I have a guest post today from a writer you are going to be hearing a lot more about in the future: Mainak Dhar.
He first self-published (for the Kindle, full story below) in March of this year. He had come from a traditional publishing background – but with Indian publishing houses, which didn’t give him any head-start on Amazon.
Initially, his sales were modest enough, but by July, he began to see better results on the back of some clever marketing campaigns.
In fact, his professional background in marketing and branding shines through in all the presentation of his work, as you can see quite clearly from his striking covers.
By last month, his sales had really taken off and he shifted well over 6,000 books – with Vimana leading the charge (which has recently been knocking on the door of the Top 100 in the overall Kindle Store).
This is a longer guest post than I usually publish, but it’s well worth reading. Mainak has a different perspective than most writers I encounter, and there are some truly excellent insights in this post. Here’s Mainak:
Every writer has their own journey, but one thing binds us all: the joy we feel in writing and then forming connections with readers through our words.
I sometimes cringe at the hard lines people try and draw between ‘indies’ and ‘trads’. At the end of the day, as Stephen King once wrote, as long as someone pays you to read your work, you’re a professional writer.
Whether you reach those readers through a large publishing house, a small press, or on your own is merely the means to that common end. My journey has given me exposure to all routes, but my beginnings as a professional writer go way back – when I was in the seventh grade.
That was when I self-published my first book – a collection of my poems bundled with solutions to problems from the coming term’s Maths textbook that I sold to my classmates. The lessons I learnt then still hold true today, and while my writing journey has taken me far from that day, when as an eleven year old, I triumphantly held aloft my first book, even today I realize that the basics of what it takes to be a successful self-publisher haven’t changed all that much.
1. Embrace what makes you different.
Often, new writers wonder whether there is a formula for success, or which genre they should write in to maximizes chances of success. The short answer is – write what you are passionate about and what makes you unique.
Marketing 101 says that any brand will succeed when it’s differentiated, not when it tries to ape other more successful brands. The same goes for self-publishing – don’t rush to write stories because others have succeeded in a similar genre. Instead, embrace what makes you special and unique.
I was a geek in Grade 7. I’d come first in class, but was pretty introverted. But when I self-published, I turned that to my advantage. Girls may not have been lining up to be friends with me, but when it came to solving Maths problems, I was the person they’d bet on.
Fast forward more than two decades – I was well-published in India by majors like Random House, but in finding an international audience, I discovered the amazing opportunity the Kindle provided and decided to self-publish my upcoming work on the Kindle.
I wondered for some time whether I should try and write something that would be more ‘relatable’ for Western readers, but then remembered this lesson and instead of fighting what made me different, embraced it. My bestselling book on the Kindle, Vimana, is a science-fiction thriller springboarding off Hindu mythology. There are a lot of global themes there, but the core of it is the whole idea of ancient gods in their flying machines (vimanas) as related in Indian epics, a field where I could contribute some unique ideas given my Indian background.
So ask yourself what life experiences, backgrounds or ideas make you unique, and don’t be ashamed to make that the cornerstone of what makes your writing different. Embrace your diversity and individuality, don’t try and be another member of a large herd.
2. First appearances do count.
That’s a cliché, but when it comes to books, it’s true. I still meet self-published writers who say that they will invest in a professional cover when they are more successful. To me, that’s a bit of circular logic – you will increase your chances of being successful if you have a professional cover.
To be clear, for me the definition of a professional cover is not necessarily one for which you’ve paid a lot of money to someone. That is a means to the end. A professional cover is one which when put side by side with the bestselling books in your genre will not disadvantage your work in the eyes of potential readers. If you really want to be successful at self-publishing, ask yourself whether your covers can meet that benchmark, and if not – then either polish up your design skills or invest in the best cover designer you can afford.
Back in Grade 7, I obviously had no money to create a cover, but I did have an older brother in High School. So I told him what I was doing, and in return for doing his share of cleaning the snow off the driveway (this was in Ottawa in the winter, so it was a significant payment!), he designed a cover for me on his computer and printed it out. When I showed my book to my classmates, their ‘ohs’ and ‘wows’ when they saw the cover told me I had made the sale.
3. Make the gatekeeper your friend.
Some self-published writers assume that not going through traditional publishers means that they have bypassed so-called ‘gatekeepers’ that stand between them and their readers. Here’s a dose of reality – there will always be gatekeepers. Review sites and blogs play that role, as do Amazon reader reviews. Sometimes, self-published writers try and fight this, and degenerate to the pathetic spectacle of publicly complaining about poor reviews. Don’t fight gatekeepers, make them your friends.
Back in Grade 7, the biggest gatekeeper I had never counted on was my Maths teacher. When she learnt of what I had done, she was quite pissed off, and had a chat with me. She appreciated my aptitude and my enterprise but was worried that it would lead my classmates to take the easy way out and not study for themselves.
That made sense to me. So for the next term, I asked her to share the test questions for the past couple of years, and I solved them and put out a new version which was more of a workbook – a compendium of past questions, blank spaces for students to solve them, and answers at the back. My teacher thought it would be good practice and would not come in the way of coursework, and while it meant some of my classmates seeking an easy way out didn’t buy it, it was more than compensated for by the fact that my teacher endorsed it, and even let me put up my cover on the school noticeboard. My gatekeeper had become my biggest advertiser.
When I get a negative review today, I never react emotionally, but understand whether there is something I can do better. When any reader writes in, I write a response within the day. When a publisher rejects me, I never burn bridges. Even if I got a form rejection letter, I write a long, personal letter back to the editor thanking them for their time, and more than once, I have got feedback in return which has helped me strengthen my work.
Now I am in the curious situation of being commissioned to write novels by publishers in India who had rejected my first novel, and a reader who had once written in with some criticism became a good pen-friend (or it’s digital equivalent) and recommended my novel onto one of his friends, who turned out to be the biggest book blogger in India, for review. It’s a small world, and those who appear to be gatekeepers may sometimes open up opportunities later- so never fight them. Learn from what they are telling you, never burn bridges, and even if you really disagree, don’t create a public spectacle.
4. Create and leverage a portfolio of work.
Writing one book is much easier than truly becoming a writer over the long term and as the cliché goes, the best marketing strategy is often to get the next book out there. However, for me, it’s not just having more books out there – but how you can use your portfolio of work deliberately to achieve more success.
In Grade 7, I was really into writing poetry, but figured (correctly so) that not too many of my classmates would be willing to pay to read my poetry. So when I put out my first book, I bundled some of my poems with the Maths solutions. My classmates bought the book for the Maths, but inevitably many of them read my poems. And guess what, by the time I was ready with the next term’s edition, a few of them were actually requesting new poems to be included. The other lesson learnt of course was that writing poetry had its fringe benefits in impressing girls, but that’s another story for another day.
Not much has changed – and I am still learning on how best to leverage my portfolio of work. When I did my first big Kindle Nation Daily sponsorship for my novel Zombiestan, I tagged on two free chapters of Vimana.
Zombiestan had it’s day in the sun, and I reached close to the Top 1000 ranking (since then, it’s settled back down to the 6-7K range), but what was fascinating was what that added exposure did for Vimana. From selling 65 copies a month, Vimana sold more than 200, and then it really exploded. In October, I sold more than 5500 copies of Vimana, and by the 13th of November had already sold close to 3200. All this, with no paid advertising for Vimana in that period.
You should never underestimate the power of exposure and the power of what one satisfied reader can bring in terms of word of mouth for your writing- which can impact your other books – but don’t wait for that to happen, engineer it as I did. In turn, I have another KND sponsorship in December for Vimana, and am tagging on another novel of mine – Heroes R Us.
5. Keep practicing your craft.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell concludes that you need 10,000 hours of practice to really excel at anything. Even if you dedicate three hours a day to writing (and I know that is a lot for most people), that means you need to keep doing that non-stop for 9 years to really start mastering writing.
I think there’s a way to short-circuit that- and that is to inject a bit of your passion for writing and self-publishing into everything you do. In school, even after my early experiments with self-publishing, I had been bitten by the writing and publishing bug, and would try and recreate that in everything I did. So even a minor school report became an event – with a designed color cover and neatly typed and formatted interior. I remember a teacher asking me why I was putting so much effort into it, and I told her that I imagined every report was a book I was writing. So even when I was not ‘writing a book’, I was practicing my craft.
My day job today is in the corporate world, and how I bring the craft into my day job is to banish Power Point as much as possible. I don’t try and hide behind slide transitions and fancy pictures, but communicate everything I want in simple writing. Trainings I give take the form of a talk and a single typed sheet. That keeps me sharp in communicating what I want through the written word, and ironically, perhaps helps me do better, because what makes me unique (see lesson 1) is that I’m not just another cubicle dweller, but one who is a professional writer, and I am embracing that – so that even when I am not ‘writing a book’, I am writing and perfecting my ability to communicate and persuade through the written word.
6. Re-invest for future success.
Self-publishing is a business, and for any business to thrive, you need to invest in future success, not just fret about short-term sales. That means re-investing some of what you gain for future growth.
In Grade 7, I earned the princely sum of $12.50 from my first edition (a quarter a copy with 50 copies sold), and I spent a dollar on a big stapler, so that next time the book would be more stable and not risk falling apart as it did the first time around with small staples.
Today I reinvest 25-30% of everything I earn every month from Kindle sales- into booking sponsorships/advertising, getting professional cover designs and so on. I have a spreadsheet where I keep a tally, and like any business, I started off not fretting about my investments in the first few months. So in Months 1-3, I actually spent more than I earned, but by looking at my sales momentum, I knew I should hang on and I recovered all my investments by the fifth month, and now every month, I am nicely profitable.
So don’t give up too soon or think too short term. Treat it like any business – define your investment appetite (for me the worst case was to not be profitable at the end of year 1) and spend for future growth.
7. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Writing gives a writer joy, and self-publishing is never worth it unless it retains that sense of joy. The biggest tragedy is when a passionate writer becomes a pessimistic, nervous wreck when it comes to the business aspects of self-publishing. The key to me is to enjoy the fruits of your writing, to remind yourself that your writing helps you pay back into things that bring joy into your life.
In Grade 7, I splurged on ice-cream and comics and treated my parents to chocolate. These days, I reframe every cent I earn in terms of what I can do for my family. Just today, my wife and I were planning a vacation for our anniversary, and when she said that the suite at the resort I was suggesting was expensive, I said that it was just four days of royalty from Kindle sales.
Moments that like make me realize that my writing is not just feeding my passion or my desire to be read, but in a very real way is helping me create special moments and joy for those who matter most to me. That inspiration is what every writer, self-published or not, needs to keep going.
I hope these lessons help you in your own writing journey and if you are ever beset with self-doubt about the business aspects of self-publishing, tell yourself what I tell myself at those moments. Even a kid in Grade 7 can figure out the basics – so don’t stress about it – just focus on putting the next word on paper and keep writing.
About Mainak Dhar
Mainak is a cubicle dweller by day and writer by night. His writing journey began with that stapled book in Grade 7, and has seen him traditionally published in India with major publishers like Random House and Penguin.
His self-publishing journey restarted in March 2011, when he began to reach out to readers worldwide through the Kindle. Mainak has written ten books, including the Amazon.com science fiction bestseller, Vimana. Learn more about Mainak, and contact him, at www.mainakdhar.com.