writing advice

0 to 5 and 5 to 500: Starting a Self Publishing Career, Part 2 (5 to 500)

The other day, I shared how I found my first handful of fans — by giving my first book away to anyone who would review it. And how important it is to have a mailing list to hang on to as many of those fans as possible, so the next book’s launch is a little bit easier.

Now that I’ve been around for a while, I can see there are other ways to successfully launch a SPing career. Shari Slade and Molly McLain both did it differently than I did (and different again from each other). Cora Seton blew us all out of the water. Go and study what they did–and continue to do. There are different ways to get noticed, but the next step is the same for all writers. How do you take that tiny band of loyal readers, the first five or twenty-five fans, and turn them into a small army?

1. Write another book, and this time, make it better than the last one. Make it high-concept and AWESOME.

Part of the success I’ve had over the last year can be attributed to my willingness to improve my product. My new series, Pine Harbour, is going to feature military heroes and more “fantasy” elements like movie stars coming to town, for example, because readers love those things. *I* love those things. And that’s really important. Don’t jump on a bandwagon that you don’t get excited about yourself as a reader. Be authentic and trust your gut, but don’t pull your punches, either. I learned that lesson from Roxie Rivera, who made the leap to self-publishing with books that she couldn’t sell to traditional publishers, but in her gut she knew there was a marketplace for. All of her MANY readers are very thankful she did!

2. Make it part of a series.

This isn’t just a self-publishing tip, this applies to everyone, but when you are your own publisher, there is absolutely no reason your books shouldn’t be connected. Don’t believe me? Write a couple books that AREN’T connected. Write a couple that ARE. And experience the difference in reader response. Or just take my word for it because this is HUGE. My free short story, See Me, only gets 10% the # of downloads my currently free novella, Between Then and Now, gets. Standalone vs. Series book.

How books are connected can be as simple as writing in the same voice and the same world. It’s better if the characters in Book 2 are introduced in Book 1, but if you’ve already written it, there are work arounds. Drag the characters from Book 1 forward into Book 2 instead, even if it’s just a little peek into how they’re doing now. Use the same town or themes. Find some way to promise readers of Book 1 that Book 2 is more of the same awesomeness.

My new series? A SPIN-OFF of Wardham, and the characters from one town will visit the other. Same world.

3. Tell your 5 fans about it before it comes out AND when it comes out. And give them something to be excited about.

You have fans! Trust that they are INTERESTED in your next project. Get them excited by sharing…whatever you feel comfortable. Excerpts are great. Covers are awesome. Inspiration boards, series information (even just titles and potential future protagonists!), supplementary information (world maps, family trees, real life connections), etc.

Use your mailing list. Create a fan group space (Facebook groups are great for this; other authors use Yahoo group and forums hosted on their own website, but I like Facebook because it’s not a site they need to go to JUST FOR YOU – they’re already there). Maybe make some swag.

And share that gathering space where new fans might be looking for that information — front and back matter of your books. Your social media sites. Your WEBSITE.

Start to build relationships with those fans. Forge a connection with them.

4. Always be Networking (Never be Annoying)

Always Be Networking is a phrase that my sister, who works in radio, says to me from time to time. I like to mentally add the extra refrain, Never Be Annoying. Again, the idea of acting authentically will serve you well here. In the first post in this series, I talked about how Goodreads was a welcoming place for me as a new author. People have asked me about that, and shared their experiences were not as positive. It’s true, GRers don’t like authors to overstep and push their books. But if you are offering something of value (an awesome book) and not asking for anything more than what they’re offering in exchange (honest reviews), you’ll be just fine. Just make sure you’re doing in an appropriate space: the groups set up for reviews in your genre.

Facebook, Twitter, Google+ are all ways to passively connect with other authors, editors, bloggers and readers, and I use all of them in varying amounts.

But the real networking comes in more personal exchanges. Responding to requests for help. Last year I made people book covers and website banners, connected them with editors I knew had openings and retweeted, shared and +1ed a LOT of posts. I critiqued passages, whole books and self-design efforts, and I read a lot of books. Be someone’s fan!

None of this is to suggest that you should be spending a lot of your time on promo. You shouldn’t. Promo should be something that has purpose and successfully pumps up your brand. As David Gaughran says, if you don’t enjoy marketing, you’re doing it wrong. Promo and marketing are not the same thing as networking. (Don’t try and sell me your book!) Networking is building authentic connections with other people in your industry.

And then when you do all of that, opportunities start to come up. Opportunities for cross-promotion and collaboration. And while I’m really happy with my growing fan base for the Wardham series, it is through these two networking efforts that I hit the NYT Bestselling List and am now able to write full-time. My books alone do not yet earn me a full-time income.

5. Know the marketplace

When T. L. Haddix asked, in the Self-Publishing Roundtable podcast, how I stay informed about the industry, my first answer was Twitter. And that’s true – I follow as many industry people as Twitter allows me too, and I go there whenever I get a whiff of something new and interesting. Twitter shows me what people are thinking – reviews, opinions, debate. It’s all there.

In talking this blog post over with friends, they also reminded me that I can also name off what books are on the Amazon and B&N Top 100 list, who has new releases out in a given week, who signed with what publisher and what series are where I want my series to be. I (try to) have my finger on the pulse, for sure. And that can seem daunting. This is where networking can come in handy. Don’t reinvent the wheel–do some of that research yourself, and then share what you know with others. Let them share what they know with you. Half the work, twice the knowledge.

But don’t be a PASSIVE receptacle for information. You won’t retain it without being genuinely interested in the context. And this isn’t just about knowing what books are selling – marketplace knowledge is crucial as a self-publisher to properly brand and promote your work as well. Your covers need to fit on the Amazon Top 100 list or it’s terribly unlikely what’s behind the cover will ever end up there. Your promo plan needs to mimic what the bestsellers are doing, or you aren’t likely to be a bestseller.

6. Taking it to the next level is easier if you work with other people

So you can do it all on your own. Write five high-concept books in an awesome, grippy series. Brand them well and promote them like heck. That should work. (If it doesn’t, review and revise — one of the beautiful things about SPing is that nothing is set in stone. David Gaughran wrote a blog post on his experience with this).

But that collaboration and cross-promotion point? It can make the whole process so much easier. The trick is setting reasonable boundaries about your time/money/effort, working people who share an audience with you, and giving as good as you get.

This is the perfect time to rave about the Ink Heart Authors and Romance Divas. Two wonderful groups that make writing anything but lonely. You might see chatter about “author loops”. Some are closed (like our InkHeart group), and others are open (like Divas and Marie Force’s Self-Publishing Loop). You want to be in both types of loops. The smaller, private ones…those come about with time as you forge friendships and business relationships. They often start with a single partnership with a critique partner, and then expand to include one, two, five or ten similar writer friends. All of a sudden you’re organizing a box set! It’s an organic development when you have total flexibility to do whatever you want with your books.

Of course, there’s always more…

I haven’t talked about using free books as a funnel, or the importance of regular releases. I barely touched on front and back matter, or bundles/box sets/anthologies, really. Let me know if you have questions about those that you haven’t found answers to elsewhere, and I’ll address those in future blog posts.

And a final caveat. Courtney’s blog post that inspired this post was written to help someone decide which path to take: continue working with publishers or make the leap to self-publishing. I can’t say that this blog post is quite so similarly helpful, because I don’t know what it’s like to work with a publisher. I can’t offer that perspective. If anyone would like to collaborate on a balanced look at both options, I’d be happy to advocate for SPing in a respectful way. But if you’ve made the decision to SP, I hope that these two posts will help you get through the lonely days before you hit that third stage of discoverability when it all just gets SO. MUCH. EASIER.