Recently, I was interviewed by Raelee Chapman of the Asian Books Blog in Singapore. The interview went live yesterday and it focused on my experience self-publishing my first novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, and on my writing process, background and goals. Click here for the interview. Enjoy.
One Year On - Ten Things I Learnt In The Year After My Book Came Out
A year ago, on 7 February, my debut novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, came out. After years writing and creating several versions of the work, and after thoughtful feedback from fellow writers, I decided on first person POV and a linearly told story. Also, after some positive responses, over three years of trying to solicit an agent but failing to do so, I decided to self-publish and get my book ‘out there.’ Overall, I’m happy with my decision to go indie but, as with anything else, hindsight is twenty/twenty and there were some lessons learnt.
Here are the ten most influential things I learnt about the publishing process and myself, as a writer, over the last twelve months. For those of you who’ve already published, indie or traditional, they might be lessons you’ve yet to learn or they might be things that happened to you as well. And, if that’s the case, feel reassured that you’re not alone. If you’ve yet to publish, maybe my experience may benefit you as you forge ahead in publishing your own work.
1. Believe in myself. When I began the publishing process, and after my novel came out, every discussion I had with a rep from the publisher, every production item I approved (cover, inside layout, etc), every email I sent to a bookseller, I left with feelings of doubt. I second-guessed everything. After all, who would want to read anything I’d written? What did I know about any of this, having never done it before? I kept thinking that anyone I tried to promote my novel to would think that I was just some guy who wrote a book - and, everyone can write a book, right? Big deal. But, once I calmed myself down, I reminded myself that I’d taken this book through three rounds of workshops at The Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York City, one of the best (my and others’ opinions) and most respected writing programs around. I’d done the hard work. No one panned my work and some of my fellow writers even picked out sections they really liked. I also realised that my book does not define me as a person. The book that came out last year, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, is fiction, while also being semi-autobiographical. In that regard, it is very personal. I also put a lot of my life into the writing and production of the book but, even then, if it’s hated or loved that doesn’t meant I’m hated or loved. As a writer, I can be judged by my work and how it moves the reader but it doesn’t define me as a man.
2. Promotion is hard. I knew, going indie, that I was going to be responsible for the promotion of my book. Even some traditionally published authors have to do their own promoting. From what I’ve read and heard at conferences, it’s the big names - the Kings, Rowlings, Meyers, Picoults, Franzens, etc - who get their publicity done for them. Even then, some of are still doing their own promoting. Many of us who indie-publish still work a day job (and maybe a night or second part-time job) and, like everyone else, we have other parts of our lives that need to be taken care of. So, promoting one’s work can, sometimes, be that ‘extra’ thing to be done at the end of an already long and arduous day. Nonetheless, it has to be done. A Facebook page, a website, a blog and a Twitter account are the minimum you’ll need. You’ll need to build your platform; the 'who you are, what you’re about' centre of your writing and public persona. Do all of that even before you get your book into a publisher or agent’s hands.
3. Print out pages. I thought I was being efficient when I reviewed the PDF copy my publisher sent me on my laptop. Papers can get bulky and we’re in the ‘e age’ anyway, right? On some level, too, I thought I was saving money. However, looking back, I regret not printing out a hardcopy. PDFs don’t always look like a Word document. They’re not brightly lit. It looks like the page in a book and, sometimes, on the screen, unless you magnify a lot, they can be hard to read. Add to that, I probably need a new glasses prescription and I do most of my writing at 3am, with tired eyes, so I was bound to make mistakes and miss things. A writer will always miss stuff in his own work. That’s normal but it doesn’t help when he doesn’t review the final copy the properly. As a result of my efforts at being efficient, I discovered some typos in the final product that I need to correct. And I will correct them but that’s another out of pocket expense with the publisher. If I had printed out pages, I might have caught more of the errors I missed.
4. Have a budget before you start (It doesn’t have to be a big one). When I decided to self-publish, it was the end of the summer. It wasn’t until the following December and January when I had to start paying for things. The money was there for the publishing process. It’s the after stuff where a pre-determined budget comes in handy. Revisions (beyond the free first round), promotion, entering contests for self-published books, paying for book reviews (from companies like Kirkus Indie or Blue Ink) are where the budget will really be needed. Treat your writing as a business, if you’re looking to make a profit, from the start and not just after the book comes out.
5. POD (Print-On-Demand) pricing can be prohibitive. I published through Abbott Press, A Writer’s Digest Company, and I’m very happy with what they did for me and for my book. Probably, the only thing I wasn’t happy with is the retail price of my books. The ebook, at $3.99, isn’t bad. The hardcover, though, at $39.99, and the paperback ($22.99) are not so favourable. It was explained tome that the number of pages of my novel and because of the POD mode of publishing, the cost will be higher than traditionally published or small press books per unit for the reader. Outskirts Press, another POD company, has an option that allows the author to price his own book but it has limits and will reduce royalties. Even with this option, the price to the consumer is still on the higher end. If I indie-publish again, I might go a different route. Amazon’s Createspace, I believe, allows the author to determine his book’s prices but I think they specialize in ebook and paperback formats and not hardcover. Or, I might try a fixed run at a small press or something in the middle, like Book Baby. So, before you publish, make sure the end retail price is not going to price your book out of sales. Good writing will trump a high retail price but we live in leaner times and consumers are tighter fisted with their resources.
6. Learn formatting and industry specs. I mention this, specifically, because of my book’s cover. I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my book’s cover. And, after reading it, you’ll see how it fits nicely with the plot and theme. What I learnt about a book’s cover, when I got my feedback from the judges of The Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, is that a book’s title should be readable from six feet away. This makes it better seen on a bookshelf, which is key if the book makes it onto a shelf in a bookstore. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this and, while my book is aesthetically and stylistically appealing, it doesn’t meet this standard.
7. Make connections. Writing is a very lonely profession. The people around me - my wife and my close friends - have been, and continue to be, very supportive. However, unless they’re also writers, I don’t think the people around us can truly appreciate the isolated and internal way of life being a writer is. Having said that, however, unless you’re Forrester, Sean Connery’s character in Finding Forrester, writers need support from other writers. Whether it’s to promote each other’s books, beta-read first drafts, offer suggestions to battle writer’s block, writers need writers. We can find each other on Twitter but, more specifically, connections are also made in website communities like The Independent Author Network, Your Book Authors, Goodreads, Scribophile, and others. More than the tangible benefits you can get from being connected to other writers, there is the sense of community you’ll feel. In addition to be pursuing a, naturally, lonely endeavour, writers also need validation. This doesn’t mean we need to be told our work is brilliant, whether it is or isn’t. Rather, it’s reassuring to know that our efforts and reasons for writing, as varied as they are, are worth something and that we are not alone, even if we’re lonely. Through the connections I’ve made and re-made since my book came out, I and/or my book has been featured in two newspapers, a magazine and reviewed once. At the time of this writing, Back Kicks And Broken Promises is being reviewed, for free, by Indiereader.com thanks to a connection I made.
8. Always have a copy of your book with you. You never know when you might be in a position to promote your work. You never know whom you might meet someone who has contacts and can/will/might talk about you and your book. Sometimes, though, you do and you’re not prepared. Last year, after reading Legend, I emailed the author, Marie Lu, to tell her how much I loved the book (her debut novel) and that I’d written a review of it. She was very flattered by my review and since then we’ve had some Twitter and e-mail exchanges; enough, I think, to the point that she might actually recognize my name. Well, shortly after our first email exchange, she gave a reading and book signing with three other authors in New York City. When I lined up to get my copy of Legend signed, Marie looked at me with recognition, probably from my Twitter picture. As we chatted, she asked if I had a copy of my book. Ugh! I didn’t and I kick myself (metaphorically) every time I think about this episode in my life. Having had a copy of my book to give her might not have led to anything but, then again, who knows? The worst part about this story: I’d thought to bring one then I decided against it, fearing I’d come across as presumptuous. Then, I decided to bring it anyway but I left it on my dining table.
9. Enter contests. Apart from the chance you might win or place - and many contests come with some kind of publisher/agent contact as a prize - you often get valuable insights into your book and/or a review of some kind. Most require some kind of entry fee (see Number 4 above) but it’s not usually so large that it’s unaffordable. I participated in NaNoWriMo last November and I completed the challenge. I ‘won.’ I finished writing the first draft of a novel in thirty days, which has jumpstarted my writing and there are even tangible prizes that come with it. I can get free copies of my book from Createspace and there are several discounts for various writing resources, as well. So, contests and challenges are beneficial.
10. Believe in my work. As soon as my book went live, butterflies lived inside me for a good two weeks. I was filled with anxiety that no one would buy my book. I’m pretty sure that’s common for every writer. More than that, however, were feelings that the entire reading world would buy my book and call me out as a hack or fill my blog comment form and email inbox with challenges to every thought, word, reference, you name it that I put to paper. My fears, so far, haven’t come true. My book has made some sales, although VERY modest numbers, and no one has taken me to task on the content of my book. It’s fiction, after all, and semi-autobiographical at that. Even if someone were to come at it/me, I’ve come to accept that (and I knew this before) some people will love my work, some will hate it, and some will be indifferent to it. Either way, I wrote a book that has received more words of praise than otherwise and I did so with full commitment of mind, heart and soul. I hope it will entertain, educate and touch the minds and hearts of its reader and, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it has done that.
So, that’s what I’ve learnt about writing, publishing and myself since my book came out a year ago. As I work on my next book, the first in a Chinese-American fantasy series, I have some wisdom to turn to and an awareness of things to do, do better and to avoid. I don’t plan on indie-publishing for my next book, but I didn’t either for my debut novel. Hopefully, I’ll catch the proverbial break and get agent representation and a book deal. In the meantime, I’m going to tap my keys like the rest of us.
I hope what you’ve read here is useful in as you pursue your writing endeavours. If you have insights of your own, please share.
Happy writing all!
In April, I wrote a post called “Stage 2 - First Feature Article.” (Stage 1, of course, is the finishing, editing and publishing of my book.) I meant to follow that up with periodical updates on how my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, is progressing in terms of public awareness, sales, etc for other indie-published authors or soon-to-be indie authors as a guide of sorts of what to expect.
Well, this post is Stage 5.
What happened to Stages 3 and 4, you ask? As is the plight of indie authors who wear many hats, I got busy, neglected my blog plans and forgot to discuss the next two stages. So, here’s a quick recap.
Stage 3 was my first interview. Well, I answered questions via email for Stage 2 but the final product appeared as an article so, from my point of view, it wasn’t an interview per se. My first interview, then, was with The Manila Bulletin newspaper. It appeared in the May 12, 2012 online and print editions although I did the actual interview, also via email, in February. I found out from another writer friend that it takes about two months or so for interviews to come out.
TIP FOR FUTURE INDIE AUTHORS: Be patient with the press your book will generate but don’t rely solely on it. While waiting for your interviews and features to come out, make sure you are doing other promotional work - writing blog posts, blog touring, book giveaways, etc.
Unfortunately, the link to the online version of The Manila Bulletin interview appears to be inactive, a month after its release. Their server may just be done or acting wonky but I’ve recently tried to share it and the page doesn’t come up.
TIP FOR FUTURE INDIE AUTHORS: Get your press out quickly and often. I’m sure you’ll get interviewed as well. It just might get posted on a site that’s only live for a given time frame. Additionally, get your press out to as many outlets that may generate more interest and traffic for your book. Even if you think an outlet might be incongruous to what you’ve written about, hit up that person or publication. The fact that you thought of that outlet likely means there’s someone else who visits that outlet who thinks just like you do. You might get only one person from that particular outlet but that’s one person more than if you hadn’t sent promo material to that outlet.
Stage 4 is my second interview and upcoming book review. Both are with Hyphen Magazine, which will help my novel get mainstream attention in the Asian-American and immigrant communities, part of its target audience. The Books section editor at Hyphen sent me some questions via email for a piece the magazine is doing about indie-published Asian-American authors, like me, and she informed me that my book has been assigned to a reviewer and in about two months (Hmm, is two months an industry standard?) the review should come out. Following my own advice in the above paragraph, I’ll be sharing those links when they’re out, especially if the review is a good one.
Stage 5, which is what this post is supposed to be about, took place on Saturday. After coming home from the Maplewood LGBTQ Pride Festival, where my wife’s company, Step2Gether, presented some dances with the adult and kid groups, I opened the mailbox and saw an envelope from my publisher, Abbott Press. It was one of those window envelopes that usually carry an invoice or a cheque. Well, thankfully, it was the latter and my first quarter (January - March) sales report. It wasn’t a large amount but at least my book had earned enough for me to get a royalty cheque. A friend of mine commented on Facebook that I’m a paid writer now. I had to correct him that, now, I’m a paid novelist; although it’s not like I’ve earned a major book advance and contract. I became a paid writer in the 1990s when I wrote, was paid for and got published in some martial arts magazines for some articles I’d written.
The money is nice, to be sure, but for getting my book exposure the sales report is important too. My book is available in hardcover, paperback and ebook and the report breaks down purchases for each version and into direct sales (those purchased from Abbott’s bookstore) and retail sales (those purchased through a bookstore, either online or via special order at a brick-and-mortar location). I haven’t really sat down to analyse what the report can tell me but, off the top of my head, I see that most sales came from retail outlets. This, in turn, tells me that it might be more beneficial to direct potential buyers, whether through a promo tweet, a blog post or person-to-person contact, to go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or to their local bookstore instead of to the Abbott Press online bookstore to buy my book. It also tells me to keep plugging at local indie stores to carry my book. The couple I have solicited said they were interested in carrying my book. Perhaps, they were influential in the retail units bought in my book’s first quarter sales.
TIP FOR FUTURE INDIE AUTHORS: Don’t forget about your quarterly sales reports and when they do arrive, with or without a cheque, and don’t just count how many books you sold. Work out where the most books were sold and continue to target that avenue. Work out which version of your book made the most sales and promote that one.
TIP FOR FUTURE INDIE AUTHORS: Also, know how your royalty is calculated and learn this part of the business. Remember, as an indie author, you’re more than the writer. You’re the publisher and publicist too.
Well, whether you’re a new indie, like I am, or a soon-to-be indie author or even an experienced indie, I hope your book does well and that what I’ve posted here has inspired and educated. If you have any further insights, please do share. After all, with the current state of book publishing and the direction it seems to be heading, indie books may save our industry and put a little green in your pocket.
The Pulitzer people announced their 2012 winners this week and, for the first time in thirty-five years, they didn’t award a winner for fiction. As someone who, three or four years ago, made it a goal to read each year’s winner I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t one. I’ve come to rely on the Pulitzer people to make one choice for me each year. Like many readers and lovers of books, who don’t have bottomless pockets filled with cash to spend on books, I’m careful when I choose what books to buy and read and The Pulitzer is arguably one of the most respected, albeit subjective, gauges of literature in this country. (Yes, I know I can enjoy reading books for free by getting a library card but, based on my reading habits, it’s probably cheaper to buy the books I read.)
Of the three finalists - Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams - Russell’s debut novel is the one I’m most familiar with. I have read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, however, and I almost picked up a copy of Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men a while back.
The fact, though, that a winner wasn’t chosen because neither finalist garnered enough votes to push it passed the other two is another clear indicator - in addition to book sales, for instance - that what makes for a good book is subjective to the reader. There are some who put down genre fiction but, clearly, with the popularity that YA vampire/monster stories like The Twilight series have garnered and the growth of YA dystopia (The Hunger Games and Legend) there is a place for all kinds of books. This reinforcement that ‘good’ books are subjective is a good sign for indie authors.
With the economy what it is and with many traditional publishing houses not gambling on new writers, many writers, right off the bat or after getting rejected by agents, have turned to various forms of independent publishing (e-book formatting, print-on-demand, small runs at a small printer, etc). Yes, there are many indie books that are pretty bad. (Yes, my last sentence does sound subjective but I think there are some universal truths on writing; things like consistency of voice and POV, the ability to have a story thread throughout the novel, unique dialogue, etc.) Based on the positive responses my book received from agents and other writers before I published, I like to think it isn’t one of the baddies. I do know, however, that some people will love Back Kicks And Broken Promises while others will loathe it and others will find it ‘comme ci, comme ca,’ if not hate it altogether. There are also some traditionally published books that are not well received. Just read any review supplement in any Sunday edition of a national newspaper and you’ll read critics saying a variety of different things on some of the same books. Take a look at Entertainment Weekly magazine’s Books section. The magazine’s reviewers give the books actual letter grades. I’ve agreed with some, disagreed with others and I’ll admit that I’ve been influenced by the grade a book got when deciding whether and/or when to buy it.
The reason that no Pulitzer winner for fiction is good for indies is simply because it reinforces what I’ve tried to point out - that readers will find different books likable, lovable, loathe-worthy. Readers’ tastes are subjective and their responses to a particular book could be different from one day to the next. I read Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer fiction winner by Paul Harding about how a father and son, through tragedy, come to terms with the world and each other. It’s well written, a quick read and quite touching but I still felt frustrated when I was done with it. So, the fact that traditionally published books, by some well known and respected authors, that were aided by an agent’s efforts and resulted in some kind of monetary advance did not win, gives us - indie authors - hope. Perhaps an indie book will never appear on the list of accepted entries or finalists for a Pulitzer but, if the Pulitzer people can’t find a book to praise from the traditionally published, it (and the readers who follow the organization), may have to look elsewhere. And, the only alternative to traditionally published, whether e-book or print book, is indie published.
There are many book awards for indie authors. There are the Indie Reader Discovery Awards and Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. These are good opportunities for indie books to get recognized and praised. They’re great marketing tools and give the authors a sense of validation if their books do well. Ideally, though, at least from my opinion, is for all books to be regarded together. Fiction is fiction regardless of who wrote it and who published it. If it does, for you, what you think and feel good fiction should do then it’s good fiction.
We read for lots of different reasons. For readers of fiction, I’m sure one of those reasons is old-fashioned enjoyment. Just make sure you’re actually enjoying what you read.
No, thankfully, this post isn't about cancer or any other illness that has stages. Instead, it's about the step of promotion my novel is currently experiencing and a little bit of wisdom for soon-to-be fellow indie authors.
Since my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, came out in February, I've been plugging away at trying to get it positive exposure to boost sales. Naturally, just from pure novelty, sales online at sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble spiked early. I recall on the first weekend Back Kicks was out, the numbers from Barnes jumped something like 200,000 places in rank. That sounds like a lot but I really couldn't tell you what that means in terms of units sold. I can tell you that it was very exciting to see my book climb up in rank to the mid 300,000s, where it still sits.
A couple of weeks after the print editions came out, full ebook coverage hit. What that means is, not only is the ebook available from the publisher's online bookstore, it is now available in full Nook, Kindle and Kobo format. This didn't see a spike in sales but I think it did help stabilise my book's sales ranking. I know that one customer, a very good friend of mine who has been wonderfully supportive of my writing endeavours, did wait for the full Kindle version to be released before buying a copy. That was fine with me. My point is, for you soon-to-be indie published authors, is that people will wait for the digital version to come out before (instead of) buying a print copy of your book.
Once my book was released, on February 7, 2012, I blogged, I blogged, tweeted, set up a Facebook fan page, acquired a Goodreads author page, joined several online author websites and communities. I even had one of my Taekwondo students hand out bookmarks with the book's cover, synopsis and ordering information printed on it as I was competing at the 2012 New Jersey State Taekwondo Championships. (Incidentally, I won again so I'm a two-time back-to-back state champion.)
In the last month or so, things have slowed down. I'll admit that I haven't been able to press away at promoting my book because of other commitments. I'm a fulltime teacher, Taekwondo instructor, track and field coach and, oh yeah, a father and husband. Be prepared soon-to-bes that it's a major commitment you're getting into. I'm not complaining. I, actually, am enjoying the whole process but it is a haul.
I've also sent copies of my book to some target audience outlets - Hyphen Magazine, The Asia Pacific Forum, Taekwondo Times Magazine, Black Belt Magazine, to name a few - to be possibly reviewed and/or get mentioned in a brief press release-type column.
Of late is the most recent promotion. Below is the link to the online version but in tomorrow's (Friday, 6 April, 2012) print edition of The Filipino Reporter, an article about me and my novel is coming out. As a Filipino-American writer, whose book is about a Fil-Am who's dealing with identity issues, I'm hoping that the piece will garner further interest. It might lead to increased sales but it also might lead to other outlets, like Asia Pacific Forum or The Asian American Writer's Workshop, to do something with it.
Like many of us who do anything, I'm on a budget and a very slim one at that. I'd love to go on a media blitz with radio spots and print ads but, realistically, I don't have the resources for that. Another word of wisdom for my fellow soon-to-be indies, it doesn't end once the book is published. There's a lot yet to be done to get your book out there and reaching your target audience. I've a lot yet to do and I'm learning on the go. I'm loving the learning process but, honestly, I wish I'd done more homework and put away for capital before I fully jumped in.
Either way, though, I'm a published author who's gotten some really good praise for what I've written. My book has been mentioned in the same sentence, positively, with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I don't know (think, let's be honest) if my book can hold a candle to those fantastic novels but the fact that it was juxtaposed with them is simply a compliment.
So, indies, keep plugging away. You do have an audience out there. Just make sure you check and double check and keep a share eye on your work.
Here's the link to the full article from The Filipino Reporter.