Before we start, apologies for the clickbait title. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last twelve months it’s that negative headlines get a lot more attention than positive ones. You clicked on it, after all!
But what else have I discovered in my voyage into the minefield-strewn world of writing and book marketing, and how was In Vitro Lottery received (if at all) by the reviewing and buying public? Read on to find out!
Not long ago, a rather obnoxious blog article was published on a popular news site, in which the author lamented the whole self-publishing industry and how it was destroying the literary world. I won’t link to it here because the person who wrote it got all the publicity and controversy she was craving for at the time, but I’m sure a Google search will pick it up. As I was reading the section on ‘how dare people without years of training or an agent even think about writing anything using their claw-like vestigial hands and poorly evolved brains’, I couldn’t help but think “hey, I’m exactly the person they’re talking about!” So that was nice.
Many writers (even self-published ones!) take years to hone their skills before they release anything. They join writing clubs, form a core of beta readers and editors, and have proven and focused marketing plans for their products. Many of them have made a good living out of it, and a few have reached the very top of success and are now household names. And good luck to them! To be that dedicated takes a lot of work.
As a hobbyist writer, however, I didn’t do any of that. Although retiring from my day job to a world of hot tubs full of supermodels seemed like an attractive proposition, my main drive to writing a novel was “hmm, I wonder if I can write a novel?” I’d had an idea floating around in my head for a number of years, so why not give it a go? I read some articles and books on plot structure and planning (the excellent books by K.M. Weiland were invaluable for this) and away I went!
A year and a half later, In Vitro Lottery was released to an unsuspecting and uncaring world!
Wow, bet that sucked then!
My initial launch was advertised in the small and narrow net of my relatives and some friends on my private Facebook feed. After some initial feedback that the formatting had got a bit munged and there were a few mistakes, I did another edit and sent it off to some bloggers to try and get some reviews. The initial reviews were okay, even the ones from people who weren’t my mum, but there seemed to be lots of room for improvement still.
Third time lucky…
Some authors complain about getting 3* reviews, but the one I got from CommonBookSense was perhaps the most useful one I ever had. They loved the story, the setting and the characters, but found my prose fairly impenetrable. I took this on board and did another round of substantial edits. The first blog to review the new version was Underground Book Reviews back in May 2016, and their review was much more favourable. Since then, a few more proofreading edits have been done and the reception has been much more positive. Don’t believe me? Then try a few of the hand-picked examples below!
It’s a truism that you can’t please everyone all the time, and some people will hate what content creators put out, be it books, music, films or art. Although we like to dismiss them as trolls with nothing else to do, sometimes people just don’t like your shit. One person’s pacey thriller is someone else’s drying paint. For example…
I also entered IVL into a couple of competitions. AuthorsTalkAboutit gave it a favourable 4* review but it wasn’t chosen, but I did win the NewApple Literary Summer ebooks 2016 award for best scifi-dystopia!
Scientist that I am, I had to put in a graph somewhere, so here are the ratings and reviews IVL has garnered over the last year from Amazon US, UK and Goodreads. There is some overlap between the three due to review cross-posting, but not a vast amount.
So, on the whole, people liked my novel (or at least thought it was okay) which for an amateur was a victory in itself. But did I manage to sell any copies?
Marketing – that which doesn’t kill you, maims you for life.
If you’re a famous writer with a built-in fan base then your books will probably sell themselves to some extent, and if they don’t then the publisher’s marketing budget will do the rest. For everyone else, publishing your novel without any plan to sell it is a bit like learning to swim by jumping off an ocean liner.
For the people who have a clue of what they are doing, they ensure that they have a social media presence and network months before they release anything. I waited until after my book had been released, which was far too late. My original plan of ‘maybe someone will recommend it to someone influential while I plumb in the hot tub’ wasn’t paying dividends, so I decided to spend some money on various marketing companies and boost my social media presence.
In my rather limited experience, marketing can be condensed into the following statement:
Promote = sell (maybe). Don’t promote = don’t sell
The only other major insight I have into marketing is that it’s really, really, depressing and takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Seriously, the thought of having to do it all again for my next novel stopped me writing anything else for nearly six months. It was only when I saw the awesome TV series Westworld that I felt inspired enough to pick up the keyboard again.
I’ve talked about my experiences with Twitter, email-shot companies and free book promotions in previous posts so I won’t go over them again now. Suffice to say, what works for one genre or author may not work for someone else. The only way to get results is to cast your net far and wide, and see which works for you.
I’m in Amazon KDP select, which I also wrote about previously, so I’ve shown the page reads too. The numbers are very modest and I’m sure that many people shift many more copies a day than I’ve sold in total, but from a starting point of absolute zero I’m happy enough.
In total, so far I’ve sold 250 copies and got another 130 in page reads (using the highly suspect conceit that everyone who started my novel finished it).
If you check the KENP graph, there’s some fairly obvious spikes in there. These correspond to when I’ve done a free book promotion on Amazon and paid a company to advertise it. I’ve done this three times so far, and each time it’s boosted my sales, page reads and reviews. It’s only a short term gain and I’m sure next month will fall back again, but it does help spread the word.
Getting success long term takes a lot more effort (and a little luck), probably several more books and time. For under every effortlessly gliding duck on the lake there is a pair of legs paddling like mad.
So, to summarise the last 12 months, what did I learn? What horrible mistakes did I make so you don’t have to?
Things wot I found out:
- Amateur and hobbyist writers can write novels that others enjoy. I’m nothing special, so if I can do it, so can you!
- No matter how ready you think it is, your book probably isn’t ready yet. Get it right first time. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and a few early bad reviews can kill a book from a new author. I got lucky in this respect and had some time to correct things, but you may not be. Don’t give them an easy way out of a high rating with bad formatting or grammar!
- Get your social media (blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter etc) up and maturing before you start editing. The wider your network, the easier it will be to generate interest.
- Self-editing and proofreading is really difficult, think seriously about getting it professionally edited before release! Even after my latest minor edit I got a review saying it needs some proofreading. I’m now in the process of getting IVL professionally edited, something I’m doing for my next novel before I release it.
- Trying to make money will probably just get you depressed. If you’re a hobbyist writer, then treat it like a hobby. If you think book marketing is expensive, try keeping a horse!
- When it comes to social media, give more that you take, especially when first starting out. If you join a group and instantly start plugging your book, you’ll most likely get ignored at best, and flamed at worst.
- There’s lots of help and support out there. One Facebook group I find very useful and friendly is the BooksGoSocial Author Group. They also run a separate group for getting and giving reviews.
Ed Ryder is a research scientist by day and writes in the evening when he can fit it in. Morula, the sequel to In Vitro Lottery is now in production!