By Russ Linton
Last June I published my first book, Crimson Son. I’ve been living the harrowing life of a self-published author ever since. After banging on the gates for a while, I decided to wander off into the woods and build my own house. During my time in the hinterlands, I’ve managed to learn a few things which I’d like to share. It might save you some trouble if you decide to go this route. Then again, it might all be bullshit. The publishing world is in a massive state of flux and what works now might not work in the morning.
Get Over Yourself
This is the first stumbling block for any self-published author. You can’t be the judge of your prose. You can’t pretend to be the enraptured audience to your subtle plotting or intricate characterizations. You absolutely, positively, need input from outside your own head. (This also excludes your immediate circle of family and friends.)Too many self-publishers skip this step. They’re convinced they’ve got an amazing story nobody has ever heard and that their every last word is manna from the heavens. They don’t need an editor. They don’t need an audience. Their story, their prose, will create its own audience.
Let me enlighten you:
Your story has been told. If you don’t do it better or different from everyone else, you’re screwed.
Your prose needs work. This is a lifetime struggle, always trying to perfect. But if you haven’t already ripped apart that manuscript you are uploading to KDP in half a dozen ways, you aren’t doing it right.
Your audience should be larger than the audience of “you” if you want to sell more than one book.
I’m not even going to let you entertain the outside chance that you are the next Neil Gaiman or Ursula K. LeGuin, or whoever you idolize. If you’re playing those odds, you will lose.
Writing is a Business
Nobody would order a thousand widgets, put them in their garage, and sit by the phone waiting for someone to call and buy them. So it amazes me that so many self-pub authors write a book, throw it on Amazon, and wait to collect checks. That’s not how this works.
You need a business plan. You need a marketing strategy. You need to invest in your company and your product.
Up front, expect to commit cold hard cash. Editing isn’t cheap and a killer cover isn’t either. You can’t do these things yourself unless you have a very specific skill set. Even then, see the previous warning.
Exactly how much will that run? Editing for a full length book can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. A good cover will be in the same ballpark. Neither are optional.
Why can’t I give you specific figures? Because you’ll only know when you’ve found the right editor and the right cover designer when YOU find them.
You will also need money for marketing and advertising. Extra funds for paperback copies which you can sell at local shops, at signings, or ship out for giveaways. This isn’t free or cheap.
Can you shoestring a self-pub?
Sure. But do me a favor and go check out the top selling indie books on Amazon. How many have a cover that looks like it was whipped up in Word?
Don’t Make Your Plan Based On the Outliers
When you plan you need to look at solid comparison titles: books with similar themes, audiences and genre to yours. See what the leaders in these areas are doing. Look at the categories they’ve chosen to put their books in. Check out who their editors and cover artists are. Get familiar with places these authors visit on the web and their social media habits. Stalk and replicate what might work for you.
But never expect the same results.
If someone sells 10,000 books, you can do everything they do and more and still not hit that same mark. Not everything follows a logical chain in this world. On average, self-pub books sell less than 250 copies. Try to focus and sell at least 1000 – it’s harder than you think.
For the planners doing the math: yes, one book does not recover the investment most of the time. It is vital that you KEEP WRITING and adding content which in turn keeps your older stuff in the limelight.
Social Media Is a Time Sink
People are going to send angry emails and comments about this one. Such and such famously successful author told me that I need to tweet and like and pin and flick, why is this nobody telling me not to bother?
If you are such and such famous and successful author, then yes, you need to keep in touch with your enormous and hopefully rabid fan base. Feed the beast and watch your hands. Or, if you have a pre-built platform due to a related interest, such as an established blog or podcast, then social media might very well be your cash cow.
But if, like most self-publishers just starting out, you have none of these things, social media will be a time sink. At best, you’ll gather some supportive friends. At worst, you’ll create an echo chamber of fellow writers shilling their wares.
Conversion rates on social media are obscene. This means even if you are doing it right, people don’t often go from viewing to buying. You can, however, maintain strong fan bases through social media and feed the frenzy for your future projects but this all assumes you’ve moved beyond the “start-up” phase.
Instead, focus on building a solid mailing list. Mostly this will be done when you sell each book. Include a link and request to join in the back and front matter of your book. Put that link on your website in a conspicuous place. These are people who a) read your book b) liked it enough to want to hear more and c) gave you direct contact info outside the social media flood.
But wait? How do I sell these books?
Right out of the gate, you need to focus on advertising. You need to get as much exposure as you can for your book. Social media, unless you have a pre-existing fan base, doesn’t do that.
Cons, signings and appearances – again, unless you already have an established fan base – are a loss to break even scenario. Time spent blogging and on social media doesn’t turn into dollars. Goodreads giveaways will drum up interest, but those 953 people that put you on the “to-read” list won’t all buy at once or may never buy at all. These should all be part of a marketing plan but shouldn’t be your focus.
Increase awareness of your book through sales and promotions. Deep discounts, even free giveaways if your research tells you that works. Make sure to search the internet for sites which will advertise these promotions.
Remember the mailing lists I mentioned you need to be building? There are hundreds of sites out there, free and paid, that maintain existing mailing lists of readers looking for a deal. Make sure you pimp your promotion on as many of these as possible. Bookbub is the most notable example, but they are notoriously hard to get into. Hit Google up, she’ll give you a list.
Using the right promotions on the day of launch can catapult your book onto hot new release and best seller lists. Once there, it’s like you’ve put your book in the storefront window and not tossed it on the roof. You’ll enjoy residual sales for weeks to come, even after the promotion ends.
All this fails?
Your house in the hinterlands burns down? Build another. Maybe go bang on that gate over there some more. They send out the dogs? Flee into the woods and build three more. But keep doing it until somebody takes notice. That’s the only real advice worth anything here.
About Russ Linton
In the fourth grade, Russ Linton wrote down the vague goal of becoming a “writer and an artist” when he grew up. After a journey that led him from philosopher to graphic designer to stay at home parent and even a stint as an Investigative Specialist with the FBI, he finally got around to that “writing” part which he now pursues full time.Russ creates character-driven speculative fiction. His stories drip with blood, magic, and radioactive bugs. He writes for adults who are young at heart and youngsters who are old souls.