19 Oct 2019

Quality vs Quantity

Hello readers!

Previously, I updated you all on my progress getting reviews for Fallen Love, releasing the cover, and modernising my marketing platform and author brand. I am making steady progress on that, with a new review going up on Goodreads this weekend (more are coming!) I even have a cover for the Vampire Eirik, which I am polishing with my designer.

The purpose of this post, however, is slightly different. I want to talk about strategy in self-publishing, and specifically, I want to answer questions like: How many books should an author be releasing? How much time and money should be spent on editing? What about covers and blurbs?

The lay reader’s response to these questions tends to be simple: a book should be as good as possible. It should be typo-free and well-edited; the cover should be the wow. These attitudes are often shared by big publishers as well. This approach is well-intentioned... but it is not always the correct approach. Or at least, the reality is more complex, and certain trade-offs have to be made.

The self-publishing business model is very, very different from that of the traditional model—and neither readers nor trade publishers really understand it. Some differences are obvious: self-published authors rely hugely on ebook sales, and for most, the profits from print books constitute only a small part of their income. Trade publishers, on the other hand, overprice their ebooks—they want ebooks to be a cash-cow in the way hardbacks are, instead of being mass-market products like paperbacks.

I can recall, with mirth, that time five years ago when I released my first book, the Necromancer. One of my readers at school came up and told me that I must surely make more money on the print books I was selling in school, rather than the ebooks on Amazon. I corrected her, informing her that my profit on the paperback was half what I made on the ebook, thanks to high printing costs and delivery.

Anyway, I am digressing. I would like to return my original point: that the self-publishing business model, unlike trade publishing, requires authors to publish more books in order to be successful. Put simply, self-published authors generate exposure for their books—a marketing term for how “out there” your work is—by having cheap ebooks on sale.

This is how Amanda Hocking succeeded on KDP. At first, her ebooks were 99 cents; this made readers keen to take a chance on her (especially since they wanted lots of cheap books to go on their Kindles). Later on, lending became possible through Kindle Unlimited, and that helped boost her exposure.

But of course, selling ebooks for 99 cents gives authors very little profit (the royalty rate is only 35%) and devalues books—at least if you’re selling full-length books for 99 cents. I doubt 99 cent short stories change the value proposition of full-length ebooks at $4.99 though. So what do you do? Simples: you sell some of your work at 99 cents or for free, and sell some your other work for meaty, profitable prices like $3, $4, or $5 (I don’t think most self-published authors will manage to sell at $5.99).

This is basically the “reader magnet” strategy outlined by Nick Stephenson. Still, there are some tricky questions you have to ask with the reader magnet strategy, especially if you’re a first time author. My main problem is that my free/$0.99 story, the Sandman, is hardly my best work; and while it does entice some readers, it’s not the greatest reader magnet in the world. The Necromancer is a book that probably would get readers interested in me—I could in principle lower the price to 99 cents once I publish Fallen Love.

Of course that’s not going to happen; I won’t sell a 105,000~ word epic for quite that little money. (I am selling it for $3 though, so go grab a copy!) This is where the Vampire Eirik comes in—it’s just long enough to be interesting (I hope!) without threatening my full-size novels.

Taking this strategy even further requires writing series. You sell your first book in the series for cheap, then gradually make your sequels more expensive. You can bet I’ll be doing this with the Fallen Series—the first book, Fallen Love, will be price-dropped once Fallen Desire is released, while the latter book will command a reasonably high asking price.

The Dilemma

I’m sure the reader has probably released the conflict now, and the reason for the titling of this post. The Reader Magnet strategy is great, but you need to have some books in your catalogue. That’s a lot of books to edit—which costs a lot of money. It’s also a lot of proof-reading, design, marketing copy and keyword optimisation.

Nonetheless, self-published authors can rarely rely on one book. There are unicorns like Fifty Shades, but unicorns are more often than not just that—a myth. In the trade publishing world, your first novel has to swim, or your trade publishing career sinks with it. On the other hand, a trade publisher will at least do something to get your book out there; they will put you in mass-market brick-and-mortar stores; and their covers are usually good.

In a way, though, self-publishing is good for authors and leads to better books. This might sound paradoxical, but think about it. Is an author’s first book likely to be their best? Probably not—it isn’t true for a lot of authors, especially young ones like me. In which case, should an author and publisher waste a lot of time and money editing a book that’s never going to be amazing? Probably not. It’s better to concentrate on writing the next one.

A balance does have to be struck, of course. Typos have to be squashed—but you don’t need a proofreader to do this. Beta readers can also do the job. Even reading the book in a different format (in terms of font, leading, justification etc.) can expose previously invisible typos. Full-length novels need more editing than short stories, and so on.

Likewise, cover design is hugely important to selling a book. Still, a good cover doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. When I put an ad for a book cover designer, I received a wide variety of quotes for Fallen Love—one professional wanted €1200. Now, I should add that this man was offering illustration and 3D work for this price, which requires more time and more skill. But there are young, upstart designers charging good prices for their work. The only thing I might avoid is pre-designed covers, if only because they are too generic and probably won’t fit your book.

Very well! I have gone on long enough. I am hoping to feature a review next on the Magical Realm. Until then!

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