I don’t give out writing advice often. Nothing here I’m writing is new; the information is all out there, which is why I don’t talk about it all that much. I can’t remember the last writing/publishing post I made.
Still, a lot of new writers are curious about self-publishing and ask me about how it works and what to expect. This post (and the next one) will attempt to lay out the basics. The first post will be my take on what it takes to make it self-publishing, while my next will attempt to argue why I think self-publishing is a better avenue than traditional publishing for aspiring fiction authors.
It’s not a secret that it’s hard to make it in publishing. Earning a full-time living writing is the dream of many writers. It was mine for as long as I could remember, probably since the first time I realized that there were actually people who did it full-time.
Because of self-publishing, it’s possible more than ever before for people to make a living writing. It’s by no means easy, and it never will be. I’ve found that people are much more likely to say that they want to write a book than actually sit down and do it. And even if they are willing to sit down and write every day, they aren’t willing to write the kind of books that are proven to sell. Not only that, they aren’t willing to make the necessary investment in time and money to make it work (it does take both).
The cost of entry into an online publishing battlefield with no guarantee of success puts most people off. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually quite understandable and sensible. It takes a bit of naivete and at least a little narcissism for a writer to think they have a chance. After all, you’re saying your thoughts and ideas and stories are worth paying for, and what’s not narcissistic about that?
Competition is fierce, and one can do everything right and still not earn enough to support oneself. It’s an elusive combination of hard work, talent, and luck, mostly in that order (though that is a point of contention).The truth is, you need all three.
When I first started out, I was pretty naive about what it took to make it. I think a lot of writers share the mentality I had then. My fantasy was that I’d write an amazing book, and against all odds it would be a breakout success – if not a bestseller, it would at least do well enough that it would give me enough of a following to give me success for the next book.
For me, it didn’t exactly work like that. Indeed, it was almost a year before anyone started to notice me in a way that mattered to my bank account. I still count myself lucky in that regard, because many go for much longer – sometimes people far more talented than me – without the same level of success (success being defined as making a steady living with some cushion should things go awry).
I probably would have never had the success I have today without an initial BookBub listing in September 2013 that put me on the map. I went from making about $500/month (still pretty good in self-publishing terms, as it’s more than most people will make) to making more than I’d ever earned in my life. I also had three books in my series out at the time, and that infrastructure had to be in place for it to have worked.
The reason I recommend self-publishing for aspiring authors is because you are more likely to find an audience and success, given you do the right things, than with traditional publishing. Not always, but in most cases.
What are the right things to do, then? This is a non-exclusive list, but here are at least some of the most important things you should do:
1. Write a consistent amount of words every day. This is the first step and the part most people can’t get past. If you can’t crank out a steady word count every day, you’re not going to make it…guaranteed. Ideally, you want to be releasing a new novel every three months or less. The most successful self-published authors release about this quickly or even faster. A lot of writers will say it’s impossible, but your odds of making a full-time living go way down if you’re only putting out one or two books a year. Unless you have a massive backlog of accumulated novels, you won’t get away with writing slow. Writing this fast takes practice, but it’s definitely doable. In my experience, the person who says they can do something and the person who says they can’t do something are both right. Be the person who can. You have to make time for it. For me that was waking up at 5 in the morning and writing two hours before work and writing most of my weekends.
2. Don’t go for originality. Go for what sells. This is another point that will rankle many writers. I should say don’t try too hard to be original. Find a cool idea you like and go with it, but make sure it’s in an established genre. If you write something that’s too out there, it’s not going to have a lot of appeal. Genre-breaking novels that are original and unique that sell millions don’t happen all that often; don’t be so narcissistic as to think that you’re the exception. Especially starting out, have your craft down. Write something easy and simple, and as you get better, so will your plot and prose. I’m starting to find this in my own writing. My first books are extremely simple, but now that I’m on my tenth novel, they are a bit more nuanced. I’m sure ten more books down the road, I’ll consider what I’m writing now to be simple in comparison. This is learning to walk before you run. Always have an attitude of learning.
3. Don’t go for perfection once you start editing. An ideal of perfection freezes you up. If you can get a manuscript 90% there, that’s good enough. If it’s your first novel, don’t feel like you have to make it perfect. More often than not, this is an exercise in futility. Besides, the more you edit, you start to get diminishing returns. I rarely go beyond four edits and that’s a maximum. Remember that you are on a timeline, and you don’t have the luxury of taking months and months to finish your novel.
4. Invest in skilled editors. In my opinion, a developmental editor is optional. They can be hugely beneficial but can be very pricey, and if you end up dropping a grand on such an editor, there’s no guarantee you’ll make that money back. That said, you should definitely invest in skilled copy-editors and proofreaders – at a minimum, one of each. Bad reviews because of grammar and typos can seriously kill your sales and ruin your reputation right out of the gate. Who wants that? Many indie authors think self-publishing means doing everything yourself. It doesn’t. All it means is that you publish the product yourself, and if you don’t take pride in that product by making an adequate financial investment, it will show in your sales and in your reviews. If you gain a measure of success later, you can offer free copies for your readers to beta read and proof (which is what I do), but in my opinion, that shouldn’t replace professional copy-editing and proofing. You should be investing at least a few hundred dollars into this. If it really is not an option financially, the least you can do is to have friends and family read it…as many as possible. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when there are still typos left behind. Family and friends aren’t the same thing as professionals who have been doing it for years.
5. Get a good cover. I can’t understate this. If your cover sucks, you are not going to be successful as an indie author. Don’t do this yourself unless you are a professional who’s done it before. Go on the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards.com and see what cover artists offer there. My situation was a bit different because I already knew a talented graphic designer, but had I not known him, this would have been my course of action. The cover is what gets readers interested. It has to fit your genre and it has to be eye-catching and beautiful. A bad book with a good cover will outsell a good book with a bad cover nine times out of then. How do you know if your cover is good? The best way to tell is to go to the Amazon Top 100 list of your genre and see if looks similar to books that are selling. Does it? Good. You’re on your way.
6. Write in a popular genre. Even if you write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, or in any other big genre, you’re going to have the odds stacked against you. How much more will those odds be stacked if you write in an unpopular genre, or if you write non-fiction or literary fiction? Not that there aren’t readers for that out there – there are – they are just a lot less in comparison to the big genres. If I wrote such a novel, I’d probably pursue a publishing contract rather than try to make it on my own. It’s that tough. A good exercise is to view the Amazon Top 100 list for whatever genre you’re interested in. Study those books. See what makes them popular. Then emulate it.
7. Write in a series. Most readers like a series, and authors should like them, too. Not that stand-alones can’t do well, but a series offers a measure of security. If you write the first book and it does well, you’re guaranteed to have readers wanting to continue that series. If you write a stand-alone, you’d have to hope that your readers will like your next book as much when there are more variables in new characters and plot. Readers like to grow with the characters, and especially in sci-fi and fantasy, want to be immersed in something epic and large – something harder to do with a stand-alone novel. Plus, giving the first book away for free once you have at least three in the series can be a very powerful tool for finding readers. It’s a big part of my success.
8. Follow the blogs of popular authors. Then emulate them. Don’t emulate their stories and plotlines. I mean emulate their marketing strategies. That’s how I learned about BookBub, the perma-free strategy, how to make a mailing list. Go on the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards and make a point to get the lay of the land and read the more popular posts (or anything that sticks out to you). Be more of an observer than a participant; after all, you’re learning. If you do follow this point, take things writers say with a grain of salt. Always follow the money. If they’re successful, you should listen to what they say.
9. Be ready to be made uncomfortable. Find your sticking point and move past it. Can’t wake up early to write? Figure out what it is you need to do to make it happen. Depressed by low sales? Know many authors (such as yours truly) have been in your shoes. Writing will play with your heartstrings, especially when you’re just starting out. When you get your first book out there, every one star will feel like a punch in the gut at first. I know it did for me. Maybe you won’t even get reviews, which might be even worse. Most readers have no idea what it takes to write a novel – the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. If it’s something they don’t like, they won’t care that you woke up at 5 in the morning every day to make it happen. You can’t please everyone. It’s impossible. My books have their share of haters, but as long as you’re finding people who like them as well, that’s what matters. In fact, I’d rather write a book that was polarizing rather than everyone thinking it was so-so. Whatever the case, there will be something that will prey on your insecurities. Just know that your passion for writing and your commitment to make it in the business are more powerful than anything the cruel world can throw at you. Sometimes, it takes ten novels before a writer gets traction. Be willing to write that much to make it. Which leads to my last point…
10. You have to do this because you love it. If you don’t love writing, you’ll go crazy trying to make money at it (mostly because you’re most likely not going to make much money at it, anyway). Even if no one bought my books, I would still write because it fills a need in me. I’ve always loved to write. I would write for friends and family and what few people would be willing to read my works. Whatever your goals are in writing, you have to love it, or at least like it. But love is better.
Well, I feel as if I’ve sort of went out of order. I laid out my opinion of the basics it will take to make it self-publishing, but I never argued why I believe self-publishing is better, in most cases, for an aspiring writer.
That will be the subject of my next post.