It was as if I thought self-publishing my teen vampire novel, What Kills Me, would be transformative: kind of like when Prince Adam raises his sword and becomes He-Man. Following six months of writing and spending about $2,000 preparing my ebook for publication, by the power of Amazon, I was now an author.
Except that putting your book for sale on Amazon feels like dropping a single grain into a bag of rice — you need to paint it green or point it out, or else how will anyone distinguish it from the rest? So nothing happened. And I felt no different.
So I went to a bar across the street and had a sad mid-afternoon drink by myself. What I realized over a spicy Caesar was that I had to get a publicist. But I could only afford one who would work for an occasional spicy Caesar. Top (and only) candidate: Me.
At first, I found it hard to market my book. I think it’s because my dad taught me that it’s not nice to brag, which was never a problem since as a kid, I had subterranean self-esteem. That first month, June, 67 of my friends and family bought copies of my book. Some lied about buying a copy. I knew because of this exchange:
Family member: “I bought your book but I forgot to bring it for you to sign!”
Me: “But it’s an ebook.”
“Nothing. Thank you so much.”
By August, I had pitched 150 different book blogs. I printed and handed out bookmarks at book fairs. I Tweeted. I posted on Facebook. I hosted prize giveaways. I used Pinterest, LibraryThing, Triberr, Goodreads, GooglePlus and other platforms that I had never even heard of. I even paid someone $15 to make me a book trailer (another person, who has directed several high-profile book trailers, quoted me $10,000).
I gave away hundreds of free copies in exchange for honest reviews. I answered dozens of Q&As with bloggers (Who was your favourite author growing up? Stephen King. Which would you rather be a werewolf or a fairy? A fairy. Less shaving).
And I wrote dozens of essays and blog posts on everything from bullying to monsters to self-publishing. I gave the U.K.-based Dark World Books $375 to organize a blog tour for me, where I would appear on a different blog every day for four weeks.
How does anyone do this with a full-time job and other responsibilities? Well, keep the hours of a vampire.
A warning though: weeks of no sleep turned my sharp and efficient brain into mush. One day, Zombie Melissa got an email to interview “the president of Ups Canada.” I called and told him in a voicemail how happy I would be to chat about “Ups” — as in “up” and “down.” The moment I put the receiver down, I froze. Oh. My. God. UPS Canada Shipping.
That night, I went to bed early. But for a month after, my friends called me “Ups.”
So what did it all mean for sales? What was the, uh, upside? July and August saw incremental increases. Someone commented on a blog post: “I’ve seen this book around. Looks good. I might buy it.”
Who cares if she bought it? She had “seen my book around!” That warranted a happy dance. I did a lot of those — my happy dance looks like I’m playing the drums while running in place — for every small success: When Kayla Curry, another indie author, became the first stranger to “like” my fan page on Facebook. When Thomas Winship, author of Vaempires, gave What Kills Me a five-star rating. When I was a youth, no one wanted to be my friend because of my dark, messed up imagination. And suddenly, I had a gang of freakishly nice indie authors, all with dark, messed up imaginations, who were keen to help me with advice and promotion.
I published my ebook for Kobo using Kobo Writing Life, and for iTunes and Barnes & Noble using the digital self-publishing site Smashwords. I even produced a paperback version through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
Then in September, readers started to buy. I had dropped the price of the ebook from $2.99 to $0.99 to attract more customers. (Amazon gives you 35% royalties on anything under $2.99 and 70% for anything over.) I broke into Amazon’s Top 100 best sellers list in the occult and kid’s action and adventure genres.
I remember where I was for many of my mini-milestones and weirdly, some of those
moments involve vampires.
On June 9, I was in New York interviewing True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård when I saw my first review by a reader; “I could not put it down,” the U.K. reader wrote. (What a great dream, I thought, somebody pinch me, hell, bite me — preferably Skarsgård.)
On Sept. 11, I was sitting in the media lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival, writing a story about Neil Jordan’s latest vampire flick when What Kills Me hit No. 6 in occult. I went into the hall and did a happy dance in front of a very puzzled TIFF volunteer.
On Oct. 3, Pixel of Ink featured my book as the “hot deal” of the day. I had never heard of Pixel of Ink, a site that promotes free and bargain Kindle Books, but sales spiked. Every time I refreshed my screen, a dozen people had bought. Overnight, it hit No. 1 in occult, No. 4 in action and adventure, No. 4 in horror (three spots after Stephen King).
Most impressively, it ranked No. 221 out of more than a million books in the Kindle store.
A book is generally considered a Canadian bestseller after selling 5,000 copies. What Kills Me has now sold more than 6,000 books. So far, I’ve received two cheques in six months for about $600, which doesn’t cover my initial investment, but I started out expecting to gain nothing but experience, knowledge and a sense of accomplishment. If I had to, I’d do it all over again exactly the same, the “ups” and the downs.
I’m especially grateful for the reception. The book is scored 4.3 out of 5 after 368 ratings on Goodreads and has 85 five-star reviews on Amazon, none of which I paid for (I know, the insanity — you can actually buy reviews). Three different producers have approached me to talk about television and movie opportunities. And best of all: weekly fan mail.
When I look back at the journey, writing the novel was the easy part. “You need to treat it like a business,” Mark Lefebvre, director of self-publishing and author relations at Kobo Inc., told me.
I had not been prepared for that. But still, I had carved a place for myself out of nothing. That is the real battle of an indie author. We are masters of our own universe. And we must raise our own swords.