A beginner’s guide to self-publishing

Okay, so I did my first talk to a writer’s group last week. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I’d love to do more. The group asked me to share my experience of self-publishing, and to talk about how I’ve publicised my books. I’ve written up my notes here as a very basic guide, and thought I’d share it with you. I’m not an expert on these matters. This is simply an account of what I’ve done, and what I’ve learned along the way.

The Background

I used to write a lot when I was younger. I then had a 15 year gap when I didn’t write at all, due to relationships, bringing up my daughter, and my career as an English teacher. I started writing again in 2009. There’s nothing like a divorce to get you thinking about what you’re doing with your life!

I started with my own story. It was a form of therapy, and also a way of getting back to who I really was. I wrote about a middle-aged woman going through a divorce. This quickly morphed into a story set in a school, involving a romance between a Head Teacher and a Head of English. The final book was 200,000 words long! I didn’t know the genre, or the audience, but being naïve, I submitted widely. First mistake. Your average novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words long. However, in spite of its size, the full manuscript was eventually requested by an agent. Over the next few months, during which I was asked to shorten the novel, there was an awful lot of waiting and nail-biting. During that time, I wrote a sequel (couldn’t leave the characters alone). When the book was finally rejected, I decided to try something completely different. I’d been reading a lot of erotic romance, had an idea for a story, and thought I’d give it a go. And what started out as an experiment and a bit of fun, soon turned into something else!

This time, I knew the exact genre and the target audience. Being a fan of the genre, I also knew what readers liked and expected. I also did some further research. This time, I knew exactly where the book would begin and end. I put a lot of thought into the story arc and character development. My own preferred arc is the 8-point arc. Google it, and you’ll find it easily. I now apply this to every book I write, as it really helps me to structure the story.

When I started You Don’t Know Me, Authonomy was still in existence. This was a writers’ site run by Harper Collins. Book Country (run by Penguin) was also still around. These sites have now shut down, but there are still online writing communities out there. Authonomy was priceless for me. Other writers began to critique You Don’t Know Me, and I got plenty of really useful feedback. Be careful with critiques though. You don’t have to use every single suggestion you’re given. If you really know your genre, you can choose what to take on board, and what to leave.
I also made lots of wonderful contacts through both sites. I met my editor and a beta reader. I was put in touch with a great cover designer and a formatter (I’m not technologically savvy). More than anything, being in contact with a range of other writers (traditionally published, self-published and unpublished) has proved invaluable.

A quick note on formatting: I don’t understand it! So, it made sense for me to pay for formatting. My formatter has been brilliant, guiding me through the uploading process and answering my idiotic questions. They’ve also provided me with ARC copies (advance review copies). These come in two formats: mobi (for Kindle) and e-pub (for other devices). These have been incredibly useful when it comes to getting reviews.

Self-publishing

When it was ready, I submitted You Don’t Know Me to a handful of agents. At the time though, I was eager to publish, and self-publishing was the quickest way to do this. So, with You Don’t Know Me checked by beta readers, professionally edited and properly formatted, I self-published the e-book with Amazon KDP Select in 2015. I had book covers professionally designed, but I still had to come up with the basic design and the blurb. I was interested to discover that many traditionally published authors also write the blurbs, and have to make decisions over book covers. There are various sites where you can design your own book cover, or buy pre-made covers. But as I’ve said, I chose to have mine professionally designed. This meant I could brief the designer to create covers that would appeal to my particular audience.

So, You Don’t Know Me was self-published in 2015, True Colours in 2016 and Shut Your Eyes in 2017.

I chose to enrol with KDP Select. This means you can’t publish your e-book on any other platform. With KDP Select, you have access to free promotions, price countdowns and Kindle Unlimited. This isn’t for everyone. Kindle Unlimited pays the author per page read. It’s not a huge amount, but as I write longer books (c. 115,000 words), it makes sense for me. Also, readers of erotic romance tend to be voracious readers! They’re more likely to use Kindle Unlimited.

I also chose to publish paperback versions of the books through Create Space. This meant that I needed a spine and a back cover from my cover designer. Additional formatting needs to be done for this, and you need to know the exact page length of your book so the spine can be prepared. Books are printed on demand and sent out to buyers from Create Space. I chose to do this because I wanted my books to be available for people without e-readers. I’ve set the price at the lowest possible. I’m currently looking into cheaper ways to print multiple copies as I’ve got a couple of signing events coming up.

Publicity

When Shut Your Eyes was released this year, it reached #12 on Amazon UK for erotic romance, and was the #1 hot new release for a while. All 3 books got into top 100 in the month after release.

Over the last three years, I’ve experimented with various publicity ideas. I’ve also discovered that many traditionally published authors are expected to come up with their own marketing plans. So, this has been a useful exercise for me. The main thing I’ve learned is that there’s no single magic bullet. It’s a long, hard slog. Lots of different things build up a following, and that’s what got me to #12. It can be exhausting, and often deflating, but if you believe in your book, never give up!

For a start, you need a social media presence. The basics are:

• Get onto Goodreads.
• Have a Twitter presence, but beware of anything where it’s just writers tweeting to other writers!
• Have a Facebook author page.
• Set up a website, with a subscription list.
• Link your social media sites as much as possible. For example, you can put a Goodreads widget on your webpage. You can link your Facebook page to your Amazon site. You can set up Goodreads to display your blog posts. It all helps.
• Give links to your social media pages on: Your Amazon author page, your website and your Goodreads page.
• Update frequently, and interact with your readers.

Another good tip: include an author’s message in the back of your book, along with your social media links.

Advertising

There’s a 30-day window of opportunity on Amazon. Readers can click onto ‘published in the last 30 days’ so this is a golden period for any self-published author. There’s also a 60-day section, but I think readers are less likely to click on this. If you’re incredibly lucky, your book will take off during this 30-day period, but you really do have to be incredibly, incredibly lucky for this to happen. Most of us fall off what’s known as the ’30-day cliff’, into the vast unfathomable ocean of Amazon … and we become – quite literally – invisible.

So, along the way I’ve tried various ideas to help with the visibility. I’m now going to let you know what’s worked for me, and what’s not worked for me. Disclaimer: these things might have worked for others!

Twitter ads – didn’t work for me. I paid for an advertisement with a company, but I rather suspect it was a case of writers tweeting to other writers. It got me very few sales. I definitely need to do more research on this.

Facebook ads – I’ve never had one accepted, due to the content of my books.

Goodreads ads – Didn’t really work for me. For example, in April 2016, I paid for two ads. Following Goodreads advice, one was targeted at readers of similar authors, one was targeted by genre. Here are the results, which aren’t stunning.

$34 spent.
53,315 views
74 clicks.

Amazon ads – I’ve tried this a couple of times. There’s a bidding system. You need a minimum budge of $100, and you pay per click on your ad. Your minimum bid is currently 0.02$ per click. You’ll lose out to higher bidders in an auction. I can’t find the stats on this, but I wasn’t bowled over by the results.

Newsletters – This is what I’m trying now.

Book Bub is the holy grail of newsletters. If you can get onto it, you’ll see results. However, only 20% of submissions are accepted. They have a very tight vetting process. I’ve been rejected three times now, but I’m not giving up! In the meantime, I’ve tried similar sites, but again I haven’t been amazed by results.

I’m now researching genre-specific sites that send out newsletters to their subscribers (romance, erotic romance, erotica). At the minute, I’m tying in giveaways of You Don’t Know Me with a placement in those newsletters. This is working very well. The plan is to identify the sites that give the best results, and then do a price countdown of True Colours and Shut Your Eyes, publicised on these sites at the same time.

I’ve tried a blog tour. To be honest, this didn’t result in many sales, but it did provide me with some great contacts with bloggers.

You might like to contact your local newspaper (and radio stations). I contacted the Leicester Mercury very early on with You Don’t Know Me. They liked the slant of the secretive school teacher writing erotic romance! I was interviewed over the phone. Imagine my surprise when the interview was published as a full page spread in the women’s section. There was also a banner across the front page of the newspaper: ‘Leicester’s Answer to 50 Shades!’

I attended a self-publishing conference last year. To be honest, there wasn’t much of any help. But I did pick up the idea of having book marks and business cards made. I’m still to do this, as it can be really useful.

I’ve done many giveaways of You Don’t Know Me. Some writers hate giving their book away for free. Some swear by it. Some even have a book permanently free on Amazon to lure in the readers (there is a process to go through to make your book perma-free on Amazon which includes opting out of KDP Select). This is obviously better if you’ve got a few books published, or like me, a trilogy. To date, I think I’ve given away three or four thousand copies of You Don’t Know Me. This has definitely resulted in more sales of the other two books. I’ve heard that a Goodreads giveaway can be very effective, so I’m planning on setting one up.

My subscription list has been growing, and I think this made the big difference with Shut Your Eyes, and got it to #12. I emailed everyone, asking if they’d be kind enough to buy the book on the same day. With True Colours, I set up a pre-order, but this didn’t help at all. In my opinion, pre-orders are more helpful to established authors with a huge following, not to a self-published author struggling to remain visible.

Reviews

These definitely count. Here’s some guidance for what happens on Amazon.

20-25 – Amazon include you in the ‘customers also bought’ bit, and ‘you might like’ bit.
50-70 – Amazon gives you spotlight positions, and includes you in their newsletter.

The number of reviews you have is also useful for being accepted on Book Bub and some other sites. Some high-profile bloggers also won’t consider your book if there aren’t many reviews.

Where bloggers are concerned, be very careful when selecting the bloggers you submit your book to. And don’t blanket submit. It won’t do you any favours! Make sure the blogger enjoys your particular genre, and tailor your submission personally to the blogger. Goodreads is particularly useful in helping you to find bloggers, but don’t contact people directly on there. Find their website and follow their submission guidelines. There are also some groups on there who will review your book in return for a complimentary copy. I’ve done this with an erotic romance group, and they were wonderful. Everyone who reviewed You Don’t Know Me also reviewed True Colours. I sent them all a complimentary copy of Shut Your Eyes as a thank you. They do need to state in their review that they’ve provided an honest review in return for a complimentary copy.

A word of warning. Develop a thick skin. Never, ever reply to a bad review, even if you disagree strongly with what they say. You won’t benefit from it! Anyway, it’s good to have a mixture of reviews. Oh, and beware on Amazon. They’ll remove reviews that are obviously from people you know personally!

As you develop relationships with bloggers, you’ll find they help and support you … if they love your books. They really are worth their weight in gold! A wonderful blogger has encouraged me to sign up for two book signings, and to do an author takeover on her Facebook site.

What have I learned?

Well, self-publishing is a huge learning curve. As I’ve already said, I am, by no means, an expert on it. The Amazon author forums are really informative if you want to find out more.

Self-publishing had really helped me to focus my mind on getting a book ready for the reader, and ready for submission. What I thought was fit for submission three years ago has changed completely. I’m now preparing to submit the You Don’t Know Me trilogy to agents, and I’m really taking my time over the synopses and the covering letter.

I’m lucky to have made a contact with someone who knows what they’re doing with synopses. This person annotated and changed my first synopses for me, then helped to rewrite a second version, and pointed out a weak spot which I’m now tightening up.

I’ve also returned to that first book I wrote. I’ve turned it into a trilogy, and am now reworking it to make sure there’s a good story arc, that the characters truly develop, and that it’s thoroughly edited. You never stop learning!

If you want to ask any questions, feel free to contact me on the email address below. I’ll do my best to answer!

Mandylee2015@hotmail.com

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