Learn from my newbie mistakes in self publishing

Or don’t. Sometimes you just have to make your own mistakes. But in case you might want to avoid a few…here are some of mine, transformed into words to the wise.

1. Don’t publish before you’ve established a platform.

I didn’t start blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, or Goodreading as an author until I published my book. While this is a fairly unforgivable lapse with a new traditionally-published book (which is likely to disappear along with your writing career if it doesn’t sell in its first season out), you’ll just have to play catch-up if you’ve published it yourself. Self-publishing is very forgiving of this particular newbie mistake. (Yay.)

I also didn’t start because I couldn’t imagine what the heck I would blog about before my book was published. Most novelists seem to end up blogging about writing or writers or books or their genre, or something that might conceivably be of interest to their future readers. It seemed to me there was a glut of that already available. So I waited until, well, I really had to do it.

Newbie mistake, but in my case I think it was fairly unavoidable unless I could come up with some niche I could become an expert in that was related to my fiction. And, frankly, I’m all over the place in my interests, and I’m still not really ready to be pinned down.

At least now my mistakes are providing plenty of material.

2. Don’t get demoralized by your rankings.

If you made the first newbie mistake, you’re likely to see your book rank somewhere in the tens of thousands in the first rush of family and friends (this is at Amazon – other retail sites may have smaller numbers to begin with). This first rush is never as big as you thought it would be based on what people told you to your face. (Shocking, I know!)

After that, you’ll be mired down in the hundred thousandths somewhere. And no one will ever see your book again unless you somehow point it out to them.  That’s just the deal.  Don’t brood about it. Start marketing, or focus on the next book — for which you will finally have a platform. Ideally, do both.

Pssst … need a pick-me-up even more than you need sales? One thing that makes me feel good, even though it’s utterly useless as a marketing tool, is having “Episcopal” as one of my precious seven keywords. This is a tiny category and that means it’s easy to float to the top of the first page with a search term like “Episcopal fiction” when I’m selling anything at all. It means I’m actually keeping company with favorite authors like Gail Godwin and Julia Spencer Fleming! It won’t do my sales a damned bit of good – might even hurt them, as opposed to a more popular keyword – but it has helped my morale immeasurably. In this gig, you take whatever little victories you can!

3. Don’t assume all your friends and family will rush to review it.

They just won’t, just as real readers generally only include a tiny percentage of reviewers. Most people are not comfortable reviewing, especially if they feel they can’t say anything negative at all because they know you. Some people are particularly uncomfortable about it specifically because they DO know you (you can help with both of these by assuring them that you really don’t mind a four-star review or a disclaimer about your relationship – assuming you really mean that, and won’t sulk about it – and be honest with yourself, or you’re not being fair to them).

The reviews you do get may not help in exactly the way you had envisioned. Get over it. Realize that you are blessed by ANY positive review. A lot of mine mention beach reading, which was great in June. Now it’s September. This just means I need to get more reviews.

4. Go out and beat the bushes for impartial reviews from thorough reviewers.

You’re self-published. This is your job. Traditional book reviewers are not going to waste their time on you unless you become a phenomenon, nor should they. Maybe your local paper will take on the local interest angle, but consider yourself lucky if that happens. Kirkus and PW and so forth will happily take your money, and maybe you’ll be one of the rare self-published souls to earn a starred review or some recognition. However, they often don’t star even my all-time favorite traditionally-published books, so I don’t like my chances.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get reviews. There are dozens of groups and web sites and blogs where you can request reviews on Facebook. I think it may be more effective, though, to trawl among the reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, especially people who have written interesting, thorough reviews of books you love (or hate the same way they do). Not counting my friend Nandini, who compared my book to Charlotte Bronte’s (swoon!), the person who gave me my favorite review so far at Goodreads was someone I asked just because I so enjoyed her review of someone else’s book. (She compared my writing to Iris Murdoch’s, which is funny because I’ve picked up lots of Irish Murdoch novels over the years and always decided nah, not right now. Guess I’d better try again.)

By the way, avoid “trading” reviews. How can you be certain you’ll like the other author’s book? There’s a reason self-published “five-star” books are often regarded with suspicion, and it’s because of this organized review trading.

If you have the budget for it, use NetGalley to save yourself a lot of trouble. I’m definitely going that route next time. I didn’t this time around and I’ve done okay, but it was a hard slog. (Also, next time I expect my book to be a bit controversial, so I’m going to need a higher volume of reviews to make up for the people who hate it.)

Hopefully, Amazon will allow pre-ordering for indie publishers one of these days, since that makes all the difference as you gather pre-publication reviews. If they don’t by the time I publish another title, I may go with Smashwords first.

5. Don’t fail to read all the fine print. Then read it again and imagine the worst case scenario.

This applies in all your dealings with giant impersonal commercial entities that shall not be named. Don’t expect flexibility, kindness, humanity, or clear answers that don’t simply repeat the boilerplate language you already tried to parse the first time around and got wrong. Just know that even if there’s a possibility you made an honest mistake, there will probably be no mercy shown.

Try to get a clear answer before you do anything if only to document that you didn’t get a clear answer, not that it will matter. You could still get squashed by a giant foot at the worst possible time. If so, forgive yourself for getting it wrong, apologize to anyone who deserves an apology, and move on.

6. Keep track of every single marketing effort.

Did you submit your book to this web site or that Facebook page? When? Do you need to notify them because you changed a price or did something else that changed the deal? (Perhaps a giant foot suddenly came down and squashed you?) How do you contact them?

Put together a spreadsheet and take careful notes. You think you’ll remember, or you’ll find it in your sent mail, but you might not, especially when you’re in the panicked state of having-just-been-squashed-by-a-giant-foot.

7. Don’t freak out because you didn’t take advantage of some amazing strategy!

The internet and the bookstores are full of advice about all the various opportunities self-published authors are failing to take advantage of every day. Things you didn’t put in your book. Things you didn’t put on your web site.  Things you didn’t put on your cover, or stupidly DID put on your cover. Your purchase of this versus your purchase of that. Failure to network here or friend there. The keyword strategy that would have immediately shot you to the top of the bestseller’s list! The hot new SEO program that would have guaranteed you a thousand new sales in one week! Passive income that pours in without you lifting a finger!

Does something sound like it might be worth trying without requiring a big investment? Okay, so take a deep breath, think about it, maybe try it out. Just test it, if you can. One thing at a time. If you can figure out how, try doing an A/B split (test one version versus another). Try the winner with different slices of the audiences. When you find something that clearly works, roll it out, but keep testing. That is the simple secret of all direct marketing success in the real world. Traditional authors can do this with their own marketing efforts, but they don’t get to play with price or change covers or copy at will. Indie authors can do whatever they want, within reason. (Better keep good records, though, so you can figure out what it means when you’re done. And watch out for those giant feet!)

Is something ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED TO WORK? That’s a huckster claim made by someone who understands effective (if not entirely legal) copywriting. Even if there might be a few kernels of truth being offered, never lay out good money for “guaranteed” riches and you will avoid a lot of pain in this world. On the other hand, sensible advertising for which you can see results may be necessary if you want your book to succeed. Start small and test to see if it works. Do the math and see if it really works in a sustainable way, unless you have money to burn.

I got to see first-hand in my first free promotion what a difference it made to do some modest advertising, because most of it didn’t kick in for awhile: it made a huge difference. Whether that will pay off in actual sales down the road is another question. I have already gained new reviews, so I consider that a win of some kind.

8. Don’t stop writing.

Actually, I’m making this mistake right now, but I knew that would happen when I signed up to teach four classes instead of two this semester. Sometimes financial reality trumps writing time. But a nice cold winter without any garden to care for and the usual reduction in courses that comes  with spring semester may mean more free time. I’ll catch up then by setting ambitious deadlines for myself. I have to, or I’ll pay a hefty price for this inactivity.

If you believe in your work, you have to find a way to keep doing it. That’s why you’re going through all this hassle in the first place, right? That’s the most basic rule of all. (Not that it’s anyone’s business but your own, really.)

9. Don’t make it ALL about your writing.

Those four classes I’m teaching also happen to be the balm of my existence right now. My friends have been so kind, but it’s actually when I’m teaching that I completely forget about any giant feet that might have recently come down to squash me. I get to just focus on my students as writers and forget about myself as one.

Find something that allows you to focus completely on someone other than yourself for at least some part of the day. It’s just good for you.

Do you have any advice to share from your own newbie mistakes?