Over the last few years, self-publishing has had a breakthrough. More and more writers choose the indie route for its freedom and speed, but be warned: self-publishing still has a bad reputation.
I’m hoping that my self-publishing tips will help you decide whether this is the right route for you and how to own it.
Please note: self-publishing is a tough business. I want to prepare you as much as possible, which is why this post isn’t here to coddle you or promise you rainbows. There are some hard facts you might find difficult to accept, but it’s all part of self-publishing well.
See it as a taster: if my self-publishing tips dishearten you, think how you’ll feel when your first beta feedback comes back and it’s not all positive.
Are you prepared for that? Are you okay with it? If yes, read on. If you’re not, this may not be the industry for you.
Why do you want to self-publish?
Before we dive into my self-publishing tips, answer one thing:
Why do you want to do this?
If you just want to see your name on a book that you can put on your shelf, you don’t need all this.
If you want to be an author and rock this self-published thing, it’ll take a little more effort. But, if you’re serious, that won’t put you off.
Write your reason down and pin it somewhere you can see it. Self-publishing isn’t always easy; your answer will provide the motivation to see this through and do it well!
The Reputation of Self-Publishing
I mentioned the freedom and speed of self-publishing above, and therein lies the beauty as well as the problem.
I love reading indie books, but it’s shocking how many books I’ve tried that read like a first draft. The truth is that, if you want to be a successful indie author, you need to treat it like a job, which means you can’t publish whatever.
A lot of work goes into making a book enjoyable.
My top self-publishing tips are:
- Just because your first draft is finished doesn’t mean you should self-publish it right away. Never publish a first draft.
- Don’t go it alone. Find an editor and cover designer you love and work with them.
- Be prepared to spend some money. If your financial situation is tight, save. It might take a while, maybe a long time, but it’s worth it.
- Accept that some people will hate your book no matter how much time and effort you’ve put into it. No book is right for everyone, and that includes yours.
- Self-publishing isn’t easy or a quick route to fame and wealth. Bring patience and be prepared to work your butt off, and you’ll do just fine.
You’ve probably heard that authors need a thick skin. If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: some people will hate your work, and that’s fine. However, if out of ten reviews nine tell you that your characters are too predictable, they’ve possibly got a point.
The Top 5 Things I’ve Learned Since Publishing My Debut Novel
- Developmental edits are worth it. I only got a proofread and regretted it ever since, so now I’m republishing it. Save yourself the worry and do it right the first time, unlike me.
- The bookish community is amazing. I especially recommend Instagram and Twitter for this. If your readers are there, you should be there too.
- Every book is different. Some you’ll publish quickly, others will take twice the time or more. That’s fine. Needing longer for one book doesn’t mean it’s bad or you lost something–it’s just a different book. I’ve been told it’s like parenting–some kids take to potty training fast, others take longer.
- Marketing is an ongoing process. You start before your first book is out and then you just, kind of, never stop.
- Inspiration is nice but don’t rely on it. If you want this to be your career, you sit down every day and write that book, whether you feel like it or not. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or something in between, organisation is key to achieving all of the above. Marketing especially benefits from religious note-taking and progress-tracking.
Organisation not your strong point? Here’s how I do it:
Behind Every Successful Indie Author, There’s a Team
Has anyone ever told you that being a writer is a lonely business? Well, they were lying. You’ll want a team of pros and volunteers behind you who will help you polish your book and ready it for that PUBLISH button.
There are a lot of misconceptions around the editor. In short, your editor works with you to ensure your book is the best it can be. Your editor doesn’t try to change your voice or work against you.
An editor will help you transform your draft into something beautiful–something that’s ready to be published.
I’d even go as far as saying that an editor is vital to your book’s success!
I go more into the costs of self-publishing below, but for now suffice it to say that, while no editor gives their work away for pennies, they’re also not as expensive as you might think.
Most editors–myself included–offer free sample edits so you can try our skills before you make a decision. I’ve never talked to an editor who demands all the money in one go, and usually there are payment plans and bundles, too.
Want to know more?
Your Cover Designer
Seeing my book’s cover for the first time is one of my highlights, and it never gets old.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ doesn’t apply to actual books. You pick up a book in the store or click on the link because the cover intrigued you, after all!
It’s essentially your first impression on a potential reader, so this is an important step to get right.
If you’re good with programs like Photoshop, you can even try it yourself! Get lots of feedback if you do–it’s impossible to be unbiased when you’re the creator, so outside feedback is vital.
Readers in your genre are best for this, because they know what they like and what they’d pick up.
You can also work with a professional cover designer who’ll do it for you. Fees vary greatly, so it’s worth asking a few for a quote.
Also ask if they have discounts for return customers. Many do, and it’s worth knowing how much you’d pay if you came back.
If you’re not sure where to start (there are a lot of options!), I recommend you check out Design for Writers–my cover designers. They’ve been with me from Book 1 and have designed every one of my covers.
This only really applies if you write epic fantasy or sci-fi where other worlds are involved. Anyone can find a map of London online, but we don’t have that option when you created the world from nothing.
Not only is a map a nice touch, it also shows that you really know your world. It allows readers to delve deeper, which means a better reader experience. Wins all around!
I write epic fantasy and my drawing skills are… non-existent (*ahem*), so a cartographer is a must for me.
Again, fees vary greatly, but I recommend you ask MonkeyBlood Design for a quote. They do all my maps and their fees are more than reasonable!
Their website says to contact them if you have a gaming project that needs a map, but I guarantee they also do maps for books.
Your Beta Readers
Getting beta readers is equally exciting and terrifying. People are reading your book, but people are reading your book.
Fair warning ahead: sending your book to beta readers will never not be terrifying. That’s normal. You’ve put a lot of effort and love into your book; the idea that every beta might hate it isn’t pleasant. Fortunately, it’s also unlikely.
Why do you need beta readers? Because beta readers are your first real feedback from real readers. They are like your last line of defence before you send your book onto virtual shelves for everyone to see.
They are there to tell you where you can improve your book before publishing it.
With Rise of the Sparrows, my betas noticed that a horse changed gender halfway through the book. That’s not something you want reviewers to pick up on, it’s something you want to fix before it’s too late.
The best beta readers are people who might buy your book, because they’re familiar with your genre. The least useful beta readers are your mother, sister, and close friends because they love you, don’t want to hurt your feelings, and are bound to be impressed that you’ve written a book.
You need someone unbiased, and your family isn’t that.
In my experience, Instagram or wherever you’re most active online is a great place for finding betas. Let people know you’re looking, and chances are you’ll have a team in no time!
Don’t overdo it, though. Too few betas (say, two or three) and you won’t get a good balance of feedback. Too many (say, ten or more) and you’ll get so much differing feedback you won’t know what to believe.
I tend to work with five or seven. If you feel you need more, you can always do a second round!
Want to know more about beta readers? Start here:
Marketing: Every Author’s Nightmare
Marketing your book is perhaps the most important aspect of this whole thing. If no one knows your book exists, no one will buy it–but how do you spread the word?
For me, marketing has been the steepest learning curve, and I’m still experimenting. There are so many different things you can try, but I recommend you don’t try everything in the same month. You won’t know what worked if you do!
Because you have so many options, I’ll start with the easiest one:
I see so many new writers who are excited to get their debut novel out, who get an editor, beta readers, a professionally designed cover–but they have no online presence. They put so much time and money into their book baby, but they won’t sell it because no one knows it exists.
Don’t let that be you.
I recommend you set up a blog or a website early. I started mine a year before I published my debut novel, and while I knew next to nothing about marketing at the time I can say that I only sold anything at all because I had my blog.
You can use it to update your followers on your writing process. Some writers keep weekly video logs, others write monthly updates.
You can share excerpts, cover reveals, release dates–anything to build hype!
On top of that, I recommend you pick one or two social media platforms to spread the word early. Don’t try to be everywhere at once because you’ll overwhelm yourself.
Pick one or two and use them regularly–that’s more effective than having accounts everywhere but not having the time to post anywhere properly.
I found that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram work well. Instagram especially has been a treasure cove for me. See where your readers are and go there.
Advanced Reader Copies
Advanced reader copies, or ARCs, are copies of your book that you send out before it’s published. This way, you can get reviews before the publication day.
You should never pay for reviews. Amazon has a way of finding the reviews you bought and will delete them. Moreover, it’s unethical to buy someone’s opinion. Who are you more likely to trust: the reader who recommends a book because he loved it, or someone who recommends a book because he got paid to say it’s good?
Someone once emailed me saying something like this:
Hi, I’m a book blogger and reviewer and came across your book. I love the sound of it, and I’d love to read it!! It’s my genre and the blurb sounds right up my street. If you’d like me to review it, please pay me £60.
I mean, does that sound legit to you? *shrugs*
The exceptions to this rule are trustworthy, well-established sites like Kirkus. If you’re not sure, do a bit of research, maybe ask on social media if anyone else has heard of the site you’re thinking of using, and go from there.
I used to assemble a new team for every new release, but for my third book I created my Sparrow Review Team. It’s a mailing list that receives all new releases directly in their inbox. Members have until release day to review the book and up to a week later on Amazon, and two months for previous releases.
Thanks to my team, I have reviews on Goodreads before my books are out–and as we all know, reviews sell books.
More on that in a moment.
Your Street Team
Your street team are fans of your writing who want to help you spread the word. The easiest way to do it is to create a mailing list so you can send the material to everyone at once.
I’m currently in the middle of creating my own street team. Sharing what I send them won’t be mandatory (unlike with my review team), and I’ll provide the banners, links, graphics, etc.
It’s a great, fun way of spreading the word–and you haven’t known excitement until a reader gets excited for your new release and tells everyone they know!
How Much Should You Charge?
Pricing your book is one of the hardest parts of self-publishing at first glance, but it doesn’t need to be complicated.
The easiest thing to do is to research other books in your genre. Find the top 100 on Amazon, and see for how much they’re selling. If most of them are priced at £2.99, start there and see how it goes.
Don’t lose hope if your first book is struggling to gain momentum. It’s generally said that you need to have published at least three books before people start paying attention. Once you have 50 reviews, Amazon starts to promote it.
So, if you’ve only published the one and you’re below 50 reviews, don’t read too much into low sales figures. This takes time.
I also recommend you test different price points and note your results. Your book may not sell at £4.99, but have you tried it at a lower price? Experiment with different prices and see if it makes a difference.
You could also consider to sell your first book for cheap (say, £0.99) or make it permafree. Readers are more likely to give new authors, especially indie authors, a chance if they know they won’t waste their money.
I know many new writers are strictly against the idea of giving away anything for free, but consider this: if a reader tries your first book because it was cheap or free, loves it, and buys every other book you’ve ever written, is that not a result? This same reader might not have taken the chance on a normally priced book.
How to Get Reviews
This is a big topic worthy of its own post, but I’ll keep it simple here so I don’t overwhelm you.
You probably already know that you need reviews to get more sales, but to get more reviews people need to buy your book–which they won’t do if you don’t have any reviews.
You see the problem.
The golden number for Amazon is 50. Getting those reviews won’t be easy, but it’s vital.
Here are four easy ways to get you started:
- If you’ve already started recruiting your ARC team, email them. If you haven’t, now’s the time!
- You can email book bloggers and reviewers directly. Make sure they read books in your genre, and send them a friendly email asking if they’re interested.
- Find groups on Facebook and Goodreads and ask for reviews there.
- Ask people you know to read your book and leave an honest review.
The last point is the easiest, but beware: Amazon hone in on reviews that hint in any way at being biased. If a review says things like ‘I’m so proud of my daughter for writing this’ or even ‘This is my new favourite book/author’, you can likely wave goodbye to your review.
That’s why I listed it last. While it’s the easiest way, it’s also the riskiest.
You’re Essentially Self-Employed
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. The below isn’t legal advice and may differ in your country. I’m in the UK, so the below doesn’t reflect laws in other countries. Please please please do your research.
As soon as you make money outside your regular job, you’re self-employed. In the UK, this means you need to register as such and pay annual taxes based on your indie income.
You may not make a profit any time soon, or you may only make a tiny amount, but you need to declare it regardless. If you don’t, you might be committing tax fraud. You don’t want that.
This isn’t the most enjoyable part of being an indie author, but it’s necessary. My top self-publishing tips regarding self-employment are:
- Keep a list of your earnings and expenses, and update it regularly throughout the year.
- Every time you pay an invoice or receive money and receive proof in an email (for example, via PayPal or an order confirmation for new stationery), save it to a separate folder until you can print it.
- Don’t leave it to the last minute. Get it out of the way, or hate yourself when the time comes to backtrack your finances for the whole year.
And speaking of numbers…
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How Much Does Self-Publishing Cost?
Self-publishing your book isn’t free, but it’s also not as expensive as you probably fear.
I recommend you do two things:
- Figure out your budget and how much you’re happy to pay.
- Get quotes early in case you need to save for the professional you want.
The only things you’ll want to pay for are:
- your cover, if you don’t trust yourself with Photoshop,
- and things like Facebook ads to spread the word.
Listing your book on Amazon doesn’t cost anything. Amazon take care of the printing and distribution (or downloads for eBooks), so you don’t need to order stock, package and send the books yourself.
While it’s a nice idea to offer signed copies, it’s not essential to start selling your books.
Go with people you want rather than whoever is cheapest. Ask about pricing and book your slot early.
Editing will take a while, as will your covers. If you leave it until the last minute, expect to be disappointed.
Moreover, different edits charge different amounts. Manuscript critiques are usually the cheapest but not every editor offers those and you don’t get in-depth feedback.
Expect to pay anything from a few hundred pounds\dollars to just over a thousand pound, depending on the kind of edit you want.
I recommend you don’t hire an editor who charges per hour for your first book. Debut novel drafts tend to be messy because you’re inexperienced, so this can get expensive fast.
Your cover is much cheaper. The most expensive one I’ve seen was close to £1000, but it doesn’t need to be anywhere near that.
I pay £250 for first books in a new series and £211 for sequels. EBooks only (as opposed to eBooks and paperbacks) are cheaper too. I also get unlimited revisions and two cover proofs to choose from. Not bad at all!
My readers’ reactions when they fawn over my covers and buy the books because of them is worth it too.
And finally, your map is the cheapest of the lot. I’ve paid below £100 for each one of mine, which makes it incredibly good value for your money.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Self-publishing–the whole indie author journey, in fact–is one hell of a learning curve. No matter how hard you try, you’ll always find something you could have done differently.
That doesn’t mean in any way that your book wasn’t ready when you first self-published it. It merely shows that you’ve learned since then, and that’s a good thing.
But what if the lessons are painful?
Remember what I said about developing a thick skin? Sometimes, a truth is harder to accept than others.
If reviews repeatedly tell you that your covers aren’t intriguing enough, that your blurb is boring, that your characters are offensive or lack something, etc (you get the idea), chances are there’s some truth to it.
More one-star reviews than five-star reviews aren’t a sign that you should give up. They are a sign that you have work to do. For example, if every review or most reviews tell you that your book was badly edited, your next step is obvious: get an editor.
If you don’t have the money right now, save. It might take months or years, but it’s a worthwhile investment.
See it this way: would you rather self-publish another five books that get nothing but negative feedback, or self-publish one book in the same amount of time that gets all the love?
The short but honest answer is that you’ll only receive what you put in. If you put in minimal effort*, expect minimal results.
It makes me sad to see authors who have so much potential but are too stubborn to accept that they need an editor or a different cover. Editors aren’t monsters, they want to help you get the most out of your book.
If you want this to be your career and be successful, it can’t be all about what you want. Your readers matter too, and they don’t want first drafts and half-bothered efforts–as harsh as that may sound.
They don’t want to have to look the other way and make exceptions because you’re an indie author. They shouldn’t have to.
Let go of the idea that perfection is a thing. Don’t panic if one review comes back negative, but if the positive reviews become the odd ones out, learn from the feedback. Embrace it and do better.
Oh, and perhaps most important of all: criticism isn’t personal (even if someone says you suck). It’s an opportunity to learn and improve. There aren’t many things more rewarding than turning someone who hated your book into a fan with the sequel!
*writing the thing is only the beginning, I’m afraid.
Look After Yourself
As you’ve probably guessed by now, self-publishing your novel is a lot of work. This is why my perhaps most important self-publishing tips have nothing to do with the business side and everything to do with you.
We creatives are notoriously bad at looking after ourselves. There’s always one more chapter to edit, one more paragraph to write, one more review to request. On top of that, being self-employed means no weekends for many people–not because there’s so much to do we can’t take weekends, but because we feel obliged to work all the time.
It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, this will take its toll on you.
The Symptoms of Burning Out
Burn-out shows differently in different people, but the most common symptoms include:
- You’re more than tired than usual and have trouble sleeping.
- You’re more irritable and get emotional with little to no provocation.
- Taking time off, even just an hour, seems impossible.
- Your to-do list doesn’t seem to get any shorter.
- Remembering another task puts an overwhelming amount of pressure and stress on you.
How to Prevent Burning Out
Most of us burn out eventually, but there are steps you can take to prevent it.
If you think you might be burning out,
- take a day off. I know it doesn’t feel like an option, but you’ll feel better after and you’ll be more productive as a result!
- ask your partner or a friend to help you stop. Maybe go out for a bit, take a walk together, or go out for dinner.
- do the things that normally help you relax. Keep a list of things that are sure to help you recharge!
- write a list of everything you’re grateful for. Burning out can make us feel like failures, so remembering everything that’s gone well, no matter how small, can be a great way realise things are going better than you thought!
- work out. If you know it’s not for you don’t worry about this, but if you haven’t tried it give it a go. Many people swear by it as working out gets your adrenaline pumping!
And, most importantly:
- Don’t hesitate. If there’s any chance you’re burning out, take a break.
Often, simply knowing that you’ve got a day off coming up makes a big difference.
Read more about why self-care is so important: