Being an indie writer is a thankless job that more often than not results in a few sales as well as significant financial burden. The process of writing is usually fun and even transformative experience but the subsequent editing as well as struggle with trying to get people to read your work is, well, a job. This is especially true in the science fiction and fantasy genre(s) as our imaginative souls seem all too willing to believe ours will be the exception to the rule of 1 in a 10,000 books being a success. Having had a couple of successes in my writing as well as almost ten years trying to make it, I’ve learned a few things that I thought I would share.
1. Don’t chase genres, chase fandoms
Obviously, the first thing you need to do as an indie author is to write a book. However, even that is something that many people struggle with as they often want to write a “successful” book before they have an idea. To that end, they chase genres. I received a lot of contradictory advice over whether this was a good or bad idea. People who insisted that LitRPG was going to be a license to print money for new authors and that the next big thing would be “insert subgenre.” Some of my friends followed this advice to disastrous effect and a couple of my books were stunning failures that I won’t list (*cough* Dark Destiny and dystopian YA *cough*).
However, the advice isn’t wrong that it’s probably better to write to something that has a preexisting fandom. My two most successful book series are The Supervillainy Saga that had the benefit of getting on audiobook right as the MCU was taking off (plus having a girl who looked suspiciously like Harley Quinn on the cover) and Cthulhu Armageddon that had the quaint idea of doing HPL’s universe after the end of the world. The Mythos is somewhat deluged with produced content but it has fans and they’re always looking for new material.
2. Write the book you would want to read
This is the cheap “follow your instincts” post but that doesn’t make it untrue. If you are going to write a fantasy of sci-fi novel then you probably are a fan of the genre. If you have a preference for a kind of book due to what you’ve read, say, high fantasy like Dragonlance or grimdark like A Song of Ice and Fire (or are like me and Doctor Krieger from Archer, “I’m actually now into something darker.”) then you should probably write something similar.
Many a fantasy book has been written with the caveat of, “I love the Lord of the Rings but would prefer a book from the perspective of the Goblins/Ringwraiths/Sauron.” Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in your genre either. If you’re writing a Weird Western, watch a lot of Westerns and weird. Stephen King called it “the milk in the fridge effect.” Which is roughly translated as, “milk tastes like whatever it is left next to so your writing is like whatever you watch and read at the time of writing.”
3. Pace yourself writing
Obviously the biggest thing you need to do in order to be a writer is to write something. However, there’s no real hard and fast guide to figuring out how to do so. NaNoWriMo was very helpful to me less because of the system it used but simply giving me a framework of what goals to pace myself with. If you can do five hundred words a day then you are certainly making progress and if you manage to get more done then all the better. A really productive day for me is about 2,500 words but I’m satisfied with a thousand. Finding a quiet place to work without distractions is often a struggle but one every writer has to in order to succeed. At the local Texas Roadhouse, they know me as the guy who carries a laptop to write with while waiting for food.
4. Be aware of your budget
It takes money to make money is the kind of statement that people who have money tend to make. The simple fact is that creating a book is cheaper than ever thanks to the changes in publishing, especially self-publishing, but that it’s still going to be a significant investment in all likelihood. For most authors, you will have to spend money on a cover and editing and that’s before any cost to try to promote your work. We’ll get into how fraught with peril that particular element is as well. Knowing how much you’re willing to spend versus how much you intend to make over the long run is a good thing to understand–particularly when it’s very possible you’ll lose your investment (at least at first).
5. Avoid AI art but be aware of cheaper options for covers
Those who say you can’t judge a book by its cover have never worked in marketing. Very often a book is sold on whether their cover is attractive or not. Some writers go to the lowest common denominator on this and it’s why a lot of LitRPG is a deluge of skimpily dressed anime girls. But some of those have made serious bank so who am I to judge? But a picture is worth a thousand words in your blurb. AI art have offered a lot of opportunities for great-looking covers for zero money but there’s a lot of controversy about it in the artist community.
As Penny Arcade says here: https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2022/06/06/dalliance
That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of cheap and effective options for authors out there. In addition to Shutterstock and other photo places, DeviantArt is an excellent place to acquaint yourself with artists who have quite the back catalog even before you consider commissions. Maybe your budget can accomadate a customized picture for your work. It certainly worked for me but others may need to be a bit more pennywise (and not the clown).
6. Be aware of who is editing your books
If you want to be taken seriously as a professional writer, the most important thing you can do is to make sure your book is well formatted, edited, and lacking in errors. This is a basic tip and one that every writer should be able to do but still shows up even with otherwise competent writers. Part of the issue is also that scamming culture (see below) has infected this part of indie writing as well. There’s a huge number of editing services that are done by people who, bluntly, don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
Before I got myself with Crossroad Press, I had the misfortune of paying quite a bit for I was a Teenage Weredeer to be edited with the assurances I was dealing with a capable professional editor. She was. Except, well, due to a desire to expand her business, she began farming out her edits to other people for a cut of the money and the initial draft was atrocious. I had to pay for an entirely new edit and sometimes people still mention they find some (usually from the initial paperback copies). It hurts because it’s one of my favorite books due to Jane Doe being based on my nieces.
Authors often struggle to evaluate their own work but you need to be able to divorce yourself of unearned self-confidence and read your own work as well as give it multiple fresh eyes before you share it with the world. Thankfully, the, “I am a glorified fanfic writer” period of my career was only a few short humiliating months in that respect.
7. Self-publishing versus indie publishing
Self-publishing has its advantages but there are legitimate indie publishers out there who can handle a lot of the grunt work. There’s also a bunch of bad faith actors too. My suggestion is consult other authors about their experiences with indie publishers before signing up with them. For some of us, that may be the difference between success and failure. But I’ve alluded to the scammers enough that they get their own entry.
8. There are countless scammers out there. They are EVERYWHERE.
One of my earliest experiences as a writer was where I was published by a fun, congenial indie press that promised big returns and had several names you would probably recognize. Either from social media or being early grimdark authors. They published my books and even got Audible deals for 5,000 each, which was a lot of money for my early series like Esoterrorism and Wraith Knight. I also got into stores for the latter. They also notably never paid me a dime for any of my books because they took the money they got from all of the deals they made to expand their business with plans of paying it back eventually. This, of course, put me off any other indie publishers for a couple of years until I ended up with Crossroad Press.
Most scamming is not nearly as dramatic and a lot more ubiquitous. Basically, if you successfully publish a book then you will find yourself deluged with people who have their hat in hand or are half-assing as part of their side hustle. If you announce that you are writing a book, let alone finish a book, on Instagram or other social media platform (especially Instagram) you will be deluged with ten to twenty suggestions that you pay for a review. None of these will help you in the slightest. With the exception of Kirkus, no one cares about what your typical review mill costs and plenty of these reviews will get stricken when they’re found out. This is in addition to offers from all sorts of mailing lists that will claim to share your book with their 140K readership for the low-low price of $$$ that will get you zero sales.
Hell, you will receive huge numbers of e-mails and wonder how they got you. I’ve even had my mother contacted multiple times because her name is in the phone book. Legitimate review sites are usually deluged with indie titles but they’re the only people you might have any luck with and that’s by developing a solid community-based relationship.
9. Build yourself a social media brand
One of the first things you are going to have to divest yourself of a writer is the belief that creating the book is the end of your role in the struggle. There’s a reason that Stephen King and other authors go out to do book signings, conventions, and media appearances. It’s not because they want to bask in the glow of their fandom, though that’s a thing for the already successful, but because even the most successful authors have to do a lot of legwork to get their name out there. This has become markedly easier with the advent of social media.
A rising tide lifts all boats and in addition to building yourself a Instagram account, Facebook, Discord, website, Goodreads Account, Amazon Author Page, and other locations for people to know about you, you should also become part of the community that you’re trying to sell your book to. Don’t deluge people with spam or just be there to sell your stuff. Be a thoughtful engaging person who reviews as well as promotes other authors in your genre. A good neighbor is the best kind of person to be in the indie scene and we’re all in this together.
10. Leverage the right level of giveaways, bargains, and pricing
As mentioned, getting your book out to as many people as possible is the greatest challenge after getting it written in the first place. There’s some legitimate sites out there for paid author lists (BookBub, Written Word Media, Book Barbarian, BookFunnel) but they’re probably going to cost more than you make in the process. Still, if you can afford it, it’s a good way of getting you out. Bargains and free books also follow the drug dealer model in that the first hit is always free because you want to give people a taste of what you have. Still, if you only have one book that’s not going to make you much money. I used to do Kindle Unlimited but the benefits for authors have been slashed by Bezos the Dark Lord enough that I’ve since withdrawn all but one of my series. Keeping pricing reasonable is also a good idea. The traditional publishers can keep prices at 12-15 dollars but keeping them closer to five or six for full novels is a way to encourage people to seek out indie in the first place. In the end, I suggest series loyalty will win out but to do bargains frequently.
There you go! Most of this is common sense but I hope it helps at least a few authors out there.