How Do You Sell a Rectangle?

August 1, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I’m getting ready to self-publish my first book, and I’ve promised to share my experiences as I learn from them.  It is hard for a person with skills and knowledge to replicate “beginner’s mind,” so I hope my naivete and silly mistakes will be useful for other rank neophytes.

The first thing to know is that the publishing world is undergoing a seismic shift right now, and nobody knows “the rules” any more.  In the Bad Old Days, self-publishing could mean saying goodbye to selling your work to a conventional publisher.  It meant you submitted your work unsuccessfully until you gave up and paid someone to print it.  It meant your book wasn’t marketable.

Now anyone can publish anything.  I just did it tonight, and you’re reading it right now.  The only questions left are:  Will someone pay to read my work? and Where do I sell it?

Actually, it’s slightly more complicated than that, and that’s what I am going to recap in this post.

  1. I checked out my competition.  If there are a lot of books out there that are similar to yours, you can look at it in one of two ways.  Either you shouldn’t bother, or you can assume there is a solid market for your type of book.  If you already have a manuscript, you may as well wade in and try to sell it.  Take a good, long look at your competitors’ book jackets, advertising copy, and customer reviews.
  2. I read a big stack of writing manuals.  These books always have a chapter on Things to Avoid.  Pay heed.  Editors and writing instructors will have seen more examples of terrible writing than any mortal should endure, and these books will almost certainly contain advice that affects your work.  Beyond that, you will learn about how the publishing industry works (or used to work), and it will help you with your marketing strategy.
  3. I realized I needed a cover.  I can barely draw a stick figure.  I do, however, know several talented artists, one of whom just graduated from art school.  I approached him and offered two options:  Sell me the cover art at a fixed price and let me retain the rights, or give it to me on spec for a percentage of profits.  He speculated.  The work is of far higher quality than I would have gotten from a conventional publisher.  It’s also of higher quality than I expected my artist to deliver!  I believe very strongly that an eye-catching cover has always been one of the main features that will lead a reader to pick up a book.  In the age of e-publishing, I predict it will become even more important.  How do you sell a rectangle in the midst of thousands of other rectangles?  Make it stand out.  If I’m right, e-publishing will become a way for obscure artists and graphic designers to make names for themselves along with authors.  I can also sell my book to my artist’s friends.  I call these “pity purchases.”  It’s how word of mouth starts.
  4. I found out I can sell my book on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing.  The advantages are a higher percentage of sales than what a conventional publisher would offer; lower prices for readers; an e-book that stays “in print” as long as you like; the ability to choose your own title and cover; the ability to direct your own marketing campaign; and the ability to tag your work, helping readers find your book and avoiding the problem of a publisher or bookseller that doesn’t know where to shelve your title.  The caveats are that Amazon can sell your book at a price other than your chosen list price; the text needs to be formatted (I haven’t reached this stage yet, but I watched a video tutorial and it looks complicated); and, of course, you’re responsible for your own editing and marketing.  Oh, and you don’t get an advance.
  5. I found out I can also sell my book via print-on-demand through  This means my readers can order a print copy and choose as fancy a binding as will fit in their budget.  It also means I can buy print copies to sell directly. [WRONG!  Although it’s a cool idea, the reader can’t choose the binding.  The author chooses one.  Lulu also offers e-publishing, but I’m not sure yet whether I can sell multiple print versions in different bindings].
  6. I decided to set up a website.  Oh brother.  I was able to buy a domain name, my first and last name dot com, that I didn’t think would be available, so that was lucky.  Then I found out I had to pay separately for hosting.  My site is administered through a separate website, and it requires an 18-character password, among other things.  It took me about two weeks to figure out how to upload files.  I still haven’t designed any pages for it, and I need to know how to upload video and accept PayPal, while I’m still struggling with the part where I juggle three URLs and the concomitant log-ins and passwords.  At the rate I’m going it will take me about eighteen years to get the thing up and running on a professional level.  The good news is, it only cost me $80 for two years!
  7. I decided to make a book trailer.  I was able to convince a friend to perform in it for free, and she gave such a brilliant performance I got chills.  Alas, I found out too late that my handheld digital camera isn’t really the right tool for this kind of job, and the audio was out of sync.  Due to the nature of the clip, it took me two hours of editing to realize this.  Because I am very lucky in my friends, I have been getting technical assistance on this that I really don’t deserve, and I should be able to salvage my project.  I also just happen to have a good friend who composes film scores, and he agreed to write music for me.  If you are flexible and fun to work with, and your project is interesting, you may find all sorts of people will be willing to help you.  Be appreciative and respectful of your friends’ time.  Also try to return these favors in any way you can, and pay it forward by helping others.
  8. I’m keeping a running list of new ideas about how to market my book.  This is the kind of thing that will vary depending on your genre.  I believe there are no limits in the new world of publishing.  Anything I want to try may very well work, and there is some intrinsic interest in the attempt itself.  I don’t want to give away any of my secrets, which probably wouldn’t do you much good for your particular book anyway.  I’ll use the example of a friend of mine, who just paid to publish her first book two months ago.  She is a home-schooler mom who is active in her church.  She is already selling her book at a local gift shop – one that would slam the door as soon as they saw the cover of my book! – which is fantastic as far as I’m concerned.  I suggested that she send out review copies to home-schooling newsletters, and check to see if any branches of her church have reading groups that might be interested.  Now I just have to convince her to start a second book.
  9. I’m already working on my next book.  Realize that your first book may be a bomb.  It may mysteriously become popular years later.  It may simply sell at a slow and steady rate.  Regardless, if you’re like me you’ll walk a bald patch in your carpet unless you find a way to channel your energy into something constructive.  Start planning your next project.  Put to use everything you’ve learned while creating the first one, and try to make your next book better than your first.


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  1. Good luck to you! I am eager to learn more about your book.

  2. This is an awesome post. I love the way you are bringing your community into your book. I can’t wait to read your book (and see the cover)!

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