always learning

This is another follow-up to my original self-publishing journey post, to reflect on how my writing journey has progressed, and what I’ve learned self-publishing my second book. Mostly I’m writing this for me, but I figured other indie authors or future indie authors might find it helpful or interesting. If you’re interested in just the cost and timeline breakout, you’ll find that at the bottom!

*Disclosure: Just a heads up, the Booksirens link in this post is an affiliate link and if you go through them to make a purchase, I will earn a commission. Keep in mind that I link to them (and the others on this site which are not affiliate links) because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases.

The Journey

Image by Jordan Singh at Pixabay

So, I wrote my second book, The Gatekeeper of Pericael, as my first Nanowrimo project in November of 2017. I was revising Odriel’s Heirs after a bumpy first try at querying, and I was desperate to jump into something new. My oldest son was one, and I really wanted to write a middle-grade book that he might read one day. I wanted a story that would teach him how to be brave even in a scary world, and I also wanted a book that portrayed magic in a different way. I wanted to show how even the most wondrous things can seem ordinary if you’re accustomed to them, and that even something as cool as magic might take real hard work and practice.

After I had published Odriel’s Heirs, my real goal with Gatekeeper was nailing down a solid (affordable) process that I could replicate with future books.

THE WRITING. As with the first book, the writing came easily. I wrote about 40,000 words that first month, but then my second son was born, and I put Gatekeeper down for awhile to focus on life. I picked it back up in February 2020 just before I self-published Odriel’s Heirs, finished it off, polished it up and jumped into revising.

THE REVISING. This went WAY smoother this time around! I found a handful of wonderful critique partners via the twitter hashtag magic of #writingcommunity #CPmatch #Betaswap, and learned so much from them. I actually still swap chapters with one and we critique via discord chat most Friday nights. With their help (and thanks in part to quarantine) I was actually able to whip Gatekeeper into shape pretty quickly and started querying that summer.

PAID SERVICES. In addition to my CP’s, I also used MK editing’s beta reading service ($25), Beta Frank‘s query/synopsis critique service ($15), Charlie Knight’s editing service ($150), and L.L. Lily’s proofreading service ($100). I also went ahead and commissioned a cover from Illusstation on fiverr ($200), because this was a long-lead item last time. But Illusstation delivered the finished product to me in a month! So awesome! I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking for a custom art-style cover. (I’ll try add some more in-depth reviews of these services and others I’ve used in a different post.)

QUERYING. I got a few requests through #pitmad and cold queries (this time I built my list mostly using the free version of QueryTracker), but majority ended once again in “this isn’t quite right for my list.” This time, I had more of a deadline in mind for my querying journey. So when my last full request came back in December 2020 with the feedback, “this is a beautiful story, but I’m not quite sure how to sell it,” I decided just to press with self-pub again. Also, this time around, I only submitted to one indie press that I can remember.

Overall, the process went a lot smoother this time, but I do wish I had given a few more months for agents to respond, and I wish I had looked a little harder into submitting directly to presses. I think I was a bit scarred after spending years querying Odriel’s so I rushed it a little. One agent did respond after I decided to query with something like, “Oh this looks interesting, but it looks like you’ve already decided to self-publish. Good luck!” So, that was kind of a bummer.

LESSON LEARNED: Honestly, there was a no reason to rush through the querying process, and next time I would probably lengthen it from 6 to 9 months, and maybe investigate indie/small presses a little more to make sure I’ve looked into all the possibilities.

FORMATTING. Once again, I just used Amazon’s Kindle Create to format my ebook, I used calibre to make ARCs, and I used Amazon’s free templates to format the paperback and hard cover. Since I knew what I was doing this time, the process only took me a day or two. I do also love being able to do this myself, so I can go back and change things as much as I want very quickly.

SENDING ARCS. I followed nearly the same ARC process as I did with Odriel’s. I searched Booksirens’ book reviewer database* for bloggers interested in middle-grade fantasy, read their review policies, and emailed review requests. However, when I sent out Odriel’s, I tried to only email book bloggers who were explicitly interested in YA fantasy, hopefully even YA epic fantasy. But honestly, the online readership for MG fantasy is kind of sparse, so I had to broaden my scope. I sent Gatekeeper out to ALL kinds of bloggers: bloggers that said they, “read anything,” bloggers that were interested more in YA than MG, and bloggers that weren’t specific about what they read. I figured if they weren’t interested in the blurb, they wouldn’t read it.

Turns out, that wasn’t a solid assumption. 😅 I got a handful of bloggers who said in their reviews that MG wasn’t really their thing, but hey, they read it and reviewed it anyway! So, the end result was I actually got a lot more reviews for Gatekeeper than I did for Odriel’s early on… (Gatekeeper currently has 70 reviews with an average 3.97 rating on Goodreads and 20 Amazon reviews with an average 4.5 star rating) but I also got my first 2 star reviews on Goodreads… ouch!

I’d totally do it again though. As always, I’m so grateful to all the readers for taking the time to read and leave their honest feedback, and it’s more important for me to try to get the book out there than try to pinpoint only the most perfectly suited audience. (Honestly, getting an indie MG book into the hands of actual MG readers is pretty difficult.) So if someone’s willing to read and review it, then you BET I will give them a free e-ARC. What was super interesting were the reviews from people that had read both Odriel’s and Gatekeeper. Some people liked Odriel’s better, and some liked Gatekeeper better, which I really think just speaks to how different people’s tastes can be!

ARC SERVICES. I also used Booksirens’ paid listing service* and gave NetGalley another try, as well as enrolled it in Sandra’s book club. Since Gatekeeper is an upper-MG, once again, I did list under MG and YA to try to attract more readers. On Booksirens, so far Gatekeeper has 32 readers (9 of which cross-posted to Amazon), and a 3.8 avg rating. On NetGalley, Gatekeeper got 12 reviews with an average of 4.1 stars. This time for NetGalley, I used Anne Victory’s co-op which I loved, because it lets you pay month by month for however many months you want to list. I listed for two months, which leads to another lesson learned.

LESSON LEARNED: One month on NetGalley is enough. Roughly 98% of my NetGalley reviews popped up during the first month.

If you’re trying to choose between ARC listing services (Booksirens, NetGalley, Hidden Gems)… well… I need another post for that. Coming Soon!

PUBLISHING. Once again, I decided to start Amazon exclusive for Gatekeeper out of convenience. I didn’t get as much Kindle Unlimited action as I did with Odriel’s though, so if I ever write another middle grade, I’d probably just go wide… especially now that I know how easy Draft2Digital is.

MARKETING. With Odriel’s Heirs, I made the ebook free on Amazon every 3 months and then paid for a free promo marketing newsletter service to get the word out. Usually I got between 500-1000 downloads and maybe around 5 reviews/ratings each time I do this. This time, I thought I’d stack all my newsletter services into one free promo, and then go wide a lot earlier. While it’s a little hard to compare YA to MG, since MG readership is a lower, I will say I don’t think stacking the promos did much good. I still got around 1200 downloads and maybe 3 reviews/ratings.

Selecting the promo newsletters is a little tricky, but there are some good articles to help you decide like these lists from This is Writing, Nicholas Erik, and Reedsy. I mostly used the Reedsy stats to come up with the excel sheet below (which may be outdated) to help me decide. The ones I used for Gatekeeper were: Freebooksy, EreaderNews, Fussy Librarian, Free Kindle Books & Tips, and My Book Cave. I would’ve used Booksends/Bookrunes, but I didn’t send the request in early enough, and of course while I would LOVE to get a Bookbub deal, this generally requires getting some reviews under your belt first and going wide, so I’m still trying to get there!

LESSON LEARNED. Personally, I think it would be better to stagger the free promo newsletters every three months. That way, each time you do another one, your book has more reviews/ratings to attract readers (and also, perhaps the reading subscribers have changed since you did your last one). I do still plan to take Gatekeeper wide in July, but I’ll be trying more $0.99 promo’s instead to see how those go.

LESSON LEARNED. Also, I’d beware of any free promo that offers to promote your book as a “new release” instead of a “featured ebook” (like on FKBT), because the new releases get hardly any attention compared to the featured books. Just wait until you have the required reviews or whatever to do a feature book.

AUDIOBOOK. So I waffled on this one big time! First of all, I don’t know of many middle grade readers that listen to audiobooks, and second of all, I still really haven’t figured out how to market these things. I can’t control the price on ACX so they’re pretty expensive, and even after giving out many of my free promo codes, Odriel’s Heirs only has five audible reviews. (Gatekeeper has two.) I did use Audiobook Boom, AudioFreebies, and Audiobooks Unleashed to try to send my promo codes to reviews. In the future though, I think I would just stick with Audiobooks Unleashed.

But… for accessibility sake (and also, because I, personally, love audiobooks) I decided to give it another go. It ran me $175 to do a royalty share deal through ACX, and I still think it’s pretty cool. I do make a few sales, but in the future, I think I will continue to try to talk myself out of this.

AWARDS. So this is something I don’t think I addressed last time, because I didn’t even consider it until after I published Odriel’s. Awards can be a little frustrating, because most of them are “pay to play”, winning can be of questionable value if they’re not well known or respected, and they can be expensive. However, the Alliance of Independent Author’s has a great list of some good ones, so I did pick a few of the cheaper, recommended awards to throw my hat in.

Specifically, for Gatekeeper I entered: AllAuthor’s cover design contest (free), the 2021 Kindle Book Award, the Self-Publishing Review award, TCK readers choice award (free), the Regional Indie Author Project Award (free), and the Page Turner Awards (I entered this one on a bit of a whim, so we’ll see how it goes.)

Most of these contests offer very little in the way of consolation prizes, but Odriel’s Heirs actually won the Florida Indie Author Project in the YA category, which was EXTREMELY validating, there was a $500 cash prize, Odriel’s Heirs showed up (in a small corner) of The Library Journal, and the ebook is now available at a few online libraries in California and Virginia! Seriously, it was probably the best writing-related email I’ve ever gotten, and of course, it went to my spam folder. 😂

Friendly Reminder: Check your spam folder regularly!

All that to say, I definitely recommend entering a few recommended contests to try your luck, but it kind of seems like entering the lottery in some ways, so I wouldn’t get carried away.

EXTRAS. A few other things I tried out this year.

I did go in for a discounted AllAuthor annual membership + book listing ($79) to try it out… which (perhaps through user error) hasn’t been of any great marketing help to me, and I won’t be renewing next year.

I also commissioned a few animated book covers ($14), which look super awesome! But in the end, while they are beautiful, I didn’t use them as much as I thought I would, so I might not do another. But if I do, I’d still totally use Morgan Wright, because hers are awesome.

I made another book trailer using Microsoft Windows 10 Photos’ Video Editor (it came with my computer.) Once again, marketing-wise it hasn’t really been that useful, but it was totally free using pictures from Pixabay and the music that comes with the software. I did also add my animated book cover on the end, which looked fantastic!

Character art! Mostly I got a lot of free character art from entering in a lot of Twitter’s #artraffle things (which I totally recommend), but I also commissioned a piece from Kasumii (~$20.) These are so cute, I’ll definitely get at least one for each book. Although totally unnecessary, I love seeing character art for any books I read.

That’s all I can think of right now, but if I think of anything else, I add them to the list

JUst give me the numbers!

Picture courtesy of Brett Hondow at Pixabay

And here’s my rough price breakout for The Gatekeeper of Pericael (50,000 words). Just a disclaimer, though I try my best to make my books the greatest they can be, and to market them (on a budget), I don’t make a profit off of my books, and as of now, this is just a (rather expensive, but also fulfilling) hobby! 😊

Most of these things are optional for your self-publishing experience, and as I’ve mentioned in the rambling post above, I won’t be using all them again. I’m constantly trying to refine my process to be more budget-friendly and effective, so I’ll update again after my next release.

$25 Professional Beta Reader
$15 Query/Synopsis Critique
$150 Editing
$100 Proofreading
$200 Cover
$175 Audiobook
$45 Copyright
$74 Booksirens
$90 NetGalley
$20 Proof Copies
$79 Giveaway Copies
Promotions
$45 – Freebooksy
$40 – EreaderNews
$24 – Fussy Librarian
$25 – Free Kindle Books and Tips
$22 – My Book Cave
$10 – Audiobook Boom
$10 – Audio Freebies
$15 – Audiobook Unleashed
Awards
$29 – Kindle Book Award
$14 – Kindle Book Award Reader’s Choice
$25 – Self Pub Review
$27 – PageTurner Awards
Extra Stuff
$79 – Allauthor annual membership
$14 – Animated Book Cover
$20 – Character Art

Total: $1372

And the rough timeline:

Nov 2017: 40k of first draft written (1 month)
Feb 2020: Finished first draft (50k words total)
Feb 2020: Alpha readers
Mar-Apr 2020: Critique partners
May-Jun 2020: Beta Readers
Jun 2020: First pitmad
Jun 2020: First few queries sent
Jul 2020: Commissioned cover art
Aug-Sep 2020: Editor
Aug 2020: Sent out the rest of the queries (about 100)
Oct 2020: Proofreader
Nov 2020: Formatted & gamma readers
Dec 2020: Last full request rejected (with encouraging feedback)
Jan 2021: ARCs sent out
Apr 2021: Published

i’m wrapping it up, I swear

I’m happy to report these books have both disappeared from my local little free library and into the community somewhere! 😊

At the end of the day, I’m super proud of The Gatekeeper of Pericael, and the self-publishing went much smoother this time. Turns out, when you’ve got an idea of what to do, things go much faster! I think I still need to tweak the process, but I’m starting to have a few go-to editors, critique partners, and cover artists that I trust. So, that’s been awesome. One of these days, I’ll try to put up another post with reviews/comparisons of all the services I’ve used, so I can share my experiences.

With my first middle-grade, I also learned a lot about writing and marketing. There is still so much to learn, but I can definitely feel myself growing, and that is an amazing feeling. Through the writing community, I’ve also made some amazing writing friends in the last year, and they have been an incredible resource of both knowledge and support.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks so much for reading, and I hope this was helpful in some way. I’ll be sure to post again with my budget for my third book and more lessons learned after I release my first (stand-alone) sequel, Idriel’s Children, on 20 July. Also, if you’d like an e-ARC of any of my books, feel free to give me a shout, and if you have any questions, suggestions, or post requests, please let me know!

Till then, may the words flow across your pages,

Hayley Reese Chow