Lessons learned from self-publishing
I'm very excited to announce the arrival of my latest book baby, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim.
It's been three and half years since I last published a fantasy novel and, to be honest, there were times I thought it would never happen. This book has been two years in the gestating process! Elephants do it faster!! But it's arrived and I'm proud of my achievement.
In recent weeks, chatting to my editor and cover artist, I've made the same observation, I have learned so much since I started. What has brought this home has been the task of re-editing and redesigning the covers for my Knights' Protocol trilogy, which started this process. Looking back on that work, with a critical eye, has been a salutory exercise. I want to share some of the lessons learned from being a self-published author for other writers in similar positions.
The obvious lessons
A- The Importance of the Editor
Sure, an editor identifies all your mistakes (spelling and grammar etc) but I learned a vital lesson when I submitted Valkyrie to my editor, the brilliant PS Livingstone. I learned the value of getting an objective and honest opinion from a critical perspective. Pam read my novel enough times to understand my goals, I'd say she knew my characters as well as I did. Therefore she could challenge me with that knowledge. "Would so-and-so do that?" "Is that how thingy would react?" "Her voice isn't strong enough here."
You soon learn to reflect on the OUTCOME of your writing, sentence by sentence. (Like that one!)
A really good editor makes you evaluate the impact of your writing. This is what readers do when they deliver their verdicts, they may not always notice it explicitly (perhaps they shouldn't!), but they need to experience the impact of your writing and its consequences for characterisation, pace, mood etc..
In English lessons these days, kids are taught the structure of writing. For instance, a primary school kid will tell you about topic sentences. Yet they can be easily overlooked if you don't think about impact. What are you trying to say in that paragraph, what is its purpose?
Seth Godin sums it up, "Why waste a sentence saying nothing?"
The lesson I learned: Good editors enhance your writing, your novel and what you want to achieve with it.
B - The Importance of the Cover Designer
Yeah, yeah, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Unless you read books, then that's exactly what you do. In the last three years I've noticed how significant the cover has become for self-published writers. There is an industry behind it now. I'm going to come back to this topic later but I want to emphasize here that this topic is so obvious, everyone should appreciate its significance by now. Thanks to Phil Williams for his excellent design work of my books.
The lesson I learned: Get the best cover you can and spend money to get it. Cheap will look cheap.
Lesson No. 2: Quality, quality, quality
When Amazon established Kindle Direct Publishing, it became a means for anyone to publish anything regardless of whether it was any good. I'd contend in the SFF genre, the standards have improved enormously. Some of the reasons are shown in this post.
"Putting out mediocre books isn’t good for an author in the long run. A discerning reader won’t give you a second chance, and only good books encourage people to read more," says editor and author, Tahlia Newland.
Publishers are unwilling to risk constricted budgets on unknown SFF authors, which means we need to publish our own work (and thereby retain control of everything). Self publishing has encouraged the growth of niche sub-genres too. Locus magazine, the trade paper for the SFF publishing business, conducted a survey in 2019 which is worth mentioning here. On average, of those surveyed, 63% bought a minimum of FIVE books per year. (77% bought one book). Its a consistent figure and tells us these are people who know what they want, they will buy from traditional routes as well as self-published, that doesn't matter. What does matter is the quality. There may be a willingness to risk an unknown author but the survey showed readers knew what - and who - they liked - and why.
Within the #indieauthor world, there are big names who now command serious numbers of regular readers, just like in the traditional world. (Is anyone bigger than Rob Hayes??)
The lesson I learned: self published authors must compete with these big names. Readers will judge you by those standards.
Lesson No. 3: The author and blogger network
I'm talking about marketing and promotion here. When I first started a debate raged about the effectiveness of adverts on Facebook. I know some authors still do this. What has changed is the way authors and bloggers now share a symbiotic relationship and its one of the best developments. Why? Because its real. We consult our favourite book reviewers to find out what's new and exciting, what books you might have missed - and get an opinion from someone you trust. It's better than an advert because it's objective and detailed, you find out elements that influence your choices. Plus, by reading the views of different bloggers, you can 'triangulate' the opinions before making your purchase.
Here's a helpful article about using social media to promote your work.
Here's Dave Chesson's advice about social media for authors. Well worth a read.
The single greatest factor in generating this development has to be Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO). It gave bloggers status by respecting and valueing their judgement. It gave authors the kind of high profile attention they would never receive otherwise. It enhanced that symbiotic relationship. Let's use Josiah Bancroft as an example. His Senlin Ascends sold 168 copies in 2013. After his success in SPFBO, in 2017 he sold 5,600 copies. Four years on, it will be a much higher figure.
Asking bloggers to read and review your book is an obvious step. A more informed one is to choose those who have coverage. Bloggers whose views will be heard across the world, and ideally on more than one social media platform. These people who incredibly busy. It is why many have now developed teams to manage the enormous workload that comes with this responsibility. Looking for some bloggers? Here's my list.
The lesson I learned: there's great value being in a review/blogger team. I did that as a judge in #SPFBO and I now belong to the BeforeWeGo blog team, led by the amazing Beth Tabler. Reviewing books helps your critical thinking and this, in turn, improves your own writing. It opens your mind to new ideas, styles and writing methods.
Lesson No. 4: Tours
Another recent development is the blog tour. Some bloggers, eager to support the #indieauthor will organise a team to review your book and share their views in a focused way over a certain amount of time, porbably a week. They charge admin fees but this is not about paying to get people to say they like the book. (There has been ridiculous criticism along these lines).
Once again, the emphasis is on quality. I work with Justine and Timy at Storytellers on Tour, one reason is the quality resources I receive to promote the book. Plus they are super-organised and nice people to work with.
There are choices for the author too. A tour may involve a cover reveal for the book. (Remember what I said earlier about the importance of a good cover?) Now it's putting the cover front and centre. I recently did this for The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, when the wonderful Nick Borrelli at Out of this World handled the cover reveal. Nick promoted it, created the reveal on his site and even shared the number of 'hits' received. It's a brilliant way to get your book in front of other people as well as obtaining valuable validation.
The lesson I learned: forging those relationships in the first place takes time and commitment. It's not just worth it! - it is essential for your marketing.
Lesson No. 5: The Power of Social Media
It's so easy to lose yourself reading stuff on Twitter and the like. I focus on Twitter because it's where I find most authors hang out. But why is it powerful? Because it's been my school room. I've learned so much from reading things that have been curated and written by other authors and folk in the publishing business. Yes, it takes time but the alternative is to remain ignorant, naive and unsophisticated about a world in which you exist - the writing world. It's a bubble, like many others. But you discover trends, find success stories from others you can replicate for yourself. I knew nothing about it when I published my trilogy and, looking back, I feel foolish for doing that. I entered SPFBO too early. Having re-edited the book I entered - I want to hide my head in shame!
Recent stories (here in the UK and in US) have shown publishers placing expectations on potential sign-ups to achieve a requisite number of followers (30,000 in two cases I've read). It's ridiculous, of course, but it does tell us how the industry recognises how powerful social media can be in increasing audience awareness of you as an author - not so much your book.
The lesson I learned: to focus on one or two platforms only (keep a focus) and to maintain a profile of the kind of author you are. I share, I try to inform (like this), I promote (occasionally) but I accept and receive more from others so I can keep learning.
Lessson No. 6: The traditional or self publish route?
The number of books self-published in the U.S. in 2018, jumped 40% compared to the previous year, according to Bowker’s annual survey of the self-publishing market. In its report, “Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018: Print and E-books,” the total number of print and e-books that were self-published in 2018 was 1.68 million, up from 1.19 million in 2017. Bowker measures the size of the market based on the number ISBN’s registered and thus does not include self-published e-books by Amazon’s Kindle division, which uses an Amazon identifier (no data available here).
As I mentioned earlier, in the SFF world probably has a higher number than this. This niche market is rarely understood by agents and publishers in my opinion. But here's what Hugh Howey, who wrote the post-apocalyptic novel Wool, has to say on the matter.
"…I kind of got peer-pressured into going that route and ended up with a small press and everything went well, but I guess what I saw was, the way that they were publishing it, all these tools were available to me, so I thought, “I can do this.” Self-publishing, for me, was a way of getting published and the other way took years of querying, trying to land an agent, trying to get a publishing contract, a year from the publishing contract to actual publication, so it was never about making money or trying to get into bookstores; for me, it was all about writing stories and trying to distribute them."
Traditional publishing margins are so narrow these days that you need to be prolific if you want to make a career out of your writing. The timescales are glacial too. Don't expect big money to come quickly. Plus you sign over your IP to publishing houses who control what you can and cannot do, such as making the most of the audio book market from your work. Trad routes prefer famous names too!
This article in the Guardian is worth reading, with links to evidence supporting the move to #indieauthors taking control of their destiny. The self-publishing stigma is fading, for all the reasons I've outlined here.
The lesson I learned: I have spent far too much time submitting to agents and approaching publishers. I've attended course, met agents. I have been told my style of fantasy is not commercial enough for traditional publishers, it does not fit into neat little commercial boxes. And, you know what? I DON'T WANT TO FIT IN A BOX! I want to write a story that is my story not something that will make a publisher and an agent some money. How very unenterprising of me! It's why I stopped submitting and chose to focus my efforts on self-publishing my stories. It was a big decision but I'm happy I took it.
I'd call it a steep learning curve, wouldn't you? I haven't covered any of the emotional and mental side of being a writer, that's for another post. It's not a topic to under-estimate or undervalue. A year ago I had almost decided to give up writing, I'm so glad I stuck with it. It was that crisis of confidence that provoked me into re-evaluating my experience, this post represents the conclusions. I hope you found it helpful. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions, you can tweet me at https://twitter.com/PhilSpeculates
And, as a celebration here's what I have achieved in the last 3 years: