The Other Cost of Self-publishing (or How To Do it All Wrong and Still Get It Right)
Recently, fellow Missouri author Lisa Medley posted a blog post about the cost to self-publish her first book. Now, some folks have given her a little flack for paying for things she didn’t have to, and the amounts she paid and so on, without understanding the context of her choices. They’ve claimed some of her expenses were mistakes. But while she made some different decisions than I did, I think I’d rather have made her mistakes than mine. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lisa through a local writers’ group, and I was thrilled for her when Harlequin picked up her Reaper series a few years back, right around the time I was first published by Pendraig Publishing, a small press out of California. Oddly enough, we both had some similarities in our experiences, in that we both got picked up by publishers, and we were both disappointed by the results. And we BOTH went to self-publishing.
Now, here is where our experiences differ. First off, Lisa writes in the VERY competitive romance market, specifically in paranormal romance. I write urban fantasy and zombie fiction. Technically, the zombie novels are post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And I will tell you from a total lack of experience but from knowing folks who know the business…romance is an expensive genre to write in. Sci-fi and fantasy…not so much. So it stands to reason that though we’re both following a similar path to publishing, our costs were different.
Lisa broke her costs down pretty thoroughly for her first book, and I thought I would do something similar for my first self-published book. However, I’ll also break down some of the costs for one of my later books as well. Lisa chose to do a few things that I didn’t, mostly because she’s a class act and I’m a hack writer. So, where our paths differ, understand that my choices don’t reflect on a disagreement with hers or anything like that.
So, on with the show. Here’s how the expenses for Zompoc Survivor: Exodus played out.
Zompoc Survivor Exodus
Write the book: Time and energy, $0
Recruit beta readers in place of an editor: Time and energy, mention in acknowledgements, $0
Make cover myself: Time, effort, $0
Format myself on Smashwords & Amazon: Time, effort, headaches, stress, $0
Get ISBN number from Createspace for print copy: $0
Let Amazon assign ASIN instead of ISBN to e-book: $0
Createspace proof w/ slow boat to China level shipping: $6.36
Advertising via spamming on promo groups on Facebook: 2-4 hours daily, $0
10 copies from Createspace: $35.50
Prize shipping: $30
Total cost: Time, effort, Sanity, hair loss, $71.86
Now, notice one HUGE thing I did different from Lisa: I did a LOT of the work myself. Formatting, cover, editing, all me. Some folks might think this is a great idea. But while some folks have pointed out on Facebook that Lisa paid for some things that might not have been strictly necessary, I am here to tell you, she made the better decision!
First off, the editing. This is something no writer should try to handle on their own, in my personal opinion. Here, let me get on my soapbox and shout that out with a megaphone and some neon lights. DON’T DO IT! If you love your readers…if you want to ever HAVE readers, don’t edit your own work if you can avoid it. Even if you can’t avoid it, at least get some good beta readers. See, I was very lucky when I went searching for beta readers. I asked other successful writers who they had beta read their work, and I went to talk to those people. Best bad decision I ever made, that. One of those beta readers now has her own business as an editor and proofreader. So, I wasn’t smart, I was lucky.
Second dumb thing I did that ended up turning out okay: the cover. For my cover, I went through some of my photos and found one in my files that I could alter to the point you couldn’t tell who it was or where they really were with ease because of the composition of the photo. Then I took it from color to black and white and ran it through a water-color wash and BAM, instant iconic image for my cover. Then, I did one other smart thing. Remember how I talked to other successful authors about beta readers? Same thing here. I found out what worked and made the changes they suggested. And it worked. Of all my covers, it’s by far the most amateurish, and it shows. But again, luck favored me in many ways.
Finally, formatting. Dang, that was a learning process. I wish I knew then what I know now. The print version of ZS: Exodus doesn’t have page numbers because I didn’t know how to insert them. The front matter is painfully bare. It took several tries to get it to actually read the way I wanted to. And for the record: I still do it myself, and I still hate doing it. But I’m getting better at it.
So, my first book cost me less than $100 to self-publish, but as Lisa also points out in her blog, as the publisher, all of the responsibility for getting it done right was on me. And somehow, I was up to the task, even if it was entirely by accident. Because, like Lisa discovered, having the right people in your corner is crucial.
Now, here is another place where my experience differs slightly from Lisa’s. For ZS: Exodus, the bar to break even was low. So, I had some leeway to do something that I believe has had a tremendous impact on my career.
I practically gave my first book away. My initial price point was 99₵ and I kept it there for a month. Now, at that rate, I would have had to have sold just over 200 copies to break even. I sold over 2500 in the first month. Later on, when I raised my price to the full $2.99, my ranking was so high, I still recouped my costs several times over. However, even if I had spent more on the first book, I would have still done the same thing, because the high initial rankings got me sales at the higher price point. More importantly, the high volume made up for the loss in potential income with repeat readers.
In the end, ZS: Exodus ended up making me enough to hire professionals to handle the two things I should never touch again: editing and covers. When it came time to put ZS: Inferno out, I paid a LOT more for those two services, an easy $500-600 for editing and covers. I made that back in the first month it was out. In short, my second book presents (and thus sells) a lot better than my first book did because I spent more money on it.
So, the lesson here is that it IS possible to self-publish a book for less than $100. But it isn’t a good idea. Lisa’s initial offering presents a lot better than mine did. If you’re going to make mistakes, follow Lisa’s example and err on the side of quality. That’s the better decision. If you’re going to make my mistakes, you’re going to have to make them EXCEPTIONALLY well. As in the “you’re going to have to roll sevens three times in a row with loaded dice” kind of well. And trust me, you don't want to rely on luck more than skill.
Your first book is an investment, and truth be told, if I had to give one piece of hard to swallow advice, it would be this: Don’t expect to make a lot back on your first book. Your first book is an investment in your fan base, and your royalties from that book are an investment in your second book. Assume a loss early on that is going to pay off in spades in the long run.
What is that pay-off? Consistent sales. So far, I’ve self-published three books. Because of the investment in my first book with the low price point and high volume of sales (and a lot of luck), all three books have hit the top 100 in their genres in the first month they’ve come out. The first book attracted a strong fan base. The second and third got them to come back, and they brought friends.
In conclusion: Write a damn good book. Invest in it. Write another damn good book and invest in it. Repeat as necessary.
Happy New Year!
At the beginning of 2014, I had this plan. I had three books I wanted to release about 3 months apart. One was dystopian, one was a zombie book and the third was portal fantasy. The genres are important, you see, because nothing went the way I planned for it to this year. Of the three I had planned, I had the dystopian book already “done” and close to publishing. Except the premise ended up being broken. So I scrapped that idea and sent it to the rewrite pile. That left the portal fantasy and the zombie story. Of the two, the portal fantasy was closer to being done, really. But, I went back to look at the zombie story, and said, “Well, let’s see if I can get this in a little better shape.” I also planned on a lot of other things. Things to do with my website, minor ideas I wanted to pursue. But most of all, I was still writing and still hopeful.
On February 28th, Zompoc Survivor: Exodus hit Amazon. My carefully crafted plan for the year was already scrapped, and I was sitting back trying to decide how to rescue or revise it.
Then, on March 6th, something amazing happened: ZS: Exodus exploded on the Amazon rankings. Suddenly, I was selling more books in a day than I ever had before. 2014 became all about getting the next book out, and suddenly, everything was coming together. It looked like, after years and years of writing, after two previous books, I was (and am) on the cusp of the life I have always wanted, a writer’s life. The one thing I didn’t plan for. I spent the rest of the year playing Xanatos speedchess.
It’s been a year of changes, of losses and gains. We saw family members return home after years away and the birth of a new grandson. I lost friends, but I gained new ones. I was blessed to see friends take the first steps into their own success. I got back one of my old books and released it anew.
Through it all, I think the biggest lesson from 2014 was that persistence pays off. You never know when you’re going to hit that moment where everything comes together. When suddenly, you are standing at the threshold of your dreams, and you realize that nothing is like you thought it would be. Some things are not so glamourous as you imagined, but other things are even better than you dared hope for. There are days in this writer’s life that are hard, when all I seem to do is work on the business of writing. But those are the moments when I stop and remind myself “It’s my business that I’m having to deal with. Not someone else’s. I’m working for me.”
Let me tell you, that’s an epic feeling.
So, as 2014 closes, I have one message for you: Keep fighting for your dreams, because anything worth dreaming is worth working hard for.
Never give up.
Stepping into 2015, I realize that most of the year has already been mapped out for me. Some of it still needs to be refined, but it’s already looking like a good year.
That, I find, makes all the difference. I start the New Year off knowing the following:
I am Mighty. I am Epic. And so are you.
Go forth and do Epic Things! Be a force for the Awesome!
If you've been on Facebook in the last few hours, you've already seen this, but I also wanted to post it here. I get thousands of its here a month, so I know a lot of traffic comes here. And here, I get to go into a little more detail.
I got to watch Gerry Kissell do the preliminary work on this on Saturday, and I was amazed at how quickly this came together and how much detail he packed into it. Everything on this cover reflects an element from the book, from the place the story starts to important details about the building itself. And I love how Gerry managed to add in the visual link back to how book one ended. I could spend hours picking out amazing little things about this.
This one is much better than the one I did for ZS: Exodus, and in time, you can bet I'm going to ask Gerry to redo the cover to it, too. But for today, I'm moving forward. If you want to see more of his work, go to his awesome website.
I plan to get ZS: Inferno out hopefully by end of week, and when I do, I'm going to be making some noise. I hope you'll help me.
Well, folks, I just wrapped up the second book in the Zompoc Survivor series. It’s in the hands of the editor, and I’ll also be sending it to my tech folks for double checking as well. Almost a month and a half after the deadline I’d set for myself, but I’m still pretty pleased. Five months to write a novel is still pretty impressive (if you’re me). For the next few days, no more staying up until 4 AM unless I want to.
Anyway, some fun facts about ZS: 2. It’s longer than ZS: Exodus… about 20% longer. ZS:E was just under 70K words long, ZS:2 weighed in at 86K. That should add a little more than 30 pages to the print copies. But, good news: I’m not raising the price.
I’ve been calling this one ZS: Odyssey, but the more I worked on it, the more it didn’t seem to fit this book. Maybe the next one. I’m giving some thought to it, but I think I have a theme for the Zompoc Survivor series, where the individual book title is derived from one of the classics. Since I started with Exodus, and I plan on using Odyssey, I figure why not stick with what worked?
We’ll learn a little more about the Asura virus in this book, and find connections from some of the things in the first book, as well as we’ll learn a little more about Dave and his eventual role in things. Plus, of course, new zombies, new gear and new survival tricks. And, as always lots of action and zombie killing.
But, of course, the best part? The wait is almost over for the second book in the Zompoc Survivor series.
First off, an entire month went by without a blog entry. Now we see why I am a novelist, not a blogger.
Second, my latest acquisition arrived today, a Kelly Kettle. I got the Scout kit, which includes the 44 oz. kettle, the large cook set (by comparison to the others, because it's pretty compact) and the pot support for the chimney. I also ordered five of the Sureflame fuel disks.
Let me tell you, this thing is amazing. I didn't want to waste one of the Sureflames, so I just walked out into the yard and found a handful of twigs and some dry leaves for kindling and fuel, grabbed some lint from the lint trap on the dryer and took it out to the bar-b-que grill to try it out. To make sure I got it to light on my first attempt (okay, it took me TWO tries), I took my knife to a few of the twigs and made them into feather sticks.
To be honest, my brain was fighting the idea the whole way. I felt like I was trying to make a campfire in a cereal bowl. I'm originally from Texas, and in true Texas fashion, I tend toward BIG. What most people call a bonfire, I call a cozy little blaze. If you can't see the damn thing from low orbit, you're just not trying hard enough. So breaking twigs down into four inch lengths seemed completely unnatural to me. There was no WAY a handful of dry twigs was going to get hot enough to boil water.
Once the blaze was started though, and I put the kettle over it....it was like a rocket (hence the name, I suppose). I had boiling water in a matter of minutes. Now, the Kelly Kettle I got would fill the pot that I got for it pretty handily, which is great for single servings. That is what it's designed for, and it does that job well. If you have more than one person to cook for, be ready to take the time to cook for each person individually. Which, with the Kelly Kettle, won't take long at all for two to three people. More people than that, and you're going to want to use a bigger fire.
Clean up...not as bad as I thought it would be. Granted, as you can see from the pictures, it's not sparkling clean, but it's a tiny little fireplace. How clean do you expect it to be? I found the hard way that using lint for tinder left an ash residue on the bottom that turned into a big lump once I poured water into the fire bowl, but it still came out easily enough. On the plus side, it still smells a little of woodsmoke, without being unpleasant to my nose. We'll see what my girlfriend thinks when she gets in.
Everything packed back up in a very compact package, which is pretty cool, considering how big the box it came in was, and that everything was separate.
When packing it up, the kettle actually starts off upside down, like the image on the left, and the bag is fitted over it before you flip it over and get what you see on the right.
With this, you can cook for yourself and generate a lot of heat with a minimal amount of fuel, and the best part is, you don't have to carry a bunch of fuel around with you. Twigs, pine cones, anything that burns well works, and it doesn't take much. Plus, with the kettle top in place to act as a chimney, you can limit the amount of light it gives off. Perfect for those nights out in the open when you don't want to attract zombies with a big fire.
So, for my next project(s), I'm going to make a Buddy Burner and a hobo stove. At least one of those makes an appearance in Zompoc Survivor: Odyssey. Until then, stay sharp and always have a plan B.
As promised, a brief snippet from the first chapter of ZS: Odyssey.
“We’ve got to get off this roof,” I said. The pilot was helping his wounded comrade pull her assault vest off, but he spared a second to give me glare as she sat on the edge of the rear deck.
“We’re about as safe here as we would be anywhere else, Mr. Stewart,” he said as he opened the first aid kit. “We’re on high ground, and this is a pretty defensible position. We’ve only got a couple more hours of sunlight left, so the best thing we can do is stay here until morning, when we can get our bearings and make a plan.” He turned away and started inspecting the wounded Marine’s arm. Now that we weren’t being shot at or trying not to fall to our deaths, I was able to take in details. The female Marine had the two chevrons over crossed rifles of a corporal. Her name tag read Hernandez. The pilot had a subdued black bar on his rank tab, and Kaplan on the tape over his pocket.
“Lieutenant, most days, I’d agree with you,” I said as I walked over to them. Hernandez winced as he poured the contents of a packet of Kwik-Clot over her wound. “But not today.”
“Listen, Mr. Stewart,” he said as he set the gauze wrap in Hernandez’ hand. He stood up and gave himself a few inches of vertical advantage on me before he went on. “We’re trained to handle situations like this. I know you’re scared right now, and I know this rooftop feels pretty exposed. From a civilian’s point of view, I can imagine how scary the situation must seem.” Behind him, Hernandez let out a little grunt that sounded like a laugh that had barely slipped under the wire. I took a deep breath and tried to reign my temper in, but somehow, that seemed to make things worse.
“You’re…trained for things like this,” I said slowly. “When did the Marine Corps add zombie apocalypse to its leadership course curriculum? Because if they did, you sure as hell didn't sign up for it! Look over there, lieutenant. Do you notice anything unusual about the dozens of reanimated dead people?” His head turned, then he turned back to me a couple of seconds later.
“Well, they’re dead again. Look, Mr. Stewart, you did a fantastic job keeping them away from the chopper, but that doesn't change basic-”
“Scrubs, Kaplan! Scrubs and hospital gowns!” I cut him off. “We landed on top of a goddamn hospital.” His face went slack, and I watched the blood drain from his cheeks.
“Oh shit,” he breathed. “We’ve got to get the hell off this roof.”
Update on ZS: Odyssey
One of the things I'm discovering about ending the first book of a series on a cliffhanger is that for some strange reason, people really want to know when the next book is coming out. It's like I ended the story with my hero about to crash into a zombie infested wasteland or something.
Which is, of course, great. Not that I take great pleasure in torturing my readers, (The same can't be said of my characters) but that they like the story so much.
So, this is me, burning the midnight oil and writing until 5:30 AM in the hope that I'll have ZS: Odyssey ready to go by July 1. Granted, I'm being wildly optimistic, but I have a terrific proofreader and this isn't my first novel so I'm pretty confident I can pull that off.
Okay, so how far along am I? Tonight saw me break the 40K mark on wordcount. To give you a better idea of what that means in terms of "How close to done are you, damn it!!?", ZS: Exodus was just shy of 70K words long. It was also 15 chapters long, and tonight, I just ended chapter 6. So, tonight puts me about halfway done.
ZS: Odyssey is going to be a little longer than Exodus, I know that. We're going to see a couple of different kinds of infected, and you'll learn a little more about the Asura virus. We'll also learn a little more about Dave, or course, and more importantly, Dave will learn some things about himself.
I'll try to post a snippet later this week.
Dave's Survival Tools
In Zompoc Survivor: Exodus, Dave Stewart uses several guns. Four different pistols, three rifles and a mini-gun as near as I can remember. I’ve been interested to one degree or another with survival since the late 1980s, when I lived and worked at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas and my thoughts on guns as survival tools after SHTF have been very much the same the whole time. When it comes to firearms, the well-stocked survival armory doesn't need a large supply of guns, it needs a good selection of them. In a perfect world, my gun cabinet would have four, maybe five guns: two pistols (one revolver and one semiautomatic), one rifle for hunting and self-defense, one shotgun for the same purposes, and a small caliber rifle for small game hunting.
It’s the last one that I would hope saw the most use, so it’s that one I’m going to concentrate on to start with in this entry. It should come as no surprise that I chose the Ruger 10/22 as my utility rifle. Since it was introduced in 1964, over five million have been made. It’s light, handles like a dream out of the box and has negligible recoil, plus, when you can find it, .22 ammo is dirt cheap. The 10/22 is also infinitely customizable, and it’s a good gun to pick up without breaking your budget, which is the primary reason Dave has one, since I wanted his preparations to be accessible to almost anyone. To that end, Dave’s Ruger only has a couple of after-market modifications, specifically, a Tactical Solutions Magazine Release and a Simmons .22 Mag Series scope. Both of these items cost under $50, and the rifle itself can run between $200-300 depending on which one you get and who you buy it from. Extra magazines from Ruger can be ordered for about $20 each. All told, you could put together a pretty decent kit over time for under $500, with the biggest single expense being the rifle itself. Dave bought the rifle first with his tax returns, then got the extra magazines before moving on to the scope and finally the quick release for the magazines.
The 10/22 is a great utility rifle. At close range, a 40 grain .22 round will drop most small game. It will also hurt most people pretty effectively if you have no other weapon for self-defense, through it’s not a man stopper. However, even from a pistol, .22 LR will penetrate through at least two standard walls (four layers of sheetrock), so you still want to be sure of your target and what is behind it if you’re shooting inside. So in a pinch, if you can only get out with one gun, the Ruger 10/22 is not a bad choice. Within 100 yards, it can penetrate pretty effectively though shot placement would be critical in a self-defense situation, and it can drop most small to medium game within about 200 yards if you need it to. It’s also light and durable, so if you have a long way to go, it won’t weigh you down so badly, especially since .22 ammo is so damn light and cheap.
Also, since it's a semiauto rifle, you can put rounds downrange faster than a bolt action, and with its almost non-existent recoil, you can acquire targets pretty easily. Good for handling a group of zombies at a distance.
But What about Zombies?
.22 vs zombie skull. Which one would win?
That question came up from more than one beta reader. Again, shot placement is critical. In talking to Lee Close, I was quickly disabused of the notion that “headshot” equals the forehead. In fact, aiming above the eyebrows quickly became something I wanted to actively avoid. The forehead is pretty much the thickest part of the human skull, so if you’re looking for a place to bounce small caliber rounds off of, that’s the spot to aim for. But, the brain is a pretty big organ and if you really want to give a zombie a fatal dose of small caliber lead poisoning, aim for the face.
Here’s why. If you put your sights on a zombie’s nose, even if you miss by even a couple of inches, you’re going to hit them either in the eye, the cheek or the mouth. While there are some pretty thick pieces of bone there, a big chunk of that area is empty space, especially the nasal cavities and eye sockets. And if you do happen to hit the nose…nothing but cartilage there. This is how Dave drops a big group of zombies with a Ruger 10/22.
If a zombie does give you a profile shot, aim for the ear. It’s center mass and it’s hard to go wrong with if you’re off by an inch or three. If by some strange happenstance, the walking dead folks are facing away from you and all you have is a small caliber target and varmint rifle…don’t fix that happy circumstance by letting them know you’re there and not dead.
That being said, ammo choice is also pretty important. 40 grain rounds seem to be the best combo of weight and velocity. lighter rounds are too likely to either not hit hard enough or get blown off target by wind. Too heavy, and you lose range and speed. Personally, I'd go for Velocitor rounds.
So, if you have to pick one gun for your survival prep, you can't go too far wrong with the Ruger 10/22.
As an author, there are moments when your life changes noticeably. The first time you type "The End" on a rough draft and realize you just wrote a novel. The first time one of your books gets published. Holding the first copy of one of your books in your hands. Big, exciting moments.
For me, one of those moments happened on March 6th, 2014. What happened that day? Several things all at once. Zompoc Survivor broke the 10,000 ranking on Amazon. It also broke into the top 100 in the post-apocalyptic genre. It even spent some time in the top 10 in both the post-apocalyptic and the dystopian genres, and it was the number 2 new release for a week or so.
Sounds like I'm bragging. Okay, yeah, I am. Just a little.
Today I also realized that I'd passed a sort of milestone recently. See, as I write this, I am comfortably on the far side of eight weeks in that same zone.
And this is where I REALLY brag, but not on myself.
It's no coincidence that the same day Shawn Chesser mentioned Zompoc Survivor on his Facebook page that my ranking skyrocketed. Nor is it a coincidence that people have had good things to say to me about my cover after Tony Baker helped me refine the design for it.
Every time David Forsyth mentions my book (and he has several times, not to mention giving a great review of it) more people seem to buy it. Likewise, Jeff Clare, the mastermind behind All Things Zombie page on Facebook has been a huge help in keeping ZS: Exodus and several other zompoc books visible with his efforts.
Because of the terrific work Linda Tooch did proofing Zompoc Survivor, it also stands out among self-published books as being remarkably error free, and readers notice that. Danielle Pascale's ATZ Book Club has also been a huge help for me in seeing how readers experience the story, which helps me immensely in the process of writing the next book.
Once again, it all comes down to community. The zompoc and post-apocalyptic community is very close knit, and without the help of a lot of people, I wouldn't have the success I've enjoyed.
So, yeah...I have the beginnings of a writing career now. Because I'm part of a community.
A day off
I don't know if any other zompoc writers run into this, but there comes the occasional night when I have to take the night off from writing. Why? Because what I write fuels the nightmare machine in my head. And you wondered why most of my posts show up at oh-dark-thirty AM.
Writing about the zombie apocalypse, I create an entire world filled with ravenous undead that also serve (at least in my world) something outside their own desire for human flesh. There are other monsters out there that you haven't seen yet, new horrors to test my characters. The whole story is in my head, and I have to create human characters who are just as much monsters as the zombies waiting outside the wire.
"Why do you write about this kind of thing if it does this to you?" Good question. It's a natural thing to ask. If what I write doesn't scare the shit out of me sometimes, or at least make my pulse race a little, how the hell do I expect it to do the same for the reader? It isn't a matter of writing what I know, it's a matter of writing what affects me.
The truth is, zombies scare the crap out of me. I can't binge watch TWD. Add to that a dose of respect for the mythos of HP Lovecraft, and you can imagine the horrors my brain can create. It isn't so much that I watch TWD and go "Oh, that's so horrible!"
No, I watch The Walking Dead and ask myself "What if...?"
Author of the Zompoc Survivor and The Demon's Apprentice series. Occasional wit. Constant smart ass.
Books By Ben Reeder:
The Demon's Apprentice The Page of Swords
The Verge Walker:Book 1
Zombies by Ben Reeder:
Zompoc Survivor: Exodus
Zompoc Survivor : Inferno
Zompoc Survivor: Odyssey
The Gathering Horde