7 Brutally Honest Self-Publishing Tips
Let me preface this article with an admission: I’m no expert on self-publishing. My first book came out last week. However, I don’t think one needs to be a veteran indie author to have learned a thing or two about self-publishing. In fact, I think the learning process starts the day you decide to self-publish and continues until the day that you stop. At this point, even though I’m sure my self-publishing journey is going to continue for quite a while yet, I think I’ve learned enough to give those who are just starting out a few good tips.
Tips that you may not want to hear.
1.) The first draft is only the beginning.
I know you all put a lot of work into your rough drafts. You chug away at the keyboard, day and night, trying to drag 80,000 words out of the darkest corner of your minds. And finally, one day, you get there. You finish the story. Yay! That’s great. Pat yourself on the back: most people never write 80,000 words of fiction. You’re already ahead of the game.
But you are far from being finished.
Don’t let that negate your excitement. You should celebrate when you finish the rough draft, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing the hard work is over. The hard work hasn’t started yet — what follows your first draft is much, much more difficult, and depending on what kind of writer you are, may be even more time consuming.
This is actually a tip for writers in general, but I’m specifically aiming it at self-publishers for two reasons:
1) By believing your rough draft makes for an “almost finished” book (read: it doesn’t), you run the risk of providing a low-quality product. Don’t let yourself fall into a mindset that causes you to do less work than is necessary on your story. In trade publishing, you can’t slack because your work won’t pass under the scrutiny of the gatekeepers. But when you’re the one pressing the publish button, you have to watch yourself.
2) Underestimating the amount of work you have to do can easily cause disillusionment with the self-publishing process. You get knee-deep into editing and revisions and realize everything you’ve done so far isn’t even a fraction of the work you have left to do? That can throw off the desire to self-publish entirely, and if you’ve already done a ton of work toward self-publishing, if you’ve already spent money? Then you wasted it. If anything, you should overestimate the amount of work needed — when you finish earlier than scheduled, it’ll make you feel better.
So, yeah, completing a first draft is great. But there are many more steps in the process before you can truly say, “I’m finished.”
2) Most of your writing will be editing. Deal with it.
I made a post on editing not too long ago where I talked a bit about the steps in the editing process. But let me reiterate: you need to edit your work several times by yourself before you send it to anyone else. Don’t think you can simply hire an editor and throw your work at them and get a perfect product in response. It’s your story. It’s your responsibility to ensure quality. An editor can only help you so much. An editor can help you find typos and poor grammar, and for more money, might even help you fix continuity errors and plot holes and structural issues.
But at the end of the day, the story is still yours. And it’s up to you to make it the best it can possibly be. You should never send a manuscript filled with easily fixable and findable errors to your editor, expecting them to do all the damn work for you. For one thing, it’s rude and lazy. For another, you have no guarantee that your editor will find all your mistakes. What if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy and using a bunch of made up terminology or ideas? You think your editor is going to be able to spot all your mistakes when it comes something he/she doesn’t know much (or anything) about?
Basically, clean up your manuscript before you send it to an editor. It’s not their job to take out your trash. It’s their job to help you fix stuff you can’t fix properly yourself.
Thus, you should spend a significant amount of time editing and revising and proofreading before you send your story anywhere.
3.) Beta readers are not 100% reliable. AKA, Judgment calls are required.
Beta readers are great. You’ve got a story finished and reasonably polished, and you need some initial feedback on it in order to figure out if there are any major issues that need to be fixed, so you grab yourself a few beta readers. Let’s say you have a few acquaintances who volunteer to beta read for you or you find a few betas online through Goodreads or something. Okay, you have beta readers. Wonderful.
Or so you believe.
Remember that you have no guarantee your beta readers are representative of the “average reader.” Then remember that there’s no such thing as the “average reader.” All your betas are individuals with individual opinions, and their responses to your work may not be typical of other readers’ responses. You might have a beta who hates a particular story arc in your piece, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should cut that whole arc out on the word of one person.
If you have many betas, and they all dislike the same thing? You might want to consider changing it.
If you have two betas, and one of them dislikes something? You may not want to toss it just yet.
Beta readers are not writing or reading gods. They aren’t magic. You have to carefully evaluate their feedback and weigh the pros and cons of their recommendations. You have to make a judgment call. And frequently, you may find yourself in the position where you completely disregard a particular beta reader’s feedback.
And you know what? That’s fine. Don’t feel guilty about it. Just thank the beta all the same and move on. Not everyone’s feedback on your work should necessarily be implemented. It is, at the end of the day, your job to decide what changes to make to your story. As a self-publisher, it’s all on you. Always.
Betas can be a great resource, but you shouldn’t blindly take their advice. Using beta feedback effectively takes a considerable amount of effort.
4.) For the love of God, please buy a decent cover!
Do NOT make your own cover if you are not a graphic designer, artist, illustrator, or other qualified artsy person. DON’T DO IT. Just don’t.
Your cover is the first thing most potential readers see. And if it sucks? Well, most of them will turn away without a second glance. You have a place on an Amazon page somewhere, surrounded by other books, tucked in between hundreds of other pages of books. If you think you can get away with a shitty cover, you’ve got another thing coming. If your cover isn’t capable of catching a potential reader’s eye, they’re never even going to get to your Amazon page. They’ll overlook you.
Now, the above example assumes a random browser searching for books. But what about, say, someone you’re directly marketing your book to? A book reviewer or a Goodreads group? Well, same deal. A book reviewer who sees a terrible cover might not even read your synopsis. They might just hit send on their form rejection for review requests and never think about you again. A person on a Goodreads group looking through author threads, who clicks on yours and sees an awful cover as the first representation of your work? Yeah, he might not bother replying to your thread or even checking out the book’s page.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, judges books by their covers. You can’t not judge a book by its cover. Your brain makes an immediate judgment of an image. Immediate. You can’t stop it. And do you know how hard first impressions are to change? Almost impossible. If your cover sucks, and it’s the first thing people see of your book, odds are, most people’s first impression of your book will be that your content also sucks. And that’s the way it is.
But covers are so expensive! you cry.
Yeah. Boo hoo. Get over it and start saving up. You can buy a decent cover for a reasonable price. Yeah, some authors go the distance and spend upwards of $1000 dollars, but you don’t need to spend that much to have a good cover. You just need to find a designer who makes pretty, attractive covers for a price you can afford (or can save up for in a reasonable amount of time).
Your cover is, hands down, your single best marketing tool. Your cover is what will bring people to your Amazon page, your Goodreads page, your B&N page, every page. Your cover is what draws the readers in or…doesn’t.
Is that unfair, considering how much work you put into the content of your book? Yes. Of course it is.
But you can’t snap your fingers and change the tendencies of the entire human race. So suck it up and pay for a quality cover.
5.) Choose your social media wisely, and use it well.
Social media is often very important for a self-publisher, because in this day and age, it’s how you get the word out there. As more and more self-published books come out, it gets that much harder to get noticed. The self-publishing market is a ocean, and it’s getting bigger all the time. It’s already very difficult to swim up from the muck to the surface, and that’s not going to easier in the coming years.
So you need some way to inform and communicate with potential readers. That way is social media.
But that way may not be all social media. I’ve seen self-publishers who are basically everywhere on the internet, and if that’s what works for them, fine. But not every social media website may fit for you. Consider the ones you’ve had the most success with in the past, the ones you feel most comfortable using, the ones where you have the most friends/followers, the ones where you are the most visible. If that means cutting out Pinterest or Instagram or something else, so be it. You are allowed (and probably should) narrow your social media focus.
Because social media is very time consuming. And when you already to have spend a crap-ton of time writing, you don’t want to overload yourself with social media obligations. That can get really stressful really fast. So be as selective as you wish — do what works best for you. If you please the Tumblr crowd on a regular basis, tap into the massive book fandoms there. If you’re a Twitter favorite, promote yourself through tweets and conversations. If you, like me, are a blogger? Well, blog away.
Play to your strengths when it comes to social media. Don’t try to get a hand in every jar and end up breaking them all when you inevitably collapse from fatigue.
6.) Make friends and interact with the reading/writing communities.
As a self-publisher, you can’t be solitary and get noticed. You have to talk to people. Word of mouth can be a very powerful tool for a self-publisher. It can be the most powerful tool. Just knowing people, even on a very casual basis, who might be interested in reading your book can be what gets your foot in the door. You tell someone you know, they tell people they know, and so on and so forth. If you know the right people, you might even be able to get ahead.
Point is, there’s a massive online reading and writing community. Unbelievably massive. And there are many people in it who would love to know you, so many people with similar interests who would love to read your work. You just have to find those people. Find them. Befriend them. Be honest with them: tell them what you need and want, and be willing to give (reviews, critiques, etc.) to get.
Just extending your friend and acquaintance networks can work wonders for your sales.
7.) Don’t set the bar too high.
Most people don’t make a ton of money self-publishing. That’s writing for you. I know you’ve probably heard all the rags to riches self-publisher stories out there. Howey. Hocking. Konrath. Yeah, yeah. I know about them, too. But do you know how many self-publishers there are who make squat for every one Hocking? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s a high, high number.
You need to be realistic. Don’t think you’re going to become a mega-millionaire bestseller overnight. It doesn’t happen easy, and it doesn’t happen often. Don’t sit there and believe you’ll be the next great success story. You probably won’t. Set yourself smaller goals, achievable goals, and work your way up from there. Odds are, if your self-publishing efforts do go anywhere, it will be the result of years’ worth of hard work.
Self-publishing is not easy. Writing isn’t easy. Don’t let yourself fall into a delusion of grandeur and then end up disappointed when it doesn’t work out the way you want it to.
TLDR — 1) Everything is hard. 2) Curl up into a fetal position. 3) Cry.