In August 2020, I published my first novel. I didn’t want to do the traditional route for several reasons, including creative control and the long timeframe, so I went all-in on the self-publishing journey. As of May 2022, I have, thank God, sold enough books to be admitted as a member of the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association), a professional organization whose membership is based on royalties earned. I wanted to reflect a little on what I did – marketing is hard!! – and post some ideas that may help people with their own publishing journeys.
Before I start – thank you so much to everyone who has helped me along this path. I hope this helps you. Also, a note: this is maybe not the most standard path, but I know my weaknesses (cough, making videos) and I know what I enjoy doing (Canva!). Results may vary – don’t take this as You Should Do This advice – but I do hope it’s a useful reference.
Things I didn’t do
- Book launch (whoops. I blame Covid. Twice.)
- TikTok. I have security concerns, and I also know my weaknesses. I am not good at making videos, and I don’t have the time. Edit: As of June 2022, I’ve started making short Instagram Reels/YouTube Shorts on Canva. Still can’t act though.
- Ads (other than a couple small ones, and FB ads, which I gave up on after wasting a bunch of money).
- KDP Select or Vella. I preferred to go wide (e.g., Ingram Spark and Draft2Digital in addition to Amazon).
- Medium. I have a blog and I’m not a fan of Medium’s payment scheme.
- Kirkus Reviews. Too expensive. Maybe at some point.
- Paid reviews (not really allowed anyway on Amazon).
- Blog tours.
- Selling books in person (plan to do this eventually, sigh re: necessary tax forms), or getting physical books into bookstores (still would like to do, but the length of my books makes that difficult.)
- Paying much attention to engagement re: tweets (except the one time I went semi-viral)
- Utilizing my backlist. I, uh, don’t have one. I have my two novels and a few short stories.
What I did do
- Interact! With people that I actually get to know! I’ve built up over 3000 followers as of 5/25/2022 and I think I can say I actually interact with a significant number of them. I did a mini author talk, I’ve done some flash fiction reading, etc. as well. Being a part of the community is really important and I’m glad to be here.
- Marketing. Professional-looking art. Very important.
- And more. See below.
The process, and what I’ve learned, and what I would or wouldn’t do next time.
I started out via NaNoWriMo, where you write 50K words in a month (basically a novel). My project just…kept going. See my guide here. NaNoWriMo taught me that even on my worst days, I was capable of writing – through a migraine, through terrible moods, stress, exhaustion, anything. (Of course, being very into the story helped – writer’s block is a real thing that I’m currently struggling with, but I recognize the problems and am working around them.) Once I finished my book draft, I sent it to a few friends for their feedback. They loved it, and suggested that, for printing reasons, I split it in half, which I did. I now had two books to publish, so I edited the first, hired a cover designer for both, and prepared to make the book public.
Then, the publishing process. I had no idea where to begin, so I started doing research. Mark Dawson (a bestselling indie author) had some very useful information, including recommending several tools (KDP Rocket and Vellum, which have both been an excellent investment, particularly Vellum). I also read the extremely helpful book Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook (Helen Sedwick), which I think is worth reading prior to publishing so you don’t miss any crucial steps. Other helpful resources included Writer Beware/ALLi, Ingram Spark’s site, and more.
As mentioned, I didn’t do traditional publishing for several reasons, one of which was a misconception about editorial control that I cleared up with an agent I know. That said, I’m still glad I self-published, especially as I have a lot of freedom as to what to do with the series if I continue it. This choice is a whole discussion that I don’t particularly want to get into, as I think both sides have their pros and cons, but suffice it to say that for me self-publishing made the most sense for this series. I may try querying at some point for other projects.
Writing and actually getting the work published are both difficult, but marketing is the big hurdle for a lot of self-published authors, as far as I can see. I admit that I did not follow…probably half the advice out there, for various reasons. See my list earlier: I don’t do TikTok or Medium or KDP Select or even paid ads (for the most part). I post on Twitter only a couple times a day. I should use my newsletter more, but I don’t have much to say and I don’t want to spam people.
So – what did I do?
For one thing, I thought in terms of principles/concepts, and looked at the “ecosystem” of the indie book world (I don’t love that term, but it’s the best I can come up with right now). If you understand the concepts at work, and how the elements work together, you can apply them across a number of possible outlets/methods of getting your work to the public. But they need to be cohesive. You need a strategy.
In my experience so far, these five major things have been hugely important:
- Professional brand/image and solid book(s)
- Research and persistence (and learning from mistakes)
- Mapping/understanding of the indie ecosystem
Please note that this blog post does not constitute endorsements or advice, legal or otherwise. Your results may vary!
Visibility is key. So your book is solid, an excellent sci-fi novel (for example). That’s the baseline, of course – a good book. But your book needs to get out in front of people. To do that, you need good solid artwork and marketing materials (e.g., Twitter copy-and-paste marketing text, Canva art, having an excerpt available on your site) and a strong social media presence. You need a mailing list too, ideally. But to really get your book in front of people, you need good things said about your book by other people (word of mouth) in primarily two forms: REVIEWS and RESHARES (and interviews). People often buy what their friends like. For this to happen, you need relationships. And you, personally, need a professional image/brand. Finally, you need a solid understanding of the indie book publishing ecosystem and how to navigate it: how to find book bloggers, how podcasts and interviews can be helpful, etc.
(I would like, by the way, to state for the record that this should all be genuine. I don’t talk to people so that they’ll review my books! I talk to people because I like them, and if they like my books, awesome. I legitimately enjoy talking to people on Twitter and have gotten permission for any reviews I use.)
In more depth (and a slightly different order):
Immediate visibility comes through ads and similar, and on social media. You need, first and foremost, a bold, eye-catching cover (that looks good at thumbnail size!) that works well for Twitter and other social media (where you have very limited screen space and need to capture attention quickly). It needs to be professionally done if at all possible – professionals not only know how to do design well, and have the tools to produce the proper sizing/image resolution/etc., they also know the market and what is genre-appropriate. They can also produce artwork/marketing assets for you. In my case, my designer gave me several sets of images that I’ve then used in Canva to make all sorts of marketing materials. I made sure that I had the copyright to everything I used.
I also have a repository of copy-and-paste text (mini-blurbs, for example, and reviews – see below). An example of a standard marketing tweet that I use:
I didn’t do any research (that I recall) on how to do marketing tweets. But apparently I was doing something right: see this blog post on marketing, using my book as an example!
Also, reviews are very important. I quote reviews that I have permission to use in my marketing materials, on my website, etc. Reviews can make or break a book, in my understanding – they affect rankings and people’s perception of your work. I make sure to ask people to leave reviews if they don’t mind – doesn’t need to be anything fancy! Just a star rating is helpful! – and then, if the review seems especially helpful, I get their permission to use the text freely in promo tweets and such. I don’t screenshot from Amazon or anything like that. Reviews on book blogs are especially helpful, as they demonstrate to other readers/book bloggers that your book is worth checking out. See below for more info on the indie ecosystem.
Finally, don’t forget contests and sales! And a mailing list, although admittedly I don’t use mine unless I have something to actually announce.
Professional brand/image and solid book
This is extremely important. People form impressions almost instantly in many cases. I did my best to have a solid, professional product with, as mentioned, professionally-done artwork. You also need a solid website.
You should ideally have a unified design scheme (“brand colors” but also matching fonts, etc.). I appreciate that Canva allows paying users to set a “brand” set of colors and fonts for repeated use. Now that I have a set of initial images, I can use my own design knowledge to have fun playing around with some of Canva’s tools.
Author Brand/Image: You “are” your brand in a way – I keep that in mind with everything that I tweet. I can be silly or personal online, but I keep in mind that it can appear out of context in someone’s timeline. Always, always assume that anything you say can be interpreted out of context and reshared accordingly!
Solid book: The books themselves (that is, the content) were also something I made as high-quality as I possibly could within the confines of my budget. As a self-published author, I am aware that indie work is often subjected to higher scrutiny re: typos, poor editing, etc. since we do not have the benefit in many cases of an editorial team. I made sure that the story/writing were solid, the typos nonexistent (I hope!), and the editing as thorough as possible. It’s already published, but I admit that I was pressed for time on book 2 and should have taken another week or so to give it one more edit. I learned from it and hope to take more time on the next project.
I learned a lot about what has worked for other self-published authors from Mark Dawson, as well as what is necessary legally from Helen Sedwick’s Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook (probably more US-geared). I made a spreadsheet of all the things I needed to complete, in which order, before launch and similar. I also made sure to check out Writer Beware (SFWA) and Ingram Spark’s self-publishing guidance.
Relationships and the indie books ecosystem
This last part is crucial, and is why I’ve saved it for the end.
I absolutely hate “networking” and all that. I like actually talking to people. I love my book, and I want others to love it too, and I think that comes across when I talk about it. I try to be a friendly, helpful presence in the Twitter #WritingCommunity (not to sell books, either!). For example, I have offered my book to reviewers getting started with their blogs (thanks, Calvin!). I also always ask permission to use reviews elsewhere, such as on Facebook, in Twitter ads, on my website, etc. – it’s a courtesy to the reviewers and I think it’s the right thing to do. As I mentioned above, reviews are hugely important, but finding and connecting to the people who do reviews is crucial.
I sat down and thought about the different components of the indie book world. It has, from what I can tell so far, several major ones: authors (#writingcommunity), readers, book bloggers (#booktwt/#bookstagram), editors/designers/similar, interviewers/podcasts, awards/contests, and book sellers. As an author it’s difficult to bridge the gaps, especially to #booktwt and book sellers. Where do you even begin?
In my experience:
General interaction with the writing community! → initial reviews from other authors (who are also often big readers and bloggers!) → podcasters/author interviews → then approach book bloggers once you have a critical mass of reviews/awards. Booksellers: same idea.
The idea is to incrementally build credibility for your book (and a fan base!) and then create a snowball effect with significant momentum. The more people who genuinely love your book (and interacting with you!), and the more you can point to results (an award, good reviews…), the more likely your book is to start to be noticed by the wider world, from readers to bloggers to podcasters to booksellers. For example, I went “wide” via IngramSpark and now can legitimately say that my books are available via Barnes & Noble (online) and others. That says something, since B&N is the one that chooses to make the book available. These things – reviews, awards, availability on major sites – are all signals that your book is worth buying. Example: Aestus 1 was a 2021 Kindle Book Award SFF Finalist, and I mention that in my marketing copy. I even have a neat little medal that I’ve added to the cover image in some of my marketing materials (and to my website – click on the “hamburger” menu above to see it on the left).
See below my earliest vs. latest marketing material – as you can see, I’ve improved somewhat!
Earliest (I’d put text over the first one):
Some tips for building relationships and bridging gaps in the ecosystem:
- Interact with other authors and bloggers on Twitter! About things other than your book! Try to keep marketing tweets to a minimum. Eventually, if your book is relevant, you can bring it up. If they find it interesting, great. If not, no problem. I met two of my best Twitter friends (ScharaReeves Press) by showing up to their author talk out of curiosity. I also have a couple of book blogger friends that I talk to about all sorts of things.
- Remember that authors are often bloggers as well!
- Offer your book to new bloggers/podcasters. It’s a win-win: you get a review, and they get their platform off the ground. Keep in mind rules (Amazon, cough) about giving free books in exchange for a review.
- Engage the writing community as a whole! Give author talks. Hang out in a Space on Twitter (they’re actually fun!). You are a professional, and can speak as one. Write blog posts with your takes on marketing, writing, etc. The indie book sphere, world, whatever, is very supportive – you can find ways to contribute!
- Many “indie bookstores” do not sell indie books, they are independent booksellers. There is a difference. I’m hoping to make a list of pro-indie/self-pub booksellers (thank you Black Dragon Books!).
- Add any awards etc. to your marketing copy (marketing text)! Don’t be shy!
- Apply to contests/awards! See Writer Beware for a list.
- Don’t forget about traditional publishing. I actually published a flash fiction piece through Space Cowboy Books (submitted it somewhat on a whim) and now I do the occasional flash fiction reading on the bookstore’s YouTube channel, which is really fun and is nice to be able to add to my writing resume. (Thanks Jean-Paul/Space Cowboy Books!)
- Join professional organizations.
- Do sales every so often. I always forget about this and it’s important. I just…don’t remember. Whoops. Thanks friends who have reminded me that this is important.
- Add editorial reviews to your Amazon page! Add a media kit to your website!
- Learn from what other authors are doing.
- Do not, do not, respond to reviews unless you have something nice to say. Don’t subtweet either (unless it was something egregious and reportable).
- Ask people for suggestions! Reach out to other authors in particular.
- THANK PEOPLE. Always. Seriously. Do it. And make it genuine.
To sum up, I didn’t exactly do most of the “big” things I was told I needed to, and I don’t know that I plan to do most of them. Maybe I’ve lost potential sales, I don’t know. But I do know that I have found a thriving community and a group of people who love my books, and to me that is worth so so much. I’ve found a marketing strategy that works for my strengths/weaknesses, my time, and my comfort level.
As I said, I’m not the best at acting or doing skits or otherwise doing much in videos other than, I don’t know, pretty artwork or reading chapters aloud…so despite their usefulness, TikTok and Reels and such are not really my thing. I love graphic design (Canva is amazing) and have done it professionally, so I’m happy to put together artwork for tweets and ads. I like talking to people, so I try to interact as much as I can online. Other people may be different.
What I do best is in-person. There’s a cafe here where I wrote about 50% of my novels – they were very proud when I told them what I was doing, and even prouder when I showed up with the actual books! They were kind enough to let me display the books there along with a little sign recommending their masala chai (aka brain jet fuel haha). They suggested a book reading + cafe baked goods sale. I need to fill out the paperwork so I can actually do that!
So – my thoughts? Write a good book. Make it, yourself, and your marketing materials professional…and then visible. Make friends, help others, and don’t forget to thank people. Understand the playing field and the players and understand that success is often incremental. Don’t give up – you are establishing yourself and your platform, and that can take time. Celebrate small and big victories. And remember why you started writing in the first place.
Special thanks goes to J. Dianne Dotson for explaining to me that I could, in fact, join the SFWA as an indie author.