Five lessons I learned while self-publishing my first novel

I released my first novel about three weeks ago (as if any of you who know me don’t already know that).  Holy cow. I feel as though I’ve given birth.  There’s a weakness in the core of my being, a memory of exhaustion that has seeped into every moment of the past eight months since I first began the book with, “First days were always the worst.”

Turns out the days after aren’t much easier.  It’s funny, I actually wrote that line because I was dreading beginning a novel.  What if I failed to finish?  This was an especially embarrassing thought since I told almost everyone I knew of my plan to write a novel in a month’s time for NaNoWriMo.  Even worse, what if I succeeded and everyone hated the finished product?  But I had already committed:  Updates posted and discussed on Facebook and Twitter, the news already shared with family and coworkers.  I could not back down.  I had to write a book, even if it was terrible.  For inspiration, I purchased No Plot? No Problem!, a book by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty.  Even though I had a (semblance of a) plot, I figured it couldn’t hurt to see what wisdom I could glean from the guy who came up with the idea of knocking out 50k words in 30 days.  Imagine my surprise when I found this quote near the beginning of the book:

“Even if you’re the worst writer in the world, at least you’ll have the evidence.” —Padgett Powell

Inspiration?  Hell, I had found my mantra!  I set out to write a book, and now had discovered a short phrase to repeat to myself when I was hating the words on the screen, to drive myself to continue even as I wanted to throw my work-in-progress–maybe even the whole computer–into the trash.  Am I the worst writer in the world?  I don’t think so.  I’m not the best either.  But I have a finished book, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.  Now I’ve had to switch gears from author to salesman.  I’ve never been a fan of sales.  Too political, too amoral.  To make matters worse, there’s a lot of conflicting data out there about how best to proceed as a newly self-published author, such as whether or not KDP select is worth giving Amazon exclusive rights to your ebook for 90 days, where and how to advertise your book, even arguments about different methods of ebook formatting.  I’m far from an expert on any of this stuff, and I’m still figuring out more each day, but here are 5 lessons I’ve learned the hard way while finishing my first novel.

  1. Finish the book!  Absolutely none of these tips matters if you don’t actually finish the book.  Don’t let yourself get hung up on the details.  Need to research something?  Put in a placeholder.  Stay consistent for easy searching at a later date.  I use brackets, so I would leave notes such as “[research how often the subways run in NYC]”.  One of the biggest challenges is completing the first draft.
  2. Edit.  Then edit some more.  Done editing?  No, you’re not.  Edit it again, slacker!  One of the biggest criticisms of self-published works is that they tend to be poorly edited.  This goes beyond simply checking for typos.  While a small number of typos and errors will be overlooked by many readers, especially if you have a compelling story, you need to make sure your finished manuscript is as error-free as possible.  If you’re a first-time author, your readers are much less likely to buy your future works if your first release is lackluster.
  3. Put your best foot forward.  You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?  It’s a saying because people judge books by their covers.  Whether it’s on a bookstore shelf or in search results on a website, the book cover is the first impression many people will get of you and your book.  It’s not necessarily a matter of cost, either.  I’ve seen $1000 book covers that look terrible, and some of the budget covers I’ve seen have been anywhere between acceptable and amazing.  For decent budget covers, check out Fiverr.  There are other options out there as well, which leads to the next point.  Mine was done by MW Messina.
  4. Google, as always, is your friend.  I know research can be overwhelming, especially in subjects such as these where there is so much data out there to consider.  That said, a LOT of smart people have done this before.  Some of them have even written about what worked for them.  Don’t reinvent the wheel; use their success (and their failure) as a blueprint for your own method.  Try to take the best parts of what has worked for other people and make their tactics yours.  There is nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants (or even people who are just slightly taller than you).  There are a number of author forums on the internet that are full of people willing to help.  Find one you like.  I try to spend some time each day reading posts on the kboards writer forum.  William Hertling’s Indie & Small Press Book Marketing is a great primer and contains a lot of useful information.
  5. Don’t rely too much on friends.  I love my friends.  They’re wonderful folks.  I’m honored to know many people with a variety of talents.  The thing about talented people is that they’re often busy with their own projects.  Talented people are also not known for their consistent follow-through.  I’m a musician.  I’ve been the flaky artist-type person before, so I can’t fault people too much for this.  Even if money is involved, there’s a chance your friend may not give your project the priority you feel it deserves.  If you have a good working history with your friend this may not apply, but ultimately you may find it less frustrating to go with a stranger whose portfolio includes work that speaks to your vision.  It’s also easier to be demanding of a stranger than a friend, at least for me.

Again, I have barely scratched the surface of the self-publishing world, but these are the five most important lessons I’ve learned after releasing my first book.  It’s not gospel, just things that worked for me.  I hope they work for you, too.  Another great resource is Reddit.  Here’s a bookmark I use for several different writing related subreddits.  If you have other suggestions you’ve picked up along the way, please leave a comment!

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