May
24

A Self-Publishing Success Story

Advice from Sci-Fi Author Eric Thomson

One of my good friends is also a writer.  He uses the pen name Eric Thomson and he has come to a fair degree of success with self-publishing — to the point where this past Spring he was able to live the dream and retire early to focus on writing as his full-time career. His example has been a strong siren song for me where self-publishing is concerned, but I suspected there were some aspects of his path to publication that were somewhat unique and I wasn't sure how well his experiences would relate to my situation.  So, as part of my "to self-publish, or not to self-publish" debate, I sat down with Eric (virtually) for an interview on the topic.

In terms of introduction, here is a brief bio and the list of the books that Eric has published to date:

Eric Thomson is the pen name of a retired Canadian soldier with thirty-one years of service, both in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve. He spent his Regular Army career in the Infantry and his Reserve service in the Armoured Corps. He worked for a number of years as an Information Technology specialist before retiring to become a full-time author in April 2016.

8 Oct 2014, Death Comes But Once (Decker's War, Book 1)
20 Oct 2014, No Honor In Death (Siohban Dunmoore, Book 1)
25 Jul 2015, The Path Of Duty (Siohban Dunmoore, Book 2)
20 Nov 2015, Cold Comfort (Decker's War, Book 2)
23 May 2016, Fatal Blade (Decker's War, Book 3)
Coming in July 2016, Like Stars In Heaven (Siohban Dunmoore, Book 3)

ALR: Are your two series similar in style/genre/target audience?  Do you have a number of books in mind for the arc of each series, or are you running book by book as inspiration hits?

Both are similar in style/genre/target audience, but not identical.  I’m trying to recreate the feeling of “old-fashioned” space opera with a military slant, the kind that I used to devour when I was in my 20s and 30s, i.e. pure escapist entertainment, light on message and heavy on fun.  There are differences between the two series, though.  The Siobhan Dunmoore series, I think, has more complexities and character development than Decker’s War, which is very much oriented towards non-stop action and limited character development.  The audiences might not completely overlap, but to a large extent, I think they do.   Sales numbers for both series have been almost identical.

How long will each be? I can’t tell right now.  All I know is that they’ll have a natural end. I’ve seen too many series I used to enjoy stumble into irrelevancy or worse because the author kept going after he or she had run out of ideas and motivation.  I do have a full life mapped out, at a high level, for both of my main characters.   I see an arc come to a close with the third Siobhan Dunmoore book, but likely not the series, though I might take a break from it.  With Decker’s War, it’s as inspiration comes.  The third installment is done and yet, even before publication, I’m storyboarding and outlining the next one, because the ideas started flowing.  I think it’s easier with that series because of the action focus.  I can see Decker’s War stretch out for a longer time since the overriding arc is relatively high level and each adventure is very much self-contained.

ALR: Do you remember the first sparks of inspiration that drove you to write each of your series?  How did the world-building and story-arc evolve, and how long did it germinate before you actually started to write them?

No Honor in Death and Death Comes but Once were written in the mid-1990s, when I was in my early thirties, so my recall is a bit faint.  I do remember that I’d developed this notion that I could write well enough to make a living from it and get out of the corporate rat race.  Not.

I’d been mulling the stories over for a while before I actually started writing, but without much thought about where I wanted to take things.  All I knew is that I loved Jerry Pournelle’s writing and wanted to do something similar.  My approach was more throwing ideas at the keyboard and seeing what came out than an actual long-term plan.  In fact, there wasn’t supposed to be a sequel to Death Comes But Once. It was meant to be a one-off in the wider universe I’d been fantasizing about, to see if I could write a light-hearted adventure story, and yet, I’ve written two follow-ons.  The Siobhan Dunmoore series had the more defined arc in that I knew I wanted a series out of her adventures, but without much thought as to what these might be, other than built around defining moments in the career I made up for her.

ALR: How much of your earlier writing from the 90's made it into the books you actually published?  Has your style/quality of work grown significantly since you first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?

Well, the two first novels I ended up publishing were actually the fourth and fifth I’d written back in the mid-1990s.  I flogged those around for a traditional publication deal, without success, though one rejection letter I got was personalized to the point where I was told Death Comes But Once was almost there.  I never did hear back from anyone concerning No Honor in Death.

When I pulled those two out again in 2014, after discovering that I could self-publish for Amazon’s Kindle, they needed a lot of polishing. I suppose that almost two years later, after writing another quarter of a million words, if I were to take a critical look at either, I’d say that I didn’t polish them enough.

The first three manuscripts, which will never see the light of day, are just painfully bad. I mean so bad I’d like to put them in a lead box, weld it shut and drop it down the Marianas Trench. Last year, I pulled one of them out of the memory hole to see if I could salvage something. Nope. I took a few characters, changed their names and used them in my current works, but that’s about it.  So yes, my style and quality of work have definitely evolved.  I discovered, for instance, that I was much better at writing dialogue than descriptions, one of the reasons why my first unpublished attempts were terrible – I tried to tell, not show and couldn’t tell to save my life. My latest Decker’s War is heavy on dialogue that shows and light on descriptions that tell and I think it moves along at a better pace than anything I’ve written before, but I’m still able to write cringingly bad descriptive prose if I’m not careful.

ALR: Did you have specific goals (personal or professional) in mind when you first began to write? Have your goals evolved over time, or have they remained relatively constant?

Back in the 1990s, I wanted to become a full-time writer. It didn’t pan out, life intervened, and I had a decent career, both in the Army Reserve and in civilian life. When I finally published those two novels in 2014, it was without any goal other than to see if I could actually sell something.  I had no notion of becoming a full-time writer.  In fact, I was still contemplating career advancement in my corporate job and had some years left before retirement. Writing was a hobby, not something serious.  I had plenty of hobbies at the time. I had no plan, other than a vague idea when my books began to sell that I might make it a post-retirement career several years down the road.  That changed when my third novel sold well, and my corporate career began to take a heavy toll on my health. The success of my fourth book crystallized my determination to make writing my next career rather than a hobby that brought in some money, and I took early retirement with a definite goal in mind.

ALR: What ultimately led you to the decision to self-publish?

When I first tried to get published, there was no such thing as Amazon, ebooks or self-publishing at minimal cost (self-publishing meant vanity presses in those days – no thanks).  Once I got tired of rejection slips or not even getting a reply at all, I abandoned the idea and went on with my life.  The discovery of ebook self-publishing was a revelation, and I figured, why not?  Try it out and see what happens.  If you sell, great; if you don’t, nothing’s lost.

At first, I saw a few sales, then less than a month later, both novels I’d written almost twenty years earlier climbed the charts to feature in the top 100 in several sci-fi subgenres on Amazon for a few weeks.  That sold me on the idea I could publish without an agent or a publisher.  The more I worked at it, the more I researched, the more I found self-publishing to be the way to go for someone of my self-contained temperament.

I’m author, editor (though I have an editor as well), marketer, bookkeeper, publisher, webmaster, blogger and chief bottle washer of a business called Eric Thomson.  My business.  I like the idea of running my own business, on my terms and being solely responsible for my successes or failures.  It’s refreshing after decades of being a cog in the corporate Rube Goldberg machine.  I’ve always been a loner, so it’s an ideal career. Ultimately, I stumbled into it, almost by accident, found my footing and haven’t looked back.  It’s not so much that I decided to self-publish but that I found self-publishing and discovered that I could make it work for me.

ALR: Having two sci-fi series on the go, each new book you produce generates more and more sales of your earlier books.  But how did you generate interest/clicks for your first book(s)? 

How?  Your guess is as good as mine.  I’ve become convinced that there’s a lot of luck involved. Amazon will boost your book’s visibility in the thirty days following publication, but if it doesn’t catch on in that time, it sinks into the murky depths of a Kindle Store with more than 4.5 million titles.  My first covers sucked, and my blurbs needed polishing, yet I was able to attract enough readers to keep my visibility going after the thirty-day cliff and bring not only those back but attract new ones with each new book.  If you believe in fate or karma, perhaps I was fated, finally, after all, these years, to achieve my dream and get out of a career that was killing me.

Even after spending a lot of time on various author forums, I have yet to discover that magical ‘thing’ that gets you success, all be it modest like mine, right out of the gate, hence my belief that luck plays a significant role.  Even after more than a year and a half since my first two books came out, they’re both still ranking in the top 2% of e-book sales on Amazon.com and have never dropped out of the top 5% at their worst.  Why?  I still don’t know.  Maybe I’ve hit on an under-served segment of the mil sci-fi/space opera genre.  Maybe I had a crappy life in my previous incarnation.  Or maybe it’s just a fluke, and I won’t be able to sustain it.  I guess I’ll see when with the third installment of Decker’s War.

ALR: To date, you’ve put out two books a year since 2014.  You’ve just made that coveted transition into becoming a full-time author… how do you anticipate that will impact your throughput? 

It’s a bit too early to tell. I anticipate publishing three novels in 2016.  One is ready to go, one is two-thirds written and the third one is outlined, but I can’t spend eight hours or more a day at my keyboard other than during the final sprints to finish the first draft or complete the last bit of editing.   There are home renos to do, I have to exercise daily for my health, walk the dog, take care of the housekeeping chores and of course, fight my life-long tendency to procrastinate.

I think three quality novels a year is a reasonable goal.  More than that and I’m afraid quality will suffer.  There are authors I’ve read who seem to put out five or six a year, but after the first few in a given series or even between series in the same genre, they started to sound and feel the same to me.   I don’t want to fall into that trap for the sake of quantity because that’s the way to lose readers.

ALR: Do you think that self-publishing would be as successful a choice for someone less prolific than you?   Or do you feel that the snowball-effect of releasing books in rapid succession has really been a key contributing factor for you? Was it an asset that you published more than one book at once on Amazon in that first release in Oct 2014?

From what I’ve read in various author forums, having more than one book, especially in genres where readers expect series, sci-fi and fantasy chief among them, is key to getting and keeping visibility.  Yes, I published my first two novels within weeks of each other.  But they weren’t in the same series so I can’t judge whether that had an effect or whether it was pure luck, considering that I had no firm intention of turning either into a series at that point and never advertised the fact that they were first in two new series.  The wisdom that series sell has been proven since then, because I’ve sold more of the first in series once I published the sequels than when I released the originals.  With the third Decker’s War coming out six months after the second one, I’ll be interested to see how that plays.

Is it possible to sell a singleton?  I have no idea, but more seems to be better when it comes to sci-fi.  On the other hand, you have to start somewhere.  I’ve read enough author stories where they had little success with the first one, then a bit more with the second one a year or two later, then things took off with a third novel, well after publication of the first, so there’s the aspect of it being a marathon and not a sprint as well.

ALR: What platforms do you use to sell your books?  

Amazon only and I’m all in with Kindle Select, which makes my books available to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.  I’ve tried Kobo, Nook, iTunes and others, but my sales there were anemic to the point of death, and since you can’t be in Kindle Select and sell outside the Amazon ecosystem, I lost visibility and revenues from Kindle Unlimited.  After six months with other distributors, I went back to Amazon exclusivity and my revenues, within that first week, were more than I’d earned in those six months.  These days, I get half to two-thirds of my income from Kindle Select.  I personally subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, but only to get access to a few series where my monthly consumption would cost more to buy the books than the subscription amount. Until the model changes again, I’ll likely stay exclusive with Amazon.

ALR: What platforms do you use to market your books? 

I don’t do much active marketing as such, although I use social media platforms, including: 

- an Amazon author page (http://www.amazon.com/Eric-Thomson/e/B00OF4BU8I),
- a website (http://thomsonfiction.ca/), 
- a blog (https://ericthomsonblog.wordpress.com/), 
- a facebook profile (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008957252994&fref=ts) and
- a goodreads profile (http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/181339.Eric_Thomson).

My only active marketing has been through Amazon Marketing Services.  I’ve never tried a dedicated platform like Bookbub, simply because my sales seem to be good without it.  I managed to climb into the top 100 sci-fi authors on Amazon last December without advertising.  Whether that’ll continue, who knows?  As they say, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

ALR: Is there anything that you would do differently if you were to start over again in your writing career?  

Not sure.  I kind of stumbled into where I’m now.  It was a confluence of seeing whether I could sell my scribblings and the warning signs that I had to get out of my corporate career if I wanted to remain healthy.  Since I ended up selling enough to make it seem viable, I was able to quit the demented bureaucracy ahead of time.  There was no plan, and I’m not sure that I would have been able to plan something that fate put in front of me.  If I’d gotten that promotion in early 2015 to replace my retiring boss, perhaps I’d still be working in an office with the writing an afterthought.  If I’d taken the offer to move to another organization in the weeks after I found out I wasn’t getting my boss’ job, same thing.  But I didn’t and so, here I am, a professional scribbler.

Of course, if I’d done more research rather than jumping in with both eyes closed, who knows whether I’d have been even more successful.  As I mentioned earlier, I had no clue about anything, be it cover art, blurb writing, marketing, genre tropes, etc.  But it’s been a heck of a fun ride nonetheless.  I still wake up every morning in awe at my new life, the list of medication I have to take has gone down drastically, and I get to laugh at the traffic report every day in the knowledge that I won’t ever have to suffer through another lousy commute.

ALR: What has been the evolution of your sales numbers since you released your first books in Oct 2014?  What led you to chose $3.95 (digital) and $11.99 (paperback) as your price point?  Have you toyed with other prices, discounts, or special offers and if so, were they successful in driving your sales up in any sustained way?

Regarding quantity, (sales and Kindle Unlimited borrows), both series together totaled just under 24,000 copies in the 18.5 months since mid-October 2014.

2014 – just under 4,000 in two and a half months on two books;

2015 – around 11,400 for the year, with the first half on two books, then August to November on three, then December on four; and

2016 – 8,500 as of April 30th, on four books, which bodes well for the year, but ask me again next January how 2016 went!

I toyed with price points for the first six months or so, not having a clue as to what I was doing, until I decided that 3.95 was the best for my ebooks, considering genre and length, and what other authors – successful authors – in my genre were doing.  It’s a bit of a voodoo science when it comes to attracting readers with a reasonably priced book and not turning them off with something that screams I’m cheap because I’m crap.

For the paperback price, there’s a hard limit to how low you can go because of production costs.  At 11.99, my royalties are less than on an ebook, but price the paperback too high and readers won’t buy.  I know I’m very price sensitive when it comes to paperbacks. Since my hard copy sales are minuscule in comparison to ebooks, I don’t worry about it.

I’ve tried Kindle Countdown deals, but didn’t bother doing much regarding advertising them, so while I moved more copies during lulls between publication dates by dropping the price for a few days, it didn’t do any miracles.  I suppose combining a 0.99 deal with a Bookbub promotion would help, but I’m always asking myself how big an audience is out there for mil/space opera sci-fi in the first place.  It’s certainly smaller than genres like romance or mysteries.  After reading about the size of the advances given by traditional publishers to mid-list authors in my genre and the seeing the comment that many don’t even make enough sales to cover said advance, I do wonder.

ALR: Is self-publishing for everyone, in your opinion?

Perhaps not everyone.  Self-publishing means you’re the master of your literary destiny.  But it means you have to be ready to do everything yourself, even if you contract out cover art, editing, proofreading, and marketing, because you’re the only one who can make the decisions, and you’re the one who has to live with your decisions.  There’s no publisher to absorb the downside risks, no one to tell you you’re making the wrong decision or making the right one, for that matter, no agent to hold your hand and tell you how good (or bad) your latest opus is.  Mind you, as an independent, you also get to reap the upside rewards, where in a traditional model, you don’t.  Some authors likely don’t want to take on those additional responsibilities, all they want to do is write, and I can understand that.  I seem to spend more time on stuff related to “Eric Thomson: The Business” other than writing the first draft.  Then there’s the validation aspect.  As an indie, you can’t point to a shelf in Chapters and say “I wrote that.”  Although it’s vanishing quickly as indie quality improves and traditional publication quality drops, there’s still a stigma attached to being an independent. But like all disruptive technologies, it’ll be a few years before the dust settles and a new paradigm emerges from the rubble of a publishing industry that refuses to move with the times.

ALR: Any final words / advice for an author starting out who isn’t as prolific as you?

If you’re going to self-publish with a single book, make sure you have everything right – cover, blurb, editing, pricing, a marketing plan, etc., before you publish. You won’t get a do-over.  With several books, you might be able to manage a do-over if you screwed up the first one.  Failing that, sit on your first novel until you have a second one ready to go and publish both of them a month or two apart. Just don’t do what I did and throw something out there to see if it’ll stick. I was incredibly lucky, and part of me still thinks the Fates were somehow involved in helping me find a new career.  It certainly wasn’t good preparation and planning on my part.

I've been reading Eric's Siohban Dunmoore series and I'm really enjoying it so far. I'm a sucker for a strong female lead. :) Book 3 of his Decker's War series was just released and I'm just so unbelievably proud and happy for him. If you're a fan of military/space opera sci-fi head over to his amazon page and give his books a try!

Eric Thomson, Sci-Fi Author

NOTE: background image of the graphic above was taken from  http://jonasdero.deviantart.com/art/Cities-Of-The-Future-335217844

PREVIOUS BLOG POST: 

NEXT BLOG POST: 

Used tags: , , , ,

One Response to "A Self-Publishing Success Story"

  1. Eric Thomson
    Eric Thomson on 24-05-’16 19:42

    Wonderful write up, Ange. Thank you!

(optional field)
(optional field)
This is a quick question to make sure you're not a spambot. :)
Remember personal info?
Small print: All html tags except <b> and <i> will be removed from your comment. You can make links by just typing the url or mail-address.