This Week in Self-Publishing: What I Did and What it Got Me

Money earned (total): $7,392.11

Money spent (total): $3,549.16

Book sales (last month): $350.40

Money spent (this week): $52.85 (book mailings and a bookstore booking fee)

Sales in the past seven days:

Three ebooks, 21 paperbacks. This is the opposite of what I expected. I’m delighted that you are all buying paperbacks! Libraries, too; I keep getting messages from people who have found (or requested) my paperback in their library, and I recently learned that the Multnomah County Library in Portland is stocking my book, which touches my heart because that was my very first library as a child.

If you want to buy The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000here’s a link to multiple retailers. (Also IndieBound.)

Promotional activities I’ve undertaken in the past seven days:

I looked through a 52-page database of book bloggers as well as lengthy lists of book Instagrammers and book Tumblrers to identify people who were:

  1. still actively blogging
  2. interested in literary fiction
  3. accepting review requests

About four hours of research yielded ten promising contacts, and of those ten people, I got two responses—which is not the number I was hoping for, but I’m still excited that two people want to read and review my book. ❤

I also contacted four Portland bookstores about readings, and got one yes, which is exactly the number I was hoping for. Thanks to cartoonist Lucy Bellwood for tipping me off to the best indie bookstores in town, and I’ll share more details about the event when it’s ready to go public.

BTW, Lucy Bellwood had me on her podcast last month to discuss self-publishing, and if you haven’t gotten a chance to hear the episode, it’s great:

But back to “what I did this week.” I also reached out to two major media sources: the NPR Books Tumblr, which invites people to email book review requests—and remember, my third chapter is titled “Jack plays the NPR game in Kansas”—and This American Life, which just announced a call for pitches that is relevant to my novel.

I’ve been in the freelance business for long enough to know that this is all a numbers game and that many of the numbers will be rejections, but if you get enough acceptances you start to build momentum/reputation/audience and eventually you become a Senior Editor and a columnist and all the other things I currently am.

Of course, that process took me about three years, and the shelf-life of a debut novel is more like three months.

I also started thinking about whether I needed to hire a publicist. First to see if there’s anything else we should be doing for Biographies Vol. 1 before the newness wears off, and then to see what we could do for Biographies Vol. 2.

The thing is that I have a lot of factors that could be considered “good hooks:” I funded my advance through Patreon, I’m writing this Millennial novel that goes all the way through to 2016, I’ve been tracking the financial process online, um… maybe I only have three good hooks. (Also a good book, which should count for something.)

And working with someone who knows a little more about publicity than I do—because I know about pitching editors, which is related but not quite the same thing—might help Vol. 2, which will by default help Vol. 1.

Plus I’ll have another “good hook” if I tell the story of how I tried to publicize my first volume myself and then hired a publicist for the second go and did way better. That’s the kind of article that self-pub blogs and industry sites would love.

YES I KNOW I AM SOUNDING LIKE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST SLYTHERIN. I have to be strategic about this, because… how else does one figure out what to do?

There’s also this interesting angle that I just realized: I’m submitting Vol. 1 to a pile of awards—the IPPY and Ben Franklin awards just opened submissions, and those are huge indie deals, so I’m going to add them to my list—and these awards all announce in June.

One month after Vol. 2 is scheduled to release.

So this is where having a publicist could be helpful. Should I hold Vol. 2 until July or even August, with the idea that winning an award on Vol. 1 might give it another promo opportunity that we should fully take advantage of before doing another book launch? Or should I publish Vol. 2 exactly one year after Vol. 1 as planned, so all the people who buy Vol. 1 after it (theoretically) wins an award will be able to buy Vol. 2 immediately?

Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that a lot of you want Vol. 2 IMMEDIATELY.

Hiring a publicist will probably destroy any hope I had of making a profit on Vol. 1, but if you look at this like simultaneously playing the long game and the short game, i.e. “building my long-term career as an author” while also “getting as much coverage for these two books, while they’re still new, as I can,” it makes sense.

Or I could keep figuring out how to do all of this myself. I’m really enjoying learning about publicity, but I don’t know if I want to waste my inexperience on what I know is a really good novel, because who knows if I’ll ever be able to write something like that again. (I’ll never do another Millennial coming-of-age story set in the immediate past, that’s for sure.)

Thoughts are, as always, welcomed. ❤


This Week in Self-Publishing: What Else Should I Be Doing Right Now?

Money earned (total): $7,392.11

Money spent (total): $3,496.31

Book sales (last month): $350.40

Money spent (this week): $0

First: my Goodreads Giveaway is live, and you can enter to win one of five signed copies of The Biographies of Ordinary People. (The entry period ends on Monday, June 26.)

794 people have entered the giveaway as of this writing, which I find kind of astounding. I mean, some of them have to be bots, right? And some of them probably enter every giveaway. But many of them might actually be interested in my book, which is… you know, everything that’s happened so far, from the book launch at Phinney Books to the reviews people have left on Amazon and Goodreads to the chance to meet the Pronoun team in New York, has been amazing. Now all of these people are signing up to win a free copy of my book, when I thought maybe 100 people might do it.

Everything is going well. So what else should I be doing right now?

When I say that “everything is going well,” I don’t mean that I’m getting every opportunity I go after. I’ve sent my book to a few reviewers who haven’t responded. I couldn’t get a reading set up in NYC, and I’m still working on getting one set up in Portland. (Yes, I asked Powell’s, and yes, they turned me down.)

But then I see the feedback from people who have read the book, the reviews and the Facebook comments, and I can only think “everything is going well.” Because people are connecting with the book, and enjoying it, and engaging critically with it. They’re understanding what I set out to write; there’s no disconnect between what I hoped to do with this book and what readers are experiencing when they read it.

Which, of course, makes me want to get the book in front of as many readers as possible. (Especially readers in my target audience, which is essentially “Millennials who grew up loving Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and wished they could be part of that kind of story.”)

I’ve sold 37 ebooks and 35 paperbacks so far this month, and I’m still getting near-daily sales but they’ve started to slow down just slightly, which means I need another way to get my book out there, drop its name in a place where readers might read it.

And I’m making near-daily attempts. This week I submitted Biographies to the Seattle Book Review (different from the Seattle Review of Books) and to Self-E; even though I already have library distribution through OverDrive and Bibliotheca, requesting additional library distribution through Self-E means that Library Journal will consider my book for review and my book will automatically be submitted to the Self-E State Collection so libraries in Washington State will have access to it.

I’m also continuing to pitch book bloggers and reviewers, and I’m trying to figure out how far to go with this; I’ve discovered that you can in fact just send your book to Fresh Air or to The New York Times, although what they do with it after it arrives is up to them. And sure, you can say “well, is your book good enough,” and then I can counter with a quote from one of my readers:

I also loved this novel because I identified so strongly with Meredith—I’m amazed someone else can understand and articulate how she lives in her own head and observes/analyzes/self-edits like I did as a child (and still do).

I’ve been saying from the very beginning that I know my book is good. It’s also different enough from other books, in terms of topic/scope/style—not to mention the self-pub aspect and the “I funded it through Patreon” aspect—that it could have the opportunity to stand out, if I could figure out how to help make it stand out.

(Occasionally I think about hiring a publicist, though it might be a little late in the game for that.)

I only have a few months left to really focus on promoting Biographies Vol. 1; in September, I’ll need to fully focus on revising Biographies Vol. 2. (Which, by the way, EVERY REVIEWER has said they want to read.) My mind is already ahead of me, jumping back into the characters’ worlds, generating ideas right before I fall asleep that turn into scribbled notes that I have to decipher in the morning.

But there are a whole list of things I still want to do with Vol. 1. For starters: people keep asking if my book is in bookstores (and keep making special trips to Phinney Books just to buy it from an indie bookstore, which I love), so I could be working harder on bookstore distribution.

I could also be working harder on booking events. My Seattle readers who missed the Phinney Books event want me to do another reading. I’ve talked to a few friends about readings in Los Angeles and Juneau but haven’t moved forward on either of those.

There is also the faintest possibility of an audiobook, which I know people want, but which will take more time than I have to give right now.

Honestly, the best way to make all of those things happen would be to get more sales/more reviews/more attention, the kind of attention that will force my hand and say “the best thing you can do with your time is cut back on your freelance work and get that audiobook done.” And I can ask for reviews without leaving the apartment, except in the cases where the reviewers require a mailed paperback copy.

So I guess I’ll keep pitching reviewers and trying to do online promotion, while squeezing in-person events when and where I can.

Or… what else should I be doing right now? Suggestions are always welcome. ❤

This Week in Self-Publishing: Ways You Can Get My Book for Free

Money earned (total): $7,392.11

Money spent (total): $3,496.31

Book sales (last month): $350.40

Money spent (this week): $0

So I’m still getting emails every morning tallying up the previous 24 hours’ book sales, which means… people are still buying the book. At a pretty consistent rate.

Which surprises me. I think I thought sales would drop off after the first week, but here we are in Week 4 and people are still buying the book and writing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. That’s really good news, and I want to thank you all—AGAIN—for reading and supporting my book. ❤

And, on the subject of Goodreads…

I’m doing a Goodreads Giveaway next week. From Monday, June 19 through Monday, June 26, you can put your name in the Goodreads hopper to potentially win one of five signed copies of The Biographies of Ordinary People.

I don’t have a direct link to the Goodreads Giveaway yet, but if you tag my book as “want to read” on Goodreads, you should get a notification when the giveaway goes live. (Or so I’ve heard. I haven’t ever done this before.)

But entering the Goodreads Giveaway isn’t the only way you can read Biographies for free. Pronoun just announced that it was adding OverDrive and Bibliotheca distribution, which means that libraries will be able to order my book through both OverDrive and Bibliotheca’s catalogs.

(My book made it onto Bibliotheca’s catalog right away; still waiting for the confirmation that I’m on OverDrive.)

This makes it very easy for you to fill out one of those book request forms on your library’s website, asking them to add my ebook to your library. If you’d like more info about that process, I just wrote a post about it for Pronoun’s The Verbs!

(You can also request the paperback; it’s not available through OverDrive or Bibliotheca because those are ebook services, but it is available through Ingram Book Group.)

Last big news: I got to visit Pronoun’s office yesterday! It was so cool to get to meet all the people I’d been emailing for the past few months. If you are reading this post for self-publishing advice, I would definitely advise working with Pronoun to get your book published.

And yes, happy to answer any questions you have about that in the comments. ❤

This Week in Self-Publishing: Sponsorships and Ads!

Money earned (total): $7,392.11

Money spent (total): $3,496.31

Book sales (last month): $350.40

Money spent (this week): $50.21 (the cost of mailing paperbacks to be considered for awards)

This week, The Biographies of Ordinary People sponsored the Seattle Review of Books. This sponsorship works just like any other sponsorship; I essentially bought an ad on the site, but since I was a sponsor and not just a banner-adder, they also said some lovely things about me:

Sponsor Nicole Dieker is a wonder. You may have seen her reading around town, or seen her work as editor of The Billfold, or writing on Lifehackerthe Write Life, and Spark Notes.

She’s also just published her debut novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People, and she’s allowed us to run the full first chapter on our Sponsor’s page for you to check out. We think you’re gonna love it.

I also love the Seattle Review of Books and would give them financial support even without the ad space. ❤

Last week a commenter warned me against paying to get my book promoted without knowing whether I’d get any return on my investment; all this submitting for ads and reviews and awards costs money, after all. Why am I not keeping every penny of my profit, instead of giving it to people who might profit off me?

I mean, I totally get it. There are plenty of ways to take a self-published writer’s cash, and you have to pay attention to money out vs. money in. But “keeping all my profits” doesn’t make sense either. Profit is linked to visibility and promotion, whether it’s buying a sponsorship or winning an award—and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this whole process, it’s that visibility costs money.

I used to think that people got their books under those “new and noteworthy” sidebars, for example, because they were new and noteworthyI have since learned that those sidebars are ads, and the space in them paid for. Sometimes you only get invited to buy ad space if your book is in fact noteworthy, but you still have to pay for the recognition.

I have also turned down a handful of ad offers. Including some that were very hard to turn down, because I did want my book to be in that publication and I loved the nice things the person selling the ad was saying about my writing, but I couldn’t afford it. (Or I “chose not to afford it based on my other financial priorities,” which is probably a truer statement.)

Am I losing out on potential sales because I’m not taking advantage of all those new-and-noteworthy sidebars? Well, let’s see.

This week, Biographies was featured in both the Seattle Review of Books and the New York Review of Books’ Independent Press Listing. Both were paid placements, costing $412.80 total. (The NYRB ad actually runs for three weeks, and was included in NYRB copies distributed at Book Expo.)

This week, I sold 15 ebooks and 7 paperbacks, earning $63.38 total.

So… I didn’t earn back the cost of the ads, and I have no real way of knowing whether the people who bought my books did so because of the ads.

Which means I don’t feel too badly about not buying ad space with everyone who told me I was new and noteworthy.

But what do I have left to do, in terms of marketing and publicity? How much more work and money am I going to put into promoting Volume 1before I start putting all of my efforts into revising Volume 2?

Here’s my short answer.

  1. I have a handful of reviewers I still want to reach out to, which means I might spend a little more money mailing paperbacks to people.
  2. I want to do a few more readings. I did Seattle in May and I’ll be reading in Missoula in August, and I’d like to do Portland in July. I’ve also talked to people about potentially setting up readings in Juneau, Los Angeles, and Seattle (again, since y’all asked), and all I need to do is figure out when.
  3. I need to get myself back on the convention circuit and start applying to be a panelist at PNW writing conventions. This would be one of those deals where you do a panel or teach a workshop, and then you get to have a stack of your books on a table for people to buy. I deliberately avoided this year’s round of conventions because I knew I would be spending a lot of money getting Volume 1 published and because I didn’t really have any results to share; by this time next year Volume 2 will be out and I’ll have a lot to say about self-publishing, writing a series, Patreon, Pronoun, promotion, budgeting, stamina…
  4. I’m going to be teaching more writing courses at Hugo House, which isn’t exactly a way to SELL MY BOOK $$$ but I can certainly mention it at the end of every class.

You’ll notice that most of the items on this list are things I do myself vs. things I hope other people will do for me. I would love for more people to interview me or review my book—I’m already loving the reviews I’m getting on Amazon and Goodreads—but I can’t base my promotional strategy on hoping that will happen.

So yeah, I’m self-promoting as much as self-publishing. We’ll see how it goes.

This Week in Self-Publishing: Applying for Awards

Money earned (total): $7,392.11

Money spent (total): $3,446.30

Money earned (this week): $350.40

Money spent (this week): $388.00

It’s the beginning of June, so I can give you a sales update:

In May, I sold 85 ebooks and earned $224.91; I also sold 47 paperbacks and earned $125.49. Add in the 11 paperbacks I sold during the pre-order period in April, and that means I’ve sold 143 books total and earned $379.77.

I won’t see any of these earnings for a while; it takes two months for payments to reach my bank account. But! Sales have been fairly consistent since the launch—I’m selling about five books a day—and even though I know that will drop off eventually, I have a few more promotional events that’ll take place over the next few months that should keep at least some of the momentum going.

And, on the subject of book promotion… this week I submitted The Biographies of Ordinary People to be considered for three awards: the Foreword Indie Award, the BookLife Prize, and the Pulitzer.

We’ll start with the Foreword Indie Award, because it was the easiest of the three; since I had already registered my book with Foreword so I could get my (five-star) Foreword Clarion Review, all I had to do was log into my account and click the button that indicated I also wanted to submit my book to the Foreword Indies.

The Foreword Indies grant awards in multiple categories, but you have to pay for each category in which you submit—so if I had wanted to give Biographies the opportunity to be considered for an award in General Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Literary Fiction, I would have had to pay three times.

I elected to pay just once, and to submit in Literary Fiction. Even though my book is technically a historical novel, it wouldn’t make sense to throw it up against, like, Civil War books or whatever. (One could make the argument that Biographies also takes place during wartime—especially the second volume—but the past 30 years have been weird, in terms of the way our country has culturally experienced “being at war.” It barely affected the Gruber family at all.)

I finished my application, paid $79, and sent Foreword both my ebook and two copies of my print book. I do not believe there is any prize money if I win. Just, you know, the honor. But the reviewers really liked my book, so I’ll see if they like it enough to award it.

The BookLife Prize does come with money; $5,000 to a single winner. It also comes with the reputation of the Publishers Weekly brand. The application was slightly more time-consuming than the Foreword application simply because they wanted a PDF version of my book, which meant I had to format one and make sure it looked professional and everything.

I paid BookLife $99 and sent over the PDF. They’re supposed to get back to me in five weeks with a Critic’s Report evaluating my novel, and—I assume—letting me know if it’s good enough to advance to the next level of the competition.

And then I submitted Biographies for a Pulitzer Prize.

I know that this might be seen as a bit of a stretch, but I’m going to quote Michael Cunningham here:

A proper respect for the mysterious aspects of fiction is encouraged by the Pulitzer’s guidelines, which are gratifyingly loose. The winning book, be it a novel or short-story collection, must have been written by an American, and should, ideally, be in some way about American life.

That’s it.

When we first spoke (we all live in different cities, and met in person only once), in June of 2011, Maureen, Susan, and I made a few fundamental agreements that had, surely, been made by other juries in the past. We would not favor writers for their obscurity (who doesn’t love an undiscovered genius?), or penalize them for their exalted reputations. We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper.

Understanding that Cunningham was describing what happened the year the Pulitzer didn’t go to a single work of fiction, we can still look at this description as… well, it sounds like my book. American life, grand (flawed?) effort, trying to accomplish more than we generally expect books to do.

So of course I’m going to submit. Especially because it only costs $50 and they accept self-published books.

The Pulitzer submission required both a photo and a bio, and I was like “I can’t send them my out-of-date avatar where I’m wearing a gray T-shirt and mugging for the camera,” especially not if that’s going to be my official photo to be used in Pulitzer press materials, so I scrolled through my photo roll and decided to use one of the photos that I had taken on my 35th birthday because Biographies begins on Rosemary Gruber’s 35th birthday and ends on Meredith Gruber’s 35th birthday and each section has 35 chapters and it seemed like an auspicious choice.

Also the sweater I’m wearing in that photo fits with my book cover, in terms of color schemes and general aesthetic. Not like I should be even commenting on that kind of thing, because I am very sure the one thing Pulitzer Prize winners never do is write explanations of the selfies they chose to go with their application form, they probably have real photographers take their pictures and not, like, an iPhone timer.

But I did it. I submitted the application, and on Monday, I’ll send the Pulitzer Prize Office four copies of The Biographies of Ordinary People, and I believe that means they’ll go straight to the Pulitzer jury—which is to say, someone like Michael Cunningham might read my book.

Which, as I wrote in The Awl last week, is worth the $50.

(Also, the Pulitzer pays $15,000 but that is almost beside the point.)