writing advice

0 to 5 and 5 to 500: Starting a Self-Publishing Career, Part 1 (0 to 5)

Last night I had the privilege of being interviewed on the Self-Publishing Roundtable about the wonderful successes in the second half of my first year of self-publishing: hitting the New York Times and USA Today bestselling lists with the Seals of Summer Military Romance Superbundle; self-publishing 5 titles in my rather well-liked Wardham series of sexy small town romances; finding a lot of new readers through other box sets, a growing mailing list, active Facebook page, etc. There were great questions from the roundtable and the live internet audience about marketing strategies and what I’d do different on my next series (Pine Harbour, coming this fall!) — and all of that was AWESOME. You should watch the video or download the podcast from iTunes.

But something I didn’t address in enough detail was the first six months. Not even that…the first two weeks. And the six months BEFORE I hit publish, and what it’s like to launch a self-publishing career as a complete unknown. Or as Courtney Milan puts it at the end of a very thorough post on making the decision to self-publish, how to go from zero to five fans. She’s absolutely right when she says that’s much harder than turning 100 fans into 500. Success begets success, but first, you need a little success.

I don’t ever want to forget how I did that, how I had my first taste of success. And it was modest. But also wonderful.

It’s possible that I’m going to get some of these details wrong, because it’s been a year. Feel free to ask me questions, in comments or in email (zoeyorkwrites AT gmail.com), and I’ll clarify as needed.

1. I didn’t wait until I was “somebody” to establish my brand/mailing list/FB page, group, etc.

If I did, I’ll still be waiting. It turns out that a living wage can definitely be earned while still being a total nobody in the publishing world. I’m okay with that. I bought my domain name in October 2012, when I realized I had a couple of decent books in the works. I established myself on Twitter at the same time. Goodreads and Facebookcame later, much closer to publishing (probably 1 month prior to publishing for both of those). And in between them, I set up my MailChimp account for a mailing list. It was a long four months before I had enough names on that list to actually justify sending out a newsletter; another two after that before I had a significant jump in subscriptions.

I bold the website and mailing list in that paragraph because those are must-dos for any new author. Social media is smart but optional (in using them, I mean; you need to claim that digital real estate as yours). So if you haven’t done it yet, stop reading right now and go and sign up for a mailing list service. MailChimp is free until you reach 2000 subscribers. One year in, I haven’t reached that point yet, and I can definitely afford to pay for it once I do. Don’t be afraid of success.

2. I wrote a good book, with a plan for more good books. And I packaged them professionally, in a way that fit with the marketplace*.

Here’s some hard truths:

  • Not all manuscripts are good.
  • Not all manuscripts should be published.
  • Lots of good manuscripts sit in trunks for years.
  • Some authors have too much ego (I probably fall into this category). Others don’t have enough.

When you make the decision to self-publish, you need to be able to put on the business person’s hat, the PUBLISHER’S hat, and look at your work objectively.  Every single day on author loops I see people post that their books aren’t selling, and they defend their: editing, cover, blurb, tag line, price point, etc. But as a publisher, ALL of that has to be up for re-negotiation at any point. Branding isn’t working: re-brand. Content isn’t working: re-edit. Price isn’t working: try a sale. But as a brand new author, before you get to that point, do yourself a favour and try to get it right the first time.

You probably won’t. I didn’t (this should be a link to a blog post about my latest set of cover revamps, but I haven’t written it yet…I really should. That’s good content for a writer’s blog). It’s a much harder mountain to climb, after you hit publish, if you’re starting at the bottom. Because then the pressure is on. Before you hit publish you’ve got all the time in the world to get it right. So work on your craft. Figure out what your hook is and where your characters have breakthrough moments. Work on your branding skills. Make practice covers and teaser images. Share those with the world…that might be how you find your first fan.

SO: write a good book. Work on it with CPs or a set of editors you trust. Share it and let yourself hear the feedback you get. Own the fact that your first chapters are muddy and you have crutch words. Take some online courses taught by successful people. I highly recommend Angela James’ self-editing workshop and craft books like Jodi Henley’s Practical Emotional Structure. Business books like Write. Publish. Repeat. and blog posts like Rachel Aaron’s classic on increasing from 2k to 10k words in a DAY (not every day, don’t freak out), because writing more is one important factor in writing better.

*Packaging: Cover, Title, Blurb that hooks readers in your genre. This is a whole post on its own, and others have done that better than me (*cough* H.M. Ward *cough*). And right there? If you protested that you’re in a different genre? Go figure out who YOUR genre’s H.M. Ward is and study what they’re doing, and when their breakout moment was.

Okay, so that’s build it. Now, let’s talk about making them come to you.

3. Big lesson learned: build it and they will come…slowly, and you’ll need to have infinite patience as you push and prod and wave giant flags that only manage to grab one person’s attention. For a minute. 

Another Courtney Milan bit of shrewd insight: the 4 stages of discoverability. I first heard about this from Courtney’s post on kboards. Then I saw a lot of excited chatter on Twitter about her recent presentation at the RT convention on the same topic. When you self-publish from day 1, you might spend a long time in Phase 1, where you’re working hard for every single sale. I did. I spent close to six months there. So tomorrow I’ll blog about how I went from Phase 1 to Phase 2, or 5 to 500 fans, but today I’m going to focus on let’s talk about getting your first five fans (or twenty-five).

4. I recognized the chance of someone stumbling across my book was slim to none. I was going to have to put it in front of people in an accessible but non-pushy way.

Hoping your book just takes off on Amazon isn’t a plan. It’s a wish and a prayer. I had a plan: share review copies with anyone willing to review my book. I naively thought that a nice whack of positive reviews would lead lots of other readers to buy my book. It didn’t. But it DID help me find my first few fans.

Goodreads: I just had a wonderful stroll down memory lane as I sorted through the reviews on my first book, What Once Was Perfect, on Goodreads in preparation for this post. (Side note: you can see the cover progression really clearly on GR!) As a long time romance reader, I’d passively used GR as a record of my reading for years before I wrote my first book. I was a member of a couple of groups, but not particularly active. I didn’t have any significant GR connections, and I think that’s a point worth highlighting. Most of my GR friends were not bloggers or reviewers, but IRL friends and friends from other, non-book related, internet communities.

So I searched for groups that encouraged authors to post review requests. And I worked on my pitch. You can see some of the posts I started in different groups here. A couple of those very first reviewers are now members of my street team. Others faithfully buy my books on release day.

Bloggers: I also reached out to a LOT of bloggers, with individualized emails. More than seventy-five emails sent, and fifteen review copies requested. I have no idea if that’s good or bad. I know that it was exhausting, and I haven’t done that kind of solicitation since, but I’m glad I did for the first in the series. And I probably will again for my next series. From that first wave of blog features came a couple of lovely friends and some very thoughtful reviews I could put on Amazon in the editorial reviews section.

There are other ways to offer review copies to readers in your genre: asking an author who shares a similar reader base to offer ARCs to their street team/review crew, for example. There are probably Facebook review groups similar to the GR groups. LibraryThing allows digital giveaways. NetGalley co-ops. You don’t need to do all of the above, but you need to have a review plan.

5. And I had that mailing list in place, and the sign-up information clearly presented in my book’s backmatter and on my website, from day one.

This is how you get your first 5 fans. By holding on to 5 of the first 50 people who liked your book. Don’t just send your review copies out there into a vacuum. Don’t hope that those people will remember you 3-6 months down the road when you publish Book 2. Give them a chance to join your: mailing list, street team, review crew, fan club, private message board, friend list on GR/FB/Google+/Twitter. Wherever they are, you should be, and you should be accessible to them in a way that they like.

I don’t want to hear anyone say, “I don’t like Facebook so I just have a profile; readers can friend me if they want.” Tough. There are some readers who don’t like friending authors. They want to either join a group or like a page. Set up a page and create a group. You don’t need to do much with it after that point, but you need to build it. “I don’t like newsletters so I don’t want to bug people.” Newsflash: no-one who signs up for your mailing list is going to be bugged by an occasional message letting them know about new releases. They WANT that information.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about what you do with that fledgling group of fans to grow it and move to the next stage of discoverability. And correct any grievous oversights in this post! (ETA: It took me an extra day, but the follow up post is now live!)