10 Keys to Digital Publishing Success

Keys Of LifeThe digital marketplace is changing, and the print marketplace with it. You (or your publisher) should already be working with digital publishing in some way1. There are no formulaic sure-fire solutions, but there are definitely ways to stand out from the crowd.

I firmly believe these ten tips are, as an old drill sergeant used to say, key.

The following are compiled from a mix of business sense 2, advice from other digital publishers, and observations of both creators and consumers of digital publishing. I believe these tips apply to independent authors and big publishing houses alike (with two exceptions). My focus is largely on making money, because authors need to eat too.

(You all know that Castle isn’t real life, right? Yeah…)

A Big Honking Disclaimer: None of these is a substitute for good writing. Following all of these does not guarantee you success. Unlike some of my other advice bits, feel free to pick-and-choose among these tips… but consider all of them. Follow my advice: Don’t blindly trust and follow anyone, including me. Right. Now on to the tips:

1. Lead people out of megastores. Oh, sure, sell your stuff on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But offer more content on your website. Give them a reason to bother to check your store out and go through the bother of loading it from your site. For example, offer the story on AMZ, but put a link to the “behind the story” on your website. The big stores are offering the hardware in an attempt to lock readers in through convenience. But it’s easy to get eBooks – bought from anywhere – from your PC onto your eReader. Once you give readers a reason to, they’ll discover for themselves how easy it is… and then they’ll come back to your store – and you won’t be giving a significant amount of your profit away.

2. Sell your backlist independently, let publishers sell your new work. Okay, this one is mainly for authors, and probably the most controversial of these. Publishers – even small presses – currently have distribution channels and contacts most authors can’t rival. Use them. Sell your short stories to a magazine market. They get you audience. Then when the rights revert to you, sell your back catalog digitally (cheaply). Even if your old stories are only making you $5 a month, that’s money you didn’t have before. I do NOT recommend new and fledgling authors going entirely independent at this time. Work with publishers, but remember that you’re a freelancer, not an employee.

3. Support the big three formats. Ignore the rest. The big three are: PDF, ePub, and Kindle (sometimes called Mobi, sometimes called AZW). More than that is wasting your time at this point. To the best of my knowledge, if you offer your story in all these formats, every reader will be able to handle it. That said, PDF is not an eBook format. Sure, the eReaders can handle it – but the text is tiny and makes your work look sloppy.

4. Professional look. Your website looks clean and professional. Your eBook should too. Proofread! Test your documents with real eReaders. Make sure there’s a Table of Contents, whitespace looks the way you want it to, and so on. Use public domain divider images. In my experience, the online converters are horrid, especially if you have a complex document. It is easy to make an eBook. It is more difficult to make one that looks good. If you’re worried about doing it well, I do professional, freelance eBook conversion (there are others, of course…). Even if you don’t use me, there are some screenshot examples of the differences, or you can directly compare a machine conversion and mine for the eBook of my analysis of Jim Hines’ First Novel Survey.

5. Skip DRM. Really, just don’t bother. It’s a farce and annoys your customers. Schemes like imprinting the text with the purchaser’s name or e-mail is a nifty trick too, but also annoying and aren’t going to stop dedicated pirates. When the most difficult step in breaking DRM is installing Python… yeah, it’s useless.

6. Instant gratification. Your store needs to be available and purchase be as simple as possible. Website load times matter. For example, I’ve never had Smashwords take less than ten seconds to load (and it usually takes longer). I don’t know why, but it sure means that I’m wondering if they’re really professional. I just ditched one webstore setup for a much simpler one that loads a LOT faster. (Really, check it out. It’s a lot cleaner-looking too.)

7. Cheap or free samples. The digital market is a wide market, not a deep one. Sell cheap, and sell a lot – especially as you’re getting started and building an audience that will keep returning.

8. Get in with a “gatekeeper” or create your own. There’s always a question of quality when it comes to this stuff, especially for independent authors. Cheap and free samples help a lot in making your own name be a gatekeeper (it’s often called “building your brand”, and is the same thing). My weekly flash fiction, or the free-to-read copy of The Burning Servant (donations appreciated) are other examples.

Another way to do it is to have a gatekeeping mechanism that delivers you to an audience. This is the role that magazines often play, and that publishers have started to actively promote in the last decade. So find an imprint or magazine and work with them.

The final idea is the idea of creating a consortium of independent authors. Let’s say you get five authors who all like each other’s work who team up. They do a shared world project (or something like The Chain Story to share audiences. It’s much like your buddy telling you to try out a new author – except it’s the authors themselves saying “If you like me, you should try this author too.”

9. Ignore the “tipping point” and other people’s sales. Track your own. Seriously, betting on when publishing is going to irrevocably change is a fool’s game. (I think it will change, and soon, but that’s not the point.) Ignore the hype. Ignore what other people are saying about their sales (good or bad) and decide what you think is right for you.

Mind you, check out what the good and bad sellers are doing that might contribute to their sales numbers – but do not believe either group’s hype and do not blindly emulate either.

10. If it doesn’t work, change it. This is really the key to your business. If you spend a bunch of time and money doing banner ads and don’t see an increase in sales, stop. If you see a lot of hits but no sales, examine why you’re losing sales. Don’t fix things that aren’t broken – but change everything that’s not working. Maybe podcasts are something that works for you and drives sales. Great! Maybe 100 word stories are more your speed for samples. Great! There is lots of room to try new things and see what happens.

What’s important is that it’s good, fulfilling work and that money keeps flowing toward the author.

Speaking of, if you’ve found this useful, I’d appreciate you tossing me a buck or three over there in the tip jar to the right. Every little bit is sincerely appreciated.

Super Bonus Tip Know your contract. Mike Stackpole recently wrote 9 Must-have Clauses for Digital Rights Contracts, and he’s spot on the money. Read it, know it, and know when to walk away from a contract.

1There’s as many ways to do digital publishing as there are digital publishers. I primarily mean text documents like short stories and novels.
2As opposed to common sense, which usually is neither.