If you’ve been paying attention to the book industry at all in recent years, you’ve noticed that book publishing has changed a lot. It’s no longer under the exclusive command of big, glamorous publishing houses with their three-martini lunches and total control over which manuscripts end up published and which ones end up on the slush pile.
Nowadays, writers can become self-publishing authors easily, regardless of a book’s topic, length, or even quality. Self-publishing has taken the book world by storm and the acquisitions editors of yore are no longer all-powerful.
For aspiring writers — and readers — everywhere, this is fabulous news! There’s a greater variety of books than ever before, in all genres, from poetry to “women’s friendship fiction,” which, I admit, I’d never heard of until a couple of days ago.
With this explosion in self-publishing, though, comes the realization by many first-time self-published authors that it’s one thing to write a book and upload it to a print-on-demand service and quite another to attract an audience of readers to buy the book.
Curious about what experienced self-published authors would say to writers who dream of self-publishing, I interviewed some of my editing clients and asked authors in self-publishing groups on social media: What advice would you give writers who want to publish their own books?
Here are 10 tips for successful self-publishing, from authors who learned the hard way.
1) Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need
Authors told me: “I didn’t realize how much time it would take,” “everything takes longer than you’d think,” and “it will take much longer than you think, especially if you aspire to quality.”
I’ve seen many aspiring authors want to get their books out yesterday, but you can publish a book fast or you can publish a book well; it’s harder to do both. Give yourself the space to make the best decisions for your book, hire the best people, and get clear on how your book fits in with your larger plans and goals.
2) Start marketing early
Every author I spoke to reported that they wished they had begun marketing earlier. The basic rule I’ve heard is to start building your author platform (email list, social media, a forum or dedicated social media group if appropriate) 6 – 12 months before the book’s release and to start your actual marketing campaign (targeted blog posts, articles, podcasts, and advertising designed to create a buzz about your book) 2 – 3 months before the book is available.
It’s not enough to place ads or to send out an announcement to your email list (you do have an email list, don’t you?) once the book is released. You need to have a community of people who like the work you do, want what you’re offering, and are excited to buy your book before it even comes out.
3) Invest in the book
“It costs a lot of money to publish a book” was another comment I heard repeated in my conversations with authors. And it’s common in online self-publishing groups for aspiring authors to ask, “How much does it cost to publish?” The answer is: it can cost as much as you’re willing to pay, and you (and your readers) will get what you pay for.
To be successful in any venture, including self-publishing, you’ll need to commit to going all-in with your project. This includes financially. Think of the book as one aspect of your overall strategy to meet your income and creative goals, understand how it fits in with your plan, and give the book every chance to be successful. The books that disappear into obscurity are the ones whose authors didn’t spend the time or money to help them fly.
4) Don’t do everything yourself
There are a lot of steps to self-publishing. It’s much more than simply writing your manuscript on Word and then throwing it up on a print-on-demand site and waiting for the cash to come rolling in.
There’s conceptualizing your book idea so that it’s compelling to your target audience; writing and revising the manuscript; possibly gathering beta readers and a developmental editor; hiring a copy editor; designing the cover and interior; getting it proofread; uploading the final product; collecting reviews; building your author platform; creating a website that’s discoverable through an internet search; developing and implementing your marketing and publicity plans…whew! That’s a lot to keep track of.
If you value your sanity: don’t do it all yourself.
Think about the aspects of the work that are overwhelming to you or that you don’t enjoy or that you don’t know how to do, and hire others to do those tasks.
5) Hire professional designers
It’s a truism in publishing that “everyone thinks they’re a book designer.” Several of the authors who weighed in on my questions cautioned against designing your own. The truth is that people DO judge a book by its cover. If your cover is “blah” or simply bad, it will turn potential readers off. After all, one side effect of so many people self-publishing is that there’s always another book to choose if you’re not impressed with the one right in front of you.
Good book designers have the experience and training to understand how to use color, images, and typography to create an attractive design.
And designing the interior of the book to be attractive and readable is not as easy as you might think: a good designer can make your book look beautiful and give your readers an enjoyable experience when they open (or scroll through) the book.
Spend the money to hire professionals. Your book will be the better for it.
(Pro tip: pay your designers decently for good work. A $2 book cover will look like, well, a $2 book cover.)
6) Create community
The first rule of book marketing — or any marketing, really — is to build a community around your product. Successful authors know this and start gathering and engaging their community far before the book is released.
You’re writing for a specific person: understand your book’s audience, then create a plan about how to get those people together and excited about communicating with one another and with you.
You can create community online using social media, Facebook groups, a forum on Mighty, or through other means. Or, depending on the type of community you’re building, you can have in-person events or gatherings. The goal is to have people come together out of mutual love for something (your genre, your main character, your particular angle on your subject) or a topic (for nonfiction books, a health concern, an experience, a hobby or interest, or a healing modality). This way, when your book comes out (and your second book, and your third book . . .), you’ll have a ready-made audience who want to buy it.
(By the way, this is also crucial if you’re pitching your book to a publisher.)
7) Use your book as a business builder
As I’ve mentioned above, don’t look at this particular book as an end to your publishing journey. Think of it as part of your business plan.
For example, books are excellent tools to tell people about your particular approach to a problem or challenge and to encourage them to buy a product or sign up for a service you provide.
If you write fiction or poetry, you can continue to publish and give your fans what they want: more of what they love about your writing. Successful self-published authors often have several books available: the more books you have (as long as they’re providing the experience your readers want) the more successful you will be financially.
8) Pay attention to your marketing and cover text
After you’ve spent all that time writing and revising your manuscript, you may think the writing part is over. Not so fast!
The title and subtitle; the back cover copy; the book description for online retailers; and the content for ads or press releases, press packages and other writing all needs to be just as good as your book. Unless you’re a professional marketer, you may want to find someone with an expertise in this kind of writing (or ask your developmental editor to help, if you feel that person has improved your manuscript).
You’ll need to capture the interest and the imagination of your ideal reader for them to stop long enough to consider buying your book. Spend the time to craft your copy to make it as intriguing as possible.
9) Build an e-mail list
An email list is one of the most effective ways to market your book(s). But how do you build one?
Create freebie add-on products and offers (services and perks that people will want) that parallel with your book in exchange for gathering your potential customers’ email addresses.
For instance, if your book is teaching people how to do a particular type of meditation, create a nicely designed product that has to do with that meditation (a nicely designed bookmark or postcard that offers a mantra or chant to use while meditating) and send it out for free if the person gives you their email address. Then add them to your email list and use the list to send out useful and interesting material that relate to your book and to your community.
If you’re going to advertise, advertise the freebie or service in order to gather the email addresses of your target readers.
10) Drop the perfectionism
One of my clients told me that she rewrote her manuscript at least ten times and that she actually has to stop herself from continuing to rewrite it.
Let’s face it, our books are our babies, and we want the best for them. It’s often hard to look at the book you spent so much time and energy on without wanting to change something. “Oh, maybe I could have said that better. Should I change that sentence?” or “Hmm . . . maybe the cover image is too small, should I tweak it?”
Since you can make changes to most self-published books fairly easily, it can be tempting to continually work on your book. But at a certain point, it’s not serving you or the book to keep obsessing over it, so let it go. It may not be perfect, but that’s OK. Focus on your community and your ultimate goal for your business and your book(s). Let the book be what it is.
If you’re considering self-publishing a book, congratulations! The self-publishing journey is exciting and fulfilling, and the community of self-published authors is helpful and supportive. I encourage you to find groups of other authors to join, whether online or face-to-face. It’s easier and more fun when you have people around you to support and mentor you.
Don’t worry if you don’t know how to self-publish: nobody did before they started. You’ll learn a lot and probably make some mistakes, and that’s OK. Good luck!
Melissa Kirk (WNBA-SF) is the founder of Words to Honey Editing and Publishing Services and the author of Depression 101: A Practical Guide to Treatments, Self-Help Strategies, and Preventing Relapse. She has been working with writers, artists, and creatives on writing, editing, marketing, and content strategy for decades, including 16 years in nonfiction book publishing, over 20 years blogging (yep, I had my first blog in 1999), and, more recently, writing and developing business plans, web content, branded marketing content, e-books, and catalog copy.
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