Self-Publication: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Ugly

I thought it was time to revisit self-pubbing, considering I’ve done it with two of my books and AJ’s done it with one. The pictures I promised will show up on Wednesday.

Let’s start with the GOOD:

AJ’s book, Power Exchange, is still doing very well weeks after publication. He published at Smashwords, Amazon, ARe, and Barnes & Noble. He announced it on his blog. He tweeted about it. He contacted reviewers and eight or ten posted reviews. He’s made more money with PE than I have with all my releases combined (that’s the ugly part, which is coming later).

Recently, he learned PE has been on a top 100 Amazon list for weeks, and the book has been nominated for at least three Goodreads “best of” awards. AJ and his book deserve every accolade that’s been thrown at him. He wrote a wonderful, entertaining, and informative book. 

In pursuit of sales, he did what many authors would consider bare minimum to get the news of his book out there. He didn’t guest blog, he participated in no blog hops, yet he’s  made thousands of dollars in sales so far.

Now we come to the ugly part (and it’s no reflection on AJ; I’m merely drawing a comparison). Three of Swords sold few copies. I think it was around 35 or 40. Knight of Wands has performed even more poorly. I think this is strange, because a couple months previous, when The Blue Paradise and Phoenix Rising were published through Dreamspinner Press, they sold really well. I made quite a lot of money in that quarter, and that was before third party sales were in.

I did pretty much the same minimal promo AJ did, but in addition, I also dropped positive review quotes on twitter once in a while and did a couple of guest interviews. We both got positive reviews at Amazon and on pro review sites.

So what’s different? Why did his book sell and mine didn’t?

1. Cover. PE has an amazing cover, certified to draw the eye and intrigue the reader. Mine are okay but nothing like that. Who doesn’t want to open a book that has a sexy naked man tied up in red rope on the front?

2. PE is a full-length book, whereas mine are novellas. I don’t see the problem with this, as I priced mine cheaper because of that.

3. PE is rated 5 for heat, mine are around 3.5. PE has a lot of hot sex going on, and it’s BDSM, which is a highly rated genre at the moment (thanks to that book I will not name lest AJ throw up on my laptop). Mine have sex, and I think it’s hot, but it’s relatively vanilla.

And finally, they’re different books. AJ’s is a sexy murder mystery and mine are somewhat gentler tales revolving around a couple of gifted guys on a houseboat. Neither is better or worse than the other, but they appeal to different readers.

So what can we conclude from this?

I’m not sure, but after some distraught mulling time and a short-lived dose of bitterness, I have concluded I must continue to write my stories, whether they sell or not. I don’t depend on royalties to pay the bills (good thing, huh?) but some income from my labor would be nice.

After editing umpteen badly-written sex scenes, and writing plenty of good ones in the past, I’m kind of bored by them. Don’t get me wrong: I think sex is important. It’s part of a healthy relationship. But it’s never the focus of my stories. Maybe that will change in the future, but for now… nope. The story and characters are more important to me. If the sex belongs, it goes in. If it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t further the story or reveal information about the characters, I skip it.

I’ve often said I hate covers with headless naked torsos on them. Can’t stand them. They look cheap and tawdry to me. I can’t think of any mainstream bestseller that sports that kind of cover. You only see them in our genre. I suppose it’s possible readers have been conditioned, and when they see them they feel an impulse to buy, but I really don’t want to go there.

Some of you are asking, “Why don’t you go back to Dreamspinner or another publisher?”

I considered it. Briefly. But the truth is, I don’t think I can give up control of my work to a publisher anymore. I like doing it all myself, even if I pay for it with far less sales.

Quitting isn’t an option. Yes, I considered that, too. Several times, in fact. But I love writing and I can’t imagine giving it up, even if I never sell another book. *thinks about that* Well, that’s probably not true. If I wrote and published and nothing ever sold, I’d get a freaking clue and hang up my keyboard.

Let’s consider this blog post food for thought. It’s five o’clock somewhere. *goes for the wine*

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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41 Responses to Self-Publication: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Ugly

  1. AJ Rose says:

    I have to make one correction here. I did a guest post on Cup o Porn with a giveaway, and on GoodReads, I gave away a copy to someone making a donation to a LGBT organization in Florida. I think that one was just good timing. But otherwise, I did similar promo to you.

    As for barfing on your laptop, I would never… I’d at least aim for your feet. Or do what cats do and put it in your shoes. What kind of boyfriend do you take me for?

    • You are so funny! That last paragraph made me LOL.

      I had a dog once that barfed in shoes. Someone at a party made her eat an olive. Well, I guess you can’t make a dog eat anything, they’ll just do it if you hold something out to them.

      The owner of those shoes got quite a surprise later that afternoon.

  2. clara_w says:

    Easy conclusion: Novellas don’t sell as much as full books. And a book does sell itself by its cover. Hang in there though : )

    • Thanks. The kind of writer I am, I usually end up with a novella. I don’t put a lot of stuffing in a story. My style is spare and clean and to the point. AJ keeps after me to add more depth, more background, and I’m working on that.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Lindsaysf says:

    Is this not the traditional artist’s dilemma? To create “your truth” or to create what is currently selling? You both are continually evolving, with the requisite ups & downs, and your own work cycles similarly, right? You know popularity is a fickle muse. You’ve got a wonderful gift. I hope you hang in there.

    • Things definitely change. I’ve been fortunate, in that I got published, and not only once, but many times. Moving to self-publishing was a calculated risk, and while I’ve been disappointed in results so far, I am in it for the long haul. In time, I hope my readers find me again and I attract new ones, too.

  4. Elin Gregory says:

    You’re right about the dilemma. For a lot of people M/M=graphic sex scenes so where does that leave those of us who either don’t want to write them or can’t? But your Tarot stories are terrific with masses of plot. Have you considered reissuing them together a novel once you have finished the third?

    • Um, yeah. I have. I thought it might be a good idea to bundle them about a year later and offer the set for a reduced price. Perhaps it will attract readers at that time, especially those who hate cliffhanger endings. Something, btw, I will probably never do again. LOL

      • Elin Gregory says:

        We do like our closure. 🙂 I don’t mind cliffhanger endings as long as I know going in that I’m reading a series and, preferably, that I won’t have to wait too long for the next bit. I think Swords/Wands/Tower will do very well as a novel.

        • I made very sure to release them quickly. Tower will be out in January. And then… seriously thinking of a longish break, because I’ve been writing like a fiend for months and I’m tired. Writing is hard work for me. It doesn’t just ‘flow.’

          I’m looking forward to your pirate story. That excerpt sounded so very good! The words and rhythm were perfect.

        • AJ Rose says:

          I happen to know a couple spoilers about book 3 and I don’t see HOW it won’t be a fabulous story. When Fen told me stuff (over my protests that I didn’t want to know) I literally shouted, “What!? You’re doing WHAT?!”

          It’s going to blow people away. I firmly believe that. So meh, no naked men on the cover. Fen’s stories don’t need it.

  5. HBIC says:

    I agree with what you’ve said; I just want to add one other potential reason (and, hell, maybe it’s only *my* reason, but it’s a reason nonetheless). PE is a stand-alone book while your self-pubbed books are a trilogy – one that’s close to ending. I can’t be the only one who is waiting for all three to be available before diving in, can I?

  6. HBIC says:

    I like trilogies, series, cliffhangers, and such. I just know *I’m* hanging out to buy all three at once, and I wonder if (and how many) others are doing the same. I think it will be interesting to see what sales on the first two books do once the third one is released. You’ll have to come back and tell us 🙂

  7. A.M.B. says:

    This is such an interesting, honest look at some of the pros and cons of self-publishing. I’m less familiar with the romance and paranormal mystery genres, but I would assume that there’s a large audience for books like yours. I hope they find you. Have you considered hiring a publicist? I have no idea how much something like that would cost.

    • I was kind of hoping my sheer genius would pull them in. Heh. Never considered a publicist, and yeah, they cost a lot of money, which I don’t have right now. I’m just gonna keep plugging away for now, hoping a longer back list will eventually draw some attention and increase sales.

  8. Isa says:

    I’m one that prefers the novels over novellas especially if its a stand alone book. I do think once people found out that TOS was ending in a cliff hanger they decided to wait for the other books.

    I’m also guilty of judging a book by the cover and the title. Try searching for a book on Amazon or ARe when you are going through pages and pages. If something looks interesting then I’ll stop and check out the book. A lot of them I skip because of the cover or the title.

    I don’t mind romances with out sex but they need to have the connection between the couple. If there is no romance then it should not be labeled a romance. I also don’t like a book with sex on every single page. I want the story.

    Have you thought about writing a straight mystery or science fiction story and then try selling it that way? After reading Phoenix Rising and TOS I think you should give it a try. I still want to know more about the Phoenix.

    • My head is filled with ideas. I now have to find time to get them all down on paper.

      I do understand about covers. I do the same thing. I tend to skip the torso covers because they all look the same. I wait for something different.

  9. therealtbaggins says:

    I will toss this in about covers. Last year, I put out a book called Something Different, I thought it would be “classy,” not to mention different, to have a sober cover. So it was a picture of a park bench, covered in autumn leaves, referencing the place were the MCs meet.

    Several reviewers mentioned the dull cover. So I changed it to a “torso” cover, and the sales literally quadrupled. Mind you, even at it’s best, I never sold more than … checking the notebook … 200 a month at between 99 cents and 2.99. So I am not remotely comparing sales of that book to AJ’s with Power Exchange.

    Just a little personal experience story, make of it what you will.

    • therealtbaggins says:

      Please forgive the typos, I am not always this illiterate. 🙂

    • *sigh*

      This makes me very sad. I really, really don’t like those covers… but if it will help sell the book, I need to take a look at it.

      Damn.

      • therealtbaggins says:

        Well, I figure I will try anything with a *cover.* It’s the stuff inside that drives me to whine, wrestle, announce that I am Selling Out Entirely, then wake up the next day and decide I will not compromise. Heh.

        PS — I did the same thing with Protection, if you want to compare those covers. And believe it or not, I didn’t get the idea from our own genre. The cover artist who convinced me to try this was doing headless torso men for m/f romances. She bombarded me with links to covers to show me it was a possible strategy.

        • I won’t use covers that are montages though. They suck. You know, one or two guys against some background. They always look cheap to me. If I’m putting naked men on my books, I want them to look classy. Like Gypsy Rose Lee. ;/ “Drop a strap and dip, Louise!”

          • therealtbaggins says:

            I understand the sentiment. I have done it … and it worked … and since it doesn’t exactly represent my finest offering in this world, I won’t reference it by name, but it the best-selling m/m book I’ve ever been associated with. Rivaled AJ’s sales for about three months, though the price point was lower.

          • Oy!

            I guess P T Barnum was right, huh?

          • therealtbaggins says:

            I resemble that remark! 😛

  10. Enny says:

    Sorry to be so blunt but the covers for the Perils books are just plain ugly and amateurish. You can do something classy without naked torsos that will still appeal to people (see Phoenix Rising). Plus the titles made me think they were either about some esoteric stuff or historicals.

    • Uh, gee, okay. Thanks for your opinion.

      Anyone else want to weigh in on my covers?

      • AJ Rose says:

        Yeah. I like the amount of detail in them, that they fit the book topic to a T, and they’re not the typical flying nipples. They match the mood, and every time I look at them, there’s another detail I missed before.

        They may be more whimsical than I would want on my books, but I don’t write whimsical, so that’s not even applicable. The only thing I would say is with thumbnails, they might come across as busy, trying to squeeze so much into such a small picture, but it’s great on the Kindle app (in color and vibrant) when it’s blown up. And lots of books have that issue.

        And they’re nowhere near amateurish. IMHO.

      • AJ Rose says:

        And of course, your covers vary greatly. Precog’s covers are nothing like Power Exchange’s, and you did that one, too. Beautifully.

      • HBIC says:

        If a reader can read a story then make a connection between that story and its cover then the cover is a good one, imo. I haven’t read the series yet (waiting for the last one before diving in), but I’d imagine the tarot cards on the covers are relevant to the story/series. I have seen lost of amateurish and butt-ugly covers (one publisher seems to be worse than others in this regard) – yours are not among them.

  11. Enny says:

    I made that comment after reading what you said about your editing experiences. That was brutally honest too. Think of the covers as just a professional part of the book as the writing. The fact that the writer and his/her friends think the story is great doesn’t count. It’s your job as an editor to tear the whole thing ruthlessly apart and as a graphics designer, I feel like that about covers. I love AJ’s books and a friend of mine think yours are great too so it makes me sad that they’re not selling so well.

    Since I’m better at explaining what I mean with pictures rather than words, here’s a rough draft of what I would do with the tarot cards concept:

    But of course ultimately one of the joys of self-publishing is being able to do what you want creatively and tell everybody who disagrees to shove it 😀

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