It may shock you to know that self-publishing can be challenging and difficult in unexpected ways.
With only one book out in the world (a short story in Portuguese), I’ve learned some tough lessons along the way. Lessons that made me rethink everything I knew about self-publication, everything I absorbed from the internet and conversations with fellow indie authors.
Some of these lessons may be extremely personal and not at all useful to you. But some of them will hopefully help you prepare for the harsh road that lies ahead.
I hope you take these words with a grain of salt. I’m not writing them to give you a magic recipe for success, nor to give you advice about the choices you’ll inevitably have to make, I’m just writing this to let you know you’re not alone.
Have you ever tried promoting your first book?
It’s hard. But not for the reasons you might expect.
It’s hard because your readers have nothing else to grab after reading that book. They have nothing else to entertain them with while you prepare your next book. Or, if they do (like a free short story), they may be utterly disappointed to discover your writing is not as good as your most recent work.
Some mistakes I did with my first book (a short story):
- Making it freely available for one day just a couple of weeks after publication – giving a book away for free when you have nothing else published can backfire (in my opinion). Readers that love your writing will look for your other books. If you have none, then your marketing efforts will be wasted. Plus, even if you do have freely available work (which I do!), readers may feel deflated by the lower quality of your previous stories and give up on you altogether (it happened to me!).
- Marketing it too soon – I still think I marketed my first published story too much. It’s an honest mistake. When you’re starting, having something that gives you a sense of progress is important. Holding your book in your hands, talking about it with friends or on social media, may give you the boost you need to continue working on other stories. It may help you build an audience, create interest, but if your writing skills are “not there yet”, you’ll have a bumpy start, I know I did.
You know those obnoxious writers that tell you to write more stories and publish only when you’re ready? They’re not wrong.
While it’s true that I was able to reach a wider audience by making my book freely available for 24h, I wonder what impacts that decision will have on the long term. Some people confessed to being disappointed by my story, others were curious and went on to read my other short story only to be disappointed by it.
For me, it’s been hard handling these feelings of disappointment from others and I constantly fear I’ve made the wrong choice.
I do wonder if I would’ve been able to learn so much about the literary market and my shortcomings had I not expose myself to criticism as early as I did.
If I hadn’t thrown myself headfirst into self-publication, I might still be blind to my flaws and strengths.
It has been a painful but enlightening path. Was it worth taking it? It was. But I wish I could have saved myself from very public heartbreaks.
Instead of pushing for self-publication too early, you may opt for honing your writing skills first by joining writing groups, finding willing and honest critic partners, and writing a few books before you’re ready to publish your first book.
I knew all this before starting but I didn’t care. Why? Because I was tired of receiving rejections from short story magazines.
Patience is not my strong suit, so I wanted to “test the waters” without having to break into the saturated professional market first. Was it worth it? Only time will tell.
Either way, I don’t advise it to the faint of heart.
There’s a delicate balance between building an audience and working on your books. You need a healthy and engaged audience to sell your books, but you also need to dedicate as much time as humanly possible to improve your skills.
At the end of the day, you often have to choose between uploading another photo to Instagram, writing another chapter on your book, or studying the craft.
It’s a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. You need to be on social media to be relevant but being on social media also makes it hard to commit to a consistent writing schedule. And you can’t promote your books without… well, actually writing them.
Otherwise, you’re just overpromising and underdelivering and that will drive people away at some point.
What can you do instead? And is social media so important for building an audience?
It depends on the age category of your books. If you’re writing Middle Grade, YA, and even NA, social media is unfortunately vital for building an audience.
That’s where your readers are.
You can’t change that. You must search for them, not wait to be discovered.
If you’re writing Adult Fiction, social media might be slightly less important, but still relevant. But it doesn’t mean these are the only channels you can use to connect with potential readers.
It doesn’t mean you HAVE to be on social media to become a successful author.
In fact, for the sake of your mental health, you may opt to build channels with stronger foundations and less exposed to the volatility of social media algorithms such as:
- A blog for content marketing (write about the recurrent themes of your books, book reviews, about your journey to become an author <– that’s my favorite for sure 😜)
- A newsletter (I know I write insanely long newsletters, but I’m very happy with it!)
- Guest articles on relevant websites
- Interviewing other authors or content creators for book-loving communities
- SEO-optimized articles so readers can find you through search engines
- Participating in forums or Facebook groups
- Participating in or sponsoring book clubs
- Live events (<– the type that introverts fear)
I’m sure you can find cooler ways to build an audience. I’ll let you finish that list for me.
It’s skill not talent at the foundation of every successful writing career.
Let me put it another way: skill is acquired through practice and by being extremely aware of your flaws.
I consistently fail at creating good and interesting plots and at creating an emotional connection with my characters. I learned this from reading negative reviews – it’s a bit like finding out you suck at a televised singing competition.
You can’t erase your shortcomings from the public eye, you must learn to build on top of them.
It’s hard. Painful. Confusing…
And NORMAL, because normal humans aren’t born with the intrinsic skills of a bestselling author. We have to earn them first.
Of course, it sucks discovering your flaws when you’re already out there trying to prove your worth, trying to convince people to give your writing a chance.
It takes time to build skill. A lot of time. But it doesn’t mean that writing more books will automatically make you a better writer. Because writing a lot without receiving constructive criticism, won’t take you very far. It’s like learning to drive without one-on-one driving lessons.
Are there are other ways to receive constructive criticism without exposing yourself too soon?
Writing groups (I know I’m repeating myself), beta-readers, editors, literary agents, and, more importantly, surrounding yourself with people that don’t fear telling you the truth (with kindness!).
You can’t live your life looking backward. At least I know I can’t.
I wouldn’t change a single comma of my writing journey, because I wouldn’t be here today if I did.
Disappointment will eat your motivation away if you let it. So we need to find ways to cope with it. Pick up what’s positive and leave out the rest.
Art remains entirely subjective. No one can predict if a book will be successful or not, but the way we market that book matters.
Self-published authors can, in no way, compete with traditionally published books. We need to build an audience first. And the way we do it needs to be compatible with the time we have available (because we’re all working full-time jobs), our personality, and personal goals.
No author, no matter how successful, can tell you the way to go. But I hope my words made you aware of the benefits and downsides of the choices you’ll have to make.
What other lessons have you learned in your journey?