Insights from a 1st-time indie author

The first box of copies of Ruby and the Blue Sky

How I tackled my first self-publishing adventure

In July 2016, I unleashed my debut novel, Ruby and the Blue Sky, on the world. Here’s a summary of what I learned and the decisions I made along the way. I hope it helps in your own adventure.

Stage in publishing journey Approach used for Ruby and the Blue Sky
1 Who are you publishing for?

Knowing the audience you want your book to have will help shape your  decisions.  You might want to publish for a handful of family members, a local audience or for a particular type of reader worldwide. Think about who they are, where they are, how many of them there are. And how they like to read.

My first novel, Ruby and the Blue Sky, is a feminist climate change thrillerI wanted it to be as widely read as possible by this international niche audience. I also wanted it to be easily available to my networks in the UK and NZ. This drove my choices to publish in both eBook and print format and to choose suppliers with international distribution.Katherine Dewar reading from Ruby and the Blue Sky UK launch July 2016
2 Developing the content

A book can be anything from 20 pages of family history to a seven volume epic, but you have to write it. This takes time so start – now. Write to delight yourself and to honour your target reader.

I love writing fiction and particularly the dual freedom and discipline of crafting a novel.  I wrote Ruby and the Blue Sky in my spare time over a four year period with a year off to develop and launch the Sustainable Marketing online course.  I write for a progressive adult audience who want intelligent, inspiring escape that reflects their concerns and has characters they can relate to.
3 Don’t be annoying

The most frequent gripes by readers of self-published books relate to the quality of the editing – or the lack of it.  Shape and fine-tune the content until it’s great, get it read and re-read by people with fresh eyes and vigilant red pens, select or commission images with care. Typos, continuity glitches and poor images undermine even the best story.EditingSymbols

My goals included creating an attractive and credible end-product and keeping costs down, so the book could become self-funding.  This meant I drew on friends with professional skills in three waves during the process.

  1. I got my third draft read by avid readers and a couple of writing friends I could trust to be critical, including a couple of topic experts.
  2. I had two new friends, with professional editing skills, kindly volunteer to read the fourth draft.
  3. The final draft was proof-read for typos and layout by three more friends with fresh eyes.

Lastly, I printed the whole thing out and spent a weekend re-reading it very, very carefully and making the last corrections.

4 Your cover counts

Book purchase decisions are made in a fraction of a second based on how a thumbnail of the cover looks on a smart phone.  It had better be good.Screenshot Ruby and the Blue Sky Fishpond on phone

Having spent 25 years commissioning professional design work, I knew early in the research I wanted to commission a professional cover.  I considered friends with art and design skills but book design is a highly specialist skill. I looked at online services but decided to make a buy-local procurement decision and gave the project to one of NZ’s top cover designers, Keely O’Shaunessy.   The cover design was by far my biggest financial outlay in the publishing process.
5 Format and production

This stage is the most technically tricky part of the journey, with each decision branching into new options.  It merits its own article but in short these are the questions to resolve:

eBook or physical print?

If eBook, for Kindle only (MOBI) or other formats too (ePub, IBA)? BookFunnel provides an extremely low cost way to let people download a range of electronic formats including PDFs, great for review copies, promos or for small audiences .

If physical print, will you get 1,500 printed or have copies printed and shipped ‘on demand’ (PoD)?  Hardback or paperback only? What trim size?  White paper or cream?  Standard cover or a varnish?

What about an audio book?

Again, your production format decisions should be guided by what your target audience reads.

Each format has its own requirements in terms of book file creation, and these are also shaped by the channels you choose for distribution. Each option also has its own requirements in terms of text layout and the format of the output files that will be uploaded.Image of desk with a laptop on it

To make Ruby and the Blue Sky widely available I published it both as an eBook and a paperback. I decided to produce the eBook as MOBI format for Kindle sales and in the ePub format which is offered on Apple’s iBooks app alongside their proprietary IBA format.

For the physical print, upfront outlay,  environmental impact and ease of logistics were important, as well as availability to as many readers in as many markets as possible.  I didn’t want 1,500 copies in my garage.  I wanted copies in readers’ hands as easily as possible, anywhere in the world, with minimal waste.

So I chose print on demand (PoD), where a copy (or copies) are printed and shipped when a customer orders from an online bookshop or if a bookstore or library order a supply.  As the publisher, I get a special rate per book for any I order directly, as ‘thankyou’ copies for my talented friends, for example.

I made the size ‘Demy’ (216 x 138mm) a standard format big enough for bookshops and libraries to carry but lower cost than the largest formats.  I selected cream paper, the classic option for fiction, and a matte varnish for the cover.  If people buy a physical book they like it to look and feel good.

These choices meant I had to layout and format the final, edited text into four different files for upload to my chosen production partners. I’ve had requests for an audio book but have shelved (!) that for now and may consider crowd-funding one in the future.

6 Where will it be sold?

The world of online book retail comprises Amazon/Kindle and the rest.  ‘The rest’ ranges from book specialists, like Kobo, to generalists like Fishpond. It also includes niche online bookstores, some of which are independent and some affiliates, feeding orders to the big players.

Offline, there are bookstore chains (Whitcoulls and Paperplus locally, for instance) and independent bookstores.  Libraries also buy and stock books for readers.

Physical bookshops and libraries mainly order through wholesalers.

Different eBook distribution companies and book printing companies have relationships with different wholesalers and retailers in different markets.

Yes, it’s complicated.

You might also of course choose to sell the eBook or physical copies yourself, at events or through your own online store, in which case you will get the customer information, unlike with the options above.Katherine Dewar author at Paiges Whanganui

Again, following my goals and research insights I chose a two-pronged approach which reflects the structure of the market; Amazon/Kindle and the rest.

For Amazon/Kindle, I dealt direct. My research suggested this path is smoothest.  Amazon does have fish-hooks in its contracts so I set up the Amazon and Kindle arrangements last.  I am also mindful of their ethics to authors and staff but their reach is huge, so I’ve made that compromise.

Before setting up anything with Amazon, I created an account and uploaded files for production with IngramSpark, my print and distribution partner for ‘the rest’.  I chose Ingram because their background is in printed book distribution which means they have arrangements with wholesalers as well as retailers for eBooks and printed books.  They work with most online retailers, including iBooks, Kobo, Fishpond etc and will also supply through Amazon if you want them to. There were a host of administration stages amongst all this including:

  • contracts with each partner,
  • tax forms for US sales
  • Author income payment mechanisms (by antiquated cheque from Amazon!) and
  • ISBN numbers to secure (free for NZ authors from the National Library of NZ).

Only after publishing did I discover IngramSpark, via IngramContent Australia, does not yet have strong supply relationships with NZ-based retailers, most of whom have supply contracts with US or UK-based distributors, which means they pay more for shipping and wait longer than they would if they ordered through Ingram in Australia.

7 Pricing 

You need a pricing strategy for your book, the same as for any other product.

For an eBook where you want to maximise distribution it might be FREE, priced at a low 99c, or sold at a few dollars per download to generate revenue.

You might choose to price your physical book to just recover costs, though be wary of hidden hazards like international currency fees, exchange rate fluctuations and local GST legislation, or to make a profit.

As the publisher, you get to set the Recommended Retail Price and can choose what discount, if any, you’ll offer retailers (the preferred trade standard is 55%).

I needed to price Ruby and the Blue Sky at the quality fiction end of the market to generate a margin after per-copy production and distribution costs.  As an unknown author, this is hurdle but I figured my target reader would pay to read it if they found the cover and blurb compelling.

The unit cost per copy to the publisher is lower if you print 1,500 copies or more upfront, rather than Print on Demand, but you have to carry the outlay upfront.

I took a format-agnostic view to pricing which means I get ‘a couple of bucks’ NZ for every copy sold, regardless of currency, platform or format.

I also offer the maximum 55% trade discount to support book shops who want to order.  It’s $3.99 on Kindle or $39.99 incl GST in NZ, if you’re keen!)

8 Marketing

Like with any product or service, production is only the beginning.  Marketing as a self-published author is a slow road because the large publishing companies still dominate the industry, awards and media opportunities.  However the opportunities for digital promotion are endless and an entire indie-infrastructure has evolved with free and paid for services for everything from reviews to specialist social media and more.

One young indie author spent 100 days last year wearing a sandwich board in the streets of Leeds to promote his book.

Knowing your audience and connecting with them through your shared networks can build to tremendous reach, over time. Reviews anywhere really count.

Preparing a Title Information Sheet  is an essential tool to start with.

Great photos are gold.

Having a good book helps, of course.Katherine Dewar on KickArts Planet FM

I’ve sometimes felt there’s a tension in my life between writing fiction and having a marketing career.  In self-publishing Ruby and the Blue Sky, I’ve learned it’s the perfect profession.

Tasks from book metadata creation to tagline development, writing a blurb, organising a photo shoot, creating and sending press releases, speaking at events, running social media, working with retailers and planning campaigns are things I’m trained and experienced at doing.

Global online sales mean there’s no problem with me running marketing ‘after hours’.  But the global is balanced by the hyper-local.

Regional centres have been brilliantly supportive in print media, radio and artistic community support for a debut indie novelist.

I was tremendously supported at launch events with with over 30 people in Leeds, UK, where the novel is set, in Whanganui, as part of their Winter Wonderfest, and in Auckland. Dunedin library hosted me when I had a chance to visit in October. Each event was a great chance to build a relationship with the local indie bookstore.

It might be a wide world for an author, but the community library and the local bookshop are at its heart.

Ruby and the Blue Sky

I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped, encouraged and read, at every stage in the adventure of bringing Ruby and the Blue Sky into the world.

If you’d like to see what we made you can find out where to get your copy here.


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