For aspiring indie authors
Self-publishing can be a daunting prospect. There is so much to do and learn, it can be overwhelming. But it is an Amazing journey, and if you’re an aspiring indie author on the fence, I absolutely want to encourage and help you take that leap.
So I wanted to write up my lessons learned and some generally helpful information (basically everything I’d wish I’d known) to help you on your self-publishing choose-your-own-adventure.
Am I an expert?
Everything listed here is my opinion based on my individual choices and goals. But, I will try to explain why I did or did not do things so that you have a little context for your own decisions. So for that reason, I’m going to try to briefly outline my publishing journey and highlight the lessons-learned I gathered along the way.
If you have any specific questions I didn’t address or would like to know more about something, please feel free to comment or message me. If you’re just looking for budget and timeline breakdowns, you’ll find them at the bottom. 😊
So, I wrote Odriel’s Heirs when I was 22, after I got out of college while I waited to go active duty. I wrote it in 2-3 months and the first draft was god-awful. This is not an understatement. But, at the time, just writing it was enough for me. I checked “writing a book” off my bucket list, saved it on a flash drive, and continued on with my life.
Fast-forward five years (one master’s degree, wedding, and child later) to 2017. With my first baby finally sleeping through the night and a little time on my hands again, I re-opened that first draft file. And… was pleasantly surprised. It was bad, definitely. But it was also fixable.
I rewrote the third act (1-2 months), sent it to my Dad and a friend for their feedback, and then decided to try my hand at querying. I figured I would never hear back from these people, and then maybe I’d move on.
What did I know about querying?
Only what’s written in the Writer’s Market. Which is to say, very little.
But I got a full request within 24 hours. Mind blown. Maybe people really would enjoy reading my book? I started digging deeper into the internet. And I discovered PitchWars. I threw my hat in the ring, because why not? And I got another full request! Mind blown again.
But I had already made my first mistake,
*LESSON LEARNED*: Send your MS to publishing/mentor contests before you query. It’s far better to send a bright and shiny, never-before-seen, MS than one that agents have already seen and rejected.
Fast forward a couple months, both of those full requests were rejected with “I like the writing but just didn’t quite connect with the story” or no feedback. 🙁 Rough.
BUT. I discovered the #writingcommunity on twitter. Through #pitmad, I got a couple of partial requests. Through twitter giveaways I got feedback on my query from actual agents. Through #CPmatch, I found a handful of critique partners. And they all pretty much agreed on the same thing—the beginning was slow.
Suffering from morning sickness again and feeling a bit discouraged, I put it away for awhile, and did my first Nanowrimo (which I discovered through twitter.) Working on something different was so refreshing and really reminded me why I love writing.
Eventually, I decided I would just send Odriel’s Heirs to a editor and call it done. So I found Mica Scotti Kole (through twitter), and commissioned a developmental edit, line edit, synopsis edit, & query edit for $500 (a steal!). It took her less than 2 months to get back to me.
*NOTE*: Typically, I’d advise against a developmental and line edit at the same time. After the developmental edit, there should be pretty big changes that you want to make, thus making some of those expensive line-edits obsolete. However, budget-wise, it’s a lot cheaper to do them at the same time so… you win some, you lose some.
Mica was blunt and honest. This is exactly what you want from an editor. An editor is not your cheerleader. They are the executioner of your darlings. They are going to make your manuscript bleed red, and it will come out stronger.
But still, after working so hard on it already, it can be hard to stomach. So, I put Odriel’s Heirs down again, and took another break.
My second son was born and while on maternity leave, I read Stephen King’s “On Writing.” It inspired me to start writing short stories and flash fiction to get some publishing credits and hone my writing skills on my phone while the baby slept on my chest.
100 word story’s monthly photo prompts were some of my favorites, though I never won.
Then, in May 2019, Teleport Magazine published my first short story. This was a huge turning point for me. I was published! (in a free online magazine… but still very exciting). There were strangers reading my work, and the positive feedback was amazing. It gave me the confidence to send out more of my writing. I started building a social media presence on twitter (and then later, instagram) to better market myself.
On twitter, I discovered the hashtag prompts (#vss365, #haikuchallenge, #Scifansat, #scififri.) On Instagram I found the #1wordpromptchallenge. This revolutionized my writing. I could be consistently creative on a daily basis, get my writing out there, and really connect with other writers. Wow.
With the support from the vss365 community, I felt confident enough to pick up Odriel’s Heirs again.
I revised like crazy, and gave querying one last go. Combined with my 2017 efforts, I think I queried around 100 agents, and I got 3 full requests and a couple partials. (If you need a list of agents/publishers interested in YA Fantasy, just let me know and I’ll send it to you.) Still, they rejected me without much feedback (i.e. There’s a lot to like here, but it’s not unique enough to market) or none at all. I moved on to publishers, and got 3 more full requests.
But I knew these would be my last. I was at the end of my querying rope. So while I waited, I wrote another book and short story (both inspired by twitter prompts.)
Then in December, I got a message on Instagram about a podcast interview for indie authors, and I knew it was time. The publishers had held my MS for 3 months. I messaged them asking if they were still considering it. No response.
So, I set up the podcast interview for 1 March, my new goal publishing date, determined to be an indie author by then. Self-publishing was officially a go.
I reached out to twitter asking for cover artist recommendations. Indie author, Brandann R. Hill-Mann, suggested Dominique Wesson. I checked out her work and knew she was a perfect match for the cover I had in mind. $200 for two characters on the cover. SOLD!
But I had made another mistake.
*LESSON LEARNED*: Do NOT announce your publishing date before you get your cover art. The cover art is crucial to a lot of pre-publishing activities, and I should have commissioned mine months before. Next time, I will try to commission the cover 6 months before publishing. Depending on the artist, this window will vary, but still I’d consider the cover a long-lead item.
Then the real work began. I couldn’t put off a website any longer. I polled twitter and decided to pay for a wordpress site. You can get a wordpress site for free but it will have ads and your domain name will be yournameorwordshere.wordpress.com. I paid $70 for 2 years for no ads and hayleyreesechow.com.
Setting up the website was easier than I thought. I creeped on some other author websites to figure out what I liked, but ultimately I really just wanted to use it as place to gather the links to my published work. After awhile, I also gave in and set up a mailchimp account to try to create an email list. I didn’t really expect anyone to sign up for it. But pleasant surprise—they did! Overall the website probably took me 4 hours to set up.
LESSON LEARNED: Set up the email list on your website right away.
I made a book trailer, which was super fun and exciting, but as you can see, doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic. But no big deal, because it only cost me like $4. I downloaded windows movie maker for free. Paid for some music off of Free soundtrack music, and used free pictures from pexels, pixabay, and unsplash. And voilà! Cheap and fun book trailer. Took me 3 hours, tops.
Next, I had to learn how to format. On the advice of another indie author, I decided to go with Amazon KDP as my publisher. I knew they could do print-on-demand, so I wouldn’t have to keep a stock of books or anything. And through their Kindle create software, formatting the eBook was a breeze. I did have to figure out what exactly goes in the front and back matter and what order things go in, but the Reedsy blog has lots of helpful info, and you can always just spy on other books in your collection.
However, there is one drawback of kindle create and that is that kindle create spits out a .kpf file, which isn’t really compatible with anything outside of Amazon. But, with a little more digging I found you could convert .kpfs to just about anything with free calibre software and a free plugin. No sweat!
*Minor lesson learned here*: Tabs are the formatting devil. In the future, I will definitely be using auto indent. However, if you do have tabs, it’s fairly easy to remove them en masse.
Formatting my paperback was a little trickier, but Amazon KDP has a manuscript template that is absolutely perfect. It takes some time to copy and paste your chapters in, but all the settings are already set, so you don’t have to worry about messing that part up. Altogether, formatting took me about a week (or 8-10 hours of solid time trying to figure stuff out.)
With the calibre, I converted my eBook into .mobi, .pdf, and .epub files. I was ready to send out ARCs (Advance Reviewer Copies.) So I quickly found that you could sink a LOT of money into reviews. A NetGalley listing costs something like $450 (with mixed results), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I definitely did NOT want to go down that path.
Then I discovered booksirens, which has a vast sortable database of bookreviewers. I searched YA Epic Fantasy and got roughly 1000 results. I read through all 1000 listings looking for Bookbloggers that seemed like a good fit.
This. is. crucial.
Be picky with your ARC reviewers. They can make or break you. If it’s not a good match for them, they won’t like it and they’ll give it a bad review. Lose, lose. Too many bad reviews and your book will be dead on arrival. So make sure your book is ready, and do your research.
I reached out to around 200 reviewers with a brief review request email with my blurb, link to the first chapter, and my fingeres crossed. Around 70 requested an ARC, and currently Odriel’s Heirs has 28 reviews on Goodreads.
Nothing beats that first positive review though. 😍 It is an amazing feeling. I’m so grateful to Julie @BookishIntoxication, for my first ever review. It blew me away.
LESSON LEARNED: I should have done this at least 3-4 months in advance of my publishing date. Some book bloggers don’t accept requests later than 3 months out, and others have long TBR lists. Earlier is better.
AND ANOTHER LESSON LEARNED: I was sending out ARC’s with a temporary, free pixabay photo cover. This was NOT ideal. A lot of bloggers rate a book’s cover along with the story, and a good cover may have generated more interest. In the future, I would definitely not send out review requests till I had the cover.
AND ONE MORE: Make sure your ebook is available for preorder when you send out your ARCs so you can also send out the Amazon, BookBub, and Goodreads links. This makes it easier for reviewers to crosspost.
Around this time I also bought a copyright for $30. Most people consider this optional, since your content belongs to you as soon as you write it, but as an indie author with no one else there to protect my work, I wanted to play it safe. Plus, it was just pretty cool to have.
Then, I stumbled upon Amazon ACX. I had originally thought an audiobook would be way out of my price range, but ACX allows for easy royalty share options. Then you can open the project up for auditions or look through the samples in their narrator database and reach out to a narrator. I opted for royalty share+ (which is royalty share plus a negotiated upfront fee) which most narrators will work with, and found an awesome narrator. Upfront fee: $30 pfh (per finished hour) i.e. $240 for this project – another great deal!
*LESSON LEARNED*: I was definitely late commissioning my audiobook. (It was finished 15 March, but the ACX quality review is taking forever). Ideally, the audiobook would launch with the e-book so your promotions could really cover both. But the good narrators have busy schedules, so I would definitely do this at least 3-4 months before publishing if you can.
Lastly I had to tackle marketing. Marketing is another one of those black holes of money with a million options. Ultimately, my goal for this book was exposure not profit. Writing is a hobby for me, and if I never break even, that’s ok. But, I also didn’t want to flying off the deep-end. So I tried to stick with a budget of $200… And failed. 😂
Mostly because I didn’t budget for buying books for giveaways and donations, and that costs a pretty penny. But it’s also highly rewarding (mentally if not financially.) Also, I highly recommend making business cards to carry around (I used Vistaprint). It’s a cheap and easy way to spread the word in person. And trust me, you don’t want to miss an opportunity when someone asks for your card.
*LESSON LEARNED*: Always carry around your indie author business card.
Then I used the Reedsy blog promotion list to determine which promotion services I could afford, and also the free ones to reach out to. (If you’re interested, I can send you the exact list I used.) I decided to do my five day free eBook promotion the first week and do a marketing BLAST.
I think this worked out great, but it was also highly unscientific. I.e. I don’t really know what worked and what didn’t as far as promotions. Also, there’s a delay in Amazon KDP reporting of sales, so it can be hard to track. But I do know that the Bookbub and Amazon ads were practically useless. (However, they are pay per click, so they are also pretty low risk.) My facebook ad fared marginally better, although most indie authors say they don’t see a lot of sales from FB ads. Hard to say. Whatever you do just plan in advance.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t procrastinate setting up your promotions until the last minute. Some sites require as much as 10 days notice.
I also ran across BooksGoSocial rather late in the process, but it seemed like there was good internet buzz about it. It was my most expensive marketing gamble by far at $89. You get a NetGalley listing for a month and some other things, but I’m still waiting to see how this goes, so my jury’s still out. Update: Basically I got 8 reviews and not all of them were cross-posted to Goodreads or Amazon. So at $11 a review, I would pass on BooksGoSocial. I’m giving BookSirens a try at the moment, it’s $10 to list for 3 months and then $2 per reader. At $28 for 9 readers (thus far), it seems like a better deal especially since more of those readers seem to cross-post. Also I’ve heard good things about HiddenGems but you have to schedule them about a year in advance.
I did run across a few snafu’s in the final publishing phase. First off, Amazon KDP will only let you put your book into two broad categories to start off, but Indie author Ben Gartner clued me on the secret to adding 8 more. Basically, you want to be as specific as possible in your categories. The less competition in the category, the higher your book will rank on the Bestsellers list. This article spells out the how to.
LESSON LEARNED: Call Amazon KDP and add your categories immediately on launch day. Their customer service is actually super helpful. Also, you’ll notice on the bookshelf options that they only list juvenile and Adult (no YA.) Apparently, they lump in YA with juvenile, and you can’t get in the teen categories unless you put it in the broad juvenile category. Weirdly, I only ran into this with the paperback (not the eBook) but whatever.
Also, I had planned on publishing 1 March, and I put that as the publish date for the eBook and pressed “go Live” early on. The eBook went to preorder and all was well. So when my linked print book was ready on 22 Feb, I also pressed “go live”, thinking it would also go to preorder when it went like in 24-72 hours. WRONG. It went no kidding live. I hadn’t even gotten the proof yet! But I also felt “unpublishing” it would be silly, because honestly, it’s not like anyone was waiting on tenterhooks to buy Odriel’s Heirs. Also, since Amazon takes 24-72 hours to actually “publish” your book, it’s kind of hard to time it exactly. Still, I panicked for two days before I got my proof and verified it wasn’t a mess.
The whole business took the wind out of my sails for my big launch though. But then, something kind of cool happened. Since the print book was live, a few of my ARC reviewers were able to leave reviews before the big eBook launch day. I actually think this was a big coup, even though it was totally accidental.
Also, although Amazon KDP says that linked eBook and print book pages should merge automatically… this was not my experience. So don’t be afraid to call them and have them set it straight.
LESSON LEARNED: When you press “live” on your hard copy on Amazon KDP that sucker goes ON SALE. So make sure you’ve received the proof and are ready.
LESSON LEARNED: Publishing the print book before the ebook so that ARC reviewers can post their reviews before launch might actually be a viable good strategy.
So, wrapping this monster post up. Was I successful? To tell you the truth, I have no measuring stick for success. My goal was to publish my book and try to get as much exposure as possible. After the first week(ish), Odriel’s Heirs had been downloaded 1300+ times, sold about 50 paperback copies, and had 28 positive reviews on goodreads. (As of May 2020 it has 52 positive reviews.)
AND a complete stranger sent me FANART!!!!!!!!!!
To me, this is success.
But, since the eBooks were free for launch, and I priced the paperback at $6, I’ve only made $50 from this book (as of 20 May 2020). I get about 0.33 per copy, which means I’ve sold about 150 copies. So, that may not be the success you’re looking for.
There is too much, LET ME SUM UP
ROUGH TIME ESTIMATES
In any event, based on my experience, here is my timeline that I will be using in the future. Every writer is different, so some of this may be not at all helpful, but I thought I would throw it in just in case. Keep in mind some of these time frames can be concurrent.
Writing rough draft: 3 months
Build a social media presence. (Sisyphean style)
Revise: 1 month
Send to Alpha Readers (the people that love you best): 1 month
Write Summary, Query, & Tweet Pitch: 1-2 weeks
Get Alpha Feedback & Revise: 1 month
Send to Critique Partner (your sharpest writing friend): 1 month
Revise & Edit: 1 month
Make a website if you don’t have one: 1 week
Query (first contests, then agents, then publishers): 9-12 months
Commission Cover Art: 3 months
Send to Editor: 2 months
Revise & Edit: 1 month
Send to Beta Readers: 1 month
Final Sweep & Format: 1 Month
Set up your pre-order, goodreads & bookbub sites: 1-2 days
Make your book trailer (because it’s fun): 1 day
Commission your Audiobook: T-3 months to publish date
Send to ARC Readers: T-3 months to publish date
Set up your promotions & ads: T-2 weeks to publish date
Best case schedule for this turtle writer: 19 months (Not including querying)
500: Editor (A must. Some reviewers and promotions won’t even consider your book unless it’s been professionally edited. Plus, the feedback is priceless.)
240: Audiobook (Jury still out – but super cool)
70: Website (Optional – a free site would work)
200: Cover Art (Excellent Investment)
35: Copyright (Optional)
400: Marketing (I definitely overspent here)
89: BooksGoSocial (This got me 1 month on Netgalley which got me 8 reviews – skip.)
28: BookSirens ($10 to list for 3 months and then $2 per reader download – jury still out, but definitely a better deal than Netgalley. Next time I’d also like to try hidden gems)
90: Books for giveaways & donations (I love this part, but technically optional)
45: Shipping for giveaways (same as above)
27: Business Cards on Vistaprint (recommended)
1.85: Amazon Ad (skippable… but low risk)
1.05: Bookbub Ad (skip)
31: Facebook Ad (I’d do this again. 80 clicks at $.39 each. Make sure to choose “desktop only” for the reasons listed here. Update: I tried running another facebook ad to see if correspond to sales and the answer is a solid no. Skip.)
25: Bargain Booksy (skip)
12: BKnights (skip)
4: Snicks List (unquantifiable)
10: Bookreader now (unquantifiable)
.99: Book Promo (I didn’t write down who this was)
20: Book Raid (recommended – one of the few promos that could quantify effectiveness)
19: ManyBooks (skip)
Things I didn’t buy:
– A proofreader (So expensive! I made do with the editing job, and read the book backwards sentence by sentence. It’s not perfect, but at $0.99 I think it’s priced appropriately.)
– An ISBN (Amazon gives this to you for free, but if you want to use other retailers, you’ll need this)
– Professional Reviews (These can be ridiculously expensive. Kirkus reviews charges hundreds of dollars. There are tons of databases of indie book reviewers out there. If you do the leg work, you can easily bypass this.)
– Formatting (If you’re not doing anything fancy, you can definitely do this yourself.)
– Book Trailer (You can do this yourself. Not super effective, but fun.)
– Other things I can’t think of right now, but I will update as I recall them.
Questions and Answers
I’ve also been asked: how do you write through the doubt? And I have a couple answers for this. Doubt is powerful, so it requires a multi-defense strategy.
- Write for you.
I love Odriel’s Heirs. I’ve put so much of myself into it, and I absolutely love escaping to the world of Okarria. I love creating, and the way it stretches your mind in new ways. So, when I get rough feedback, I try to remind myself that, at the core, this story is for me.
- Set small, achievable goals.
“Success” is a moving finish line, so decide early what your goal is and try to keep it in mind. I decided early that if I could publish my novel and one random stranger like it, then that would be success.
- Let yourself be a beginner.
There are very few things in life you can pick up and be immediately good at. And if you started good, you can still get 1000 times better. If you’re learning and persevering, you will get better. So just give it your best shot and rejoice in growth, not perfection.
- Rest often.
If you read the journey above, you probably noticed that I took lots of long breaks on my publishing path. Resting and being patient with my goals allowed me to re-attack the manuscript with renewed energy and objectivity. Also, for me, writing is my hobby, so my family and job will always take priority. But, all deadlines are self-imposed, so I try not to be a jerk to myself. Think of what you would say to another aspiring indie author in your position, and say it to yourself.
- Reach out to the writing community!
Seriously, no one understands like another indie author. I’ve found the writing community tremendously helpful and supportive, so be sure to check it out and make some writing friends. If you ever need to vent or ask questions, please feel free to drop me a line. 😊
If I get any other questions or think of anything else, I will update. But, I hope this was helpful!