1. What motivated you to self-publish your book/s instead of seek (or continue to seek) a traditional publisher?
Rejection. Well, not entirely. I love building things myself, and as a graphic designer too, I love creating art, books, websites, whatever. So when the rejections started coming in for my first manuscript, I knew I couldn’t be the author who waits for the two-hundredth rejection before hitting something. Instead, I said “You know what? The tools are out there now, the playing field is starting to level, so f**k it – I’ll just do it myself.” Of course, the BIG bummer of self-publishing is that you start with ZERO exposure – no agent, or publicist, or publisher out there helping you get noticed. So I’ve had to learn that myself, too. But I’m definitely learning, and enjoying it as I go. (Oh, and I get to keep 70% of my sales with Amazon, and 40% of my sales with Audible. That rocks.)
2. Had you done any research on self-publishing before doing so, or did you simply choose to do it for fun?
I’ve always been fascinated with technology tools that level the playing field. (For example, as advertising agency owners and designers, my brother Dave and I started working together in 1995, just as “desktop publishing” was making graphic design much faster and more accessible, and pretty soon we were on the same playing field as major agencies.) So I’m always aware of technology that’s out there, and was aware that the self-publishing tools were beginning to mature, and that Amazon was leading the charge and really owning the space and backing up authors. I knew it was a good time to jump in. (And it is super fun.)
3. What genre is/are your self-published book/s in?
As I said, my first experiment was an anti-self-help humor book, but my next three novels (and a fourth coming in November) are science fiction, with a significant humor element. (I guess if you had to place me in a sub-genre, it would be “sci-fi comedy.”)
4. How many copies of your book were sold and/or downloaded? How long did it take before your book gained momentum?
37,500 books sold so far, over about three years. The single biggest event that increased momentum for me was when Audible put Where the Hell is Tesla?on their “Hidden Gems” sale, about eight months after I published the novel. I made the Audible Top Ten list that month (#8 out of over 400,000 books), and sold thousands of copies in that month alone. From there, reviews and word-of-mouth started gaining.
5. Did you use any specific advertising avenues? If so, what worked well? What didn’t work?
I’m a HUGE believer in holistic marketing, that there is no one element that’s the silver bullet, that it’s everything working in concert: advertising, blog posting, social media, review solicitation, SEO, publicity, events, and email list building. For advertising specifically, here’s my experience:
For ebooks, I’m enrolled in Amazon exclusively with KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). This affords me periodic “countdown deals,” where I can cut the price to $0.99 for a week at a time. During those deal weeks, I’ve run:
1. Email promotions. These are through book promotion sites that list deals, and send out daily emails to their subscribers (BookBub, BookGorilla, FussyLibrarian, BargainBooksy, Booksends, Free Kindle Books, Ereader News Today, and more). You pay a fee and they promote your book in one of their emails. It works!
2. Amazon advertising. Amazon has a great self-service in-site advertising program, where you bid to show up in book search results. I’ve had varying degrees of success with this, but when it works, it works.
3. Facebook/Twitter/Google/Etc paid advertising. I have to admit, I’ve tried them all, and I’m a big fan of having an experimental attitude, and would encourage everyone to try for themselves, but social media paid advertising and Google adwords ads have gotten me very little ROI, so I’ve pretty much discontinued them.
6. How many books have you published? Which ones were self-published? Which ones were traditionally published?
I’ve published six books so far, all self-published (one anti-self-help book, one spoof cats book just for fun, one children’s book, and three science fiction novels), and now have a seventh book that is traditionally published, being produced right now by Audible (another science fiction novel).
7. Did you have someone professionally edit your manuscript, or did you do your own editing, or not edit? Did you have someone professionally create your book cover, or did you create your own cover?
For the self-published novels, I’ve relied on my brothers to edit (one of whom was a professional writer/editor in a previous life), but only after I’d gone through probably three drafts myself. And I’m a designer by trade as well, so I’ve designed all my book covers myself, and I love that process, too.
For my new novel, I had a professional editor assigned to me from Audible, it was a great experience, and I think having put myself through so much editing already with my prior books gave me a really good sense of what to expect and how to head off potential problems before they arose. When it came time to design the cover, they like the idea of me giving my ideas, and they liked them, so I got to design that one too.
8. After successfully self-publishing, did you find people in the traditional publishing arena who were interested in your book? If so, how? Were agents or editors interested in re-publishing your original self-published book or only future books by you?
I love this question, because it allows me to tell my favorite publishing story to date: after two of my audiobooks began selling very well on Audible, I got an email out of the blue from a content director at Audible noting my success and asking what I was working on next. I gave them – literally – two sentence descriptions of four or five future projects I had in mind, and they bought one the next day. Within a month I had a contract and an advance check in my hand. Boom.
So the moral of that story I guess is this: there are LOTS of different ways to sneak into the traditional publishing arena. For me, I think I understood that I’m not a great query-query-query-call-call-call guy, and my work is actually pretty different, so I don’t know how attractive I am to agents. So I needed to just focus on the work and have an “if the books are good enough, and I promote the heck out them, eventually something will break in my direction” attitude. For other people, the query process makes sense and I’ve seen people get fantastic breaks that way, and others (in sci-fi at least) go the short story route, selling their stories to periodicals and podcasts, and getting noticed that way.
In my experience, agents and publishers have not been interested in re-publishing existing self-published works, it’s like, “why would I try to sell yesterday’s newspaper when you’ve already tried?” I know there are standout examples, like Andy Weir’s The Martian(what a great example and dream, right?), but I haven’t gotten thatcall yet!
9. If you are legally allowed to say, was your book optioned for film or television?
I’ve had several people approach me about both Where the Hell is Tesla?and The Wrong Unit, but nothing has materialized yet.
10. Do you feel as though your experience was one-of-a-kind or something capable of being accomplished by any writer serious about self-publishing?
I think each experience is unique, and there is definitely luck involved, but any serious author who is persistent – and I mean PERSISTENT – can do enough right things to make luck break in their direction. Every single day I think about how to promote my books and myself, and write my very best next book, and look for connections. Every single day. For years. While I run my ad agency. I have met so many authors who want success, but aren’t willing to go to the lengths necessary. It is not romantic. It is hard work that has romantic moments.
11. Do you regret originally self-publishing your first book?
Absolutely not. On this point I agree with an article by Tim Grahl (I actually found the link! https://booklaunch.com/traditional-or-self-publishing/) and in it he says, “Start from the place of keeping ownership and control of your project” as a positive reason to self-publishing first. That means that by going through the entire business side of publishing myself, and seeing how much of each sale I can earn, I can make a much more informed decision when the time comes to enter into a traditional publishing contract. When I was approached by Audible, I knew exactlywhat I was getting from them, and what I was giving away, and there was a great feeling of empowerment and control in that knowing.
12. Do you have any advice on self-publishing for other writers?
I’d say above all, know yourself. If you are not a DIY kind of person, it will be even more of an uphill battle to self-publish. If you don’t like to talk to strangers, or think that shameless self promotion is icky, you might want to stick with the traditional query-agent-publisher route. But if you like to roll up your sleeves, and learn a TON, and figure out problems, and call people you’ve never met, and make massive checklists — well, then there is a RUSH when you hold your first paperback copy in your hand. And a rush when you get your first royalty check. And a rush when you get your first positive review, your first interview, your first live reading, your first thousand sales. And then when you get an email from a publisher wanting your next novel, it’s a rush I can’t even describe. And guess what? YOU DID THAT. ALL OF IT. YOURSELF.
13. What is the biggest mistake you see other authors make?
1. Traditional-path-minded author mistake: I hate to say this, but I’ve literally seen authors wait through many potentially productive years for that big break where an agent might sell their manuscript to a big-five publisher for a big advance and contract. And they wait and wait. It’s such a heartbreaking waste of time.
2. Self-published author mistake: the idea that if you write a good book and publish it on Amazon, somehow it will magically sell on its own.
From all my experience watching this indie world, THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN (except in extremely rare cases). You need to constantly promote yourself and your work. One personal example of many: I write a monthly short story and record it in audio for my podcast, Listen To The Signal (https://listentothesignal.com). Do I get a lot of listens? Meh. Does it sell my books? Maybe a few. But it’s something I’m giving the reading/listening world. And it’s something that’s giving me another platform to talk about myself and my books. And that’s just one of the many things I do, just one spoke in the wheel.
14. What was your biggest mistake?
I think I’m actually making my biggest mistake right now! For the latest novel with Audible, I got so focused on writing, for so long, that I’ve let the promotion side of the equation take a bit of a back seat. I think that might be the biggest hurdle for self-publishers: finding that balance so that you’re always doing both, writing and promoting, writing and promoting. So now while I’m between novels, I’m setting up promotions, writing some short stories, reaching out to people.
15. Is there anything you wish everyone knew?
I wish everyone knew my name!
But seriously, if by “everyone” you mean people interested in writing/publishing, I’d say I’d want them to know that there is no one right path, traditional or self-publishing, blogs, wattpad, pitchfests, podcasts, there are LOTS of paths, and that’s encouraging, BUT… in ANY path, the people I’ve seen succeed are the ones who persist, and put themselves out there, and share, and experiment, and market themselves. (As an extension to that, I’d also say that what I’m learning from other authors is that even big publishers put the burden of marketing on the author, the day-in-and-day-out promotion of the author brand, so if you want to get into it, any path will require that.)
16. Is there something I should have asked but didn’t?
17. What is the role of social media?
I think it’s an important spoke in the wheel of self-publishing. Twitter is my personal favorite (of course there’s Facebook too, and Instagram, and Pinterest, and others). It’s a great way to share what you’re working on, build a community of followers, and interact with them in a surprisingly intimate way. Check out this little exchange:
18. Is it just about books?
Absolutely not. Through experimentation, I’ve learned that readers, the real avid ones especially, like to know an author as much as their books. So it’s very important to build an author platform: a website, an email list, a social media presence, a youtube channel, an industry association (mine is SFWA), and a network of fellow authors. On any given week, I’ll interact with folks through:
– a question from the contact page of my website (like your request for an interview!)
– a reply to an email I send out to my list
– notifications like the above on Twitter or other social media
– a comment with a question on one of my youtube videos
– an answer or a question on the SFWA online forum
– an answer or a question from one of the authors I know
19. What is a hybrid author and why is it important?
A hybrid author is one who self-publishes some of their books, and traditionally publishes others. (Or self-publishes an e-book and a publisher purchases the paperback rights, for example.) As I watch the publishing landscape change, I see this happen more and more, and I think this is the most exciting path of the future: authors who start out self-publishing, proving the quality of their work and the quality of their platform, and attracting agents and publishers for future traditionally-published projects. I am now a hybrid author, and would love to stay that way in the long term — with control over my work, but enough people and distribution behind me to keep taking me to the next level.
A couple of final thoughts:
• I posted a rough roadmap of my own last year on Entrepreneur.comif you’re interested: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279385
• To get a quick taste of my writing and narrating style, I encourage you to listen to my latest short sci-fi story in audio, “Dakō”: https://listentothesignal.com/dako-written-and-narrated-by-rob-dircks/. It’s only 12 minutes long, or a 7-minute read. But if that’s not your cup of tea, no worries.
• If you need any artwork/photos/reviews or anything, here’s a link to my media kit (another great tool to have for self-published authors!): bit.ly/robdircks