Tips from Successful Writers About Publishing Independently

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“Success” in book publishing is an ill-defined metric. We often talk to authors at the beginning of the process about what success would look like to them, for that particular book. It’s a worthy question to ask in order to understand what you’re setting out to achieve and to help set both realistic expectations and a strategy to get there.

To celebrate Indie Author Day this year, we’ve asked a few of our authors for their view on what it was that made their books successful. Here’s what they had to say.

What do you think was the most important piece of the puzzle in terms of your book’s success?

NIEA Award–winning novelist ANDREA THOME: No one will take you seriously as an author if your work isn’t clean as a whistle. I’m grateful to have worked with the same team of editors for all three of my books, and it’s made all the difference. Having my second book ready as an advance reader copy more than three months before my release date was critical to effectively marketing it. And having a publicist that specialized in literary publicity has been key. It’s also very important to have a consistent presence on social media and be willing to spend the time growing your base. Girl Friday’s “digital audit” was a huge eye-opener for me in terms of showing me where I needed development.

IPPY Award–winning author SALLY GAGLINI: The cover, superbly designed by GFP, and the book’s Amazon ranking were key in spurring sales: it was both a bestseller and #1 new release in its category. After the book was out a little less than a year, it won a silver IPPY—which boosted sales again. Educate yourself by learning as much as you can before you turn the ignition key.

Kirkus-starred, Amazon #1 bestselling author BRIAN RUTENBERG: Choosing a great editor was the single most important aspect of my book’s success. I should clarify that I am not a writer but a painter who wrote a book. Since I wrote Clear Seeing Place over a four-year period, I found it beneficial to pass my manuscript through two editing stages, which guided me in cutting out repetitive clutter and honing my points down into clear language.

Internationally published, Amazon #1 bestselling author BOB LEE: It’s a little like asking which piece of the jigsaw puzzle is most important. The last piece completes the picture but is useless unless every other piece is in place. To start, the book must fully “look the part.” It’s hard enough to compete with established publishers, so why put yourself at a disadvantage before you even start? Pay as much attention to getting cover, layout, structure, etc. right as the best-resourced publisher would.

In my case, Amazon ranking has been key. I got the book to #1 on Amazon.co.uk in the “International Business” category with some investment of time and money (profit sacrificed, to be precise, by buying the books from my own company, set up as a vendor on Amazon, rather than simply fulfilling orders “invisibly” from my own stock). I found it easier to get attention from potential distributors when my book ranked, and it provided a degree of reassurance to potential purchasers. But I also believe that you only need to hit a high spot once, because whatever potential advantages there might be in staying in the top 20 are unlikely to be worth the time and money involved.

Is the reality of being a self-publisher different than what you expected? How?

ANDREA: I had no idea how much work it was going to be. It’s expensive and very time-consuming, but if you really want to retain creative control of your work and your brand, there is no better way.

BRIAN: My first book was published by a traditional publisher (Radius Books). It was a wonderful experience, but I wanted to have more creative freedom with my second book. GFP provided the same level of service, expertise, and polish that a top traditional publishing house offers. Plus, I got the financial boost of low production costs and higher royalties. The book is doing better than I ever dreamt it could.

BOB: Reality—it’s a far bigger thrill, and there is a certain cache, to being a published author. It would all be wonderful if it wasn’t so bloody difficult to actually sell books. Quite easy to get exposure, publicity, and interest, but converting that to sales is so hard!

Based on your experience, what’s one piece of advice you could give to an author ready to start this process?

ANDREA: Be prepared to invest time and a lot of effort. It might take you a few books to get some traction, unless you’re a leprechaun or in the right place at the right time. Keep doing it because you love to write. Writing is the reward.

SALLY: Hire Girl Friday Productions. Professional, passionate, and extraordinarily talented, they are worth every penny you will spend. And . . . as an added bonus, you will sleep at night.

BRIAN: Write about stuff you really know, and avoid the passive voice.

BOB: Accept that your first drafts will not be published in that format, so they don’t need to be perfect, or even very good. They just need to be. Share your work early and often. I made the mistake in the beginning of allowing myself to be self-conscious of my efforts, maybe terrified of having my work judged and found wanting, so I protected myself by not showing it to others.

Start with a clear vision of how you want to feel when you hand a published copy of your book to another person. You don’t want to have to apologize, or explain, or justify, or share how it could be so much better if only you had had more X or less Y. Your book will be around—potentially—forever. It might be the only book you will ever write. Make it the best book that you possibly can. And when you hand the book to somebody, and they notice the beautiful cover, the beautiful layout, the beautiful writing, and compliment you on an outstanding achievement, accept the compliment and resist the very human temptation to bat it away.