Essentials of Self-Publishing: Expectations and Needs



Last week we took a look at whether self-publishing is the right option for you. I talked about how much discipline it takes to do it well, how diligent you have to be about your time and your process, and I subtly posed the question “Do you really want to put yourself through all that?” And, of course, you answered yes. So here we are.

Lesson Two: What to Expect When You Self-Publish

It’s far too easy to jump into something like self-publishing without a clue what to expect from the process. So here is a brief run-down of some of what you have to look forward to.

Work. Writing a novel and nurturing it through the process of revisions, formatting, publishing, and marketing is not an easy job. You can expect to do far more work than you thought you would when you set out. Expect to find yourself sitting at the computer for longer than you intended and writing more drafts than you ever dreamed possible.

Frustration. Yep, expect to feel frustrated at several points in this process. Whether it’s frustration that beta-readers just aren’t getting what you mean (listen to them, they have better perspective than you do), aggravation over finding the right editor and then getting heaps of criticism for your baby, the mind-numbing tedium of formatting your book so that it doesn’t look like a scrambled mess on every eReader out there, and most of all, the horror of figuring out how to get people to actually buy your book, you will be frustrated. You will want to throw your computer against the wall and give up. Don’t.

Elation. Don’t give up, because you will also experience those moments of sheer joy. Like the moment you click “publish” and suddenly your book – YOUR book – shows up on Amazon for sale. Or the satisfaction of getting the whole thing done, plus the pride of doing it your way. There’s also that awesome moment when you get your first dazzling review from a total stranger. See? It isn’t just your friends and family who love your work!

Boredom. And then comes the stretch where it’s not new and fun anymore. Book sales start to drop and the prospect of marketing yourself is right up there with voluntary root canal on your list of things you want to do. Surf these times out. They come and go.

Do NOT expect to be the next NYT Bestseller wunderkind success story! I’m not saying you won’t be, but you can’t start self-publishing with delusions of grandeur or the process is going to be even more heartbreaking than it actually is. I sold 15 whole books the first month my first novel was published, and I’m pretty sure I can tell you the name of each person who bought it. I sold 9 books the next month. 12 the month after that. It took me more than a year to post triple digits – and I’m talking low triple digits – in a single month, and two years to hit four digits. I have yet to hit monthly sales of five digits, but that’s the next goal. It takes time to build an audience and to build a career. Lots and lots of time!

Speaking of which, do NOT expect your monthly sales to be consistent. No joke, I had one month where I sold 600+ books … and then less than 100 the very next month. No idea why. See “Frustration”.

Double-facepalmDo NOT expect everyone to love your book. Bad reviews are inevitable. Really rotten reviews that make you want to weep under the couch and never write again are even more inevitable. Trolls are real, and they love to review books (especially on Goodreads, for some reason). I get at least one review a month from someone who clearly didn’t get what the heck I was going for with the novel they are reviewing. I’ve also had reviews in which the reviewer classified my Medieval novels as Renaissance or even Victorian, and someone recently thought my Montana Romance novels were set in 1870 instead of the late 1890s, then proceeded to ding me for not being historically accurate. People who have no idea what they’re talking about will accuse you of having no idea of what you’re talking about. Take it with a grain of salt.

Do NOT expect to sell a bunch of books until you’ve written a bunch of books. I know of very few authors of any sort who hit it big with just one book. In fact, I just recently read that authors don’t start to see sales results until their third book, which sounds pretty accurate to my experience. Series are where it’s at these days. Get people hooked on a world and then you can expect them to keep coming back for more. Also expect to market the first book in a series more vigorously than later books in the series.

Okay. So there are some things you can expect and not expect from this experience. But what are you going to need to do this?

Lesson Three: What You Need to Self-Publish

© Americanspirit |

© Americanspirit |

Just like you wouldn’t go out on a camping trip without a tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, and food, there are things you need to be sure you have if you’re going to self-publish.

A Good Book. You’ve heard this before. It’s simple. It’s also the single most important, most complex, and most elusive element of writing and publishing in any format. You have to publish the best book possible. That means an intriguing premise, dimensional characters, an engaging plot complete with complex yet believable conflict, elevated craft with consistent pacing and smooth prose, and that extra little dash of something called magic. This is what I’ll be talking about next week, so today I’ll just leave it at that. You need to write a really good book.

A Professional Editor. I and many others before me have harped on this issue ad nauseum, but it’s essential. You are not the best judge of your own work. You’re not even the second or third best judge of your own work. You need an independent set of eyes who does this sort of thing for a living (or at least a side-job) to work through what you’ve got right and what you need to work on. THAT’s how you end up with a good book.

A Professional Cover Designer. I know, I know, you’re saying that you’re pretty handy with Photoshop and that it’s so much less expensive to make a cover yourself. No! Wrong! For exactly the same reason that you need to hire a professional editor to edit your work, you need to hire a professional designer to do your cover. Because you don’t have a good perspective on your own work, written or visual. Fortunately, there are a lot of extremely reasonably-priced cover designers out there (which I’ll talk about when I talk about aspects of marketing your book).

An Online Platform. In terms of chronological order, this one comes first. Even before you’ve written your book. Yeah, you heard me. An online platform is essential because it is the primary means by which you will engage with your readers. It’s never too soon to start. You’ll need a Facebook page (PAGE, not personal profile. I’m always astonished at how many authors don’t have pages), a Twitter feed, and a blog. A blog that you post in regularly, mind you. I’m sure other authors will recommend things like Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, and Social Networking Site du Jour. I stick with the big three (FB, Twitter, blog).

This book!  Read it.

This book! Read it.

When it comes to figuring out this whole platform thing, consult the master, Kristen Lamb. Every writer thinking of publishing should read her book We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media and read her blog posts.

Patience. In case you hadn’t guessed already, this is going to be a long process. The process of writing the book, revising it, and getting it to publication-ready level takes longer than you think it will. Finding an audience to pay money to buy your stuff will take even longer. You have to be patient with the process.

A Strategy. It seems like you can just write something, publish it, and voila, right? In fact, this whole process is going to work so much better for you if you have a strategy before you start. This includes planning several books ahead, thinking about where to focus your promotional energy and when, and budgeting how much you can spend on it all.

For example, my publishing strategy involves things like publishing the first book of the next series before releasing the last book of my current series so that the switch from one era of history to another (Medieval to Western the first time, Western to Regency High-Seas next year) doesn’t feel like such a shock. Not sure if this works, btw, but it seems like it does so far. My marketing strategy also involves offering the first book in a series for free when I release the latest book from that same series. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Money. I know, I know, you don’t want to hear this one. But you will need capital to start this journey. You’ll need to pay that professional editor and cover designer, and some of the promotions that really do work require money. (Yes, I’ll be talking about that at length in a later lesson, rest assured!). And while we’re talking about money and strategy, keep in mind that you will have to pay taxes on your royalties. I’ll also be discussing that at length in the future. It hurts, but you can’t escape it.

Confidence. Above all, you have to believe that you can do this. You can! I know you can! You have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you DO have talent, that you are willing to do what it takes to improve your talent, and that you WILL succeed. The odds of finding success as a writer are not as long as you think they are if you believe in yourself and constantly move forward. Remember, you do this because you love it. Your passion and perseverance will help you to reach your goals.

And finally,

Humility. Confidence is great, but overconfidence will kill you. I’ve read a lot of really crappy books by authors who thought they were the shizz. They were wrong. I’ve also seen a lot of writers talk back to people who give them bad reviews or attempt to give them reality checks. Also very wrong. The only way you’re going to be successful at this is if you keep your wits about you and accept that there are people who know more than you do and everyone has something they can teach you. Eloisa James is one of the most successful and well-respected Romance novelists writing right now. She’s also one of the nicest, most humble people I’ve met and is always willing to talk to a fan, give advice, and even be interviewed for a tiny little blog (like mine was when I first started). Be like Eloisa.

Okay, that covers it for now. Did I forget anything? Any questions?


16 thoughts on “Essentials of Self-Publishing: Expectations and Needs

  1. Thank you, I needed this today.

    I tend to swing back and forth between confidence and humility (OK, cockiness and telling myself I suck an will never make it as a writer- today is one of those “I suck” days!). Finding the balance is really hard for me.

    What do you recommend an author put on his or her page if it’s up long before the first book comes out? I have my blog and twitter, but I have no clue what I’d put on a facebook page when I don’t even have an editor yet, and therefore no idea when I might have a book available.

    • Good question, Kate! I’ve found that I’m able to engage a lot of people and get dialog going on my FB page simply by sharing fun or inspirational memes and tidbits from life as a writer. The point of social media is to engage with the reader, because people like to buy things from folks they know or feel like they know instead of strangers. I also repost other people’s articles and blog posts on my FB page if I think someone will like it. Anything that builds a feeling of community.

      And chances are that you don’t suck. But I know exactly what you’re talking about! 😛

  2. Thanks for your post!
    Came to visit your blog because I am just collecting myself to start with the professional writing journey… I am not considering to write a novel but a scientific book about intuition in education, topic rarely touched in educational sciences. Your advice is important to keep in mind also when publishing your first academic book, to bring an alternative view, one really needs to get into “publishing yourself business” even though the aim is not to be a famous writer… I will be following your lessons and hopefully learn much. Thank you for sharing your experiences and good luck with the monthly sales numbers!

    • That sounds really, really interesting, Evelin! One of my undergrad degrees was actually in History and Education, and I was always fascinated by the role that the individual and intuition played in education. Keep me posted! Sounds like I would love your book.

  3. Thank you, for validating everything! Before I decided to self publish my novella series (I have 3 in mind right now), I researched, and researched, and … yes … researched LOL A bit anal that way.

    My question: have you found that giving away the first of the series is better at getting your audience to return for the rest? It is my plan, but I’m also getting mixed reviews and almost genre dependent.

    • The short answer to that question, T.J., is YES. Absolutely! I’m going to talk about this later, but the single most effective marketing technique I’ve employed is offering the first book in a series for free. I’ll go into more detail when I get there, but the reason why is two-fold. First, readers are very wary of trying out new authors these days if they have to pay a lot of money for a book they might end up hating. But free means no-risk. It’s a great way to allow readers to have the opportunity to try you on to see if you’re a good author for them. Second, one of the most important pieces of marketing is exposure. The more people who know your name and have heard of your books the better. That goes hand-in-hand with the fact that most people read an author because they have had a friend recommend their work. Your chances of being recommended by someone increase with the number of people who have your book on their eReader. Also, freebies is a great way to get a lot of reviews in a short period of time.

      But like I said, I’ll go into this much more when we get to marketing.

  4. I just found Kristen Lamb myself, so I’m trying to read fast!

    Another great articles, Merry!

  5. Hi Merry,
    Wonderful article! So much terrific information. I am planning to self-pub my trio of Civil War romances this summer, so I’m gobbling up as much as I can about the process before I actually dive in. Thanks for posting this!

    • Ooo! I can’t wait to read them, Tara! And I hope I can provide you with information you can use. It’s all from my own experience, but experience has taught me a lot! Keep coming back every Wednesday for more. 🙂

  6. Very helpful post, Merry! I’m not good at social networking, but I will try to follow your advice. And I will read Kristen’s book asap. Thanks!

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