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How to Make Big Money in Self-Publishing

NaNoWriMo Update

I’m still plugging away with my scaled-back version of National Novel Writing Month. So far, I have been able to keep my goal of 500 words per day (with one exception, which was more of a math error). Big thanks to the Willamette Writers writing cohort for keeping me on task. Just cleared 50,000 words on my latest MS.

Sour Grapes for Breakfast

One of the things I like about NaNoWriMo is that it gives me an excuse not to work on sales and marketing my existing titles Jackrabbit, Powwows, and Fester. I may be no great shakes as a writer, but my writing’s positively stunning compared to my salesmanship and marketing skills. I just don’t like it. Yet, I want people to read what I’ve written, of course. I’m not really looking to make a ton of money here, I’d be happy to break even on my out-of-pocket costs for the editor, the cover artist, and other fixed expenses.

So I have succumbed, at what I hope is a tolerable level, to the self-publishing industry’s legion of people, businesses and services who will make your book a “best seller” for the right price. Being naturally suspicious and tight-fisted, I always do a little research before shelling out any money. Scammers abound, and I’ve always know that the quickest way to make big money is to sell other people “secrets” of how to make big money. I recently read an article about a woman who charges $1,111 per hour to “channel” “Jesus” to Hollywood celebs and other rich idjits. If I only had a smidge less morality, I’d be on that action like Paula Deen on a plate of deep-fried Twinkies.

So I always look a little askance at the myriad of opportunities for self-published authors to make a bundle by forking over some program or another. At the same time, I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I need help marketing and selling, so I’m just going to have to suck it hope and hope for the best.

Recently, this has taken the form of paid advertising, which is pretty much a given for any self-published author. I’m a kinda techie guy – or at least I used to be – but the online advertising systems used by the likes of Facebook or Amazon are really complex and not at all intuitive. Early attempts at advertising on these platforms had been unsuccessful, so I started hunting around for some reasonably-priced advice.

In the course of my searches, I stumbled upon a plan that is so simple in its efficacy and audacity that I have to tip my hat to the author. There was a teaser article about this person’s formula for advertising success. The piece of advice given in the article was to essentially ignore the Average Cost of Sale (ACoS) metric on the Amazon Advertising dashboard. I could do this easily, as my ACoS figures are downright depressing. This guy seemed to be on the right track; the hook was set.

Of course, he had plenty more useful advice to offer, and was, in fact, going to write a whole book about his Amazon advertising secrets. The book was still in the process of being written, but if anybody wanted to get in at the ground floor, he had established a Kickstarter campaign. Out of morbid curiosity, I checked out the Kickstarter page and was amazed to see that of his $5,000 goal, he had raised a whopping $16,547!

I was awestruck. He had already cleared five figures and he hadn’t even written the book! I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, and came up with the number 3,100. Based on the price point of similar book of his, and the typical 80/20 ratio of paperback to eBook sales, along with Amazon’s cut – his Kickstarter campaign had raised the equivalent of the sales of 3,100 copies of his book, which, I hasten to repeat, hasn’t even been written yet. Of course, he’s going to have to come through on the promises he made to the Kickstarter funders, and that’s not peanuts. Still, he’s basically got the equivalent of 3,100 copies of the unwritten book out the door. Sure, that’s chickenfeed to a lot of authors – but not me. I’d be over the moon to sell 3,100 copies of a book.

Truly, this guy has it dialed in when it comes to selling self-published books about self-publishing. And as sour-grapesy as this post sounds, I will buy a copy of the book when it’s finally released, just out of respect for this guy’s sales acumen.

Makes me think I should go into writing books about self-publishing. However, on the whole, I think I’d rather just be a spiritual adviser to the rich and unfulfilled. I will call myself “Brother Mysterioso,” and charge rich idjits $1,112 an hour to channel the spirit of Rip Taylor.


The Write Month to Increase Word Count

In general, I’m not a huge fan of November. The last vestiges of summer are long gone, the tress are bare and here in Portland we can look forward to another eighteen months or so of continuous rain and gloom. (But on the bright side, it’s still better than Buffalo!) Also, there’s the downside of the Holiday Spirit being rammed down our throats like the force-feeding of a paté goose . Bah, humbug.

When I got the opportunity to join a Willamette Writers writing Cohort, I decided to take advantage of it and signed on. In a previous post, I mentioned that I had stumbled on a story that would be an excellent framework for a sequel to Fester, and had be vacillating on whether or not to pursue that, or continue on with a new novel MS with which I had been struggling. I decided to eat my vegetables before going after dessert, and that I would finish the current MS before starting on the Fester sequel. The Cohort seemed like a good way to provide the new story with some momentum.

The Cohort meets several times a week for support and “write-ins.” At the first check-in meeting, I felt a bit intimidated. A lot of the Willamette Writers seem a lot more put together and organized than I am. A couple had whiteboards with outlines of works in progress, plot points, notes etc. (I typically don’t write that way: I just kinda wind up the characters and see what they do, then write it down.) There was also talk of a writing tool called Scrivener which seemed interesting, but since I have an actual legit copy of MS Word, I figured I’d just stick with that.

Immediately on the heels of the Scrivener discussion, a couple of folks started talking about what sounded like “Nano Rhyme-O,” which I figured was some sort of lightweight writing app for poets. Actually, it was shorthand for National Novel Writing Month; i.e. NaNoWriMo, which happens every November.

NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging people to write. The primary goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (or the equivalent beginning of a novel) during the course of November. You “win” NanNoWriMo by reaching this goal; it’s on the honor system – the primary reward is the satisfaction of cranking out a lot of words in a short amount of time. I think you may also get a pumpkin sticker.

To achieve 50,000 words in a 30-day period requires writing an average of 1,667 words per day – no mean feat, especially for someone who is A) employed full-time, and B) fundamentally lazy, like me. I decided to shoot for a more reasonable goal of 500 words a day, which I could pull off in a reasonably focused hour of writing. Unfortunately, I blew that goal on the second day of the month, due to a math error (I prematurely carried the 1). Nonetheless, I’m plugging away and getting the word count up. I’d actually like to be done with the current project this time next year, and take an honest whack at the 2022 NaNoWriMo with the Fester sequel. Ersten dingen zuerst, as the Germans say. So pleases excuse me, I have some storytelling to do.


Unlikely Inspiration

George C. Flavel House in Astoria, OR

Sometimes, inspiration for a story can come from unexpected places. This happened to me last weekend. In my case, the inspiration was a “welcome” binder in a rental property.

I am a compulsive reader and all-around nerd, so I always read the guest book whenever we check into a hotel room or whatnot. I want to see the local map, find out what good bars and restaurants are nearby, and know the best way to make a speedy exit if necessary.

When we checked into a 2-bedroom rental for a long weekend in Astoria, Oregon, I immediately thumbed through the binder that had been left on the kitchen table. Tucked in the back pocket of the binder was a number of newspaper pages from the Daily Astorian from 2012. I expected a review of the place we were staying (the “Painted Lady”), or a rehash of a long-past local festival. The first page I saw carried the banner headline “Mary Louise Flavel found.” This piqued my interest right away – who was Mary Louise Flavel and why were people looking for her? As I continued to read through the newspaper articles, it soon became evident as to why, and I soon became amazed at the story that led up to Mary Louise’s discovery.

First, a bit about Astoria. Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria was the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The town was founded in 1811, by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company as a fortress trading post. Given the strategic location as the Pacific connection to one of the continent’s main inland waterways, it soon began to thrive.

Captain George E. Flavel was one of the first licensed sea pilots in Oregon. As the only bar pilot at the mouth of the Columbia, he had a virtual monopoly on sea traffic moving in and out of the river. He charged accordingly, and one contemporary editorial described him as “the bloodsucker at the mouth of the river.”

The Flavel family fortune grew, as Captain George expanded into shipping, banking, coal, commercial real estate and other business ventures. The fortunes of the town grew with the fortunes of the Flavel family. Captain George built a fine house in the Queen Anne style a few blocks from the waterfront. The family eventually donated it to the county historical society, and it is operated as a museum today.

George E. Flavel House, now a museum in Astoria, OR

Flavel’s son, George C., also became a bar pilot, and built himself a grand house a few blocks away from his father’s. After the original house was donated, George C.’s became the family seat.

As I continued to read about the fate of the house and the Flavels that lived there, I was amazed. It was an incredible story of the decline and fall of a prominent family, and a town who turned on them. I read through the newspaper articles twice, then grabbed a notebook and filled four and a half pages with notes. The next day, we went to the Flavel House Museum, and I picked up a book in the gift shop that offered some more details on the rise and fall of the Flavel family.

That evening, as I was watching the ships laying at anchor in the river, I had an epiphany: “Astoria is Fester.” Even the geography is similar (although the Columbia is much wider than the Black River flowing through Fester). With that realization, I began plotting how to fit the story of the Flavels into the context of Fester. I grabbed my notebook again, and soon had the outline for about 75% of the story that may serve as a sequel to Fester.

Which leaves me with a nice conundrum: should I pursue this new inspiration, or should I continue with the story on which I had been working, a story about stand-up comedians, tentatively titled Laughingstock? It’s a nice problem to have, for a writer.

At this point, I’m only a chapter or two away from finishing the equivalent of Act 1 from Laughingstock, so I owe it to the story to get at least that far. Then I’ll take a stab at the Fester followup. We’ll see what inspires after that.

Let Me Tell You A Story

I’ve been preparing Fester for publication for what seems like several ice ages at this point. Even though the deadline is bearing down, it still doesn’t seem real. Right now, I am just reading and re-reading the manuscript, looking for typos and opportunities to polish up the story a little bit more.

This is daunting. I’ve been working on this story of and on for nearly thirteen years now. I’m pretty damn familiar with it at this point. Yet I’ve once again printed out the latest MS, and am preparing to review it yet again.

As I go through the oh-so-familiar chapters yet again, there are some I like reading, even for the umpteenth time, and some that are, at best, meh. Yet overall, the story holds up in my not so humble or unbiased opinion. I think it’s pretty good, fairly coherent, and very funny. I should be proud, for I feel I have written a good book. (That’s not to say that Jackrabbit was not a good book, but it wasn’t my story. It was John Dillinger’s; I just retold it and put a little twist at the end.)

However, while I was getting enthused about getting Fester to print, I ran across two statistics that totally harshed my mellow. The first was the total royalties I had earned since Jackrabbit was published in 2019. I won’t go into detail, because it’s damn embarrassing, but let’s just say it’s in the low three figures. A rough calculation indicates that I’ve earned enough selling books to cover slightly less than 5% of the out-of-pocket expenses involved in publishing: paying the cover artist, paying the editors, buying ISBN numbers, etc. I’ve recouped about one-twentieth of that; as for the hundreds if not thousands of hours spent writing and preparing the books for publication – bupkes, bubelah!

No matter. I didn’t get into this for the money. If I wanted to make money selling books, I would have opened a book store. At least that’s what I tell myself. The real object of the exercise is to tell a story – to entertain, and have the reader transported from their mundane issues and concerns to a world where they can be forgotten for a while. Noble AF, am I correct?

Then I ran into the second of the mellow-harshing statistics: that only about 25% of friends and family members who buy your book will actually read the thing. For me, this is a king-hell bummer, as friends and family members comprise the bulk of my audience. I guess the thought is that if they buy the book, that’s good enough. Well, it’s better than a poke in the nuts with a sharp stick, but it still kinda sucks. Because for me, this isn’t a moneymaking exercise, it’s a story-telling endeavor. I’d much rather you read a free copy than pay for one and leave it neglected on the nightstand.

What’s the point of this screed, then? I’m not sure–except it allows me to blow off a little steam. I’m not really too concerned about alienating my audience, since I’m fairly confident that very few people will read this, either. (And if you are reading this, I thank you sincerely.)

So, to sum up: some writers write to make money, but nearly all writers really want little more than to tell you a story. Indulge them.


Slouching Towards Publication

I’m one month and a few days away from the putative publication date for Fester. It’s exhilarating, exasperating and also a little frightening.

Exhilarating in the sense that I actually started this project in 2008, and it’s amazing to actually hold a proof copy of the book in my hot little hand. I put a lot of work into over the years, and then essentially shelved it to work on other projects. After the publication of Jackrabbit, I went on to a number of short(ish) stories, and another novel manuscript, which I will discuss in much detail at a later time.

Right now, I’m waiting for the second proof to arrive from Amazon KDP. It seems like the turnaround time is a little slower than when I was getting the proofs for Jackrabbit, but maybe that’s a reflection of my own angst and impatience. Because part of this process is actually damn uncomfortable for me.

For example, impatient though I may be to get the next proof in my hot little hand, the thought of re-reading this story again is a bit daunting. I’ve been working this tale over for the past thirteen years, and I’m looking forward to being done with it. Of course, the devil is in the details, and in my opinion, it’s using the fine-grade sand paper that really make the finished piece shine. So, once more into the breach, dear readers, once more.

Also exhilarating is the cover art, which is once again been handled by artiste par excellence Ken Huey. He’s been super patient and gracious with me during this process, and the results have been outstanding. So much so that I’m beginning to worry that the content of the novel. Not that anything that will attract the attention of potential readers or boost sales is anything to be shunned.

Think this looks good? It’s only a draft!

Which brings us to exasperating–which for me is promoting and selling the product. Marketing time – a time I always dread, because I am a terrible salesman. Hate it, hate it, hate it. But it’s got to be done, especially with a self-published novel that’s competing against seas of slush. I promised myself that I would begin promoting the novel well in advance of the publication date. Hasn’t really happened. I did engage with a marketing guy to put together a marketing plan, but due to a missed meeting (by me), that effort is going to have to be pushed out to or past the target publication date of June 30.

Maybe I can just push out the pub date, too – in order to stave off the frightening bit, which is to put out this important piece of myself for all the world to see. Because Fester is a much more personal book than Jackrabbit. The latter was essentially a real-world story that I was just retelling – and embellishing, especially towards the end. Fester, however, is all mine, and if someone doesn’t like this or that plot point, I can’t fob it off to historical accuracy. I gotta own it.

It seems that social media has given license to a fair amount of cruelty, especially when it comes to assessing the works of others. Kids these days, with their hair and their YouTube comments! On the other hand, was dead-nuts on when he said “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’d rather have a bad review than none at all. And that’s a difficult enough task, given how troublesome it was to get folks to review Powwows.

Which brings us full-circle (OK, half-circle) back to marketing and sales. This indicates to me that I really ought to wrap this screed up and get on to figuring our how to sell this sumbitch, at least until that proof shows up.


The Editorial Ennui

The good news is that Powwows is now slouching towards publication; the bad news is that I’m stuck in editorial perdition. Actually, as far as authorial mental states go, there are worse ones to be in. Writer’s block, for example.

The editing process is one that isn’t very glamorous, but oh so important. I’m in the process of editing two pieces of writing right now. My first mistake was thinking that once I’d paid a professional editor to edit the MS, that I’d pretty much be done with editing the story. Nope, not really–the editor has pretty much cleared up the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. I usually get a lot of feedback about timeline issues and historical accuracy (“that movie you’re quoting wasn’t released until two years after this story takes place”). Important stuff for sure, because as an author, there is a whole lot of the forest I can’t see due to my face being firmly planted on the treebark.

So I edit the editor’s edits, then I edit my own edits of the editor’s edits. On Saturday, I find myself changing back the things I changed on Friday. It can seem circular and pointless sometimes, and I frequently just want the whole damn thing to be over with, because I have a whole lotta other story ideas that are begging to be put down on paper. Why should I keep polishing and polishing and polishing what I already have.

Well, the answer to that actually starts to emerge after the sixth or seventh go-round. From the regular cycle of incremental editorial change, something really starts to shine out. That diamond-in-the-rough that began as a very basic idea however many yonks ago, is actually starting to shine! I find myself thinking things like, “Wow–this is kinda good! Did I actually write this?”

Yes. Yes, I did.


I wrote this, too – and you can still buy it!

Goin’ Back to Fester

Downtown York, Pennsylvania, sometime in the past

Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. Well, what if you don’t want to? That’s something I’ve been grappling with lately, as I labor to get two “new” stories out the door. The quotation marks are because the stories aren’t new; they comprise my first “serious” effort at writing a story from my own little twisted imagination.

It grew from a creative writing class and a sense of place. (As an architect, I was trained to say deep-sounding but vague phrases like “sense of place.”) What I really wanted to do was create a literary locale. I like to say it was inspired by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but that’s just so much pseudo-intellectual horseshit. I haven’t read Faulkner since high school, if that. Truth be known, it was Stephen King’s fictional towns of Castle Rock and Derry that provided the inspiration.

Thus Fester was born. Fester is located in fictional Kerry County, in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains in south-central Pennsylvania. It is a pastiche of the odd aspects of many of the places I’ve lived: Portland, Tucson, and Raleigh, with a dash of Albuquerque and Eugene. Of course, it draws most on where I was born and raised: York, Pennsylvania. I will not go into a detailed history of York here. Suffice it to say that it has a colorful history, from its claim to being the first capital of the United States, to a world-famous witchcraft murder.

I have not been back to York since 1996. I imagine that it has changed a lot since then – at least on the surface. Underneath, however – the people and the forces of history that made it such an interesting place to grow up are certainly still in effect. I’m sure it would be weird to go back there now.

It was certainly weird to revisit Fester. I wrote it from 2008 to 2014, then moved onto other things, such as Jackrabbit and a number of short stories. Somewhere after publishing Jackrabbit, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to go ahead and publish Fester, figuring that would have to be at least as successful as Jackrabbit. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided to resurrect a story line excised from the monster first draft, and use it as a promo/teaser for the main novel.

I had both manuscripts edited, and now I am reviewing the edits to prepare for the typesetting and proofreading and all the other fun, wonky book stuff that needs to be done before releasing a book on an unsuspecting world. I am now going back to characters and situations that I hadn’t thought of in years.

It’s really quite strange, in many ways – not unlike my last visit back to York. Unlike York, I know that the MS hasn’t changed, but I sure have. I’d like t o think that I’ve grown a bit as a writer (although perhaps not as much as I would have like to). There is a simultaneous feeling of strangeness and familiarity that brings once-mundane details into sharp relief. It can be unsettling for a writer, and I’ve really had to stifle the urge to re-write huge chunks of the story.

Still and all, it’s been fun to walk back into the strange little town of Fester, and revisit the characters who sprung up there. Pretty soon, you’ll get to do the same. POWWOWS, a novella that will be available in eBook format only, is slated to be released on March 31. I’m gunning for a Jun 30 release date for Fester. I’ll be providing more updates here soon.

In the meantime, Jackrabbit is still available through Amazon: