Where’s the publishing industry headed? I don’t think anyone has answers right now. My view of self-pub vs. traditional pub is colored by my experience running an indie craft business for two years. Some of it doesn’t apply directly to writing, but there are definite parallels. Here are a few things I learned.
1) Distribution is the biggest challenge. I had a product, but how could I get it out to the most customers possible? The problem of being one of thousands of craft shops on the internet, was discoverability. Most of the visits to my shop were random at first, and in no way consistent. It was clear, that random hits to my website were not going to sustain a business. I experimented with a mix of online and offline retailing to boost my sales. I attended local craft fairs, and partnered with shops willing to carry my product line.
What I found was that shopping habits differed online and offline. What sold at craft fairs, or in store, were not the same items that sold online. The sales did not crossover like I hoped. People comfortable with fairs, and stores, were not the same customers I could reach online.
2) Price point makes a difference. It became apparent after doing some number crunching, there were two ways I was going to make money at this business: either focus on the high end market, or sell more for a lower price.
Successful shops fell in three categories. The high volume sellers: the bulk of these sold items for under $10. The high end retailers: these were specialty shops, many doing custom work, with unbelievable craftsmanship. These shops focused on doing one thing well. They could charge more, because people were willing to pay more. The originals: these were the first shops to get into the game, or to introduce a particular product (imitators followed).
2) You must understand your niche. Sales began to grow when I analyzed who was purchasing from my shop. I needed to differentiate myself somehow. I started to cater to a very specific demographic. Who was I trying to sell to? It turned out to be Jane Austen fans who were getting married. It may sound silly but I cornered a little piece of the wedding market that wasn’t being served. It sounds counter intuitive to focus on pleasing just a small number of people, but it worked.
3) The importance of a professional appearance. My shop looked awful to begin with. Even now, looking at those first product photos made me cringe. Again, I looked at the shops I liked, studied lighting, product placement, and what worked. I tried to make the shop looked as professional as I could make it, made it easy for customers to contact me, and listed as much information as I could to make it easier for customers. This resulted in wholesalers and stores contacting me directly, and my photos being featured on other websites. Appearances matter.
4) Creating a product is only a small portion of the work. It’s a business. Marketing, tracking inventory, working on SEO, blogging, tweeting, responding to customer inquiries, taking product photos, updating the website, and a thousand other little details, took up more than 70% of my time. This was the exhausting part, and also frustrating part. I really wanted to do a little less and focus more on creating new products. A clone would have come in handy here!
5) The importance of luck. It’s hard to be seen. To be fair, a lot of my early success boiled down to timing. I opened the shop during the Christmas shopping season, and got a couple of sales straight off the bat just because there were more people looking to buy. I saw other shops start up during the slow summer, and languish without sales for far longer. I was lucky more than once. My shop got noticed by Etsy admin, and so featured more than once on the front page. Pure luck.
6) The importance of networking/word of mouth. There’s no better marketing than other people vouching for your product. I ended up being featured on several websites which also upped sales. I made sure to do the same, to feature other sellers, and to become part of the artist community, which led to meeting more people and new opportunities. I never expected anything out of it, but I learned that what you give freely usually comes back. Good karma 🙂
7) Your credibility is tied to customer feedback. The trouble with being an online business is that the only assurance of quality is what other people say it is. A feedback rating was built into my shop. Thankfully all of it was ‘satisfied’ and some of it was amazing, but I’ve seen shops fail from just one or two negative ratings. Some of those ratings had nothing to do with the product, but things out of the seller’s control. Other times those negatives were wholly deserved.
A lot of weight hangs on that rating – but that’s the truth. It’s especially painful if you’ve only got a handful of sales under your belt. It can completely destroy your credibility.
8) You need more than one item in the store to make any money. 20% of your inventory generates 80% of the profit, or something close. The more products in the store, the easier it is for people to discover the shop. It also increases the likeliness random visitors would find something they liked. My top sellers were not the items I expected. Goes to show my bad taste LOL.
I don’t think one way is be better for everyone. I just hope that if you are deciding between self-publishing and traditional publishing, that you go into it with your eyes open.
Self-publishing/indie publishing success is not a quick/easy route. I know it takes a lot of work, but some people thrive in this kind of environment and enjoy the control/freedom it allows.
Are these crazy times? Exciting times? Hehe, I half expect that by the time I’m done with this manuscript, the state of the publishing industry will have changed yet again. What do you think? I haven’t made up my mind just yet.