July 20th, 2021 2:47 PM
I think I've started the last few blog posts with a similar mood: things have been a bit challenging lately!
My debut novel has been out for nearly a month. For some quick, rough numbers, I invested around $1800 into the book (this includes the cost of the ISBNs, the website, the barcode that appears on the back of the book, and, most significantly, the book cover illustration). So far, revenue is looking like it will be somewhere around $100 for the first month.
Clearly, as a self-published author, I made some devastating mistakes. I feel it's important to be honest about these and reflect on them. I also don't mind sharing these experiences as I want to be transparent to any readers and aspiring writers so they can approach things with the consideration I lacked.
If we look at each cost, we can argue about whether each was justified. There are entire articles dedicated to why a self-published author should purchase an ISBN instead of using a provided one, so, I'll spare you those details here and instead state simply that I believe this was a justified cost. For similar reasons, the barcode on the back of my paperback was also justified (feel free to Google why it's a big benefit to have a purchased barcode on the back of your book instead of a provided one).
Now, having my own website and blog might not be a justifiable cost at this stage in my career, but it has enabled me to do two significant things: I've been able to provide a quick and accessible landing page to prospective buyers ("Oh, you're interested in buying my book? Go to this website here and find out every, single thing you need to know to buy it!") and I've been able to start the arduous journey of collecting email addresses. A few email addresses have even come in at random, which means people have stumbled upon my website and found something of value to them. These are both very good things; the former means looking professional and making the customer's experience as effortless as possible, and the latter is like having each reader's home address and being able to send them a letter (for free) anytime I want. This last will be a huge deal when it comes time to promote a new book or development. I'd argue that my website has probably been worth the investment I put into it, but I don't know that it's yielded a value beyond its cost. It's pretty challenging to quantify the value of creating an effortless consumer experience and the ease of collecting email addresses.
Then we come to the cover art, which I feel was my most significant failure in this entire endeavor. Sam White is a marvelous artist, and I don't blame him or his abilities whatsoever. I think this was a matter of me choosing my own vision over that which I rationally knew to be a better choice. I had expectations for what this incredibly expensive cover art would do for me, and, unfortunately, my faith in what it would do was grossly disproportionate with the benefits it actually delivered. In other words, the art cost far more than it delivered in value.
I knew my own capabilities in designing the art wouldn't be enough, and yet, when it came to laying out the cover and coming up with the direction for it, I didn't defer to Sam (who advocated that I do something totally different) but instead insisted that it would be better to do a landscape-style piece. This resulted in a gorgeous illustration... with a perspective that sat too far back to allow for much definition related to the cover's most important elements: the heroes and the monsters.
Though I and many others have agreed that the illustration is beautiful, I have some indicators that have made me doubt its viability as a book cover. For one thing, I did a cover reveal on Reddit and expected much better visibility. I've seen much cheaper covers explode in popularity, and mine did not do nearly so well. This could be due to the time of day (or year) I posted the reveal. It could be something about the typeface I used (which I insisted on doing myself, too). It could be any number of things, and may indeed not be a reflection of the cover art itself, but this lack of engagement isn't the only indicator that I have that the cover art isn't working how I'd hoped it would.
The biggest indicator that I might need to shift my strategy going forward is that I've been running advertisements. To spare you the exact numbers, I'll simply say this: only 0.8% of all the people who've seen my ads have clicked on them. That's 1 person out of 125. This, too, could be the fault of my blurb or the comparable titles I've included therein or, again, the typeface of my cover, but I truly think the distance in my cover is one of its biggest detriments. It's too far out, and people struggle to see the focal points of the cover. I've had people tell me that they didn't even realize there were monsters and people on the cover. That's not good because those are the elements that humanize the cover and visualize the story's biggest threats.
My advice? If you're going to pay a ton of money to work with a professional illustrator (like I did), make sure you defer the art direction of the piece and the typesetting to the illustrator (unlike I did).
And, so, all this is to say that I've had to suffer through a very significant monetary loss related to this endeavor. It's my passion project, and I've truly enjoyed writing this novel, and I'm pressing forward, but I cannot chance such a gargantuan loss with each book in the future. I'd planned on returning to Sam for each of my books, and I truly wish I could, but I don't believe it will be a viable option for all of my future releases.
So, here's what's coming up: I'm going to approach a much cheaper graphic designer and re-publish The Gatherers and the Illness of the Isle with an updated cover. I'll shelve Sam's gorgeous art and use the full piece in the future (either as the spine for a boxset or as an included piece in a book of art to be released with a boxset), I'm going to use this cheaper graphic designer going forward (to mitigate my losses), and I'm going to press onward and never make such an emotionally-driven gamble again.
Moving past the sales performance and expenses and the update about the graphic designer and art direction of the series, we get to talk at length about the most emotionally confusing pieces of this whole experience: the critiques. I've had a good deal of people tell me that they've really enjoyed the book, but I've also had a handful of people give me strong criticisms about it. They've told me what didn't work for them and why it didn't work. Rationally, I know this information is golden. It's the most important information for any artist. Constructive criticism is almost like a roadmap to greatness. If the author can heed the criticisms and admit to himself which of them are most truthful, the author can improve his future works, refining them until they're better and clearer and more engaging than their predecessors. The biggest caveat to criticism is, however, that each piece of criticism is barbed with thorns. Some of these thorns cut on an emotional level ("What? You didn't like my approach to sharing my world building? That was my favorite part of the whole book!"), and some cut because they're about such subjective subjects that an author cannot decide how exactly to respond to them. Should he change the way he writes because a reader has found a glaring issue? Or is that reader merely of a particular type with very peculiar tastes and needs? If the author changes his writing to appease that reader, will he then risk alienating a much larger group of readers?
Add to all that the very physical challenges I've been dealing with (my son has been in and out of the hospital, and when he's been home, well, he's been like most newborns and kept my wife and I up all night), and I don't find it a struggle to understand why my headspace has been foggy and dark lately. To handle all of these big moments as an author is one great challenge, but to do it when you're only able to get, at most, five hours of sleep each night... well, it's grueling.
But I'm trying to keep my eyes on what's ahead, and I'm trying to remind myself that I must press onward. More than that, I'm trying very hard to appreciate all the blessings I do have (my wife and daughters, my home, my supportive job, and my son's health). When so many things assail you, it can be hard to keep your head level and keep your focus on that which matters, but I believe it's worth it to try, because those things that you have and treasure are the things that make it worth diving back into the pursuit of your goals.
As always, thanks, endlessly, for being part of this site and for reading.