At this point, I’ve published over 10 books by self-publishing through Amazon. I’m by no means an expert, and I’m not sure anyone really is with how quickly things change.
But, I’ve learned some lessons the hard way. This is a list of the 10 things I wish I knew before self-publishing.
1. Platform Doesn’t Matter
Everyone says to build an author platform. You must connect to your potential readers. Start a blog. Be active on Twitter and Facebook. Use Pinterest and Instagram and Youtube.
None of this matters!
Your blog won’t sell books. Neither will Twitter or Facebook. I don’t have a wide data set, but my guess is that you’re doing amazing if you make a sale for every 1,000 people who see a blog post about your new book.
That’s horrible and not worth the effort. You could spend months of hard work and tens of thousands of words to build a blog thinking it will pay off only to find it made two sales.
Woops. Don’t be me.
Social media and your author platform are mostly a waste of time with very little payoff.
I haven’t done Youtube, but I’ve heard it does a little better.
Build a blog because you love to do it. Engage on Twitter because you want to. Do not do these things with the intent to “gain exposure” and sell books.
You probably need a webpage, though many successful people even debate that one. You need a mailing list. Other than that, you should put minimal effort into the other platforms. People might follow you to be notified of new releases, but that’s already a sale, if you see what I mean.
Your author platform is a trap, and pretty much all the time you spend on it could be spent on more effective things like writing the next book.
2. Don’t Let Family or Friends Buy Your Book
Your family and friends want to see just how badly you’ve messed up your life. Er…I mean, they’re just so proud of you. Yeah. That one.
Whatever the reason, everyone you know is going to want to see the book you wrote when they find out you’re a writer with a self-published novel. We already talked about your platform not selling books, and so it will feel necessary to tell everyone you know.
Don’t do this!
You have two main options: paid advertising (see below) or letting Amazon advertise for you for free.
Amazon wants your book to sell, because they make money on it, too.
This means they are going to show it to people they think want to buy it.
The way they decide this is through an algorithm that looks for common purchases from people who have bought it.
This means if your mom, aunt, and grandmother (who all love knitting) bought your fantasy novel, Amazon is going to show your fantasy novel to people who have yarn in their shopping cart.
This is terrible!
In fact, you shouldn’t even buy your own book if you don’t read a lot in your own genre.
You need to let the people who actually read your type of book find it and buy it. This will get the book into the right cycle of showing it to the right type of people.
Eventually, enough of the right people see it that it becomes entangled in a web similar books.
Not only is this free advertising, it’s kind of the only way to be successful.
3. You Need to Advertise
Oh, do I wish I knew this ahead of time.
Before self-publishing, you absolutely must know that you will need to spend a lot of time learning how to advertise (if you want to be successful). Ads are how people find your book.
We’ve already discussed that your platform doesn’t do it. We’ve discussed that you aren’t going to let family and friends do it. So, you need a way to get your book in front of the right people.
This means you need to advertise. There’s one simple reason I wish I knew this ahead of time: advertising is a huge topic.
It could be a bigger topic than “how to write a novel.” This means that you must know about this need to advertise before you self-publish.
It’s going to take weeks or even months of studying the topic to start to get good at it. You don’t have weeks or months once you hit the publish button. The first 30 days of your book going up is the most important. If it fails during that phase, it’s going to be very difficult to pull it back.
This is because Amazon has a “30-day window” where it shows your book to people it thinks will buy it (see Number 2 above). If you don’t get a certain number of sales during that time, Amazon will just stop showing it to people.
4. Amazon Categories Matter
Amazon lets you pick two generic categories for your book when you self-publish it. Most people that don’t know any better leave it at that. These generic categories are way too competitive.
You need to find similar books to your own that are doing really well. Go look at what categories they’re in. They’re probably in some hilariously long list of sub-genres. Your book will be competing with far fewer books in this category.
It’s quite easy to get into these categories. You just call or use the Amazon “Contact Us” button in Author Central. Select the issue “My Books” and then “Update Information about a Book” then “Browse Categories” then “I want to update my book’s browse categories.”
Tell them which categories you want, and they’ll do it.
The thing is, no one tells you to do this. Often, you only need a few sales to get into the Top 10 of a small category. There are people that follow these categories closely. They are exactly your target audience, and then (for free!), you start getting “organic sales” merely from asking Amazon to put you in the appropriate place.
5. Use a Pseudonym
First off, it’s going to be way harder for your friends and family to find your book and buy it if you aren’t using your real name. This is a totally serious consideration.
The second reason is that you have a history with your name. If that history gives your writing weight, then go ahead and use your real name. Examples of this are things like having a degree in creative writing or a history of successful publications.
The reality is that most people who want to self-publish have, at best, a neutral history. Maybe you got a degree in math before finding your true calling. People will prejudge your work if they know this history, and it could be better to start with a clean slate.
The best reason to use a pseudonym is that you can use it to your advantage.
Your name probably already exists, and someone has probably already published books using it.
This will make it very hard for people searching for your books to find them. It will make it impossible for people not searching for your books to find them.
Are you writing YA sci-fi? Use your pseudonym as an opportunity to build trust with potential readers. Ender’s Game is one of the most popular YA sci-fi novels out there. So you think: Ender…Orson Scott Card…maybe Henderson and Cardiff.
Pretty much no one will notice outright what you’ve done, because people won’t even know it’s not your real name. Subconsciously, they think the name sounds familiar and will be more willing to trust it.
You can be more overt with it to try to get better search engine results or more subtle about it to not throw any red flags.
The point is that there is basically no downside to using a pseudonym and a huge upside.
6. Ads Aren’t Scary Until They Are
Here’s the thing with ads. It’s not that scary to jump in and start experimenting. Amazon makes it really hard to spend a lot of money, so there’s not much to fear.
The thing to know is that you can get a whole degree in Marketing. Don’t expect to be an expert right away. Copywriting for an ad is an art form that takes a long time to master and is a completely separate skill from writing a novel.
It’s worth the time invested to learn a bit about this. You will try to target specific keywords. Your book cover is part of the ad and conveys some information. The ad copy is another part. The targeted keywords are another part. The product description is another part.
These all have to come together in just the right way to make the sale. But it’s not as hard and scary as it sounds with some practice.
You don’t pay for an ad unless someone clicks on it. That’s what makes this easy to experiment with. If you mess some aspect of it up, people won’t even click on it, therefore you pay no money for the advertisement.
I wish I knew this going in to self-publishing.
But I also wish I knew that ads can get scary under certain circumstances.
You must be extremely careful with typing. If you accidentally type $1.8 instead of $.18, Amazon will spend $1.80 per click instead of $0.18 per click.
After only one day of this accident, you will have spent way, way too much. Another pitfall is forgetting to turn off advertising during a sale or giveaway. It hurts to pay a bunch of money to get people to see your book, and then when they get to the page, they download the book for free during a limited-time giveaway!
The golden rule is that advertising must pay for itself. But as long as whatever you’re doing is “positive,” even if it’s only making $1.01 for ever $1 you spend, you start to scale that up as much as possible.
Chris Fox made $113,500 in 2018 on self-published books. “What?!” you ask. Well, he spent $41,800 on advertising. That’s still a huge profit, but I think it shows just how important advertising is. The thought of spending that much to get your book to sell is probably terrifying to new authors.
7. Writing Fast is Better than Writing Well
Writing fast and writing well are absolutely not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of people that only put out a book every other year, and they are terrible. There are people that put out a ton of books a year, and they are great.
But, if you are like most people, you’re going to have to make some sort of trade-off on the fast/good spectrum. I wish I knew this before spending multiple years on my first book.
No one knows exactly how the Amazon algorithms work. One piece of folk wisdom in the self-publishing community is that you can extend the “30 day window” or at least give older books a boost by putting out a new book.
Some books will flop. Some will succeed. It’s basically impossible to know this ahead of time.
This means that you want to just keep trying. See Number 9 below for why putting out more and more books on a consistent basis is one of the keys to success.
If I understood this going into self-publishing, I could have shifted my attitude sooner, leading to success sooner.
Overall, try not to sacrifice good, quality writing for speed. But if you have to make the trade-off, err on the side of writing faster. No one will notice. I promise.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
8. People Judge a Book by Its Cover
This could be the most common mistake people make with self-publishing. They think the book will speak for itself. They think: once people read the first page, they’re going be hooked. Or: I’m a writer, not an artist.
Don’t make your own cover unless you have a lot of experience with it already.
People shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but they do.
The cover is an advertisement for your book. The genre should be immediately obvious from the cover alone. It should get the target audience excited to see what’s in it.
Always buy your cover from a cover artist. Do not get the cheapest thing you can find. Also, you must learn at least a little about cover design. It’s not the same thing as graphic design or drawing or art or photography.
It’s an entire branch of art separate from those. Even people charging a lot of money for a cover might be giving you the wrong thing. Unfortunately, this is something you, as the writer, should know going into self-publishing.
Your cousin might have an MFA in graphic design and be the greatest artist you’ve ever met. They might offer to do your cover for free! It might even look amazing!
Do NOT under any circumstances take them up on this offer.
You should learn to see when a cover is good or not. Derek Murphy has a great set of Youtube videos on this. If you know what to look for, you can get really good ones for cheap. But this is unfortunately on the writer to know.
You also must let the artist do their job. They want your business, so they might ask you what you want to keep you happy. Do not tell them the details of your book. It might seem cool to include symbols or the climactic scene on the cover, but this isn’t how you sell a book to someone that hasn’t read it.
The most you should ever do is to tell them the names of some bestselling books in your Amazon category (not the ones you like—the ones that are selling well).
9. Slow, Incremental Growth is Best
When you’re panicked because your first or second or third self-published book isn’t selling, like, at all, you might get desperate.
Do not let the panic cloud your judgment. There’s a famous math thought experiment. Would you rather be given $10 every day for a month or $.01 on the first day and you double the amount every day.
Many people think they will only be at a $1.28 the first week with the second option, so of course take the $10 every day. But the reality is that you’ll be over $1,000,000 on the last day of the month.
The moral of the story is that people underestimate exponential growth, and if you take the slow and steady approach you should get something near this growth curve.
Each book stacks on top of each previous book.
All you need to do is find one person that loves one book, and they will probably buy all the others. If you have a series, you just need to make that first sale for the person to then go through all the other books.
This is why Number 7 above is true.
What do I mean by “best?”
I mean, don’t resort to shady things in those moments of panic. I’m not even going to mention some of them. The risk isn’t worth it. They can get you banned from Amazon. Some of them might even be illegal.
The main ones to stay away from are big-promise promotional sites and buying reviews.
There are some well-established promotional sites that work. Many of them are scams. The decision to use one should be deliberate and slow. They will probably vet you and even reject you. This is a good sign they are legitimate.
A promotion site that lets everyone through and charges money is not going to get you the right traffic. They might boost sales for a day or week, but you probably won’t make your money back and the long-term damage to your “Also Boughts” will not be worth it.
The same with buying reviews. You might get a smattering of good reviews, but Amazon has cracked down on this activity. They might all disappear. Customers can tell when a review is bought and won’t trust it. This means you won’t make your money back.
Anything that looks like you can throw money at it and get a bunch of sales fast is probably a scam, and it’s easy as a desperate, new author to fall for it.
Growth will be slow at first. You must hit a critical mass for the curve to hook upwards. I didn’t do any of the shady stuff, but I wish I knew to trust myself more.
Instead of getting depressed about low sales, get on with the next book.
10. Self-Publishing is the Pulp of Our Time
Maybe everyone understands this now, but I certainly didn’t back when I put out my first book. I thought I’d write my literary masterpieces and just use self-publishing as a way to bypass the flawed mainstream publishing process.
I figured I’d get ahead of the curve. Self-publishing is the future. The big publishers will die out if they don’t change something. Bookstores are dying. Mid-list authors make pretty much nothing and would be better off self-publishing.
What I didn’t understand was that to be successful as a self-published author, you can’t treat it as a different means to the same type of thing.
Self-publishing is different than traditional publishing.
One isn’t “better” or “worse” than the other.
Right now, the most secure way to get success is to write a lot and to stick to a niche genre. This is basically the definition of pulp. Again, I don’t see this as bad or low quality. People read these genres to be entertained.
Once I embraced the idea that I could write books to entertain people, and that was a worthy goal, my books started to do a lot better. But this is something I wish I knew going in. I never would have put my first book out with this method, because it virtually guaranteed no one would ever read it.
Much of what I wish I’d known can be summarized as this: self-publishing is not just a means to release a book; it turns writing into a full-fledged business.
To be successful at this, you need to spend months or years filling in any of the components of how to run a small business that you don’t already know. You must hire people for the tasks you cannot complete on your own. You need a business plan and a launch schedule.
You must understand marketing and copywriting. You need to establish and maintain a mailing list. Once you start selling enough, you need to know how to deal with small business accounting and properly maintain an income/expense spreadsheet for tax reporting.
But don’t let this scare you.
I can’t think of anything better for someone that is independent, loves writing, and loves learning.
If you take each of these tasks one at a time, it is manageable, and if you aren’t afraid to dive in and learn as things change, you might even find yourself doing well.