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8 Things I’ve Learned With My First Novel – Tips for First Time Authors

It has been a crazy-busy month for me. At the end of December 2013, I released my first full length sci-fi novel, THE CESTUS CONCERN, and it has been an incredibly interesting experience for me. The book has been incredibly well-received by readers and critics alike, and has been selling very well.

As it stands, while I write this post, THE CESTUS CONCERN has been out for one month. I’m in the Top 10 on Amazon’s Best Seller list for Men’s Adventure and in the Top 20 for Science Fiction Adventure – my highest position was #5 on the list. I’ve sold a few thousand copies of the book in e-format and under a hundred in print online (with another fifty at my two live appearances this month).

So, now that it is a month after the release, I wanted to try and put together some of the things I’ve learned – go through the whats and whys of what I’ve seen and experienced. Hopefully in a way that will allow other new writers/publishers to pick up some practical tips they can apply to their own releases.

One of the things I’ve noticed as I studied up for my first novel release was just how awful ad worthless most “Help” articles for writers are. Most of those numbered list (5 tips for selling on Twitter, 10 tips for marketing your book, etc) give no real information at all. They’re generally just writers regurgitating the pointless information they’ve read on other sites and offer no real facts or practical tips. In other words, they’re a waste of time.

With that out of the way, I’d like to present you with what I like to call:

8 Things I’ve Learned With My First Novel: The Cestus Concern One Month Later

1. Proof your proofreader.
Poorly edited or proofed books are one of the most annoying and prevalent problems in the world of indy and ebook publishing. We’ve all experienced the problem — tons of typos or grammatical errors popping up in the books we buy and download. It was something I very much wanted to avoid for my first novel release and, unfortunately, it was something I fell victim to.

Don’t trust your proofreader. Make sure to go through your work a few more times (and have a third or fourth or fifth pair of eyes help out) after your proofreader turns in their work. My proofer was great to work with, but I think a bit of inexperience in working with longer material left me putting out a book with 20+ errors. Luckily, I had another editor write me a note in the first week of release and help me out in getting a more extensively proofed copy of THE CESTUS CONCERN up and available very quickly. The ability to quickly edit and update product is one of the best things about e-publishing. The errors were taken care of any anyone who had purchased a copy of my novel on Amazon or BN.com had theirs updated automatically.

Now, don’t blame your proofreader or editor for a wonky product. It’s YOUR job as the author/publisher to check everything and make sure it’s ready for delivery. Remember, the buck stops at you.

2. Smashwords kind of sucks.
I’ve been using Smashwords for a year or so with my short stories and novellas and, at first, it was fine. It was a great way for a complete newbie to jump into the world of epublishing. And that is precisely who should use Smashwords: newbies.

My issues with Smashwords go far beyond their very specific requirements for wording in the books themselves, and beyond the really awful “Meatgrinder.” My main issue is that the sales channel itself is absolutely worthless. The only sales you will make from Smashwords will be from those you send them. The channel itself is too full of crap these days, has a terrible search engine, and the site is stuck in about 1998. There are NO sales to be made from Smashwords.

The only sales you’ll get “from” Smashwords (beyond what you refer to them) will be from the places they distribute to – Kobo, BN, iBooks, etc. All places you can go directly to yourself. Going direct allows you to gain valuable analytics into what you’re selling and will allow you to get paid directly, instead of through a middleman (Smashwords). Going through Smashwords will cost you money and, more importanly, cost you knowledge.

If you use Smashwords for its ability to give out coupons for free books, try Drivethrufiction.com instead. They’ll give you more information, a better search engine, and the ability to upload your own files instead of having to rely on Smashwords’ Meatgrinder.

I’d advise to completely skip Smashwords if possible. The place is a ghetto these days and will do nothing for you.

3. Amazon is King.
For me, the majority of my sales have been through Amazon. I’ve got thousands of sales of THE CESTUS CONCERN through Amazon and as little as 5 (or even 0 in a couple of places). People trust Amazon. People love Amazon. People Buy on Amazon.

4. Author Central and Proper Categories are a MUST
The keys for Amazon are making sure to use Author Central to fill out as much additional information about your work and yourself as possible. The more information – synopsis, reviews, “from the author” bits, author bio, etc. – the better your chances are for customers to pick up your book;

And your selected categories. Take time to figure out what the right categories are for your novel. Be specific and be honest. Properly chosen categories will allow you to reach the right audience for you. The right categories will allow you to his Best Seller lists.

Best seller list are fantastic for pushing sales. If you can break into the top 40 on a Best Seller list for a category that fits your work, you’ll get a sales spike. If you can hit the top 20 (which is the first page of any list) you’ll see a bigger sales spike. If you can hit the top 10 its even bigger. Making sure to pick proper categories can be the difference between a success and a failure.

Finally, if you’re publishing print and ebook versions, make sure to link them together. I was surprised at how many authors out there don’t have the two versions of their books linked to each other and how many of them are missing work they’ve done on their Author Bios (a lot of my New Pulp friends are guilty of this). This is all manageable at Author Central. Make it as easy as possible for readers to find your work.

5. Don’t forget to sell Direct.
One of the best decisions I made was to set up with the ECWid shopping cart and offer digital versions of THE CESTUS CONCERN for sale directly from my website. Selling direct to fans and readers quickly turned into my second largest sales channel after Amazon. Nothing else was even close. Best of all, I make quite a bit more on each direct sale than I do from any other sales channel.

Selling direct also lets you avoid places like Smashwords – places that bring in no sales beyond what you refer to them. If you’re selling direct, you can keep those sales for yourself and build your own brand instead of someone else’s.

Make your books available direct – it is incredibly easy to do these days and incredibly stupid to ignore.

6. Have other product available.
I lucked out. My experimentation with publishing short stories and novellas as ebooks last year gave me a chunk of other work for buyers of THE CESTUS CONCERN to check out. And, check out they did! Sales across the board went through the roof after the novel was released. Readers who enjoyed the adventures of Malcolm Weir picked up my other work.

If you’re preparing for a first novel release, one of the smartest things you can do is have a bunch of short stories available for purchase. The more product you’ve got, the more sales you’ll make.

7. Have a professional cover designed.
This, along with proper proofing/editing, is the most ignored thing in indy publishing. The fact of the matter is, if you’re a new author, a potential buyer’s first impression is from your cover. A bad cover will cost you sales. Yes, cover art costs money. Yes, it is worth that money. If you are looking to publish as something more than a hobby, that is. I see horrible, amateurish covers everywhere from authors publishing their own work to “publishers” putting out the work of multiple authors. Spending $100 on a decent cover could earn you thousands of extra sales. Spending $15 (or, worse, offering a royalty only) will make you look like an amateur and cost you money.

8. Don’t go through a small publisher for your work.
I’m probably going to get in trouble for this one, but it has to be said. A small publisher will do nothing to help you get sales or make money for your books. For the most part, you’re still going to be doing all of the marketing and PR for your book, and for the most part you’re going to be the one driving the sales. This becomes even more true once you have a few books out and have started to build your own readership.

In truth, they’re just going to be taking money from you for essentially holding your hand. These days, there is no stigma from self-publishing.

Self-publish so you control and build your own brand. Control the money you earn and gain the benefit of a fanbase (gain the analytics and build your own email list to get future work out to). Where a mid-sized niche publisher or large mainstream one will bring in additional readers, small publishers rely on authors to bring in an audience to them.

For THE CESTUS CONCERN, I had a few small publishers ask me about publishing through them – all offering ebooks and sales through Createspace. What that means is the publishers were investing no real money in the production of the book itself (they all offered editors royalties, and their “print” program was just print-on-demand through Createspace). Why on Earth would anyone give up control of their work like that? It makes no logical sense to me.

If a publisher wants your book, they should be paying for it and they should be offering something beyond what you can do for yourself for free.

Now, I will add an addendum to my “stay away from small publishers” statement: working on anthologies for small publishers is fine. Contributing short stories to a small publisher’s anthology does give you the chance to tap a broader audience. Don’t be confused, though: that audience doesn’t belong to the publisher, it is the combined audience of all of the contributing authors that you are reaching. Again, the publisher won’t bring much at all to the table beyond the ability to connect with another author’s fanbase. That in itself is worth doing.

Don’t be fooled by what is really just the ego-stroke of being published by someone else. For the most part, small publishers are a waste of time and money.

And there endeth the lesson. I hope this helps!!

-Mat Nastos, Super Genius

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Mat Nastos
TV, Film, comic book, fantasy & steampunk writer/director, known best for bad horror movies about giant scorpions, killer pigs & dinosaurs in the sewers. You can find his work on Smashwords or at his Amazon Author Page.

6 Responses

  1. Some really solid advice, and I can agree with all of it.

    I designed a…functional…cover for my Commando novel, and sales were okay, but once I had a new professionally illustrated cover made, sales have definitely spiked. I intend to re-make all my covers and have everything from this point on professionally designed.

    Also, I agree about not trusting a “professional” editor. A friend of mine paid $600 dollars to have his novel line edited. When it went live, another friend of mine who did not know this author personally started reading the book – by the end he found over a hundred errors. He sent the author a list and the author revised the book, but I know at least one bad Amazon review is on his product page from an early buyer who read one of the initial copies.

    I’m also at the point where I’m going to start taking books off Amazon Select to expand my distribution, and I was debating to go the Smashwords route or not. You’ve firmly grounded me in the idea of avoiding them as a middleman. Any heads-up on what might need to be done to prep for iBooks, B&N, Kobo?

    Other thoughts…

    – The idea of having other works is key. Like you, I had a few short works out for sale before my novels landed. Since I’ve been selling novels, my shorter works have all boosted sales as well. that cross-pollination of one’s product line works.

    – I tried selling Direct early on using Gumroad and didn’t have any success, but that was months ago. I’ll have to give it another try and see what happens.

    – Small publishers are garbage. I’ve known several first-time authors who’ve gone down that road thinking it gave them more legitimacy, only to discover that they get all the worst aspects of having a publisher, and none of the benefits. It’s 2013, baby. Cut those apron strings!

    I’m going to share this article around – a ton of great advice.

    • Mat Nastos says:


      Thanks for the great comment.

      B&N and Kobo are easy to format for. They both take ePub format. Guidelines for creating ePubs for B&N (which work for Kobo) are on the BN site. Easy to follow. iBooks is a little tougher because you need a Mac. If you have a Mac, it’s pretty simple to do it with iPublisher (I think that’s what it is called).

      I’ve had a little success with Gumroad, which you can actually use as a buy link on your site if you don’t want a full functioning cart. I like ECWid because it has a lot of great features and is free for most of them.

      Thanks again!!


  2. Mat,
    excellent article for new authors. I must agree with you on Smashwords. I have a number of books there, but have only sold a few directly, and I don’t like the payment program. I much prefer Amazon Kinde and Createspace. My numbers are very nice through Amazon and I like seeing my current sales and receiving payment monthly.

    I’m lucky to have a great cover designer and we’ve worked together for 13 years now.

    Good luck with your writing.

    • Mat Nastos says:

      Thanks, Linda!!

      The Smashwords payments and iffy reporting have always been one of the sticking points for me on their service. Payment from them takes forever!


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