If I Was Starting Over as an Indie Publisher

indie author starting overI’ve been publishing for just under three years now, so although not a grizzled veteran of the publishing wars, I’m not a noob, either. Like most of us, I hang out in a lot of the places writers gather: internet message boards, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Google+ groups, etc. It seems inevitable, when I meet someone who is new to self-publishing, that I get some version of this speech: “You were lucky. You got in while “free” was still a goldmine/when reviews were easier to get/when the competition wasn’t so tough.”

I don’t feel defensive when I hear that, because, maybe they’re right. Maybe, if I was launching my first book into today’s climate, I would struggle mightily to get any traction at all. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered — what would I do if I was starting completely over?

Some things I would do exactly the same. I hired a professional editor, proofreader, cover designer, and formatter right from the beginning. My writing may not have been my best, but, aside from Harper Lee, who produces a masterpiece their first time up to the plate? Having these pros on my side gave me a leg up over many of the unedited, unproofread books with covers that were done in the Createspace cover creator.

So, with the best product I was capable of creating, what would I do next? The first thing is, I wouldn’t worry about making money with it. How’s that for a recipe for success? Spend lots on a pro support team, then don’t worry about making any of it back. Yeah, I lose money on every book, but I make up for it in volume. *cue rimshot*

Here’s what I would do, step-by-step.

Build a platform. I would use that first book as a calling card to begin building my platform. Heck, I would be tempted to make it permafree, just to remove any barrier to access my writing, while I worked hard on getting more product out there. The biggest thing I would do would be to get my mailing list going on day one. I had given away 100,000 books before I figured that out the first time. That’s a lot of lost opportunities. I would sign up with Mailchimp or AWeber, then put links to my New Release Alert List at the front and back of that first book. Every name I get on that list early on will help me be more successful down the road.

I’d start my Street Team immediately. One of the biggest advantages I have right now is that I have readers who will leave reviews right after I release something new. That offers not only social proof, but also gives me options to promote the book while it is a New Release, taking full advantage of algorithms during the 30-Day Cliff. I would work immediately on finding a few ARC readers that I can begin building into my street team. Someone writes me an email or sends me a FB message, telling me they loved a story? I would fire back with the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of my street team.

Consider Writing Shorter. I would also try writing shorter after that first full-length book. I am not a quick writer, so I do well to get two full-length books out in a year. I’d like my Amazon Author Page to look a little less forlorn, though, so I would write some short stories and novellas to fill it up. I essentially did that last year and released seven shorter titles. When someone hit my Amazon page, I looked like a busy, full-time author. Also, by sending out newsletters to my mailing list that often, I stayed top-of-consciousness in my reader’s minds, not to mention that the Amazon algorithms seem to benefit those who publish more often.

Would I use Select? This seems to be the question most beginning self-pubbers struggle with the most. I’m not sure it matters. Instead, what does matter is that I take advantage of whichever direction I go. If I go wide, then I need to promote links on my website, blog, and Facebook, to Kobo, iBooks, Nook, etc., and not just Amazon. On the other hand, if I go into Select, I’m going to focus on using my free days to build my presence there until I’m ready to spread my wings.

Would I write a series? Probably not right off the bat. If I do, and that series tanks, I’ve got an awful lot of my resources and time tied up to an anchor that’s dragging me down. Series are a wonderful vehicle, but beyond making the first in the series permafree, each new entry is often limited to people who read your first book. I think series are the key to becoming a full-time writer (says the man who doesn’t have an ongoing series at the moment) but I think it’s better to get your feet wet first.

Stay Nimble. More than anything, I would read, study, and be ready to change directions at a moment’s notice. In my few years in the biz, I’ve seen Select come into the marketplace, become the holy grail, lose effectiveness, gain some back, then lose it again. A little startup promo site called Bookbub gave away free slots, then became popular, then became almost impossible to get into. Running Facebook ads appears to be the next possible promotional wave, but if you think that is a permanent solution, you haven’t been paying attention. Something new is always on the horizon. As indies, that’s our great advantage. Changing ideas in traditional publishing is like turning the Titanic. You can spin the wheel, but it’s gonna be a long time before the direction changes. I can change promo strategies, pricing, release schedules, cover styles, genres, whenever I want. I would be nimble — especially if I was starting over.

What would you do differently?

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon hails from Mossyrock, Washington — the setting for his first two full-length books, Feels Like the First Time and Both Sides Now. His newest release is Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. By day he works in real estate with a side of public speaking. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

53 thoughts on “If I Was Starting Over as an Indie Publisher”

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve been writing for a while but never did much in the way of marketing. I’m just finishing up a series (oh, no!) and am looking for ways to market it. I’m hanging on to this for the not-so-distant time when I’m done with this series.

    1. Congrats on finishing a series. That’s something I haven’t gotten the hang of yet. 🙂

    1. I think that helped me more than anything. Having a good and active FB page has always made me feel like I have my own cheering section – something most of us need from time to time. 🙂

  2. Good post, Shawn. We can always learn so much from the path we fumbled through and the lessons learned along the way. How nice if we could keep some of those coming up behind us from falling into the potholes. Luckily, no experience is ever wasted!

    1. My mistakes have definitely outnumbered my smart moves to this point! Thank you, Melissa!

  3. Excellent post, Shawn. From my little bit of time observing indie publishing, I think your main point, at least as I see it, is that things are constantly changing and to watch, learn, experiment, and adapt. Your advice to start building a mailing list from the start is especially apropos. The methods that work best for finding new readers willing to give you a try are constantly changing, but that newsletter is the key to keeping the readers who like what you do so you aren’t chasing them with every book, too.

    1. Dang right, BigAl – the newsletter thing is something I’ve been meaning to start, but writing and blogging take up so much time.

      I need a decent scheduler – or a full time PA.

      🙂

    2. You’re right Al. I launched my first four projects with no mailing list at all – just my Facebook page and a prayer. Every release I’ve had since then has been better than the one before it, because my mailing list is growing. You are spot on, as usual.

  4. Excellent points, Shawn. I’d have started with the email list and built a street team. Still working on that. And staying flexible is SO important!

    1. I’m glad it’s doing well now for you, Lynne. It can be a great discovery tool.

  5. Outside a mailing list, and I’m still not sure about the value of it, the most important steps to take would be to write the best book possible and use professional resources to take it to the next level. Also, writers need to continue to hunt down opportunities on line (and elsewhere – their own communities, libraries, etc.) to increase their visibility.

    As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about an upcoming event and how I can promote it. Since I’ve been invited to read from my novel, A CRY FROM THE DEEP, in Spirit Square (a large outdoor space used by bands, etc.) at the River Arts Festival in Campbell River, I should take advantage and contact a local radio station and offer to talk about my book. There are so many ways to get the word out. The problem is that I’d rather be writing but as an indie author, I know if I don’t market, my books will slowly fade into oblivion.

    1. I’ve seen friends get diminishing returns with permafree over time, but at least initially, it can be an incredible boost to the rest of the series. Good luck!

  6. Great advice, Shawn. I wish I’d postponed getting my book series out there; it’s just too hard to market right off the bat. Also, like you, I’d try to write shorter books–mine are all at least 90,000 words or more. In regard to ARCs and Street Teams, however, it might be counterproductive. Reviews left on Amazon are undergoing strict scrutiny, especially those that aren’t “verified purchases.” In today’s climate, It’s hard to know what will work best or how to play the game when the rules keep changing…

    1. Ultimately, that’s my best advice – for myself and all of us: roll with the changes.

  7. Interesting post! I’m thinking things ARE harder (BookBub is a great example). But I also think we all learn by doing and we need to forgive ourselves for not being overnight successes in this rapidly changing industry. One thing I’m hoping to do this summer is take advantage of my free trial of Lynda.com to learn some social marketing savvy, since things like Google Analytics make me feel terribly stupid. (Authors, if you’re in LinkedIn, you probably got an invitation to try it. Jane Friedman highly recommends it, and even at $20-something a month it’s way cheaper than some of the exorbitantly-priced “magic presto writing success” video courses that are being sold to us so heavily these days.)

  8. Okay, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here and ask how many people actually read the newsletters that arrive in their inboxes? Because with a very few exceptions, I don’t. 🙁

    1. I’m curious to hear what Shawn says, AC, but I suspect I’m much like you. A ton of things that show up in my mailbox I look at where it is from, the subject line, and delete it. However, those who really don’t want to receive a newsletter always have an option to have it stop being sent, so those who really aren’t interested can stop it. Second, *if* it is an author whose work I like (which is why I would sign up for the newsletter in the first place), I probably want to know when a new book is coming out. If that is clear from the subject line, I’m going to, at a minimum, now be aware that it is out. That’s one step closer to buying than I’d be otherwise and it is a big step.

      1. I have a number of readers who message me on FB and tell me that as soon as they see my email in their inbox, they jump to Amazon and search for it, so they don’t even show up in my stats. What I do know is this: my launches go way, way better with the newsletter than they ever did without it.

    2. My average stats for my newsletter are: 56% Open Rate and a 19.6% Click Thru rate. Since my newsletter is about 1,600 people now, that means that 900 people open the email and about 300+ click through to my Amazon page. I sell a few hundred copies of each new release in the first 48 hours at a minimum, which is good enough to get me on the Hot New Release List, load my Also Boughts, make the Top 100 of whatever genre I’m releasing in, etc. And it’s free. I love my list.

  9. Great post, Shawn. Good perspective and advice on the areas to focus on (or not to focus on– you make a good point about the drawbacks of a series, even though people suggest writing them).

    1. I think series are really wonderful. Once you get someone hooked into it, they are likely to read right on through and be pre-sold on each new entry. However, if your series miss, and they often do, you’ve really committed a lot of words to something that’s not accomplishing much for you. My own series I am working on (finally) actually started as a short story. I got a lot of requests and sales from that one, so I wrote it into a novel. Same thing, so now it becomes a series, but at least I know there is already an audience for it.

  10. It’s great to read a post like this and realise that I do a lot of profile marketing – FB, Linked In, regular Blog (linked to my Goodreads page, Amazon Page, FB page and LinkedIn). I have an author website, and do public talks and author meetings etc… plus putting links to everywhere from everywhere including inside the back covers of my books. Now, if only I could concentrate and persevere long enough to work out the way for MailChimp to accept my imported list of email addresses, then I could get into newsletters properly.
    But what I really spend most of time doing is honing my craft – learning how to write better.
    Writing better will bring me fans – if every reader told another person how great my book was, and they bought my books, the result could be a whirlwind. But if only 1 person in 100 tells anyone else they read my book, because my stories are average – good, but not great – then I’ll languish in the middle ranks.

    1. I just did that today, Vicky, and it took me a while to figure it out. If it’s an Excel file (or the equivalent), save it as CSV, and then when you get to Mail Chimp make sure you line up the fields with the columns (they’ll give you the obvious things like First Name and Last Name as drop down choices), then import. Whee!

      1. I wish, Sandra. I’ve tried a CSV file, I’ve tried hand typing in individual names, I’ve tried copying and pasting and it still refuses to let me add names. I think it’s accepts about 11 of the nearly 200 I tried to upload. I just haven’t had the time – or the patience – to struggle with. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation and I’ll find someone with MailChimp experience to help me one day.

        1. Oh, how frustrating. I know I had trouble with my list because I’d accidentally included a web site instead of an email address. Apparently they are very sensitive also to extra spaces or periods or whatever.

          It’s worth persisting, though. I added 74 names from a Shelf Awareness campaign today and either the additions or the mailing I sent out to welcome folks somehow unlocked A/B split testing for me FOR FREE. Which I find very exciting. (Yeah, I know, that’s a weird thing to get excited about, but I used to work in direct mail and DM is all about testing.)

        2. Make sure you click that they gave you permission to add them. Mail Chimp tries very hard to discourage additions that don’t double opt in, to the point that if you are not paying attention you can easily disqualify your own hard-won addresses.

    2. I actually agree. I work on my writing with my critique groups, my editor, my betas. Delivering a great reading experience is my number one priority. However, I find that writing about writing is often divisive, so I choose not to write about craft. Instead, I try to focus on things that might help writers with what they are most frustrated about: marketing and discoverability. Your point is well taken. Without a great story, none of the rest of it matters.

  11. I love posts like, Shawn. As I near the release of another novel, I always feel like I’m starting over … or at least have the opportunity to start over. Great points at the right time. Good job.

    1. Excellent point, Jim. I love releasing a new story, but, like you, I always feel like I am starting completely over again. Exhilarating, yes. Scary? A little bit.

  12. I’ve stopped berating myself for not knowing I should have done this or that and gone back to writing stories I want to write. On the way I’ve been encouraged by family, a couple of writing friends and the New Zealand Romance Writers’ group.
    When I began writing fiction five – seven or more years ago it was with the impression that “my time would come”, that success was almost inevitable. I was wrong but I did some things right with professional editing, professional book covers, a little bit of professional promotion. In return I’ve had a few deposits from Amazon and come full circle as far as enjoying what I write.I even enjoy my own books!!
    Gwendoline E

  13. Great post and reminders, thank you. I would have paid much more attention to all the cards I collected over the years, and reconnected and followed up with everyone. I would also have doubled my efforts to get more speaking gigs and referrals, always a great success for book sales whenever I’ve applied myself. Even more, I would have capitalized on my track record and brought it to the attention of many more big-organization decision makers. I’ve let golden opportunities slip through my fingers way too often!

  14. Great post, Shawn. I started in 2011, and see so much I would have changed. I am a “hybrid” with major traditional publishers and am doing my own indie now, with some reverted backlist. I learned formatting and graphics, enough to get by, already had a big website (scaling that down now) and 3 blogs, but neglected social media, though I’ve always done newsletters of either snail mail or email. On a priority list of what to do, I would launch each book separately, rather than stacking up a list. I’m still working on my backlist, editing, etc. to update (we learn things :)). But starting over, I’d change my priority list to one bk at a time and write more new. There comes a time in this to step back and reformat–which I’m doing now, during a necessary summer break.

  15. I like most of what you say here Shawn – because it’s pretty close to what I think works. I do it all except the mailing list. I’ll probably do it years hence, when someone twists my arm. So far though, I must say things aren’t so bad, on and off line.

    1. I will say that it was a bit of work getting the mailing list set up – figuring out Mailchimp and getting links to the signup page in all my books. Now that I’ve done that, though, it runs itself. I almost never do anything to promote it, but I pick up 2-3 new subscribers every day.

      I know this for sure: Launch days are a lot more fun with a mailing list. 🙂

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