The Alice at R’lyeh Report, part 2

(Part 1 of this report, about creating the Alice at R’lyeh booklet, can be read here.)

Now I’d spent actual money getting the Alice at R’lyeh booklet printed, I had to promote and sell it. Not my favourite thing. Some artists & writers are happy to shout about what they’ve done, and frankly, I envy them. Self-promotion is a talent that is, I can’t help thinking, as valuable as being able to produce promotion-worthy content in the first place. I’m sure there’s a part of every writer/artist that wants to crow about what they’ve done, but for some (me included) tapping into it can be difficult. I tend to feel, whenever I produce something I like, that what makes it likeable to me is some rare, personal quality, that, if I’m lucky, might be shared by at most a scattering of oddballs and misfits classifiable by no known marketing category. So I’m the last person to want to convince anyone to buy something I’ve produced. But, if you’re self-publishing, that’s what you’ve got to do.

I have to admit I never exactly shouted at the top of my voice that Alice at R’lyeh was available to buy. But here’s a summary of what I did do.

Website. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in these endlessly new-fashioning times, but you’ve got to have a website. I stopped short of buying a domain name for the project, mostly for reasons of expense, but also because I think, increasingly, unique and meaningful domain names are only of use if you’re promoting something through non-internet media. If you’re being interviewed on the radio, for instance, I guess you have to be able to provide an easily memorable way of accessing more information about your project. But even then, with a sufficiently unique name (or some memorable tags), a Google search is just as good. Search for “Alice at R’lyeh” on Google, and you get my site — so, job done, there.

The major website-related decision I took was to put the text of the poem online, and to provide a freely downloadable PDF of the booklet (with graphics at web-level dpi, both for size reasons, and to encourage people to buy the booklet if they wanted a printed version). Why do this? I could have just put up a teaser so people had to buy the booklet for the whole thing. I’d like to say I was influenced by Cory Doctorow‘s ideas on giving away what he writes as both a free ebook and a paid-for printed book — as I was to a certain extent — but the decision really came down to the fact that I didn’t want anyone being disappointed with the booklet when they finally got it. I have no idea if not having the whole thing readable on the website would have led to more sales, but my main aim, in the end, wasn’t sales, it was just to have what I’d written read by people. To that end, the website was the primary tool.

Of course, what I really wanted to know was that people were reading the thing — either by spending time on the poem’s page, or downloading the PDF. I’d already set up Google Analytics to provide me with stats on my whole website, but now wish I’d put something a bit more basic and specific in place. For two reasons. (1) Google Analytics offers so much data, and so many options, that I can’t find a simple access count for either of the key pages. (2) I tried setting up a filter to provide me with data specific to the Alice at R’lyeh section of my website, but for some reason it resulted in a filter that displayed data relevant to everything but the Alice at R’lyeh section of my site. Plus, there’s an old bit of my site (Getting More Out of GarageBand, about Apple’s GarageBand, and not updated since 2005!) which annoyingly gets so many more hits than any other part, however new. So, I’ve no idea how many people have read Alice at R’lyeh online or downloaded the PDF.

Reviews. There are two sorts of reviews. Those you solicit, and those that pop up spontaneously. I solicited one review for Alice at R’lyeh (at Grim Reviews). But discovering the odd spontaneous review that people put up — however brief — was a real joy. I’m still quite nervous of following links to any mention of Alice at R’lyeh, but am so glad when I do and someone has something nice to say. This one from Homo Sum, for instance — brief, but above all, it’s obvious the guy gets it. And knowing you’ve been “got” is, really, the best reward self-publishing can lead to.

Conventions & shows. I didn’t go to any conventions and shows myself, but thanks to the extremely lucky coincidence that I have a brother with a newly (and professionally) published book out, who very generously offered to put a bouquet of Alice at R’lyehs among the Rainbow Orchids on his table, I learned about the power of selling at conventions and shows. They are obviously the route to go. I don’t know if it’s just because people can see the product, or because the sort of people who go to conventions have curious minds and quirkily individualistic tastes, but Garen got through virtually all the copies I gave him, at a much faster rate than my internet sales.

The odd thing, to me, was that those shows were comics shows. I felt at first I ought to put a sticker on the booklets — “Warning: Poem! Not a Comic!” — but it didn’t seem to matter. Garen told me people were quite okay with it being a poem. And this is one thing I came to learn as part of the self-publishing experience, that different subcultures have very different attitudes to self-publishing. In the UK comics scene, there is a thriving self-publishing community, which sees the fact that something is self-published as a genuine plus-point. It actively welcomes the diversity of the sort of things people produce when they’re let loose on their own. Other areas, though, see self-publishing as an active minus-point, if not an outright automatic rejection. Searching for places to send a review copy of Alice at R’lyeh to, I often came across “no self-published work” notices, which started to annoy me as much as the “no fantasy, science fiction or children’s fiction” notices you find in The Writers & Artist’s Yearbook list of literary agents.

It’s sort of understandable, I suppose, given the context. A self-published comic is a very different thing from a self-published novel. A comic, for instance, has to be drawn, so takes a bit more effort and ability to produce. Also, as you, the punter, can take in the drawing at a glance, you can know instantly if it’s likely to be your sort of thing. (It doesn’t lead to an instant judgment on the story, of course. But if you don’t like the story, you’ve still got the artwork.) A self-published novel is more difficult to judge, and because it takes less skill to write a bad novel than to produce a bad comic, it’s statistically more likely that a self-published novel won’t be as good as a self-published comic. Still, I think there have always been various areas of culture more open to people doing their own thing. When I used to listen to Jazz FM (not being into jazz much, but my stepfather was), I was struck by how all jazz musicians accepted and complimented what each other did, however at odds it was to their own approach. It was a world in which everything was valid. Compare that with pop music, say, where you often get people dissing each other left, right, and centre. (I can’t believe I actually wrote “dissing”, but now I’ve written it, I can’t find a substitute. It may sound like I’m pathetically and outdatedly trying to be hip, but the word stays!) Anyway, there’s room for a whole blog post on that topic. Suffice it to say, I’m extremely grateful for the reception Alice at R’lyeh got from the UK comics community, considering it’s not a comic at all, but a poem.

Google AdWords. Google kept sending me these promotional offers to use £75 worth of free AdWords advertising. If you haven’t come across this, AdWords ads are those brief text ads that appear on the righthand side of Google searches, and also pop up in other places, like eBay. I thought, “Why not use it for Alice? It’s free!” So, keeping a careful eye on the amount I was spending (you can’t automatically cap the expense with AdWords, and in the end I actually went £5 over my free £75 because I realised I was looking at the wrong page on the AdWords control panel), I engaged in a fortnight’s Google AdWords campaign. It’s difficult to judge how effective this was, as I was also, at the time, listing on eBay. But I’d say, if it hadn’t been free, AdWords would certainly not have justified its cost for a small, self-published project like mine. Plus, I got annoyed every time I saw my own ad on eBay or Google — it was costing me!

eBay. After the conventions, eBay was my big seller. I’ve had more sales via eBay than via my website. The main factor here, of course, is that Alice at R’lyeh is a Lovecraftian project, and I suspect a lot of the sales were to people who look out for and collect Lovecraftiana. “Lovecraft” is one of my few regular eBay searches, so I just hoped there would be other people who did the same. Turns out I was right. Of course, the unfortunate thing here is that this doesn’t generalise to other projects. People bought Alice at R’lyeh because of its Lovecraft associations. They certainly didn’t, for instance, search eBay using my name (I didn’t even bother to put it in the headline description). So, I’m not sure how useful eBay would be for a more original project.

Those, then, were my approaches to promoting and selling Alice at R’lyeh. The main lesson, I think, is that each project will have individual quirks (in this case, the Lovecraft connection, and the illustrations giving it something of a comics overlap) which will help sell it, so each project has to be considered on its own merits. One thing you’ll notice missing from the above is any mention of Facebook or Twitter — I’m still getting to grips with social networking, so, obviously, those are pretty much untapped resources, for me.

The main thing about self-publishing is something that should be true about creativity in general. It should be fun. It isn’t always, and you can easily forget to enjoy it, but I think if you keep reminding yourself that it should be enjoyable, and use that as a guide to what to do next, then at least you know, at the end of it, that you made a profit in that sense, even if you didn’t financially.

(And I certainly didn’t make a profit financially. First off, I forgot to factor in PayPal and eBay fees, which wiped out the small margin I’d allowed for in my costings. Then the price of postage went up. Oh, and I indulged in a few “promotional items”, just for the hell of it, such as these mini-cards from Moo.com:

…And a t-shirt from yourdesign.co.uk, which didn’t really work. So I did an Edgar Allan Poe baseball shirt as well:

…which did!)

I’ll finish off by mentioning the two best moments of the whole project. One was each time I got an order from a new country. I ended up selling, as well as to the UK, to the USA, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, and Japan! (A real surprise, that last one.) I don’t know why, but there’s something inherently satisfying about putting those little mental flags around the globe. (I didn’t actually put Alice at R’lyeh flags on my World Domination Globe. Honestly I didn’t.)

The other great moment was when MorganScorpion contacted me, out of the blue, and offered to record a reading of the poem. Apart from the thrill of hearing the poem read so well, it was the fact that this was, as it were, an artistic/creative response to what I’d done, and it certainly capped the whole experience. (If you haven’t heard the reading, you can do so via the Alice at R’lyeh site, or to Archive.org, which also has other readings by MorganScorpion.)

Anyway, that’s the report. Thanks to everyone who’s bought or read the booklet, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed the process of getting it out there.

(If anyone has written similar reports about self-published projects, please put links in the comments section, as I’d love to read them.)

Comments (7)

  1. Starchief says:

    that was a great little article. The biggest problem is that creative people quite often aren’t at their best as full-on, shout-yer-mouth-off salesmen.
    What you forgot to say is that, although you may sell at a ComicsCon, factor in hotels, table, travel, meals, after hour drinks etc and you end up losing money more often than not. But then, when was small press ever about money?

  2. Freddy H says:

    Just read through both parts and you summed up my own personal experiences better than I ever could!

    I published my first comic, a collection of short bad-taste gag strips, in March this year for the UK Web and Mini Comix Thing. I felt exactly the same with regard to printers. The first I spoke to was so objectionable he really made me feel as though it was a massive favour to be asking of him rather than a service for money! It really put me off but I found another printers last minute who had a sameday turnaround (!) and were much more accommodating. Still, the PDF/formatting issue was a massive challenge and one I’m still not overly comfortable with.

    Your ideas for promotion are particularly interesting, I am in complete agreement that conventions are the source for 99% of sales! The two I have attended so far have been brilliant and I’ve seen very healthy sales considering I’m a newcomer.

    Having said that, the travelling and attendance costs more than wipe any profit from the table!! On top of the fact that I’m selling at near production costs, I’m financially very far from being able to sustain myself on the craft alone. I see it that self-publishing is a hobby though, and it’s not really about making money more just doing what you enjoy. And if you can make a bit of money back, then that’s great.

    eBay is one that I completely overlooked but is a very legitimate idea. It’s a shame that so many of these places have such high fees, as they’re really prohibitive in helping get stuff out there. Again, Google AdWords is one I never considered. Do you reckon it brought it a lot of interest on its own?

    It may also be worth researching small-press distributors in the UK? There are more than a handful of zine distributors scattered around the country that would almost surely sell on your stuff for little or no cut of the profit. On top of that, I have yet to find a comic shop that doesn’t have some degree of small-press section selling self published stuff. I know it’s hardly ‘mass-distribution’, but at least it’s getting the stuff out there.

    Probably the best tool for me so far as far as promos go is using Facebook. It really has brought in a huge new readership and is great for getting instant reactions to the stuff we’re doing (albeit positive or negative!). It’s best to be aware of not over-promoting, as you don’t want to piss people off with constant advertising, but use it intelligently and it can be a great tool.

    Intersting post, anyway mate. Good luck with everything!

  3. Murray says:

    Starchief – you’re right of course about cons costing money, in travel, hiring a table, etc. The profit is only ever in enjoyment, not cash!

  4. Murray says:

    Freddy – thanks for the in-depth comment. I was on Google AdWords for about 2 weeks, and in that time sold 3 copies of Alice at R’lyeh… So, if it hadn’t been a free offer, that would certainly not have worked out. In fact, as I went £5 over my AdWords budget, it definitely didn’t work out. Only, Google haven’t actually made me pay that £5 over yet. I didn’t think about small press distributors. I suppose, as I don’t have a local comics shop, that’s an avenue that didn’t occur to me. Cheers for the suggestion!

  5. Garen says:

    One thing I would say about going to events and their cost is that each one is not an isolated event. Although you probably won’t break even (especially if you have to fund accommodation too) these things are also about the long view, raising your profile and increasing your visibility. The more people hear about you the more likely they are to one day crack and check out your website or actually buy your work!

    It’s all about putting stuff out there – though you’re right, Freddy – In the UK we do have a low-tolerance for too much publicity being pushed in our faces… coupled with our natural reticence to blow trumpets, it’s not easy!

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