Friday, February 19, 2016

What I've Learned About Self-Publishing

I have been doing this writing and self-publishing thing for a little while now, and over the last year the hard work has finally started to payoff, albeit modestly. Just enough, I'd say, to make me see the true potential in self-publishing and want to write this post. The following is simply my opinion of what I found to work along the way, and what did not. I have spent countless hours over the last three years reading articles that others have written on the subject of self-publishing, and I think it's only fair to pay it forward and add my own two cents and, maybe, touch a little bit upon my own experiences. Take it or leave it. There is no formula for success for this, just a lot of trial and error and luck. But I would be lying to tell you there aren't things you can do to help your chances.

The Product

Once you have poured your blood, sweat and tears into writing your novel or short story or whatever, you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking business. Your book is now your product, and there are a lot of products out there that have had a lot of hours put into them to make them look like the professionally crafted products that they are.

So let's talk about what you're putting out there for a second. The first obstacle a self-published writer will be up against is the stigma attached to the fact that you are self-publishing your material instead of being "traditionally published" by a publishing house. Let's face it, for every well-crafted and professionally presented self-published novel put out there, there are a hundred that look like they were designed by a 5th grade computer class circa 1995 (that doesn't mean the writing is bad, but people will be hesitant to take a chance on you if your book looks shoddy). People often fear--and this is a stereotype that is rapidly being shed in the industry--that "self-published" is synonymous with "lesser quality." And they have every right to think this way because there certainly is no shortage of poorly crafted books out there in the digital self-pub market. So one way to increase your credibility is to make your product every bit as professional as what the big publishers are putting out. It's not easy on a small budget, but it also isn't impossible.

I would recommend finding a good website that sells pre-made or custom covers. Oh. Here's one. This is where I bought my cover and it was like $40, but it looks great if you ask me. I've actually received a few emails from people who liked Cicada Spring saying they bought it because they liked the cover. So, yes, people do judge a book by the cover. It is the first taste of the story the book contains. I like to think the cover sets the mood before the reader has read one word.*

*I won't lie. I still have a couple book covers on Amazon that aren't as nice as I'd like, but they are for short stories, and I kind of like seeing them as a reminder of how I started.

I would also recommend springing for a professional editor. Oh. Here's a good place. For a 100,000 word manuscript it's about $500 (I suggest the one-pass line edit), but it is worth every penny. And if things go well and you make a little money selling books (the business side of you should want this), you will be able to write that amount off on your taxes to reduce what you owe Johnny Government.**

**Here I should add that you should save all receipts for anything you do writing related. You'll thank yourself later. Anytime you do anything that costs you money and it is related to your writing, get a receipt and put it in an envelope.

Bottom line is that it is important your book has as few errors as possible inside. Have someone edit it, then have six or seven people proofread it. I won't tell you it will ever be perfect, even after five proofreads from others and a dozen of my own, I still doubt I got them all. That's okay, though. Even Big House books have errors. But the goal here is to get this thing as polished as possible. And if you do find a typo in your digital book after it is published, it's not that hard to fix. Here's Hugh Howey to explain how. And if you don't know who he is, you should Google him.

Fixing print book errors is a different story though, and I'm not going to get into that.

At the end of the day, though, no matter how pretty and professional your product is, how spotless the grammar and spelling is, if you're not telling a story people want to read (no fixes here), you're gonna have a bad time. I have a hard time seeing how a poorly told (or a boring) story will sell well (consistently beyond marketing campaigns, anyway) because word of mouth is key to a book's success. And people don't tell their friends about books that didn't do it for them.

That brings me to my next part.


Word of mouth always is and always will be the ultimate marketing tool. But it takes some big pushes, and patience (and sacrifice), to get people talking about your book. However, thanks to the wonderful world of social media, it is much easier for people to hear when their friends are chattering about your book. If you haven't already, go sign up for Goodreads. It's Facebook for booklovers and authors.

When it comes to marketing your book, there are a lot of options. I will tell you the things I have done that have led to over 100,000 downloads and some trailing sales.

Let's start with this, and you're gonna hate it if you just spent a year or more writing a book: GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE as much as possible. If you don't have a readership yet, which I don't imagine you do if you're reading articles about self-publishing, then the best way to gain one is to give content away for free. And not just any content--give people GOOD CONTENT, a good story, for free and they will gladly pay for your next. They will also tell people about your book and if your free promo is over they will buy it if their friend gushes about it enough, especially if you are pricing your book in the $2.99 - $4.99 range.

What's a free promo? Well if you use Amazon KDP Select, and I recommend you do, you will learn that the service allows you to do five days of free promotion every 90 days. Doing a promotion alone won't generate a ton of downloads, but pairing it with a marketing campaign like Bookbub (more on this in a second) will blast you up the charts.

Here is what I did.

The first time I did a free campaign I did it by itself without any marketing. Luckily, a site called Pixel of Ink picked up that it was free and in three days I had 15,000 downloads and Cicada Spring made it to #2 on the Amazon list of free books. These lists are crucial; they get eyes on your book. And after the free promo was over, I had about 200 sales. Not great, but more than I had ever anticipated. The most valuable thing about the promo though was that it got me about 75 reviews from random readers, and they were good reviews. This increased my credibility.

I then leveraged those good reviews to apply for a Bookbub campaign to list my book for free again in the next few months.

What's Bookbub? It is a website/email subscription with over 3 million users. You basically pay them to blast your book out to all these people. The catch is that they are also super exclusive and picky and won't pick your book if they don' think their readers will like it (here's where those 75 reviews helped).

Anyway, I applied and Bookbub accepted and I paid them $400 (tax write-off) to list my book as free. I listed it for four days. End result: 95,000 downloads. For the following four months I also sold a thousand books and had over a million pages (Kindle Unlimited users) read.

This was all generated by giving away my books for free. Oh, and I also sold a bunch of my short stories. It was a good learning experience too. I received a ton of emails asking if I had more full-length books. I did not, and so ended up depressed that I was missing so many sales opportunities. However, I think it is a testament to how powerful a marketing tool giving away free content can be. It goes against all the hard work you put into writing your novel, but in the end it gets you what you should want as a gets you readers.

Keep Writing

This is most important. You can't keep focusing on your one book. Once you have written it and polished it and gotten it out there, you need to turn your focus to writing another book. That's where I am right now. Your book is out there until Amazon somehow crumbles, and it has the rest of its life to be discovered. Your best chance of that is to have a few books find moderate success and hope the fire catches. Here is where luck is nice. You never know who will stumble upon your book and love it.

Earlier I said I didn't think there was a formula for success in this industry, but I think I was wrong. I think what you need to do is consistently put out quality writing that people want to read. That's what the pros do. And how do you get people to want to read your stuff? I think you just have to say something interesting. Readers will forgive a lot, but they won't forgive being bored by your writing. The rest, the consistency part, is just hard work.

And here is where I end abruptly, perhaps having written a lot, said little, and taught nothing of value. It's Friday and I feel like leaving the office now. I guess in the end this was more a story about myself than it was advice. I think there is some useful stuff in here though. Basically just pour your heart into a book, spend money polishing it, then spend more money giving it away for free. It worked for me though.


  1. Great info on self-publishing..thx! I'm a new fan having just read Cicada Spring and're a great storyteller..I predict decades of success!

  2. Excellent advice! I'm actually an editor for a publishing company and i cannot tell you how irritating it is for me to read indie books that have a ton of spelling and grammar errors in them. At the very least, they should be run through spell check, and frankly, many aren't. Editor's go through your manuscript word by word, line by line. We notice things like using he when you should use she, sometimes an author will use the wrong character name, or spell the character's name incorrectly. Or make mistakes such as spelling woman as women or using incorrect paragraph breaks.
    Perhaps we can help with chapter break suggestions, or do a more comprehensive edit and give suggestions on how to improved your writing. Remember, we read dozens of manuscripts a month...and we do it because we love to read. Chances are, we also rad reviews and know what kind of things readers look for as well.
    And when looking for an editor, some specialize in certain genres, so keep that in mind.
    Just a note also: I did an edit for a book by a very popular true crime author. This book was about a nationally publicized event. We were to republish this book in ebook form, so I needed to verify the scanned content matched the original.
    My specialty is true crime, so I took this. As I was going thru, some things didn't seem right, so I began verifying some of the facts. The original book was published over 20 years ago, so this info had been out there, read by his readers for that long.
    My publisher put me in contact with him and he was struck by the conflict between his facts and mine, but a week later, he called me back to thank me as he'd found that I was right in all of my facts and asked me to correct them for the ebook.
    Then he was kind enough to send me several autographed copies of his books...which was great because he was my FAVORITE AUTHOR of all time!

    Just a few editing time!!

  3. Thanks so much for the excellent advice. I'm finishing up my first book, but I really didn't want to self publish. After reading Gilchrist and now your blog, I'm definitely rethinking. I absolutely loved Gilchrist, and I've just ordered Chicada Spring, so you know I'm a fan. Thanks for your writing and your input.

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  5. Just spent the last ten days reading everything you've published. I was spellbound by the first read, Gilchrist, and happily tumbled down the rabbit hole of your creations. You are more than good, sir. And you now have another loyal fan!

    So now that there is nothing left to read on Amazon, your blog was waiting. Love this post on self-publishing, and I will admit that I made Kindle notes throughout your books, my inner Grammar Nazi doing what she does best. But you are in good company, I do this even with the books written by more well-known authors. And you are well on your way to being well-known, please keep writing!! We are anxiously waiting....

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. It's so true that a writer just has to keep on pushing. Keep it up. Great work.

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