Thursday, September 13, 2012

“Self-publishing and the SFR Writer”: Guest Post by KS Augustin

[Heather’s note: Self-publishing is a way to deliver a niche subgenre like science fiction romance directly to readers. That can be an advantage when traditional print publishing is a barely there option. The process affords authors control over all the aspects of publishing—but it’s certainly easier said than done.

KS Augustin is a multi-published ebook author in the SF/F genres who can attest to the challenges of self-publishing. Her journey is interesting because she published IN ENEMY HANDS with digital-first publisher Carina Press, but she released the sequel, BALANCE OF TERROR, through her own start up, Sandal Press.

I invited Ms. Augustin to come aboard and share her experiences in self-publishing. She responded with an eye-opening article that’s simultaneously cautionary and hopeful.]

Self-publishing and the SFR Writer

So you've seen all those best-selling indie authors selling books faster than a browser window refreshes, and you're thinking to yourself: wow, that sounds like a good gig! How do I get some of that gold rush of higher royalties? Here's one story.

I began Sandal Press more than a year ago, in August 2011. Why did I begin to self-publish? Like most authors, it was for a number of reasons:

         While I have been treated very well by most of the presses I've dealt with, there have been a couple of contracts that've crossed my desk that were, shall we say, somewhat underhanded. Contracts that made me wonder if there was Another Way.
         My readings around the internet showed me that such contracts, and contract language, were on the rise, thus increasing urgency of finding the Another Way.
         I have been a successful owner of several small businesses.
         I am a Type A personality with an ego to match.

That's on the positive side (even the ego). The negatives were easy:

         I lose the marketing muscle of some well-respected digital presses.
         I get the reputation of being a lazy “hack”.
         Very few self-respecting bloggers or review sites would look at my work.
         From my research, it takes ten years/novels for a competent writer with good stories to “make it”. By that, I mean to have a dependable, annual living wage. And I was only in Year Four!

(I'm a numbers kind of gal. Maybe that's why I like writing science-fiction. And the numbers don't look that good if all you're after is fast cash. I'm at Year Four out of Ten (minimum) to begin earning some steady cash. And I'm at Year Zero out of Three-to-Five to begin making a name for myself as an indie author. (Both figures from my own readings and analysis of other authors.))

Then, there are the positive-negative pairs. I'd be able to hire editors who have a similar vision...but I'd have to pay for it. I'd be able to have covers that I liked...but I'd have to pay for it. I'd be able to market in ways that I thought would be of benefit to me but...yep, you guessed it...I'd have to pay for it.

With ISBNs, cover artists, editorial work, marketing budgets, plus time to come up to speed on how to format for Kindle, Mobipocket, PDF, Epub, Palm, I was already in deep before I had put my first title up for sale! But do you know what saved me? My belief in myself.  It's wavered and it's stood on a cliff a number of times, but it's still there. And if that sounds egotistical, I don't care. As AC/DC once put it, “Ego is not a dirty word”.

My first title, WAR GAMES, went up on Amazon, Kobo, XinXii and Smashwords a week before Sandal Press's official 01-August opening. I sold 17 copies that first month across all platforms. One year later, I'm still selling 17-20 copies a month. And you know what? As dismal as that sounds, I'm still outselling IN ENEMY HANDS, that release that was backed by the mammoth Harlequin and its digital skunkworks, Carina Press. In monetary terms, I'm making three times what I made with IN ENEMY HANDS. That's the good news.

Here's the bad news. Twenty copies a month isn't much. SFR isn't a popular genre. It's niche. And niche has problems. I've been running BALANCE OF TERROR (the sequel to IN ENEMY HANDS) as a KDP Select title since late July. So far (till early September), it's netted me 400 free downloads and a grand total of 2 (that's two!) sales. People spoke about the “bump” after a freebie period. Didn't happen for me. Gradually increasing sales. Folks, it's been flatlining at zero for weeks.

That's not to say that KDP Select doesn't work. I'm still convinced it does...but for genres that have broader appeal. Contemporary romance. Timely non-fiction. Thriller. For me, it was/will be a 3-month experiment that I will mark as a “Fail” and move on.

That's the other thing we don't appreciate any more. Failure. It's worse than using the f-bomb in polite company. But I learn more from my failures than my successes and, if you dig deep and think about your past for a while, I'm sure you'd come to the same conclusion. Failure is only dreck when you never learn from it. So learn from it and craft a better plan for the future. And if you don't ever want to even think of failing, don't self-publish.

In all honesty, I haven't only been releasing SFR. I've been writing an urban fantasy series too, under the pen-name of Cara d'Bastian. Seems I failed with that as well. Readers don't like cliffhanger endings. But, because I'm in charge of my own fate, I can wait until the entire series is finished and then release it as one massive omnibus, without any Marketing Department telling me my numbers don't justify the investment. Why? Because, in my bones, I feel I have something there that people will read and enjoy. But it's only me (and my editors) saying that at the moment. And that's a pretty lonely position to hold  for the two years it will take to go from Book 1 to Book 5. (Thankfully, Book 5 is scheduled for release in March 2013. Only a few months more....) If you're going to self-publish, you've got to be prepared for timelines, intermittent crashes and reader backlash. Then you've got to keep going.

If you're wondering at the philosophical tone of this post, it's because the decision to self-publish, or not, is essentially philosophical. I have no truck with the mud-slinging going on between traditional and indie authors. If the thought of having to control everything about your book, and then be slammed for it for people who don't know any better, drives you into foetal position in a dark corner, then self-publishing isn't for you. If you think your books are All That and that the money will surge to you in a tsunami, twelve hours after you've uploaded your first book, then I doubt self-publishing is for you. If you consider yourself a small business owner – agile, savvy, tenacious, able to strategise, take knocks and keep coming back – then self-publishing may be for you.

I could ramble on for ages, but what are my takeaway points from thirteen months of self-publishing?

First, you've got to have guts, ego and gritted teeth. And you may still fail, especially in a niche genre such as SFR. (Have a look at the HipType infographic at Piotr Kowalski's blog for a cold bucket of reality. Specifically, at the “Genres” section.)

Second, you've got to be honest about your work. Who reads your books? Why do you think they do so? Is there anything you could do better? Where do you see yourself in five years' time? If you are faltering at any of these questions, then self-publishing may not be an option for you yet.

Third, just write. And learn your craft. Surround yourself with people of high calibre, whether cover artists or editors. That will give you something to live up to and it should also give you a much needed kick up the bum when required.

Fourth, even if you're thinking of self-publishing, it doesn't hurt to submit a shorter work to a traditional, small or digital press. A perspective from a different editor will do wonders for your writing, as more than ten of them have done for mine.

And, lastly, remember that you can switch, from trad to self, from self to digital, from digital to small print. It's nobody else's business but yours. And you only have to be honest with one person...yourself. Good luck.

About the author

KS "Kaz" Augustin is battling the incoming tide of reader indifference at Sandal Press. Her website is at