Will Self-Published Authors Learn a Terrible Truth about their Readers? (Part 1)

My newest experiment

Self-published authors abound these days, even ones with New York Times Bestseller on their resumes.  Many are in for a surprise, both about what sells and…um…the honesty of some of their “readers.”    I’ll discuss the latter in Part 2.

In my own writing career–not to be confused with my career with the Department of Defense, which is more than a full-time job–I have been a poetry chapbook self-publisher (pre-internet era at age 19), a B.Dalton chain bookstore national bestseller under a pseudonym,  author at 3 major publishing houses, a tiny independent publisher of books that couldn’t find home in the bottom-line driven print market, a blogger for my own personal evolution, and a writer just for the sheer love of it whether anyone buys my work or not.  I’ve seen the publishing industry change in crazy ways as technology has changed and given birth to new distribution channels for writers, whether for money, fame, service, or just wanting to connect with others who share their visions.

What sells might surprise you

My most financially successful books to date are not the traditionally published novel that had a 100,000+ print run and a  great sell-through or the New York Times author’s novella that I indy-published.  Nope.  The first was  Book Promotion for the Shameless, which sold scads of copies as a freaking diskette in the 1999-2001 era. Yes, guess what?  Ebook publishing is nothing new!   This was one of my first 3 books as an indy publisher,  and I used the cutting edge technology of the era:

1.  a pre-print-on-demand  “print-to-need” printer at 200 books at a time (who caused a major problem for me when the digital file corrupted and omitted all punctuation in the print copes!)

2.  diskettes with cute little jewel cases and personally printed covers in the jewel case

3.  downloads in pdf, rtf, and doc format

In that era, I sold a few thousand print copies, almost no downloads because few people trusted Internet transactions then, and  tons of diskettes.  I came home from work everyday and filled orders at night with the help of my two little girls.  That book is long out of print now–even though it would probably sell a bazillion copies on kindle these days to the bazillion ebook authors out there who will never really know the old over-the-transom/beg-for-an-agent system of 20 years ago.  That said, I decided a decade ago to let that book go out of print and not put my focus on updating it or marketing to writers.  It was a choice of where I wanted to put my energy vs making a quick buck.

The thing that amuses me most about all those sales is that the book was an experiment.  For 100 days, I put out a daily article–an early blog, if you will– and then on a whim, I decided to throw the articles together into a book and just see what happened.

I guess I do best with experiments rather than following the traditional route.  My other all-time bestseller is a manuscript I bought as a work-for-hire as a part of an experiment.  I had a topic in mind that I couldn’t write myself but wanted more information about, so I hired someone to put it together for me and I published it in print and ebook formats under another name.  It took off very slowly but caught momentum a solid 18 months after its release.  It gets dreadful reviews, thanks to the subject matter, yet sold phenomenally well on my old website as pdf downloads, pre-kindle.  Sales are…skimpier…now, thanks to the multitude of pirating and sheer plagiarizing of the book over the last year.  However, before the pirates got it, it was earning enough to pay my daughters’ college expenses–and growing.

What doesn’t sell might surprise you

The worst-selling book I ever saw published is no longer in print, though I have broken it up and sold it in other formats since.  My first book through my indy publishing company, Reclaiming the Magic sold a whopping 200 copies, which meant I had 300 copies left over in my spare bedroom that I think I ended up donating to a prison.  The readership went far beyond the 200 copies, though.  I discovered years later that the book had been passed around and duplicated by buyers.  The book was tough to write and an absolute “mission” that was meant as a service to people going through a tough time.  The reviewers loved it and I received a surprising number of kudos for this book. Though I lost money on that venture, it’s still one of the most rewarding things I’ve written because of the feedback it received.  To date, I’ve had more people tell me that that one book turned their lives around than anything else I’ve ever written, with Give Your Life Direction being a close second.

And somewhere in between….

All my other works have been somewhere in between.  I’ve made more money off obscure word-of-mouth titles I’ve e-published on my website and on Amazon than on  novels that were distributed worldwide and translated into other languages by major publishers with plenty of marketing firepower.

I do know this about myself personally:  I love to experiment and I love to be creative.  I can “write for the market” as long as I can be creative about how I do it and what I write.  My specialty in my DoD career is doing things differently, experimenting, trying new things.  Life works best for me that way.  And so it does with my writing career as well.  I can’t fit within the typical boxes.  Experimentation is where the spark is for me, even with experiments that don’t work because I learn from those.  Being delightfully surprised by my results is a wonderful truth about my audience.

But what of that terrible truth I mentioned about readers?  I’ll dish in Part 2.