Lessons from a debut self-published author

I recently published a book on Amazon – Kindle and paperback. I started with zero knowledge of the enterprise, just the idea of the book I wanted to write. I learned as I went. Made many mistakes. Wasted a lot of time. Spent some money.

Here’s a brief overview of the insights from my experience that may be useful to those trying to do something similar.

The context

I was fed up with the day job, was seriously thinking about quitting without another job to go to yet, and decided if I was going to be ‘between jobs’ for a few weeks, I may as well do something productive. Enter the idea of a quick ebook, using my experience as a travel editor at CNN to provide something I hadn’t seen yet: travel writing tips and advice in detail from an editor (as opposed to a writer).

It would be short – maybe 25,000 words, which I should be able to bash out in a month. Stick it up on Amazon and forget about it, was the rough plan. A few people may get something out of it.

Then a couple things happened: I didn’t quit the day job, and, possibly a result of that (getting home after a day’s work without the energy or desire to write) started researching self-publishing, and all it entails, rather than writing the book. What a rabbit warren that is. As well as feeling the need to tweak my angle from travel writing to pitching travel articles, there was the entire publishing process to think about, marketing, and dozens of blogs and podcasts to listen to from successful authors who had gone through this process many times already.

The result: rather than taking a month to write it took a year, but I did learn a hell of a lot about the self-publishing process.

So here are some of those lessons.

Lessons in self-publishing

First thing to do is write the damn book. Sit your ass down on the chair, turn off the Internet, lock the kids in the cellar and write. I think if I’d spent as much time writing over the last 18 months as I have reading about the writing/publishing process, I could have about three books done by now. If you do decide to read or listen to the successful authors out there who are happy to tell you how they did what they did (Mark Dawson, Derek Haines, Nick Stephenson, Joanna Penn being just a few) you’ll quickly learn one thing: they have dozens of books published, which they leverage to maximise their earnings. If you have zero books published, you haven’t even started yet. Their knowledge is interesting and inspiring, but right now it’s fairly useless. So quit the blogs and videos and podcasts, and write.

Start a blog

The one thing I took away from many hours of reading these guys was starting a blog. The blog you’re reading this post on. My thinking: if I’m going to write this book, I may as well do something relatively easy and simple to start generating interest and maybe some email subscribers. So I started the blog, I post very infrequently (compared to many) and don’t get huge traffic, but it’s fun and it did help me get about 1,200 email addresses from people who were interested in this topic and to whom I could later market the book.

The one disadvantage of the blog is that it’s yet another thing that eats into your writing time.

A blog on its own of course will sit there, among the tens of thousands of other blogs created every single day, its posts totally lost among the estimated 200 million blog posts created every day. So I started pointing an existing audience I had – my 5,000+ LinkedIn connections – to the blog.

This also made sense because my book was non-fiction and geared toward helping people in their career. Therefore my blog headlines sat very comfortably within the LinkedIn ecosystem.

This does force one further step back though – how I generated 5,000 (now 6,250+) connections/followers on LinkedIn. For about a year before I had the idea for the book I had been a total LinkedIn whore, connecting with anyone and everyone who would have me. I’m not entirely sure why – I think I must just have had some inkling that a large database of email addresses may be useful in the future. I also jumped at the chance to take over the management of an existing LinkedIn freelance writer’s group, with about 40,000 members, when the owner decided they didn’t want it anymore. Initially I started posting articles direct on the LinkedIn system to generate a profile. Then, once I had the blog, I started posting introductions to the posts on LinkedIn with directions to read the rest of the post on my blog.

So now, with my blog and slowly growing list of email subscribers, I could give them a taste of my expertise and prime them for my upcoming book with chapter excerpts and other teasers.

I tried to publish a blog post every two weeks, which I managed for a while. Toward the end of the book it dwindled to about once a month and I haven’t posted on the blog since I started the book-publishing process – a gap of about two months. That’s not good. But I do still have my email database, which is the most valuable aspect of the blog anyway.

Create a cover

While reading authorial advice, it became obvious a good book cover is essential. I didn’t want to fork out $250 or so for a pro design, so I fumbled around on my own using Canva for a while, didn’t really like anything that resulted, found a book cover on Amazon in my field that I thought would work and basically replicated that. This is it:

how to pitch travel stories

Not great, not terrible.

Social advertising

I also heard a lot about how Facebook advertising has really helped authors like Mark Dawson hit the big time. But like a lot of the stuff these authors advise on, it’s mostly directed at fiction writers. I experimented with Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, Google ads and Twitter ads. I didn’t spend a lot. Maybe $10-20 here and there each time, trying to generate email signups. My error was not offering anything for free in return for the signup. I would boost a Facebook post, for example, hoping people would like what they saw and sign up to my newsletter, which I placed prominently in the blog sidebar. While I got a few signups this way, it was not enough to be worthwhile. Which is why it’s best to start this marketing process once you already have a few things to offer.

The ideal process goes something like this:

  1. Offer a free ebook for an email address
  2. Plug that email address into an auto-generated newsletter sequence, which sends them videos or podcasts or blog posts or even another ebook, all for free, providing evidence of your expertise and value
  3. Hit them with the sales email, having primed them with all this free content, and convert them to a sale

For my non-fiction, travel writer-targeted campaign, LinkedIn appeared to be the most effective platform for this. But there’s a lot of subtlety to creating a really effective social media ad campaign, including the image you use, the headline text, the ‘sell’ text and of course the targeting – which countries, which ages, which interests and job titles. The one course I may sign up to, next time it’s available, is Mark Dawson’s Facebook advertising course – just to get an idea of some of the general rules he applies, which I may be able to apply to LinkedIn.

Formatting

I’ve given formatting its own section because it was a pain in the nuts.

Long story short: I saw you can now also publish in paperback on Amazon, without having to go through CreateSpace, in a process very much like the Kindle book process. Very easy. But there are formatting things to consider such as margin widths, cover spine width depending on the length of the book and so on. I ended up copying the whole book from Scrivener into Google docs, into Word, and finally into Amazon’s pre-filled Word doc templates. So my advice is just go straight to Amazon’s pre-filled templates. They contain all the page breaks and other formatting things you need, you can paste in your text, modify it how you need, and it’s job done. And having done it for paperback, it’s pretty easy to only slightly modify that document (margins etc) to make it Kindle-ready too.

Getting feedback/Advanced Team

I finished the book. Amazing. A year to write 30,000 words is sloth-like, to say the least. But I was reasonably pleased. But it was pretty much a first draft. So I sent it out to a former editor of mine for feedback. I applied that feedback. And then I applied another lesson from all my self-publishing research: reaching out to interested readers on my email database who would be willing to be part of an ‘Advanced Team’ who got the book for free in return for feedback and an ‘honest review’ on Amazon once the thing was published.

About 40 people signed up and I sent it to around 15. I now know this is really small scale. Five days after publishing the book only two have reviewed it on Amazon. They’ve both been 5-star reviews with great write-ups, but I was hoping for at least 10. I’ll chase up the others in a few days’ time, but it seems that it’s easy to sign up to an Advanced Team email list, less easy to read the book and write about it. (I also know at least one person hated the book, so that may be an explanation too)

Pre-orders

While my Advanced Team was reading the book (or, more likely, planning to maybe get around to reading it later, perhaps, if they could be bothered and had nothing else to do), I set-up pre-orders on Amazon. This is where you load up all the book details and an initial version of the book, but set the publish date in the future, so you can generate buzz and start your marketing before the final manuscript is ready. I’m not sure how effective it is – in the sense that I don’t know if this helps get more sales than without. But it’s kind of nice to finally be able to tell people they can order your book.

I got about 30 pre-orders.

I marketed the pre-order with a discount: ‘Pre-order for the reduced price of $2.99’. I am actually still running this discount five days after publishing, but will bump the price up a tiny bit in a day or so. Amazon told me during the upload process that the most effective price for books of this type (whatever that means – length mainly, perhaps?) is $3.99. So I’ll probably move to that.

Paperback

It’s great to have such a simple option for paperback publishing on top of the Kindle, but having gone through the process, Amazon’s formula for calculating royalties is not very generous. I’ve priced my book at $6.49, to give me a royalty of around $1 each sale. My Kindle version, priced at $2.99, nets me more than double: $2.09. Yes I have to pay the paperback printing costs of course, but their formula is still skewed heavily in favor of Amazon.

More marketing

In truth, this whole process, from the writing to the publishing and marketing, has been a bit of an experiment – to see how this publishing lark works. If I really want to get serious about it I need to continue the marketing with more blog posts, guest blogs on other sites, social advertising, reach-outs to others in the trade who may be able to spread the word. Indeed, one other benefit of starting and running the blog was being contacted by a writer going through the exact same process as me to see if I could help market her book. She wrote a guest post for me and we’re still in contact to see how we can help cross-sell our books and blogs.

More books

I also plan to write two more ebooks – one short and simple freebie that I’ll use to generate email signups and direct people into a newsletter flow that funnels through to the paid book, and another a paid book, but cheaper and shorter, that I can use as a halfway house between the free book and the main one.

Sit back, get rich, buy an island

And, after applying all that, I’ll then have the chance to put my feet up while I occasionally refresh the Amazon Reports page, watch the royalties ramp up in thousand-dollar increments, and plan to buy a small (I’m not ostentatious) tropical island somewhere near the sea.

Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter (here or in the sidebar) to see how that plan turns out!

8 thoughts on “Lessons from a debut self-published author

  1. Great post!

    As another first-time self-published author — or a hybrid, which sounds a little genetically modified but gets the point across that you’re bipublishing curious — the following sentences cheered me immensely: “First thing to do is write the damn book. Sit your ass down on the chair, turn off the Internet, lock the kids in the cellar and write.” Yes, the thing that maximizes earnings, as you point out, is writing dozens of books.

    But then there are those other things that have nothing to do with writing. Those are the ones that give me agita just thinking about them. The email marketing for example… but you can’t get around that, can you? Traditional publishers will not sell your book for you either — and they take more of a royalty cut and put your book out of print without telling you if it doesn’t sell (she says bitterly). And if you’re going to do it yourself, you’ve got to do things that you don’t like but that have been proven to work.

    After sitting your ass in the chair, of course.

    But first I’ll go read your book. Which I pre-ordered. Because email campaigns work.

  2. Haha great comment Edie. I’ve got to say everything I read about publishing suggests going the DIY route is far more sensible these days. More control, more royalties, more work, yes, but more rewarding too perhaps as a result? I don’t know – if someone offers you a big advance and promises to promote and get your ‘brand’ out there, then you’d be a fool to say no. The ideal world would be take the exposure and advance from a big mainstream publishing debut, then use that to go your own way.

    After sitting your ass in the chair.

  3. James I felt exhausted just reading this post. And this is probably why I haven’t yet “sat my ass down to write” because I certainly have a lot of ideas (all but one are not travel related). But as with everything I always think ahead about what’s involved and all the marketing and promotion and social media that’s necessary just does my head in. Whatever happened to the good old days when we all had one job and didn’t need to be multi-skilled? I did do a book writing course a couple of years ago and she said the best price point for an brook for max profit was $9.99 but damned if I can remember why. Well good luck with all that and don’t forget to post from your yacht, LOL!

    1. It can be exhausting and draining and worst of all, all this ‘peripheral’ stuff takes you away from the writing. But it’s an amazing thing to be able to write and publish stuff, yourself, and get read, all within a few days of finishing the book. Those who have succeeded say writers shouldn’t consider this stuff peripheral anymore – if you’re serious about it, this is all part of what you need to do now.

      I know that Amazon has a 70% royalty rate for books priced $2.99-9.99; perhaps that’s what your coach was referring to? (30% royalty for all other prices)

  4. Thanks for the advice, especially about sitting my ass down and writing that book. I have written several novels but none of them are polished because I keep getting sidetracked with all the info on publishing and marketing. Scares me away.

  5. Writing and publishing a book is hard work, period. I have self-published a book and have now worked with a publisher on two ebooks. I can honestly say all were time-consuming, but required attention to different types of detail. The bottomline is, it is your baby, and no matter who publishes it, it falls to you to protect the quality and integrity of the final product. That is not easy to do, but it is your name and reputation on the line. My way of saying there is no easy way to get a book published and to market. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, and you’re right of course. I know even with traditional publishers they expect you to do a lot of marketing and promo work too, so I guess it comes down to either taking their marketing money for the extra exposure, or keeping the control and doing it all yourself.

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