Shooting for the Moon (Or: Don’t Just Listen to Me)


So you have a book, and you want to be a bestselling author. Traditional publishing doesn’t seem like it’s going to help you do that anytime soon, so you decide to self-publish. What next?

You probably start by scouring the “community” pages of CreateSpace and Amazon KDP, or trawling through the dizzying array of online forums dedicated to sticking it to the evil gatekeepers by going indie. [Eye roll] Or maybe you sign up for Google Reader and add every self-publishing blog, dedicated or mildly related, to your morning online reading routine. Perhaps you download every “How To” self-publishing guide to your Kindle, even those by people who have never self-published (yes, they do exist for some reason) and read them repeatedly while taking comprehensive notes.

And that’s all good. That’s what you should do – if you want to know how to self-publish. Listen to us about all that. We’ve done it already; we can tell you everything you need to know and we can tell you it in the order you need to know it. We can advise against making mistakes we’ve either committed or witnessed, and we can make recommendations that might improve your chances of producing a good-looking book with wide appeal. We can share tips and ideas. We can pass on what we’ve learned in our research, to save you the bother.

For all this, yes, you should look to self-publishers.

But if you want to sell millions of books – or even just a lot of them – should you really look to the self-publishing world, where only a handful of writers have achieved that kind of success, and have only achieved it very recently? Radical idea alert: wouldn’t you be better off using the world of traditional publishing as a basis for your research into how to sell books, seeing as that’s where all the world’s bestselling authors come from, and where they’ve been coming from – exclusively – for years and years, until this whole digital publishing revolution came around like, last week?

By all means, come to me and other self-publishers for information, yes. How to self-publish, where to self-publish, what price to put on your book, etc. etc. But for inspiration, forget about us (for the most part, anyway) and instead, look to the world’s bestselling authors – who have all been traditionally published*.

(More on that asterisk in a minute.)

That’s where I look. Pick a few of your favorite authors and commence a (legal) cyber-stalking operation. Ask yourself: what do their websites look like? What’s on their covers? What do they do to sell their books? How do they interact with their fans? Obviously you won’t be able to copy them exactly, but you can definitely find takeaways that you can adapt and modify to use in your own book-selling endeavors.

Here’s a few great ideas I’ve picked up from traditionally-published authors that I’ve either used already or stored away in the filing cabinet in my brain for later use. Feel free to steal them from me (or them, rather).

Siegrid reading Mousetrapped in the sun, in Venice, Florida

1. Michael Connelly’s Photo Submission/Review Contest

Michael Connelly is my favorite author and I am glued to his website and Facebook page for updates. (The only good thing about having to leave this lovely place and fly home soon is that they might have his latest release, The Drop, in English at the airport.) A few books ago – it may have been The Brass Verdict – his webmaster asked readers to send in photos of themselves reading his book. If you did, you got your picture on his website under a section called “Look Who’s Reading [BOOK TITLE]” and if you were one of the first 1,000 people to do it, you got sent an exclusive little book about how he created his two main characters, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, that wasn’t available to buy. When Mousetrapped came out, I invited readers to do the same thing with “Look Who’s Reading Mousetrapped“. I didn’t reward them with anything (duh; I’m not that nice), but I did get some great content to add to my Facebook page.

2. Karin Slaughter’s Newsletter

You may know Karin Slaughter as the author of gripping and occasionally gory thrillers like Faithless, Fallen and Broken, but did you know she has the funniest newsletter around? You know how it is: you find a new author you like, you sign up for their newsletter because you think you’re going to want to hear from them, but then whenever it lands in your inbox you yawn and click Delete. Well, trust me when I say you won’t be doing this with Slaughter’s. They. Are. HILARIOUS. And she writes them in plain text! They don’t even have any bells, whistles or fancy HTML. Click here to see how she makes news of her latest book release one of the most entertaining things you read that day. Then sign-up to it so you can learn how it should be done. For more giggles from a lady who writes about murder for a living (are you secretly writing comedy on the side, Ms. Slaughter? Because if you’re not…) watch her “Coke Roast” video.

Yes, a Coke roast. I doubt the caffeine survives the oven bit. Otherwise I’d totally be on that already, needless to say.

3. Keris Stainton’s and Alison Pick’s Blog Tours

I hate to remind you of a traumatic event that you’ve probably only just managed to put behind you, but do you remember that interminable blog tour I embarked on a few weeks back to mark the release of Results Not Typical? Well, guess what ladies and gents: I totally stole that idea from other bloggers before me. I know, I know – you thought I was the first blog tour ever, right? Sadly, no. The first I heard of a blog tour was from Keris Stainton, who had one to mark the release of her book Della Says, back in my earliest days in the blogosphere. (And she kindly told me about it in this post.) She was super organized, sending us all not only our guest post but the details of the people before and after us so we could all link up like a crazy blog chain. So of course, I totally stole all her ideas.

(L) The blog tour graphic that gave me the idea to make (R) my own blog tour graphic 

There was one blog tour idea I stole from someone else though. A while back I hosted Alison Pick, although of the Booker Prize longlisted (and amazing read), Far To Go, on her blog tour, and her publicist sent me a snazzy little graphic to put in my sidebar. Snazzy little graphic? I thought to myself when it came time to organize my own blog hopping extravaganza. Why, I think I will!

4. Miranda Dickinson Video Blogs

Miranda Dickinson is the author of bestsellers Fairytale of New York and Welcome to My World. This year, in the lead up to the publication of her third novel, It Started With a Kiss, she kept a video blog/diary of the entire process: from writing the first draft of the book right through to publication, launch, etc. We’re all fascinated with how other writers write, so to see a successful author at work is incentive enough to watch these videos, but you also can’t help but keep tuning in to see what excitement is coming up next. (And of course, you ultimately want to buy the book whose birth you witnessed too.) Find out more and watch an episode here.

While stopping by Miranda’s blog to get that link, I saw that her e-book edition of It Started With a Kiss contains “bonus features” like deleted scenes and commentary! Intriguing. Perhaps I should go steal that idea too…

5. Ali McNamara’s Breakfast With Ali

Ali McNamara is the author of From Notting Hill… With Love Actually and she (or someone clever she knows) has had a great idea to help publicize her new book, Breakfast at Darcy’s. “Breakfast with Ali” is a challenge: Ali must eat something different for breakfast every day for 30 days – and blog about it, of course. So far she has enjoyed such delights as Starbucks, soldiers (the toast kind), waffles, pastries (mmm… pastries) and the obligatory fry-up. Although I have no idea how she’s going to do it for 30 days without a repeat (good luck, Ali!) I think it’s great fun and something different. Plus, it’s the kind of thing a self-publisher could easily replicate. Find out what Ali had this morning on her blog.

Why should you be paying more attention to traditionally published authors than your self-published peers? Because you know that saying, “Shoot for the moon – even if you fail, you’ll land amongst the stars?” Well, if you shoot for the stars and you fail, won’t you end up in the treetops?

So don’t just listen to me. Do listen to me — um, obviously — but don’t listen to me alone. Branch out into the blogs, tweets and webmasters of the traditionally published author world, and see what’s going on there too.

*And So About That Asterisk

Self-publishing is obsessed with numbers, mainly because that’s the only real measurement we have of success. If you get published, you can pat yourself on the back and say, “A real, live editor said I—I mean, my book, was good enough!” You start off with success. But a self-publisher can’t pride themselves on writing a good book or publishing it well, or managing not to put a quote from their mother on the cover, because it doesn’t matter a damn what you did until someone buys a copy. So we focus on numbers instead.

That’s fine — I do it myself — but while we’ve all been comparing ourselves to each other, I think we might have lost our perspective. Here’s three numbers: (i) 10,300, (ii) 1,000,000 (iii) 43,000,000.

(Well technically that’s six numbers, isn’t it?)

The first is how many self-published books I’ve sold to date: about 10,300 since March 2010.

The second is how many self-published e-books John Locke had sold a few months back when he became the first self-published author to sell —yes, you’ve guessed it— a million Kindle books. He’s probably sold that amount again since.

But do you know what the last number is? It’s the number of books Michael Connelly has sold. Michael Connelly, a traditionally published author.

When I read that a couple of days ago, it actually took me aback. There was very nearly a choking incident involving a pain au chocolat.

Forty-three MILLION books. Let the mind-boggling commence.

I felt like I’d had my head in the self-publishing sand and had forgotten what internationally bestselling author really means. Because it doesn’t mean the number of books that even the most uber-successful self-published e-book author has sold. It doesn’t even really mean all the uber-successful self-published e-book authors’ sales combined, although I’m sure they’d go a significant way towards it. It means forty-three million books and two movie-adaptations, one amazing (The Lincoln Lawyer) and one that made me want to injure the elderly gentleman who starred in and directed it, even though he wasn’t at all suitable for the role — was, in fact, about twenty years too old for it — and he changed a key plot point that left the story irreparably damaged, and so ruined the big screen debut of one of the first Connelly novels I read (Blood Work).

(Clint Eastwood, I’m looking at YOU.)

Now, don’t go and start shouting at me about this. It’s the weekend, and I’m still recovering from almost being attacked by a camera-shy peacock yesterday. (True story. Although it was a big almost.) I’m just saying that while yes, self-publishing is the knees of a bee — it’s given millions of authors new options and it keeps me in lattes — let’s just stop and remember for a second that we have a little bit of a way to go before we can really start talking revolution. I think some of us [looks pointedly at some people in particular] could do with such a reminder.

Click here to see a chronological list of all my “SELF-PRINTING” category posts.

11 thoughts on “Shooting for the Moon (Or: Don’t Just Listen to Me)

  1. Laura Reese says:

    Excellent post, couldn’t agree more! Key point: Successful authors use creativity and fun to engage readers. Some fabulous ideas ~ thanks for sharing them!


  2. Laura @ Ladies Who Critique says:

    Awww, Catherine I’ve missed you. Your blog has not been getting the attention it deserves from me of late. Thanks for a great post, you always hit the nail on the head.

    And… 43 million? Seriously? I don’t even know how many zeros that is. Crikey.

  3. Pingback: Outbound, 11/12/11
  4. Steven Lewis says:

    Another great post but one quibble about the numbers because you don’t factor time into the equation.

    Michael Connelly has been publishing novels since 1992, 26 of them so far (this according to Wikipedia). John Locke has been publishing novels for about five minutes (which coincidentally seems to be about how long it takes him to write one). If, as you suspect, he’s selling at a rate of about two million a year, he’s doing pretty much exactly as well as Connelly. But I doubt Connelly got to a million books in five months and Locke has mastered a medium that’s growing exponentially. I think it’s unlikely to take him 19 years to get to 43 million.

    This isn’t science of course. Readers could go off Locke, for instance. I’m just saying that, given how long Connelly’s been in print, his number is no more oh wow than John Locke’s. (His writing, on the other hand, could grab Locke’s like a damp flannel and wring it dry.)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      So I take it you’re not a John Locke fan then…?!? I think it’s best not to come right out and say it. Think of your karma! 🙂

      Of course, no, I haven’t factored in time. But let’s pretend I did and that by 2022 Locke has sold 80 million books or something. First of all I doubt he will have because I think the appetite for 99c self-published novels is already waning, but even if he did, I still wouldn’t listen to him over a traditionally published author with the same sales, because we all know it’s easier to sell something for 99c to a hardcore group of fans than it is to get new readers picking up a $25 hardback or $15 paperback each time. My point was really that we’re all oohing and aahing over the sales figures these writers are producing, but we shouldn’t be in the context of publishing as a whole. Take The Help for instance: 5 million copies in a year and a bit, I think. Paperback copies that cost more than sofa change. That’s what we should be aspiring to.

      • Steven Lewis says:

        I hear you, sister, and right on, if I may say so.

        I do wish self-publishers would give up the 99 cents. Although I believe it makes those of us at $2.99+ more attractive because 99 cents is going to become (to some it already is) synonymous with garbage. Of course that’s unfair to some people who are selling great books too cheaply but it’s good for me and you, purveyors of quality 🙂

          • catherineryanhoward says:


            And “purveyor of quality” – I might put that on my business card!

            I’ve had RNT at 99c for about a month now (as it’s the lowest tier in my price, um, tiered thingy) and I don’t think a 99c price tag is doing diddly squat for it. I’m going to wait until after Christmas to see what happens but it might be better off at a higher price point just because people have gone off the 99c. We’ll see.

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