If you’ve paid attention to my social media presence or read almost any of this blog, you probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and indie authors in general. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: since I became actively involved in the online writing community via Twitter and other social media about three years ago, I’ve read indie authors’ works that were better than most of the currently available trade paperbacks out there, and they don’t get nearly as much exposure. There are definite advantages and limitations to self-publishing, it’s true (and maybe I’ll go more in-depth into what those are in another post), but I’ve found it’s a great potential outlet for your work if you’ve been frustrated by traditional publishing or just aren’t ready to take that step. However, if there’s one thing I can impress upon other potential self-publishers, it’s that you shouldn’t go into it without a plan. That’s been something I’ve had to learn the hard way over time–though I’m hoping to have more success in the future.
I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, during my high school and college years, and when I graduated in 2014 I was chomping at the bit to publish it. I’d always wanted to have my name in print as an author, and in the cursory research I did on self-publishing options, Amazon’s CreateSpace (now KDP) was mentioned as a common and low-budget place for indie authors to get started. I had contemplated trying to get my book traditionally published, but back then I hadn’t gone to grad school for publishing and writing yet and had no idea how the process worked. Self-publishing seemed like the far easier road, with the added benefit of maybe spending less money and having more control over my novel. So The Showstopper was published in September 2014, relying on edits by myself and a few other trusted friends and cover art I whipped up myself with Amazon’s free cover creation software (a passable, if not inspiring, altered template cover). I made it available in both e-book and paperback format, knowing e-books would probably sell more but wanting more than anything to hold a copy of my book in my hands. I also gave very little thought to the formatting of the book at the time: while the template Amazon provided frustrated me with inconsistencies in formatting, I reasoned that it wouldn’t really matter than much to people reading the book and just plowed on ahead. I did a couple of readings at a local bookstore and got them to carry the book, selling a few copies here and there, but overall got very little interest in it. It was something nice to talk about at parties, but no more.
Of course, my attention was distracted from the lackluster reception because at that point I was deep into planning my second novel, Camp Ferguson: the first in a planned YA fantasy series I was working on featuring the hijinks of adolescent wizards at a government training camp. Never mind that I still didn’t really know what I was doing with this one and not well-versed as a writer in the ins and outs of YA either, but it was a stark contrast from my dark and gritty first novel and something I just wanted to have fun with. Again, with some editing help and beta reading from some friends and family, I put Camp Ferguson out on Amazon in late 2017, temporarily satisfied by my self-promotion via Twitter, which I had just started to become involved in, and the small events and attention I once again received locally. I spent very little money, but made very little in return, and for Camp Ferguson even hand-drew and digitally designed my own cover art for the book–a corny design that I nonetheless enjoyed.
Two things, however, ended up changing my views: firstly, my growing involvement in the online writing community, and secondly, grad school. In 2018, I had quit my first job and my life was in turmoil: I was directionless and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. The last place I had really been happy was as a student in school, and I regretted having passed up a chance to study writing to go into the more “practical” field of journalism. So I finally decided that, no matter what the cost, I wanted to go back to school. The graduate publishing and creative writing programs I became part of opened my eyes to so many things about being a writer, from the research and work involved to the ways of the publishing business and the professional standards writers have to meet in order to be taken seriously–especially in self-publishing. Furthermore, my growing interactions with other writers online just solidified this understanding for me. While everyone I met was lovely and some even supported my work by buying and reviewing it, the more examples of actually successful indie authors I saw and the more I learned about the craft and business of writing in grad school made me rethink many of my previous assumptions. I’ll admit, I was more than a little embarrassed as it became clear to me how much of a rank amateur I was and that I really hadn’t taken the time and effort to put my best work out into the world. It was a humbling, and at the same time, invaluable experience.
With that, I decided it was time to make a change. If there’s anything I’ve concluded from everything I’ve learned over the past two or three years, it’s that in many cases, indie authors have an even harder job ahead of them trying to prepare their books for release because the standards for them are so much higher than for traditionally-published work. It’s so easy for readers to dismiss an indie novel out of hand for the smallest of reasons, so we have to work doubly hard to make sure we don’t give them those reasons. And because we’re doing everything ourselves, we often have to recognize that we don’t have the requisite skills to make our works a success–this involves checking your ego at the door. While I loved my handmade Camp Ferguson cover art, for example, I realized something much more polished and professional was needed to catch readers’ eyes and not turn them away. Since I wasn’t capable of doing this, I’d have to look elsewhere, and that would cost money.
Yes, I’m sorry to say that being an indie author is not cheap. Finding affordable prices for editing, cover creation, formatting, and a plethora of other services can be extremely difficult, especially if you’re on a tighter budget. That said, the beauty of the online writing community is that you can make connections that enable you to find people who will offer you better deals and whose interests and vision align with yours much more closely than any publishing house. I took my first steps into this new reality by pulling both my books from Amazon. Don’t worry, they’ll be back! Just in a much more polished form than before. I’m currently working through edits for The Showstopper before submitting them to an actual editor (even though I think I’m a great editor, I’ve learned that we writers often aren’t the best critics of our own work) for final proofreading perfection, and I recently got a new cover for Camp Ferguson from a talented grad school friend that brings my characters to life and is better than anything I could have hoped for (watch my social media over the next few weeks to see the reveal!). I haven’t put a hard date on the latter, but right now I’m shooting to relaunch The Showstopper later this year (also with a new cover that’s TBD at the moment).
My point is that, if you want to be a successful indie author, you may have to recognize that it’s not going to be as easy as you think, and you’ll need help if you want your work to be the best it can be. You don’t want to be one of the reasons self-publishing gets a bad name. But with persistence, devotion, and perseverance, you can still have the book release of your dreams while maintaining a much higher degree of freedom and control over your work. It’s a worthwhile path that many new writers may want to explore.