I've been at this self-publishing business now since September of 2013 and writing even longer than that, so I have some experience in this business even if it's not the five- or ten-year mark yet. I often see blog posts on what to do and not do self-publishing, but they rarely touch on these real lessons.
Here are the Top 5 Lessons I've Learned About Self-Publishing…
What works for one person does not work for another
If I had a dollar for every piece of advice someone gave me that was “guaranteed” to work and sell books, well, I would have made a lot more money than selling my actual books. Here's the real advice: you won't actually know what works for you until you try it. There are no magic bullets or perfect step-by-step solutions to being a best seller, sorry to say. And if anyone tells you they have that magic formula, I have a bridge to Brooklyn I can sell them too while you're at it. A lot of advice is guesswork. We don't know what specifically sold a book. Was it word of mouth? A review? An impulse buy? You may think that because you put your book on sale, it suddenly became desireable, but maybe a person bought it because of the cover. One author's success with a newsletter does not mean all authors will have the same success, and just because you advertised the same place as that Top 100 Amazon Best Seller doesn't mean you'll get the same results either.
What I learned? I have to listen to ALL the techniques and decide which ones to use, which to dismiss, and when to use the ones I think are valuable. ONLY I CAN MAKE THESE DECISIONS. Since I'm the publisher, it's my job to make decisions about my long-term career and not buy into the get-bestseller-fast schemes. They just don't work.
What works now will not work later
This is the hardest lesson to learn. A cover trend that was hot six months ago is overplayed now. It worked for you then, and now you try it again, and it FLOPS. An advertising channel that got everybody sales, doesn't anymore. Giveaways become static because everyone is doing them. A free first novel is awesome! Until it doesn't work anymore either. Etc etc. Before you know it, something new comes along that works and it dies out before you can even try it. This is so frustrating because it means that planning your marketing ahead of time becomes impossible. The publishing market is changing fast. Truths that were bible a year ago aren't now. With so many players entering the field, this business is erupting in chaos and will continue to be chaotic for more years to come. Only tried-and-true methods work well in a stable marketplace. We don't have that.
What I learned? I gave up trying to figure out what works! I decided to concentrate on writing and publishing, announcing new works and hoping people will eventually see them. If I publish frequently enough, my voice will be heard. Each time I publish I will do a few key things: announce on all my social media channels, give away free review copies, adjust prices for sales, and try one new marketing technique that's popular at the time. It's the best I can do (see next point about compromise).
You must be able to compromise
Guess what? Self-publishing is not perfect. You may spend a lot of money on a cover that turns into a loser. You have to compromise and buy or design something new. You want an ebook to look a certain way but it's technologically impossible. You have to compromise and give up on some things in order for the ebook to be made and published. That's just the way things are, and the sooner you learn to compromise, NOT be a perfectionist, the further you will get as a self-published author. Nothing is ever perfect. If you want perfection, you're in the wrong business. Covers are never perfect. Your manuscripts (even if it's been proofread a million times) are not perfect. Your marketing is not perfect. But we make covers, write manuscripts, and then market them or else we'd never publish. And I have news for you, this is the same thing that goes on at traditional publishers too. If you think, “I'm not going to self-publish because I don't want to compromise my work,” then you're living in a dream world. Learn to compromise now and you'll be happier with yourself later.
What I learned? Testing the limits of each step of the process helps me understand the amount of tweaking I can do with my work. Knowing the limitations of everything allows me to compromise and still put out a quality product.
You need at least one more skill other than writing
Just writing is not enough to be a self-publisher. You CAN farm out everything else, but if you're a debut author with very little audience, you should expect to do a lot of the work yourself to save money. Most authors (>90%) do not hit it big with their first book, second or even third. If you're shelling out thousands of dollars for every book, you're going to end up in the hole fast. Even if you can at least learn how to make your own image teasers, facebook and twitter photos, or learn how to copy edit, that's better than not being able to do anything but write. Learning how to trade is good too. Some times you can trade beta reading or critiquing for help on other aspects of self-publishing you're struggling with like formatting or Facebook ads. Regardless, learn some new skills and get key parts of your business (website, social media, and newsletter) set up before you even attempt to get your manuscript ready.
What I learned? There's so much more to self-publishing than writing the story and publishing it. I'm lucky that I have a design and website coding background, but others do not and struggle with simple stages of their author platform. I am only in the black this year because I learned how to do a lot of the steps myself. You can make a small profit in the early years by learning a few of the easier steps yourself, things that won't compromise your quality end product.
Relationships with fellow authors are golden
Really. Other authors are not your competitors, they are your colleagues. The sooner you learn to socialize with other authors, trade markerting techniques and collaborate, the better. Your author friends are better than gold, better than anything. Granted, you will not click with everyone, but do your best not to make enemies. Avoid critiquing their work (unless that's your job) and keep things neutral or positive. You never know who you'll be in an anthology with or sitting on a panel with someday. Collaboration is one of the best parts about self-publishing. Make connections with people you can work with, cross-promote, and gush about easily. Trust me. It's better to not do this alone! You can learn a lot from other authors, and when they're willing to share, listen closely, even if you disagree with them. You may learn something. Be gracious and polite, and never be afraid to ask for help. Your fellow authors are usually happy to help and will hope you can return the favor someday.
What I learned? Finding author groups and people I could talk to about this business helped me through some dark early times when I had no idea what I was doing. I have since done my best to return the favor and help as many people as I can along the way. Karma is cyclical and the more people I help the better. I've met some amazing men and women who have helped me along the way. Their help is more valuable than any marketing technique or inside secret. Your author friends are worth having and keeping.
Hopefully this helps some of you too!