Five years ago, I independently published my third novel, The Black Mile. If you knew me back then, and you asked me for my opinion on the three things that an aspiring author who was looking to successfully self-publish his or her book should do, I would have said:
- Tell people all about your book on social media. It’s free publicity.
- You don’t need to invest. Self-publishing is free!
- Write to market. Go where the readers are.
Oh dear. I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I was the writer who made his book free when being free on Amazon was REALLY powerful. I was the writer who had 50,000 downloads over the course of a weekend but didn’t have another book to sell. Even worse, I was the writer who didn’t even have a mailing list where I could communicate with those readers when I had something else to sell. None of those ideas is any good. In fact, at least two of them are downright unhelpful. I could have tried and tried and tried, following those three pieces of advice and getting nowhere. But I didn’t. I forced myself to sit down and learn from those who had gone before me (in those days it was people like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey). I absorbed all the knowledge I could from the indie podcasts that I could find, and then I reached out beyond the self publishing genre into the broader world of internet marketing (because, let’s be honest, a book is a piece of digital content and the rules for selling on the internet apply to books as much as they do to other online assets). I surrounded myself with brilliant people and learned as much as I could from them. I’ve been around the block a few times since then and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’ve learned along the way. Instead of those three awful suggestions, I’ll offer three alternatives that have been battle tested as I’ve grown my publishing business from zero to seven figures a year.
1. Be a person on social media.
I’m big on Facebook, as anyone who has taken my course on Facebook Ads will attest. I’m active on Twitter, too. I follow other authors on both platforms, and far too many of them – especially the rookies – spend their time spamming their followers with messages to buy their books. Every message is about their book. “Get My Great Book now – it’s free.” “My Great Book is reduced until Tuesday – grab it now.” “My Great Book has just had its third five star review!” Etc. There’s no value there. No reason for me to follow that writer. Eventually those messages are tuned out. They become part of the noise, when you want to be the signal. Put it another way: imagine you were at a dinner party and the guest opposite you pitched their book every ten minutes. It would get very boring, very fast. Social is the same. Using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about our books is a great idea, but it’s best done in moderation. And it needs to be mixed with interesting content that readers can engage with. I’d recommend a ratio of about one promotional message to every fifteen. You can use software like MeetEdgar to schedule content in advance. I load it up so that those who follow my Twitter feed see a tweet that notes that music I’ve been listening to as I write in the mornings. That starts conversations. And I use Edgar to recycle old photos of me on Facebook on #ThrowbackThursdays. Something like this (take a deep breath): Those pictures are great conversation starters, too. And they establish me as a person. As writers, we can sometimes forget that readers see us as aloof and reserved. Despite being English, I am neither of those things! I want to turn my readers into friends. Demonstrating that I am a person with a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at myself is a great way to start doing that.
2. You need to be professional, and that doesn’t come for free.
You can publish a book onto the world’s biggest book store without spending a dime. That’s very true. But you really don’t want to. Take covers. It’s better to get a pro on board. It’s a boring cliché, but there is a lot of truth in the suggestion that readers judge a book by its cover. And would you really want your book to look like this? You might think that you have an eye for a book cover, but, unless you work in graphic design – and, ideally, graphic design within the book design business – you probably don’t. A case in point: I paid a very talented artist friend to paint a cover for The Black Mile. We both loved it, but that’s irrelevant. It’s not what I think, or what he thinks. It’s what my potential readers think. And as soon as I changed the cover to one put together by a pro who had analysed my competition, that book started selling. You can get a great cover for $200, and less if you buy a pre-made (a design that will receive minimal alteration when you buy it). Check out a site like 99 Designs. If that means you need to save for a while until you can afford it, you really should. Going for a cheap option is a false economy that will cost you in the long run.
3. Write what you love.
My first two books were traditionally published. They didn’t sell (the reason for that is for another day). My editor at Macmillan had just published Matthew Reilly’s first novel and it was selling in huge amounts. I read it and concluded that it was nothing special and that I could do it to. So, for the next six months, I tried to write something aimed at Reilly’s market. And it sucked. It was the only time I’ve ever had to force myself to open my laptop in the morning. It was like pulling teeth, and that lack of enthusiasm is very apparent when you read the book. It was dreadful and, thankfully, no publisher would touch it. Turns out that was a blessing. If I had continued to traditionally publish, assuming that I could persuade them to overlook the anaemic sales of my first two books, I would never have put out the John Milton books myself. And going indie changed my life for the better. At a certain stage of life – or your business – you’re not interested in simply doing what you’ve been doing. Perhaps it isn’t working. You’re not getting the results you want. And that’s frustrating. You want to take things to an entirely different level. The problem is this: it’s not something that you can do on your own. It’s not going to be you sitting in a coffee shop, figuring out how to make your books sell in the intervals between writing new stuff. You need help. I need it, you need it, we all need it. Whether you get a more established writer to act as a mentor, you join an online course, or you set up a writers group to bounce ideas off each other, the people around you will drive you to new levels that you might previously have thought were unattainable. So that’s it – three lessons from the last five years. Here’s hoping they provide some useful insight and tips – and save you time – as you move forward along your indie author journey.