5 Things I’ve learned in 5 Years of Self Publishing
I’ve been at this self publishing game for a while now. 5 years counts as a while for an industry that’s still relatively young. In that time I’ve sold over 60,000 books so I have at least some small measure of success. It’s not amazing, I know, but there was a dark period where I signed up to a small press and everything went wrong. I’m back on track now… just about. In my time playing this great game of writing and selling books, I have learned a few things and I’m going to share some of those lessons. 5 of them.
5. Your book won’t sell itself. Don’t try too hard to sell your book.
I know the two statements sound a bit at odds with each other, but there you. Both are still true. The self publishing industry has exploded over the past few years and these days there are thousands upon thousands of novels out there (and I’m just taking those within the fantasy genre into account). You cannot just release your book into the void and hope it will sell. Think of it like a crowded party where everyone is shouting at each other. There’s a lot of noise. If you want your book to be noticed, it needs to make some noise itself or it will just sit alone in a corner and no one will notice it. But if it makes too much noise everyone will consider it an arsehole and no one wants to hang out with that dood.
People need to know your book has been released if they are to pick it up and read it, but if you try too hard you will turn people off. There is kind of a trick to it and I’m going to talk about that a bit further down. Another thing to take into account is that first impressions are important. Also, while the industry itself is fairly large, the communities are close to one another… and they talk. If you make the wrong kinda splash at the beginning, it is most certainly something that can follow you around. What this all boils down to is this: YOU need to sell your book because no one else is going to do it for you. But don’t be a dick.
4. One of the best ways for a new self published author to sell their book is through the communities.
This one ties in with the one above. I’ve long since come to learn that the publishing industry these days is as much about connections as it is about writing a bloody good book. And it’s not just the “who you know” connections, but the actual act of connecting with people. There are loads of online communities around these days from Facebook groups like Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers, to forums like Fantasy Faction, to Reddit boards like r/Fantasy. They are an excellent resource and a good way to get your book out there. But much more that, they are a great way to meet people and talk about the things we love… like fantasy fiction.
And here’s the thing a lot of newer authors often don’t get. Simply spamming these communities with links and shouting “Buy my book!” doesn’t work. A lot of the communities don’t even allow this sort of thing anymore, and those that do will find those posts largely ignored. Self promotion is considered a bit of a dirty word, but if you don’t promote your book who will? Well the trick is that there’s a subtlety to it. It’s pretty simple really. Just interact with the people in these communities as another member of the community. Feel free to mention your book from time to time, when it is relevant, but not with every comment. Just talk to people, discuss what you like about the genre, this author, that book. If your own work fits into the conversation, mention it. You’ll find yourself much more likely to make a sale from someone you’ve actually connected with, than a bunch of people just scrolling through the feed and seeing yet another “BUY MY BOOK!”
It’s not a guaranteed way to make it big by any stretch, but actually being a part of these communities is a far better way of getting your name out there than being that drive-by self promoting dood everyone just ignores.
Along with these online communities, and part of the whole making connections thing, comes book bloggers. Book bloggers are one of the best ways to get your book heard about. These wonderful people dedicate time and effort to reading and reviewing books and often have hundreds (or sometimes even thousands) of people following them and their opinions. Making connections with, and maintaining the relationships with, these mythical creatures is another good way to get your books heard about. And I have the trick to that as well. It’s actually quite simple. Just remember that they, too, are people. People who love reading, who love fantasy. They’re actually quite easy to talk to because you’ll soon realise you probably have a lot in common, starting with the love of the genre. At this point in my career I have a number of bloggers I converse with on a fairly regular basis, and while I do often talk to them about my own work, more often than not we actually discuss what we’ve read recently, the latest book releases, or an exciting upcoming release (which they’ve usually already read because they get books early).
These bloggers will often frequent the communities and that’s a good place to interact with and get to know them. Many also have websites and even ways for you to submit a book for review. Just remember that not all bloggers are willing to read self published titles and even those that do probably have a to be read pile miles long. Getting on to those reading lists isn’t always easy, but you’re far more likely to be accepted if the blogger has already interacted with… such as in one of the online communities.
I feel I may have hammered this point home enough by now. I’ll move on.
3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
What I mean by this is that it can take time… A lot of time, to get a self published career off the ground. With the sheer number of books around these days it is almost unheard of for a new self published fantasy author to release a book and suddenly find themselves selling thousands of copies and being the talk of the town. Yes, it happened once or twice with the likes of Anthony Ryan, but things have changed and that kind of quick success is rare. You need to dedicate plenty of time to marketing your book and accept that it might be months or even years before you’re selling a decent number of copies.
Leading on from this point is that, if you are intending to make a living from self publishing within the fantasy genre, you are very unlikely to do so without a catalogue of books for sale. The possibility of making a good living from a single book is low. I mention this because it’s important to set realistic expectations. At this point in time I have 8 books for sale in my own catalogue and I just about make liveable earnings from sales across all of those books. Most self published authors give a single piece of advice more often than any other: Don’t give up the day job. It’s fair advice. But don’t stop dreaming.
2. Momentum is important.
I’ll start off this point with a short anecdote. My first 2 years as a self published author went very well. I think my books somehow rode the wake that the Game of Thrones popularity spike left behind. I basked in my sales and decided to write something completely different. Instead of dark fantasy like my debut trilogy, I wrote a fun light hearted steampunk novel. It did not sell well and many of those who did buy it complained it was not in the same tone of my trilogy. I compounded my foolishness by signing with a small press and letting them re-release my trilogy. So 3 years after my successful debut, I released a book that wouldn’t really appeal to the same fans, and then re-released the same trilogy. The momentum I had built up came to grinding halt. I’m still trying to recover from that halt.
It’s a bit of a cautionary tale and it won’t apply to everyone, but if you do manage to pick up momentum with your books, it’s important to continue that momentum. If you sell well with a dark fantasy novel, write another one. Give your fans more of what they want. That’s not to say you shouldn’t maybe switch your genre up a little down the line, but it’s probably not too wise when you’re just starting out. It’s also fairly important to keep releasing new material. Trust me, re-releasing the same books again doesn’t do much for generating interest. I’m not saying rush out a new book before it’s ready, but as a self published author wanting to make a career out of it, it’s pretty important to have at least semi-regular new releases.
1. Invest in your work.
If you’ve read all the way down here I’ll point out now that these pieces of advice are in no real order. I’m not saying this is the most important piece of advice I can give, but it certainly matters. I know a lot of self published authors will say they don’t have spare capital to invest into making their work as good as it can be. To those people I then suggest perhaps approaching small presses. If you wish your book to sell, and want it to be successful, it is important to invest properly into it. In terms of money, time, and effort. The book is your creation, your work, released unto the world. Treat it like a child. Give it the best possible chance of succeeding, even in a world that seems designed to make it fail… Sorry, I went a bit fatalistic there.
First off, hire an editor. They are expensive. They are worth it. At the very least an editor will find the typos you’ve missed (yes, you will have missed typos). If you’re willing to fork out a bit more a good editor will help you craft the book into a better experience for the readers. I did not hire an editor for my debut trilogy, but I wish I did. For the follow up duology I found someone who helped me significantly improve the books, both with correcting my grammatical errors (there were many), but also by streamlining the prose and making useful suggestions.
Get a good cover. As much as might like to deny it, we all judge books by the cover. A cover should make potential readers check out the blurb, the blurb should make them look inside the book, the look inside (first page) should convince them to buy the book. Cover art is important and so is cover design and quite often you will not find both available from the same person. But the more professional you make your book look, the more likely people are to check it out. Want some proof, here’s the full range of covers for my debut trilogy with original covers at the top and current covers at the bottom. Which ones would you be most likely to check out?
Leading on from the last bit. Slave over your blurb and first page. Make them stand out, make them interesting, make them pop. The blurb should set the scene, introduce the major player, and have a couple of good hooks that will draw people in and make them want to know more. Posing mysteries is a good way to hook readers, and very popular at the moment is including a tagline like you used to find on movie posters. Writing blurbs is hard work (often harder than writing the book), but also just as important as getting a decent cover. Try studying the blurbs of current successful titles and emulate the style.
Those are my 5 lessons that I have learned. Not all of them, but some of them. Maybe I’ll do a 10 lessons in another 5 years time. Hopefully some people will read these lessons, take the advice to heart, and not make some of the same mistakes I have made. I have made quite a few. I’m probably still making them. Here’s a final point. There is no definite road to success and each person’s journey is their own. The advice here applied to me (still does), it might apply to you. Or it might not. I’m pretty sure I’m rambling now so I’m signing off.