5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Self-Publishing

My post on the five things I learned about self-publishing in 2012 is the first of a dozen posts by various indie authors sharing their insights on their publishing journey during the very erratic and exciting publishing arena of 2012. I hope you will read these each week and glean some great advice on how to forge ahead on your own publishing journey.

After a lengthy look at strategic planning in December, I felt it would be a good time for personal reflection on my foray into self-publishing. After seeing my first few novels come out in print, published by traditional publishers, over the past three years, I decided to venture into the waters of self-publishing. When I launched my blog January 1, 2012, my aim was to explore self-publishing and glean insights from both professionals and authors involved in this brave new world.

The prospect of being in control of my marketing and promotion was at once exciting and daunting, and as I explored and experimented, often confused, disappointed, and frustrated, I was also wonderfully surprised by the many joys I experienced. So here are just five key things I learned while marketing and promoting three novels I uploaded as ebooks onto various sites. I could give a list of a hundred, no doubt, but these are the points that really stand out to me, and I hope they will help you in your indie publishing journey.

My 5 Important Insights

1. There is no secret formula to success. I thought there had to be. I spoke to so many hugely successful indie authors last year hoping to find a common denominator and what I found were some threads of similarity, but not anything cut and dried. The face of indie publishing changes daily, maybe even hourly, and what worked one month doesn’t work the next. This led me to the conclusion that I also heard repeatedly by successful indie authors:

2. More important than anything: write a great book. Then write many more. I believe, from what I’ve seen and repeatedly heard across all frontsfrom authors to publisher to agents to publicistswrite a terrific book. Don’t scrimp on quality or editing. Put out the best work you can and only when it’s ready. And realize if you want to be looked upon an an author and develop a fan base, you need to write more than one book. I hear people say at least five or six. But, reallywhy limit yourself or put a number out there?

As writers, we should be writing what’s in our hearts, what we’re excited about, and tell the stories we feel compelled to tell. Maybe that’s only one book. Harper Lee only wrote one book and it won the Pulitzer and is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. That’s okay if you feel you have only one story to tell, but it is harder to build a readership and fan base on one book alone. But don’t let that stop you.

3.  Amazon really is the place. I hate to say this, but it’s true. I’ve asked dozens of successful indie authors, many who make five figures a month in sales (net), and they pretty much all say the bulk of their income comes from Amazon sales and particularly using KDP Select. Again, things are changing daily, and Amazon is the perfect example  A year ago authors could make much more money on Select, and then the algorithms were changed, and if you follow the buzz, there’s no telling from day to day how sales might go. Which speaks to my #1 point: there is no set secret to success.

But as much as I would like to put all my books on Nook, Sony, Kobo, Smashwords, etc., I found I had practically no sales at all on any of these sites although I marketed heavily. All my monthly income from sales comes from my Amazon Kindle sales. And these successful authors tell me it accounts for about 95-100% of their revenue. So until things change, I will stay with Amazon, but I don’t like many of their policies and predatory behavior. Hopefully that will soon change . . .

4. Marketing and promoting is hard work, and you have to be in it for the long haul. I knowyou don’t want to hear that and you have heard it before. Back in the day (well, still true today), it was a long haul landing an agent, sending out tons of queries and sample chapters, waiting, waiting, waiting, then waiting more while your agent sent out submissions, and years passed. Now we live in the fast-food-frenzy mentality. We want it now. We want it yesterday. We want to throw our book up on Amazon and get 100,000 sales the first day. Ain’t gonna happen.

If we were so patient as to wait years to get an agent and get a book sold to a traditional publisher (who now probably won’t do anything to market and promote your book), can’t we use some of that patience to take the time to build an audience, get name recognition, develop a reputation for being a great author? Last year I went in depth discussing Kevin Kelly’s take on 1,000 true fans. I feel more than ever his view is the best and healthiest (read the first of many posts I did on this).

As I experimented during the year, taking tips from other authors, I often got frustrated when I didn’t get the results they said I would. I thought by doing “everything right” I would sell tons of ebooks. And I didn’t. But what I did find was that as I continued to steadily promote my books (and Twitter is THE place to promote), more and more readers were discovering my novels, buying them, reading them, retweeting my posts, and posting reviews. In fact, the month I went from 2,000 Twitter followers to 21,000 (which you can do easilysee my post on Twitter Success, written by author Claude Bouchard), my sales went up a thousand percent over the month before. Authors can get neurotic about sales. Some even check their Amazon rankings hourly (you know who you are!). But this leads me to the fifth and last thing I learned:

5. It’s all about connecting writer with reader. Think about it: Why do you write? Is it just to feel creative? Is it to make a ton of money? Maybe. I wrote a lot of posts last year about the need for success and how to look at “success” with a healthy perspective. But what I learned is that the best way for me to look at my writing career is to remember why I write. It’s to reach readers, to touch their hearts, maybe even change their lives (for the better). Instead of obsessing over sales, I try to spend time engaging with my readers, savoring the wonderful reviews and praising comments they give me via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. It’s not about dollar signsor at least I feel it shouldn’t be.

Sure, we will get some bad reviewswe don’t write for every kind of reader, and some people are not going to like our books. But others love them. I remind myself to stop and really enjoy the feeling when a reader posts a review and says they were so moved by my novel that they are going to buy every book I’ve ever written and that I’m now their favorite author. Wow! What price tag can a writer put on that? None.

I hope my five insights have helped you. I have so many more, but I suppose that’s fodder for a future post. In the meantime, I wish you all great joy in your writing journey and hope you will continue to write for life. If you always keep in mind why you write, I believe you will find that joy! Watch for upcoming posts from more authors on the five key things they learned through self-publishing in 2012.

And don’t forget to check out the amazing writing workshops I am hosting this year in the SF bay Area. The best word of advice I can give to any author is to learn from the bestand the best are going to be teaching this year! So join us: Click here for more information on Writing for Life Workshops in 2013.

 

40 Responses to “5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Self-Publishing”

  1. Elaine Cougler January 14, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Susanne, this is a truly useful post for those of us wondering about doing it ourselves. I particularly took note of your comment that things that worked for one person may not work for all. It looks like having a great book and sticking to marketing it in many different ways are most important. I was surprised to see your comment about Twitter being so valuable. Thank you for your advice. For sure, tell us more whenever you can!

  2. mickey January 14, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Well-written, engaging, useful news . . . thank you!

  3. Seeley James January 14, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Susanne, this is a brilliant post. Over the last few days, I’ve been collecting my thoughts on the same topic and came to EXACTLY the same conclusions … only you said better (and first). Well done!

    Peace, Seeley

    • cslakin January 14, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      Thank you. Wait until you read the next eleven posts. What is interesting is to see the similarities and differences in the five things listed, from writers all over the world. I wrote mine before reading any of theirs. I hope you will tune in and see what’s said.

  4. Joe Brewer January 14, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Great post – because you express some of my conclusions when it comes to this thing called self-publishing, and I haven’t released anything yet! I look forward to more of Live Write Thrive.
    Joe Brewer

  5. Rob Kennedy January 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Nice stuff and thanks for the effort. I really enjoyed this post, most helpful.

    What is most difficult is finding readers. Short of advertising in a newspaper, I’ve found the internet and all social media useless, unless you have a name. I have been hard at writing for most of my life and hard at getting the word out about my books for three years. To date I have sold 39 books.

    I’ve done all those things that most of us do to get our books out there. But I am wasting my time unless I win a prize, get a book contract, or somehow have some media presence. I am trying to achieve all these things but nothing is working, so far.

    For me, the key to self-publishing is to have a solid ground to do it from before you start selling books. I have started to sell my books without that ground under me. And that ground is your name must be known or you will not sell. Not much anyway.

    I’ve spoken to dozens of writers who are in the same boat as me. Many have just given up. They can’t get their voices heard. I have not and will not give up, but it’s a damn frustrating path. And it’s especially frustrating for the people who love me, because they see what I can do, but I’m not getting out what I put in. And that will never come unless I win a prize, get a book review in traditional media or get a publisher.

    I wish it were otherwise. Maybe I am learning something from this. I’m now off to promote a new story.

    Cheers and thanks again

    • cslakin January 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your honest and sincere comments. I agree these are real, common issues. It takes time to build a fan base and readership, but it can be done gradually. Thankfully, with self-publishing, you aren’t kicked off the shelf after a few weeks. mark Coker of Smashwords has often related how many authors he’s seen sold only a few book in the first year or two and gradually built to best-sellerdom. My best recommendation is to get on a tweet team so your tweets can go out to hundreds of thousands of people a day (I use World Lit Cafe and it’s been great!) and to use hash tags for your books. You may only have a handful of followers, but if you use a genre hash tag like #mystery, you can reach thousands who are looking for mysteries to read. I found by increasing my Twitter followers, my sales, book reviews, and RTs about my novels grew in a huge way. I feel Twitter is the place, and so do most successful authors. You can add 500 followers a day (see my previous post on the site Coming clean abou my Twitter Success by Claude Bouchard). Marketing takes time and persistence, but I do feel if you write great books (and write more than one) you will grow your fan base. Only a few hit overnight success.

      • Jeanette Bennett January 26, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

        This is my first month as an Indie, and already I’m finding most of what you say is true. One comment on your comment about publishers pulling your book after a few weeks. The same time I was publishing my mother became very sick and I’m the primary care-giver. I have not been able to devote as much time to marketing as I would like. Thank God I’m an Indie and don’t have a short span of time to get noticed. It’s nice to have some wiggle room. There is something to be said for “long hauls.”

  6. Jennifer Bridgman January 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    So informative, concise and helpful, as usual! I’m appreciative for these blog posts…it’s like you are reading my mind! Each post touches on something pertinent to my own writing agenda. Thank you, thank you!

  7. Daphnée Kwong Waye January 14, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    This is a great post! Very true and helpful tips! I’m an aspiring writer, and while I’m working on my first novel, I connect with readers through a blog, and I couldn’t agree more with what you said. Connecting reader to writer… yes that’s a huge one. One comment telling me that he loves everything I write… and no amount of money can give me the happiness I feel right then!
    And success is a game of risks and unpredictability, for sure!

  8. Lambert Nagle January 15, 2013 at 1:50 am #

    Susanne, I too have had to rationalise my dislike of the total dominance of one major industry player for indie published authors. But Amazon just keep on delivering: in the past six months since we published our thriller, Amazon has introduced whizzy new e-readers to the market, added in important new territories such as Canada, and the company continues to make it so easy to publish, particularly on KDP Select.

    The main reason we went with Select was that if you use a professional formatting program like Adobe InDesign, Amazon makes life easy with their Kindle publishing programs. All you have to do is download a plug-in. When I looked at Nook, Sony, Kobo and at that time, Smashwords, I couldn’t see how we could use InDesign.
    I’m particularly impressed with the preview program available on the KDP Select Bookshelf now. I only noticed that facility when I went back to upload our book after some minor edits. I was able to preview the book exactly how it would look to a reader on Kindle Fire.

  9. Java Davis January 15, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Succinct and covers everything. I enjoyed it.

  10. Mark Knight January 15, 2013 at 4:44 am #

    Susanne, your are connecting with other writers as well! You seem to know exactly what some of us need to read in order to push on with that ‘long haul’. It is always gratifying to know that some of the things going through my head about promoting (why some of it works, and some of it doesn’t) have already incubated in someone else’s.
    Keep on postin’! We’re here, and we’re listening. 🙂

    • cslakin January 15, 2013 at 6:51 am #

      Thanks so much, Mark. I will just keep experimenting and listening to others and sharing what I learn. It’s so nice other authors are more than willing to do the same. We can now all support one another instead of viewing them as the competition. There is room for everyone and readers around the world looking for good books. My aim is to figure out the best ways of discoverability.

  11. Richard S. Levine January 15, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    Amazon’s great, but they are not my only source of sales. I think sales depend on numerous factors, many of which are hard to predict until you get your ebooks out there. My Amazon Kindle sales account for a bit more than half of my total ebook sales. The rest comes mainly (and significantly) from Smashwords (distributed to Kobo, Apple, B&N, Sony, etc.). I have one ebook which sells particularly well in Amazon U.K. I never would have guessed that, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

  12. Kevin Dorival @Courage2Believe January 15, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    This is an awesome article for all self-publishers. I just recently published my first book and I’ve learned so much about the what to do and what to avoid. Your #4 – “Marketing and promoting is hard work, and you have to be in it for the long haul,” is so true. Authors think that just because they wrote a great book that the buyers will come at a snap of a finger. You have to put in work & creativity. I had a play & book signing which was a huge success. I was even able to make it on the front page of the Sun-Sentinel, which is the biggest newspaper in Florida and all over the major radio stations for free. I guess having a marketing background came in handy.

  13. Michael J. McFadden January 15, 2013 at 9:14 am #

    Rob Kennedy wrote, “What is most difficult is finding readers. Short of advertising in a newspaper, I’ve found the internet and all social media useless, unless you have a name.”

    I’m guessing it depends to some extent upon the type of book involved. I could see what you’re saying above to be fairly (though not entirely) true for fiction, but not so much for nonfiction. I think I’ve sold most of my books to people who’ve read what I have to say on blogs and news boards about smoking bans and about the science (or, more precisely, the lack of science) behind them, and were impressed enough by what I wrote and how I wrote it that they then went on to buy the book and see what else I had to say on the subject. It’s a bit easier for me to do this than it might be for a lot of other folks since the actual motivation for my internet writings is based on my activism — the book is just a tool, a weapon of a sort, that I’ve provided to help people in the fight: I’d be posting pretty much just as I am already even if there were no book to consider.

    With fiction I’m guessing it’s trickier. Your only real spotlight to strut your stuff would be on boards and blogs about your particular type of fiction.

    Say, e.g. you wrote young adult vampire novels. You’d have to find sites about vampires and vampire books and characters that looked like they’d have a young adult audience. You’d then have to come up with some interesting posts, maybe about such things as how, in your books, you interpret vampire lore (e.g. maybe allowing your vamps to wear “daytime rings” or turn into giant bats or commune with other vampires in the scenario of being a troupe of actors staging “Vampire Theater.”

    After someone has run across several of your posts they might start to think, “Hey, this guy’s got some neat ideas and he seems like a good writer. He’s written five books, so maybe I’ll buy one of the cheaper ones and see if I like him.” Of course if you’re hoping to get recognition of the value of your work out there through such things you’ve also got to take care to make sure EVERYTHING you write is both interesting and well-edited. Heh, I kick myself at LEAST several times a week when I hit the Enter key too quickly and then see a blatant spelling error in the first line of a post! LOL!

    As for FBook and Twitter… no idea really about their value for us.

    – MJM

  14. Peter Prasad January 15, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Excellent summary of a year’s work and valuable to struggling writer me. All us Indies need a little more Indiana Jones in us, with fewer snakes and trap doors. Thanks for walking through those you did, and leaving a trail of bread crumbs we can follow. Huzzah!

    • cslakin January 15, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      Thank you! I think once you read through all twelve posts you’ll see some patterns.

  15. Adrijus G. January 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Great 5th point. I almost never see that when seeing authors and their communities. However if you look at Paulo Coelho, there is a message behind at least some of his work – positive message that people can change and improve. That’s why ‘Alchemist’ was huge! Great storytelling with a message.

    Cheers
    Adrijus G.

  16. Brian Beecher January 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    This is very useful even if it takes a bit of time to read. I would love to get my work noticed by more people, but it is very difficult especially if you are, like me, one who doesn’t have the budget available for extensive marketing programs such as the self-publishing companies attempt to hook you into. So, the jackpot question is, how do you achieve success with little or no funding available.

    • cslakin January 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      I think in general, the basic rule of advertising applies. I’ve had more than one successful indie author tell me this. So you need to get your name and book titles out so they are seen over and over. At some point recognition sets in. There are plenty of free places to advertise books on the Internet and in social media circles, but like I said, it takes a lot of time and hard work and you have to be in it for the long haul. If you can get one new true fan a day, in three years you’ll have 1,000 true fans that will buy everything you produce. For some that’s not good enough. they want it all now. But if you are writing for life and want to build a reputation and career as a writer, what’s the rush? The main thing to me is to write beautiful books that I can be proud of. Every novel I’ve written I’m proud of, and since I write “outside” the box a lot, I can’t expect to come out the gate a best-selling author. I’m sure there are formulas and ways to do that, and each writer has to decide what they really want.

  17. Peter Dudley January 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Good insights, and I look forward to the other eleven authors. I’ve had the honor of speaking to some local groups about self publishing and social media, and always writers ask me, “Should I self-publish or go the traditional route?” I always ask them a hundred questions in return, but it all comes down to knowing–really knowing in your heart–why you write. Before you can make the decision to self-publish, you need to know what your own personal definition of success is.

    I totally agree with the greatest feeling in the world being a great review from someone you’ve never heard of (my first such was from a country I’ve never been to)… actually, that’s the second best. The best is knowing that a teenage girl (I write YA) wrote her book report for 11th grade English about my book. That was probably the coolest moment (so far). I traded her a signed copy of the book for a signed copy of the book report. I think I got the better deal.

  18. Julie Chenell DeNeen January 16, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m a new new writer- even though I’ve been in the blog world forever, self-publishing is all new territory for me. thanks!

  19. Pamela January 16, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Fabulous post – I just self-published my first e-book. Thank you for taking the time to write these insights. Very helpful!

  20. Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle) January 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Hi Susanne, great insights. I wish we all had the magic bullet, but I do agree. Keep writing, do your best and engage one reader at a time. I also write “out of the box,” so there are as many people who hate me as love me. But the good thing is, if they love you, you are the ONLY one who writes that kind of stuff. I had one reader who described me as “…it is almost magical, maybe mystical, the way she can intertwine a few different ‘types’ or genres, into one book, yet somehow, they end up being the Rachelle Ayala genre.”

    It takes time and effort, but the journey is definitely worthwhile.

  21. Notti Thistledore January 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    Great post. I’m self-publishing under a pen name while I pursue traditional representation, and to be honest I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride (and reconsidering my search for a publisher!). You make some great points about having subsequent works to follow the first one, and in connecting with your readers. As a writer for kids, it can be difficult getting feedback from my readers, not to mention getting my foot in the door with “gatekeepers” such as schools and libraries.

  22. Lee Rawn January 17, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Thank you for all your insightful posts. Regarding promotion, for me, I find I have to take small steps, as I have a full time day job. For many of us, it is a balancing act between work, creative time and replenishing energy. There is so much to learn, and I have found your posts to be exceedingly helpful to my slow, and hopefully, steady progress.
    Cheers, Lee

    • cslakin January 17, 2013 at 10:23 am #

      Thanks so much. I work full-time too, and have a demanding Labrador retriever! It is quite a juggling act trying to find time to write two novels a year, work full-time, market and promote, blog, and interact with my “tribe.” so I hope the things I share that I do won’t seem impossible. I have author friends who leave me in the dust, but then I find out they don’t work a “job.” When your time is limited, you need to be really efficient and organized!

  23. Tracy George January 18, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    Great feedback on your experience. We are doing everything backwards and continue to upgrade as we go. My husband is the author and we both do the promotion. Just started to tweet. I just keep connecting and have met some great people in the short two months his book has been on line. Grahics is next.

    Thanks so much for your valuable insite.

  24. Tracee Ford January 18, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    Excellent advice! My book came out last week and I know it will be very slow going, of course, but it’s slower going than I’d like. I am certainly going to look into your advise about Twitter. I am very new to that social network and I am not learning the system very well.

    Thanks for such a great article!

  25. Stephen Woodfin January 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    A really fine summary of five key topics. I especially liked the comparison about the working and waiting under the old publishing model with the working and waiting under the new model.Rome wasn’t built in a day, dammit.

    Regards, Stephen Woodfin

  26. Renee Pawlish January 19, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Great post. I mostly agree about Amazon but I do wonder if some of the reason people aren’t seeing the sales elsewhere is they’re not connecting with readers who use those other devices. I like what Dean Wesley Smith says, that it’s a long-term approach to sell in all those markets, and the short-term of giving up everything to sell at Amazon may backfire for authors.
    As you say, it’s all about connecting with readers 🙂

  27. Richard Sutton January 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Congratulations, CS! One year down and many more, anguished, exhausting years to go! I especially enjoyed your take on the connection with readers. The s-word (success) is responsible for ruining so many good writers, I try to never use it in polite conversation!

    By the way, Skritz’ brother works for me.

  28. Stephen Robinson January 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    This is great advice! Thanks.

  29. Jennings January 23, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Great post, thanks! I, too, find that 99% of my sales are on Amazon no matter what I do. I spent an hour yesterday trying to find the marketing/promo outlets for Nook that are so easily found for Amazon and came up with not much. I have had no problems with Amazon, I just don’t like all my eggs in one basket, no matter how big the basket is!

    Twitter doesn’t work for me at all to sell books (Ok, I think I’ve sold 3), but it does drive a lot of traffic to my blog, which could certainly end up selling books. But as you said, there’s no magic bullet and what works for one author won’t (for whatever impossible to fathom reason) for another.

    Good luck in 2013!

    • Janine Donoho January 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

      Hits the sweet spots on e-publishing in an honest and useful way. Thank you.

  30. Liesel Hill January 27, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Hi Suzanne! Great tips. I had a quick question, though. You say you have friends that make five figures a month and I was wondering about them. Do most of them have more than one book bringing in revenue? I suppose the answer doesn’t matter a whole lot, but I’m curious as to whether there are many out there who make that much money with only one or a small number of books on the market. Just wondering. 😀

    • cslakin February 5, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

      You might take a look at some of the blog posts last summer and fall in my section Writing for Life. Many of the posters are getting these high sales. Most have at least 3-4 books, and I hear it said repeatedly you need to have many books to show readers you are actually a “real” novelist and not just someone who threw a book together and put it up for sale, which many do. I actually don’t know anyone with only one novel making good money off sales, but often they will have one book out of many that get the bulk of sales in relation to the others. One author I know made $42,000 one month off her books, but $32k of that was from just one novel.

  31. que son los Remedios caseros August 28, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    I usually do not leave a leave a response, but after reading through a great deal of remarks here 5 Things I Learned in My First Year of
    Self-Publishing | Live Write Thrive. I actually do have a few questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be only me or does it give the impression like a few of the remarks come across like they are left by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting at other online sites, I’d like to follow you.
    Could you make a list of the complete urls of your
    social community pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page
    or twitter feed?

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