by Christopher W Gamsby
180 days (Technically 1,000 since starting Shift World)
It's now been almost 180 days since I became a (self) published author and close to 1,000 days since I first started outlining the story that would become Shift World. In that time a few things are as I thought they'd be and many things are very different. I decided to write this as sort of a six month anniversary and to give any other aspiring writers out there an idea of what the grind is really like.
Difficult to know how well you're doing
This topic isn't the most important lesson I've learned, but I'm putting it first because it seems to permeate almost everything else on this list. Understanding how people receive your writing, advertisements, website, etc. etc. is crucial in understanding where you need to put your energies and where you need to improve. You could dedicate a lot of energy to creating a great cover, but people might not like the one you made. Once it's released, there is no way of knowing for sure how a potential buyer will feel. Same goes with writing a synopsis. Often you can really only track what a person does until they are on your page and then it's impossible to know what they are thinking. Having to speculate on how well you're doing can easily frustrate any effort you try to make.
Writing is difficult
I think we've all heard the cliche 'They said it'd be hard, but they didn't say this hard." and that holds for writing. I find it's best to start out by outlining the story, drawing diagrams, and making sure I understand where I want to go with a series. After that's complete, I start to write the actual story.
I can comfortably type at about 45 words per minute. Mathematically that means it should only take about 30 hours for the physical act of writing an 80,000 word novel. Unfortunately, in the real world, it isn't anything nearly so clean. I'll really end up writing about 2,000 to 3000 words after an 8 hour day. That means the first draft alone will actually take 320 hours of writing. I released Shift World after about 12 rounds of edits and revisions. In total, I probably spent over 1,000 hours before publishing the final copy, but I'm not sure the actual number. I might have spent over 2,000 hours once you calculate in learning GIMP to make a cover, managing the website for promotion, researching topics related to book publishing, setting up distribution, and other book-related tasks. TV and movies would have you believe that a novelist just sits at a keyboard, types for a little bit and a fully formed story is just there.
Novel Formatting is Expensive or Time Consuming or Both
Your novel's cover is the friendly hello that greets any perspective new reader, and other such cliches. As an independent author, I faced an awkward choice. I'm not an artistic person in any sense of the word. I have no history in drawing, computer graphics, or any other medium that I could turn into a cover. When it came time to get a cover, I had the choice of paying someone $50 to make a cover using stock photos, pay someone $300 to $500+ (possibly over $1000) to make a cover with custom art, or do the art myself. I chose to do it myself with a photo editor called 'GIMP.' As to whether I did a good job or not, I guess I have to refer to the first item I listed. Anyone I ask says they like the cover. I didn't want a generic looking cover, and I like the fact that I have custom artwork, even though I couldn't afford someone else's custom work.
I have the same problem with hiring a professional editor to proofread the book. A professional charges $10 to $25 per 1000 words, which means an 80,000-word novel costs $800 to $2000. One of the reasons I took 12 edits on my own, was to make sure everything was perfect and despite that one of my readers found a disappointing amount of errors. Another big issue you run into is that you have no clue how well the editor will work on your book. They may be highly skilled and dedicated, and you spend your $800 well, and they will help you in ways you couldn't imagine. It's also possible you will spend 2,000 dollars on a hack who barely proofs the work, and it's still full of mistakes and poor phrasing*. Deciding what to do has been particularly tricky since my first novel is free, and I won't ever recoup the money I spent. Given that I have no idea exactly how people feel about the editing, there is no way of knowing if I made the right choice or not.
* see below about always changing. After writing the first draft of this blog post, I stumbled across a website called Fiverr. I sent out short stories to see the quality of editing in each short story. Fiverr only charges about $5 to $10 for a short story and depending on the person; it can be as cheap as $300 to $500 for an 80,000-word novel. Maybe for the 1-year anniversary update, I can tell my readers if the money improved my website's quality or a waste of $70.
Easy to dwell on failures (There are lots of them)
There are 1000's of little failures and successes while you work. It feels great to hit a deadline, find a positive review, get downloads, or have days with a lot of page views. Conversely, it's terrible to have days when you wanted to write, but couldn't or find a negative review, have a poor day on the website and other types of failures. The conscious logical part of my brain keeps telling me to ignore those minor inconveniences, but then my heart constantly says 'you're just a failure'.
Greatly Overestimated how many people would leave a tip
I initially thought I'd be able to post everything for free and then just ask people to leave a tip if they appreciated my work. I didn't think I'd be swimming in money, but after a year I was hoping to have several hundred dollars, or maybe even 1,000. After a few years, I might be popular enough to work off of tips and only need a part time job to survive. The reality, though, is that despite having over 2,000 unique viewers and possibly 500 people having read my book, I haven't received a single tip. Even though I'm still new to writing, it is clear that only relying on tips isn't going to work.
One reason I hoped a tip system would work better than it did is that it ends up being cheaper for everyone. If I put out a new novel and someone gives me a $3 tip, I receive the same amount of profit as purchasing an ebook for $5.50, a physical book from Blurb for ~$12 and a physical book from expanded distribution for $15 to $20. I'm not sure if people realize how much of a book's purchase price goes strictly to the retailer. Maybe I can change over to that idealistic tipping system in the future once I'm more established, but for now, I'm going to have to figure out something else.
Novels are harder than Short Stories
Word for word it's far more difficult to write a novel than a short story. That's doubly true for a novel that's going to be in a series. In both a novel and short story, you need to edit the content to make sure the whole story is tonally consistent. In a novel, it's easy to accidentally say something in chapter 1 that contradicts something in chapter 11. You also have to be careful when writing the flavor text in a novel that will be part of a series. You need to be careful that a paragraph or sentence you include in a random section just to add character to the world doesn't accidentally invalidate the whole arc you want to achieve in the series. That type of attention to detail makes everything from phrasing to writing content take a long time.
To compare a short story and my novel, the first Death of Freedom is roughly 6,000 words and between outlining the story, writing the three parts, and editing I spent about 35 hours over four weeks. I spent about 1,000 to 1,300 hours to write and edit the 80,000 words that are Shift World over about 2.5 years. Mathematically if I could write and edit the novel at the same pace as the short story, Shift World would have only taken about 467 hours, or about 1/3 of the time it actually took.
Internet Tracking is Inaccurate
Before ever maintaining a website and creating content to post online, I just assumed that tracking traffic on a website must be entirely accurate since the site servers must know how many times a browser accesses a file. It turns out that assumption on my part is very inaccurate. I have three different services for tracking website activity, and every single one of them gives me vastly different stats. Google Analytic tends to claim that people just load and reload the main page, so even though I think it is accurate in the number of page views, it isn't very clear which pages are viewed. Weebly is much better at differentiating the viewed pages, but Weebly seems poor at filtering out bots, and so if I post something on social media, I'll get a flurry of false page views. I use stat counter to track the number of downloads, but it only works for PDFs.
Most things I tried to do to track downloads didn't seem to work on a Weebly page. Even with how far technology has come, having everything be exactly drag and drop is still far way away.
Change is the only constant
One of the keys to trying to be an indie writer over the long term is being willing to alter things that aren't working and tweaking things that are working. Reality rarely meets expectations, and at some point, you have to be willing to abandon projects that won't work. For example one of the book shipments Blurb sent me was misprinted with incorrect margins. They basically told me to do what I want with them, so I decided to give them away for free. Turns out, though, that people don't want a misprinted book, even if it is still readable and free. That surprised me a lot. I thought that page would be live for a weekend and all the extra copies would be in the mail by Monday. I now know that people don't want them, so in the future, I just won't waste my time with misprints. I'll just bring them to the recycling center in town.
I've made countless tweaks to Adwords and Goodreads campaigns. I often try to make my website more user-friendly and appealing to potential readers. I'm probably going to have to change how I look at guest stories on my website too. I hoped to make them a big part of my site, but even though a lot of people seem interested (based on the amount that read the guest post page), I've never been contacted by someone through Traitor's Tavern in regards to posting a guest post. Everyone that's posted a guest story, I've recruited elsewhere. I feel like I'm probably in an awkward spot where people don't think the website is large enough to be worth posting on. The catch is that once the site is big enough for people to find the exposure worth the time, I probably won't have the energy or desire to sift through 100 requests a day.
Publishers are both critical and worthless
A lot of what I've been talking about in the previous sections are where the benefits of having a publisher come in. They have people on staff to edit a book, create the cover, market the book, etc. etc. and it would be nice not to have to deal with that. All that convenience comes at a steep price. I've done the math before, and you need to sell between 10 to 200 times the number of units to make the same amount of money with a publisher than if you independently publish. That range doesn't sound like much until you consider that you will make considerably more money with only very moderate success as an indie author. With a publisher, you will need to have a runaway hit to make the same.
Indie: 3000 units at $4.99 with 70% royalty = $10,500
Non-Fraud pub Good Terms: 3000 units at $2.99 (average) with 70% royalty (you keep 20% of this) =$1,260
Non-Fraud pub Bad Terms: 3000 units at $2.99 (average) with 70% royalty (you keep 5% of this) = $315
Fraud pub: 3000 units at .99 with 35% royalty (you keep 5% of this) = $52.5
If you have a reputable publisher that will offer you good terms (which won't happen if you are only selling 3000 units), you would need to sell 25,000 copies to get the same royalties. More than likely as an unestablished indie author, you won't get good terms if a pub likes your book and you will get the unfavorable terms described above, which means you will need to sell 100,000 copies of the book to make the same royalties you would receive selling 3,000 yourself. If you aren't careful with choosing a publisher, you might accidentally sign your career away to a huckster who does nothing for your book, slaps on a photoshopped stock image for a cover and dumps it on Amazon for $0.99. Your book will be one of 3,000 they 'publish.' They'll only do minimal advertising to sell 100 copies, let alone the 600,000 copies you would need to sell to make the same profits as 3,000 copies sold independently.
Publishing is a game of large numbers.
Of all the people that will see your book in a store, at Goodreads or on someone's blog, only a small fraction of those people will go to the books page. Of the people who go to the page, only a portion will download the book. Of the people that download it, only a small fraction of those people will start to read it and of those people only about 10% will finish the book.
It's difficult to know the exact nature of those numbers. On Google about 2.5% of the people that see my book in an ad will click on the link to my website and of those only about 20% will go to the book page (welcome since statistically you probably came here to read this from Google). Only about .02% of the people that see my book's ad on Goodreads will click to the web page and as far as I can tell only about 1/4 of those will continue to my website where they can download the book. On Smashwords only about 1/3 of the people that visit the page download the book.
That means if 100,000 people see my ad on Google, I can realistically expect 50 people to have read my book and finished it. Though, see my first section, where I don't really know if people are reading the book because I have no way of tracking activity past once they go to the Shift World page. A confounding factor with saying 10% will finish a book from downloading it, is that people tend to hoard free media. There is a good chance that some of the people downloading the book have no intention of starting, let alone finishing the book.
On Goodreads, I've had my ads viewed 211,000 times with 45 clicks, which means only about 12 people went to the download page and likely only 1 or 2 finished the book.
I hope that any wanna-be authors out there have found my musings interesting. Every day I learn about new materials, systems, and useful tools and should have some more interesting points to share at my one year anniversary. If you made it all the way to the end of my post, you obviously like my writing to some extent, so please stop by the Shift World page and check out my novel. Maybe you'll like it!