Last year, I wrote my first book, Chasing the Runners High. When I finished the book, I sent a query around to a few publishers and agents. The consensus was “nice book, too bad you’re not famous”. Hmmm… I thought it was their job to make me famous? I ended up publishing the book myself, in October 2010.
There are two things everybody wants to know when they learn I’ve published a book. The first is “How many copies have you sold?” I have a bit of OCD, so I keep close track of these things. Through January 31, 2011, I’ve sold 165 copies of the book in one form or another. I also have 16 copies out on consignment in four different stores, and I know I’ve sold at least three copies through them. An additional 15 people chose to download the book from my website without paying. I’ve also given away 26 paper copies and 7 digital copies as gifts and I’ve sent six paper copies and 19 digital copies out to prospective reviewers. So there are about 240 copies out there, maybe even more if anyone has given copies of the ebook to their friends.
The second thing everybody wants to know is “How much money have you made?” Through January 31, my expenses have totaled $994.53 and my income is $946.74, so at this point, I’m still $47.79 in the hole. However, my vendors still owe me about $118 for the books I’ve already sold. If you count that, I’ve made about $70. And I still have about 40 books on hand, which represent another $500 or so in potential income.
When considering self-publishing, it’s important to be realistic about what you want out of your publishing experience. I wanted to put out a good book, one that I could sell to my friends and to strangers without being embarrassed. I wouldn’t mind making some money, but I knew that most self-published books don’t generate a lot of income, so I wanted to keep my expenses down. Still, I was willing to spend money if it would help me sell books.
The frightening thing is that I’m already more successful than the majority of self-publishers. According to some sources, the average self-published book sells around 150-200 copies. You have to keep in mind that that average come from a (very) few books that sell well and whole lot of books that don’t sell at all. That means that since I’m near the average, I’ve already sold more books than most people.
It took me about a year to write the book. When I finally had a book’s worth of material, it needed to be edited for content and copy-edited to fix the inevitable mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It was impossible do a good job of this all by myself. After spending months staring at the book, I lost the ability to really see the details. I needed people with the right skills who could take a fresh look at the material. I could have hired people to do the work for me, but that wouldn’t be cheap. Luckily, I had friends who helped me out. Between us, we plowed through the book over and over, improving the text and fixing dozens of mistakes.
I wanted to put out both paper and digital editions of my book. According to Amazon, ebooks are selling almost as well as paper books these days. But lots of people still prefer paper, and I wanted to be able to reach those people. Besides, I wanted to be able to see my book in people’s hands and on shelves in stores and libraries, and for that I needed paper.
Another reason to make a paper edition, though one I didn’t realize mattered until later, is that a lot of people wanted me to sign their books. It’s very hard to autograph a data file.
I chose CreateSpace, a Print On Demand (POD) vendor owned by Amazon, to print my paper books. CreateSpace allows you to set up a book at no cost, but paying $40 got me into their Pro program, which made my per-copy costs low enough to let me sell my book at a good price and still make a decent amount on each copy I sold. Every other POD vendor I looked at had higher startup costs and prices per copy that would cut dramatically into my potential profits.
I chose the standard trade paperback size (8.5” x 5.5”) for the paper edition of the book. I studied a few similar books from my library and copied their design as well as I could, formatting the pages in Microsoft Word. The end result was a book that was 262 pages long. I used the free Bullzip PDF printer to generate a PDF file that I could submit to CreateSpace for processing.
CreateSpace allows you to design you own cover from scratch, but I used the templates and tools they provided which made it fairly easy to come up with a result I liked.
Proof copies were a little expensive (more than $20 each). A lot of people only want (or sell) one or two books, so CreateSpace charges extra for proofs to ensure that they make some profit. It took three proofs before I got one that looked OK to me.
I built my own ebooks from the Word file using free software I found online. Later on, I discovered an easier way to build ebooks using Smashwords. I had more control over the final result using my original method, but for many people that extra control is not worth the hassle.
One downside of using free or inexpensive online services to publish is the lack of support. Vendors cut their costs by cutting back on customer service. If you’re going to self-publish cheaply, you have to be able to figure things out for yourself, and you have to be able to deal with some frustration when things don’t work the way you want, or when something goes wrong and you try to get help.
Once I had a book to sell, I had to get out and sell it. In a lot of ways, this is the hardest part of self-publishing. If I was working with a traditional publisher, they’d have sales and marketing people to do this for me. I’d make much less per copy, but I’d have a better chance of selling lots of copies to make up for it. They might even pay me an advance :-). But I don’t have a publisher, so I was on my own.
The first step was to make my book available in as many places as I could. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for anyone to buy the book, or to stumble across it if they happened to be looking at running books in general.
I built my own web site to sell books in paper and multiple ebook formats. I also ordered 100 books from CreateSpace. That way I had some copies on hand to give as gifts, send to potential reviewers, and sell directly to people.
Most stores are not terribly interested in self-published books. I did manage to get some local bookstores to stock a few copies on a consignment basis.
The rest of my sales come from online bookstores. Everybody who wants to sell books these days needs to be on Amazon. CreateSpace lists all their books there. By signing up for the Pro program, I gained access to their “Expanded Distribution Channel”. That made it possible for other online bookstores to list the book. It also let libraries and brick-and-mortar bookstores order the book through their regular channels.
I published ebook editions in the Kindle store, Barnes & Noble, and Google Books. I also submitted the book to Smashwords, and had them pass it on to vendors that I hadn’t already covered, like Apple, Sony, and Diesel.
I set the price of the paperback edition of my book at $12.99. At that price, I make about $8 per copy when I sell direct, $6 if someone orders from my web site, $3 if they order it from Amazon or buy a consignment copy from a store, or $1.50 if it sells through the Expanded Distribution Channel. As a comparison, I’d be lucky to make $1.50 per copy if I had a deal with a traditional publisher.
The eBook sells for $7.99 in the Kindle store and on other sites. I make about $5 for every copy that sells. On my own site, the suggested price for an eBook is $5, but I let people set their own price. I make about $4.50 if I sell a copy for $5. None of the eBook versions are copy-protected.
On my web site, I also set up a process to allow people who bought a book to direct a portion of the profits from the book to the charity of their choice. In part, I was hoping to get the charities interested in promoting the book to increase their share. There was some interest, but nothing much came of it.
The next step was to let people know the book was available. Most of the things I tried didn’t cost any money, they just took time and effort.
I wrote up some message templates to cover different situations, and then I started sending out email messages. A lot of messages. I announced the book to friends and runners in my Gmail contact list. I spent hours surfing the web and collecting email addresses for running clubs and running blogs and then I wrote them to ask them to share information about my book. I made an effort to limit my email to people and sites that were clearly interested in running, but it certainly was “Unsolicited Commercial Email”. In some people’s minds this was spam. I can see their point. Other people bought books, so YMMV.
I contacted the larger blogs, running magazines, some literary sites, and a few well-known runners and offered them review copies of the book. I’ve posted the reviews and comments on my site as they were published. I also bought a list of contact information for Massachusetts media outlets and sent them press releases. Two of my local news outlets published interviews online, and one of them also including theirs in the paper newspaper.
I created a list of Gifts for Runners and The Essential Running Library list of running books on Amazon. I added my book to both lists (of course).
I posted messages with links to my book’s site on Usenet, in the forums on running sites like Runner’s World and Active.Com, and on a few blogs that didn’t provide an email contact. And I posted the news of my book and ongoing updates to Facebook, my home page, and my own blog.
All the links back to me helped make my site the top result when people search Google (or Bing) for “Chasing the Runner’s High”.
I talked with bookstores and coffeehouses about holding readings or runs to promote the book, but nothing came of those efforts. I did sell some books to members of my running club at special “book nights” on our Monday and Thursday night pub runs.
I made an Xtranormal video of a character reading from my book. That might not have been the most successful idea I had.
I sent three copies to the race director of the Pine Mt 40 ultramarathon to use as awards an in return she was kind enough to put a link on the race website and distribute a flyer with the race package.
I didn’t buy any display ads, but I did try “Pay for click” ads on Google AdWords, Bing/Yahoo’s Microsoft Ad Center, and Facebook. It was an interesting experiment, but definitely not worth the expense. The cost per click was around a dollar, and the conversion rate was not high enough to justify the cost.
I also sent copies to the libraries in the town where I live and the town I grew up in. A couple other libraries have bought their own copies. I’m pleased to have my books in any library that wants it on the shelves. If that costs me a few sales, that’s just a small payment on all the books I’ve borrowed over the years.
I’m pretty happy with the results so far. My primary goal was to write a book that people would enjoy and make it available to whoever wanted it without losing any money. The feedback I’ve gotten indicates I’ve been successful. I’ve really enjoyed hearing back from my readers.
My secondary goal is to get the book in as many hands as possible, in the hope that the right people will see it and spread the word. I haven’t made any money yet. I’m not going to make much selling 150 books, or 200 books, or even 500. There isn’t much chance of making enough to compensate me for all the time and effort I’ve put into the project.
But the book is still out there, and I’m still finding more ways to get it in front of more people. Who knows? If I wear the t-shirt Ruth gave me often enough, maybe I’ll get lucky, word will spread and sales will take off. Stranger things have happened.
I’d like to thank Jim Chido, Mark Bates, Marie Charbonneau (hi, Mom!) and the Boston Writer’s Meetup Group again for their help with revising this book. Special thinks to ultrarunning champion Marshall Ulrich, who took the time to read an early draft and sent me some very kind comments that I’ve used extensively to promote the book. Marshall has his own book coming out soon (he has a publisher). And most of all, thanks to my wonderful wife, Ruth Sespaniak, for her support while I sat at home working on this project. Someone has to earn the money for cat food and vet bills.
For more updates, read my blog or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. I recently placed my first story in an anthology due out in September, and there’ll be more to come.
A few more numbers, for those of you who are interested:
I’ve sold 168 books. 117 were paper copies, while 51 were ebooks.
Here’s where people bought their paper copies:
- My web site: 42
- Amazon: 41
- the Expanded Distribution channel: 2
- Directly from me: 29
- in stores: 3
Here’s where people bought their ebooks:
- My web site: 22
- US Kindle store: 23
- UK Kindle store: 2
- Barnes & Noble: 4
I allow people to name their own price when they get the eBook from my site. Fifteen people paid the suggested price of $5. Three people paid more than $5 while four paid less then $5. 15 people downloaded the book without paying. Hopefully they’re telling their friends how good a book it is.
So far 44 people have selected a charity when purchasing a book from my site:
- Childrens Hospital: 14
- Alzheimer’s Association: 12
- Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports: 8
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: 8
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: 1
- 826 Boston: 1
Hi Mr. Charbonneau. I bought your book, and here I am bothering to look for you on Internet to say thanks. I could say thanks for sharing that information about yourself with total strangers so we could learn from your experiences, but really I wanted to say thanks for writing the story that’s in the book in such an entertaining way. It wasn’t just another race report! Good luck with it, Matt
Update: 234 books sold (thru Mar 31)