Self Publishing Success: A New Author Shares Her Journey In New Era Book Publishing

This article, from Israel Vasquetelle, originally appeared on AwarenessMogul on 9/13/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with the author’s permission.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author M. Louisa Locke. Her first novel, a Victorian era mystery, has managed to reach an audience despite not benefiting from the resources of a traditional book publisher. She’s not a household name, at least not yet, however, in the era of new media and the technology that makes it these channels possible, it’s not necessary to have a huge audience to find success.

Locke is part of a growing contingency of authors that have chosen to bypass the lottery-like odds that require the need to gain the limited attention of traditional publishers. Instead of chasing a middleman, she reaches a potential audience by utilizing the democratizing services of digital distributors and print on demand services that helped her to make her title a reality.

Traditionally, authors with aspirations of making it alongside bestsellers on bookshelves would need to convince gatekeepers of their potential to sell huge quantities. Obviously, only a tiny percentage of those considered ever garner a book deal. Once getting through that level of immense scrutiny, typically, for a new author, that means a small advance and a ticket on a waiting list that could last many months or years. Furthermore, for better or worse, the author’s words are subject to a barrage of changes and revisions by editors. If, and when the book finally hits the market, it will only receive the promotional resources of its publisher for a very short window of time. 

In many instances, the author also finds themselves investing their own funds and efforts to further promote the title. If an author is to realize income from the sale of the book, the revenue realized by the publisher first must offset expenses associated with the printing, packing, shipping, and marketing of that title. The publisher first has to recoup a bulk of their investment– including advance monies paid to the author– before the book’s creator ever has a shot at realizing further revenue. Even then, the potential of revenue in most cases is miniscule. This is because the author’s share is derived from a small percentage of sales. Because of this fairly standard model, only a small percentage of authors actually reap financial rewards from the sale of their product- beyond an initial modest advance. Without an impressive amount of sales, it may take quite a while for their next book to reach a bookshelf, if ever. Many authors understand these issues, however, continue to choose this route as a shot at reaching an audience and for the potential prestige associated with being a published author.

Due to changes in distribution and how people consume books, the publishing paradigm continues to change rapidly. Not too long ago Amazon announced that over 50% of its book sales are now coming from digital sales. This is great news for many authors that would never have a shot of having their books on the shelves of a Borders or Barnes & Noble nationally. Today, these authors can have their books sold right alongside the biggest-sellers on places like Amazon and B&N. And, its not just digital versions that are on these virtual shelves, physical books are now printed as orders come in. Technology makes it possible to forgo the need to incur the overhead of advance printing and then the shipping and storing for a book that may take months, if not longer, to sell. Even with these advances, sales aren’t going to happen effortlessly. Just making the content available doesn’t guarantee its consumption. Ultimately, the product has to be good and new authors must also be savvy marketers willing to participate in a variety of activities online to connect with audiences. For authors like Locke that fit that criteria, the opportunity for success is more of a reality than ever before.

Unlike the stories that we’re used to reading about the million-selling success of blockbusters, new stories will continue to emerge of a new type of media success that doesn’t involve immense budgets and multinational conglomerates. These individuals don’t have to recoup millions, hundreds of thousands, or in some cases not even thousands of dollars to be in the black. Many just have to reach hundreds or maybe thousands of interested readers. So, what is success in this new space? Everyone has a different definition, for many authors it’s simply making their work easily accessible by an audience and being fairly compensated for that consumption. Locke is realizing this achievement. In this interview, Locke shares her journey of publishing, technology, new media, and reaching an audience.

Can you discuss the premise of your book?

My book, The Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, is the first in a planned series of historical mysteries set in 1879 San Francisco and featuring Annie Fuller, a young widow who runs a boarding house. Annie supplements her income as the clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, who gives business and domestic advice. When one of Madam Sibyl’s clients dies, Annie, with the help of a local lawyer, Nate Dawson, investigates his death.

From the beginning it was my intention to use the historical mystery genre to illuminate the late Victorian world of women and work. Maids of Misfortune focuses on domestic service, the most prevalent paid female occupation of the period, while Uneasy Spirits, the sequel I am currently working on, examines nineteenth century spiritualism and female trance mediums. Subsequent books in the series will concentrate on teaching, clerical work, and other common forms of paid work for women. These books will also investigate the Victorian gender system through the developing attraction between Annie and Nate. Of course, despite these historical themes, my primary purpose is to tell entertaining stories, with tension, romance, and humor.

As a college history professor, you obviously have a passion for the subject. Can you discuss what finally convinced you to write your book after being inspired so many years ago?

I actually had the idea for the book thirty years ago while working on my dissertation for a doctorate in history. I was reading a diary of a domestic servant who was complaining about being locked out of the house, and it gave me the idea for a locked room mystery. Ten years later, when I thought I would be stuck in the underpaid career of adjunct teaching, I wrote a first draft of the mystery. Then I was offered a full time job teaching at a local community college. This twenty-year career as a history professor was an extremely satisfying one, but it kept me so busy that I didn’t have the time to devote to writing and trying to sell the book.

However, I never gave up my determination to become a published author. I remained active in a writer’s critique group, I worked on rewriting sections of the book, and I kept up on trends in publishing. When I cut back on my teaching (instead of teaching 5 classes a semester, I only teach one), I knew I had to give my writing career one more chance.

I felt that Maids of Misfortune was a book that deserved to be read, and what I had learned about the new opportunities provided by self-publishing, ebooks, and print on demand technology convinced me that I didn’t have to depend on the traditional publishing route to make that happen. That was very liberating, and I have been pleased with my experience as an indie author.

There is a level of responsibility and control when you self-publish that is both terrifying and gratifying. I knew that I had to get my manuscript to the same level of professional writing as a traditionally published book–that was the terrifying part. At the same time, I had complete control over the text, cover and interior design, and marketing, and when the final product was finished and began to sell–that was very gratifying.

Your book falls into a unique niche due to it being a romance novel focusing on a Victorian era female sleuth. Can you discuss how your audience has managed to find you and your book?

At this point, I haven’t really positioned the book in the romance genre, although I do believe that fans of this kind of fiction would enjoy the book. This is simply because the romance in the book, while a strong part of the story, is subordinate to the mystery. In addition, there isn’t the explicit sex that readers of romances often expect.

Instead, I have concentrated on marketing Maids of Misfortune as part of the historical mystery sub-genre. To that end I contacted those websites that specialize in historical mysteries. For example, there is a site called Crime Thru Time and another called Historical Mystery Fiction that list mysteries by era. This is one way to make sure people who read this sort of fiction will find my book.

Amazon’s browsing capabilities may be the best way that fans of the historical mystery genre have of finding me. I specifically put the words "Victorian" and "Mystery" into my book title, and as a result, if you put in the words "Victorian mystery" into an Amazon book search, Maids of Misfortune consistently shows up on the first page, even when I hadn’t yet sold many books. In addition, Amazon’s "Customers Who Bought This Item, Also Bought…" programming very quickly began to list my book when people bought other better-known Victorian mysteries.

Perhaps most importantly, Amazon permits people to browse in its Kindle and print bookstores, and one specific sub-category is historical mysteries. At first, because of a computer glitch, my book didn’t show up under that path, but when this error was corrected, Maids of Misfortune started showing up as one of the top three bestsellers in this category on Kindle, and one of the top 100 in Amazon’s book store. Therefore, anyone looking for an historical mystery of any type is going to find mine, is going to see the 4 1/2 stars, the positive reviews, and the free sample. According to Amazon’s data, consistently 80% of the customers who click onto the product page for the print book go on to purchase it, and over 90% of the Kindle customers who click onto the book product page go on to buy the book. I think this is probably the main way I sell the book.

I know you have a blog, can you discuss a bit about how you connect with your audience there and on any other online platforms or social networks?

My blog, The Front Parlor, is the main place where I have chronicled my path as an indie author. I wrote a series of three long posts on "Why I decided to self-publish," and later addressed how I handled the lack of a professional editor in a series of posts entitled, "How to be your own best editor." These topics doesn’t necessarily translate into potential sales of my book, since people interested in this subject may not be interested in buying historical mysteries.

However, when I entered a contest on Publetariat, a site devoted to self-publishing, and won, this began to expose me to a much larger national audience. Once I became a regular contributor to this site and Maids of Misfortune began to be advertised on the site (as a consequence of winning the contest), I noticed an uptick in sales.

When I first published my book, I made an announcement on Facebook, and much to my pleasure a good number of old high school friends and acquaintances ordered the book. On the other hand, as of yet I don’t have an enormous number of Facebook "friends" so the impact of this has been rather limited (except I continue to hear about other people learning about the book through "word of mouth" from these first buyers).

I do use twitter, although again, like Facebook, my contacts are limited. I find twitter a great way to keep up on publishing trends, and I try to follow people who have shown interest in historical mysteries, which may have garnered me sales. I admire writers who make good use of twitter, but so far I haven’t figured out a way to use either twitter or Facebook efficiently or effectively. There are lots of "how to" advice articles on using social media to promote your books, but most of the suggestions seem to require a good deal of time (which takes me away from writing), or a kind of direct promotion with which I feel uncomfortable.

Can you discuss other ways that you build awareness for your book?

There are a good number of sites where readers hang out and chat about books, and I have just begun the process of joining and participating on these sites. Goodreads, LibraryThing, and Shelfari are the most famous. Each of these sites has smaller groups or forums that concentrate on different kinds of genre fiction–including historical mysteries. There are also specialized sites like the delightful romance fiction site, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and Historical Fiction Online, and KindleBoards. Every time I join in on a conversation on one of those sites, I am essentially introducing myself to new readers, who if they like what I have to say might check out my profile, see that I have published a book, and might eventually buy that book.

It is important to actually participate on these sites in an honest fashion rather than just joining to promote your book (readers are very touchy about this). I am a life-long reader and fan of mysteries and historical fiction (and devoted Kindle fan), so this really isn’t much of a hardship, but it does take time.

Have you reached out to press or new media outlets for coverage?

Standard print media outlets generally do not review self-published books or ebooks (or genre fiction for that matter). If my first book continues to do as well as it has, when I am ready to publish my next book I will probably contact my local paper, because at that point I will have an established track record, and they might be more likely to take me seriously.

In contrast, Internet reviewers seem more comfortable with the new trends in publishing, and there are an expanding number of bloggers who specialize in reviewing genre fiction. I queried 14 reviewers, got requests for review copies of the book from six, and eventually received four reviews, all positive. Traditional book publishers send hundreds of review copies of books out to reviewers, but I don’t know what kind of return they get on this effort in terms of reviews if the book isn’t by an established, best-selling author.

I did submit Maids of Misfortune to two contests for self published books as a way to garner press. I was a finalist in the historical fiction category in the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and this meant that my book was part of this organization’s promotional activities, including the distribution of their catalog at Book Expo America in New York. (The second contest won’t announce winners until October.)

Can you describe any promotional activities? I believe that I read that you offer a free ebook. How has that worked out in regards to building your audience and garnering sales?

I haven’t pursued the use of contests (with free giveaways), which is one promotional method that some authors are using, although one of the on-line reviewers gave away my book in one of her promotional contests.

What I did was write a short story, Dandy Detects, based on characters from my novel, and I offer that free on Smashwords (which because of its affiliations, means it is also free in the Barnes and Noble estore and Ibooks on the IPad.) Over 400 copies of this short story have been downloaded on Smashwords, which means 400 potential buyers of Maids of Misfortune. A number of people who have independently reviewed Maids of Misfortune on Amazon, Shelfari, etc., mentioned reading Dandy Detects first.

Unfortunately, as a self-published author on Kindle, I couldn’t offer the story for free, but have to charge 99 cents. Even so, I have sold over 250 Dandy Detects on Kindle. But, I got a chance to see the effectiveness of offering free material when Steven Windwalker on Kindle Nation Daily featured Dandy Detects as part of his "Free Kindle Shorts" at the beginning of July. Within two days I sold 187 copies of Maids of Misfortune, I hit the top of "movers and shakers" on Amazon, and this is when I started showing up in the top of the bestselling list of historical mysteries.

Are you involved with any offline activities such as book readings or signings? Have you sold books directly to your audience at such outings? If you haven’t, why not, and would you consider? 

Book tours and books signings are the traditional methods of promotion for most authors (with the mailing of book marks, post cards, and newsletters as a way to tap into an existing fan base–a base that I am just now creating). I haven’t pursued any of these activities as of yet. I am not convinced from what I have read, and from the experiences of my friends who have published traditionally that these methods are cost effective.

In addition, it is very difficult to get self-published books into traditional bookstores (who would be then willing to host a book signing). This is the main marketing advantage traditionally published print books have over independently published (or electronic) books. Their sales departments sell to bookstores, and then an author can book a signing with stores (who benefit because it brings traffic into the store).

Self-published authors can sometimes convince bookstores to carry their books on consignment (particularly if it is a local author with a certain local fan base). The local mystery bookstore in San Diego, Mysterious Galaxy, has agreed to do this for me. I will probably arrange a book signing with them when I launch my next book. I am also planning on writing to local bookstores in San Francisco (since my book is set in that city), and I hope that some of them will also be willing to carry Maids of Misfortune on consignment. If I am successful, I would try to arrange some book signings in that city.

For authors who publish ebooks, or print on demand books, (Maids of Misfortune is both), it is estores like, Smashwords, and Ibooks, not brick and mortar stores, that are important. And the data is quite clear-it is in estores where a steadily increasing percentage of books are now being bought. Therefore the marketing strategies that drive buyers to those sites and help them find my book when they shop in those ebook stores (Internet reviewers, social networking, fan sites, key words, etc.) make the most sense for me as a self-published author.

I do think I would consider doing a virtual blog tour, probably for the launch of the next book. Here you arrange to guest blog on a variety of blogs, which then helps promote those sites (since you advertise this on your own websites), but it also garners you potential sales from their readerships.

Can you discuss the publishing process? Can you describe your experience with the services that you used? Did you hire an editor?

The first step to self-publishing a book has to start with getting your manuscript in perfect condition. This means you want the reader to have no clue that it didn’t go through the whole traditional editing process-which doesn’t just mean no typos or grammatical errors, it means a high standard of writing, well plotted, and characters you care about. The most gratifying aspect of publishing Maids of Misfortune has been the frequent comment by readers that they didn’t want it to end, and they can’t wait until the next book. This is how I feel about my favorite books, and to have this said to me about my book is an immeasurable pleasure.

I didn’t hire an editor-although I think that most new self-published authors should, and I very well might hire one for future books. I had been working on this book literally for 20 years, I had gotten feedback from agents, editors, and my book critique group, I had rewritten it several times, and I had 30 years of correcting other peoples writing under my belt. In addition, I spent about four more months rewriting, with extensive cutting, polishing, and proofreading, and then I gave it to readers, and after their comments, I went through it one more time.

The next task was to get a cover designed-which was the one thing I paid someone else to do. I knew that I needed a cover that would show up well as a thumbnail-which is the main way most people will see it, but it was also important that it look completely professional for those people who bought the print book. I hired a local designer, Michelle Huffaker, who has subsequently become a good friend, and she did a terrific job.

I had chosen to publish Maids of Misfortune as an ebook with Smashwords and Kindle, and to produce my print book through Amazon’s print on demand division, CreateSpace. The main task to do this is to format the manuscript according to the requirements for each one.

Some people pay other people to do the formatting. I did it myself. I am not particularly tech savvy (my husband was my tech support) and it did require an attention to detail, but was not all that difficult. There are guides, how-to-books, and community forums to turn to for advice, but I depended on April Hamilton’s Indie Author Guide on Kindle, and a new print edition is coming out in this winter-I highly recommend it. For Smashwords you primarily had to produce a word document with all the formatting stripped from it so that their formatting program could work. For Kindle you need to create an html document. There was more to do to plan the interior design for the CreateSpace print edition (headers, chapter breaks, margins and gutters, etc), and it required a pdf document. However, once the files were created in each format, uploading the files and covers literally took minutes. Once I proofed each version and clicked "publish" the books were ready to be purchased in less than a week. Talk about instant gratification!

Are there other services that you considered using, but didn’t?

I might eventually publish an ebook with Scrib’d, but the benefit of Smashwords is that it produces a book that can be read on a variety of ereaders, including the Nook and IPad. Kindle is not only the largest market for ebooks, but through KindleAps, makes my book available on smart phones, the IPad, etc. In addition Smashwords provides the author 85% royalty rate, and now Kindle gives me 70% royalty rate-which is fantastic.

The other print on demand service I considered was LuLu, which provides a pretty comparable service and production cost to CreateSpace, but using CreateSpace gave me access to Amazon’s free shipping option for buyers, and the CreateSpace and Kindle support staffs-since they are both divisions of Amazon–were crucial to helping me solve the browsing path error I discussed previously.

What has the ratio of physical to ebooks sold via your selected online sellers?

At the end of the first four months, 54% of the books I had sold were ebooks, but the next four months 79% of the books I sold were ebooks. Since my ebooks are priced at $2.99 and my print books are $12.75, I am pleased that I am doing as well as I am selling print copies!

You generously revealed information about your first quarter sales. In a recent article in, you shared that you’ve cracked the 1,000 sales mark. Can you discuss what activities you feel have provided the best results?

I believe a series of activities, cumulatively, have helped increase my sales.

In April 2009 three things happened. I became a regular contributor to Publetariat, I published my short story, Dandy Detects, and I changed my ebook price on Maids of Misfortune from $4 to $2.99. My total sales in March were 28; my total sales in April were 46. There are a number of people who have discussed how $2.99 seems like an important price point-that readers feel comfortable with taking a chance on a book at this price. I also noticed that occasionally for some reason Amazon discounts this to $2.39 and my numbers go up even more.

Then in May I began to get my first reviews on websites and got the book award, and my total sales in May were 80!

The trend continued upward, so that in June I sold 156 books. At the end of June I got the browsing path on Amazon fixed, and a week later the short story was featured on Kindle Nation Daily. In July I sold 490 books (three times what I sold the month before!). If you take away that 2-day bump, I still did well with 302 books sold. In August I have sold 330 books, averaging slightly more than 10 books a day, 75% of them ebooks. I figure that if I keep active on my blog, keep participating on other blogs and on the fan sites, I should at least be able to maintain that average. And with each new reader, there is the incalculable word of mouth factor to potentially increase my sales.

Would you have done anything differently?

The best way to answer this is to discuss 1) what I still hope do to continue market Maids of Misfortune and 2) what I plan to do differently for the next book.

1) As I mentioned earlier, I really haven’t pursued the traditional markets or marketing strategies. So I am committed to reaching out to more local San Diego books stores, as well as to San Francisco bookstores. I will be giving a talk at my college on my experiences with self-publishing, and I will talk to the college newspaper and other publications about doing interviews.

My intention was always to use my blog to talk about more than self-publishing, and I would like to begin to do a series of posts about writing historical fiction, and I think that will also make my blog more interesting to people who have read or might be interested in reading my book.

My author website is very practical-it is an effective place to find out about my book and short story and how to purchase them. But I would like to make the site a place where people who have gotten involved in the world of Maids of Misfortune would come to learn more about the characters, the time period, and the places that were featured in the book.

2) What I will do differently when I am ready to publish my sequel, Uneasy Spirits, is concentrate on truly "launching" the book with a lot more pre-publication activity. I will get reviews ahead of time. I will reach out to any stores who have shown interest in the first book and schedule launch parties and book signings. I will schedule a blog tour. I will encourage people who have bought the book to review it immediately and put those reviews on Amazon and Smashwords-something I didn’t do with Maids of Misfortune.

What’s your biggest lesson that you’ve learned from this experience?

I have learned if you have a good "product," in my case a well-written historical mystery, and you make the effort to use the new opportunities available on the Internet so that potential buyers will come across the book, look at the reviews, and sample the first chapter, that you can be successful.

Am I making a lot of money yet? No-although I am making $2 a book on my ebooks, and $2.77 on my print books-so the reader can do the math. . Could I make a living at this? Yes, in time if I produced 3 or 4 more books like Maids of Misfortune, and the ebook market continues to expand, as everyone predicts it will.

Without the option of self-publishing and ebooks, and these new ways of marketing, I am not at all convinced I would have gotten this book published, or if I did, that I would have been successful in getting enough books sold in bookstores before the dreaded return policy of stores kicked in. As a result, I probably, at my age (60) wouldn’t have had the motivation to continue to market the book, or write the sequel. And Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson and their world would not have been heard from, and that would be a shame.