As some of my long-time readers might know, I started my self-publishing journey on a whim in 2012. I had written a book two years before, a few friends who were interested in reading it, and I had a vague remembrance of reading something about a new-fangled publishing platform from Amazon that would let you share content easily.
The first time I uploaded a (pretty rough draft) of The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, my heart almost stopped when I saw my name on a real Amazon page.
The cover image was garbage, the PDF sloppily formatted, and the metadata clumsy, but it was my name on Amazon – the biggest bookseller in the world! – and strangers could now find and read something that I had written: a world I had created, inhabited, and loved.
It was thrilling, frightening, and frustrating in equal measure. Sure, the book was there, but no one other than those few close friends had purchased it. Sure, I had a weighty CreateSpace paperback in my hands, but my design abilities were rubbish, I couldn’t get the formatting just right, and I kept finding typos.
I had published a book, which is certainly a milestone. But in the early days of the publish-on-demand industry, I was among thousands of curious new authors who had a lot to learn.
Had I planned my entry into this strange new world a little better, I might have implemented a different strategy. I might have been more successful right off the bat…or I might have been so overwhelmed with the prospect of committing to this massive undertaking that I may never have gone through with it.
After several years of experience, including some notable high points and more than a few disappointments, I think I have a better idea of how new authors might want to approach their own first taste of self-publishing.
Any commitment should start with a cost/benefit analysis, and these are the top five questions I would ask myself if I could go back in time and do it all over again.
1. What do I hope to get out of this?
What are my goals when it comes to self-publishing? Do I want to share a particular skill or knowledge base? Do I want to create a revenue stream I can live on? Do I have a unique perspective that I must share with the world? Do I want to use self-publishing as a springboard to a traditional publishing career? Do I just want to write for my own fulfillment?
Everyone has a different reason for wanting to self-publish, and I don’t think there are any invalid motivations. Some want to write the books they wanted to read when they were kids. Some are aiming for the money or the fame; some just like the idea of sharing fanfic stories with their chosen fandom.
It doesn’t matter what the reason is. You just have to know why you’re doing it. When you establish a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish, it will help you set up a platform, focus your outreach efforts, and ensure that you are not wasting your precious time and energy on activities that won’t get you to your chosen outcome.
2. What skills do I have and what do I need from others?
Let’s face it. We’re not all experts at everything. Yeah, that includes you, okay? We all need a little outside help to fill the holes in our game.
Self-publishing requires a lot of specialized skills, and a lot of back-end production work. Editing is a different competency than writing. Web design isn’t easy. Cover art creation isn’t for everyone. Putting together a perfect template for publication? Man, that still trips me up sometimes. And when it comes to marketing…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t mind a little help in that department.
In order to bring a high quality product to market, you might have to enlist the skills of people who have expertise in one or more of these areas. And in order to know who you need to ask for help, you need to honestly assess where you might fall short.
Understanding your strengths and recognizing your own limitations before you begin will save you a lot of frustration in the long run! Trust me on this one.
3. Do I understand my market and the options available to me?
Market research isn’t just for smarmy guys at big corporations who try to get you to buy stuff you don’t really need. It’s an essential part of any sales gig, and it’s vital for self-publishers.
Not only do you need to understand what the different available publishing platforms offer their authors, how to manage your rights and permissions, and how to navigate each company’s unique process for bringing a book to life, but you also need to have a clear strategy for selling the finished product.
You wouldn’t try to sell a cookbook to the same audience as a memoir or a young adult sci-fi thriller. You wouldn’t use the same strategies to appeal to middle grade readers as you would use for erotica aficionados (I hope).
And even within your chosen genre, there are nuances and subdivisions that no outsider could ever comprehend, let alone leverage. Vampire lovers may get miffed if they’re being offered a zombie tale in disguise. Space opera junkies don’t want to read about…whatever the opposite of space operas are. You get the point.
Before jumping into your first en masse Twitter following spree or joining a million reader forums, take some time to identify your perfect reader. Find out where those people hang out, what they’re looking for, and what strategies appeal to them. That’s going to be important for deciding how to deal with the next question.
4. How much am I willing to invest when it comes to time, money, and effort?
Self-publishing can be hard on the wallet, and it can be even harder on your initial bubbling enthusiasm. Building an audience takes lots of time and dedication. It can require weekends at conferences, or hours in front of the computer writing blog posts (ahem), replying to conversations in communities, and creating a presence on social media.
Buying ads, web domain names, subscriptions, contest entries, and a box of books to have on hand can easily run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars before you know it. And there’s no guarantee that you will receive a return on your investment.
But there are some steps you can take to minimize waste and maximize your potential for seeing some fruits from your labors.
First, create a budget and stick to it. Make a list of your possible expenses, prioritize the essentials, tailor your spending to your targeted audience, and do not spend a single penny on any product, service, or offering without reading the fine print. Twice.
Do not sign any of your creative rights or content rights away without being 150,000% sure you understand what you’re doing. There are unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to promise you the impossible. Be careful.
Second, be flexible and be willing to make changes. If the Facebook ads aren’t generating returns or the dealer’s table at LocalCon was a bust last year, then screw ‘em. Find something else to spend your budget on. There’s no set path for success in self-publishing, so remember that the strategy that works for your friends may not work for you.
Third, be mindful of your limitations, obligations, and expectations. Ambition is a fine thing, but maybe you can’t spend every Saturday and Sunday traveling around the country to every writer’s convention without stretching your bank account or your relationships to the limit. Maybe you’re an introvert who hates networking in person, so you shouldn’t spend $500 on a ticket to that fundraising brunch. Maybe you’re better off putting that money into a blog redesign or a copyeditor instead.
5. How good am I at dealing with disappointment?
This is a downer of a question, but it’s something you absolutely have to think about before embarking on your self-publishing career. There simply isn’t room for everyone at the tippy-top of the charts, and chances are that the vast majority of people will not make it as far in real life as they do in their daydreams.
It’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s good to understand that life is hard, and things don’t always work out the way you hoped without some struggle, some pain, and some determination. Realistic expectations are healthy. They keep you from overextending yourself, and they allow you to look at too-good-to-be-true possibilities with a critical, rational eye.
The publishing industry is especially good at forcing you to practice these skills. It’s an industry based on luck, chance, preconceived notions, and first impressions. At times, its capriciousness can seem downright cruel.
You need to be able to handle losing that big contest or never getting that phone call. You need to have the strength to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like everything you write. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means that you have to try again next time.
If you accept that disappointment is going to be a part of this process from the get-go, you’re going to be better equipped with the fortitude to take your knocks and shake them off. It’s hard. It sucks. It happens to everyone. But you need to ask yourself if you’re going to be able to pick yourself up out of the dirt and keep swinging.
Yes? Then welcome to the club, self-publisher. You’re going to do fine.