A while back, I had a debate with fellow Indie author, self-publishing zealot and Year Zero Writer, Jenn Topper, on the issue of distribution. Ever since, it’s been something that’s gnawed away at me.
This piece came partly out of Marc Horne’s fantastic article about Feedbooks; partly it’s a crystallization of many of the articles I wrote at the end of last year; and partly it’s come out of the increasing comments I’ve had about putting my work on Amazon.
What I want to say in this article may only apply word for word to “indie or die” people like me (then again, romantic fic, historical fic, SF and erotica aside, self-publishing best suits the indie or die writer), but there are, I hope, a whole lot of transferables for any self-publisher.
The issue I have with most self-publishers I meet is simple. They haven’t distinguished between a marketing plan and a business plan. That is to say, they have lots of great ideas about how to sell the book they’ve written, but very few about how to make a career as a writer. If pushed, some think that the latter will follow like a glorious dawn from the former. Most haven’t really thought.
In brief, a marketing plan assumes the existence of a product, and seeks to sell it. A business plan sets out how to build the long-term success for a venture that has a register of assets, each one of which needs to be marketed. The difference is sustainability. A marketing plan will help you now. A business plan will help you over time, and will incorporate lots of different marketing plans.
The problem for the self-publisher is that the best marketing plan for your book may not be the same as those that fit within your business plan. The best marketing plan is always the one that fits in your overall business plan and it may NOT be the one that sells the most copies of THIS book.
So my first question is this. What do you want from your writing? Do you want to be a writer? For a living? One day? If so, you need a business plan.
So my second question is what’s your business plan? And selling lots of copies of this book, then lots of copies of your next book isn’t a plan, it’s an aspiration. The most common business plan for the self-publisher is to sell lots of copies so as to get picked up by a mainstream publisher. Fine, that’s a plan. I think for a whole lot of reasons it’s a bad one, but it IS a plan. I’m not going to deal with that here, because I’m not really interested in self-publishing as a means to an end. It’s not. It’s a great way to go in its own right. And sure as eggs are eggs, if you’re doing it FOR some other reason, you won’t give the thing itself your all.
Selling a gazillion copies so you can retire to the Riviera or live on the “how I did it” conference circuit is also a business plan. And one or two people will do it. But one or two people isn’t something to base your dreams on.
My business plan probably sounds very old-fashioned, but it’s very simple. I intend, eventually, to build a fanbase of people who love my work and are prepared to part with their money because they’re my fans. It sounds rather like Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans idea, which is rather unfashionable in literary circles (for some very poor reasons I don’t have time to go into here – but suffice to say the “people won’t pay for merch or live shows from writers is a MYTH perpetuated by lazy writers and those so arrogant or dilettantish they think they have a right to be paid for their hobby or have forgotten that storytelling is a communal activity). And that’s because it is. Maybe 1000 is on the small side, but the principle is sound. Gain a fanbase of loyal readers who love your work, and will happily pay for it.
Once you have identified the central goal of your business plan, question three is, what parts make up that whole? If you accept you are looking for loyal fans, those parts are fairly straightforward.
- Write something amazing that people will love. This is still the most important thing. You can sell 100,000 copies of book 1, but if it’s rubbish those 100,000 won’t buy book two, which makes the long term goal harder. MAKE IT SO YOU ONLY HAVE TO SELL TO THE SAME PERSON ONCE. And once you have, they will sell you to their friends.
- Find where your fans hang out, and hang out there. Don’t “sell” there. Hang out with them. This is about the fan-writer relationship. So you need to give, personally. But because you don’t need a fanbase of hundreds of thousands that’s not impossible.
- Write lots – true fans generate more true fans. Book one will sell book two and your fanbase will grow with minimal effort from you. Lots of books and a few fans is a more robust business plan than lots of fans and few books.
So where does Amazon fit? Well, the point is that it doesn’t. It doesn’t give me anything that I can’t do better by another means. And it DOES, given my readers are 18-35 year-old urban indie/alt lifestyle types lose me a lot of cred. I’ve had a lot of direct feedback that people love to buy my book from my website via print on demand, or they love that SKIN BOOK is knocked up by hand to look like a festival programme. The DIY, non-Amazon angle is part of what appeals to them.
Of course I’m not suggesting that every self-publisher scratch the ISBN from the back of their book and take it off Amazon – what you should do depends on many factors. The point is this – yes, you can get yourself a few hundred sales on the Kindle boards, but why? Is that an integral part of your business plan? Or is it just a marketing plan for the book in hand.
Dan Holloway is a founder member of Year Zero Writers, and curator of eight cuts gallery. Writer, blogger, journalist and live performer, he is the author of the novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, and most recently the collection of short stories and poems (life:) razorblades included.
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