Insurgent Creative – Required Reading: “Let’s Get Visible”

Let’s-Get-Visible-and-Other-Stories-by-David-GaughranFirst things first: Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed And Sell More Books is not something you should jump in and read first thing. It’s an advanced guide, a companion volume to David Gaughran’s 2011 release, Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. If you haven’t read Digital, you absolutely should — it is an absolutely critical tome for anybody looking to do digital publishing, whether running a small publishing operation, or putting our your own stuff — and it’s on sale right now for 99 cents as a tie-in promotion to this release, so you should go grab it immediately. I’ll wait.

Let’s Get Visible is the sequel — a more advanced guide which tackles the most critical issue facing independently-published content: How to get more people to see your work, to discover it among the myriad other options available, and hopefully, how to get them to buy it. It assumes that you already know the nuts and bolts of how of digital publishing — producing professional-quality material, well-designed, attractive, and making it available for sale. The focus of this volume is on increasing the visibility (and therefore the sales) of your books once they’re ready to go.

Insurgent CreativeThere are, as a rough estimate, eleventy-bajillion “CRACK AMAZON’S SECRETS AND SELL TONS!!!” self-publishing cash-ins available for purchase. This is not one of them. This is a sober, honest breakdown of tactics and strategies for increasing the visibility of your book, whether it’s been previously published, or if you’re launching from scratch. It concentrates largely on methods to improve your books visibility on Amazon — which makes sense, since Amazon represents an overwhelmingly large percentage of the digital market. Your best efforts focused there will have the most direct impact on your overall sales. Gaughran also covers sites like Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and Smashwords, but spends most of the time giving you information that will do you the most good.

Gaughran presents the current best guess as to workings of Amazon’s algorithms for its Recommendation Engine, it’s sales rankings, it’s top lists. He sources this information with links to blogs and articles where the detective work has been done by himself and others, with the up-front caveat that Amazon does change these formulae, so the information that is presented in this book is only current as of May 2013. By providing the links, however, he insures that the reader can keep up to date on any further developments. He is honest about the fact that since the algorithms are proprietary, nobody but Amazon knows for sure how they work — but he clearly spells out the evidence for the methods he presents. This isn’t get-rich-quick one-true-wayism, but rather a evidentiary examination of logical conclusions, with the caveat that the information will change — but that those changes will be easier to adapt to once you have a basic grasp of how the process has worked historically. This is a breath of fresh air for indie publishing, which too often draws cult-of-personality gurus, heavy with the stink of hucksterism.

From examination of how Amazon recommends books to customers, Gaughran presents the logical methods for presenting your work so as best to take advantage of those suppositions, some of which is common sense, but much of which presents a new way to think about things (for example, a counter-intuitive method of launching a book which goes against the instincts I have developed over 20 years of working in publishing — but which makes perfect sense given the evidence provided about how the various recommendations and lists work).

I could go on — but honestly, you are far better served by reading the book than in reading a recommendation for it. Make no mistake, that is what I am unreservedly offering here: a recommendation, in the strongest possible terms. Despite my experience, this book gave me valuable advice, gave me new information that I hadn’t considered, and an entirely new way of thinking about promotion. Both books (linked below) should be an essential part of an Insurgent Creative’s tool kit — and I’d recommend adding David Gaughran’s blog to your regular reading list as well.

Insurgent Creative: A Marathon, Not A Sprint

Insurgent CreativeOne of the most important things to remember about making a living as an independent creator is that you have to play the “long game.” You need to be strategizing and planning for how things develop over time. To do this successfully, you need as much data as you can gather, which is why I’ve always made sure to recommend those services that give creatives as much information as possible regarding their sales, trending information and more. The more information you have, the better you’re able to plan.

Long-term planning will often mean that you need to have faith in your plan even when it appears not to be working in the short term. This is difficult. Long-time readers will remember that two years ago, I nearly buried my company by shifting to an “app-pricing” model, which completely torpedoed my income. I stuck with it for almost four months, but had to stop because this is my sole income, and I simply could not afford to risk sticking to it in the hope that my plan panned out. If I’d been able to continue would the trend have reversed? I don’t know. I wish I’d been more financially secure and able to continue down that road a bit further, just to see if the data indicated an upward swing.

Jim_ZubJim Zub, creator of the independently-owned comic book series SKULLKICKERS (published by Image) had a similar risk to take. As he details in this excellent blog post, his title amassed a massive amount of debt in the first two quarters of 2011, about which he writes:

We dug into the red aggressively overprinting the first trade paperback to keep it in stock and profits gained from the issues, trade and minuscule digital sales didn’t cover the difference that early into its sales cycle. All in all, we dug down 27% more than we made in the first half of 2011.

For most creators that would’ve been the end of it and that’s totally reasonable. Even with Image covering costs so we didn’t have to spend our own money to print or distribute, the complete lack of profits for 6 months would have sealed the series’ fate. Thankfully, Edwin, Misty and I all have day job income and stuck it out for the long haul.

He and his fellow creators didn’t have to depend on that for their sole income, so they stuck to their plan. The result can be seen in the rest of his post, which should be required reading for any prospective Insurgent Creative: He digs down deep into profitability, costs, trends in physical vs. digital sales and more.

He and his fellow creators treated their efforts as a marathon, not a sprint. And the trends are paying off in the long run — and, in a edit to the post made yesterday, he added a note which indicated that the losses he was seeing in the data weren’t as bad as he had original thought, because more information came in that showed that the numbers didn’t include direct sales via conventions. (Again: More data is a good thing.)

Make your plans. Figure out your long game. Start running your marathon.

Insurgent Creative: It’s All About The Effort

Insurgent Creative

Insurgent CreativeLet me get this part out of the way. There is no One True Way. With as much coverage as the topic of self-publishing, self-distributing, etc. has been getting, the media (unsurprisingly) has been pushing the same One-Way-Or-The-Other narrative that they apply to every goddamn thing under the sun. So let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that if we all follow some guru’s advice on making a living as an Insurgent Creative, we’ll unlock The Secret and the money will come pouring in. Again, there is No One True Way.

And yet.

And yet.

I will argue that making an independent go of it is the best option IF you are the sort of person who is wired for it.

What do I mean by that?

It’s all about the effort. You have to be the sort of person who wants to do all of the ancillary things, beyond creation, that are necessary to making a living. You have to want to handle production, marketing, promotion, etc. You have to be the sort of person who is not only prepared to do those things, but also prepared to put in the effort to get good at them — as good as you are in your chosen creative field.

Yesterday on Twitter, Graphic & Game Designer Adam Jury posted this excellent summation of self-publishing:

You are running a publishing company, with a “stable” of only one writer. But that means that you still have to do the rest of it. If you’re not prepared to that, then get prepared. Learn the things you need to know. If that doesn’t interest you, if you only want to write… then perhaps self-publishing isn’t really for you.

In an interview in today’s New York Times, comedian Louis CK talks about his recent independent work — and the effort and time it requires:

Does it matter that what you’ve achieved, with your online special and your tour can’t be replicated by other performers who don’t have the visibility or fan base that you do?

Why do you think those people don’t have the same resources that I have, the same visibility or relationship? What’s different between me and them?

You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

At this point you’ve put in the time.

There you go. There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.


The benefit of putting in the effort, though, is that it allows you to negotiate with the traditional companies (if you choose) from a position of strength. As CK notes later in the interview:

And HBO will let you do an online release of “Oh My God” later in the year?

Another reason I was willing to do it there was because I had told them I have to be able to sell it on my site. At first HBO was like, “We can’t do that.” And I said, “Well, let’s not do it then.” The power I had was to be able to keep saying: “I’ll do it myself. I do not need you.” They took a while on that one.

A similar story can be seen in the example of Hugh Howey, a self-published SF author who recently signed a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster — but only for the print rights to his books. He kept the digital rights himself. As an author who was already selling well, he didn’t really need Simon & Schuster, so he was able to negotiate from a position of strength. Which is not to say that this is easily-replicable, though — looking at Howey’s career, you can clearly see he is driven to do the work needed to succeed, above and beyond the writing (securing foreign rights, for example). That drive is the critical element.

2940014544085_p0_v2_s260x420He’s got an interesting article on self-publishing up on today, where he posits that it’s actually easier for a writer to make a nice mid-list living, paying a few bills every month, as a self-publisher than via traditional methods. It’s worth reading, and echoes the last installment of these Insurgent Creative posts, “Nobody Gets Rich But Everybody Gets Paid.”

Howey’s article stands as a rebuttal of sorts to a Salon piece earlier this week by a self-professed Self-Publishing Failure, who appears to have done little more than dropped a book into the world, and hoped that it did well. The author in question, John Winters, made no attempt at self-promotion (he currently sits on two separate twitter accounts, neither with more than a dozen or so followers), or much of anything else beyond writing the book — yet somehow expected the sales to come pouring in. Too many people read the huckster-ish One True Way-filled posts of self-appointed gurus like Joe Konrath and expect that is all it takes.

It takes far more.

It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. There’s a bunch of extra work, beyond the creative side, that you have to be willing and able to do. For those that are wired that way, though — who look forward to challenges like that, who enjoy throwing themselves fully into learning new skills and using them — it’s worth doing.