Today marked the 1-year anniversary of the release my debut novel, CONCRETE UNDERGROUND. In the past year, I've been amazed, overwhelmed and humbled by the response the book has received. Seriously, when I started writing it, I really had no intention of releasing it, I was writing simply for my own personal edification. And even when I decided to take the plunge and self-publish it, I thought that I'd be lucky to get 100 people to read the damn thing and just one of them to actually like it.
So I'm gonna do something a little unorthodox here. Because there seems to be an unwritten stigma attached to authors sharing download/sales info. On the one hand, I do understand how it can seem like crass boasting. But at the same time, I really do want to illustrate just what's possible and reasonable to expect for a self-published author working outside the confines of established genres, specialty markets, and, frankly, accepted notions of serious literature and good taste.
Also, I don't give a shit if you do think I actually am just crassly boasting, since I really and truly am completely shameless.
Because the point is that anyone can do this shit. As I've said before, e-publishing really does have the potential to be like punk rock, zines, street art, and DIY culture. Except instead of a roll of quarters for the self-serve copy machine or a busted up second-hand guitar, all you need is a fucking internet connection. Stop worrying about bullshit like professionalism and dust jacket blurbs and in-store readings and just fucking create already. Be crazy, be experimental, be audacious, be insufferably obnoxious and irresponsibly contrarian. Just write what's in your fucking heart and have the conviction to let it loose upon the world.
So anyways, here are the download figures for Concrete Underground in its first year of publication through the highest-performing channels where it's available:
The grand-daddy of distribution channels for self-published authors, three of my six release have topped 10,000 downloads in their first year here, and I'm only an average performer there. And informally, I'd say that seven or eight out of every ten e-mails I get from readers say they discovered my books via Feedbooks on the Aldiko Android app.
The only place where my book actually costs money, since they have a $0.99 minimum price. However, the vast majority of my "sales" occurred when Amazon made the book free as a weeklong promotion. I've also benefited from decent reviews, averaging 4 stars on 10 reviews.
Another site where I benefited from weeklong promotion as a "featured book" on the site's homepage, as well as earning an average 5 star rating on 5 reviews.
Through Smashwords, my book was also made available at the Barnes & Noble, Sony, Diesel, and Kobo stores. Though they don't break down the download stats by distribution channels, unscientifically it looks like B&N got the most action, where it's garnered 12 review for an average rating of 3 stars and has a sales rank of about 2.700. For the sake of comparison, that is actually higher than Auster's New York Trilogy, Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, Roth's Nemesis, and Lehane's Shutter Island, but way lower than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Lost Symbol.
Based on my cursory research (yes, I actually did research for this post, don't expect this to be a recurring theme though), the print run for an initial hardcover or trade paperback release for a midlist author is in the realm of 10 to 40k. The number of units actually sold is like 70%, so that means 7 to 28k. Meaning that if I'd actually managed to con some poor hapless fish of a publisher into releasing my book "for real", it most likely would not have resulted in any more eyeballs on my words.
A few things to keep in mind:
1. This was a self-published e-book that was has never been available in paper form in bookstores.
2. I had no previous print publication history, including in any kind of literary magazine or anthology, meaning no prior name recognition.
3. There was no capital investment into the book. All the distribution channels listed above are available for free to anyone who has an internet connection. I didn't pay for any reviews or advertisements.
4. I have no real specialized skills or connections to speak of, no particular marketing savvy, no MFA in Creative Writing (no degree whatsoever actually). I'm not any smarter or more talented than any other dummy running around out in the world, I have no appreciation for the rigors of grammatical doctrine, and my overall grasp on the English language is tenuous at best, despite it being the only language I speak fluently.
So truly, anyone can do this shit.
Now, the counter-argument is that free downloads are not the same as paid book sales. Apart from the obvious lack of money in the author's pocket, the free download also lacks a certain legitimacy that even a $0.99 sale would have. And it's true, the above download figures would be significantly lower if they'd come with a price tag. I'm OK with that, I'm more concerned with eyes on the page than coins in the bank. And as for legitimacy, let's be honest, how much of a concern could it possibly be for someone writing under the pen name "Moxie Mezcal", really? Guerrilla fiction does not need to be validated.
To wrap up, though, the question that faces new authors looking at self-publishing boils down to two things: access and priorities. Access, because remember that we're talking (in my case at least) about a book that should have next to zero commercial appeal and marketability according to standard barometers. So as the publishing industry in general and the market for midlist authors in particular continues to shrink, self publishing is going to be the only option available to a lot of writers of experimental or fringe literature. Which leads to priorities. Meaning, would you rather make a little bit of money and have a little bit of people read your book, or make no money but have a lot of people read your book and just enjoy the ride for the ability to connect with other human beings, the creation of art for art's sake, and the sheer fucking madness of it all?