reporting from the GMU self-publishing panel

I went to George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival, “Self-Publishing Panel” this weekend. The panelists were: Karen Cantwell, Matthew Iden, Scott Nicholson, Michael Sullivan, and moderator, Robin Sullivan. I took some notes and I’ll report everything I remember here.

First off, they were quick to say that the whole “self-publishers only sell 500 copies” thing is “blatently untrue.” I imagine they mean if you’re *serious* about self-publishing. And by *serious* I mean putting in the writing and the marketing time. Writing more than one book. Getting professional services for your book. Because I know there are people out there all the time who just toss a book out on Amazon and watch it sell 3 copies and flop. After having put a book out there myself and seeing my book fall into the abyss of drek, watching how I burned through my tiny little audience in a matter of weeks, and asking myself, “Okay, now what?” I can see how some authors could sell a few dozen copies and decide it’s just not working and give up. (Not that that’s what I plan to do, but just saying, it would be easy to do.)

But they seemed confident this was a doable and promising thing. That successes were not flukes. They’re not talking about successes like John Locke and Amanda Hocking – yes, those ones are flukes. But they were talking about the rise of the mid-list self-published author. Not the people selling millions of copies, not the breakout smash hits, but all the regular guys and gals who are making real (livable) money from their writing.

Half of the conversation was talk of how to actually self-publish, which was a bit too basic for my needs, but there were many absolute newbies in the crowd who needed information on how to start. But the other half of the conversation was dominated by folks, like myself, who have already put books out there and were wondering how to do it better. How to reach an audience? How to expand an audience? How to price? How to get on lists?

I’m going to skip the newbie stuff, because to be honest, there’s enough of that info out there already. If you’re interested in a summary of links, Matthew Iden also wrote up a summary here where he includes a lot of those more introductory self-publishing links, so check that out too!

on pricing:

The days of getting noticed by freebie and 99c books is largely over. That market is SO saturated that like I suspected, people taking the free and 99c books are often not even finding the time to read them all. People read the books they’ve paid more for – the ones they had to consider buying and finally knew they would enjoy. (An exception to this was said to be the mystery genre, in which readers supposedly read faster and go through more books – in this case, it could be that readers ARE finding time to read all those books.) But in general, putting your price down very low may give you a sales boost, which is still something worth trying in its own right, but it may not get you actual readers.

– Lower your price to gain ranking, then *just* when you’ve passed your peak, raise it back up to your normal list price. Yes, your ranking will drop quicker that way, but you’ll also be making some really great money while it’s still on the lists. For a full-length ebook, $2.99-4.99 was considered a good standard price. One panelistpreferred$4.99-6.99 for his books. (Granted, at his level of success, he can probably command $7 for an ebook.) The general idea was that people will indeed make assumptions of a book that’s priced too low, and that if we want to set a standard of quality, price a bit higher.

– Just a bit higher. Nobody thought we should price any higher than $7.

– You’ll also be reaching different sets of readers in each price range. Readers who buy and read 99c ebooks will not usually be the same readers browsing the $3.99 ebooks. Amazon will also link your book according to price range. If you list at $3.99, you’ll be cross-marketed with other $3.99 ebooks, largely. This is a good thing because you’ll be showcased to readers who are looking specifically for books, like yours, in that price range.

– Amazon lists and algorithms are everything! You want to get on bestseller lists, if not the main one, thensub-genrelists. Once you pass 1000 on one of the lists, you’ll begin to be noticed by the Amazon bots and put into the cross-marketing and email blasts.

– Until then, it’s anybody’s guess, lol!

Marketing:

– I liked to hear that book bloggers are indeed worthwhile because I love book bloggers myself! Though they agreed that it is hard to go through queries to get those reviews, and the results are slow-going. They all agreed that you will not see immediate spikes from book bloggers when they post about your book, but also that isn’t what matters. What bloggers give you is credibility and word of mouth marketing from a trusted source. This is a SLOW build, and you have to be patient. They all agreed it was worth doing, but not at the expense of writing your next book.

– Until you have at least 3 books out, you should spend 90% of your time writing the next book. 10% on marketing the ones you have out. Once you have 4-5 books out, you can focus a bit more on marketing, and it will be an easier job then.

– The best thing you can do in the beginning: write more books!

Overhead:

– The most important things to spend money on – editing and cover. The least important – print books and any formatting you can do yourself.

– Do not pay an author services company to arrange these things for you. You can always find better services and better prices on your own.

– Never, never, never pay for reviews. You don’t need to, and those who charge for them (whether big or small) are just taking advantage of you.

Literary Fiction:

This was my question for the panel (which I so bravely raised my hand and asked out loud, terrifying as that was, lol!), about literary fiction and credibility. We all know that self-publishing comes with a history of stigma, and the literary fiction genre is one of the few that has yet to completely lose that stigma. Along with historical fiction, literary fiction is still the hardest sell in self-publishing. It’s the genre most stuck in traditional publishing still, with all those big names and big awards and big egos. Because of this, many of the review venues and awards for literary fiction are still closed to self-publishers, and thus, so is much of the credibility that literary fiction thrives on.

The advice given to me (though I’m not sure the part of my question about “not wanting a traditional publisher EVER” was understood) was to just be persistent. I may be selling one copy at a time, but persistence is key here. Book bloggers can give me trustworthy reviews and credibility, and there are some smaller awards and prizes open for self-published literary fiction.

They told me that after I’ve sold 5000 copies or so, I could likely take my success and snag an agent or publisher with that. (Which, like I mentioned, I do not want.) And they also noted that with that amount of success on my own, I may decide that I want to stay it alone anyway. (Agreed.) They mentioned that some authors, like Terri Giuliano Long (whom I think they were talking about but they couldn’t remember her name at the time), are selling literary fiction and getting noticed. Okay, well, maybe she’s pretty much the only one so far, lol!

They also did mention that literary fiction will likely jump on the self-publishing bandwagon eventually anyway. Everything is still changing very fast, and some genres are just slow to take hold. It doesn’t mean they won’t eventually.

I think the best course forward for me is what I’ve planned to do anyway. Being that my books are sort of cross-genre (literary and women’s fiction), I’m just going to piggy-back off the women’s fiction genre until someone stops and says, “Oh hey, they’re kind of literary too, don’t you think?” Will that ever happen? Maybe not. I don’t know why I care most of the time. My work is probably only about 15% literary, if at all. Perhaps I’ll always be thought of as just “women’s fiction” and I’m fine with that too, mostly.

I just wish they’d change the damn name of the genre, lol!

So that was that then. It was a very informative panel, and seeing as how we ran overtime and still had many questions go unanswered, I think it proves that there are a LOT of people out there very excited about self-publishing and the opportunities and freedoms it provides. Like they mentioned, one of the best things about self-publishing and the indie author community is the generosity of information and sharing. As a bunch, we really do love to raise each other up. It was wonderful to be in a room with all that positive energy!

ETA: just days after I posted this, news broke of literary fiction author Jon Clinch announcing that he would self-publish his next novel. Great news for self-published literary fiction!

6 thoughts on “reporting from the GMU self-publishing panel

  1. I’m glad you decided to go and that you found it helpful! It does seem like quite a new thing (or not a new thing but something that is becoming more popular than ever at the moment), so I can see how hearing from others who are a bit more experienced would be useful.

    I’m surprised to hear the price recommendation though, only because most self-pubbed books I’ve seen are not over $4.99. Wouldn’t raising the price by $2 make people more likely to pass them over? I can definitely see why pricing them very low gives the impression that it might not be a good read but pricing them higher than other e-books seems like it would have the same effect on sales. Is the hope that you can offset that with the right marketing?

    Or maybe I’m wrong about the average price for a self-pubbed book?

  2. You’re right about the average prices as they are, and sort of *were*. There’s a definite trend toward higher prices for self-published ebooks, and as publishing has been the past few years, things are changing very fast. So many of the community leaders are encouraging those authors of the very low-priced books to get their prices up. I noticed yesterday that Darcie Chan even raised her price from 99c to $2.99 for The Mill River Recluse, which is still a steal for a really good book.

    I’ve been shocked myself at how the free and 99c books just roll right off me now. I have SO many of them – more than I’ll ever be able to read – that unless it’s an author I know and already want, then it’s little advantage to me. Though I have found new authors that way, I’ll just as gladly pay $5 for a book I know I’ll read, rather than pay 99c on one I probably won’t.

    Amazon has also changed their algorithms to favor higher-priced books, so that’s making a difference now too, and 99c authors are not seeing the rankings and marketing they once did. And with Amazon’s royalty options, they’ve always encouraged us to price higher than $2.99 at least. So considering all angles, there’s really no advantage to pricing any lower than that anymore, and authors are starting to take note and change their prices.

    And I noticed this recently from Dean Wesley Smith that with a new ebook settlements in traditional publishing (which I haven’t been following as closely as I should), traditional publishers are likely to move their ebooks even MORE expensive (I mean, geeze, JK Rowling’s new one was $17!). They’re going to be pushing for $9.99 as “cheap” for an ebook with their normal prices at probably $12 or so, so if we want to *just* undercut them, we’ll be at around $5-7.

    It’s good though. It always made me cringe to see a full-length book going for 99c or whatever. I know everyone can do what they want – and they still will, of course – but the eventual goal in indie publishing is to make our product indistinguishable (or better) than traditional books, and that includes pricing too.

  3. This post is very helpful, thanks Laura : )

    I’ve published one book so far and seeing it not do well…has been incredibly discouraging.

    But, I appreciate the advice to be persistent and keep writing.

    Thanks again for this post!

  4. Paula, it is very, very hard. I am also finding that out firsthand at the moment, lol! But everything I’ve heard says to just keep writing and putting stuff out there – eventually something will make some noise, and then it’ll be easier.

  5. Good for you for asking that question about literary fiction and self-publishing! Literary fiction does seem to be the last bastion of genre where readers resist both ebooks and self-published manuscripts.

    Terri Long is a great example of someone who’s done well, and two others from the UK are Roz Morris and Orna Ross. So they’re out there, just few and far between — so far. Orna has started an organization called the Alliance of Independent Authors, which seems very literary-friendly.

    Best of luck to you!

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