Will Self-Published Authors Learn a Terrible Truth about their Readers? (Part 2)

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

In Part 1, I told you about my most and least successful books, whether traditionally published by mega-giants or through my tiny independent publishing company.  But what of that “terrible truth” about readers?  Or people an author thinks are readers?

Until now, there’s been no easy way to explain it to an author, but self-published authors are starting to understand what I’ve spoken of in hushed tones over the last decade.

Having been an early ebook pioneer in the late 1990’s, it’s amusing to me that newly self-epubbed authors are asking for advice–the same traditionally-published best-selling authors who sneered that my published book was not a “real” book because it wasn’t on paper or because it wasn’t published through a major publishing house with a print run of 50,000 or even through a small literary house with a 5,000 print run. I didn’t go the self-publishing route because I couldn’t make it in “real” publishing but because I felt limited creatively.

I got into indy publishing after I’d had a couple of successes through the traditional route.  The problem was, I wanted to write some unusual stuff that editors told me they loved if I’d only ….oh, fill in the blank.  Delete 300 pages to make their formula page count.  Delete the references to spirituality.  Put a cowboy in there because they sell well and stick a secret baby in there while I’m at it.  Eh…

So I started my own teeny company to publish my overflow of “weird” stuff that had a market but not one big enough to impress major publishers.  My goal wasn’t to get rich off publishing (is that possible for most people?) but to write what I wanted to write and share it with people who “get it.”  A few years later, I began publishing other “weird” books that didn’t really have a market and not much available to their authors at the time to get their spiritual works out there unless they could somehow sell to Christian publishers.

I was very much a niche publisher.  I was royalty-paying and eventually advance-paying.  I never charged my authors a penny and allowed them to buy extra copies of their books at cost as an additional perk my publishers had never granted me.  I wasn’t focused on the bottom line but on spiritual service and making these spiritual guides, novels, and self-help books available to an under-valued audience.  These authors had few others places to go at that time, unless they wanted to pay to be published.  At most, I had 15 authors at one time before I had to scale back severely for personal family reasons.  Some were great joys and life-long friends to work with; others were divas who were instrumental in my decision to never again publish another author’s work. I was proud that I always conducted my business ethically and treated my authors as I wanted to be treated.

That was then; this is now.

Times have changed.  I’m not the only game in town and haven’t been in years, thanks to technology making it easier and cheaper for authors in my previous niche to find new homes among larger small presses and self-publish easily themselves.  Suddenly, the act of publishing has become very, very easy.

Fast-forward to 2012 when every wanna-be out there is publishing on kindle and other ebook formats, not to mention pirates and plagiarists, all right there among best-sellers through traditional houses and upstarts who just wrote what they loved and readers found them.  It’s a bit chaotic, yes.  I’ve given back rights (without anyone begging or fighting) to all my authors except  those “in-house” who are business partners, family, or special projects, and it’s actually fun to see what’s happening with my former authors.  Some are discovering some painful truths that they wouldn’t have believed–and some didn’t when I was publishing their earlier works. Like how disappointed they may be in people who claim to be big fans.

Why I think of this now….

Purely a mistake.  I decided to conduct an experiment with my new book, The Secret Lives of Librarians. The experiment involves publishing this huge book in serial format as one cumulative file on kindle that updates as episodes are added on a regular basis.   When I shared this news with a small group of super supportive friends,  several either directly claimed to have bought the new book the next day or made noises meant to lead  me to believe they’d bought it. Huh? The book wasn’t out yet.

They were supportive, enough to mislead me about my sales.  I’ve seen it before, both with my own books and other authors’ books.

But I wonder when all these newly self-published authors will discover the same?  That they can’t necessarily believe what their MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, blog commenters, and others tell them about buying their books.  It hurts to find that out–I’ve watched it several times now.

Truth #1:

So to you self-published authors: the truth is, anything you write–whether it’s the Great American Novel, a daily blog, or some other literary masterpiece–is competing for the reader’s time.  It doesn’t matter if that reader is a member of your family or circle of work friends or the people you play tennis with every week.  It’s not just competing with other literary works but with TV, texting, gaming, drinking, running, work, school, sex…you name it.  People are busy.  It doesn’t matter how much time or effort you’ve put into writing your book and getting it out there.  Your reader doesn’t owe you his or her time.

Truth #2:

There’s another truth at play though.  This is one that frustrates me as an author and nearly destroyed my business as a publisher.

Years ago, one of my authors spent almost every waking hour promoting her book through social media.  She gave out tons of excerpts of her book and asked people to post reviews.  She had a huge circle of fans and social media contacts.  Her book was in print-only; no digital per her request.  Her sales were lower than I had expected, given her long hours online pitching her book. She made self-promotion a full-time job.

Eventually, she became very disenchanted with me and nearly destroyed my little company by posting to her multitude of online friends that I was a scammer and wasn’t giving her all her due royalties.  Bookstores dropped me, returning my other authors’ books in droves, at my expense and killing sales for those authors’ books as well.  My regular readership dropped me.  Sales for all the books I published as well as for the books I authored myself plummeted.  I received thousands of hits, calling me a scammer, a fraud, unethical.  Hate mail.  Not for anything I’d done but for what one person had alleged.

And it all happened while I was being tested for possible heart failure.  Gratefully, my doctors found the problem and that it was caffeine-related rather than heart-related, but I came out of that experience broken-hearted that the community I’d supported with free books, cheap books, donated books, and free advice for the previous 8 years could turn on me so quickly without ever asking me what had happened.

Why had all this happened?  Because the author’s online friends had told her how much they loved her book.  They gushed over her writing style.  Many said they’d bought her book.  She was probably sitting there thinking she was selling 20,000 trade paperback copies.  Really.  Based on social media feedback. After a really ugly time between us, I was able to give her a reconciliation to print.  That means I could show exactly how many copies had been printed, how many were sold by the 2 main distributors, how many by independent bookstores, and how many from my company website.  It took several months to get the information from all the bookstores and distributors, but in the end, I could account for all copies except for 2, which I believe were in-office samples.  And I could show where she’d been paid for every sale.  Not that all the haters who’d email-bombed me ever knew that.  The Internet does not print retractions.

What I didn’t know how to tell her was that some of the names of people who’d sworn they bought her book direct from my website, and part of the reason she felt I was scamming her, never bought anything from my website.  Not under the names or the addresses she gave me.  And I didn’t hand out the addresses of those who did. Maybe she was too direct in asking them or maybe they were just overzealous, but some alleged buyers were not truthful with her.

With authors self-publishing their ebooks, they can now see something that they could not see before.  They can now see their sales  almost as soon as they happen.  They know if the latest freebie given on an Author Page nets sales.  They know if a particular promotion works. They can see if  a special message to their email list of 3000  who regularly lap up their freebies translates into 3 sales this week or the expected 2500+.   They have insight that previously only the publisher had or insight that would be months old before given to them in a royalty statement.

And that means that they can see if supporters really are supporting them financially or just giving them verbal you-go-girls.

So, self-published authors, that’s the other terrible truth.  Not only do readers not owe you a sale but they will happily let you know they support your efforts (even if not financially) because they want you to like them just as much as you want them to like your work.