People often ask me how to sell books. My reply is always “start by writing a great book.” I imagine this gets some digital eye-rolls, since it’s not the magic bullet people want to hear, but it’s true. It’s also kind of a lazy answer. That’s why I created this list of the top 101 writing and self-publishing tips I wish I knew ten years ago.
The list is a fire-hose of information, not a step-by-step guide, so I organized it into four main types of advice: Writing advice, Publishing advice, Marketing Advice, and a section about living and writing that I call Writer’s Life Advice. Feel free to navigate to the section that you want, or read it all.
Thoughts? Think I’m missing something? Feel free to reach out.
Top Writing Tips
1.) Perfect your opening sentence
You should really perfect your opening chapter, but in particular you should perfect your opening paragraph, which all starts with the first sentence.
Here are a few awesome opening sentences:
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaimain
“At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
“The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.”Hyperion – Dan Simmons
“Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing exceptional.”A Passage to India – EM Forster
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”The Gunslinger – Stephen King
“The circus arrives without warning.”The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
I could go on and on.
A lot of people will download samples of your book or thumb through it (either digitally or physically) before buying. You’ve got ten seconds to catch them, and a page to close the deal. Make it count.
2.) Always ask yourself if what you’re writing is moving the story along
This is another Stephen King gem from “On Writing” (which should be required reading for all authors) that at first glance seems obvious and not something you would ever do as a writer. Why would you write something that doesn’t further the plot? That’s a waste of your time, right?
You do it. Trust me. You do it because you get lazy. Or because you may have a perfectly imagined scene that you’re trying to shoehorn in somewhere. Or you really like a snippet of dialogue. Or you’re padding a scene.
It happens more than you think. Every single chapter, every single page, every single paragraph should have a purpose. You aren’t making your book better just by adding page count. Economy of words matters.
3.) Keep writing
First book sucks? Keep writing.
Second book ain’t selling? Keep writing.
Getting hit with one star reviews? Keep writing.
Someone sent you a nasty email? Keep writing.
Got rejected from Bookbub for the tenth time? Keep writing.
Don’t want to write because you feel mopey? Keep writing.
Too busy to write? Keep writing.
In this game, you only lose if you quit.
4.) Marinate on your story
Book ideas strike authors like bolts from the blue. Fully formed books do not. Never once have I come out of the shower with a fully formed story arc in mind. And I’ve taken a lot of showers.
If you’re stuck in your story, don’t fight it. Do something else. Listen to music or hang out in a coffee shop. Take a walk. Feel free to do this for several days. Your mind works on your story even when you’re not physically sitting in front of a keyboard. This is one benefit of a slower writing process: your mind goes over your plot points again and again. You’ll find better ways to execute without even knowing it.
5.) Set a writing routine
No real author ever said “I write when I get around to it.”
Writing is work. Things don’t always flow. But like any personal pursuit, you will position yourself for success if you train your body to perform. The best way to do that is through repetition. Set a routine to prepare your workspace and your mind.
Right now, the only time I can write for any extended period of time is in the 5am hour. I get up, I set the coffee, I turn on some low lights in the dining room, and I write for thirty minutes.
When the house wakes up, I stop. Sometimes I get a paragraph done, sometimes I get a page. No matter what, I know I’ve moved my story along. I don’t want to get up at 5. I’d rather spend a leisurely day in some ex-pat cafe with a bottle of wine and a moleskine notebook, but that ain’t life. 5am is what I got right now, so 5am is when I write.
6.) Don’t share too much too early
Your story will evolve and change as you write it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve settled on a title, sworn by it, only to change it a week later after I finished another chapter. It’s best to just let this occur as it happens. If you share details about your work in progress, you’ll find people have input.
Input is fine from editors and beta readers. It can be distracting from people just throwing in their two cents. We writers are notoriously impressionable. Share too much too early and you’ll be second guessing everything from your plot points to your book title to your character’s last names.
7.) Write widely
Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing gives you the freedom to blend genres if you want, or switch track altogether. You don’t have to be pigeonholed into a genre if you don’t want to be.
Many successful self-pub authors create pen-names for other genres, but I would argue that unless you’re making a complete about-face on genre (like going from religious fiction to erotica. Or anything to erotica) you don’t even need another pen name. Are you a thriller author that wants to dabble in historical fiction? Go right ahead! Romance author that wants to dabble in fantasy? Nora Roberts does it! You can too!
8.) Play by the rules when writing genres
Cozy mysteries are cozy for a reason. Sex and violence are downplayed or completely absent. All the action takes place in small, tight-nit communities. They’re cozy. They’re also a very profitable genre with a lot of power readers. Maybe you’re thinking you’d like to dabble. Go right ahead! But don’t go trying to write a cozy mystery and sex it all up and get it gritty. You’ll get showered in one star reviews.
Cozy mystery readers expect certain things. Western romance readers expect certain things. Military scifi readers expect certain things. Learn these things and follow the rules. Don’t re-invent the wheel here.
9.) Learn how to write good book blurbs
The blurb is the equivalent of an elevator pitch for your book. No matter how incredibly rich and involved and epic your story is, if you can’t sum it up in a single paragraph then you have a problem. Ideally you should be able to describe the entire book in one sentence.
A good blurb does two things: it describes the story and it hooks the reader. Don’t write a Wikipedia article. You’re speaking to a person who has a million other options in their to-read list. Experiment with stuff. Ask questions, use short, clipped statements, take advantage of the rich text editor on your book’s product page and bold things. Maybe highlight a great review up top. Don’t worry about screwing up, because you can always rewrite. Think of that basso voice you always hear in the previews for movies. What would that guy say about your book?
10.) Refine your approach to writing
A lot of people (many of whom haven’t finished writing any books of their own) will tell you that your first book is always going to be your worst book.
This isn’t true. Stylistically, your first book might be the best thing you’ll ever write. Or it might suck. You’ll never know until you write it. The one thing I can tell you is that it won’t be easy to write, nor will it be easy to publish, for the sole reason that you’re doing a new thing and people suck at new things.
As you’re writing, and as you’re publishing, try and remember the pain points. Write them down. And as you beat each one, remember how you did it. You’ll be thankful when your next book comes around and you can breeze by steps in the process that tripped you up before.
11.) Finish the book
You don’t have to love it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But you do have to finish the story. Once you do that, you can call yourself a writer. Until then, you’re just “working on a novel.”
12.) Let a first draft be a first draft
Everyone has their own writing style, but if yours is to relentlessly polish paragraph by paragraph you’re gonna burn out. First drafts are called first drafts for a reason. They get the story across, but it’s basically fifty percent there. And that’s okay! Plotting out the flow of the story from start to finish with the pretty parts sort of sketched in will give you a better understanding of the whole picture of the book.
When you go back to revise you’ll write better if your diving board is from the words THE END.
13.) Try not to curse in your writing
This is tough for me, because I love a good swear word. Especially the F-bomb. But the cold hard truth is most readers are neither here nor there about cursing, and many readers actively dislike cursing. Before you drop that F-bomb, really take a look at the dialogue. Does it make the dialogue markedly better? Or are you coming across as an angsty high-school kid, cussing for the sake of cussing?
14.) Make sex scenes matter
Sex is hard to write well. No way around it. There’s a reason one of the most infamous awards in writing is the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. What is already occasionally awkward in real life can become very awkward in writing.
Determine what your sex scene is supposed to convey. Is it erotic? Plot building? What is it telling your reader about your characters? Sex scenes work best when they illuminate the people involved, not just expose them.
15.) Don’t edit yourself to death
My current writing process looks like this:
- I sketch out a plot arc with basic plot points longhand in a notebook. This outline is usually 5-10 pages.
- I write a rough draft based off that outline.
- I go back and edit that rough draft one time.
- I send this 2nd draft to a content editor.
- I go back and do a second full read-through to accept/reject the content editors changes.
- I send this 3rd draft to a copy editor for grammar/punctuation and basically blindly accept all changes.
- I send this 4th draft through a second round of copy editing. Blindly accept.
- I publish.
I feel that this editing routine strikes a nice balance of being thorough without scrubbing my work too vigorously. Sometimes writers become editing-martyrs, as if you’re not a “real writer” unless you revise yourself into oblivion. The problem is, you run the risk of editing out your own voice if you continually revise and revise. Eventually you gotta pull the trigger and set ‘er free.
16.) Know the rules of grammar before you break them
Cormac McCarthy is famous for his minimalist writing style that basically throws all grammar rules out the window. He calls punctuation marks “weird little marks” that “blot the page up”. His sentences are often either very short or very, very long. He breaks every rule.
Cormac McCarthy is an incredible writer.
You are not Cormac McCarthy.
Until you’ve proven to your readers that you can follow punctuation rules and write with clarity in a way that they expect, you’re going to look like an amateur if you eschew basic rules of grammar, punctuation and syntax.
That said, don’t put semicolons in your work. It’s snooty.
17.) Don’t tire your reader
Think of your reader as having a finite attention span for every paragraph you write. This is “budget” that gets spent as they read. Sentences that are flowery or “expressive” will take up more of this budget. Sentences that are direct and straightforward will take up less.
Take a look at these two sentences by way of example:
A.) Tony grasped the ice-cold glass of water and brought it to his lips to take a long drink.
B.) Tony took a big swig of water.
There might be times when option A is better (if this glass of water really matters to the story, for instance) but know that when your reader takes on that sentence, they’re spending a lot of their attention budget over a drink a water. Option B lets them glide through the scene.
Save your flowery sentences for when they make the most impact and let a swig of water be a swig of water.
18.) Cut fluff words and crutch phrases
Every writer has their fluffy crutches. These are words that serve very little purpose and often get written in because you are working through the story at the time yourself. I think of them as mental pauses that somehow make it on page. Don’t be ashamed of them. Understand them. Here’s a pretty good list of fluffy crutches courtesy of a user named thejealousone on reddit’s writing forum:
- “That” (as in “He said that the car was totaled” vs. “He said the car was totaled”)
- “And then”
- “I saw”
- “I noticed”
- “What do you mean?”
- “What looked like a…”
- “some kind of…”
- “Shook my head…”
These should go, but a word of warning: Don’t just Ctrl-F to remove these things. Mass removal of fluffy crutches is as obvious to readers as overusing fluffy crutches. Try to write them out.
19.) Begin the story where it starts
Drop the reader in when the story starts.
This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. So many writers (myself included) have a tendency to want to “set up” the reader. Forget that. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Your reader doesn’t need a set up for your story. Your reader needs the story.
The only person that needs backstory is you.
Move. The. Plot.
20.) Don’t write like a cameraman
Many new writers tell stories as if they’re following their characters around with a camera. When you write like a cameraman you’ll often find yourself thinking visually and trying to communicate using the language of film (an extension of the show don’t tell rule).
Books are books because you can get into the heads of your characters. It’s totally cool to picture your story unfolding in your mind, but be sure to use the page to get into the motivations and nuances that make your characters special.
One of the best ways I’ve heard to curb cameraman writing is to watch less TV and read more books. Not bad advice all around.
21.) Choose your narrative point of view carefully
Narrative perspective (point of view) is the framing for your entire story. Different POVs have different advantages and disadvantages. Choose one that best suits your story and characters and don’t mess with it too much.
Forgot what all those POVs are? Well here’s a reminder:
First Person: The character tells the story. In First Person Present they tell the story as it’s happening (I do this in my Vanished Series) and in First Person Past they tell it as it happened. A lot of writers find First Person Present awkward and hard to sustain but I love that it gives you a chance to discover the story alongside your main character.
Second Person: Uses “you, your” construction and treats the reader as a protagonist or character right alongside the characters on the page. It’s a lot more common in non-fiction, but it’s been used with success in fiction too. Here’s an example:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney
The recent surge in “LitRPG Books” is bringing new life to the second person narrative. These books place the reader alongside the heroes in a literary RPG world, where you’re literally a character in the book.
Third Person: This is the most common use of perspective in literary writing. It’s when you tell the story in terms of he/she or him/her.
In Third Person Limited you are limited to your character’s eyes, ears and mind, but you know everything about it. It sounds like this:
Jack held Sarah’s hand, but his heart was with another woman. He stood with Sarah in silence on platform 3, waiting for a train to London that he hoped would change everything.
In Third Person Omniscient you aren’t limited to anything at all. You know what your character is doing as well as what others are doing. It’s not limited by space or time, either. You can jump back and forth, in and out of people and history (just make sure to do it carefully, and with clear designation). It sounds like this:
Jack held Sarah’s hand, but his heart was with another woman. He stood with Sarah in silence on platform 3, waiting for a train to London that he hoped would change everything.
The train would never come. Everything would soon change anyway.
22.) Write likeable characters
Anti-heroes are big these days. Flaws are important in characters because flaws give characters layers. But no matter how you write up your narrative, make sure you’ve got somebody likeable. As Kurt Vonnegut says: Give your readers at least one character to root for.
Hundreds of pages of a book filled with miserable people is no way to spend a month (or a week, if you’re a power reader).
Note that you don’t necessarily have to make your main character likeable to make a good book. Look at Jason Bateman in American Psycho. All I’m saying is someone in the book has to be the kind of person your reader roots for.
23.) Learn how to use paragraphs
Rules around paragraphs are perhaps the weakest in grammar. This is awesome, because you can craft paragraphs in a lot of different ways, but it’s also led to a general lack of respect for the power of the paragraph.
Don’t forget the power of the paragraph, people!
Two things to remember about paragraphs:
1.) They should get one thing across.
2.) Your reader will stop to consider each one.
Some more things to remember about paragraphs if you’re into formality:
In a paragraph where a character has dialogue, it’s best if that person is the subject of every sentence. it keeps thing 1 (see above) front and center. If other things happen, done by other things or other people, start a new paragraph.
And here’s an example of an awesome writer who throws all that out of the window:
Blake Crouch. Check it:
The name meant nothing to him.
But the first syllable did. Or rather, it prompted some emotional response.
Was he Mack? Was that his first name?
“My name’s Mack. Hi, I’m Mack, nice to meet you.”
No.Pines – Blake Crouch
So you could follow the rules and write great stuff, or you can write a string on five word paragraphs, and then put “No.” in its own paragraph, and also write great stuff. If you’re Blake Crouch.
Mess around. But Mess around at your own risk.
24.) Read it out loud
The quickest way to find out if your story sounds weird is to read it aloud. You’ll instantly hear if your punctuation flows and if your sentence structure makes sense. This is especially important in scenes with dialogue. Your brain knows what a conversation should sound like. If your own voice has you furrowing your brow, sit down and re-write.
25.) Great books create value
In your heart of hearts you know the difference between a good book and a great book. You know it because a good book tells a cool story. A great book is valuable. It makes your life richer.
How do you write a book that creates value? Well, there is no magic bullet here, no one-off secret to writing a story that has value, especially since what one person values in a story will differ from the next, but I can tell you a few things that the books I value have in common:
1.) They are doorways
The heart of a great book is a great story, true, but what lends value to a book is the notion that the story is part of something larger. This isn’t to say that you need to build a whole world around every book you write, or that you need to write a ten book series to really tell a story, all I’m saying is that the books I value most ask you to think beyond their narratives and explore their world.
2.) They’re meticulous
The other day I was reading an interview of Richard Russo about his novel Empire Falls which, I would say, has real value as a novel, and I was struck by something he said about his characters. He said, “I see a character, and then I know suddenly who his father and mother were, and who his uncle was, and who his siblings were, and who his best friend was when he was growing up.” Details matter. You need to be able to explain everything in your book. Everything. You shouldn’t write everything (only tell what matters), but you should be able explain it. You never want to be put in a situation where someone asks why this or that happened in your book and you have to respond by taking a really long sip of water.
3.) They have attitude
A truly valuable book doesn’t coddle its reader. The best stories don’t hold their reader’s hands, they blow through the pages and take the reader along for a ride in their wake. In fact, they seem like they don’t even need you to read about them; They’re happening regardless of if you ever lay eyes on them or not. They’re like a crazy RV tearing across the country, trailing strings of beer cans and blasting rock music, windows down, with huge purple flame decals and enormous fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. You’re the hitchhiker. It’ll stop for you and take you along for the ride if you stick your thumb out, but it’s headed where it’s headed either way.
Of course, you might have a different idea of value, but if you look at all of your absolute favorite books, I bet you’ll find similarities that run through all of them. The important thing is once you identify your indicators of value, you work to achieve it in your writing.
26.) Keep characters consistent
How many times have you been reading a book and thought That doesn’t sound like “Character X” or “Character Y” wouldn’t say that. No, it is not your fault. In these instances, the writer has screwed up.
Usually character inconsistencies stem from dragging out a writing project too long, to the point where writers themselves forget their own character motivations and slip up. Often times writers lose perspective and forget that although it may have taken them years to write a book, it’s meant to be read in a few weeks. You, the reader, will ultimately have the proper perspective on the characters of a novel, even moreso than the writer, who in the end won’t be able to see the forest for the trees.
27.) Don’t force fit scenes
Remember that when you write a book you are progressing towards an end. I’ve read a couple of books where I come across a scene halfway through and it is very clear to me that the entire book was written because of that scene. It was some dream that the writer had or some scene that they witnessed or were inspired by and they thought it would be cool to write that scene in a book. This is totally fine, so long as it is either the culmination of the story, or it progresses the story towards a culmination, but if you try to force fit a story around something that looks cool in your mind but has no real bearing on the story, readers will see through it.
28.) Write series
You can sell anything if it’s good enough (this is a recurring theme here) but if you write a series it’ll be easier to gain fans and make money. Readers like investing in characters and in story lines. Genre writing lends itself to series, and genres sell best these days. Plus, it’s easier to craft paid ad campaigns around series.
I don’t mean that every book you write has to be a part of some epic narrative arc that never finishes. Readers have a love/hate relationship with cliffhangers. I’ve found that my readers respond best to books that are complete stories within themselves and also are a part of a bigger world.
29.) Take writing breaks
Your routine will fail you. You will fail your routine. It’s fine to take a day, a week, a month, even a year off. Taking time off writing doesn’t make you any less of a writer.
You won’t feel that way. You’ll feel like a phony because you aren’t killing yourself to write X hundred words a day, but it’s true. Say it with me now: Taking time off doesn’t make you less of a writer.
30.) Break your writing routine
If you feel like your story is stuck, break your routine yourself. Something as easy as switching the days of the week on which you write can go a long way to kill writer’s block. Going to a new coffee shop to write, or taking your laptop out on the porch instead of tapping away on the kitchen table can help too. A shift of physical perspective can be just the thing to get you out of that rut.
Writing is a job, but it doesn’t have to look like a 9-5. When you find yourself clocking in and clocking out, shift things up to remind yourself that you own your stories, not the other way around.
31.) Avoid the passive voice
Stephen King famously said that timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners: because the passive voice is safe.
Just so you don’t have to look it up, in passive sentences the subject is being acted upon. As opposed to an active sentence, where a subject, you know, acts.
Passive: The tree was cut down by Jack.
Active: Jack cut down the tree.
Passive voice takes all the authority out of your writing. It pulls the writer (and the reader) a layer away from the action unnecessarily, and it usually happens because you aren’t confident in the action itself. Instead of telling a story, you’re telling a story of a story. If it ends up sucking you can say “hey, I’m just the messenger.”
Harden up. Your story is great. Get rid of passive voice and own it.
The good news is, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot passive sentences and easy to fix ‘em up.
32.) Don’t get snooty in your writing
When I worked as a corporate copywriter I had a boss who would send back my copy with revisions saying “Don’t write like an English Major”
At first I was offended. I am an English major. I love English majors. I think the world would benefit in general from more English majors. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was writing copy telling people how to think and feel, and in general sounding a bit snooty.
This is an offshoot of the “keep your audience in mind” tip. Intellectual, flowery writing will sell if your audience is flowery intellectuals. The rest of us will pass. Keep it simple.
33.) Keep the story arc in mind
There’s an old adage in life that applies particularly well to writing: You have to know the rules before you break them. One of those rules is the classic story arc: Setup | Conflict | Resolution.
There is a lot of wiggle room within this framework, but for the most part the story structure should stay the same. Your setup grabs attention and sets the scene, establishes characters and dependencies. In the conflict stage these structures and dependencies are tested or removed to create interesting situations. In the resolution everything boils over and all elements come together to close the story.
I often draw this basic arc out before I even map plot points. I build around the arc. That’s how important it is. Nothing will kill your story faster than thinking you can get cute and throw out a basic system that has worked since Aristotle.
34.) Read dialogue as you write it
Dialogue is notoriously difficult to write. Nothing shows itself more blatantly in a story than bad dialogue. You can be all wrapped up in the story, then you get to a snippet of the characters talking that sounds about as natural as asbestos.
“We’re in trouble Sarah! How can we possibly fight such a powerful Witch-Monster, especially when we don’t yet have the key to killing her—which of course is the Golden Sword? What do you think we should do Sarah?”
“Grab my hand Ted. Together we can hold our hands up above our heads and call the Golden Sword to us using the incantation we learned back in the Donkey Inn when we met that old wizard.”
“Great idea Sarah!”
“Thank you, Ted!”
I exaggerate. But not by much. It can really get this bad. Good news is there is a solution: Read it aloud.
Do you really sound like that when you talk? No. No you do not. And you may have noticed one of my pet peeves about dialogue, which I see abused all over the place. Proper names. Nobody uses your name all the time when they talk to you. You don’t refer to your friends by their first names every time you talk to them. Hi Dave, how are you Dave, good to see you Dave, what’s for dinner Dave? Why would you do it in writing?
Top Self-Publishing Tips
35.) Start an LLC
No matter how you slice it, you’re gonna spend money self-publishing. There are paths that you can take in which you’ll spend less, there are paths you can take in which you spend more, but no matter what, you’re gonna spend something.
And you should expense that something.
Publishing your work is hard work. You are running a business, whether you like it or not. You need to take every advantage given to you, including the fact that you can write off expenses. Registering an LLC is as easy as sneezing. Here’s a good place to start.
36.) Keep Track of Your Expenses
It’s always good to keep track of what you spend. In general. In life. But if you’re like me (a writer) you’re probably not super great with accounting.
Get a designated credit card for your publishing expenses and pay off that card with a designated bank account. Don’t spend a red cent on that card unless it’s related to your writing (and not in a round of drinks to get me in the writing mood type of way, either). When it’s time to tally up expenses (midnight on April 14th, usually), just plow through your statements and add it all up.
It’s good to know what your spending on all this, even if you’re in the red for a while.
37.) Register Yourself Across All Available E-book Platforms
Amazon offers you benefits if you publish exclusively with them and many writers have broken down the pros and cons of that particular subject (it’s a touchy one). Regardless of what you choose to do, you should at least be registered to sell with every major platform out there (right now I’m on Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo and Google Play).
Your marketing strategies will change over time. Many promotions you run will require you to change prices across platforms on fairly short notice. Sometimes you’ll need to change metadata or book descriptions. I’ve found the best and most responsive way to deal with price changes and any other data changes is to work directly with these platforms.
38.) Set up a mailing list
Many authors will say your mailing list is your greatest asset. It’s not. That would be your brains and heart (awww). That said, your mailing list is a very important tool. It’s harder these days to get people to open mass emails because spam rules often shoot us in the foot before we get out of the gate, but direct-to-email is still one of the most effective ways to build a fan base and promote new releases.
Frequent contact or new-release only emails? I’ll leave that to you. But get started early by setting up a mailing list and including a link to your signup form in the back of every book you write.
The two most popular are Mailchimp and Mailer Lite (like Miller Lite, but an email service). Both are free until you get to a certain number of subscribers. I use Mailchimp for now. Mailchimp offers a token program that allows you to send to larger lists without subscribing, which is helpful for me since I email my list around 5 to 10 times a year. Maybe I’m too polite.
39.) Get a professional cover
People judge a book by its cover. And not only that, they judge it by its thumbnail. If you’re writing in a genre, readers of that genre expect certain things from their covers. If you don’t adhere to these things, people will pass you by.
Cover designers know this. Often the cover you choose will be one of the most expensive aspects of publishing your book.
It is worth it.
I’ve used several great cover artists in the decade-plus I’ve been hacking away at this. Miguel Coimbra, Damonza, and Bookfly among them. Find a style you like. Talk to the designers. Ask them what they think the best approach is. Give them examples of other awesome covers you like.
A good cover ain’t cheap. It is worth it.
40.) Get a professional editor
You should self-edit. And then when you’re done meticulously self-editing, send your manuscript to a professional editor.
You don’t need a heart-wrenching back and forth with this editor, in which huge swaths of your writing are changed or deleted or added upon, but you do need a content editor that can tell you if your plot makes sense and if they get what you’re trying to say. I’ve used the fine folks at Red Adept Editing for years.
You also should get a round (or two) of copy editing. These folks won’t mess with structure and flow, they’ll just read for grammar and punctuation.
You’ll be amazed at what they find that you miss, ol’ Eagle Eye.
41.) Edit your own ebook files
Books are forever. You will change. If you want to modify your About the Author, or swap out a cover, or edit some of those punctuation errors that somehow slipped through–all without paying somebody–you’re gonna need to familiarize yourself with an epub editor.
I use Sigil to edit my ebooks in epub form and then Kindle Previewer to convert them back to .mobi files. Kindle Previewer is a good program in general because it lets you see what your book will look like on all of Amazon’s devices. Curious if your file passes epub check? Load it here (ignore the kid in the suit.)
complete aside here, but the single biggest problem I run into with failed epub checks is that some conversion software will append a number to the chapter ID in the TOC. Any chapter ID with a number to start will fail an epub check. Kobo in particular still draws a hard line on only accepting epub check approved files.
42.) Get a basic image editor
You don’t need to be a graphic designer to succeed in self publishing, but you do need to understand how to compose and size ads. This used to cost a fortune and require an image editor with a learning curve that was a job in and of itself. Not anymore. Get any one of the many free graphic design platforms out there and start messing around with canvas size, image size, cropping, and adding text. I use canva. It gets the job done.
43.) Get an Author Central account
It takes up to 24 hours to make changes to your product pages or author bio by re-publishing your books. On Amazon’s Author Central you can do it almost instantly. Plus, get access to more in depth rank trackers and sales info. Any time Amazon gives you a tool with more visibility into what they think of you, it’s best to go on the offensive and take control of what you can. Otherwise they will.
44.) Backup your files
Backup your files, people. In the cloud, on a drive, on your phone, in your email, somewhere, anywhere. Just do it. I used to write on a word processor because it helped me disconnect from the internet and focus. Then the word processor glitched and I lost thousands of words of manuscript.
Now, every three days I email my latest manuscript to myself. All my ads, ebook files, illustrations and sales reports are in the cloud. I’m trying to get comfortable writing in the cloud, but I don’t trust that either. Backup your backups. You work too hard to lose everything because you thought your old laptop could hold up for another month.
And if you’re one of those people who only write longhand and carry the moleskine notebook with you wherever you go, all I can say is good luck. I was one of those people too.
I’m not anymore.
45.) Understand publishing cadence
Two of my favorite writers don’t get this: George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. They both put out a book, then another book, and when we were all expecting a third book they decide to switch up their cadence.
There’s no law against this. As a writer you are free to put out work whenever you want (unless contracts say otherwise) but understand that once you start an output velocity, readers tend to expect it going forward.
George and Pat can get away with it because they’re, well, George and Pat. You and me? Not so much. And I freely admit I’m bad at this, too. I put out two books a year now it’s more like one every year and a half.
Consistent cadence applies to books, blogs, facebook posts, instagram posts, even tweets. Consistency is more effective. Try not to start a thing you can’t keep up with.
46.) Don’t worry about pirates
One of the hardest lessons you have to learn as a writer, even a moderately successful one, is that comparatively few people actually care about your books. For a while, when you’re first starting out,you should concern yourself with readers, not revenue.
Spoiler alert: Stay at this long enough and your work will probably end up on one of the jillion pirated ebook sites out there. You shouldn’t care. Yes, these people are stealing. No, it’s not worth your time or effort. Most likely, nothing will come of it. At worst (or best) you lose a few bucks and gain a few fans.
You aren’t going to miss your shot at the NYT bestseller lists because your book ended up temporarily free on some shady site.
47.) Experiment with categories
On Amazon you can choose two categories in which to classify your book. These are important because they allow you to pick the stage on which you want to start dancing for attention. The more specialized you can niche your book within categories, the better chance you’ll have to one day get this #1 bestseller rank on your book. It’s harder to rank for Mystery, Thriller and Suspense than it is for Historical Teen and Young Adult Romance, for instance.
Take a look at Amazon’s categories breakdown. The key is to pair your category choices with the 7 keywords you choose to attach to your book in the “keyword details” section of KDP. These allow you to drill deeper down into categories.
There are tools that allow you to find niche categories more easily. I know many people use Publisher Rocket with some success, although I haven’t used it personally. Just make sure that whatever categories and keywords you use, they are accurate. Readers don’t take kindly to being duped.
48.) No such thing as a one-hit-wonder
If you’re planning on writing that one huge blockbuster and cashing out, let me stop you right there. With the exception of maybe five or so franchise stories in the history of the world (like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings) no book ever gains momentum indefinitely. The fact is, readers will stop paying attention to your book over time if it sits in a vacuum. The good news is, if you keep up the writing and promoting, they won’t stop paying attention to you.
49.) Get print versions of your books
Physical copies of your novel help to fill out more of the product page, plus they are great for Goodreads Giveaways and other in-person promotional work you may do at trade shows or libraries.
Plus, it’s nice to have a physical copy of your book lying around.
It’s best to do both the ebook and physical book layout and design work at once. Ebook layout groups like Damonza offer bundled packages that provide ebook and paperback cover design and layout work to make it easy. Once you have a press ready PDF version of your interior and cover, Nook and Amazon make it easy to make paperbacks in their title setup process.
50.) Get audiobook versions of your books
This is a huge untapped market for indie authors, and for good reason: it costs a fortune to make an audiobook well, and most indie authors can’t afford to do it right. But if you can do it, do it. I don’t have audiobooks and I really wish I did. My big initiative for this year is to get one of my novels turned into an audiobook (probably my best seller Follow the Crow).
So it’s pricey, but once you sink the costs, the returns can be big. Amazon’s ACX Audiobook program is a sort of marketplace for the service of audiobooks. There are two basic routes: you can pay a narrator flat out cash, or provide them with a cut of royalties. Naturally, most narrators want payment up front (they don’t know you from a hole in the wall and the lion’s share of self published books don’t sell, so they want the cold, hard cash.)
How much does an audiobook cost? Well, a good rule of thumb is to divide your word count by 9,300, because that’s the average number of words per hour in an audiobook. Pro narrators can cost upwards of $350 an hour. So a 70,000 word book will run you anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000
Familiarize yourself with the process. Check out narrators. See if it’s worth it to you right now.
Oh, one more thing. Be careful about narrating your own audiobook. People do it, it can be done, but it’s a ton of work and can go very badly.
51.) Pay for things that make your life easier
There are times to gut it out on your own in self publishing, and there are times in which you should drop a little cash to make your life easier. The microtransaction economy that surrounds online sales has a lot of benefits. You can hack away at your website to build forms and giveaways, or you could pay for quick fixes, set it and forget it.
Here are a few things I’ve found worth the cash:
Mailchimp For WordPress: This premium plugin allows me to customize forms on my website without knowing a lick of code. It also has a feed right into my mailchimp list.
Author Pro: This is a premium child theme for Genesis that allows you to create a library for your books and display book product pages on your website in a clean way. I’d recommend it if you have a backlist of books.
Bookfunnel: This service allows you to deliver free ebooks to generate leads and get mailing list signups.
Prolific Works (Instafreebie): This is a great service to get your mailing list going. It’s a community of free book giveaways. You can create a profile page or bundle your book with others for large scale giveaways. The premium version is essential because it allows you to easily link your mailchimp/mailerlite accounts.
52.) Output matters
One of the most infuriating things for me as a young writer was watching my peers write circles around me. I put out a book every two years, the people I interacted with online and messaged in forums were writing a book a month. I was jealous, so I got snooty and assumed they were writing bad books. They weren’t, they were just writing fast. Consistent output builds a backlist and keeps readers engaged. You don’t have to write a book a month (no way I could do it) but try to write consistently. And don’t knock the hustle.
Top Marketing Tips
53.) Get a website
You don’t have to be Steve Jobs here. People don’t expect flawless design and groundbreaking UX, but they do like a way to connect with you online. A website gives you one place in which to showcase all your work. A digital headquarters. I suggest using a simple url as close to your author name as possible.
For bbgriffith.com I used the author pro theme with a few tweaks that I’m happy to discuss with you if you email me. It was all pretty easy.
Oh, and one more thing: hosting a domain gives you an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org for instance) that is less likely to get filtered out by spam than a major domain address.
54.) Get on social media
I get it. Social media is a bit of a drag. Self-promotional social media, in particular, is a very difficult thing to get right (i’m still working on it.)
That said, you should at least establish your author name on all of the major platforms (I’m on instagram, facebook, twitter, even pinterest). Even if you post a couple times a month, you’ll start to build an audience. And what do you have to lose?
Remember, it’s called shameless self-promotion for a reason.
55.) Give stuff away
Millions of books get published every year. You know (and I know, of course) that your work is awesome. Nobody else does. And there is no reason for them to believe otherwise unless they read you first.
For that to happen, you’re gonna need to give away a lot of copies of your books.
Giving away your work is tough. Giveaways are a major point of contention among authors, for good reason. It’s hard to spend thousands of hours of your life on a thing and then just turn around and hand it to anyone willing to read it. I see both sides of the coin here. How many copies you’re willing to give away is up to you, and I won’t try to convince you one way or the other, just know this. I’ve sold over 40,000 books now and I’ve given away at least five times that many.
56.) Establish your profile on reader websites
By “reader websites” I mean Goodreads and BookBub, for now. (I’m always on the lookout for others). Create an author profile, upload your published works. These are reader hubs. People share, rate, and review you. Not all of these reviews will be good (Goodreads in particular can be tough because they adhere to a hard line 5 star system) but they will all help you get your name out there.
57.) Look at what sells
Good authors sell for a reason. And I’m not talking about established, mainstream names (although you can learn a lot from them, too). I’m talking about self-published authors who sell a lot of books. There are thousands of them selling millions of books.
Subscribe to their newsletters. Check out their websites. See how often they publish, and how often they post. Look at their covers and check out their blurbs. What they do won’t necessarily work for you, but their approach to writing and publishing can be a good place in which to frame what you do.
Why not start by scanning the top 100 best-sellers in the genre you want to dominate. Odds are a ton of them are indie. Google their names and see what they’re all about.
58.) Understand how paid advertising works
Paid ads can be a bear for many reasons, not least of which is the fact you can sneeze away hundreds of dollars at a time without a lot to show for it if you’re not ready. But paid ads are also one of the best weapons in a self-publishers arsenal, and they are essential for consistent sales.
One of the biggest advantages you have compared to a traditionally published author is the ability to promote yourself however you want. You can reach more people and with greater effect than almost every traditionally published author…if you’re willing to spend the cash.
ROI (or lack thereof) is important. Understanding design requirements for each platform is important. Creating an eye catching ad is important. All of these things matter and are way too much to get into right now. Just know that you’ll benefit from the boost that paid ads can give your promotional campaigns and start reading up on how successful authors do this. This post from Career Authors is a humorous and on-point analysis. It’s a great place to start.
59.) Understand the book marketplace
Some fun facts about readers (source):
- Women read a lot more than men.
- 18-29 year-olds read more than any other age group.
- 1 in 5 Americans are listening to Audiobooks.
Write a good enough book and you can sell in any genre and to any reader. But be aware that some genres sell better than others. Scifi, for example, sells five times more than horror (which is the 5th most profitable in and of itself). Erotica and romance genres blow everyone else out of the water. None of this is likely to change the things you want to write, but you should remember this when you look around the market at who is selling. Genre matters. (source)
60.) Use newsletter promo sites
When I started self publishing there were only a handful of websites that were willing to let you apply and pay to use their newsletter lists to promote your book. Now there are more than I can count. Some of them are very effective, others are not.
I’ve compiled a list of the five best promotional sites from my own (extensive) personal experience. Go for these five. Forget the rest.
- 1.) BookBub (obviously)
- 2.) ENT (Ereader News Today)
- 3.) Robin Reads
- 4.) FKBT (Free Kindle Books & Tips)
- 5.) Freebooksy (Or Bargainbooksy for non-free promos)
I only use them a few times a year, and only when I craft big-push promos with the goal of breaking top 50 on Amazon and top 10 on other platforms. Apply a month out (more for Robin Reads). It may take some time to get acceptance from them when you’re first starting out (especially Bookbub). Keep trying. They’re powerful tools.
61.) Selling books is a numbers game
For all the blood, sweat and tears that writing entails, selling is remarkably sterile and mathematical.
After a year or so of data, you can pretty much reverse waterfall exactly what you need to spend to sell X number of books. You may not like that dollar figure, but at least it’s a truth you can hold on to. The more you write and publish, the lower that cost per sale will become.
62.) Recommend other authors
Recommending other writers is a great way to boost visibility on Bookbub and Goodreads. It increases your chance of connecting with like minded writers and readers on twitter, facebook and instagram. It can help you sell books. But that’s not why you should do it.
You should recommend other writers because you might be able to give them the exposure they need to make it. You can help them succeed. As a writer, you’re one of the most trusted readers. Use that power for good.
63.) Sell yourself
Build a platform around your name. I went with griffithpublishing.com forever until I realized to just needed to cut to the chase and put my own name out there.
This is maybe the hardest of all these tips and tricks to take. Most writers are introverts. We’re best writing planned out stories, able to delete and run away when things don’t work, getting do-overs and fresh starts whenever we want. We like a polished, finished project that has been groomed more often than a show dog.
We like our writing nooks. We’re not great at putting ourselves out there.
The problem is, these days you have to sell yourself as much as your books. If you’re going for traditional publishing, you need a platform. If you self-publish, well, it’s called self-publishing for a reason. You, the self, are the major driver. In my experience, the reason writers are so hesitant to trumpet their work and their accomplishments is because they don’t feel they’re good enough.
Newsflash: no writer ever feels like they’re good enough. From top to bottom. That shouldn’t stop you from getting out there and building a platform around your name.
64.) Don’t always sell yourself
Remember that you are more than a means to sell your books. You are a writer. Ultimately, you don’t need to be a master marketer to sell books. You just need to write great books and tell a few people about it.
65.) Buff up your About page
This works best for websites, but it holds true for every online account you have (and even for your back-of-cover blurbs). You should have a decent “about me” pitch. Make it a little personal, a little disarming, not like a Wikipedia article. Don’t come off desperate, either.
Maybe it’s not as easy as I thought.
Fun (completely anecdotal) fact: Your About Me page on your website will be one of your most visited pages.
66.) Know the basics of SEO
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This is really a whole tutorial in and of itself, but suffice to say that your understanding of how Google and Amazon (yes, it is a search engine in and of itself) can position your work will really make a difference in how successful you are as a writer.
There are a million different tips and tricks to optimize your profile pages, product pages, and websites for SEO, but what it ultimately boils down to is write honest, helpful content that answers the questions your readers are asking.
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that content sells content. Publishing doesn’t stop at books. The best positioned authors are the ones that create an ecosystem of content around their books, from blogs to podcasts to youtube vids and more.
This very list, for instance, is a bald faced and blatant attempt to get website traffic, but it is born out of an honest desire to provide real answers to the questions I often get asked about writing and publishing. I plan to write a product page SEO primer soon. Stay tuned.
67.) Build awareness with evergreen investments
This is a mouthful, but a valuable tip that I’ve only recently really come to appreciate. A small and continuous paid ad promotion that is evergreen (i.e. that you keep going all the time) can often build more of a following than incremental blowout promotions.
I used to only spend on social media ads to build up or extend a big discount or sale. But if you’re looking to gain followers and build a web presence, a long, slow-drip campaign where you spend two to five bucks a day might do the job better.
68.) Try to become a best-seller
I know, ha ha right? Of course you’re trying to become a best-seller. What I mean by this is strategically try to become a best-selling author by going for the #1 bestseller tag on Amazon (that little orange guy that gets appended to your book for a bit), or, if you’re really good (and really lucky) the USA Today Bestseller list.
Getting the Amazon categorical best-seller list is dependent upon how competitive that category is. Take a look at the sales rank of the current number one and plug it into one of the many calculators out there (here’s one that is fairly accurate) although I think most underestimate.
Hitting the USA Today list? Depending on the season (Fall is tougher, that’s when all the big books get released) it usually takes anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 sales in a week. The USA Today week runs from Monday through Sunday, and you’re going to want to schedule your BookBub ideally on a Wednesday or Thursday so you can take advantage of the long tail sales. Also, if you’re in Kindle Unlimited you’re out of luck. You need to log at least 500 sales at a major retailer other than Amazon to hit the list (usually B&N). Full disclosure: I’ve never hit the list, although I’ve sold in the 7k range in a week before.
69.) Have a promo stacking playbook
Sometimes you need to make a big splash. Usually, this is structured around a big price drop, or a major announcement. Often you’ll have secured a Bookbub featured deal you’ll want to promo stack around it to see how far you can climb the charts., and you want to see how far you can climb the charts.
Here is an example of what my promotions playbook looks like these days. It’s gotten me into bestseller lists on Amazon, Nook and iTunes. It takes work, luck, and money. But so do most things.
Step 1: Secure BookBub (They usually schedule you about three weeks out)
Step 2: After you get a BookBub feature deal immediately book ENT and Robin Reads for the day before (if possible). These promos are competitive, but will usually accommodate.
Step 3: Book FKBT and Bargainbooksy promotions for the day before, if possible. These promos are still good but less competitive so you can almost always get the day you want.
Because BookBub is so much more effective than other promotions, scheduling other email list promos on the day of is a waste of money. But scheduling for the day before can boost your rank in time for BookBub to rocket your rank. Think of promo stacking as a baton race with BookBub as the ringer who’s fast as sin at the end.
Step 4: In the ensuing three weeks, craft the email you’ll send your own list, as well as craft paid ads for Facebook and for BookBub. Ideally you’ll already have a few of these you’ve tested for effectiveness, but if not, that’s ok. Amazon paid ads are good for evergreen investment, but not as effective for big promotions. You’ll also want to contact Kobo and B&N to see if they can promote you through their onsite deals (they do have these. You have to email B&N and apply online with Kobo.)
Step 5: Drop the price of your book 2-3 days before your first email blast promotion (just to be sure things take across all platforms.)
Step 6: Put the vast majority of your paid Facebook ad spend budget towards the one or two days before your BookBub ad (which is also hopefully the one or two days in which you have ENT, FKBT, Robin Reads, and Freebooksy promotions).
Step 7: On BookBub day, unleash your BookBub paid ad spend (it does compliment the featured ad) and continue your Facebook ad spend as you see fit (I’ve found a sponsored post does well here).
Step 8: After your BookBub deal, assess whether you’ve hit your sales goals or if you are within reach of your sales goals if you’re trying to hit the USA Today bestseller list. If you are, unleash the paid ads it takes to get there. If not, cut all spend and enjoy yourself.
Step 9: Pour a big glass of something special.
70.) Don’t bury the headline
I had a boss that would harp on this all time. It drove me nuts. But he wasn’t wrong. It essentially means “lead with the promo”
If your book is free, FREE should be your first word. If it’s .99c, lead with that. If your novel is award winning, or a bestseller, point that out.
This goes beyond promotions, too. Book titles, chapters, sentences, all of them should lead with what matters. You never know how long your reader will pay attention. Hit them with your best stuff up front. The next second of a reader’s attention is never guaranteed.
71.) Don’t waste your money
It’s very easy to see when you are literally throwing money down a pit on the Facebook and BookBub ad platforms. Amazon and Twitter too. You get an updated ROI on ad spend every time you refresh. When you start hemorrhaging cash for little to no exposure, pull the plug.
The same goes for editors, cover artists, layout specialists, voice actors, email services, and any other contractor you might work with. Pay people if they give you the results you want. Don’t throw money at people. This industry is known for taking advantage of writers with promises of glory. You make your own glory.
72.) Show readers your work
I mean this in the most literal sense. Get a picture of your book. Put it on your ads, in your posts, on your website. You wouldn’t believe how many people will have no idea what you do or what you’re selling unless you actually show it to them as a physical book. Slapping a book on the page in my posts, ads, emails and everywhere else I can has increased my click through rates and online engagement more than any other single on-page element. And don’t worry, these folks do it for free.
73.) Sets sell
You read that right. Sets sell, baby.
People like to be invested in a long term story. Their time is precious. If they’re going to fall in love with a story line, they want it to be long. Epic is the word of the day.
Series give you read through that you’ll eventually be able to quantify (X% of people who buy book 1 will generally buy book 2 and so on.) This can help you plan, and also just makes you feel awesome (if your read through is decent).
I wish it was easier to sell one-off novels, I really do. But unless you have a serious following or are in a particular genre (like horror or psychological thrillers) you’re probably going to find more success with a series. The SciFi and Fantasy genres and all of their offshoots absolutely expect them. One-off SciFi and Fantasy novels are a super tough sell (unless you’re Guy Gavriel Kay or Neil Gaiman, in which case, thank you sirs for visiting my website.)
74.) Put reviews on your product page
Editorial Reviews on B&N need to be sourced, but Amazon Editorial Reviews can reference customer reviews. Since you’re self published and probably don’t have Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly blurbs, I use these spaces to highlight stellar customer reviews or Vine voices who have left reviews that might be buried otherwise.
Top Tips for A Writer’s Life
75.) Never respond to a review
You’ll get all sorts of reviews in your career. Most of them will be good. Many of them will be bad, and some will be terrible.
Don’t respond to any of them. Ever.
Reviews aren’t meant for you. They are meant for other readers. In many ways, when you publish something, you’re giving it away. Once it is reviewable, it is out of your hands and into the hands of the marketplace.
Let it go. Move on to the next project.
76.) Respond to almost every message from readers
If a reader takes the time to message you personally, either through email, on one of the reader platforms, or through social media, respond to them! Be thankful. People don’t have a lot of time these days, but if they took the time to read your book and then reach out to you, you should respect that.
Unless, of course, they are being mean. Then don’t respond. Ever.
77.) Your strategies will change
When I first started out promoting there was this really cool thing you could do on Amazon: drop your price to free and juice your ranking, then when Amazon switched you back to paid you would take some of that steam from the free rankings into the paid rankings. It was incredible! It was a standard arrow in the promo quiver.
Then Amazon realized that linking the free and paid lists made no sense for them and there went that.
Things that worked for you in the past will stop working for you. The ways you sell books will change. The ways that you wrote best will change. The places and people you are inspired by will move and shift. The circumstances that allow you to produce your best work will not remain constant for your entire life.
When you were 19 and worked part time, you could drink beer and write in the evenings. Maybe things look different now. What you lack in time now, you make up for with experience.
There is never a perfect time to write and publish. Never a perfect season in life to create. It doesn’t matter how you do it, only that you do it.
78.) Get an affiliate account wherever you can
Like money? Me too. Have enough of it? Me neither. That’s why whenever I get a chance at more in this gig, I take it. Affiliate programs pay you for directing traffic towards Amazon, Google and Barnes & Noble. They add a specific marker to your outbound links, any purchases from that session nets a small percentage to you.
Don’t stuff your site with affiliate links that don’t make sense. I add affiliate links to all of my book links that direct my website traffic to the major retailers. I’m not putting in links to loofahs or tires or anything.
Check out these links to get started (see what I did there?)
79.) Don’t get jealous
And understand that they were once just like you.
There are thousands of very successful writers out there who make a ton of money and have legions of fans. Don’t hate them because they are good at what they do. Learn from them.
You’re one great book away.
80.) Odds are you’ll be middle of the pack
When I talk to people who want to be writers, they think one of two things is going to happen: Either they’ll write an instant success and steamroll their way up the charts or they’ll struggle for years to gather a handful of readers then die.
Neither of these things is likely to happen.
If you truly decide to give writing a shot, it’s likely going to be a very different career than you think. The books you write will probably change. Your writing process will end up very different from what you’re picturing. The only people who really struggle with self-publishing are the ones who insist that they’re being given a bad shake because things are different than they thought. Don’t be that person. Roll with the punches.
81.) Don’t look back
Did you spend too much money on design assets that didn’t help you sell? It happens. Let it go and don’t look back.
Dump a ton of budget into a stupid sponsored ad that got you no revenue? Forget it. It happens. Don’t look back.
Did you spend two hard earned years in the self-publishing game before you thought to craft an email signup system? You ain’t alone. Those two years are gone. Don’t dwell on them. It’s not the end of the world.
Don’t dwell on the ways you misallocated your precious resources in the past. These things helped you get to where you are today. And if where you are today sucks, don’t dwell on that either. Just keep writing.
82.) Keep a journal
Even if you, like me, write everything on a laptop, you should still carry around a good old’ fashioned journal with you. You don’t have to write your books in it, you can just use it for ideas. Jotting down thoughts or snippets of dialogue you overheard. I write down awesome names I hear and interesting scenes that strike me. I also use mine for nothing more than scrawling a pen along the margins, or writing certain thoughts on life and living.
I know an NYT best-seller that keeps a tiny moleskine notebook in his breast pocket at all times. Things strike you at weird times and in weird places. I’m still looking for that waterproof notebook to take in the shower…
83.) Progress is personal
Don’t count your progress by the words on the page. If you sit at your writing desk (or nook, or bar, or whatever) and try to craft a story for an hour without writing a single word, you’ve still made progress on your story. Same if you write a single sentence, then delete it. Or maybe you keep it but think it’s garbage.
A lot about the writing process happens outside of typing letters on page. When you think about how to tackle the next part of your story while at the gym, or in the quiet moments at 3am during a sleepless night, you’re still writing. Progress means a lot of things.
84.) Understand that you can change everything at any time
Self-publishers have the advantage of changing anything they want about their work or their platform at any time, for any reason at all. The reason many of us don’t is because we think we’re going to get called out on it for some reason by readers (we won’t) or that it will dramatically drop the sales we have (it won’t).
Here’s the harsh and wonderful truth about writing and selling: nobody is going to notice if you change up what you’re doing. Tweak your website. Edit your books. Change your covers. Nobody cares. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.
85.) Understand that your career path will not be a straight arrow
A while ago, on a lark, and after a few drinks, I created a graphical depiction of the difference between what authors think their career will look like vs. what it actually will look like. Here it is:
Many authors would have you believe that there is some sort of direct relationship between output and success. This just isn’t true. There are seasons in which you’ll simply write slowly. Seasons in which you’ll sell slowly. Seasons in which you’ll crank out quality work. Seasons in which you’ll sell like gangbusters. There will be times in which you promote like mad and times where you’re quiet.
One month you’ll feel like you’re a superstar. The next you’ll feel like you took ten steps backward. This is all normal. Keep writing.
86.) Readers forgive
Write well, edit your work, be professional. Beyond that, don’t worry about screwing up. While you’re sweating over a grammar error on page 203, readers are absolutely not caring about full blown spelling and layout errors on some other story that simply has a plot too good to ignore.
People care if your book is sloppy. Nobody cares if your book has a few mistakes or plot holes here and there. If the story is entertaining, that is.
87.) Read widely
Every single genre has something awesome to offer the narrative experience. Fantasy books are incredible at world building. Romance books taught me more about interpersonal writing (and writing sex) than any other genre. Action and Adventure books are great at pacing. I’ve read horror novels that are better than psychiatry textbooks at laying bare basic human instincts. Short stories teach economy of words and the art of punching quick. Same with good poetry.
I try to read every phenomenon that hits the shelves, if for no other reason than to try and understand why it strikes such a chord in this day and age.
Read everything that makes noise. You’ll be a better writer for it.
88.) Don’t hate your early work
A lot of authors hate their first book. This is normal. It’s probably not going to be your best work and it probably will be ugly and not polished. But it’ll be honest, and you shouldn’t hate it. Your early work in general won’t have polish, but I think you’ll find it’s gutsy and genuine. It’s often the stuff you wrote before you cared about selling, and that is important work. Readers care less and less about polish and more and more about a genuinely good read.
My first book was (is) an angsty high-concept piece I wrote in college called Forfeiture. It’s about three dudes with miserable lives who take on a secret mission to save three young folk from going down the same path as them. I finished it and immediately put it at the bottom of the drawer. It’s about as polished as a brick, but I still like reading it every now and then. It reminds me of a different time in my life.
89.) Call yourself a writer
What you’re doing is work. It takes talent, refinement, practice, patience, investment. It is a job. Don’t be afraid to say you’re a writer just because you aren’t a NYT best-seller. You’re a writer the second you finish a book.
90.) Be careful about going “full time”
I write all the time, but it is not my full time job. It’s very difficult to support a family as a writer. Even people you would consider “mainstream authors” aren’t making what you think they’re making. The advent and mainstream acceptance of self-publishing hasn’t changed the fact that writers don’t make a lot of money.
I’ve found that what I like most about writing and self-publishing is the freedom it gives me to experiment and work on my own time, which is something that can go away when you are forced to sell in order to eat.
A lot of authors will say that you must go full time to make it work. Maybe that’s true. Depends on how you define success. But be careful that you don’t ruin your hobby by making it your job.
91.) Don’t get too wrapped up in internet communities
The internet is a fabulous resource for writers. It allows self-publishers to exist. It allows writers (who are normally fairly reclusive people) to meet up. They can have good advice. They can also be toxic echo chambers. A lot of writers go into forums to brag or complain. Neither serves your writing all that well.
Also: It’s impossible not to constantly compare yourself to everyone in these communities, which also is a bad look.
92.) Your passion to write will desert you
I realize that this sounds rather ominous. I don’t mean it that way. If you do anything long enough you get tired of it for a while. Writing is no different. Take a break. Find another creative outlet. You’re still a writer even if you’re not killing yourself to write.
93.) Get fired up about your writing
Writing a book is a major time commitment. Like most things in life that take a lot of time, you come out of the gate hot and then start to drag as the going gets tough. This is normal.
There will be times when you’re not going to want to sit down and write. But most of the time, if you do, you’ll end up getting back in to the story and excited again. If it’s like pulling teeth every single time, all the time, maybe you need to shelve that story, because your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) will come out in your writing.
Here’s a little tip-in-a-tip: It’s a lot easier to write things when you know people want to read them. Before I sit down to write a sequel, I’ll often promote the first-in-series. Knowing that people are out there reading my stuff really helps get me fired up to write more
94.) Fake it
There’s a strange bit of writing advice floating around out there that says you should “write what you know.” I never really understood this. What I “know” is how to work a nine-to-five job while writing. I “know” how to pay bills and try to keep a household running. I “know” how to write and publish books and make a decent casserole. These aren’t things that make for terribly interesting fiction novels.
I’ve written books about secret underground societies. Do you think I “knew” what that entailed before I wrote it? Nope. Or how about being a child psychiatrist in Baltimore like in my Gordon Pope books. Hate to break it to you, but I’m a writer, not a child psychiatrist. I didn’t “know” about psychiatry before sitting down to write that story. People still like those books.
Become conversationally fluent in the topics you write about. Be able to “talk shop”, then fake the rest. It’s called fiction.
A funny thing happens when you start to act like an expert: People start treating you like one. Then you become one.
95.) Celebrate things
Milestones are only milestones if they’re marked. When you finish a book, or a chapter, or a marketing campaign, take a little while to celebrate what you just did.
Writing is a miracle. Think about it: There was nothing, then you literally pulled words from your head and put them onto paper, and soon enough there is something. You created a thing. Don’t forget how awesome that is.
Personally, I pour a glass of Lagavulin 16 that I keep around for just such occasions.
96.) Get through the dark days
There comes a time in every writer’s career…no, scratch that, there comes a couple of times in every writer’s career…wait, strike that again, there are many times during the writing process…hold on, I can phrase that better:
There comes many times during every waking day of a writer’s life in which they come to the conclusion that their work is awful, and their approach to getting published is the wrong one, and basically every step that they’ve taken in writing and editing and publishing, really in everything involving the written word, has been backward.
These are called the dark days. When they happen to you, you have two options:
1.) Write through it:
This is the admirable path. The “buck up” path. When you are stuck at the crossroads of the black days, your head hung low like a sad Snoopy, your pencil and paper hanging limply at your sides and a single solitary tear running down your cheek, this is the path that, at least to you, looks like it’s covered in cobwebs and mud and creepy overhanging trees that you just know are hiding entire platoons of waiting spiders. In short, this path does not look good.
The thing you should know about this path though, is that it’s deceiving. All that gloomy mist and the subtle smell of farts, that all disappears about ten steps down that path. The cobwebs are a lie. They give out at an arm’s length in. I have it on good authority that there are no spiders, either. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a pretty path once you get past all of that, we’re not talking a walk through the French countryside here, but it’s a serviceable path with good footing and some helpful signs that will keep you on your way.
That whole allegory was meant to say that if you just start writing a few sentences, you can generally slog through enough of the dark so that you hit on some great idea or phrase you wrote that makes you think “hey, maybe I’m not such a crap writer after all?”
Here’s your other option:
2.) Don’t write through it:
Let’s go back to our depressed writer, standing at the crossroads. He looks to the right and sees the Write through it path and it looks like death warmed over. Nope. Not gonna go that way. Next? Well, there’s the path to the left. This is the Don’t write through it path, and it’s filled with surfing the internet, playing videogames, reading other writers who didn’t give up, hitting up the pub for a few pints, messing around with the cat, taking a walk through the park, and listening to loud music, as well as a whole mess of other things that are decidedly not writing and that let you indulge in your gloom.
Don’t discount this path. Don’t think that just because it doesn’t involve you putting pen to paper that it isn’t worthwhile, at least for a time. This path is also downhill. The other one is uphill, and at a bad grade, too. On the Write through it path there are signs that tell truckers to put on chains because it gets hairy. On this path, there are signs like “YOU’RE NOT DOWN YET” and you can just coast in neutral with the top down. It’s tough to deny the pleasures of coasting in neutral. Sometimes you are doing yourself and your story a huge service by shutting off for a while and not thinking about writing at all, because if you’re miserable for too long you start to hate writing, which is a lose/lose situation for everyone.
But the longer you cruise downhill, the harder it is to get back up to where you need to be to start writing again. It’s fine to get lost in someone else’s story for a while, but remember that you’ve got your own to tell, and it’s been gathering dust in a drawer for a month now.
There is one more thing you can do to get through the dark days: Wait until Wednesday. I’m serious. Are you feeling like a terrible writer? Take a look at the calendar. It’s probably Monday or Tuesday, isn’t it? That’s what I thought. Monday and Tuesday are universally acknowledged as the worst two days to do anything literary. It was proven by someone, in some paper, published to some journal. Trust me. If you wait until Wednesday, all of the sudden things start looking up. So start writing then, and write quickly, because you’ve got four days.
I know, I don’t get it either, but it’s true.
97.) “Almost Done” is dangerous
I’ve been “almost done” with books for months and months and months.
One of my books (Grey Winter) was 9/10ths done for so long I actually coined a term for it: “Toothpaste syndrome”
When you have a shiny new tube of toothpaste, you squeeze it like there’s no tomorrow. You glop it on your toothbrush and foam your mouth up like a rabid raccoon, you laugh uproariously at how toothpaste-rich you are and you fleck the mirror with your spittle.
Then, when you’re about halfway done with the tube, you start to slow down a bit. “Whoa Nelly,” you say, “let’s show a little restraint here.” But you’re still confident in your toothpaste. You don’t have a care in the world.
Then you get near the end of the toothpaste, and things start getting a little weird. All of the sudden it becomes acceptable to brush your teeth with one dot of toothpaste. Then, pretty soon you are wiping your toothbrush on the toothpaste cap. Then after that you start “dry brushing.” Your toothpaste has become an asymptote. It approaches zero, but never quite reaches it.
This happens with projects writers “almost finish”.
The cure is tough love. You literally have to deprive yourself of things until you finish the book. Fun things like binge watching TV or playing video games or going out to eat. It’s the only way we learn.
98.) Don’t whine about “gatekeepers”
It’s very easy to blame other people for your books not selling. Don’t be this kind of writer.
Used to be these “gatekeepers” were agents and publishers. This is debatable, since you can always pitch to an agent and always approach a publisher. If your work is good enough and you are persistent enough they will eventually notice you.
Now, with self-pub in full swing, there are suddenly other “gatekeepers”. Promo sites like BookBub and ENT are often called the new gatekeepers with keys to the kingdom. Many frustrated writers will even call Amazon a gatekeeper. The company that literally allowed you to publish your book is now the enemy?
Look, here’s the tough truth. There is only one gatekeeper (and no, it’s not you. You hold the keys to your success, the gate is manned by someone else): The Reader.
Readers decide if you will be a success or not. These big promo sites are simply the mouthpiece of the reader. Amazon puts what readers want to see front and center. Complaining that these websites don’t work for you is like saying Man, the only thing keeping me from being a successful author is the massive readership.
99.) Relentless, dysfunctional optimism wins the writing game
There are a lot of headwinds in this industry. Many of them are self-made, but that doesn’t make them any less of a gale force. Some of them are out of your control, perhaps the most frustrating of which being the financial toll it can take on you. Negativity may serve to create a decent
You can be negative for a time. You can have seasons in which you are pissed off. But pissed off creatives make better poets than authors. You have to believe that you will succeed and that your voice will be heard for two reasons:
1.) It will. If you are persistent.
2.) You will live a lot longer.
100.) Be alone
People can be inspiring. Crowds and parties give you great insight into the way people work. Workshops offer a lot of technical merit. Music can be inspiring, too, and so can other works of art like movies and plays, but I’ve found that, in general, the best things come to me when all of the distractions of the world shut up for a bit.
Perhaps this is why inspiration is so fleeting and can be rare; we’re bombarded with so much data all of the time that our lives have become big white noise machines. How are we expected to become inspired when we can’t hear ourselves think? Try being alone. It does the body good.
101.) Have fun with it
In a way, I’m always hesitant to write about business approaches to indie publishing because I think every time a writer stops writing for pleasure and starts writing for money something fuzzy dies somewhere. That said, I’m a realist. Publishing certainly is a full time job, and writing can be too. But it’s important to retain a sense of perspective.
Watch out how you define success, because if it’s against EL James or Hugh Howey or any number of wildly successful indie authors, you may be in for a rude awakening. Remember that you are making money writing. Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how few people ever actually do it? Keep a sense of perspective about all this and remember what a you’ve accomplished here.