Writing Excuses 11.11: Self-Publishing in 2016, with Michaelbrent Collings
Key points: Self-publishing. Indie. Kicked in the door, shot a bunch of people, and is casually sipping its whiskey at the bar over the dead bodies. But… It’s a lot of work. The question is not “Can you get published?” The question now is, “Can you get noticed, read, and reread?” The secret to authors making a living is having other people sell their books. Also, your first book sucks. Be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. You are a business. Be objective about it. Kindle Select or diversify? Promotional lists? Investment? It depends. The big thing is volume — once they read one great book, make sure they can find more! Best online resource to learn about self-publishing? Google. Lots of options, from small press, to farming it out, to DIY all the way.
[Mary] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought you by audible.com. If you would like to support this podcast and start a 30-day trial membership, visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Self-Publishing in 2016 with Michaelbrent Collings.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Michaelbrent Collings.
[Michaelbrent] How’s it going?
[Brandon] Pretty good. How are you doing?
[Brandon] We want to talk about self-publishing, specifically, right now because self-publishing seems to be changing. It has been changing. It’s settling in a little bit. But you have primarily self published your works.
[Michaelbrent] Yeah. I’m one of the top indie horror writers in the United States, and I’m actually international bestseller on every e-platform that’s available.
[Brandon] Awesome. I feel humbled.
[Brandon] Glad to have you on. No, really. This is the big revolution in publishing of our times. The top author in the world right now I believe is self-published. That’s Bella Forest who’s doing the vampire things. That’s outselling JK Rowling, outselling everybody. Self-publishing has not only arrived. It kicked in the door and shot a whole bunch of people and is now casually sipping its whiskey at the bar…
[Michaelbrent] Over the dead bodies.
[Brandon] Over the dead bodies. That’s right. So I want to start with kind of the standard question. New writer, right now, considering self-publishing. What advice are you going to give them?
[Mary] I just wanted to know what kind of whiskey he was going to give me.
[Michaelbrent] See, when you said standard question, I was almost like…
[Michaelbrent] They’re blue panties, Brandon.
[Mary] [Take off his knee.]
[Michaelbrent] Okay, so the thing that I tell most people, first of all, is it’s a lot of work. Most indie publishers, most self published people, they go out and they’re like I’m going to poop out beautiful words, and the audience is going to come up with its magic pooper-scooper, scoop it up and suddenly golden nuggets will fall on my head. And…
[Howard] You are on my lawn so hard.
[Michaelbrent] No, they’re… It’s a lot different, okay. So really this is what it’s like. Picture this. You’re in the doctor’s office and you’re bent over and the doctor is putting on their glove. Right?
[Michaelbrent] You’re hearing the gradual snap snap snap and you say, “So, where did you go to school?” The doctor goes, “I didn’t really go to school. But one time, I went to a doctor and he was terrible and I thought I can do better than this.” That’s the attitude that far too many self-published and indie published people approach their craft with. They think, “I wrote a… I read a crappy book last year and I can totally write a slightly less crappy book.” Then somehow that transmutes to “I can write a book that will make J. K. Rowling come to me for loans.”
[Michaelbrent] Really, you want, when you go to that doctor’s office, you want a doctor who graduated from an amazing school, who did the residency, their internship, and has done it for 10 years. Because now they know what they’re doing. The best authors that I know, and I know obviously most of the people up here. I know Dean Koontz. I know Orson Scott Card. All of them and a bunch of others… all of them treated their writing career, at first, like an intensive graduate studies program while they are doing their real job at the time to pay the bills.
[Howard] I made fun of Michaelbrent a little bit for the awesome metaphor. The idea of a doctor… It might sound a little extreme, but if I am opening your book, I am… I am letting you have a piece of my brain rent-free. That’s pricey and the more time I spend in your book, that’s far more expensive to me than the price of the book. I want you to know what you’re doing.
[Brandon] See, this thing… I’ve thought about this one a lot. I’ve worried… I couldn’t decide if it’s my bias because I’m pretty well entrenched in traditional publishing, right? I’ve done some hybrid stuff with my novellas. But I’m like the poster boy for traditional publishing in science fiction and fantasy right now. I look at this…
[Michaelbrent] And you’re lovely.
[Brandon] Oh, thank you.
[Dan] He has that poster on his wall at home.
[Michaelbrent] Actually, when you go to Brandon’s bathroom, he’s just staring at you from the wall.
[Mary] The sequins are what makes it.
[Brandon] But, I worry. I see these people that are self-publishing and I know in my experience that my first books were not good. I know that I started to get good after about five or six books. I wonder if I hadn’t had the kind of… If I’d been able to just take those first ones and put them out, if that would have affected my career, such that I would’ve thought, “This is good enough. I will keep at this.” Or if I would have gained a reputation very quickly as somebody who does that quality of work and it would’ve negatively affected me. But who knows? I mean, maybe that’s just my bias speaking.
[Michaelbrent] Well, you know what, it’s not that it would have a negative reputation. It’s the worst thing in indie publishing is no one would’ve noticed you ever. Because it used to be, “Hey, can you get published? Hey, can you get published?” Now anyone can get published. The question is, can you get noticed, can you get read, and can you get reread? The most important thing of all… And I’ll tell you a secret… There is not an author in the world who can make a living selling books. Authors make a living by having other people sell their books. So you need to get into a position where you’re good enough, you know your craft well enough, you tell good enough stories with enough interest in them, that people will not only read it and go, “That’s pretty good, I’ll read another one,” but they grab their friend and go, “Holy crap, you’ve got to read this book. It’s amazing.” That’s what’s going to get you a living as a writer. But a lot of people put out their first book, and… Oh, here’s another secret. Your first book sucks. Everyone thinks, “But I’m the exception.” You’re just not. I mean, there are exceptions, but that’s sort of like saying, “I’m quitting my job because this lottery investment’s coming in today. I feel it.” The likelihood of it happening is astronomically against. So plan to be a normal human being, who comes out of their mother pretty much capable of nothing but crapping and that’s your writing career. And you’re going to…
[Dan] So far, all of your metaphors have been poop-concentric.
[Brandon] Mine involved alcohol.
[Michaelbrent] There is a sad little 12-year-old boy living in all of us.
[Mary] Even me.
[Howard] The early Schlock Mercenary strips… when I decided to go into print, and this was before the days of e-books as a profitable medium. When I decided to go into print, I did not start with the earliest story. Because the early stories, and this was the terminology that I used then, I still use it now, sucked so hard that the only way for them to suck harder is if we raised atmospheric pressure. Because it was a science joke, and I figured that would convince people to actually go read the stuff that’s that bad. I still look at it and I think… I remember who I was when I was writing that… when I was drawing that and thinking, “Yeah. This is awesome.” I was the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Okay. I was too bad of an artist to know how bad of an artist I was.
[Michaelbrent] Okay, so you’ve touched on something really important, because different from traditional publishing, at least to some extent… When you get to a point in traditional, it probably kicks in, but right from the very beginning, if you’re going to be self pubbed, you are a business. Part of a business is objectivity. So, as an example, I was, believe it or not… I was an attorney for 10 years. I was reasonably good at it. I wasn’t always a poop-talking idiot. But one of the things that would happen is my clients would come in very enraged and irate about stuff and I’d say, “Step back and ask yourself how much money is this going to cost versus how much money is it going to gain. Whichever side has more, you do that thing.” The good ones listened to that and walked out with money in their pockets. There is a certain level of objectivity that kicks in when you think of yourself as a business. That is great, because you can then look at a piece of work and say, “This is not good. I’m not going to do it.”
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is actually Strangers by Michaelbrent Collings. Can you tell us about this book?
[Michaelbrent] Strangers is really cool. It’s about this family that wakes up late one day and they do the thing we all do when we wake up late. Like they run out en masse trying to get to their appointments, school, etc. They run to the first door… err, to the front door and it’s jammed. Okay, great, what else can go wrong? They run to the back door. Jammed. They run to the side door. It won’t open. Things are getting weird at this point. They open the blinds and realize that every single window has been covered over with sheet metal. They have been entombed in their home with a madman who wants some special time with them.
[Brandon] Wow! What a great pitch. Well. This is on Audible. You can go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a trial membership, download Strangers by Michaelbrent Collings. It’s read by Jeffrey Kafer.
[Brandon] All right. I want to go down a few quick questions for you, because I think we’re spending too much time on one topic. There are lots of things I think self-publishing people want to know. The first is Kindle. It has… what’s it called Kindle Select? Yes or no? Do you enroll in that or not?
[Michaelbrent] It depends. I mean, if you are starting out, it offers some advantages that might get you noticed and Amazon is the giant in this country. Overseas it’s [Tolino? Kobo] I think is what it’s called. So it might be a good idea but [garbled]
[Brandon] What it means is you can only put it in Kindle?
[Michaelbrent] You can only put it in Kindle and then they give you certain benefits of advertising. But they’re not huge, and for me, it scares me. I’m not an eggs-in-one-basket guy, so I’ve diversified across every single e-platform that I can possibly do. Start it. Try it for three months. The nice thing is you have to do for three months, then change.
[Brandon] All right. Bookbub and other paid promotional mailing lists and things like this. Yes or no?
[Michaelbrent] No for the most part. 99.9% of them do not offer a good return on investment.What they offer is saturation marketing, which is good for Toyota. If you have $100 million in budgeting to do. Bookbub does return on investment, but you have to be pretty successful with a book before they will even consider you.
[Brandon] All right. Brand-new author. How much would you recommend they invest starting out and where would you recommend, like minimum, that they invest that money?
[Michaelbrent] That varies wildly. I invest very little money in almost anything because I do everything. I do the editing, I do the covers, and stuff like that. Most people… you have to do a website, and so if you can’t code, learn to code like I did or get someone to do it. You have to have good book covers and that can be anywhere from $50-$500. Good editing is critical. Again anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand. It depends on what you want as an end result. You are a business.
[Brandon] All right. Lots of short fast books or longer books or any… do they change, just whatever you feel like, or does one thing seem to do better than another? Series, yes no? First book for free, yes no?
[Michaelbrent] First book free works a lot, for a lot of people. I’ve never done it. The thing that you have to do though is volume. I’m talking about if you do a great first book and then they go, “This is fantastic. Where’s his second book?” There’s no second book. They go, “Wow. I’ll read him when he comes out.” Guess what, they won’t.
[Brandon] So the length is not as important to you as making sure there are multiple books out?
[Michaelbrent] Yeah. You do want to… And part of that’s just what you talked about. You’re going to get better and you’re going to write 10, 15 books before… Like I wrote one book right out of the gate that was a success. That was a huge detriment to me. I thought I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t. So it took me another five books to start making money, and another five books after that to make regular money, and then more books after that to make decent money.
[Brandon] All right. Last one for me before I throw it to the rest of the podcasters. I think they may have something for you. Best online resources for people who want to self-publish in 2016?
[Michaelbrent] That’s silly, but like most people, they go, “I don’t know how to do this.” Google the fricking thing. You know, “How do I self-publish?” is a huge question, but you’re going to open up to the most viewed [garbled — pages?]
[Brandon] Here’s the problem. You say, “How do I self-publish?” When I do that, the first like five results are scam artists trying to take your money.
[Michaelbrent] Right. That’s the thing I was going to say is you’re not going to get good answers on that first page. But you’re going to find out enough of the right terms to start answe… asking better questions.
[Brandon] Okay. Kindle boards?
[Michaelbrent] It’s okay. You can be on these forums and they’re great. But they’re 99% people who are just in the same boat you are. They’re not to give you any information you can’t find out very easily.
[Brandon] All right. I cut off Mary early. I think you had something you wanted to add or ask?
[Mary] One of the things that I was wondering about when you were talking at how you do everything… The main reason that I don’t do self-publishing is because I used to be an art director. Like I have all of the skills, and I’m lazy. Is that… Is that actually… Am I actually right, that this is like way too much trouble because I’m lazy, or is this one of those things where it… Now it has become such a business, self-publishing or independent publishing, that there are people to do the things that I don’t want to do?
[Michaelbrent] There’s lots of people that can do it. It depends a lot on your personality and your budget. I like to do the covers. It gives me… It gives me a break, when I’m bored with the writing. So I like to do all the stuff involved in self-pub, because I have a spastic attention span. Most people want to get it farmed out a lot of the time.
[Brandon] One thing I can recommend quickly here is if you are like Mary that you don’t want to do it all… And I have good friends that are like that. They’re like, “I want to traditional publish for that reason.” That’s a good reason to want to traditional publish. But if you’re kind of in the middle. You’re like, “I would like to run the business of it myself, but I don’t want to do the editing and the art.” There are some really legit small presses that will kind of be a halfway step between, which will take a much smaller percentage of your e-book rights or even, under negotiations, none and they’ll take only the print rights. Where you can kind of, in that realm, be the self marketing person that goes out and sells these e-books, but also have someone else do the print edition that does a lot of the editing and artwork and then gets it hopefully to some bookstores.
[Michaelbrent] Be aware of those… Really quick, though, those you have to look at what you’re getting for what you’re giving up. For instance, if all they’re doing is getting… Editing your book and giving you a cover, don’t take that. Get yourself an editor, get yourself a cover artist, you’ll output some money and you’ll keep everything.
[Brandon] See, here’s the thing. I’ve gotta disagreement because The Emperor’s Soul, I went with Tachyon. Great small press. They did art direction, they did editing, they got it into every Barnes & Noble in the country.
[Michaelbrent] See, that’s what I’m saying. That’s more than just…
[Brandon] Okay. You’re right.
[Michaelbrent] Art direction and editing.
[Brandon] It was getting it in the bookstores
[Michaelbrent] And they’ll market it.
[Brandon] They let me keep my ebook rights
[Michaelbrent] That’s great.
[Howard] The talk about cover. It’s… It’s frightening to me, that a lot of people think that once they’ve got Photoshop and know how to drop shadow…
[Brandon] Just Paint.
[Howard] Let me say this. It’s actually a lot easier to find a good artist who can do a cover for money than it is to find a good art director who can get that artist to build the thing that you need. I have been trying to be an art director for the Planet Mercenary project, and I’ve discovered that while it’s a wonderful experience, I had to learn a whole new language. I had no idea it was going to be that hard, and I had 15 years of of drawing experience under my belt.
[Michaelbrent] That’s the thing too, is anything you choose to do, you have to do it beyond professionally. Because they’re going to go, “Why should I read you, when I can read Stephen King?” Well, your cover’s better, your first page is better, you’re a nicer person
[Brandon] All right. We’re going to end with Dan here.
[Dan] Earlier, when Brandon was running down a list of various marketing and promotional services, you said no to most of them. What do you do to get your name out there?
[Michaelbrent] Okay, the biggest things I do to get my name out there are guest posts and interviews like this one. If you’re a good writer…
[Dan] Wait. So we’re helping you? Dang it.
[Michaelbrent] Frigging A. If you’re a good writer… But you know, I take everything. I’ve been interviewed by mom-and-pop blog stations that the only people that listen to them is their kids, and I’ve been interviewed by NPR. You move up that chain.
[Howard] Did you give NPR that much poop?
[Michaelbrent] I would say… It didn’t get to the final cut.
[Michaelbrent] But I do that, and I do guest posts a lot about writing articles and things like that. That’s critically important. If you write something… You can plug your book. It’s sort of like in my book Strangers, I use this technique. You don’t have to be like Strangers, Strangers, Strangers, Strangers, but you can use a throw-away line and they go, “Hey, he sounded like he was like the second stupidest person in the room. I’ll check that book out.”
[Brandon] All right. So we’re going to stop here for our homework. Actually, Michael’s going to give us his favorite writing exercise.
[Michaelbrent] Okay. So take a first line of any book and turn it into a scary line. Take the scary line and create two separate short stories based on that scary line.
[Brandon] Oooh. That’s cool. Thank you to our audience here, at Life, The Universe, and Everything.
[Brandon] Thank you to Michael for being on the podcast with us.
[Michaelbrent] You’re welcome.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re all out of excuses, now go write.
[Mary] Writing Excuses is a Dragonsteel Production, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor. This episode was mastered by Alex Jackson.