Lessons From Writing a Book

Good, bad, and interesting things about self-publishing my novella.

Lessons From Writing a Book

In November 2018, I self-published a murder mystery novella. It’s been about two years now. For reasons I’ll cover below, the book has essentially ended its journey. So, I wanted to share some lessons learned from the experience.

People can be incredibly kind

When I had finished with my draft manuscript, I put out a call for people I knew to give feedback on it and help me find errors.

I was amazed at how many family members and friends offered to help me. I reconnected with high school English teachers that I hadn’t talked to in 25 years. One of my best friends took time from his beach vacation to help. Numerous people dedicated themselves to finding my many, many typos. My profound thanks go to all of you.

Intellectual property issues are complex

Most books, even self-published ones, generally go through a legal review. You need to make sure you aren’t violating laws around copyright, trademark, libel, etc. I hired a lovely firm in NYC, Klaris Law, to review my book. After a few tweaks, they gave me the go-ahead to publish. I love that there are lawyers who get paid to read books for a living!

My book was an homage to Agatha Christie. Thus, it made many references to her, her works, and her characters. I reached out to Agatha Christie Limited, which holds the copyrights to most Agatha Christie works and is run by her great-grandson.

I knew a partnership with ACL was a long shot, but I was hoping for some advice or at least some encouragement. Eventually, I received a boilerplate response indicating a lack of interest along with vaguely threatening language about copyrights and trademarks that I knew I wasn’t violating.

That was...a rough day. I thought I’d get a more cordial and human brush off, given the reverence and love I was showing for Agatha Christie. I guess it’s all just business.

The technical aspects of the writing and self-publishing processes are interesting, at least to me

I’m a nerd. Writing and self-publishing offer plenty of opportunities to geek out. In fact, I could easily distract myself with picking and configuring tools rather than actually writing if I wasn’t careful.

While I used a number of writing apps over time, the one that got me over the finish line was Ulysses. If you’re a Mac, iPad, or iPhone user who writes a lot, I recommend it highly. I’m actually writing this post on Ulysses. It’s a powerful, flexible writing tool that empowers you while never getting in your way.

The various digital book stores use different formats for their ebooks. And Amazon has a specific format for its self-published paperback books. I was new to all of this, but I found Vellum. If you’re a Mac user looking to self-publish, I also recommend Vellum highly. It made the publishing process a snap.

Online ratings and reviews matter in more ways than you know

Before writing my book, I never left online ratings or reviews for anything. Even if I loved or hated something, I was too lazy to give feedback. My sense is that most consumers are similar. I’ve seen estimates that only one in 100-200 purchases results in a review, for example. I would believe it. Very few people who purchase my novella have left online feedback.

The financial impact of ratings and reviews cannot be overstated. If I get a new five-star review, I see my sales spike. If I get a new one- or two-star review, I see my sales dip. Consumers who won’t leave reviews themselves often still base their purchasing decisions on the reviews of others.

Reviews also have an emotional impact on me as an author. A five-star review can make me glow all day, and a one-star review can make me feel absolutely worthless. It’s especially rough when someone leaves a one- or two-star rating and no review. I have no idea why they didn’t like the book, just that they disliked it enough to tap an icon.

All of this has made me realize human beings are on the other side of rating icons and review boxes. I’m starting to give positive ratings (and sometimes reviews) to more things I like and to blog about things I love. I also don’t generally give less than a three-star rating to anything. I now know how it feels for raters to tell you your baby is ugly. So, I’m much more hesitant to do that to others.

Self-publishing means hiding your needle in digital haystacks

When self-publishing, you aren’t required to have an agent, a publisher, or a publicist. You also can sell ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks to avoid a lot of up-front costs. So, that was the good news for me. Anyone can easily self-publish.

What was bad news? Anyone can easily self-publish—and many, many people do. This meant my novella was a needle in digital store haystacks, along with countless other works. I didn’t have fame or a fan base to help me stand out. The book was getting no traction on its own. So, I decided to try my hand at some advertising.

Amazon Advertising works...for a price

I’ve been running Amazon ads on the “Agatha Christie” search term for nearly two years. To get good placement for the ads, I’ve had to pay a high rate in relation to the low price of my book.

My ebook only costs $2.99, Amazon takes 30% of that, I have to pay taxes on the rest, and I have to pay for the ads. The upshot is that I've consistently lost money as an author. It’s been a small amount of money. But after pouring my energy into making something, having to prop it up with money-losing ads or not see it sell has been tough to swallow.

I kept hoping that this digital pump-priming would eventually lead to some word-of-month and organic sales. But, that has sadly not happened. Almost all of my sales have been ad-driven.

At the start of September, I saw publishers of Agatha Christie novels placing many more ads that were moving my ad lower and lower in Amazon search results. My sales tanked accordingly. These publishers likely have marketing budgets and book unit prices that allow them to pay more for ads than I can.

So, I’ve decided to turn my ads off. The book will continue to be available. But, without ads, it will not sell many more copies.

I’m glad I did it

I had the core ideas for the novella in my mid-20s and toyed with them for 20 years. I was lazy. There’s no denying it. But, I finally wrote the damn thing. The experience has been ego-bruising at times. But I’ve learned a lot. In the end, I’m proud that I’ve put something out into the world.

Main blog post image by Dan Counsell.