Because my journey had not been an easy one, I would like to share some of the things I learnt with other authors or artists who are thinking of doing self-publishing as well.
1) Do not depend on your publisher, distributor or anyone else, but get as many contacts as possible.
I thought that publishers have many contacts in press and other mass media to market the titles, but this really depend on how well-connected your publisher is and whether or not their channels matches with your content. When you pay a publisher, it is better to get one with strength in the same genre as your title, otherwise there will be less channels to promote your book. Also make sure that it is included in the contract that they have to help you market because paying to get your book published VS publishers investing in your title upfront is very different. But whichever way it is, you my dear author/artist, have to do the bulk of marketing and that includes promoting on social media, writing articles for any press that you can get hold of, networking and getting as many contacts as possible and filter them when you get home. In fact, you only need a publisher if you want help on liaising with your distributor and bookstore, apply for ISBN, look professional since your book did go through a publisher and putting up your book on an ebook platform.
In Singapore, both distributor and bookstores are very realistic, they want to see if your book can move first before considering to promote you. After my book was out in late June, it took 2-3 months before a major local bookstore chain placed an order. I tried to chase my publisher, who in-turn tried to chase my distributor, but it was no use because both had weak bargaining power against the bookstore. The reason they gave was that the bookstore was celebrating their anniversary, so everyone was busy. But for 2-3 months!? Wow... must be some great crazy party there. In the end, while talking to an acquaintance about my problem, he revealed that he used to work at the bookstore's publishing house and know the buyer personally. He called and left a message to his ex-colleague and within a week, BAM! My publisher got back to me saying that the bookstore finally placed an order! Moral of the story: know as many people as possible.
To my publisher's credit, he did help to get my books eventually into Malaysia. If you remember, no Malaysian bookstores wanted to order my book for 3 months after I signed contract with my local distributor who was supposed to help me distribute to Malaysia. The reason they gave was that the bookstores thought my comic was more for Singaporeans. My publisher recommended me to tell my fans to ask for my book at their bookstores, but my friends advised me to email instead so there is a record. A month later, my publisher was successful in promoting my book to a Malaysian distributor and sponsored the first batch of delivery to Malaysia. He also pushed for 2 book signings at KL which will happen on the same day in April.
2) It is best to make direct connection with bookstore buyers so eventually you may not even need a local distributor.
Based on the above lesson, it is best if you can make direct connections with the bookstore buyers for them to know you and your work better. If you go through a middleman, it will take ages. There are not a lot of bookstores in Singapore so if you have storage space and have a car, you don't even need a distributor and let them eat into your profits. You can also liaise directly with the bookstores to work on promotions and talks. Of course if you have no car like me, it may be better to let the distributor do his work.
Buyer contacts are usually not listed on websites so you have to talk to a lot of people, especially those who work in publishing or had published book titles before. It is better to know the buyers through someone who is already close to them or in person, not just emailing.
3) Social Media Marketing is very important.
I knew it was very important all along, as it is the only free/low cost marketing solution a poor artist could have. In fact, a buyer from Kinokuniya read that I was going to have a book out on my Facebook page and was the first to contact me to place an order! Since then, I often use social media to inform my fans about my new events and happenings.
When I was in KL and JB looking for my books in bookstores, I realised that the location they had in the system was always different from the actual shelving. The sales assistants usually take an average of 10 mins to find my book and one of the bookstores even placed my book at the top of a bookshelf that was unreachable with my 1.6m height. Shelf locations at our major bookstore chain in Singapore were also not great too. My books are often shoved a few inches from the floor or chunked in the wrong section (e.g. Travel or Children's picture book). One of my fans even reported that their staff took 30mins to find my book when it first arrived at the store. So can you imagine what will happen if I didn't do any marketing? That's right, nobody will know about my book and nobody will buy because they are placed at locations where you can't even find or reach them!
If you remember this comic strip that I posted on Facebook last year, I was asking my fans if they have contacts with their local publisher who might be interested to publish my work (because 70% of my FB fans are not from Singapore). With some luck, there were fans who are published artists in Indonesia and I was successfully referred to publish a book there this year!
4) It is difficult to enter Malaysia if you are not a Malaysian and if the background of your story takes place in somewhere else other than Malaysia.
As mentioned in lesson 1, the Malaysian bookstores refused to order because they think my book was for Singaporeans. Even an Indonesian fan, who is an author of some best selling romantic titles also told me that her books were rejected because of the same reason! Moreover, she did not self-publish but went through her Indonesian publisher.
But of course, if you are talking about business, finance and making more money, this will not apply. If you are talking about international titles, they are represented by International publishers so they are not considered as self-publishing.
5) You can't make significant money from comic books unless you sell more than 5000 copies.
This is because of the high cost in printing especially for a full-color book like mine. The big size also didn't help. It would be so much cheaper to print in Malaysia. In fact, I only break even for every book sold in local bookstores because the distributors and bookstores will take 60% from retail price. I also lose SG$2 for every book sold in Malaysia because 1) lower retail price than Singapore due to lower disposable income 2) the dipping currency and 3) courier cost to deliver my books to Malaysian distributor warehouse at KL. The only time I made decent money was during conventions and selling them after talks. Of course, I could have set the price higher, but this might deter people from buying. So I take it as a form of marketing and hope there can be a reprint so the unit cost will be lower than the first print. Also negotiate for a lower cost if you are paying a publisher to publish because you will design your own cover and there are not as many words to edit.
So you might wonder what is the point of publishing a book then? Well mainly for 2 reasons:
i) It increases your reputation and credibility so you can charge higher for commission work and talks.
ii) There is something for your fans to hold on to, get autographed and be more engaged with you as a creator.
Update (30 May 2015): I received latest stats from my local and Malaysian distributors. Although local distributor took 1200+ copies to be sold at 2 major bookstore chains, the actual number of books sold was a disappointing 200+ copies, meaning 900 copies of my book are idling in the warehouse and shelves even though I am running out of stock at my own side!!! I sold a total of around 900 copies, mainly via conventions, face-to-face meetings, talks, private orders, and bi-monthly orders from BooksActually. It really reflects that local people are not buying books nowadays and majority of local fans still do not want to pay to support creators. However those who do (and few) are very supportive, so all is not lost :) Perhaps I should only sell at Kinokuniya and at conventions by myself for future publications, which takes up more time but more profitable. I will also try to submit to international publishers.
Update (13 Sep 2016): I should have posted this update earlier but I was too busy working on my second book. Basically the distributor had under-estimated my sales drastically and it was actually almost out of stock at the warehouse! That's right, I sold more than 900 copies, not just 200. This only came into light after I checked stock status at various bookstores myself. Not cool to bully a first-time author. If I never asked to close the account, I will never know that the stock had ran out and ready for a reprint! This also reflects how backward local distributor system is to estimate book sales.
6) Easier to target children.
I think you know by now that educational books for kids are much more profitable and easier for the bookstores to promote and place in. Mums will buy anything that is good for their kids. It is also during this time that kids read the most books because once they grow up like you and me, they will have many other options to kill time. Moreover, as we grow older, we realise that we don't have a lot of storage space and our humid climate is not good for keeping books.
Unfortunately, I am not good with kids so I pass.
7) It is still better to get published by a publisher who has access to international distribution.
70% of my fans are actually outside of Singapore and I get countless messages and emails on how they can get my book. Everyone thinks that once a book is published, it can travel all over the world automatically by itself (ok I thought so too). The fact is, it depends on our distributor. Local distributors only distribute within Singapore and Malaysia so that's it, there is no way my books can fly overseas. You would think Kinokuniya bookstores are all connected but the truth is, they only order from their local distributor that I have no access to.
So you might say, why not sell online? Yes, my books were already in online shops but the problem is, some people just prefer browsing the hardcopy first before purchase and the shipping fee is quite expensive too. Most of my fans are in SE Asia and they do not own a credit card as well. My recommendation is still to get a contract from an international publisher if you can.
8) Selling the book takes more time than I thought.
I am sure now you know that it is not easy to self-publish. You have to continue doing networking, write articles, do social media marketing, give talks, setup booths, etc. that takes precious time away from your creative work. Unfortunately in Singapore, it is so unprofitable that we do not see many art managers, so we still have to do everything ourselves. People are buying less books and clients do not want to pay a lot. We also have to spend significant time to answer their questions and negotiate fees. Therefore my take is to make yourself damn famous so you can set the prices higher. Of course, making yourself damn famous means more time on marketing and lesser in creating.
Then you might ask, what if I spend a lot of time to practice and make my skill damn good and my work damn awesome? Well, the truth is, you cannot just be very good, but you have to be OUTSTANDING. So when people look at your work, they just go "WOW!" and your work can sell by itself. Unfortunately, not a lot of people can reach that jaw-dropping level even after more than 10 years of hard work. And even when the work is freaking awesome, you still need a platform to showcase your work so people can see how great it is, which means yes, marketing again!
9) You have to check the bookstore stock status yourself!
I thought that bookstores will automatically order when stock is low and the distributors will deliver asap when they place an order. Unfortunately NO, unless your title is famous and sell very very fast. Luckily I have a lot of fans on social media who would inform me when they can't find my book so I would call the bookstores personally to ask about the stock status to confirm. If it is really out of stock and they say they have problem getting the stock, then I would immediately email either the bookstore buyer or distributor to ask what happened. In fact, my books were so low in stock during BookFest last year that I had to push my distributor to ask the bookstore if they wanted to order more books for the fair!!! Otherwise they will not order more!!! (I suspect because my books were competing with their own exclusive comic titles, one of which was not selling well)
Unfortunately, the times of a comic artist just staying at home drawing is gone in Singapore. It is a hard truth that people are buying less books in this small island. The new-age comic artist has to actively engage with fans, market and sell his own books in order to survive, but even if he does so, it is still difficult in this small market and we have to work on commercial projects to make a living and less time creating the books. Eventually, it is important to go out of Singapore. For a start, we can sell hardcopies online and put our books on Kindle, iBooks or as an app. Of course, continuing to pitch your work to international publishers or local publishers who have experience selling overseas is highly recommended too to get your book out to the international distributors and bookstores.
I have shared my experience in a 20mins presentation at Skillup on 10 May 2015. You can download my slides here, good luck!