Advice for New Indie Authors

By Jon F. Merz

I chimed in earlier today on Brian Keene’s blog about guest poster Glen Kirsch writing about his success with indie publishing and folks wondering whether Brian would be well-advised to think about a similar route. I posted a few of my own experiences to-date, but it got me thinking about what my advice would be to new writers and older, established writers who are considering the indie route. So here, then, are my thoughts on the topic. Bear in mind, this is my opinion only, but it’s based on roughly eighteen months worth of sales data.

NOTE: for the purposes of this post, I’ll assume your books are thoroughly awesome and reader-ready. No need to rehash the tired old maxims of “rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”

1. Buy Scrivener: Scrivener is a fantastic word processing program that I now use for all of my writing. Coming from MS Word, it was a bit of a learning curve, for sure, but Scrivener boasts some excellent video tutorials that explain everything. Scrivener’s best feature is “compile,” which allows you to take your manuscript and turn it into an ebook, perfectly suitable for uploading to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as any other platform (iBooks, Kobo, etc.) that use the .epub file format. Scrivener formats both for Kindle (.mobi format) and regular .epub format. It’s quick, easy, and saves you a ton of money that you’d otherwise have to pay a professional ebook formatter. You can order Scrivener using these links (and yes, I am an affiliate, but only because I love the product so much!) Buy Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Regular Licence) | Buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence)

2. Find an Artist: Find a great cover artist who can turn out NYC-quality cover art for your books. The goal is to NOT look indie. You don’t want consumers passing your books by because of sub-standard covers the scream indie publishing. Like it or not, many readers still equate indie publishing with self-published vanity crap. Your goal is to visually align yourself with the stuff coming out of New York, even if you’re doing the indie route. To that end, you need a damned good cover artist to render some great covers for you. I have a fantastic graphic designer who handles my Lawson Vampire series covers, re-did a cover for my horror novel Vicarious (I did the original), and even created the look for my latest release THE NINJA APPRENTICE. Consider the fact that paying for a great cover is an investment in your business. People tend to be visually-oriented, especially when it comes to online book shopping. You want something that really looks great, still looks good shrunk down to thumbnail size, and excites readers.

3. Write a Series: Seriously. If readers like your series, they will be anxious for more and that means you now have a built-in audience ready to buy your next adventure. So if you intend to create a series, get with your cover artist above and develop a “look” for the series. Going back to my Lawson Vampire series for a moment, you’ll notice that all of the covers feature Brandon Stumpf, the actor who plays Lawson in THE FIXER TV series. The font is the same, the design is the same. My graphic designer and I have built up brand awareness with these covers, even going so far as to do color overlays to help readers know at a glance that the blue overlay means it’s a novel, green for novella, and red for a short story. This is the kind of thing that you, as an indie author, now have complete control over. Use it to maximize your new business.

4. Build Your Personal Brand: Okay, you’re an author. So what? So are a veritable ton of other people. A bestselling author? Again, so what? In this day and age, you need to find something about yourself that is hopefully unique (or at least rare) and then use that to help you establish your author brand. I thought long and hard about what I do and who I am and eventually distilled my platform down to three things: writer, producer, ninja. I obviously write books, but I also have a production company with my good friend Jaime Hassett. And then I’ve been studying authentic Ninjutsu for over twenty years. There aren’t too many other authors who can say the same thing. So it works. Now, if you go to my Facebook fan page, or my Google+ page, or my Twitter account, or my LinkedIn page, or pretty much everywhere else, you’ll see that tagline: writer, producer, ninja. It’s been working very well for me and helps people quickly gain insight into what I do.

5. Study Social Media: The indie publishing route is far more effective today thanks to the rise of social media. You absolutely, positively NEED to study this stuff. I know, I know…so many of you are going to whine about not having time to write and all that related bullshit. Get over it. If you’re going the indie route – even partially – then you need to understand what the hell is going on with social media. It’s not enough to have an antiquated Livejournal account: hardly anyone is there anymore. (Don’t believe me? While Livejournal might have just over 37 million accounts, of those only 1.7 million are “active in some way” according to Livejournal’s own stats. And only a bit over 125,000 have updated in the last 24 hours.) You need to have a Facebook Page, a Google+ page, and a Twitter account at the very least. Then you need to know how to use those platforms to their maximum effect. Each is different. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Also, you need an active blog and a well-designed, visually-attractive website. I know a lot of horror authors who think that the bleeding eyeballs are the coolest thing ever. Maybe. But not on your professional website. Remember, this is a business now. Those days of doing the writer/hermit thing are over. You want to do indie and make a good living, you need to get out there and press the social media flesh.

6. Study Celebrity: You might laugh at this, but there are lessons to be learned from people who make their living in the public spotlight. They know how to interact with people, get their fans excited, and more. Writers have typically shunned such things in the past, but again, the indie route necessitates at least some interaction with the world at large. So the next time you attend a writer awards function, leave the Wrangler acid-washed jeans and death metal T-shirt at home. Instead, opt for a button-down shirt, blazer, dressy jeans, and shoes. Make sure how you present yourself in public matches up with how you portray yourself online.

7. Go Global: Understand that the indie route means you are going global. Amazon has storefronts in a half dozen countries right now with many more to come. Barnes & Noble has also talked of its intentions to go global. That means your book written in English is available in countries where English is not the first language. That’s great because it enables you to reach more consumers than previously possible with traditional publishing. It should also prompt you to think about getting your work translated. You’re no longer limited by the traditional distribution of foreign rights – meaning that if you sold rights to a German publisher, your book would only be available in Germany and anywhere else that particular publisher had the ability to distribute it. Now, you can get that book translated into German and sell it on Amazon’s German store platform and in every other Amazon country platform (potentially reaching many more German-speaking consumers than you would with a traditional subrights deal).

7a. Open Your Mind: This goes along with #7 above. The marketplace is global, so that means you will interact with people from all over the world. To that end, make sure you don’t come across as a raging racist xenophobe extremist homophobic piece of puke. Seriously. Cleanse thyself of such nonsense. Understand there are crazy people everywhere on this planet – but that there are also great people everywhere on this planet. Their views, religions, lifestyles may not be what you think is “correct” or “right” or what have you, but you need to respect them regardless. Don’t let yourself be known as a small-minded pinhead. There’s nothing unique or appealing about it.

8. Get a Newsletter: While social media is great, nothing beats having a newsletter list that is consistently growing and enables you to talk directly to thousands of people on a weekly or monthly basis. People who have subscribed to your newsletter are giving you implicit permission to talk to them directly via their email. Don’t abuse that privilege. Offer newsletter subscribers something each month – special exclusives like news, fiction, etc. I run a serialized Lawson adventure each month in my newsletter. It’s a freebie that I include as a way of saying thanks. That’s bundled around news, blog posts, advertisements of my books, shout-outs for friends of mine who are doing good for others, and more. Get a professional newsletter design, pay a monthly fee for an email service provider that offers up stats like open rate, click through rate (and URL destinations) and more. It’s another investment in your company that is well worth the cost. Then build up that list of subscribers. The more, the better.

9. Give To Get: Give more of yourself, not less. Talk to your fans and readers. Interact. The social media world means that people talk. A LOT. If they comment on your page, send you a Tweet, or an email, then you’d better be there to respond. I’m not saying drop everything and be available 24/7. But be ready to make an effort to communicate more readily. If these people are spending their hard-earned money on your products, you need to be willing to talk to them. Many companies are finding out the hard way that ignoring customers is about the worst thing you can do. And the companies who are succeeding are finding that the more they engage with their customers, the better their reputation becomes and the more people spend on their products, talk up the company, etc. etc. If one of your fans is having problems, try to help them in some way – even if it’s just taking the time to send a special email. Treat your readers and fans like gold, because they are. This isn’t something to fake – you have to be sincere in this appreciation or else people will abandon you for another author.

10. Study Tangential Businesses: More studying? Yep. Grab a few minutes of Bloomberg Television in the morning while you much on your Honeycombs. Pick up an issue of Fortune or Entrepreneur. Learn about emerging tech businesses that might impact digital publishing or spark an idea on how you can position yourself to take advantage of things long before anyone else does. Back when Myspace was relevant, I was the first author to reach out and partner with them on a serialized Lawson adventure THE COURIER. Myspace hyped it; I hyped it, and I accumulated a ton of new fans over the month-long project. That’s just one example. Savvy “authorpreneurs” (a phrase I’ve coined for this new generation of indie authors who are smart) are always on the lookout for new opportunities.

11. Set a Production Schedule: New material is essential in the indie age. A novel a year is not enough. I’m ramping my own production schedule up so that I have something new coming out every other month – whether it’s a short story, novella, novel, or non-fiction piece. If you’re still under contract for projects, split your time between working your contracted stuff and your indie stuff. Give the people what they want – and what they want is more stuff to read.

12. Expect Cycles: This is new territory and nothing is predictable…yet. 2011 started off amazing for me, but then I went through a sales slump. Even during my worst month, I was still selling several thousand ebooks and making thousands of dollars, but it was a far cry from Spring 2011. So expect that things may be up one month and down the next. The key is to never have to rely too heavily on any one single title. This is why #11 is so essential. If you can reasonably expect that each novel in your virtual shelf will sell, say, 50 copies each month then that is somewhat bankable. Multiply that across a half dozen titles and now you’ve sold 300 ebooks and made anywhere from $600 bucks to several thousand. As long as you reach that minimum threshold each month, you’ve got the makings of a fairly consistent income. And then every time you add a new title, you’re basically giving yourself a raise. Not bad.

Best of luck as you forge a path in the indie world. I hope this post has been useful to you. If you’ve enjoyed it, please share it around with others. Thanks for reading!

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