How My Book Launch Went

November 20, 2014 book design game-dev game-patterns

Greetings, superfans! When we last tuned in, I was just about to “launch” my self-published book. I put that in quotes because it’s an awfully serious-sounding word for what was really just doing some clicking on my laptop. If my last post was the climax of my book writing adventure, consider this the denouement. You’ve been with me this long, it’s the least I can do.

I do hold back one detail, though: while I talk about sales here, I won’t be putting cash numbers on it. If you try hard enough, you can calculate them yourself, but I feel weird sharing financial details. Strangely, it’s not because I’m shy about strangers knowing it as much as I am friends and family. So much room for awkwardness there.

I am a marketer and I do marketer-y things

As I mentioned before, I decided to self-publish about halfway through writing the manuscript. That meant I had to wear all of the hats that a publisher has dedicated noggins for: editor, designer, proofreader, and… marketer. This last one is the least fun for me, but I know it’s important.

I read a bit online and what a lot of people said was that email lists are gold. I like that they are pull-based instead of push-based. Instead of jamming myself and my book down strangers’ throats, they sign up of their own volition. I only get in touch with the people who actually want to hear from me.

So I created a MailChimp account—chosen over other mailing list providers mainly because of their cute logo—and slapped a little “sign up!” form on every page of the site. Whenever I put a new chapter online, I got a traffic bump and some fraction of those people were kind or foolhardy enough to grant me their email address.

I did this pretty early in the writing process so that I could give it time to grow before the book was complete. By putting the whole book online and releasing it chapterly (like a Dickens serial for the Internet age) I had amassed a surprisingly large list by the time I was ready to try to squeeze money out of them tell them my book was complete. Around 8,000 people, which still seems like a crazy large number to me.

I also, despite the content of my tweets, managed to acquire a fair number of twitter friends. (I don’t like thinking of them “followers”. Celebutants and TEDx thought/cult leaders have “followers”. I just have Internet pals.)

A new front page

Now that the book is a product as much as it is a web site, I redid the front page to highlight both of those. It still, of course, links to the web version. And, of course, the entire contents of the book are still readable on the web. But I also added links to the various sites where you could get the print version, Kindle, and EPUB.

I wanted to emphasize the “bookyness” of it, the physicality, so I got out my camera and my macro lens and took a bunch of honest-to-God photos of it:

Wait... if the camera is in the photo, how did I take this shot?

There’s something weird and meta about taking a picture of myself taking photos of a book whose cover I designed using a photo I took of an illustration I drew. I should take a picture of myself writing this blog post just to go full Inception.

Next, I spent way too long coming up with a design and text for the front page. Seriously, it took me as long to make what is effectively a glorified list of hyperlinks as it did to write, illustrate, and edit a full chapter of the book. I think it’s worth it, though. The front page is the reader’s first impression of the book. If I make you feel that page is beautiful and high quality, it’s a short hop to having faith that the inside of the book is too.

I ended up with this:

Click to zoom!

This part of the blog post is about writing a blog post

I feel a little squirmy writing this. Like I said, I’m uncomfortable with self-promotion. I hoped, wanted, to get a decent amount of… attention? traffic? validation of my worth as a human? when I announced the for-sale versions of the book. Readers had been asking for them for a while, so I knew there would be some excitement just by saying, “Here they are.”

But that didn’t feel really newsworthy to me. There wasn’t much to discuss, just “here they are. moneys plz.” People like a story, and I like telling them, especially when the protagonist is yours truly. I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of encouragement on this project from readers, and I thought one way to say thanks would be to give a window into what the production process was like. It’s a side of book-making that I don’t see very much online.

Also, it let me blather about fonts for six thousand words. Seriously, the blog post I wrote about turning the manuscript into a physical book is longer than almost every chapter in the book. Clearly, I need an editor.

This also took a lot of time—about a week—but I really enjoyed writing it all down. I did my best to make it an entertaining read. While I hoped it would drive traffic to the book, I did honestly want it to be a worthwhile read in and of itself. I believe that, when played well, life is a non-zero-sum game.

I <3 filling out web forms

I was ready to upload the new site, and the new blog post. All that was left was to actually make the book available. This involved uploading various files—inside PDF for the print version, cover, EPUB file, MOBI file—to various sites whose forms cover the full gamut of usability. Clicking the final “OK” on CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Smashwords was both nerve-wracking and anti-climactic.

Then the waiting game. Most of these sites do various amounts of automated and manual validation that take time to process. I noticed a typo that forced me to re-upload to CreateSpace. Kindle found a couple of spelling errors (surprising given how many rounds of editing I’d done by now). Smashwords asked me to have an explicit cover page.

Once those were all happy, the listings appeared. If you knew to look for them, you could have bought the book.

CreateSpace and Smashwords also distribute to other sales channels (things like Lightning Source and book stores for the former; iBooks, Nook, Kobo, etc. for the latter). I wanted to wait for those sales channels to populate before I pulled the switch but… well, I got impatient.

As soon as I saw the Amazon page for my book, I just couldn’t wait any more. I pushed the new version of the site and the blog post. I wrote an email and blasted the mailing list. I tweeted. I mentioned it on G+.

What I didn’t do this time was post it to Reddit. It felt a little too self-serving for how Reddit rolls. I did post a link to the blog on Hacker News since that crowd is more accepting of self-promotion.

I had tabs open for the Smashwords sales dashboard, CreateSpace royalties, Kindle Direct Publishing sales report, Twitter, and Hacker News. I refreshed those suckers like my life depended on it.

Command, we are ready for launch

This moment, as dumb as it sounds, was actually pretty stressful. A surprisingly large number of self-published books just sink to the depths leaving nary a ripple on the surface. You hear horror stories of writers whose novels sell zero copies. Nonfiction is a lot easier, but I still had no idea if people really liked the book enough to drop real cash on it.

Refresh refresh refresh refresh. A nervous sweat trickled down my neck.

A few minutes later, Smashwords reported two sales. Holy shit! Someone bought the book! I was a professional writer!

Then people started retweeting me. Someone posted a blurb about it on the gamedev subreddit and someone else did on the programming subreddit.

People started saying super nice things! About me! It was awesome! Also, I was drinking in celebration at the same time so that multiplied all the good feelings.

How I felt.

I feverishly replied to as many comments, tweets, and emails as I could. (All the while still refreshing the other tabs.) Eventually, I maxed out my serotonin levels and had to crash. Like some candy raver in an E puddle in the back of the chill-out room, I passed out, totally spent.

The next day

I woke up the next morning feeling like a kid on Christmas. A kid who wasn’t entirely certain he’d been good enough for Santa to bring him presents. Morning coffee in hand, I opened up my laptop and checked all the dashboards.

While I slept, I’d sold enough copies to pay off all of the expenses of the book. That isn’t actually that much: all I’d paid for was ISBN numbers, a couple of fonts, freelance copy-editing, and a business license. But, still, I was in the black now.

I replied to as many people as I could and then headed into the office to get some work done spend the rest of the day refreshing my browser. Aggregate sales stats started showing up in the various dashboards:

Kindle sales on the first day.
Smashwords (EPUB) sales on the first day.

CreateSpace doesn’t draw a pretty picture for you, but the raw numbers were doing the same thing. I told my coworkers and they got all excited for me.

The rest of the day was basically a blur of responding to people and telling my wife and team how high the numbers were going. At some point, when I refreshed the Amazon page, I noticed a little banner had appeared next to my book:

No way.

It turns out Amazon tracks book sales very quickly. For the brief period of time where I had saturated social media, enough sales were coming in to actually make it the best-selling game programming book for a little while.

Sorry "Learning Python".

Wait, did I say “game programming”? I meant #1 out of all programming books:

I did a victory lap at this point.

At it’s peak, my book was the #7 best-selling book in the entire computer category:

Up there with Minecraft!

Around this time, I started referring to myself in the third person as “best-selling author Robert Nystrom”. Of course, most of the other books in those lists had been there for weeks or months, but I had my moment in the sun and I was committed to making the most of it.

Return to normalcy

The peak, naturally, only lasted about a day. I was most curious to see what the right side of the graph would look like. Would it fall to zero? A slow trickle? A steady passive income?

When I sent out the email for the book, one thing I asked was for people to write honest, detailed reviews. I figured a book page with a good set of reviews would give it the air of legimitacy for future customers who stumbled onto the book on their own. That in turn would help the book have a longer sales tail.

Because people are awesome and I love every one of them, people did indeed do this. It took a while, but reviews started trickling in.

Other pleasant surprises started happening too. The book finally made its way through the other channels. I put it up on Google Play, and Smashwords got it onto iBooks, Nook, and some other places. I finally figured out a place to sell the PDF. (If you go to the book’s site now, these are all listed there.)

In a mistake that I don’t understand but can’t bear to correct, Apple even decided to spice up my name a bit:

Robert Nyström, now 15% more metal.

Then, a few days later, the most magical part of this whole thing started happening (though, honestly, the umlaut is a close second). That’s about how long it took for print copies to get shipped to people.

Soon, friends and family—some who I haven’t seen in years—started sending me pictures of their copies of the book. Kind strangers in countries I couldn’t find on a map tweeted pictures of themselves opening the shipping box with excitement to see my dumb face staring out at them.

It’s hard to articulate how profoundly gratifying that is. Through almost the entire six years I’ve been working on this book, it’s been a purely digital thing. While I spend an astonishing amount of my life on the Internet, it still never quite feels “real” to me.

Is rearranging some polarization on an SSD really making something? Is a few words glowing on an LCD actually communicating with a person, or just some pixelated avatar?

But seeing photos of real live people holding an actual physical thing filled with words and illustrations I put together, and seeing them happy to have it in their hands finally made it click for me that I made something real that actually affected people.

How we’re looking now

Things have mostly settled down since then, though I do still have lots of email to catch up on (sorry!). Now that the book is in pretty much every sales channel, e-book walled garden, and international site for Amazon, I’m finally getting to the point where I can think of the book as done and put it into the background of my life.

So far, buyers have been trickling in at a decent rate. Here’s what my Kindle sales look like as of writing this post:

EPUB is similar, and I think print is too.

The book has been out about two weeks, and I’ve sold:

That’s a grand total of 1,147 copies sold in the first two weeks. I won’t be retiring off of this, but I’m really really happy with that number, and unbelievably grateful to everyone who bought a copy.

While I’m planning to take a good long break from serious projects first, this level of success has certainly gotten me pumped about writing another book. If I do, I’m 100% confident now in my approach of putting the entire book online for free. I’m certain I wouldn’t have sold anywhere near this many copies if the book’s website hadn’t built an audience who were ready and eager to get their hands on a copy.

It turns out giving something away is a great way to get something back.