I’ve been an indie author for over three years with over twenty self-published books under my belt. While I haven’t hit the big best-seller lists yet, I’ve done well enough to support myself with just my royalties each month. I don’t claim to have all the answers or know everything there is to self-publishing—far from it—but I have learned a LOT since releasing my first book. I like to pay it forward after several indie authors took me under their wings in the beginning and gave me some much-needed advice.
So here is a list of things I’ve learned over the past three years. While not everything on the list may apply to every author, most will. Also, these are not written in stone. Some authors may disagree with something on the list, but this is what has worked for me and is a list of do’s and don’ts that I suggest.
1) NEVER let your family or friends read your books when you are first starting out. Why? They love you and won’t want to hurt you by saying your writing sucks. While my first attempt at writing a novel had a good storyline, I did every writer “don’t.” I used dialogue tags like crazy. I had information dumps that could have been spread out over different scenes. I had 50+ word sentences. I was head hopping (getting into the mind of more than one character in a scene). I was having more than one character talking in a paragraph. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. I had my family and friends read it, and no one pointed out all the stuff I’d done wrong. I sent that piece of crap to publishers and agents! No wonder I got rejection letters left and right! So, find some beta readers who will at least be honest with you and have the experience of pointing out all that you’re doing wrong.
2) As soon as you can afford one, get an editor. If you can’t afford an editor, at least try to get a proof-reader. If you can’t afford that either, then get about 7-10 experienced beta readers to help you find as many errors as possible. (Although try your hardest to start with an editor. It will save you many headaches in the end.) My first 4 books were done without an editor or proofreader, and when I finally got an editor to go through my backlist, she thought they’d actually been edited before since there had been little my betas and I had missed by that point.
3) Get a professional cover. Again, this is something I did on my own in the beginning. I self-taught myself how to use Photoshop, which wasn’t easy, but with online tutorials, I was able to muddle through. Many of my readers still love my original covers, but the new covers I had done are so much more eye-catching.
There are plenty of cover designers out there who have pre-made covers for you to choose from. Just search for “pre-made covers” on Facebook or even Fiverr. Make sure the images used by the designer have been legally purchased. “I didn’t know” is not an excuse if someone sues you for a copyright infringement. Using a celebrity’s image, or any image for that matter, that you have not paid for or have been given WRITTEN consent to use, will get you in a heap of trouble. This goes for images and video clips for covers, teasers, trailers, websites, etc. DON’T DO IT. If an image or video clip has a watermark on it, not only are you asking to get sued, but the book community will call you out on it. (Whether it was an honest mistake or not.)
4) Get Vellum (for Mac computers only) or hire a professional formatter. Trying to read a poorly formatted book will drive most readers crazy. What looks like a properly formatted file in Word or similar program may not convert to Amazon’s mobi or other sites’ epub files correctly. There are templates that can be found for the proper formatting for mobi, epub, and other conversions.
5) Get Calibre if you’re not using Vellum. This is a downloadable program that will convert your Docx files to mobi, epub, etc. files.
6) Create the following as soon as possible, even if it’s before your first release.
- Facebook reader group
- Facebook author page
- Twitter profile
- Instagram business profile
- Pinterest business profile
After your book is released or set for pre-order:
- Goodreads author profile
- Bookbub author profile
- Allauthor profile
- Newsletter signup
- Amazon author page
7) Start friend requesting bloggers and authors (especially those who write in your genre and whose books you’ve read and enjoyed). Share the posts about their books or events. When you release your book, they may just return the favor. I have close to 5000 “friends” in the book world. Many of my readers constantly share my posts and pimp me in group, and several bloggers and authors give me shout outs on new releases and sales.
8) Start joining groups that allow you to promote your books in them. Make sure you read the rules to avoid being banned for posting on the wrong day of the week or the wrong genre.
9) DO NOT private message or email other authors at random, begging them to buy your book and review it. Let me repeat that, DO NOT private message or email other authors at random, begging them to buy your book and review it. At the least, they will ignore you. At most, they will unfriend and block you. At most and worst, (yeah that sounds weird but true) they will unfriend, block, and then post a screenshot of the message so others can block you. Usually this is only done when the sender gets nasty with the receiver after they were told that PMing and begging other authors is not proper etiquette in the book world.
10) This is the only time #9 is socially acceptable. AFTER developing a relationship with another author (not a five minute one but cultivated over several months—commenting on their posts, joining and being active in their groups, meeting them at signings, and maybe having a non-pitch private chat with them.) you may politely ask if they’d be interested in receiving a free copy of your book for an editorial review. Make sure it’s someone who reads/writes your genre. These reviews can be used on your book covers, in your blurbs, and in the editorial review section of you book’s page on Amazon. DO NOT be insulted if they turn you down. Many best-selling authors receive requests like this all the time. They don’t have time to accommodate everyone. Thank them for their consideration if they do have to turn you down.
11) Be very, very, VERY wary of anyone who cold emails you with an offer to either publish your book, promote your book, or review your book. Any “publisher” that emails you saying they saw your book and think they could get you more exposure if you let them relist it is not a real publisher. They are a vanity press (even though they’ll tell you they’re not) and will end up costing you a lot in up-front charges and royalties as they will now “own” your book for the next 5+ years. Any reviewer asking to be paid for a review is also trouble. Amazon does not allow paid reviews. If they can’t post on Amazon, don’t use them.
I know there is one such blogger who sends out cold emails that pitches that she can review you on her widely followed blog. When you answer, she comes back with the terms that it will cost you $75. Delete the email! There are several websites that this doesn’t apply to such as, Netgalley, Onlinebookclub, Hiddengems, and a few others. If it’s a blogger wanting to be paid for a review, run. Do not go to Fiverr or any other site like that and buy reviews. If Amazon catches you (and they have caught authors in the past) they will strip the reviews and possibly ban you from the site.
12) Join these Facebook author groups. They are invaluable with their information, and there are thousands of authors willing to give you input and advice. They do not allow promotions, drama, and bullying. No question is a stupid question. We’ve all been there before.
- Alessandra Torre Inkers
- Indie Author Support
- Club Indie (Must be referred by a current member. Must also have at least 2 books published.)
- Author Support Network
- Indie Author Forum (Must have at least one book published. All authors are vetted before being accepted. Currently not accepting new members but will start again soon.)
13) Do not expect your books to fly off the shelves after you release your first one or two. It’s very rare for a new indie author to have a breakout book and find an immediate following and success. When I first started out, I’d read a few articles that said an indie author shouldn’t expect to develop a decent following and royalties until after their 4th or 5th book. That was dead on in my case. I’d been steadily growing my readership base, and it wasn’t until after my 4th novel (with a novella thrown in there) that I had a spike in sales. While it was nice, it wasn’t huge.
But then a few best-selling authors shared my books with their readers (one because she happened to come across my first book without even knowing who I was, and she enjoyed it, and the other because I’d developed a relationship with her and during a chat—remember #10 above—she noted the first book in my series had just gone perma-free and posted it on her wall. My downloads for the day soared!) and my reader base grew. Then I got the holy grail of book advertising on Bookbub (after 17 tries) and again, that reader base grew even more. It continues to do so with each new release.
14) After you release your first book, start marketing like crazy. Actually, start marketing before that There are a ton of ways to do this cheap or free. Ask in one of the groups above for ways to do it because it’s too much to list here. In the meantime, start writing your next book! Series do very well, when it comes to developing a reader base. Readers love to read about side characters that caught their attention in books.
15) Consider Kindle Unlimited while first starting out. Yes, I know there is a lot of controversy over this lately, thanks to book stuffers and other issues, and some authors will disagree me. The great thing about KU is that, since readers can download as many KU books they want for $10 per month, there is no financial risk for them to try new authors. I will say that there are authors who have found great success in the wide markets, while others did better in KU. I’m the latter.
After 2 years in KU, I tried going wide for a year. While there were sales in the other markets, it was less than what I’d been doing in KU. After getting a Bookbub deal last December, I decided to go back into KU, and on the tail of that big promotion, my royalties quadrupled what I’d been doing on the wide markets. Many of my faithful followers, who now buy my books instead of borrowing so they can keep them, found me through KU.
16) Start doing takeovers when other authors are having them for new releases or cover reveals (or for any other reason.) Takeovers are 15-60 minutes long, (depending on the event) where you get to post about you and your books. You can post teasers, excerpts, requests to follow you on social media, etc. It exposes you to the followers of the other authors in the event. Remember to invite your own followers so they can find new authors too. Before you do your first takeover, find one and see how other authors are promoting themselves during it. Check out the contests they run too.
17) Do not pay a shit-ton of money for any course that offers to show you how to get instant, best-selling success and make 5 or 6 figure monthly in royalties. Most of them are bunk and only work in certain genres, or you can get the same advice for free if you do a few searches for the information. There are a few legit ones but some are very expensive — there are several conferences that are good to attend. Just avoid the ones that offer near guarantees that you’ll be making 5-6 figures in no time.
18) Do not put your books in some obscure category, that they don’t fit in, in order to get an Amazon best-selling status. This is a sneaky tactic that is frowned upon by authors and readers alike. Be aware though that Amazon does randomly change authors’ categories and you might end up in one you didn’t select. This is based on also-boughts, keywords, and other things. Contact Amazon and explain how this is not your book’s genre and ask them to change it back.
19) Do not “stuff” extra material in the back of your books in order to get a higher page-read count for KU. If you’re not sure what this is and why it’s not a good idea, just Google #bookstuffers #bookstuffing #getloud #tiffanygate or #bookscammers and you’ll find out quickly. Do NOT try to scam the system and don’t follow someone who tries to teach you how to do it. You will get called out on it eventually.
20) Do NOT freak out when you get a bad review and definitely DO NOT respond to it.
These are a rite of passage for authors. Go to any well-known, best-selling author’s book and click on their 1-star reviews. It’ll make you feel much better. If a bad review (or even a good one) mentions specific grammatical errors or something that bothered them about your writing style (i.e. head hopping) that can be fixed, then use that as constructive criticism.
Go back and fix the errors and upload the new file so other readers get a better copy and will maybe leave you a 5-star review to counteract the 1-star review. The worst thing you can do on any bad review is to respond to it (don’t ask your readers to respond to it either), unless you want to tank your career in less than a few hours. Don’t think that will happen? Google Dylan Saccoccio.
21) Develop your Facebook author group. Invite people to join when you’re doing takeovers. If a reader contacts you through social media or email to say how much they enjoyed your book, ask them to join. (Do not add anyone without their permission. It will get you blocked in many cases.) Post several times a day if you can, but at least once a day if you can’t. Don’t make it all about your books. Post fun stuff. Run contests. Ask for their book recommendations.
Tell them about yourself (nothing too personal, but enough that they can see you’re human just like them). Ask their opinion on a new cover. Ask them to help name a character, town, or business. Run a contest that has using the winner’s name as a character in your next book. Post your inspiration for a character (this is when it’s okay to post a celebrity photo because you’re not profiting from it.)
Post excerpts, covers, and teasers in there before anywhere else. If need be, create a spoiler group where readers can go discuss your latest release without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it yet. You can link your group to your pages. (I always invite authors who are trying to develop their group to come into mine to see how I interact with my members. If you’d like to join, it’s called The Sexy Six-Pack’s Sirens group.) One of the main things my readers say to me is they love how I make myself available to them. I respond to and interact with them all the time.
22) Newsletters. Subscribe to the newsletters of successful authors to see what they include in theirs. Try to send a newsletter once a month. There are authors I subscribe to that send out a weekly newsletter in addition to the monthly one. The weekly one goes to readers who specifically signed up for it, knowing they’ll be getting them often. Other readers only want new release updates, so they’ll sign up for the monthly one.
23) Book signings. Do not sign up for a book signing thinking you’re going to sell all the books you bring with you and make back all the money you shelled out for the event, hotel, travel, meals, and swag. You’re not going to. What you will gain is exposure. If you interact with the readers walking around, there’s more a chance that they’ll check out your books when they get back home. Do NOT sit there on your phone. Make eye contact. Point out the funny shirt they’re wearing or the really cute shoes. They will more often than not stop and start talking with you.
Figure out a way to draw the readers who have never heard of you to your table. (I currently put a card in the event bags and announce in the event group on FB that if they bring the card to my table, they can roll dice for doubles and win some special swag—the slightly more expensive stuff I can’t afford to just hand out like mugs, tote bags, mouse pads, and special bookmarks). Ask them where they’re from and what genres they like to read. Have a book pitch ready, but don’t make the conversation all about your books.
24) Do NOT let your ego get in the way. Other authors are not your competition. We help each other (well, most of us do) and really want to see everyone succeed. Listen to them if they offer advice. It may not work for you, but really consider it before tossing it aside. Think twice about posting something that’s going to stir up shit and get people in the book community upset with you. I’m not saying stay silent if you were wronged, but make sure you really were wronged before posting it. Your perception about something you’re upset about may not be the same as everyone else.
25) Check out Bookfunnel or Prolific Works as a way to distribute your ARCs (advanced reader copies) or free promotional books.
26) Book prices. Do NOT sell yourself short. You put too much work into your book to just give it away or make pennies on it. While making the first book in a series free or 99c, when you have others at full price ($2.99 and up), is a great marketing strategy, don’t price every book at 99c — especially a new release. If your books are getting great reviews and follow through (the readers are purchasing the rest of your books after reading one), then price your books accordingly. This doesn’t mean you can’t run a sale or freebie on the book, but again, don’t underprice your hard work.
27) Pen names. These have been used for hundreds of years—they aren’t anything new. There are many reasons why some authors use pen names (I do), and the most common reason is they want to keep their book life and real life separate. Some authors write erotic romance and have jobs that might be compromised if found out. They have children to protect too. Another reason they might use one is that the genre they write in is hard for a certain gender to get a following in (i.e. men writing romance).
If you don’t want readers to know your gender (there are millions of readers who don’t follow authors on social media) then use a gender-neutral name—Alex, Sawyer, Morgan, etc.—or initials. Using an opposite-gender or gender-neutral name does not give an author the right to pretend to be the opposite sex. Deceiving readers into thinking they are interacting with a member of the same sex on social media, where they might share personal information in private groups or chats, is wrong. This is how sexual predators find their victims online. If you wouldn’t want someone deceiving your 13-year-old child in this manner, don’t do it to your readers.
Before you decide on a pen name, if you want to go that route, go to Amazon and Google and do a search for the name you’re thinking of using. You might be surprised to find that a name you think is unique, actually isn’t. After my third book was published under Samantha Cole, I noticed an adult coloring book and a gardening book were added to my Goodreads’ dashboard. I didn’t write either. To avoid the problem, I added the middle initial to my name and haven’t had any books I didn’t write listed under my dashboard since. If your real name or a pen name is already in use, consider using your initials, another family surname, or a combination of names to reduce the chances of someone else publishing after you using the same name. It will become very confusing for your readers if there are two separate authors with the same exact name.
28) I shouldn’t have to say this, but do NOT plagiarize another author’s work—even it’s a small part of their book. There have been “authors” who have changed the characters from a M/F book into an M/M book and vice versa or have just changed the names to try and get away with it. You might get away with it for a while, but as it’s been proven, over and over again, you will eventually get caught and outed by one of the other author’s fans and will be subject to being sued and banned on book sites.
29) Do NOT copy another author’s book cover. Yes there are images from stock photo sites that can be used by anyone (most authors use those sites) and they end up on multiple books, but any good designer can make those images look unique with filters, merging them with other images, and using different fonts and colors.
30) Do NOT assume anyone with a similar title and book cover has intentionally copied you. Most times this is not the case. Again, anyone can use the images from those stock sites (unless it is sold as an exclusive, which costs a lot of money), and they may end up on dozens of covers.
Case in point on similarities on covers: I’m in a multi-author series that is releasing one book every two weeks over the next few months. The next book is being released tomorrow and has been on pre-order. The book is named after the character’s nickname (one word).
Yesterday I noticed another book on pre-order that is being released 8 days later—it’s part of a third author’s world. It also uses that one-word nickname in the title with an adjective before it. It wouldn’t have caught my eye except they both have the title in the same color teal! It was a shade off, but close enough that I froze and said WTF? I contacted the world owner, as I’m in the same world, and the author in my book series and explained what happened. I didn’t want anyone saying one was copying the other.
Thankfully, both cover images are different enough, and one image is in color and the other is in black and white, that the font color and close title are the only things that are similar, so there shouldn’t be a problem. The world author was going to contact the other author and give her a heads up. (By the way, see what I did here? I didn’t scream foul and rant and rave. This was purely coincidental. I contacted the parties involved, explained the situation, and agreed there was no need to change the titles or coloring. Crisis and drama averted.)
As I stated above, it’s not unheard of to have books by other authors with the same title as yours. It happens all the time. My first book, Leather & Lace, competes with dozens of other books with that same title. I didn’t search Amazon before publishing it, and that’s the last time I ever did that. Yes, it’s hard to come up with titles that haven’t been used, but you’ll be surprised what hasn’t been. Use a character’s name or attribute to change up the title. If you do end up with a title that’s been used, you don’t have to change it. In some cases, it might help you get exposure. Just make sure you’re not using a trademarked name – i.e. Harry Potter. If someone publishes a book with the same title as yours a month later, don’t assume they copied yours. Many authors choose their titles before they ever start writing the story. It happens. No one is out to still your thunder. And readers just have to look at the listing to see your name so they’re not “buying the wrong book.”
31) Do NOT use song lyrics in your book unless you have written permission from the songwriter or the copyright has run out on it (usually 50-100 years after it is penned). Song titles are allowed.
32) Don’t buy exclusive photos if you can’t really afford them right now. Use that money to edit or market your book.
33) Don’t buy ISBN numbers if you don’t need them. Most of the time you don’t. As far as I know, Ingramspark is the only site that requires you to buy one from Bowker. (Most countries other than the US and AU give them to you for free. Most brick and mortar stores require you get them from Bowker to be in their stores, but selling the print and ebook copies online don’t.)
34) When hiring an editor, proofreader, or cover designer, make sure you mesh first of all. My editor did a sample chapter for me and was the only one to offer to do it when I was looking for an editor. Secondly, make sure everything is discussed up front. There should be no added fees at the end that weren’t agreed to. Read any contract with them carefully.
35) When contacting bloggers, understand that they too have lives. Give them more than a few days to read/review. When the blogger states that they aren’t able to r/r your book but they are able to share your promos, take them up on that. Do NOT get mad or degrade them for that. Many bloggers might not accept your book to review for several reasons, such as they have a long list ahead of you or you don’t write in their preferred genre.
36) Sometimes, unexpected things happen too. If something happens to you, such as reviews go missing, you end up in a category that you didn’t put your book in, someone’s cover is similar to yours, you get bad reviews, or anything else that might frustrate you or get you depressed, please know this has happened to all of us–including the big-name, traditional-press authors. None of us are immune. The best thing to do is take a few deep breaths and talk to your fellow authors who have been there before.
I’m sure there are a bunch of things I missed, so if anyone wants to point them out in the comments, I’ll add them. Again, many of these points are based on my own opinion and experience. Some authors may have a different opinion about some I made, but I tried to cover the most general issues that new authors have questions about.