Guest Post: My Self Publishing Journey by Sarah Mayberry
When I was a baby writer dreaming of being published, the idea of holding a real, paper book in my hands with my name on the spine was the be-all and end-all. I wrote 8 full novels over nearly 10 years before I was finally accepted for publication under Harlequin’s Blaze imprint. Fast forward 26 novels and novellas, and my be-all and end-all has undergone a dramatic shift. While holding a real, paper book in my hands still has enormous appeal, I now understand that paper is not the only way to get my stories in front of readers.
Everyone who is on-line understands that publishing has undergone a revolutionary shift in recent years. The ability for writers to self-publish their works and gain widespread distribution without going through a publisher has opened up a world of possibilities. As a writer, it’s an exciting time. It’s also a bit scary. There I was, beavering away in my writing cave for years, trying to get an editor to buy one of my books. Then I sold and just as I was starting to hit my stride and shift my ambitions to writing a single title novel, everything changed.
I’ll happily admit that at first I was more than a little discombobulated by the changes in the market place. But as time wore on I started to read and research and listen, and finally I decided it was time to drink some of this self-publishing kool-aid that everyone was carrying on about. The royalty rates for traditionally published books are well known, I imagine, as are the figures for the new e-model. It’s every writer’s dream to earn more for their labor. In some cases, self publishing may in fact be the only way that an author can survive on their sales. I felt it would be foolish of me to stick my head in the sand and not explore the new options open to me in this brave new world.
I already had fragments of a sub-plot story that I had been forced to pull from my last Blaze, Hot Island Nights, because I was over the word limit for that particular line. At the time, I was bummed because I loved the dynamic between my sub-plot hero and heroine, Martin and Violet. When it came time to write the epilogue at the end of HIN, I left in the bit where Martin and Violet turn up in Australia together, much to the surprise of the hero and heroine from HIN. (I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers away by telling you that there’s a HEA in store for these two. It’s a romance, right?). When the book came out, I got a slew of letters from readers, asking for Martin and Violet’s story. I hadn’t intentionally tried to drum up interest in their story, but it was nice to think that I might be able to use all those words that were on the cutting room floor.
My first thought was that I could write a little novella and offer it for free on my website. Then I started writing and kept writing way past the novella stage. As I hit what I thought would be the halfway point it occurred to me that this was definitely a story that I could self publish.
Once I made that decision, I realised I needed to get permission from Harlequin to use the characters from HIN in another book. It’s a standard part of the Harlequin boilerplate contract that they have first rights on any spin-off etc from books they contract ( a pretty standard clause, I understand). I figured there was no point writing a whole novel I was never going to be able to do anything with, so I stopped writing and started talking to the legal department. They were very nice about it, and once I had their release in my filing cabinet, I hit the go button in earnest. Because I knew from past experience that I wouldn’t get the book out there unless I had a deadline, I booked on-line advertising for May. This was way back at the end of last year. I figured I’d have everything sorted – easily – by then.
Cut to March, with me knee deep in revisions and writing and scripts for contracted work – stuff people had paid me to do. I looked at that May deadline and seriously began to sweat. I wondered if I should cancel it and put my book out later in the year. Then I told myself to put on my big girl panties (actually, an astronaut diaper would have been more handy, to save time on those pesky bathroom breaks) and get the book sorted.
So I did. I wrote. I edited. I got feedback from a handful of smart writer friends who know and love the genre. I worked with a freelance editor. And I started shopping around for someone to look after my formatting for me – because I knew, absolutely, that that was not something I wanted to handle myself.
This is where Marie Force came in. Marie and I have chatted a lot over the years, and I read with interest that she had launched a book formatting and editing service for authors seeking to self publish. Marie is enjoying fantastic success herself with self-publishing, and I was more than happy to benefit from her know-how. Right from the start she took me by my sweaty little hand and guided me through what I needed to do to get my book on-line, from opening accounts with the various vendors to preparing my file and sending it. She also provided much-needed cheerleading from the sidelines.
I had pretty firm ideas about what sort of cover I wanted – something sexy and striking but classy – and the artist I used was very patient with me. Because the book wasn’t finalised yet, I had the freedom to go into the manuscript and add details from the cover into the story so that the cover felt more connected to the book. That felt really important to me – I hate it when there’s a disconnect between the cover and the content of a book.
Finally, it was time to send the file off and get it ready for uploading.
I want to say up front that the hardest thing about this whole process for me was working without my editor. We’ve worked on 26 odd books together, and she is my story touchstone. Usually, my book doesn’t go anywhere until my editor gives it the go ahead. As any writer will tell you, by the time you’ve finished writing and revising and editing, you have lost any sense of perspective about the book. You can gain it again by putting the manuscript in the bottom drawer for a few months, or by talking to a great editor who offers a new take on things. But it’s tough to assess a book yourself when you’ve only just crawled out of the trenches. So making the decision to send my manuscript file to the formatters was the single most nerve-wracking moment of my journey, hands down. This was just me, after all, deciding my book was ready. Empowering and pretty freaking awesome, but also scary. If I messed up, I would truly have no one to blame but myself.
I sent it off. When it came back, I girded my loins to do battle with Smashwords’ legendarily cranky Meatgrinder. Hallelujah, it went through first time. Smashwords makes it incredibly easy for writers to navigate their way to self publication. Seriously – I am pretty tragic when it comes to technology, but I just followed all their cues until I had all the appropriate boxes ticked. Amazingly, my file was live and on sale within 5 minutes. I had my first sale after just ten minutes. I rang my husband and giggled like a schoolgirl down the phone. Then I wrote to Marie Force and asked if she’d bought my book, thinking that maybe she was testing the formatting. She hadn’t. A real live genuine person had bought my book. Get out of town.
Please understand, I have no idea normally if anyone is buying my books. I get two very complicated royalty statements from my publisher a year, but usually I don’t know how a book has really done until about a year after it was released. And here I was, ten minutes after going live and I could see that someone had bought my book. Welcome to the future, Ms Mayberry.
Kindle took a whole 12 hours to load my book before it was ready for sale (I know, outrageous). Again, it was a numbers game, watching my ranking, checking reports to see if anyone had bought my book.
Which brings me to marketing. As I mentioned above, I booked an on-line ad with Smart Bitches to create a deadline for myself. (I’d have one here, too, but DA was all booked up. What’s up with being so popular, DA?). This isn’t something I’ve ever done before. Generally speaking, I rely on Harlequin to promote my books in that way. But I was my own publisher this time around, so if I didn’t make a ruckus about my book, no one would. I started by gifting my book to everyone on my newsletter mailing list. Getting reader letters is the highlight of a writer’s day – sometimes even her month. When you spend your days in your pajamas talking to imaginary people in your head, hearing back from the outside world that your words have struck a chord with someone is damned awesome. So, I sent my book to these lovely people who’d made time in their busy lives to contact me because I wanted to say thank you for their support and kind words over the years. And I contacted a few romance bloggers who have reviewed me in the past and offered them copies of my book, too. The final plank in my astonishingly sophisticated marketing plan was to Tweet to my enormous 500 followers. And I did, exhaustively. To the point where I annoyed even myself.
Since launching my book, I have also taken out an ad on Good Reads. So far, it seems to be earning its keep. I’m not sure at what stage a book develops its own “life” out there in the ether in terms of word of mouth and recommendations, but Her Best Worst Mistake has enjoyed some great positive reviews to date that have definitely impacted on sales. For example, I could map the shift when the DA review appeared – a huge jump in my Kindle sales ranking over all, including an appearance on the Kindle contemporary romance best sellers list. The same thing happened when Smart Bitches posted a positive review, pushing the book even further up into the early 500s in the overall ranking and number 50 something on the contemporary romance bestseller list.
It’s probable that I will need to get better at marketing, but I happen to be a big believer in the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, and I’d like to think that concentrating on writing a great book is the best place for me to direct my energies. But that’s probably the pajama-wearing introvert in me wanting to avoid self-promotion. We shall see.
Afew people have asked me if I plan on doing this again. The answer is “hell, yeah.” I’m already working on a concept for a linked series of books. I’m actually pretty excited about it. I will also continue to write for Harlequin.
There was a post recently on a well known self-pubbing site talking about Harlequin. I don’t want to get into the numbers, because that’s not what this post is about, but I would like to address what my publisher has done for me. After 26 books, I know I am a better, smarter writer than when I first sent my manuscript off to Harlequin. I have had the guidance of an extraordinarily talented editor, Wanda Ottewell, and I continue to think of every book I produce as a joint project between the two of us. Believe me, she sweats with me in the trenches. She listens to long, rambling phone calls and tells me when I’ve jumped the shark. To suggest that my career would be where it is without her and Harlequin is ridiculous. For starters, no other North American publisher would have bought a book set in Australia, peopled with Australian characters. I have plenty of writer friends who have tried to sell these types of stories to New York, and no one wants them. None of you would have ever heard of me or read one of my books. It is nonsensical to suggest otherwise. Harlequin gave me a platform and believed in me, and that is why my future will include a mix of options, not just one. That’s what self-publishing is all about, in my mind. Options.
Moving forward with self-publishing, the great question in my mind is who I can find to work with me in the same editorial capacity on a freelance basis. Having worked in story departments on four different TV shows in two countries, I know exactly how rare people with strong story and structural skills are. Finding a freelance editor who can stretch me in the same way that Wanda does is going to be a huge challenge and I definitely worry that I won’t be getting the same candor and tough love when I am footing the bill for services rendered. But that’s a mission for another day.
Nearly three weeks into my self-publishing journey, watching the numbers and the feedback has been exciting and engaging. My book, published by me, is out there in the world being read. I definitely feel empowered and invigorated by this adventure so far. I have no idea where it’s going to take me, but I have already decided one thing for sure – this kool-aid is pretty damn moreish.