The following post was originally written in response to a Tumblr ask (which can be viewed here) hence the informal language. I’m re-publishing it here to make it accessible to those who don’t want to deal with Tumblr’s weird colors and tiny font. Please note that this advice is based solely on my own limited experience in self-publishing. I’ve linked more advanced and intensive resources at the end.
Now, the act of self-publishing itself is easy thanks to the magic of digital distribution (literally all you need is a .docx file of your story and an image with text on it to serve as your cover). Making a career out of it in a sea of indie and traditionally published books? Not so easy.
I’ve boiled my words of wisdom down to three things I SHOULD have done before publishing but only got good at later on.
While I’m most familiar with indie publishing, I’m confident that the following advice holds true for writers looking into traditional publishing as well. Leigh Bardugo uses the same email marketing service I do, R.F. Kuang’s website is built from the same template as mine; it’s pretty general stuff. So, here we go…
Three things to do BEFORE publishing your book:
1. Build a Newsletter
Much as we all love our social media followers, newsletter subscribers have a far better track record when it comes to actually buying books and engaging with your work. I recommend starting a newsletter with Mailchimp, a free service that lets you curate mailing lists, customize sign-up forms for your different platforms, set up automated emails, basically everything under the sun you might need.
Since I started my newsletter, it’s been my most valuable tool for selling books, sharing news, and building meaningful relationships with readers who like my work. There are three ways I would go about growing your mailing list prior to having anything published:
- The obvious: Pitch the book. “Hey guys, I’ve got this awesome book coming out about these things, and this is the awesome cover/concept art,” with maybe a quote or tagline. “Subscribe to be the first to receive updates if you like dark romance / Japanese fairytale retellings / LitRPG fantasy / quirky space opera / whatever the genre is!” You’re going to want to take some time making your pitch as good as it can be.
- The generally more effective one: Offer free content. “Like this writing sample that I have posted on Tumblr / Ao3 / whatever? Subscribe to my author newsletter to get a free short story or novella or something!” You can use whatever piece of writing you’ve got handy, so long as you think it will attract the kind of readers who will eventually be interested in your book.
- Good if you’ve got the money or books to spare: Run a giveaway of a popular book in the same genre as yours. “Subscribe to my author newsletter to win a paperback / hardback / signed copy of [insert title here]!” Writing a high fantasy? Give away a Stormlimght Archives boxset. Publishing an Asian-inspired fantasy, like I did this past winter? Maybe run an Asian fantasy book giveaway like this.
The more newsletter followers you can amass before a book comes out – and the more you engage with them – the better it will launch.
2. Use Social Media
Yeah, I know I just said that social media followers aren’t as receptive to an author’s books as newsletter subscribers. But you know a great way to get newsletter subscribers without dropping hundreds of dollars on ads? Tumblr. Facebook. Instagram. Youtube. I’ve had the best engagement on Twitter, despite a pretty small following, but your mileage may vary, depending on your genre and the type of content you post.
You’ll have the best luck if you use your social media accounts to post content related to the kind of books you want to publish. For instance, I wouldn’t try to push your thriller novel on your baking blog… I mean, you could try? Let me know how that goes.
3. Have a Website!
Nothing fancy necessary, just an aesthetically-pleasing well-organized place potential readers can get more information about you and your work (NOT your Tumblr. Seriously, unless you have the user-friendliest theme in the world, this is not a nice thing to do to prospective readers). I used a WordPress blog, which I then upgraded to its own domain when my budget allowed, but there are like a dozen free website-building options nowadays.
While I’ve been terrible about this, it also never hurts to use your website to blog about things that might interest your intended readership – even something as simple as the list of Asian fantasy books I mentioned above. This helps drive organic traffic to your books and your newsletter without you having to spend a cent on social media ads (which are their own can of worms entirely).
And a fourth thing that I’m separating out because it’s technically part of the publishing process and only applicable to self-published authors:
4. Get a Good Cover Design
I’ve designed all my own covers (the earliest of which can unfortunately still be seen on the Goodreads pages for my first and second books) out of a fondness for Photoshop and a compulsive need to control every creative aspect of my books.
While those early covers aren’t disasters (I hope), I do wish that I had done more research on the kind of covers that were actually selling in my genre or outsourced the design work to someone who did. Sales increased dramatically after I revamped the covers in 2018 to be more in-line with the modern YA fantasy scene, but it took me two years to figure it out, so…
If you want your first book to launch strong, make sure you have a cover that will sell!
For more detailed guidelines from someone MUCH more successful in indie publishing than myself, I would refer you to Derek Murphy at creativeindie.com or his Youtube Channel. While his brand and genre are different from mine, I’ve taken my best book marketing lessons from his videos.