This past week marks a year since I self-published my debut novel, Salted, which inevitably led to me looking back on my first year in the publishing biz and wondering how I fared. Success is a relative term and though I've a long way to go before people recognize the titles of my books, least of all my name, I feel that I accomplished most of what I set out to do this year.
For the past couple months, I've been kicking around the idea of writing a number of blog posts about what I've learned, missteps I made, and funny little stories along the way this past year. My hope is the two of you reading this that are also interested in writing and/or self-publishing will find the information beneficial in your own pursuits.
Ready to rock?
The great thing about my year anniversary in the self-publishing biz was that I capped it off by exhibiting at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a couple weekends ago. I recapped a bit of this in my previous blog post, but realized afterward there was much more to be covered that I didn't touch on.
Namely, did I find the experience worthwhile?
Funny enough, I received more than a few emails from festival-goers echoing that very question. Since the festival recently happened, I thought it as good a place as any to kick off our first topic.
To be clear, please don't take any of this as gospel. Odds are you could ask a different exhibitor/author and would receive a completely different response than the one I'm about to lay down.
First, I think you need to establish what you're looking to accomplish by exhibiting. Specifically, are you looking for sales, contacts, exposure, etc.? Generally, I think most would argue it's all of the above, (and rightly so), but I also think it's important to clearly define what you hope to gain as a benchmark for your goals.
Joe Konrath is a pioneer of self-publishing whose blog I highly recommend for those new to self-publishing. One of the many things I love is he has written extensively on the distinction between goals and dreams. To quote him: "You should always be able to reach your goals, because goals are within your power. Finishing your book by May 10th is a goal. Self-publishing it by Christmas is a goal. Getting an agent is a dream, not a goal, because that involves an agent saying yes to you, and that isn't within your power. Neither is hitting a bestseller list, getting a great review, selling 1000 copies, or getting fan mail. Those aren't goals."
I've come back to that wise advice countless times during the past year in trying to dispel and separate my preconceived notions of success, the dream of sales foremost among them. Again, as Joe mentions, that's not a goal, but I'll start with sales since most of us indies invest our own dime into making these dreams of ours come alive.
You can't talk profit without also looking at the startup costs, (another topic I'll save for a later date). But in this case, we're specifically talking about the cost of books and the entry fee to exhibit. I initially felt the L.A. Times exhibitor fee was pretty steep (just under $1,000 for early bird entry), but I also realize you gotta spend money to make money. Still, being an indie is like guerilla warfare - conserve your ammo and take your shots wisely.
After researching the cost of other festivals and speaking with previous LA Times exhibitors, I determined that I should take this calculated risk for a number of reasons:
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The festival was within driving range of my home (meaning no additional costs of hotels, flights, rental cars, etc.) That other stuff adds up quick, Jack, and made attending a festival within an hour's drive sound like a no-brainer.
BUILD ME UP, BACKLIST
Satisfied readers who bought a first book in either of my series can move onto the sequel straightaway. I think that's important to note because most of us, (myself definitely included), are impatient. Call it the Netflix mentality, but we want to binge-watch, or in this case read, rather than wait a year for the next story in the series. Make no mistake, if Game of Thrones had every season finished and out on Blu-Ray, none of you would hear from me until I'd devoured every single episode. Ditto that for GRRM's books.
As a reader, I also think seeing that a writer has multiple books (especially in the same series) is comforting - it lets me know they're in this for the long haul.
SELKIES AND WITCHES AND MERMAIDS, OH MY!
Not every book is going to be interested in your books and that's okay.
My wife prefers kissy-kissy reads where you don't have to think too hard about what's going to happen and can relax, safe in the knowledge there will be a happy ending.
In case you missed the hatchet cover of Salem's Fury, those ain't my kinda books, folks. Call me a weirdo, but me loves different genres and writing styles. You like multiple POVs and fantasy? Try my Salt series about selkie slave catchers and mermaids with a twist.
Oh, what's that? You'd rather stick to one character's perspective and enjoy a little history in your read? Check out my Vengeance trilogy set nineteen years after the Salem trials ended.
Now, let me be clear - I wrote these series for me and because I write stories that I would want to read...but it doesn't hurt to provide your potential readers with options.
The Results Are In!
By the festival's end, I sold around 170 books, which meant I earned back my entry fee, covered the cost of books, and counted myself fortunate to make a little profit. I also saw my ebook sales spike over the weekend and into the beginning of last week. So, from a sales perspective, yes: I found exhibiting worthwhile and without a doubt can say I will be going back next year.
But now I want to highlight what I consider the bigger and far more important takeaways.
Meeting awesome new readers!
I did a couple book tours this past year in my home state of Indiana, (you can read the first entry recaps from both tours here and here), but this festival offered me a chance to meet readers with whom I had no previous ties.
I also found talking with said readers invigorating. A writer's life is a lonely one spent in the office, library, whatever your space is. Trust me when I say you'll go nuts if you stay locked in there too long with only the voices in your head for companionship.
Getting out of my Batcave and interacting with you readers was just the fuel I needed to recharge my batteries.
He's making a list, checking it twice...
From the word go, others stressed upon me to create a newsletter and start growing the list from day one. It's the best way to reach your most dedicated readers and/or those who are just curious to learn more, as well as let them know when you have a new release or appearance coming up. In fact, methinks most of you reading this blog post found it because I sent out my newsletter mentioning it...
You can also use newsletters to tell your readers about promotional deals, like say, having your book available for a limited time and less than a song costs on iTunes.
Get out there and talk to people, yo
You can learn soooo much from your fellow exhibitors.
Honestly, the only reason I discovered the LA Times Festival was because I spoke with the Lopez and Duffie families while we all exhibited at the Orange County Children's Book Festival. Both mentioned they felt I would do well to attend the LA Times Fest...and they were right!
I like to think of it as following bread crumbs (ya know, without the evil, cannibalistic witch waiting for me at the end).
Each one of these experiences has led me to the next opportunity. Just by talking with my booth neighbors and other exhibitors at the LA Times Fest, I learned from two separate sources that the Phoenix ComicCon coming up in May is worthwhile to attend because of friendly staff and an awesome layout. I was also warned to avoid a similar convention in Salt Lake City because it lacked foot traffic and had a poor layout for indie exhibitors. These are the fun nuggest of info you find when getting out there and talking, yo.
Again, your case may be different. If you have only one title available, I don't know that I would recommend dropping the kind of coin to exhibit at a bigger festival. Still, you might look into getting your feet wet by exhibiting at a smaller festival with a more manageable price for your budget as a test run. Some offer Artist Alley tables, or half day exhibiting passes, and it can be easier to negotiate an option to give a little talk/join a panel.
All in all, this experience gave me hope that Year 2 in the self-publishing biz is already looking brighter. I've got some new plans in the works and experiments to try, so keep checking back to see how they work out. Successful or no, it should make for an entertaining read. Let others say what they will about me, but you'll find I've never been afraid of looking like a fool.
I hope you find this post interesting. I have a lot more planned, but this will be a whole lot more fun if some of you send me questions or topics you'd like to hear about. So drop me a line. I don't bite...hard.
firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to reach me.
Thanks for reading. ;)
Author. Actor. Rascal.