Presence: Early Reviews, Sales & Learnings

It's been five weeks since I launched Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of Virtual Reality. In the opening month, I got some great reviews (and one or two bad ones). The sales had an early peak, but since then it's been a struggle. Overall, it's been a fun ride. I've learned a lot about how indie publishing works and that's made me excited about my future as an indie author. On the other hand, I've also learned just how difficult it is to get a new book noticed. In this update, I'll discuss all of those things.

Reviews

Firstly, the reviews. I want to say upfront that getting Amazon and/or Goodreads reviews for Presence was by far the most difficult task during the launch month. I sent loads of Advance Review Copies, to people on my email list and people in the technology industry (in particular, anyone I knew in VR). The response was frustratingly poor and the reviews I did end up getting mostly weren't from ARC readers. I've since heard from fellow authors that I'm not alone in finding it tough to get early reviews. So I can't be too down-hearted about it. But in my case, I can think of two major reasons for the lack of response from ARC recipients: most of the people I sent it to probably don't read science fiction, plus reading a book is a decent investment of time for anyone. Even my book, which is a fast-paced techno thriller, probably takes on average a week to read. So in terms of learnings, for my next novel I'll try and target known readers of science fiction in the ARC phase.

All that said, I was encouraged by the early reviews I did get. Noted investor Brad Feld was the first to review it, saying that the book is "dynamite" and adding, "I'm very hopeful that his phrase invirt will catch on for in virtual reality." I certainly hope for that too, since I believe invirt is the next online. So far, it's yet to fully catch on - but you never know.

Another early review came from blogger Zach Beauvais, who wrote that my years as a tech journalist gave me "the ability to introduce us to an incredibly believable world in Presence." Fellow science fiction writer Eliot Peper was very complimentary, saying that Presence is "an electrifying ride through the future of virtual reality" and "a technothriller that will keep you turning pages long past your bedtime." Influential technology thought leaders like Brian Ahier and Bertalan Mesko also gave great reviews. Brian said Presence has "a compelling story line that keeps the pages turning around a backdrop of all of the top technology issues percolating through society today."

What about reviews from people I don't know and who actually bought my book? Probably my favorite of those was from Josh Todd, who wrote that Presence "completely changed the way I think about VR and what it can/will look like in a few years from now. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see some of the terminology coined in this book become part of the zeitgeist inreal."

Sales & Media Coverage

Like anything in the creative arts, being an indie author is a Long Tail business. Sure, there are a few authors in any given genre who are well-known, get lots of attention and earn buckets of money. But the rest of us are spread out on a very long tail, where attention is hard to get and monthly earnings range from non-existent to low. So I wasn't kidding myself when I launched Presence. I knew it would take a lucky break - in the form of an influential review or a writeup in a popular blog - to make headway.

I did catch a break when TechCrunch (former competitor of the tech blog I founded, ReadWriteWeb) posted an excerpt in early October. That resulted in a nice little spike of sales. I can thank John Biggs for that, a TechCrunch writer who a) knew who I was (or at least remembered me vaguely from the Web 2.0 days), and b) is an author himself, so presumably was sympathetic to my struggles.

In terms of learnings for my next book, next time I need to capitalize better on breaks like the TechCrunch post. If, for example, I had placed my book immediately into the Kindle Unlimited program at that time (which is like 'Spotify for Amazon', where readers can read your book for free if they're a monthly subscriber), then I may've been able to stick around in the top 20 of Cyberpunk for longer than a few days. It turns out that's a key part of gaining sales and downloads momentum. So I missed an opportunity there, although I eventually did join Kindle Unlimited towards the end of October.

I tried my best to interest other tech blogs in my book, but most of the bloggers I contacted were too busy. Having been a tech blogger myself, I understand how frantic the news cycle is in that world. Plus tech blogs generally don't review books (although I did some book reviews in my ReadWriteWeb days, so I think there's value in covering books - although admittedly, fiction is a less straight forward sell).

Alas, I didn't manage to garner any interest at all from science fiction blogs or magazines, where I have yet to achieve any name recognition. I did get some very kind and supportive responses from established authors in my genre, such as David Brin and Ramez Naam. So I was grateful for that.

In terms of interviews, I did a fun call with the Robot Overlordz podcast. Also Haptical, a news blog about VR, ran a good Q&A with me.

Early Learnings

Other than learning how difficult it is to get attention for and sell copies of one's debut novel, I've had a great time immersing myself in the indie publishing world. I've still got a lot to learn about both writing and publishing science fiction novels, but there's a wealth of knowledge and resources out there. Including fantastic blogs from indie stars like Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman, Susan Kaye Quinn and K.M. Weiland. I recently posted my first message to the KBoards Writer's Cafe, a thriving message board for indie authors. So I'm enjoying getting to know a new community.

Indeed, the community aspect of indie publishing reminds me of when I started ReadWriteWeb. At that time, 2003-04, the community of bloggers was the best thing about publishing on the Web. Sadly, those days are long gone in the tech industry. But I'm encouraged that the indie author community still uses blogging and message boards as a way to interact, instead of relying on selfish media tools like Twitter and Facebook.

Overall, the biggest learning for me in my first month as an indie author is how much I enjoy being in control of the entire publishing and marketing process. With my first book, Trackers, I went the traditional publishing route. It did ok, but the lack of information about sales data, marketing strategies, and so on ultimately frustrated me. While it's been tough to get attention and sales for Presence, I've thoroughly enjoyed doing my best to rustle up reviews, trying different marketing ideas, getting to know other writers and readers of science fiction, and just generally bootstrapping myself as an indie author. So I'm very positive about the future!

Support an indie author and buy my book. It's available now from Amazon.

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