitously that’s been the case, but with little marketing skill on my part. I’ll probably never hit great figures but I have already over-reached this year’s vague target with my latest (Gisborne: Book of Pawns).
    Would I go to mainstream? My heaven, the offer’d have to be good … movie or TV rights at least!
    Above and beyond all else, I’ve met some wonderful people and made tremendous friends and am content that it happened because I tried to publish the best book I can possibly write.
    Thanks Matt for your post. Like others I would like to hear more of this story.
    Thanks David, for inviting Matt to do a reveal.

  13. I still waiting for the value promised by the title, “How I Failed My Way Into a Book Deal.”

    I appreciate hearing about your indie publishing foray and your takeaways from those experiences, but it’s still not clear to me how that “failure” led to a book deal — or in fact, how that deal materialized at all. Please share!

    1. Hi: You are right to call me out here! I realized that I didn’t make good on the promise of the title, but I liked it too much to change. More like “How I Failed as an Indie Writer then Got Lucky!” The novel’s acceptance transpired because I had worked with the publisher on the literary review I edit. He browsed my blog and asked to see the novel. And that was that.

  14. unfortunately, the title of this post doesn’t match the content. i’m waiting to hear how he failed his way into a book deal — or how he got his book deal at all!

  15. I didn’t sleep well, so I need to reparse the five tips into my own translations (which can be corrected if I’m misinterpreting them). Apologies to the OP.

    1. Be serious about your writing. A “work in progress” has no implied deadline. A “novel” has an implied deadline. Give yourself a deadline.
    My take: Yes, excellent advice. Though I say you should be able to give yourself a reasonable extension if necessary. If you’re someone who is wishy-washy about self-imposed deadlines, buddy up with a spouse/significant other, friend, parent, whoever and have them act as your “boss” in that sense. Having to become accountable for missing your deadline may keep you on track.

    2. Don’t rush the writing process just because people tell you it’s possible to write faster. Treat the form with respect.
    My take: I agree in the sense of some people just can’t write at a “sprint”. Experiment and figure out what speed is right for you. If you feel “rushed” then your product may end up that way even when you return to it for a second draft.
    I don’t particularly like the phrase “treat the form with respect”, though, as it seems to assume that anyone who can write fast is “sprinting” and somehow doing something “wrong”. I do think there are those who think they write quickly who are actually sprinting, but I agree with Dean W. Smith that there is no inherent merit in writing slowly either.
    I can sometimes write between 10k and 30k in one sitting (though my usual is about 2-3k) – that’s how quickly the words sometimes come to me and how deeply I can get in the zone if I have few things distracting me. But I’ve ended up going back and pulling out more of what I wrote when I was writing 2-3k than I have when writing 10-30k. Slower is not better. Faster is not better. What matters is what works and neither hobbling yourself nor forcing yourself to sprint.

    3. Hire an editor.
    My take: Agreed.

    4. Rewriting guarantees your readers the best results. Listen to your beta-readers and professional editors, not customer reviews.
    My take: I agree that you should listen to your editors and beta-readers more than customer reviews. Though I think that all parties can be right and all parties can be wrong. You just have to be smart enough to figure out what advice will make your story better.
    As for the first part, re: rewriting – I suppose it depends on what is meant by rewriting and what sort of readers you’re looking for. An editor telling you to make certain changes to your story because it would make it more marketable to a traditional publisher will give you different advice from an editor looking to improve your story based on your vision. I mean to say, Editor 1 from traditional publishing may advise you to tell your story from the POV of a female protagonist and tone down some of the writing to make it more marketable to YA audiences, because they think your story has potential to sell well that way. Editor 2 who knows you intend to self-publish sees your original draft and tries to make it the best male protagonist POV story written to adult readers it can be, though they may find the female character in the novel interesting enough they may suggest you write some scenes from her POV as well and switch POVs between both characters – but wouldn’t push that if it weren’t to your interests. I guess my point is that you go with the type of recommendations that suit your vision and goals, not blindly follow just because someone is giving you professional advice.

    5. Make your work available. Promoting helps people find it.
    My take: I intend to make my work available in as many formats and locations as I can. I don’t intend to promote until I have a body of work large enough to make it worth the time and possibly monetary investment. I suppose everyone’s decision on this is different, but there are enough sensible people out there who have made convincing enough arguments for just letting promotion sit to the side while you concentrate on building a body of work that even if I found promotion fun to do (I really, really don’t), I’ve been convinced that it’s the most sensible use of my time.

    Apologies if I’ve misunderstood a point.
    Congratulations on your publishing deal. Hope to hear a follow-up about how you actually got the deal.

  16. This post raises several questions – how did Matt manage to sell only eight copies in six months? This KB thread gives an idea of just how remarkable that is. And how did Matt get his book deal? We all want to know. I’m guessing it was via a contact he made as an editor.

    And lastly, why doesn’t he tuck his shirt in?

    1. Lexi: I can even top LUMPEN in the race to the bottom. My latest blockbuster has sold 3 copies. I have nothing but admiration for people who effectively sell their own work. As of yet, I haven’t found the formula. The shirt? Well, the truth is that we had a rule against untucked shirts in high school, and I have had an aversion to sucking since.

  17. I enjoyed your post, Matt and I’m pleased that you found a way to be published.

    Rather than dissecting the post to find the philosopher’s stone, I took one simple and self-evident truth from it: there are many ways to get published. Doh.

    What you did – and we are not yet sure what that was – will not be the way forward for most of us, but will serve as a loose guide for those who wish to travel the traditional pathway after ‘rejection’ as an indie author. I wonder how many authors have travelled that path and how many managed to find a trad publisher after being published on Kindle? It is almost as though publication on Kindle was somehow a second-rate option. How many writers feel this way? Is it only ‘literature’ writers who do so?

    Despite your success, nothing has changed. That which held true with regard to the gatekeepers and their exploitation of the writer is still true.

    Just a couple of points: the idea that writers Google searching for ‘combinations of dystopian or paranormal are typical examples of keywords by writers of highly suspect intentions’ is risible. A writer of dystopian or paranormal works would naturally use these search terms. Doing so does not make their intentions highly suspect. Rather, it illustrates an awareness of the market. Would using the search terms ‘romance’, ‘crime’ or even ‘literature’ be any less suspect?

    Similarly, the idea that writing a genre novel about zombies or ghosts is missing the boat is like saying the crime novel has had its day. There will always be a considerable number of fans of such works, although I have to admit that the fans of zombie and vampire stories are mainly teenagers, otherwise known as the book buyers of tomorrow. Check out Wattpad for evidence.

    Literature is a hard sell on the Kindle, not the least because many literature readers prefer the tactility of paper and because, for them, there seems to be a certain sleazy aura around self-publishing. My evidence for this statement is anecdotal and taken from friends and acquaintances, but it certainly feels true. if not fully provable.

    I wish you well with your publishing deal, Matt, and fully understand why you wrote what you wrote, but for most of us highly suspect genre writers, for a huge variety of reasons, traditional publishing is not the way to go.

    Unless a publisher bearing big wads of cash and a patent ego massager heaves into sight.

    1. I agree that there are lots and lots of writers of literary fiction who look down on indie publications. I am not one of them. Nor do I look down on genre writers or genre fiction. I grew up on it, read it, and even tried my hand at writing some. In therms of the ‘suspect keywords’ my feeling is that those writers were putting the saleability of their work before their inner drive to write. Of course, who can I know what their intentions really are: it was just meant to be illustrative.

      I would also challenge your assertion that agents and publishers exploit writers. They do so only to the extent that they need to make a profit to remain in business. Otherwise, I think publishing is pretty fair; much more so than the film and record industry.

      1. Fair? When authors, without whom there would be no publishing industry, get around 8% per sale of the price of their print book? Before paying their agents 15%? I don’t think so.

        Authors, apart from the top few, are the only people in publishing who are not paid a living wage.

      2. Respect to you for your book deal, Matt, but you are not making sense. Is there something inherently suspect about being aware of the market? Or even writing for the market? How would your beloved publishers react if you refused to attend signings or engage in any sort of publicity? Would you have authors glide along on a fluffy cloud of self-satisfaction, delicate minds unsullied by the grimy world of commerce? Okay if you are writing deathless prose, but it doesn’t buy the baby a new hat.

        The inner drive to write is always present in a writer; the clue is in the term ‘writer’. The motivation for that inner drive can be the wish to express oneself, become famous, expurgate psychological problems, make money or impress the dog, but in my opinion no writer is less because they choose or are forced to choose one particular motivation.

        Traditional publishing is not fair, neither is it pretty, as Lexi has illustrated, so I won’t belabour the points made, but would say if you are happy with the percentages then you should read Joe Konrath’s blog to realise just how much you are being hoodwinked. If you already know the percentages then I cannot understand how you can claim that traditional publishing is ‘pretty fair’.

  18. The problem with Matt’s post is that what he says is what I want to hear. Self promotion is the steroid of book marketing and boy do you have to bulk up to succeed. Skinny is less than five tweets a day, two blogs and twenty posts/comments a week plus relentless FBing and Pininteresting. I’ll own up to anorexia authora even though I know it’s fatal. I’ll also admit to being jealous of the bulimics among us.

    People like David and Nancy Bilyeau take my breath away with their industry and, in their case, their worth. They are the reason I’ve cut down on all those fattening tweets, blogs and websites. I haven’t the motivation to compete. I’ll stand with the condescenders and concentrate on rewriting my first historical novel, completing a modern novel about psychotherapy and fleshing out my new venture into erotica. Don’t worry you won’t have to read any of them because I won’t be making enough noise.

  19. I agree with a lot of what Matt says, especially about so many Indie writers giving away their work. There is a time and place for that, but right now there’s such a flood of freebies that it’s become ridiculous. It cheapens the whole enterprise and, I think, confuses the reading public.
    I do think that Indie writer/publishers have to be in it for the long haul. This idea of publishing a novel and expecting a monster hit, selling gazillions of copies and becoming rich and famous is, almost always, a pipe dream, same as in traditional publishing. That’s probably not going to happen with your first or fiftieth book.
    I agree with Dean Wesley Smith’s advice that for the great majority of Indies you have to have lots of titles out there (and by lots I take it to mean at least 20 or more) and, if most of them are pretty good, then over time readers will find you and you might, like most successful journeymen, mid-list writers, be able to make a decent living.
    It’s nice to dream, but that’s the reality.
    For me, this long term goal, is the dream. To be able to continue to write stories and attract a small, dedicated following.

  20. Great guest post! I, too, am curious how the discoverability part of the equation played out. Hope we hear more on that subject from Matt.

    The more I create and put out there, the more I love the freedom and flexibility we have today. I still submit to agents and publishers as the spirit moves me, but, honestly, I’m more into writing fiction right now than *ever* before, and I don’t know if I want to lose a month right now and piss off the muse.

    Now, having said that…my past as a PR/marketing person does get in the way. When I first released my debut novel, I let myself go all out, so I could “get my name out there.” (I can’t type that without thinking of Daniel Radcliffe’s brilliant SNL sketch: ) I have had to discipline myself to write instead of promote, these past couple of months.

    Loving the journey, though.

    Good luck with your book launch!

  21. I just wanted to let everyone know that Matt has been in the Outback (how Australian!) and will get an opportunity to answer your questions and share in the discussion later today or tomorrow.

    It’s my fault for the scheduling snafu – apologies!

  22. “if you are selling hundreds of thousands copies of your book, it will get noticed. Otherwise, you are not much more than forward-thinking slush.”

    I’m taking this as being from a publisher’s perspective. There are several notable self-publishers selling a thousand or so copies of their books per month on multiple books, and they’re making a fine living. That puts them far above slush.

    I don’t know enough about Mr. Ellis’ book to say anything conclusive, but I am considering the title and the short description I found at The Prague Post’s site. I would put the tone of the book closer to the literary genre than I would genre fiction, based on the flavor I got from those sources. I might be wrong about that, but I am guessing from the title and short review I found.

    Literary fiction always falls behind genre fiction in sales. It’s no surprise that this was the case, regardless of the quality of Mr. Ellis’ work. Amazon is a market of “Hey, that looks interesting.”

    I was unable to find the cover used for the ebook, but based on the title I don’t see a lot of people being randomly attracted to it. The book could have been given a better title in terms of it being a sales tool. Having a good title and cover are proven components of a selling ebook.

    Mr. Ellis’ work isn’t very commercial, based on what I’ve found about it. His results shouldn’t be seen as typical. If his work is in fact literary it needs the kind of attention mentioned in comments above.

    1. Title? Yes, I do need a new title. Even the sales reps at Random House agree. As for the cover, you are right: it was fairly awful, but having hired a professional illustrator for my follow-up novel: Petra K and the Blackhearts, I am having similar results. I guess I just suck at selling!

  23. Oh, and I also wanted to say that I agree with his feelings about twitterspam and spreading yourself too thin with marketing.

  24. It was good to hear a different perspective on self publishing. Yes, some people have had great success with self publishing, but a lot of people have not. You have to remain realistic about it. It could easily go either way for anyone. I plan to give it my best shot, and I would love to be successful, but I’m fully aware that there are no guarantees.

  25. None of us, including traditional publishers is able to figure out what makes books sell.

    I had four books published by Ballantine in hard cover and soft, an audio deal, German, Dutch and UK publishers. But the sales of my books declined and I became the typical mid-list author with a tale of woe. I knew my publisher would not want a fifth book in the series, and though I live on a boat and have that as my central passion, my agent told me to forget about any more boating books. I left the agent and went off to try to reinvent myself. It took me 5 years to write this new book, and nobody wanted it or me. I couldn’t find an agent and my old editor 9who still had the option on it) sat on the manuscript for 4 months and never got around to reading it.

    Tired of being treated so rudely, I withdrew it from consideration and self-published in late December. In January, it sold about 70 copies, closer to 90 in February. I wasn’t killing myself with marketing. I post occasionally to Facebook, have done maybe 35 Tweets in two years, and I post regularly once a week on a group blog. This month I decided to try the “free” thing on Amazon, and I admit, I did work very hard (thanks to David’s guest Tony James Slater who provided a blueprint) to get my free book mentioned everywhere. On this last day of the month, it has sold over 7800 copies on Amazon. I will earn more this month than I made per book on my first 2-book contract – a contract which has not yet earned out, by the way.

    I’m not about to dis “free.”

    Fair winds!

    1. Christine: Awesome job on launching your book via the KDP Select Free days! I just went to check you out on Facebook and on Amazon. You’re cooking! (Or should I say sailing?)

      Congratulations and continued success.

      1. Thanks Patrice! Indeed it has been one amazing ride this month. Circle of Bones got as high as #20 overall at one point. It came off the free promotion on March 13th and it’s still doing really well even though I’ve not done much to push it along. I do have a platform with my sailing, though, and lots of fans who like to live my adventures vicariously through me. I believe having a platform is huge.

        Mark – from one who has been published by Random House, I can advise you that having a traditional publisher will not absolve you from being expected to blog, tweet and self-promote. It’s important to get to the point where you don’t see it as distasteful – rather you are building your community or tribe, and it’s an honor to be able to interact directly with the people who read your books. Yes, it consumes time and creative energy, but it is your responsibility to your readers in today’s digital world. And frankly, I’d much rather do that than go on those wretched book tours where you drive for hundreds of miles and have only 3 people show up for a reading.

    2. An excellent post from both sides of the question, Christine. Many congratulations on your sales.There seems to be little alternative to self-publicity, whichever track one finds oneself pursuing and even for an established author like you.

      I’ve given away three free short stories to test the market but Amazon are still charging for them, even though they are free elsewhere. Despite some great reviews, downloads have been disappointing, which is either because the stories are not good or they are shorts or my lack of a platform. I would like to think it’s the latter, but only the launch of my new novel will reveal the truth.

      Incidentally, I love the premise of your new book, your writing style and pace. Kerching! Another sale.

  26. Good post that sums up what probably the majority of self-publishers find as reality. The good thing is that a self-published novel is never really done. It’s always going to be out there, no matter how long it takes, no matter what else the author does. As long as they keep it in the market, it’s published and available, one of the advantages of this type of market. As someone who’s experimenting with self-publishing in addition to traditional publishing, this was a good read. Thanks!

    And in other news, Dave, I’ve passed The Versatile Blogger award on to you, to do with as you wish. Your blog is a great one, with a ton of great resources, advice, and information! I’ve put a post on my blog explaining the award.

  27. To be honest, I spent a full year trying to generate interest on my fantasy novella. Then I realised that I’d spent so much time on the publicity that I’d not done any writing. So I dropped everything and got on with my book 2 and you know what? Made no difference at all to the sales. They aren’t high, but they haven’t stopped and are trickling along all by themselves. Not making much but I sell at least one book every week and my freebie short lives in the top 3000 freebies. In the meantime, I get to spent actual quality time with my partner, book 2 is in the final throes of proofing and I’ve saved all my royalties to outsource the formatting of Book 2 so I can get on with Book 3. It’s finally occurred to me that sales come when you have four or five books on the shelf, and until then publicity is a bit pointless. Besides, my poor partner didn’t see me from one end of the day to the other when I was doing the main publicity push, so both of us are the happier for having a slightly longer-term view of things.

    That’s just me, though, and I do love my self-publishing! For others, I do appreciate that a contract is the aim of the game, and good luck to them!

    Matt, as it happens I remember seeing your book and nearly bought it, only I try to keep my TBR pile under 20 or it stresses me out! Congrats on the contract, and hopefully come re-release it will all go swimmingly!
    Best of luck!

  28. I found myself agreeing with every single point Matt made. Excellent post. Almost everything he said goes for people like me as well, even though I was published by a small press rather than self published. Thanks to both David and Matt for an excellent read.

  29. Pingback: Keeping Your Art Real in an Internet-Soaked World « Art Blog Saltworkstudio
  30. Pingback: Is self-publishing the right choice for you?
  31. How many copies of your traditional book have you sold? That is where the rubber meets the road. You could not even give it away successfully? Taking pride in knowing nothing about marketing does not an expert make. You needed to find a competent marketer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *