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6 Things I’ve Learnt as a Starting Indie Author

Two years ago, when I decided to self-publish, I knew close to nothing about indie publishing and what it means. Looking back—now that I am getting closer to publishing my debut novel—I can say it was a difficult, yet really rewarding journey. I’m sharing here the most important lessons I’ve learnt along the way as a starting indie, plus some of my favorite resources.

GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME TO UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS

If you decide to self-publish and you know nothing or close to nothing about what it takes, you need to consider one important thing: the learning curve is really steep. Self-publishing doesn’t mean drafting a story in a word-processing tool, uploading it on Amazon and waiting for the profit to come in. First of all, you must understand the industry and the process, and that takes a lot of time. There are countless approaches, best practices, tools, and so on—and finding the most suitable set can be time consuming and nerve wracking. Be prepared for trial and error in terms of initial decisions, and for reading a lot about everything until you have a good grasp of the concept (every detail, from choosing your publishing platform(s), to selecting your book size, to setting your price correctly, and up to ISBNs). It took me over a year to understand how it goes and find the most suitable solutions for my book (and future books).

To make sure you know what you’re doing, give yourself at least half a year (provided you have enough extra time) to do your research and understand what self-publishing and independent publishing mean. It’s not easy and not always straightforward. Just to give an example, in April 2019 when I was working on the first draft of my debut novel (the first in my Cerulean Airship steampunk series), my plan was to publish it in e-book format and exclusively on Amazon. I knew almost nothing about print on demand or going wide. In November 2020 (when I am close to launching it) and many months of thorough research later, I know I’ll be going wide, and publish both in both e-book and paperback format. I decided to publish it as paperback via KDP and IngramSpark, and as e-book directly via Amazon, Google Books, and Kobo; and through Draf2Digital for everything else—at least until I will release the other books of the series, when I plan to publish direct on Apple Books as well. Of course, I will adjust everything on the go depending on the results, but at least now I can say I made an informed decision.

My favorite resources to understand the process of indie publishing:

The Alliance of Independent Authors (subscription-based—they have a lot of helpful materials for authors)

The Creative Penn (website + podcast)

Joanna Penn’s Business for Authors

The Indie Author Mindset (Adam Croft’s Facebook group)

Self-publishing with Dale YouTube channel

Helen Sedwick’s Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook

Mark Dawson’s The Self Publishing Show podcast

IngramSpark’s Go Publish Yourself podcast

DON’T GO ALL OVER THE PLACE WITH MARKETING

One of the most daunting aspects of self-publishing is marketing. Even though I’ve read a lot about book marketing, I still find it overwhelming and admittedly not my favorite part of the process. There are so many blog posts, books, best practices, and materials out there that even choosing one path is extremely difficult. What goes for one author might not go for another, so you must select the marketing tools set according to your needs, time, and personality. One important thing though: don’t try to go on all the marketing/social media channels available—it’s too much and can get confusing. Choose the ones you are most comfortable with and, more importantly, where your target audience is.

After thoroughly analyzing all the possibilities, I decided to keep Twitter, this blog, and to launch a podcast focused on the Victorian period and steampunk, in order to leverage all the research I’ve done for my novel. And maybe to open a Facebook author page in the future. All the book marketing gurus underline the importance of having a newsletter, which I understand. However, as a personal choice, I decided not to create one—and I will explain why. Though I have subscribed to many authors’ newsletters, I almost never open and read them. Not because I am not interested, but because I always prefer to follow them on social media. It’s faster, and way more convenient. Of course, I might change my approach in time, but this combination appealed to me the most as a starting author. I decided to worry less about heavy marketing now and focus more on it after I have all the three books of my series done.

My favorite resources for understanding book marketing:

Rachel Thompson’s The BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge

Joanna Penn’s Successful Self-Publishing: How to self-publish and market your book

Joanna Penn’s How To Market A Book

David Gaughran’s series Let’s Get Publishing

GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME TO UNDERSTAND SALES / FINANCES / ADVERTISING

Whether you do it as an individual author or as a company, self-publishing means business. Going further, business means tax, understanding financial jargon, profit (and how to make it), loss (and how to avoid it), platform deductions and all that jazz. For those who were never acquainted with such things, this aspect can be one of the steepest learning curves. Make sure you know what is the best option for you (individual, LLC, sole proprietor, and so on), and also where you stand in terms of tax legislation—which is different in each country, and also different for individuals and businesses. I cannot stress enough the importance of this step. Just to give an example—many countries have tax treaties with the US and thus you might be eligible for tax deductions. If you don’t know that, you might miss an opportunity and be double taxed (both under the US tax regulations, and the tax regulations of your country). Do your research or—if you are still unsure—ask a lawyer.

Creating your accounts is directly related to understanding taxes and financial regulations. The best approach is to give yourself enough time to read and understand everything about each publishing platform (their rules and requirements, deductions, and everything else there is to know); and to create your publisher account on all the platforms you want to publish. Do it at least 3 weeks before you actually upload (not publish!) your book, in order to avoid making mistakes and being too late to fix them, and to have enough buffer to correct any possible errors that might occur—it can be anything, from an ineligible country for a certain platform, to an ineligible bank account. So, make sure you are covered and have everything set up correctly, to have no other worry before actually uploading your work and make it available for the world.

To smooth your way into sales, one huge prerequisite is to understand advertising. Doing that before you actually have a published book is a bit of a double-edged sword. Researching advertising (especially Amazon advertising) is helpful and it’s important to know at least the basic concepts before you publish. However, chances are that you’ll forget many small aspects if you don’t have anything to apply them on. My approach was to read as much as I could about advertising in general terms and go granular after I publish the book. But it’s important to add advertising on your checklist. It involves a steep learning curve as well, especially since it includes a lot of technicalities.

My favorite resources for understanding advertising

Bryan Cohen’s Sell More Books Show podcast

Bryan Cohen’s Amazon Ad Profit Challenge (free event on Facebook, a few times a year)

Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur

MAKE SURE YOU BUDGET EVERYTHING AND KEEP TRACK OF THE EXPENSES

If taken seriously, self-publishing can be quite a costly adventure. From getting an editor for your book, and up to setting up a budget for advertising, you need to be prepared to spend some money. Plan ahead, keep a file of your expenses forecast and the actual costs, and always check that file, to make sure you are on the right track and adjust accordingly. A simple Excel file would do. But it’s important to have a budget planner and update it regularly. It’s how you will know when you break even, when you are starting to have profit or when you need to take action if you are in the red.

DON’T OVERLOOK THE TECHNICAL DETAILS

Formatting and uploading the file on the publishing platforms is a pretty straightforward process—as long as you get the details correctly. Though it might seem a minor aspect, it is not. If you decide to format the book yourself, you need to understand the file requirements for both interior, and cover. For both e-book, and paperback format. For example, the cover requirements for Amazon and IngramSpark are different. Both platforms offer their own cover template, so it is necessary to pay attention to formatting. Same goes for the interior files. Make sure you know the requirements before you start formatting. I use Vellum, which conveniently generates different files for all the important publishing platforms, and also a print file which can be used for both Amazon, and IngramSpark (without the cover, which is usually uploaded separately). If you decide to hire someone else to do the formatting, do your research about the requirements, and provide all the details and templates they need to have.

IT’S OK TO TAKE A BREAK

Like many starting authors, I have a full-time job—and a very demanding one. That’s why setting up a schedule and keeping up with it is crucial. Being diligent and consistent is a prerequisite, otherwise it’s almost impossible to go further. Organizing your time in such manner as to have slots for writing, researching, reading about the process, and so on, allows you to be a writer as a side activity (realistically, it’s almost impossible to become a full-time writer from the very first book).

However, such a schedule might take its toll at some point. When you wake up daily at 5 AM to write before your working day begins, then stay up until late at night to read one more marketing book, exhaustion will kick in sooner or later. This is when a break is absolutely necessary, regardless the feeling of guilt that comes with it. I have artist and writer friends who are struggling with this guilt issue, and I’ve experienced it myself as well. But it’s totally fine. Though it’s hard to get over this feeling of guilt (it’s a bit like the impostor syndrome—it comes with the package), health must come first. Taking a break is by no means slacking off, but recharging your batteries.

I had such a moment this summer. I was a bit all over the place (and I learnt—the hard way—never to do that again). I was writing, working, listening to marketing podcasts while working, taking online courses, reading. I was cramming too many things within the span of a single day. Inevitably, I woke up one morning at 6 AM to go for my usually schedule and I realized I just couldn’t get out of bed. I decided to take a longer break, to plan everything again, recover my strength and take care of my health. In the first few days, the feeling of guilt was overwhelming. I believed I should just try harder instead of slacking off. Eventually, rational thinking took over, and now I’m back stronger. It’s perfectly fine to set goals, to keep up with a schedule, but also you need breaks from time to time. The risk of not being able to find a balance is to slide into a “do it all and do it now” mindset, which can be really toxic.

The self-publishing process is a long and ever-changing one, and authors must keep up with the new trends. It’s not always easy to learn and adapt, but it’s surely rewarding to find your own way as a writer.

The resources quoted here are what I used myself. But again, what worked for me might not work the same for other authors. There are plenty of self-publishing resources out there, in all forms and formats, and I would love to learn other authors’ recommendations in a comment below.

Post cover photo credit: cottonbro on Pexels

I'm an indie writer, translation industry professional, and former magazine editor, with a passion for steampunk, cyberpunk, and historical fiction. My debut novel Laevium, a steampunk story set in Neo-Victorian London, is available from most major online bookstores.

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