I've had several queries and e-mails from would-be writers, asking me questions about how to do certain things, or wanting to know what my experience of independent publishing has been. I thought it was time to put this article together, to summarize what I've learned so far. I hasten to add that I'm nobody's expert, and there are many others out there who know far more about this business than I do! This article summarizes my experience, particularly in dealing with Amazon.com and CreateSpace (an Amazon company providing print-on-demand services to independent publishers). I don't pretend to speak for anything or anyone beyond that. A 'guru' I am not!
Nevertheless, I think many of my 'lessons learned' are pretty universally applicable. They include:
- Edit, edit, edit! I've been very put off by misspelt words, grammatical errors and other faux pas perpetrated by many independent publishers. I took enormous trouble over line-editing my first book in an attempt to catch all such errors (and despite my attention to detail, and the assistance of alpha and beta readers, I still missed a few!) I'm grateful that some of the reviews of my book on Amazon.com commented on this, saying that it was one of my book's strengths. I'm going to try to continue that approach in subsequent books.
- You need a team of alpha and beta readers. It's pointless to write a book, decide for yourself that it's the best thing since sliced bread, and publish it without further ado. All too often you'll be blind to defects of plot, character and pacing - things that may seem fine to you but which jump off the page (or the screen) at readers who are coming to the book for the first time. Read up for yourself on the difference between alpha and beta readers, then approach individuals whom you think are both qualified and experienced enough to be able to help you. It'll take you some time, and a lot of mistakes, to develop a team you can rely on. Treasure them! You're going to need them!
- Writing the book is only half the work - possibly less than half. The rest comes in editing, rewriting, discussions with alpha and beta readers, revising, formatting, learning the ropes with the outlet(s) through whom you've decided to publish, checking your work, correcting mistakes . . . there's a long, long list of things involved. Major publishers do all this stuff for their authors - that's one reason they glom onto most of the revenues from a book, to pay for the professional staff they employ to accomplish those things. If you're an independent publisher, you get to do it all yourself. Far too many authors lose interest and do a slapdash job in these areas - and it shows in the finished product. If you want to appear professional, you've got to do a professional job.
- Get expert assistance wherever possible. I know my shortcomings. For example, I'm not much good on visual matters, such as cover layout and design. I'm blessed that my wife, Miss D., has a better eye than mine for such details. We spent several weeks looking through commercial stock art images. I compiled a short-list of those that had caught her or my or our eye(s), and she picked out of that list the one we used for a cover. We bought the image, then took it to our friend, Oleg Volk, who's an excellent photographer and graphic designer. Book covers have never been a major part of his work, but by sitting down as a threesome, we did pretty well, I think. Miss D. and I explained the effect we wanted to achieve, and I made some suggestions as to how the raw cover image we'd selected could be edited, cropped and shaded to good effect. Oleg did the actual work, and suggested many more improvements that we'd never have thought of for ourselves. He selected the font, based on my overriding requirement that it be outstandingly readable at thumbnail-image size on Amazon.com; chose its color; formatted the text; arranged the various elements of the picture to work together; and went through multiple iterations of the design as we struggled to make it work for both Amazon.com and CreateSpace (which have different cover templates and requirements). We could never have done it without him. If you don't have an Oleg among your acquaintances, I strongly suggest you ask your friends whether they know anyone who can help you, or be prepared to pay for professional assistance if necessary. (We offered to pay Oleg, but he settled for us cooking him a few meals. It's good to have hungry friends!)
- Practice makes perfect. Don't expect your first book - or even your fifth or your tenth - to be worthy of publication. It's hard to write well, consistently, in a way that readers will enjoy. I've written more than twenty manuscripts, comprising a total (including corrections, rewrites, etc.) of over two million words, that will never be published - and after all that practice, I'm still not as good as I want to be! Some folks with natural talent will probably do better than that, but they're few and far between. The rest of us have to work hard to improve our mastery of our art, and that will continue all our lives. If we let ourselves get complacent or cocky, thinking we've got it right at last, the odds are pretty good that we're about to come a cropper. Remember the advice of the sage: "An amateur practices until he's got it right. A professional practices until he can't get it wrong!" (On the plus side, there are several scenes and episodes among all those 'practice' manuscripts that I can 'recycle' and use in later books, cleaning them up and improving them in the light of what I've learned.)
- Don't think you know more than your publishers. I've lost count of the number of would-be authors I've heard (or read online) moaning that Amazon.com and/or CreateSpace is/are "discriminating against them", or "not publicizing their work sufficiently", or "being difficult", or things like that. Guess what? They're not in business to be at your beck and call. They're in business to make a profit. To the extent you offer them an opportunity to do that, they'll gladly co-operate with you, to help you make a profit too. That way everybody wins, everybody's happy, and you'll likely come back with another book on which everyone can make even more money. If you whinge and moan and kick and fuss . . . why should they bother with you? There are more than a million independently published books on Amazon.com, from hundreds of thousands of independent authors. You and I are very small frogs in that very large pond. If and when we get to be big frogs - which means selling at least tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of books every year - we can make more noise and expect to be heard. Unless and until we achieve that, we need to shut up and go with the flow.
I also think it's absolutely crucial to anyone's success as a first-time independently published author to have a marketing plan worked out and ready to go before you publish anything. Mine was very simple. I began blogging in 2008 for three reasons:
- To get practice in writing;
- To learn the discipline of writing every single day, never 'wimping out' and not posting unless there were serious reasons for it (such as my heart attack in 2009); and -
- To build a readership that liked the way I thought and wrote, who'd be willing to buy my books when they finally came out.
That approach worked for me. You, my readers, were kind enough to be enthusiastic about my book, and during the first week it was available you bought several hundred copies. That vaulted it out of the obscurity of those million-plus independently published books on Amazon, and into the top 20 sellers in its two Science Fiction categories in the Kindle store, 'Military' and 'Space Opera'. Once it appeared on those lists, thousands of other readers browsing them saw it, and were able to decide whether they'd like to try it. I made it easy for them by allowing a preview of the first few chapters, and setting the price relatively low to attract buyers. (That's a very important point - as an unknown, first-time author, one can't expect to demand the same prices that established authors can command. We've got to start small.)
Those factors together gave me a head start. 'Take The Star Road' has now sold well over three thousand copies, and is on track to hit four thousand relatively soon. It's still mid-ranked in the 100 top-selling books in both its categories in the Kindle store, even after the launch publicity has died down. Considering that most independently-published books never sell more than 50 copies, I think that's not bad at all. I hope to build on that success with Book 2 when it comes out shortly; and I have two more books planned for release before the end of this year. Volume counts - and I wrote three books, and a first draft of the fourth, before I started to publish any of them, so as to have a body of work ready to publish in rapid succession, to sustain reader interest and generate cross-purchases. That's part of marketing, too. One can't write a single book, then rest on one's laurels!
The point is, I worked very, very hard to develop that marketing plan and put it in place before my book was published. It took years of hard work. If you haven't established an online presence, or developed an established group of followers who can be relied upon to support your efforts, you're going to be competing with all those hundreds of thousands of other independently published authors to 'break out of the pack' and become visible. That's very, very hard to do. Far too few authors appear willing to put their time and effort into establishing such a foundation for marketing. They'd rather write - but writing alone won't sell books. It takes a lot more. (I highly recommend the articles '1,000 True Fans' and its follow-ups, 'The Reality Of Depending On True Fans' and 'The Case Against 1,000 True Fans', as excellent and thought-provoking marketing analyses. They're not perfect, but I think there's a lot of truth in them, and I've tried to follow their principles.)
If you have any more questions, I'll try to answer them in Comments, or perhaps in a follow-up article. Over to you!