TW Column by David Biddle
They Love You—but Do They Love Your Words?
Last June, after nearly four months of nitty-gritty editing toil, I posted my first novel online at Amazon’s Kindle Store. I was officially an independent author! An indie writer!
I had no idea what I was doing.
At 8:14 a.m. that first morning, I sat down in a comfy chair with my laptop and a second cup of coffee to admire my book’s Amazon page. I thought the blurb was impressive and the price reasonable. (Just $2.99!) You could click on the cover thumbnail to read a free sample.
Then I checked my Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) business account. Anyone from the traditional publishing industry who is reading this is laughing at me here. The KDP spreadsheet showed no purchases. Zero.
Okay, I cheered myself, time to put on my marketing hat and salesman shoes. Piece of cake. I’d been an independent environmental consultant for three decades.
But where to start?
Facebook! Duh. And maybe some emails to friends and family. I posted a status update about my new book and dropped in the link to my Amazon page. I attached the same book cover thumbnail to a personal email. These blurbs went out to my 400-plus Facebook friends and to about 25 of my closest friends and extended family.
Eight hours later, I checked my KDP account. Zero.
Hmm. Maybe something was wrong with the Amazon download system. I had “One-Click” ordering set up. So I tried it. Bam! My book loaded through the Kindle app on my iPad in seconds. I checked the account. One sale. I posted another Facebook note.
The next morning, my account still sat at one purchase. WTF? Do people not read my posts? Do they not feel excited about what I’ve done? I checked my Facebook wall, where I had four “Likes” of my update from the night before. Great! Why didn’t at least two of you buy the book?
It should have been a slam dunk. My novel is a mystery that takes place in farmland around Columbia, Missouri, where I grew up. I didn’t need 400 downloads; I just needed 10 or 20. The idea seemed totally rational. Start with those who know you, who are your best buddies, who are motivated by affection to buy your creative work. Then count on them to spread the word. Right?
That third morning, I checked my account again. I had another sale! Victoriously, I informed my wife. She smiled and gave me a tender kiss on the cheek. She’d downloaded my book before I woke up to see if the KDP system really worked.
An hour later, I opened up my laptop intending to send yet another Facebook message, but stopped myself. I felt sleazy and pathetic. I’d been reduced to begging my family and friends to buy my book. The more I posted notices online and people didn’t respond, the more paranoid I became.
This is the plight of the indie author. When you go it alone, nobody really knows you’re there. One of the main jobs of a publishing house is to organize the promotional plan for a book and to provide authors with the power of networks. Six months later, I now understand that the only way to be successful in the book world is to build up a following of folks who love your words—not you. But it took me awhile to get there.
As I tracked down articles about online sales and marketing, I finally got my hosanna with a blog post at Guerilla Wordfare. In “How to Build a Targeted Fan Base of Followers on Twitter for Free,” Matt Edmondson, the site’s IT guru, points out:
Fans who think your writing is so great that they have to share it with their friends are exactly who you should be looking for. These are the type of fans that help authors ‘explode’ onto the scene.
This post includes an instructional video about how to use Twitter to find people who are “passionate about an author in your genre, [because] why couldn’t they be that passionate about you? All you have to do is try to build a relationship with them.”
Now, my column may one day cover the importance of Twitter to independent authors, but what I was dealing with at this nascent point in my publishing career was something far more fundamental. It hit me like a revelation. Of course! I need fans!
This may seem obvious, but writing professionally requires a weird psychology. You have to be confident enough (and some might say egotistical enough) to think your words deserve to be sent into the world. You also have to be humble enough to acknowledge, without tears or begging or passive-aggressive threats, that the reader is the final judge.
I believe indie writers aren’t any different from writers who work with traditional publishing companies. Who the hell thinks about having fans when they’re in the throes of storytelling? I doubt even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling had fans in mind when they were first starting out.
But publishers know the score. And indie writers need to know it, too. Your friends and family will eventually buy your book. They will! But your fans will put food on the table—or at least a jar of peanut butter and a plate full of saltines.
Of the many supportive articles I’ve read this year, I think Edward Robertson, a fine indie science fiction writer, says it best in a comment he made to me on his blog Failure Ahoy!:
[U]nless you have a virtual army of zealotrous [sic] friends rallying around your flag, I don't think they're going to make much difference beyond a few initial sales. The key is learning to sell to total strangers.
That’s where I am today: selling to strangers. Every time friends tell me they're buying my book, I wince. I'm grateful, too, but I don't want to expend all my energy fretting about what my buddies think.
Occasionally, however, I get emails from people I don’t know, who thank me for my novel or ask a question about the plot. I love that. It makes my day—and these days, you can be sure they go on my special mailing list for fans only.
- “How to Build a Targeted Fan Base of Followers on Twitter for Free” by Matt Edmondson, Guerilla Wordfare, November 9, 2011.
- “I'm New to Indie Publishing and This Is Awesome and Terrifying, Part 1: Releasing Your First Book” by Edward Roberston, Failure Ahoy!, August 20, 2012.
- "Thumbs Up" © Adam Borkowski; stock image
- "Nocturnalism" © Ken-ichi Ueda; Creative Commons license
- "Doh" © Hobvias Sudoneighm; Creative Commons license
David Biddle is a contributing writer at TW. This is the debut of his Talking Indie column about the ups and downs of being an independent publisher.
You'll find information about his novel Beyond the Will of God and other digital fiction on davidbiddle.net.
"I can’t think of what I’ve written as a gift exactly—it’s more a thing I’ve left for people to find in the woods. It’s like when I go out walking with my kids, and we leave a little Lego person standing on a rock or an action figure sitting in a tree." — "The Word Thieves"