My First Step to Self Publishing: Get Over Myself
I finished my first book, “Intangible,” in 2011. At the time, I had a very specific vision, and it’s probably pretty typical for someone ignorant of the industry: I queried a bunch of agents, fully expecting that I’d find one within a few months. Then my agent would pitch my book to Random House, I’d get a fantastic contract (maybe not with a *big* advance, but I’d get an advance of course), and the rest would be history. I’d be signing movie deals within a couple of years.
That isn’t *quite* the way it went.
I wrote here on why I ultimately went the self publishing route… but man, oh man do I wish I’d jumped on that bandwagon in 2011! That was right when self publishing started taking off, but the competition was still just low enough that a few authors could hit it big. One of the agents I queried wrote me back and told me that’s what I should do, but I wasn’t ready to hear it at the time. It took a bad experience with a traditional publisher for me to finally decide to give self publishing a shot in late 2013… and by then, my market (YA fantasy fiction) was already SUPER saturated.
Still, technically, I’ve been in the #1 slot on three Amazon bestseller lists multiple times: Mythology, Arthurian, and Myths & Legends. So I guess you could say I’ve written three Amazon bestsellers… if you play a little fast and loose with your definitions. 🙂
I’m still learning, obviously. But if you’re hoping to self publish too, here’s what I did so far that’s worked.
The Steps I Took to Self Publish
- Before I ever thought about publishing, I wanted to make sure I had a good shot at success. So I took this online course on Udemy called “How to Become a Bestselling Author on Amazon Kindle” by Tom Corson-Knowles. I took copious notes, and I did everything he said to do. It’s incredibly helpful information, and it worked in the first few days!
- I brainstormed cover designing… finally settling upon the photography by my friend Jayme. I bought the rights to use his photo for the cover to “Intangible”, and then two more for the subsequent two books in the trilogy.
- I joined Twitter, created an author account there, and started following other authors. From there, I “networked” well enough to find an e-book formatter, Clive Johnson. He’s great. I knew it was possible to format my books myself, but I have a mac and all the instructions I found pertained only to Windows… so it was just easier to me to ship it out.
- Also on Twitter (I think? I can’t remember now), I found a graphic artist, Anna, whose fantasy gallery seemed like what I was after. She took Jayme’s photo and rendered it into my cover design.
- Now I was ready to publish. I won’t reinvent the wheel — this site did a fabulous job of walking through all the steps of how to publish on Amazon.
- I chose KDP Select, which meant I’d signed an exclusive contract with Amazon for the first three months of publication (you can reassess after three months). In exchange, I could run “deals” — for five consecutive days, my book was free on Amazon. I publicized this to tons of different “free e-book” websites, many of which I contacted directly from a list Tom gave us in the Udemy course… but I also went on fiverr.com and paid $5 to have someone else contact all those free sites on my behalf, along with the dates that my book would be free. All this publicity meant I got thousands of free downloads in those first few days… and because of this, my book shot up to #1 in a bunch of different Amazon categories. (Once you achieve “hot new release” status, it’s self-perpetuating because Amazon features you in their “hot new release” or “bestseller” section of whatever sub-category you’re listing under.) As a result, even when the book was no longer free, I made a lot of sales (relatively speaking) in those first few days afterwards.
- I got Clive and Anna to format and make covers for a paperback version too, since I knew some percentage of people would want to feel the book in print (and I certainly did!) Once I had those, I also published on CreateSpace, the subsidiary of Amazon that will print books on demand, and links them up with your Kindle book profile. That way you don’t have to order a crap ton of books and lose tons of money if you can’t sell them. Works out beautifully.
- You can only run deals once per three months under KDP Select. So once my KDP Select contract ran out, I published on Smashwords. I don’t know if anybody actually goes to Smashwords directly to buy books, but they will distribute to all of the other major e-booksellers besides Amazon (the big ones are Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and iBooks.) But since Amazon dominates the market, I can’t say this has done me a lot of good.
- I didn’t need to hire a professional editor for “Intangible” because it had been through so many rounds of amateur editing that I knew it didn’t need it. But for “Invincible,” I knew it did… so I found Lindsay from a Google search and from her reviews. She did a great job. I didn’t have the budget to hire her again for “Impossible,” but I also sort of had a gut feeling that it didn’t need it anyway. Again, friends and family served that purpose quite well. I know that goes against the advice of “the industry,” but what can I say.
- From there, it’s all been about marketing. By far the most useful strategies have been the free days on Amazon… and then when I finished the trilogy, I made the first one perpetually free. (This was actually how Smashwords helped me: I couldn’t make the book free on Amazon perpetually, but I could make it free somewhere else and then email Amazon to tell them about a cheaper deal… and then they price-matched it. Loopholes!) Even that momentum dies down periodically, though. Nothing in advertising works forever, I’ve learned.
- Facebook ads have also helped. The lovely Caitlin Bauer of Royal Social Media designed and ran ads for me, which were very useful in getting new Facebook likes at first, but that didn’t translate into sales… so then we changed them to advertise the book itself (since the first one is free!) That sometimes has worked like gangbusters, and other times it hasn’t worked as well. Like this summer, when Amazon rolled out their Kindle Unlimited program such that people could lend all my books to their friends without requiring purchase. I’d get like thousands of “lends” per day, and only two purchases. Jerks. I cut my royalties down from 70% to 30% just so I could get out of that program, and still haven’t seen sales rebound.
- Caitlin also hosted a blog tour for the release of “Impossible,” the conclusion of my trilogy, which I released in October 2014. That didn’t exactly translate into sales, but it did lead to a lot of very high quality reviews and interest in the trilogy, and I can only hope the momentum will grow!
I’ve tried a lot of other marketing strategies (auto-tweeting– because who has time to tweet all day?, Facebook posts, blogging — though I’ve had a heck of a time figuring out what to blog about, free giveaways on Goodreads and on Rafflecopter, in-person book signings in Tucson), but so far the ones that really made a difference are those listed above.
Lots of the advice I hear from other self-published authors is to just keep writing and putting content out… and I just finished the first draft of my next book and sent it to Lindsay. So I’m working on that too!
Bottom line: I won’t lie, fiction is a saturated market, and hard to break into for self-published authors. Probably that’s true of the vast majority of traditionally published authors too. But I know like all artistic dreams, this is a marathon, not a sprint. So I keep reminding myself what everyone tells me so that I don’t get discouraged: “It’ll take ten times longer than you think it will! Just don’t give up!”