There was a time when self-publishing meant that you were silly enough to pay some company of crooks a load of money to print several dozen poorly constructed copies of your naively written novel and then try to sell them from the boot of your car. It used to be called Vanity Publishing, and for good reason: the only thing it was good for was stroking a wannabe writer’s ego. What it did not do was put food on their table or allow them to quit their day job. Self-publishing used to suck.
That all changed when the gadget era began. First music migrated to a digital existence via itunes. Then films did it via Netflix. Now books are doing it via Amazon Kindle. Of course there are other players such as Apple, Kobo, etc, but I truly believe that Amazon were the ones with enough vision to truly take reading into the digital realm. They championed the rise of the ebook like no other.
Now, both aspiring and established authors can sell directly to the public. They can cultivate their own audience and grow their online business in the same way a person selling monogramed toilet seats can. For that is what the ebook revolution has truly done: it has changed the publishing industry from an old boy’s club to a free enterprise where effort and talent is rewarded. Now, finally, in the same way as any other business, a person can start from fresh, deliver a good product and grow their business via positive reviews, recommendations, repeat business, advertising, promotions, giveaways, partnerships, and any other avenues an entrepreneurial writer can think of. The devoted will succeed, while the weak-willed will struggle. That’s right, not everyone will make a fortune self-publishing, but at least now everyone CAN! The potential is there for everyone to have a crack at it and give it their best shot. The publishing industry is finally fair. Somebody wanting to be a writer now has the same obstacles as someone who wants to be a carpenter. Learn the craft, work hard, find customers, and succeed. Welcome to the business world. You are now a Director of your own destiny. Here are some of the experiences I had on my own path to making a good living as a writer. There is no failure anymore, just varying levels of success…
The Early Stages
The early stages are hard and prone to tears. No one can make it easy for you. As you self-publish your book, many of you will be opening yourselves up for the first time to criticism and disappointment. Well, don’t be afraid, because getting told you suck is one of the most important parts of your growth as a writer. I will explain why in a moment.
Now, just to prepare you, when you self-publish your very first book – you will get no sales (well, maybe a few). Your earnings will be poor and you will shake your head and weep that you will never get to leave your horrible job. Well, don’t panic, because that happens to all of us. No one knows you exist! It’s not that you are no good. You could have written a masterpiece, but right now no one can see it. You need to get customer reviews, word of mouth, and also wait while Amazon (and any other vendors you have used) integrates your product into its vast website algorithms. You are at the very first rung of the ladder, and your only focus now should be to climb a little higher each week. Don’t focus on how much you WANT to make. Focus on what you did last week and beat it.
Now, the first thing you need is reviews. Buying a book with little or no reviews is a risk, and customers don’t like risking their money. So what do you do? You reduce the risk. For the time being, give away your book free via promotions or price it as cheaply as you can (you can charge more when your book has lots of great reviews). You still may not move a lot of copies, but you will slowly start to get some people reading your book. Some of those people will leave reviews; and that is what you need. If you’re lucky, one of those people will like you and become a fan.
On the negative side, some of those reviews might be bad. They might tell you that you suck. That is good. You are not a good writer yet and your probably do suck a little bit. No one has ever blindly published a masterpiece. Mozart didn’t just play the piano perfectly one day; he learned and developed. You must do the same. Bad reviews are the very best advice you will ever get – because they are harsh, unbiased, and most importantly of all, honest. You have flaws, sorry, but you so. If you write for sixty years, you will still have flaws. Charles Dickens had flaws and so do you. Bad reviews point them out to you.
When I first started, I noticed a trend in all my bad reviews (as rare as they were, ha!) was that I was identity confused. Although British, I was writing like an American to emulate all the great American horror authors I had read growing up. This led me to have a confused writing style, which included very British words like ‘telly, brew, git, bugger, knobhead,’ side-by-side with very American words like ‘cookie, trunk, wiener, and Justin Bieber.’ This led to both sides of the Atlantic being confused and distracted when reading my work. Not good. But my bad reviews made me aware of the problem. As a result, I made the effort to remain true to my British background and began writing in my own true voice. My books suddenly had a new identity. Americans began to enjoy my ‘quirky’ dialogue and my English fans enjoyed being accurately represented by a writer of their own. Needless to say, my bad reviews became rarer and rarer. You, too, must take heed of your bad reviews. They may be hurtful, but dag namit they are helpful. Only a fool closes his ears to his critics. You must bend over and welcome your detractors.
Building an Audience
Now, as you get in a few reviews and sell a few books, you will find things will gather a little bit of steam. Your sales will still be few, but they should be steady. Your books may appear in searches (I always add subtitles after my book titles, such as ‘A Horror novel’ or ‘Apocalyptic Horror novel,’ as this increases the number of keywords in the title) or be recommended by people who have already read it. Time to start leveraging what you have to grow your audience.
Now the first thing to do is NOT go on Facebook and start begging readers and other authors to help you. They get this all the time from dozens of other desperate authors, and quite frankly why should they help you? You haven’t done anything for them. Believe me, the path to success is not by shoving your book in everyone’s faces. You should be championing yourself, not your book. If you want to make a career out of writing, people need to like YOU and follow YOU as a writer. So be a nice guy, chat to people about what ever it is that people are chatting about. Offer to share the work of another author you have seen. Do favours for others and get involved with the reading community – they’ll return the favour down the road. It is much better to have someone share your book because they like you and because you did a favour for them previously. If you are a nice guy people will help you because they WANT to, not because you nagged them. Believe me, this is the way to go about things. If you need to share something about your book, do it on your own page or even on pages set up for promoting new releases (there are hundreds), but don’t invade someone else’s privacy, because you will annoy them.
Once you have the ground work set up and a small following, forget about social media and start writing again – and I don’t mean short stories or novellas, I mean novels. The best way to make more money and gain new fans is by writing full-length novels. The more novels you have on sale, the more chance someone has of stumbling upon you. It also means that when you are lucky enough to find a fan, they will be able to buy 2,3,4 books from you rather than just 1. That in itself equates to more money. Writing new books should always, for as long as you do this, be your NUMBER ONE priority. If you want to quit your day job you need books. The lucky writers will need but a few to make decent money, others may need a dozen, but one thing is true: the more books you write the more money you make. It will also help you grow and develop as a writer, too. More words on paper (or eInk) means more practice for you.
Now, I know lots of authors are very eager and they quickly publish a load of short stories or novellas. These are lovely for bridging gaps between novels for an already successful author, but they honestly waste the time of the writer still wishing to grow. Short stories make little money and sell far fewer copies than full-length titles (at least in my opinion). I know it is hard to have to wait so long to get a taste of what releasing a new story feels like, but you have to be patient. Commit yourself to writing a new novel and don’t stop till it’s done. It may take a while, but it is time well invested. Once you publish your new novel, start the next one. When you have hundreds of fans clamoring for another fix, then you can give them something shorter to tide them over. As a new writer you need to make money and find fans – novels is where it is at! Period.
Building a Brand
Once you have the basics dealt with and have built a small platform on which to grow, you need to take things to the next level. Remember, you should be selling yourself as a writer, not individual books. You want people to find ALL of your work, not just a novel at a time. You need to become a brand.
The first thing you should do is get help. People think self-publishing means going it alone. IT DOES NOT. Self-publishing means you’re the boss, but even bosses need to hire out for other services. McDonalds doesn’t make its own tables and chairs in a McWoodwork factory. It pays someone else. A writer does not paint his or her own covers. They pay someone else to do it. Artists, editors, website designers, and formatters are all worth the money they charge, so consider them carefully.
Use the money you earn from you books and reinvest it. When you first start to use your earnings towards investment, the first thing you should look at it artwork. Unless you have a qualification, you should not do your own covers. If money is short, you can pay graphic designers to pull something nice together from stock images, but even this should be a stopgap until you can afford to pay an original artist (I use Stephen Bryant at SRB Productions). Expect to pay around $450 dollars per cover for a top-class painter, but I promise you that the cost covers itself. Develop a relationship with your artist and develop a brand with them. Study the best selling books in your genre and take note of what they all have in common (hint: they are usually vague and only seek to create mood. Very rarely do they give away any content of the plot or characters. Moody and vague is key for Horror, Thrillers, etc). If you have more than one book, develop a template. The individual artwork and colour scheme should change for each book, but your template should remain. Have your name appear in the same font and size on every cover. Give yourself a strapline (mine is ‘Fear on every page’. James Patterson’s is ‘The pages turn themselves.’). Make it obvious to a browser that you are more than just one book, and that you have longevity. Readers like to know that an author is writing more books (Reading books is an investment and good authors are hard to find). Also, by having a consistent brand, your books will stick in a browser’s mind. If they ignore your book a few times, but keep seeing the same name in the same style and font, they will start to get curious. You will have made them aware that you exist. This is the fundamental challenge of being a self-published author: being discovered. Your cover is one of the best weapons you have to hook a new reader.
Expanding your brand even further, create yourself a website and get your artist to do you a banner with the same fonts and templates as your book covers. Link all of your online sites together and your whole presence as an author will become more cohesive and more professional. The differences between you and a New York Publishing house author will become less and less. You are not less than they are, so why should you seem it. Look at the websites of authors you admire and emulate the layout. Don’t get too fancy. You’re a writer not an online casino. Join up to as many social media sites as you can and link to them from your website. Make it easy for fans to contact you, but don’t waste your day on Facebook because it is folly. You should be writing books, remember? If you are lucky enough to have a fan contact you, then you better bloody well get back in touch with them. Love your fans and they will love you. They are family now and you need them!
Once you have a few books out and a cohesive brand, you should be making enough money to get butterflies in your belly. You might be able to buy a new flat screen TV with the money you have earned, or even start being a little rude to your boss at your day job (you will be able to stick your fingers up to him one day soon if all goes well).
The last part of the puzzle is to expand, expand, expand. You need to write new novels, I cannot stress that enough, but you should also make sure that in addition to ebooks, you also publish paperback copies through Createspace (formatting is tough, so pay someone), and look at publishing audiobooks through ACX (doing a royalty split with the narrator means no upfront cost). You can also look at foreign publishers, comic book artists, and more. Each of these things will only earn only a small income, but if you do it with all of your books, then that small income will become not unsubstantial. It also has a benefit besides income: it makes you look professional. When a reader sees your book and then notes ebook, paperback, audiobook, and German, it tells them that you are the real deal, and that you take this shiz-nit seriously. Just make sure to exploit every money-earning opportunity that you can. Succeeding as a self-publisher is not about writing one big hit, it’s about writing lots of books and maximizing the profit each of them makes. It’s a business and books are your products. You need to sell them.
I don’t know what the future holds, (people like JA Konrath and Barry Eisler are better prophets than me) but I can say that my fortunes keep increasing as a self-published author. I started at zero, with no publishing credits and no friends in high places. Now I feed my family and love my life. Self-publishing gave that to me. It took me out of my crappy, low-income job and gave me a life I love. It may not happen for you, I am sad to say that, truly, but there is no reason that it shouldn’t. The best thing the self-publishing revolution has given us is an equal chance. You have as much chance of succeeding as anybody else. So give it your best damn shot, buddy. I hope to see you at the top.