A version of this article was first published here.
There’s more to being an indie than the writing
We come to self-publishing out of a love of writing, but if we stop there, and go no further, then we risk never developing our writing into a full-fledged business. Writing itself can be such a challenge that it’s tempting to postpone dealing with some of the other challenges in becoming a fully-developed self-publisher.
Certainly, without the writing, you have no product. But without the rest of it, you have no business. Now, not everyone wants to build a business, and that’s fine, but for the rest of us…
I published my first book 5 years ago. As I look back, I can see all the places where I invested in things beside my writing. If I had done nothing but write, I’d have several more books – but then, I’d probably be selling fewer of them, in fewer places, in fewer formats, and I’d be less prepared to support my new books as they emerge. On the whole, I recommend balance between the writing and everything else.
It helps that I have a technical background and some experience with professional photography, so investing in things like learning how to format my own books and make my own covers (out of someone else’s background art) came relatively easily to me. So did building my first websites, one as a publisher (Perkunas Press) and one as a platform for other writing friends (HollowLands). That held me for the first couple of years as I tooled up and kept my costs down.
But I face learning curves, too, just like all of us, and my biggest are:
- Product availability (format & distribution)
- Learning the deep processes of the current (traditional) book trade
This means getting our initial product out in all the formats (ebook, print, audio, etc.) possible, and with as wide a distribution as possible.
To do this, you need to think of packaging (publishing stories, gathering them into collections, grouping products into bundles, etc.), which is how my 8 novels and 10 short stories turn into 23 titles, each of which has sales.
It’s also why I made my first audiobook investment (self-narrated, commercially recorded) to gain the experience so that I could record the rest of them myself. This is an expensive process, and requires careful planning to minimize the cost.
The most frustrating learning curve in this area was learning more about the distribution options, especially as the industry itself for indie support came into place around us. You have to know what’s possible before you can go looking for it. (Even now, library distribution is still effectively closed to most of us.)
I write a lot about distribution in my articles in https://hollowlands.com/category/just-for-writers/, because if our books aren’t somewhere a reader can buy them, what good is it if he sees my marketing?
Many different marketing options are open to us, but none of us can do them all. Researching what’s possible, estimating the costs, and learning how each option works can be very significant investments of time.
The old rules of “publish fast, build momentum” are still true, but relying on that alone is no longer a professional approach. If we were selling toothpaste, we wouldn’t expect to sell much if we didn’t advertise it, and it’s time to recognize that if we want to be professional about book sales, we must take marketing very seriously.
I published the last book of my second series early in 2017 and devoted the entire year to making a serious advance up the marketing learning curve. I retooled:
- my platform (new, commercially branded reader-focused website KarenMyersAuthor)
- my author photos (not getting any younger — maybe I'll never have to do these again)
- my book images (freelancer-created Photoshop automation to make bookstack, 3D, and other images)
- my newsletter (more serious newsletter service for supporting landing pages and various campaigns)
- my advertising (paid courses in Amazon AMS ads and Facebook ads)
- my book backmatter (Google Analytics and other tracking).
I believed I now had enough product in hand (2 completed series) that it was appropriate to treat them commercially.
Was this worth doing? I think so. Here’s the result of doing AMS ads.
I sold more books in the first two weeks of January, 2018, than in all of 2015 as my first series organic sales wound down. And now I know a lot more about how to apply AMS ads to my new series as it builds. Facebook ads are next, and the learning curve associated with doing video for ads.
What do the professionals do?
I’m building a long-term business. It’s important to me to understand how the traditional publishers do it, not because I plan to buy properties the way they do, but because I want to understand the tools they use and the expectations of their channel partners, so that I can participate in some of that, too.
As part of my big time investment in 2017:
- I learned about ONIX (data sharing between partners) and created an ONIX database for all my titles, to share with my distributor partners who can accept that.
- I created four new imprints to support some colleagues in their publishing requirements for genres not currently part of Perkunas Press.
- I did some professional consulting for colleagues, which took me into areas new to me while getting paid to learn.
You have to look for these opportunities, and you may have to stretch yourself in the process, but you end up each time stronger and better positioned to move forward. I don’t have entire departments to handle things, like a traditional publisher – I have to do it all myself, or know enough to manage freelancers for the parts I can’t do.
Not everyone needs to develop and grow this way. I had hoped to write in the mornings and do the other work in the afternoons, but I found my 2017 plan was so ambitious that I couldn’t concentrate on writing while I was absorbing all the rest.
But you need to pause now and then to consider the whole business you’re in, and where you want it to be in, say, five years – not just the writing, but the entire business. You know your weakest skills – fix them!
Make a decision to balance the time spent on your writing with the investment you need to make to become a more professional business, one that can operate for the long term.