Please Pick My Book by Its Cover – The Perils of Indie Authorship
Please Pick My Book by Its Cover – Ashton Macaualy
Being an independent author is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest things I’ve ever done. The easy part? All you need to do is write a few words, slap your name on them, and BOOM, you’re an Indie Author. Congratulations. The hard part? Getting people to read those words, or better yet, getting someone else to pay to publish them. The harder part? Finding people to buy those books once you’ve wrangled a publisher and have your cover on the digital shelf. It’s a never-ending cycle; one that I’ve been heavily engaged with for about four years now. So, if you’re new to the scene, struggling to get your work out there, or just tired of the infinite shameless self-promotion loop on social media, strap in and let’s talk about it.
It was four years ago when I started to think of myself as a hot-shit writer with a manuscript that could sell. I had just moved to Seattle and was, as a lot of writers are, jobless. Those long days in my 400 square foot apartment were spent watching Seinfeld, applying for jobs, and submitting everything I had ever written to anyone who would pay a few bucks on Craig’s List. Sure, I submitted to a few of the big publishers as well, but its four years later and I’ve never heard a word from any of them. Want ads aren’t what a lot of people would call the traditional route to getting published, but it worked.
About two months into this rinse and repeat cycle of applications and submissions, two equally incredible things happened. The first is that I got a job working as a contractor at Xbox; pretty sweet, a dream gig for me. The second is that out of the hundred or so submissions of my work to various entities, I received two responses. Both were similar, offering to buy one of my short stories for a twenty-five-dollar flat fee. The first, I accepted immediately, jumping at the chance to have anything published. The second I rejected, hoping to hold out on that story for later (recently published in Aberrant Tales).
After selling that first story, I didn’t hear back from the publisher for almost six months. I continued to write every morning before going to my 9-5, but interestingly, the publication hadn’t been a life-changing experience. That changed the day a brown bubble envelope arrived on my doorstep. I opened it up and to my surprise, I had become a published author. The feeling of holding that red-covered Aberrant Literature Short Fiction Collection – Volume 3 and seeing my name on the author list was unlike anything I had ever experienced. That’s how I met my now publisher, Aberrant Literature, and the man behind it, Jason Peters. That collection spurred our writing/editing/promoting partnership that’s been going strong ever since, but none of it would have happened if I had been above submitting my work on Craig’s List.
That’s the thing about writing: no one should be above anything. If your goal is anything other than getting as many people as possible to enjoy your work, I hate to say it but you’re in the wrong business. I put a lot of time and effort into getting my first short story published, and there was a lot of rejection along the way, but holding it in my hand made me happy because it meant someone had liked reading it enough to print it.
Fast forward three or so years, (time has a funny way of slipping by when you spend it with your imagination behind a keyboard), and my first novel has been out for about nine months. Jason and I worked tirelessly on that manuscript for a solid two years before it ever saw the light of day, and yes, even after it came out, I still needed to keep my day job. The work only intensified after the book came out because getting readers takes effort – not just some of the time, but every day.
Since May of last year, we’ve tried just about everything to promote Whiteout, and it hasn’t been easy. As it turns out, getting people to pick up a paperback from an author they don’t know is pretty damn difficult. I’ve tried just about everything: In-person events, hiding books in airports/supermarkets, tweeting relentlessly into the echo chamber that is #WritingCommunity (it feels good, but doesn’t move copies), paid promotion, and many more. At the end of the day, the best luck I’ve had has been at those in-person events, or interviews like this one for Advanced Literate. The most effective way to get someone to pick up your book is to engage with them on a personal level and convince them it’s worth their time.
I know, getting in-person gigs isn’t easy, but like this whole crazy profession, it requires persistence. I’ve walked into around fifteen bookstores to ask about opportunities to sell my work and sign copies. Of those fifteen, two of them were nice enough to let me come to Indie Author Nights and talk. Those experiences were some of the best I’ve had as an author. I interacted with others in the community – some of whom I still talk to, some of whom I avoid with a ten-foot digital pole – but more importantly, it gave me experience. Seeing your readers in person shows you how they react when you communicate certain aspects of your work and teaches you what delights them. I’ve carried those lessons over to my digital interactions, and while we’re not selling hundreds of copies a month, sales aren’t stagnant either.
Alright, this was a lot of words about the process, and you might be feeling discouraged. However, while it sounds like a slog, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned: I’ve loved just about every minute of it. Sure, there have been nights where my eyes are burning red from staring at the screen too long and every word I type feels like the work of a fifth grader, but when I shut off the computer, I’m happy. Writing is one of the few things in this world that makes sense to me, and any opportunity I have to do it fills my spiritual tank (sounds gross when I say it out loud). No matter how many books I sell or copies I sign, I’m still going to get up two hours before I need to be at work every morning and write. So, if you love the craft as much as I do, stop reading this blog post, open up your manuscript you’re procrastinating on, and get to it.