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Top 5 Lessons Learned About Self-Publishing

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!

If you've been self-publishing for quite some time, what's your top lesson learned?

42 thoughts on “Top 5 Lessons Learned About Self-Publishing”

  1. I’d add one more piece of advice, which I’m cribbing from a keynote speech at a writers’ conference several years ago: Produce the best book you can.
    If writing takes longer than you thought or hoped, or if it takes yet another edit, or finding a good copy editor and proofreader, or waiting until your cover artist recovers from a fatal computer crash, do it. This isn’t meant to contradict S.J.’s “compromise” point, it’s an adjunct: do the best you can with what you have now, and know that you can do better next time.

    1. Thank you for this comment, and SJ for this extremely helpful and timely post. It’s hard not to get worried people are forgetting you, or too excited about your new thing, and then not take the time to do it right.

      SJ, it is hard to balance with the publish frequently principle, which I find to be absolutely true in my knitting publishing. There is nothing better than writing a good book, except also staying out there with things! Oh brother.

      I am not self-published, but I have looked at all the options and self publishing scares me. It looks like it would take so much time learn to do it well, I would take 4 years to write my next novel instead of 2! I admire you for writing and publishing.

      1. Thank you both!

        Carol, I feel sometimes that beginners/debut authors get stuck in the perfectionist’s cycle which can be hard to break. One more round of revisions. One more stab at a cover. One more addition to the narrative… And suddenly they’re three years past where they mean to be. Lol. Which is why I say, “Don’t be perfect, be published.” Certainly you don’t want to publish a crappy product but if you can be 80% happy with an effort, then that’s pretty good.

        Larissa, this is why I’m writing shorter works too in between longer ones. I used to think I’d only ever write novels. But recently, I’ve wanted to challenge myself to write short stories. They’re a different breed than longer novels and I wanted to try something different. (I should write a blog post on this! Making a note in Evernote). So I’m hoping with the combination of short stories and longer novels, I can publish more often and gain visibility, but not be too stressed about it. We’ll see how it goes!

        1. SJ, I think I’m in that perfectionist cycle with a book that I finished writing last April. I’ve had it critiqued multiple times and just last week found another reason to delay sending it to the editor. It’s hard to get past that desire for perfection. You can only debut once and I want it to be the best! But honestly, I could have put it out six months ago if I had gotten over the fear of failing masquerading as perfecting the book. Ugh.

          1. Jayden, there is nothing worse than being in the debut perfectionist cycle. Did you know that you can revise all the magic out of your book? It’s happened to so many people I know. They cut and revise so much that all the good stuff is gone and then they never publish. Do yourself a favor and set a deadline and then STICK TO IT NO MATTER WHAT. Barring a life-threatening disease, you should publish that book and ON TIME. Why? Because so much of your debut being the best has to do with the market NOT with your actual writing. And the good news is that we all think our debuts are great, and then two or five years later, you look back and think about how far you’ve come since then.

            There are no perfect books. But there are books that never get published and never see readers. That’s more tragic than publishing a not-perfect book.

      2. “What works now will not work later” is a great tip. The self-publishing industry is always evolving and authors not only need to write great books and market them well, they also need to know what’s going on in the industry.

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      S. J. Pajonas