I self-published my debut novel, SALTED, in April 2014.
It was my baby. Developing the overall series arcs, characters, the world-building of a mythology – (selkies! Oh, and merfolk to engage neglected YA male readers!) – that was largely ignored by the mainstream publishing houses and authors, all these things take time. Clearly. I’d been preparing my debut novel for five years by the time I sent it out to over one hundred publishers and--
Rejection. All of them. (Er, the ones who bothered to respond anyway).
So, I turned to self-publishing. Did all the things you’re supposed to do too – hire editors, get a good cover, etc. and--
I royally screwed most of those decisions up. (Hey, and you read about all those glorious mistakes in my 'Here's Where I Screwed Up Posts Pt. 1 and Pt 2')!
Still, I didn’t know that I had screwed up at the time. My editor, (the ever-amazing Annetta Ribken, who I will go to the ends of the earth for), warned me about alllll the things -- too many characters . . . this part of the mythology is confusing . . . methinks you probably shouldn’t actually try to use dialects because most readers won’t hear the voices like you hear in your head, you crazy author you . . . did I mention there’s too many characters? There’s too many, Galvin.)
Heedless, I stumbled on.
Surprisingly enough, a majority of the review were relatively good. Still, I’m a writer, (i.e. - primed for self-flagellation on the best of days), so I naturally had to read the more critical reviews detailing how and why I should have never considered this profession in the first place. Yes, there were some of those that ripped my baby to shreds. Hey, and fair enough too – I had asked for an honest review and boy howdy did I get some.
And I’m better for it. My writing is better for it.
One of the critical reviews I’ve never forgotten was a two-star review. Not that I remember this particular review because it was two-stars, you understand. Not even for the rightful claims the reviewer made as to their thoughts on the book and/or why certain parts didn’t work for them. What I remember most was the following lines the reviewer included near the end of their critique:
“This is, after all, his debut novel and those are always hard to accomplish, but I'm sure he will refine his craft over time.”
It’s been five years since that review, and the ‘I’m sure he will refine his craft over time’ line has me smiling today.
Because I have refined my craft.
Because I’m continuing to improve, despite the setbacks . . . and my works are stronger for those and all the critiques I’ve received along the way.
My works are also only going to get better. This post will show you why.
There’s a few reasons for writing this particular entry today.
Among the most dear to me is that reading the successes and failures of other authors helped to give me the courage of pursuing my writing/publishing dreams. National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as its more commonly known) is coming to a close soon and I've had another successful year competing against myself. My hope is that posts like these detailing failure after failure (and yes, some of the successes too) will help aspiring writers and self-publishers to keep after their dreams as well.
The more personal reason is to let readers and that amazing critic who gave me more than a bit of hope in addition to their honest insight know that I have not quit on refining my craft, nor will I ever. That my craft has indeed improved, or at least enough to better understand my earlier failings and attempt to remedy them as a thank you to all those who’ve lent me their eyes and feedback.
Finally, there’s the business side of the equation too.
Because this self-publishing game is a business and, based on my journey thus far, it often feels like David vs. a hundred Goliaths out there.
The usual refrain, and one often reiterated to me by my editor is that “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Five years in and I think that I’m beginning to understand the truth in those words too. For instance, did you know most small businesses shut down or quit after five years? It’s because of the slog and the swamps of sadness you’ll find yourself in.
(Don’t be Artax, btw. Be Atreyu.)
Much as it pains me to write, I found myself wandering the swamps of sadness over the last few years in trying to figure out why in the heck the later installments of the Salted series weren’t moving like I thought they should.
Well, I recently made the tough (but necessary) decision to admit defeat. In part, at least. (I’m Atreyu, remember? Never Artax!)
Despite all my efforts to the contrary in 2016, I had again made some more mistakes with my Salted series. Yes, I had new and better covers designed by an artist so talented that I guarantee you’ve seen some of his covers on the traditionally published jackets lining the bestseller shelves at your local bookstore. (His name is M.S. Corley, and he too did everything I asked of him with the 2016 cover designs. Not only that, he improved on my ideas and became a close friend and literal port in the storm during the most difficult chapter of my life.)
And yet . . . despite our combined efforts with the covers . . . a re-ordering of the chapters to address the two-star reviewer and others’ rightful critiques . . . and a marketing push that swelled my debut novel into bestseller ranks higher than any I’d achieved to that point . . . still the sequels weren’t selling as I knew they should be.
How did I know that my books should have been selling better and there was a problem?
And this is where you move from the ‘creative side’ into the business/publishing side, aspiring authors. Because you’ll need both skillsets if you hope to make a living out of this writing/publishing dream.
See, I have a different series about the Salem witch trials. Granted, there are differences in the genres (historical/horror fiction vs. epic fantasy for Salted) + Salem’s is a finished trilogy, while the Salted series remains ongoing. But the evidence was overwhelmingly clear when it came to read-through rates.
Anyway, readers (i.e. sales) moving from Book 1 to Book 2 in my Salem’s series was roughly 85%. Then, from Book 2 to finish off the series with Book 3? A whopping 95% read-through to close out the trilogy!
Sure, one could argue those numbers might be skewed by genre and the fact that Salem’s was a finished trilogy, thus requiring less time to read. You could also say there was a built-in audience with the Salem witch trials as a focal point in history. All valid points. Again, though, the difference in read-through rates between the two series were stark. Here’s the Salted series %’s to back that up.
From 2014-2016, the % of readers moving on from Book 1 to Book 2 in the Salted series was 16%. Eesh, right? 16% of readers for Salted vs. the 85% for Salem’s that were moving onto the second book in either series.
It was awful.
So, in 2016, I went back to the drawing board because I continued to believe in the Salted series then, just as I do now.
After the Corley cover changes, re-order of the layout, new beginning, etc. I went looking for new readers. Then, after a sufficient amount of time to market, I went back to gauge the read-through rates. Here’s the percentages from those years as well:
% of SALTED FANS MOVING FROM BOOK 1 TO BOOK 2
The original – 2014 – 2016: 16%
The revision – 2017 – 2019: 31%
Improvement, but still nothing in comparison to the Salem’s trilogy percentages, right? Honestly, there was a point where I began to question if the Salted series was just a lame duck. Put it out of its misery, take what you learned and move on to the next story, better and wiser for it.
Again, writer = self-flagellation.
But here’s what I found to be a more interesting piece of the puzzle – in addition to all the continued reader emails, hounding me for the next Salted book, I had another read-through statistic:
% of SALTED READERS MOVING ON FROM BOOK 2 TO BOOK 3
And another . . .
% of SALTED READERS MOVING ON FROM BOOK 3 TO BOOK 4
So what the heck is the problem, Galvin? I asked myself, night after night. You have all these reader emails wanting the next book, the read-through % is great from Book 2 to 3 and onward . . . so, what gives?
Clearly, the problem was advancing readers from Book 1 to Book 2.
Yes, I’d improved the numbers somewhat by making alterations in 2016, but I evidently hadn’t taken it far enough. I reached out to more readers, read more of the reviews coming in, continued studying the market (which had changed by a huge margin in a little less than a year) and ultimately realized . . .
“Too many characters . . . this part of the mythology is confusing . . . methinks you probably shouldn’t actually try to use dialects because most readers won’t hear the voices like you do, you crazy author you . . . did I mention there’s too many characters? There’s too many, Galvin.”
Insert lightbulb, right?
I’d also since learned the publishing game was shifting (and continues to do so). Nowadays, if you’re not releasing a new title every sixty days or so (likely less) AND if it doesn’t sell well out of the gates, then you’re fading into obscurity and drowned by a constant deluge of man-chested covers in genres that are so clearly not meant for man-chests to ever belong.
Also, I don’t write as slow as my favorite author, George R.R. Martin, and my books aren’t nearly as long, but come on, man!
Really? Sixty days or less?
So what’s a small-time, self-publisher to do? You adapt.
Adapt or die.
To quote Dudley Field Malone’s famous lines: “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”
Well, I’ve been learning a lot since diving into the publishing pool.
I again reached out to my newsletter subscribers and asked for their feedback. I re-read ALL the reviews, learning what I could from the favorable and the critical alike. Reading through their feedback, as I have done countless times in the time between then and now, even the good ones hinted around all the points my editor, Annetta, had mentioned. The more critical reviews outright listed all the areas where I had erred . . . and again I point this out because it’s where you can learn.
With the added benefits of critical hindsight + all the failures I’d amassed to this point, I (again) went to work this past year on fixing my Salted series. I promised myself that this would be the last effort for the Salted series. Whether it works or I fail again, this revision will be my last go around with the series. You get three strikes in baseball. Why not the same here? Anyway, we’re pushing on to the end now, friends, no matter what the outcome of this newest plan.
So, what’s changed this time around? Why will it be different?
Let’s start from the top . . . right from what intrigues a potential reader to pick up the book in the book in the first place.
1) Genre-Friendly Covers
This is Publishing 101, and I failed in it twice in an effort to look different and “stand out” from the crowd. In my first attempt, I went with a gorgeous photo of a seal, hoping to reshape people’s thoughts on how they looked at those beautiful creatures . . . and it failed because potential readers questioned whether it was non-fiction or fiction.
In my second attempt with the Corley covers, I understood the covers needed to scream ‘fantasy’ at first glance. For the first cover, we opted to feature The Nomad, a merman warrior, and then adding in other characters in later installments. Again, I credit these Corley covers to the improvement of sales in the first book and drawing more attention.
In full disclosure, however, I don’t believe the current covers available for sale were the main source of the problem in getting readers to move forward from book 1 to book 2 (more on that in a moment) .
However . . .
One thing I did learn about covers was the vast importance of ‘connecting’ after I switched out the covers to my Salem series. For instance, what’s the one thing that connects us immediately with other people? Not books, you understand. People.
It’s their eyes, the window to the soul.
Roughly a year ago, I tested my theory by switching out the Salem covers.
Admittedly, I still prefer the original covers (featuring the ring of keys).
By switching out the covers from objects to instead using those with an actual person’s photo on the cover, (and more specifically choosing photos that I connected with via what I saw in their eyes), I saw my sales improve from book 1 onward..
Thus, I went back to my Salted series with the hope I could find another talented cover artist to help bring my vision to life. (For the record, I would have loved to partner with M.S. Corley again on these newest covers, but my new plan for serialized releases would require a ton of covers and Mr. Corley is quite the busy guy designing the covers for all those #1 traditional publishing bestsellers.)
Fortunately for me, I found Dmitry Yakhovsky. Here's the new covers we designed for the opening episodes of the series.
Needless to say, I’ve been loving every second of our partnership as well. These two images above are the first of many Salted covers to come, friends. Can’t wait for you to see all the pretty + your favorite characters and scenes brought to life with the future episodes!
2) The Opening
One of the main problems with my debut novel is that I didn’t understand how best to bring readers into the story via my multiple POVs.
The first go around, I used Lenny to kick off the Selkie storyline because I figured that readers would want to see this new mythology featuring a creature many had never heard of before. The problems there were:
Fail. Fail. Fail.
The second go around, I moved the new opening to a more familiar setting. I began with the high school storyline, set in Indiana, and featuring Kellen. The problem? Yes, it was a familiar setting, but readers thought the high school plot was a bit cliché to begin a series with, I didn’t really give enough backstory as to why Kellen was such a bully, and oh – did I mention Kellen is a bully and the main antagonist? He’s a bully . . . and the main antagonist. What a great way to start your series, Galvin! Open with the bad guy and make him so dislikable that it’ll turn readers off immediately. Great plan, Einstein!
Fail. Fail. Fail.
And all this time, the answer was right in front of me with fan favorite, Chidi Etienne.
No matter where I go, who I ask, Chidi’s name always comes up with Salted fans. Readers connect with her straightaway because she is kind and humble and strong. She’s also a Silkie, which immerses readers into that fantasy/new mythology side of the story they’ve come to this series to find. Oh, and the stakes are also more dire for her than perhaps any other character because her motive is clear: she just wants to escape her cruel and abusive owner, Henry.
In fact, I believe this opening is so much better as an intro to the series and the world-building that I’ve posted the first chapter for FREE. You can read it by clicking here.
3) The Dialects
Remember Lenny? How he’s somewhat of a grumpy, dislikeable character that I thought would be a great idea to kick things off with? Yeah, I also saddled him with a Boston accent that I tried to “help” readers hear his voice by writing his dialogue phonetically.
All the warnings signs were there from the outset that this would be an epic fail with a majority of readers. My editors mentioned it. Teachers, agent blogs, and other writers all warned against it. And, not long after the book was released, readers/critics reiterated that Lenny and other character dialects made the story more difficult to read/dive into because the accented words were stumbling blocks.
Heedless, I stumbled on, bound and determined to prove them all wrong and . . .
FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.
So what’s changed with this relaunch?
The accents are gone. (Mostly). There are still a few inflections here and there as gentle reminders, but nothing so drastic as to inhibit readers anymore. Yes, this will likely earn me the ire of some die-hard fans, but, again, this is where I had to put on my business cap and go with what works for the majority to bring new readers in and improve read-through into the overall series.
4) The Story Layout
This . . . this above all was the reason I was failing to shepherd more readers on from Salted to its sequel.
It’s not that the story was bad, (Salted series fans will tell you this series only gets better and stronger for each installment). The issue here was the frequent jumping around between two stories – the Selkie catchers vs. the high school storyline – and, again, not really giving readers enough time (i.e. – chapters) to bond with any one character or story thread.
So, what’s changed?
For starters, the first episode of this relaunch, THE SELKIE CATCHERS, focuses squarely on the Selkie storyline to familiarize readers with the realm beneath the waves. More importantly, it shows why the Selkie catchers make the choices they do once going ashore to help readers understand the stakes.
And the high school storyline? Well, that kicks off in Episode 2 with a whole new storyline that’s not been read by anyone yet. Based on the episode 2 cover, THE MERROW SECRET, Salted fans who’ve read the other books should recognize Sydney on sight. While she’s always been a key piece of the story since the original novel debuted in 2014, Sydney wasn’t featured as a main POV then, or in my 2016 revision.
There’s a reason for that too.
In my initial attempts to cut down the number of characters and POVs, I opted to remove Sydney. In hindsight, that was a failure on my part because by removing Sydney’s POV chapters in 2014, I also pretty much eliminated any hope from the story. And, as my editor often reiterates, “If you’re going to have all this darkness and grim stuff, you need to give the readers some sense of hope, Galvin.”
So, why didn’t your editor insist on keeping that hope back in 2014 or 2016? She did. I just didn’t listen because I'm a big, dumb dummy. (Also, my editor didn’t have any clue as to how big of an impact Sydney would have in the ongoing story because I didn’t share those details with her at the time because I wanted to keep all uber-secretive and allow the story to unfold. Again, I'm a big, dumb dummy.)
All that to say, I’ve been humbled. Repeatedly.
But I am Atreyu . . . not Artax.
5) THE (LENGTHY) TIME IN BETWEEN NEW RELEASES
Again, no shocker here, but I’m a George R.R. Martin fan. Until he’s ready to release the sixth book in his Song of Ice & Fire series, (more commonly known as Game of Thrones for you TV fans), I will wait and wait and wait some more . . . but I would totally read any little bits of the story he doles out in the meantime.
And while I’m not the type who needs a refresher – (I loathe watching/reading recaps) – I understand that I’m in the minority there. When you’re plate-spinning a lot of story threads and characters, lengthy delays in between releases don’t really help your cause. Not to mention that you run the risk of people forgetting your story is even out there to begin with.
Another common refrain I’ve heard from potential readers is ‘Whew. Those are long books! I just don’t have the time to sit down and read that much all at once.’
Enter Aaron’s newest plan: serialization.
Starting on January 24, 2020, the Salted series will be released as episodic novellas, beginning with . . .
What this serialization of the series means is that there will be five novella episodes per full-length season, (i.e. book). After all five episodes have been published, I’ll compile the five episodes into an omnibus version of the full book and release it as well.
Admittedly, this news will likely be received as a bit of a mixed bag. Some readers prefer to binge-read all at once, others (like me) enjoy the weekly teases so long as the story keeps coming. I know these things because I surveyed my readers and received a mixed answer in response to which they would prefer.
Learning those reader preferences, here’s why I believe the pros of this decision to move to a serialized format with this relaunch of the Salted series outweighed the cons:
I’ll be rapid-releasing one new episode per week for the first season, then moving to a new episode every two weeks thereafter . . . and again, this steady stream of new content will keep coming allllll the way until the Salted series is finished with no more lengthy waiting times in between. ;)
So there you have it, my friends.
All the ways I screwed up . . . and my newest plan of attack to haul Selkies, Merrows, Nomads, Orcs, and more into the limelight.
I hope you’re excited as I am for what’s about to unfold.
If you have any questions about the new releases, or maybe you just want to say hey, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you and learn what you think about the new covers and plan for the Salted series.
Again, you can read the first new and exclusive chapter of Episode 1: THE SELKIE CATCHERS for FREE on my website. Just the link to be redirected to another page and you’ll be swimming in the realm beneath the waves alongside Chidi Etienne.
Hope you enjoy! And thanks again for sticking with me!
Author. Actor. Rascal.