On Getting Halfway There: Lessons Learned

With the release of A Distant Light, I have passed the halfway point of publishing The Year of the Red Door.   When I started out on this project, I wasn’t sure if I could get this far along.   I’ve certainly learned some lessons about my approach to publishing this story.   And although I don’t have time to rest or celebrate (there’s too much to do!), I think I ought to take a moment to reflect and to share a few observations.

This whole thing could still blow up in my face.

It has been, from the very beginning, an audacious undertaking.   I knew, starting out, that it bucks many current trends.   It was a long story.  It did not fit in really well with other current fantasy books.  It would be expensive to produce, perhaps too expensive for readers to buy.   That was not just my opinion.   Those concerns were raised by several big-time publishers.   Some of them really wanted to publish it, but they decided that it was too risky.

On top of that, with the exception of some editors, I’d be going it alone.   I’d be doing all of the epub, Kindle, and print layouts, all of the cover layouts, web-related work, and distribution management by myself.   In other words, I’d be the publisher.

Crazy, huh?

So now that I’m publishing the story myself, the risk is on me.

When planning all this, I quickly came to the conclusion that I should get each volume of the tale out as quickly as possible.   Hence the somewhat frantic pace.   And hence my mistakes and blunders on the production side of things.   But I think I recovered quickly enough.  I made corrections appropriately, and pressed on.

If I am able to keep to my schedule, the final volume will be released December 1st of this year.   That’s five lengthy volumes in 12 months, excluding other short works, such as Eighteen Objects of Power, The Fall of the Faere and Other Stories, etc., that have also been released during this time.   In addition, there are other side projects to do, such as book trailers and promos, and the Reader’s Companion that is in the works, too.

So, yes.   Ambitious?   Audacious?    Unconventional?   Crazy?

You pick.

And here are some things I’ve learned along the way:

Lesson #1: You can’t control what your business “partners” do.

Just when I had carefully planned pricing for print versions of the volumes, I learned that one of the major bookstore printer/distributors (Ingram) was doubling my production charges.  Doubling!   Overnight, my balance sheets were in the red.   Being lengthy volumes, they were already expensive.   When the word came about the cost increases, I felt betrayed.   I was outraged.  Then I went into shock for a good while.   I agonized over what to do.  Finally, I did the only thing I could do.   I raised the retail price for copies sold via that distributor.

The upshot:   Whereas I had planned to make bookstore pricing less than online pricing, I was forced to increase bookstore pricing by $9.00 over online prices*.    Even at this increase, I will only make a few cents per book sold, due to the production cost increase.   It was a hard lesson.

Lesson #2: Mistakes will plague you.

It turns out that the distributor that increased production charges also charges fees for any updates to the print files.    All other printer/distributors charge nothing for updated files.   This comes into play when errors are discovered after print files are submitted.   And errors inevitably surface.   Either things that got missed during editing, or typos are found, or formatting problems are discovered, etc.   The first copies to hit the sales shelf are ALWAYS inferior.

While I have always intended to produce a second “improved” edition, I did not anticipate that so many revisions would be needed to production versions.   This has caused serious delays in the production of subsequent volumes (although it has not resulted in a missed release deadline).   To say the least, it makes for long nights of work, and an ever-present sense of unease.

Lesson #3: You can’t do effective marketing work while doing production work.

Marketing is a full-time endeavor.  It is time-consuming, expensive, and requires daily attention.    To do it right, you need a separate line of marketing products, flyers, newsletters, press releases, advertisements, etc.  You need do a lot of work online.   You need to keep up with things and time things correctly.

Production work is full-time work.   It is also time-consuming, expensive, and requires daily attention.    Creating interior layouts for distributors with different requirements.   Covers for five different distributors, requiring five layouts.   Epub and Kindle file creation and formatting.   Interior map design and tweaking.  Et cetera.

My plan always entailed doing marketing in 2017, after the entire story is available.   After all, you can’t expect people you don’t know to buy your book if they don’t even know about it.   And studies seem to indicate that only about 5% of the people that know you will actually buy your book(s).   So unless you have a million close friends, you’ll hear what I’ve heard: crickets.   And that’s hardly enough income from sales to pay for production costs, much less marketing expenses.

So real marketing has to wait.   Just as planned.

Lesson #4: There are still things you can do.

There are still free or low-cost things to do in the way of “marketing.”  Like giveaways, good newsletter content and subscriber enticements, social media posts.   Modest things.   Things that don’t take a lot of time away from production work.

Lesson #5: You don’t have time to celebrate or mourn.

Every part of getting every volume to market is a milestone.   But milestones are not the finish line.   When The Bellringer was released, I was so relieved and happy that I actually did some celebrating.   That was a mistake, as it turned out, because I learned the hard way that I should have used that time and energy to get the next volume really ready to go.  I mean really ready.   I needed every hour, every minute, as it turned out.

Later, just when Volume 2, The Nature of a Curse, was getting ready to go to the distributors, I learned that on of my distributors was increasing its production charges.   Not only did this Deep Six my pricing and promotion plans, it also completely threw my entire psyche into a spiral.   I immediately knew what I had to do: raise prices for copies sold through that distributor.   Only I didn’t react immediately because I was in denial.   And I was angry.    Both of those attitudes wasted of time and energy that should have been devoted to real work.   Productive work.

Conclusion:   Keep moving.

So I am a little more than halfway up the hill.   And this whole thing can still turn out be a Sisyphean effort in the end.    But the rock I’m pushing seems to be getting a bit lighter as I learn the way.   I’m sure there are still a few surprises and snares ahead…

…but I will keep moving.

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*MSRP $9.99-$12.99 via CreateSpace distribution as opposed to $21.99 for Ingram distribution for the exact same format/size, etc.

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