by Thomas Burchfield (@Thomburchfield)
I’m glad to welcome back novelist Thomas Burchfield, who also contributed The Power of Persistence in Indie Publishing. Here’s his tale of evolving along with the whole self-publishing scene.
Since I entered independent publishing in 2010, the landscape has been shifting like landfill in an earthquake. What seemed like ripping ideas last April now seem to rattle and rust like a 1912 Model T. Will the independent publishing field ever settle into a stable, recognizable shape? Or, will this world continue to shake itself into a torpor where everyone gives up and returns to the quill pen?
The Universe never rests. Especially when it’s digital.
Take the issue of e-book distribution. Early in 2010, as I dipped my toe into this roiling sea, I found two avenues of distribution—Scrib’d and Smashwords. I could upload my manuscript to both sites and set a price to download it. Both companies pocket a small percentage from each copy sold; not a bad deal, really.
With Scrib’d, along with my books, I have what amounts to a semi-personal web page. In addition to my first novel, Dragon’s Ark, I now post the work I share at the Red Room and on my official page at Blogger: publicity, essays, and articles, related and unrelated, to my book. As on those web pages, I can control my public image.
I don’t have control over the page’s design. Like my Red Room page, it’s formatted much like everyone on Scrib’d. Scrib’d does not distribute my work to e-book stores, such as Amazon Kindle—they allow Word, PDF and Powerpoint docs only.
Still, Scrib’d is a helpful, if clumsy, mosh of publishing outlet and social media. It’s not too difficult to raise a flag and draw visitors, though my own Scrib’d page view stats fluctuate wildly, from the dizzying heights of Lady Gaga’s to the flat-line of President Nixon’s [Flavorless] Barbecued Chicken Sauce. (OK, I made up the Lady Gaga part . . . but Nixon’s sauce is truly bland).
Still, I just might find my own work jostling right above a new Stephen King excerpt on the “What’s New on Scrib’d” page. Not too bad a neighborhood to hang a shingle in, for now.
As for Smashwords, I’ve recently taken down both my books from their site. My reasons relate to three issues: location, distribution, and exposure.
At first, Smashwords seemed advantageous. I uploaded an old and very entertaining screenplay of mine, Whackers, in January 2010. I designed and created my own thumbnail cover, formatted the book to their specs, and uploaded it. They ran the manuscript through their “Meatgrinder” software to reformat it for all the major e-readers, then distributed it to all the major e-book retailers. This passed without incident, though I had the odd feeling parents experience when they allow their children to wander alone down a fog-bound mountain trail.
Whackers immediately sold one copy (as did Dragon’s Ark). It never sold another (ditto the Dragon). It eventually reached 256 partial downloads. And there it stayed. Before long, I forgot about it for weeks on end. At 256 partial downloads, Whackers seemed to have found its substrate.
Further, I found the “neighborhood” uninspiring. On Scrib’d, you may, while visiting my page, clatter across the work of President Obama. If you’re the kind of discriminating wordsmith and storyteller in search of discriminating readers, like I am, this is encouraging linkage.
At Smashwords, my neighbors—and competitors—are such current Smashwords bestsellers as Thalo Blue by Jason McIntyre; Reckless Runaway at the Race Course by Ros Clarke; and Behave (Contemporary Erotica Novella) by Jessica Morse. Heard of them? Unless you’re doing all your reading at the Smashwords bookstore, likely not. (Though in fairness, a tiny handful of these titles—most all generic genre fiction—may reveal the next Charles Willeford, my reflexive sneer notwithstanding.)
Smashwords looms like the Largest Slush Pile Ever, an Everest-sized ant hill where, unless you’re an entomologist, Dragon’s Ark looks pretty darned much like every other ant. How does a discriminating reader dig through all that? Yes, lightning does strike the slush pile on rare occasions, but you’ll find better odds playing golf in a thunderstorm. It’s nothing to bet your artistry, hard work, and passion on.
Meanwhile, independent publishing continues to evolve. When it came time to publish Dragon’s Ark, I turned to E-book Architects for formatting (with the guidance of our host Joel Friedlander). With E-B.A., the pub files were returned to me and I did the distribution. This cost around $150 and seemed worth it. For one, I got to see exactly what my book looked like in the two major e-book formats, unlike Smashwords.
What’s more, when I actually uploaded my novel to the Amazon Kindle site, I discovered that the Smashwords Whackers, which I thought available on the Amazon Kindle, was nowhere to be found. Was this true of other e-stores? I’ve checked: so far, only the Sony Reader carried the Smashwords Whackers.
I understood. To make their percentage, Smashwords needs for books to be bought exclusively through them. Fine, but this exclusivity seems to create a ghetto effect. My exposure feels limited.
When I recently decided to re-release Whackers as an Ambler House publication, I found another twist in the evolutionary tree: BookBaby (again, thanks Joel). For a low introductory fee, they not only reformatted my Whackers files, they distributed them to the major e-book retailers where it is—and will be—visible for all to see.
During this stage of production, the last bell sounded. Someone—I forget who—said that the e-bookstores don’t like to accept a single book through multiple distribution channels, an obvious point really.
Why jam the doorway? It only makes me look desperate, the last face anyone wants to show, especially in this field. Moreover, I feel spread as thinly across the Internet as I want to be.
That day, I visited my Smashwords dashboard and unpublished Whackers. Dragon’s Ark (25 partial downloads) soon followed. Meanwhile, both my books are on Amazon et al and I look presentable and feel connected to a wider world.
That’s the evolutionary path of independent publishing, at least for me. I pick up a tool and try it for a while, maybe try it again. If it doesn’t work, I put it down and pick up another.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just evolution.
Photo by tones_space