I’ve spent years scribbling stories, but it wasn’t until Christmas 2012, when my husband bought me a kindle, that the world of Independent Publishing really came to my attention. I actually thought it was the same thing as ‘vanity publishing’, how wrong I was!
Within three months I had polished up a bit of fan-fiction I’d written with new names and location, and sold my designer boots on ebay to pay for a $50 pre-made cover. In March 2013 I loaded it to Amazon. That’s when I really started to learn.
Editing / Proofreading
That was my first mistake! I didn’t get it edited, I didn’t even get it proofed. I’m degree level educated and figured I had submitted a pretty clean manuscript. Cue a flurry of bad reviews for typos and grammar (compounded by the fact I’m British and some US teenagers didn’t approve of my spelling for words like colour or flavour).
So, the first rule, before you even think of publishing is to get your manuscript proofread by a professional (at the very least). I use an editor now, it’s expensive and I waited until I could afford it, but a decent proofreader can charge as little as $2 per thousand words. Worth every single penny.
It took me three months to write the second book (thankfully I'd been working on it even before I found out about Indie Publishing). During that time I had book one set to 0.99c. I made a grand total of $15 in the entire three months. But that was fine, it was a first book, and publishing requires a big learning curve. My focus was on building a fan base, and by this I really mean a mailing list. Set this up before you even publish a single word. It is the most valuable resource you will ever have if you want to stay in this industry long term. I use Mailchimp, it’s totally free until you reach 2000 subscribers. When you create your account they give you a link and you simply put it in the back of your book. I use this phrase:
If you would like to be first to hear about new releases and promotions from Stella Wilkinson, please sign up to the mailing list here: http://eepurl.com/wEMmD
So I was now approaching the release of Book Two and I had to think seriously about the cover for it. It is absolutely fine to search out another pre-made that fits the story, and you will soon realise how little the exact details matter as long as you convey the genre effectively. In fact if you buy the second pre-made from the same cover designer then they are usually happy to match the font and title placement to be exactly the same as the first. This is quite important. It is what we call “branding”. It means that a reader can see your books and know at a glance they are in the same series or by the same author. Your brand should have a cohesive look. It can be as simple as always having your author name in the same place with the same font in the same colour, or it can be even stronger than that. For the same series you really should try to stick to the same designer.
I actually ditched the pre-made and invested some money at this point. I realised that I hadn’t hit the genre dead-on. The book was a romantic comedy and needed to look more fun, so I searched out a designer (on kboards - more info on that at the bottom). I used all my birthday money and splashed out on three custom made covers. It was absolutely the right decision. They were eye-catching, clearly in a series, unique but genre appropriate, and I get positive comments on them all the time.
Failure to capitalise
When I released the third book the series really took off. I set book one to Permanently Free, and the second and third book to $2.99. I was getting some serious return on investment. Did I capitalise on it by quickly writing the fourth book? No. Instead I started a brand new series, in a different sub-genre, planning to come back to the first series in a few months. The momentum slid away and has never quite recovered to those heights.
Yes, everything you’ve heard is true. Stand alone books are a much harder sell. When you have a series you can run discounts and promotions on the first one, and then a good percentage of readers will buy the rest of the series. When you have a stand alone book it doesn’t really lead to anything. You can direct them to other books you have written but the sell-through is significantly lower. Making your marketing harder as well as meaning your promotions are less profitable in terms of return on investment.
Novellas and short stories
I like writing shorter books, I generally prefer reading shorter books too btw, but I don’t feel I can charge more than 0.99 for a short story, which means you only make 35% of the sale price. Novellas are fine at $2.99 (a return of 70% of sale price) but again, they are a much harder sell than a full-length novel. And if you start a series off with a free novella then reader expectations are that the rest of the books are equally short. They are also much harder to promote. Setting them to free does much less now than it did when I first started, and you can’t really offer a discount incentive on a free book either. This is also probably the biggest criticism I see on reviews, they wish it was longer. This is why I am going to stop writing novellas, even though I enjoy them, the readers have spoken!
Another big mistake I made. I wrote Young Adult / Coming of Age. Which basically means books for teenagers. But teenagers are not big on buying books. If they have spare cash then they have other priorities. It doesn’t mean they don’t like to read - far from it, but they can read a huge number of books completely free from sites like Wattpad, as well as Amazon, Google Play, etc. Or they prefer paperbacks. I hear that a lot.
If you want to be taken seriously go and get yourself a website straight away. It’s not expensive, you can buy the domain name for about $20, and then create a site with Godaddy, Weebly or Wordpress for about the same again (there are even free options). I’m not remotely technical, I thought html codes were something to do with WW2, but even I managed to create myself a simple site which gets about 150 visitors a day. It is also a good idea to get yourself a corresponding email address, it looks good and also emails like gmail are much more prone to spam filters. This too can be done for free, I used zoho and then just linked it to my gmail.
Actually publishing it
This is where you get to one of the other most important things you will ever do for your book - the blurb. Actually ‘blurb’ isn’t the correct term, but it is the one that authors use, and means the description of what your book is about that appears next to the cover (or on the back of if you are doing paperbacks too).
I think I’ve rewritten most of my blurbs about twenty times. I still regularly tweak them. They are so important! The cover will get the reader to click, but it is the blurb that gets them to buy. It MUST be compelling. There are loads of books on it, but I recommend having a read of Libbie Hawker’s or Bryan Cohen’s to get an idea of how to structure a good one.
After entering the blurb you need to select categories. Super important, try to be as accurate as possible, but not as important as keywords. I’ve written a ridiculously long post on keywords here and they help you to get into all the niche sub-categories you want to appear near the top of the list for. You’re going to have to wade through the post, because there is just too much to add it all.
Finally your actual manuscript. I use Word. I downloaded the Smashwords style guide from Amazon (it’s free) and read it carefully. Yes, it’s a hassle that first time but it will give you a guaranteed clean version that works on pretty much any site and you never have to read it again. Everything you write after that will be done the same way.
Front and back matter. I mainly use my front matter to point out that I’m British, it’s saved me from a ton of bad reviews, lol. But I also list my books, my editor, my cover designer, that kind of thing, and a copyright of course. The back matter is way more important. You basically want a link to your mailing list and your next book immediately after The End.
This one is such a big topic that I’m not even going to attempt it here. Needless to say I get better at it over time and have had some epic fails too. But there are a ton of threads on it and I think others explain it better, so I’m going to finish here by pointing you to the best resource you will ever find in Indie Publishing: The Writers Café on Kboards: http://www.kboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html
This site will provide you with absolutely everything you need to know, as well as links to editors/cover designers/promotion sites/etc.
Oh, and you’ll need some fairy dust, a goat or two to sacrifice, some lightening in a bottle, and a really thick hide for when the reviews come in on Goodreads.