If I Were a Newly Self-Published Author, What Steps Would I Take To Succeed?

Recently, on an online course at Write It Forward on marketing, I was asked point blank by a self-published author in essence:

How does a newly self-published author succeed in this new landscape of self-publishing?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and give my answer based on 20 years of traditional publishing and two years of indie publishing experience.

Understand that there is no secret handshake.  No miracle answer that will break you out next week.  If there were, everyone would be doing it.  The key is to what everyone isn’t going to do.  Which is stick around for the long haul.

The steps:

  1. Write really good books.  This seems so apparent most people don’t understand why I mention it.  The reason is, your first book probably isn’t going to be that good.  Most likely not your second.  Your third might start hitting it, if you are very open to feedback and have been honing your craft.  Also, you can always rewrite those first books using what you learned on subsequent books.  The best marketing tool for success is good content.  Because word of mouth is the #1 marketing tool.  In an earlier post I mentioned possibly not self-publishing until you had three manuscripts under your belt.  I amend that—you can self-publish those first books, but don’t spend much time promoting.  Focus on the writing.  And don’t expect many sales.
  2. Be a marathon runner, not a sprinter.  I’ve run over 40 marathons, including NY and Boston.  It’s grueling.  It’s different from any distance less than 26 miles, 385 yards, because at 20 miles, even the best trained runner who has never attempted beyond the distance, will hit the ‘wall’.  In my first marathon, NY, I hit 20 miles in about two hours, which is pretty good.  A 6 minute a mile pace.  The next 6 miles took two hours.  I’d hit the wall and it was painful.  But I did finish.  Susan Wiggs hit #1 on the NY Times paperback list last year in 2010.  Her first book came out in 1978.  An overnight success.  Not.  It took 18 months for me to go from selling a handful of ebooks a month to selling my current level of 1,400 a day.  And that’s with an extensive backlist and having been a bestselling author in traditional publishing.  Success in publishing requires being a marathoner and feeling that pain once you’ve passed 20 miles and haven’t yet hit 26.  That’s where most people quit.
  3. Be consistent.  At Who Dares Wins Publishing, we were all over the place for a long time.  Finally we settled on one key to marketing:  consistency.  This blog is an example.  We post at least twice a week, and usually more often, because we can see the number of hits we get and we know they fall off on day 3.  I bump my promotion threads on Kindleboards, UK Kindleboards and Nookboards consistently, as often as is allowed.  In the past five months, I’ve missed one day.  And I have a LOT of threads because I have a lot of books.  I missed that one day because I was traveling and didn’t have internet access.  Consistency sounds so trite, but I submit to you very, very few writers are consistent with their marketing.  Especially while running a marathon. The bottom line is most will quit.
  4. Build community by being known as someone who gives.  While this blog is partly promotional, I’m not writing these posts for me, I’m writing them for you.  I’m giving my experience, good and bad.  I’m trying to help those who are open to being helped, which leads us to . . .
  5. Be open to change.  I love Kitchen Nightmares with Chef Ramsay.  He gets invited to a restaurant that is failing, by the owners.  Yet, most of the time, they won’t take his, the expert’s, advice.  They invited him, yet they fight him.  They’re failing, yet they fight him.  It wasn’t easy for me to go from traditional publishing to indie publishing.  I’d made my living as a writer for 20 years, so I was putting my livelihood on the line when I made that decision. I wasn’t even close to a level where I could make a living self-publishing.  But I made the decision and committed to it.  The change started to come when I made that commitment earlier this year.  347 ebooks sold in January 2011.  Made the decision.  Selling 1,400 ebooks a day now, and that was just 1,000 a day a few blog posts ago.  I have two backlist, Area 51 and Atlantis in the top 10 in science fiction and one new thriller, Chasing The Ghost that selling like crazy. 
  6. Niche is key.  This is a rule I violate big time, because I have two main genres of books:  science fiction and thrillers.  And now I’m writing historical fiction.  But for most writers, especially ones without a backlist, focus on the specific type of novel you want to write and become known for that.  What I see is most people all doing the same thing and they don’t stand out.  As an indie author, you’re not getting to get the lucky break (akin to winning the lottery) of having a publisher pick your novel is the IT novel and putting all their weight behind you.  You’re on your own.  So something about your protagonist and your story must really pop, and do so quickly.  The image that gets me is the bare-chested Highlander/SEAL/Fireman/Cop whatever on the cover of a romance.  How is your bare-chested hero different from all the others?  How is your romance different and quirky?
  7. Being positive and having a sense of humor helps a lot.  On the Green Beret A-Team I commanded, the last part of my commander’s SOP was:  Keep your sense of humor.  You’re going to need it.  It’s very easy to get beaten down and feel dejected.  In traditional publishing I called it the black hole.  Where you could go four or five months without a word from anyone, without a check, without a book coming out.  In a way, self-publishing is almost the opposite, where you can check your sales constantly.  I’m not sure which is worse, but I do know both can leave you feeling dejected, frustrated and angry.  That’s not a good mixture for success.  I’ve found the more positive I am, the more positive things occur.  I’m not a fan of The Secret, but I do believe we project an aura and it reflects on us.

I’ll follow this post with more detailed posts on specifically what it takes.

By the way, for July, I’ll be teaching Warrior Writer on-line.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on June 29, 2011, in Publishing Options and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. Commitment is the key. That saying “You have to be in it to win it” – well, it’s totally true in this situation too, not just the lottery. Except that in self-publishing you have to keep on being in it, after the others have fallen by the wayside. Never give up, never surrender…

    Sorry, started channeling my favourite film – but that line is why I love it. Covers a LOT of life scenarios, not just publishing.

  2. Author Kristen Lamb

    #8 Buy We Are Not Alone-The Writer’s Guide to Social Media so you make the best use of your time on social media :D.

    There is a lot of gimmick that self-pubbed authors are particularly vulnerable to. There is also a lot of really bad advice from so-called gurus who have no idea what to do when it comes to true author branding. Many of the tactics will have you spread so thinly you won;t have any time to write. Work smarter, not harder. And yes I am promoting on your blog, but um you’re my publisher…so is that bad?

    Great post as always. Thanks for sharing your experience. We would have a lot rougher road without you.

  3. When I’ve completed a good story manuscript l plan to query traditional agents for a year or more, but will be working on the next story, and researching self publishing, marketing, and platform building. Why the hurry? (Grin) Don’t know how much time I have left. I appreciate your excellent observations and suggestions. Sounds spot on.

  4. I read your previous post related to new authors and indie publishing, and I like your ammendment: you can pub the first few, but don’t go overboard promoting, focus more on writing. I think you’re spot on. I found the thing that I hear most from fan letters is ‘when are you going to write the next book’. I am glacially slow. Readers are not okay with that. Its certainly an obstacle for indie as well. I’ve had a few books by indie authors where it’s just 1 and I’m bummed because I like to buy everything when I find an author I like. I cut my teeth on authors who turned it out : Parker, Ludlum, Roberts (La Nora). If I can get at least one fix a year I’m happy, and the more you have the more exposure you get.

    • I agree with your comment. I am the same way when I start reading someone new. I started reading an Elmore Leonard novel, ‘Valedez is Coming’, on Jan 3rd 2011. Yesterday I finished my 12th of his this year. I have read other books, but between each new one, I find myself going back to EL.

  5. “Being positive and having a sense of humor helps a lot.” That’s the best advice I’ve heard in a while.

  6. Jenni Holbrook-Talty

    We’ve come a long way over the last two years and in a nutshell it is because we did and are doing exactly what Bob just laid out in this blog post. This is just the beginning. We have to keep plugging away and moving on to the next step. The last two years have really been the best of my career because I have learned more than I ever imagined by doing this. I look forward to the next horizon!

  7. Sounds like great advice. Thanks! I’ve been going back and forth between book promotion and seriously buckling down and finishing the last rewrite of my seventh novel. (I will never publish the first three, as those were my practice novels). I think I need to buckle down and get this novel done.

  8. I raise my martini glass to you, Bob. So many ignore the most basic common sense items. And I second Kristen’s statement about spreading yourself so thin you’re not producing the very thing you want to sell.

  9. Bob, well thought out steps.

    I think too many people want the magic key to success without the work required to receive the success. Work? What do mean I have to work? Dammit, I just want the magic!

    Building a successful career, in any profession, takes a willingness to learn and apply what you learn—make it work for you. It requires discipline, hard work, commitment, and being adaptable. Everything you do is paving the path to where you want to be, one brick at a time.

    I’ve never understood why people think building a successful writing career is any different.

    Your steps are a reminder that a writer is building his/her career path one brick at a time. It takes all 7 of them to lay the first brick, and the next, and…

    Sia McKye’s Thoughts…OVER COFFEE

  10. First time reader of your blog. Just self-published my own book called Enemy in Blue. These are some great tips, and I appreciate them. The one I may not fully agree on (yet) is promoting the first book. I will try to temper the amount of promotion based upon your suggestion though! I am going to link your blog to my blog at derekblass.wordpress.com, which has blog posts on self-publishing and writing tips in general. Thanks!

  11. It’s funny, Bob, but when I first read your comment some time ago about waiting to publish your third book, I thought… but come on! I love this book, my first book. I worked so hard! You want me to wait LONGER?

    And then I realized, it IS my third book! lol I actually wrote two before this. One was so apalling bad it probably should be burned. The second had promise and I’m actually re-writing from scratch because the concept is so cool. THIS book… it’s my third.

    So, yeah, I’m not gonna argue with you anymore. In fact, I agree. Third time’s the charm. :-)

  12. I totally fell into the ‘niche’ trap. Something like 70% of my writing projects are urban/paranormal fantasy, but I had a kick going on with my scifi, so ended up putting those out first.

    And then wondered why the urban/paranormal titles I’ve put out weren’t really selling much. D’oh. Everyone thinks you’re a scifi writer!

    Hopefully, once I get some of my new urban fantasy series out there, people will think ‘scifi and urban fantasy’ writer. =)

    Totally agree about it being a marathon, and I will be sticking to see how it goes.

  13. #6 is the reason I want to self-publish my paranormal romance – because no romance publisher is going to want to put what I want on the cover. I don’t want sweet and romantic. That’s not who my protagonist is.

  14. Superb advice, Bob. All of it.

    I’m especially enthusiastic about your “niche is key” point — AKA “branding.” The only way you’re going to ever become visible in an overcrowded, chaotic marketplace is to be distinctive enough to stand out. Think of every famous hero in fiction, and you’ll find a character who is in some way utterly unique. That is how they became famous.

    I thought long and hard about that before writing my new thriller. Initially, I had another book outlined in considerable detail, introducing the same new hero. But the plot didn’t stand out as distinctively as this one does, and I decided that he needed a vehicle that would better showcase his unique traits. Even though that meant shelving a couple of years of work and starting from scratch with a new story, I believe I made exactly the right choice.

    I highly recommend the marketing classics by Al Ries and Jack Trout on issues of “positioning” and “branding”: Positioning, Focus, and Marketing Warfare. The principles apply not only to planning your own career; they’re equally valuable in honing your own stories for maximum audience impact. Not that you write cynically, with nothing but marketing in mind; but internalizing these ideas causes you to constantly ask yourself, “How can I make this tale/hero more distinctive and creative?”

  15. Thanks for all the recommendations. I will definitely check them out.

  16. Love the last point. It’s way TOO easy (and addictive) to check those sales numbers. And depressing when the don’t change, or when someone says, “Your book sounds great … going to rush over and download a copy” and you know they haven’t.

    Best thing you can do, as you said, is write the next book. BICFOK.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  17. Love the ideas, thank you.

    I am (here I go again), re-inventing whatever it is I do when it comes to writing. One of the aspects will include being more consistent. Today I wrote my 3rd post in as many months. Last one was 2 months ago. Maybe it has more to do with my unmotivated nature than anything…

    thanks again for the post.

  18. While there are many factors to success, consistency is the most powerful. Looking forward to the Warrior Writers class, after reading this site for over a year, it was your consistency in offering sound advice based on years of experience that won me over.

  19. Great blog post. Thank you. Met you several times “back when” at the Maui retreat and conference. Susan W. and Fuzzy R. are two friends who have helped me tremendously over the years (Susan read my manuscript (about a dog’s POV of infidelity) and even wrote a wonderful blub…)…Good NYC agent has been trying to sell same novel for 3 years now with no luck. Have gotten very close, working with several editors, weeks at a time to do some rewriting but, in the end, they couldn’t sell the idea to their peers. Publisher’s replies: “Too literary”, “Not literary enough,” “Don’t know the market for it”, “What’s it’s niche?”… have heard it all. Agent still believes whole-heartedly in the work and wants me to either hit e-books or self-pub. The more I think about it (and read things like your post) the more I believe I will. Now have my third manuscript completed. I so appreciate your insight and willingness to give back to much of the writing community that is struggling. Thanks, again! (Robin Gainey)

  20. I like this post, Bob.

    Everyone has their own journey, but, as you point out, there are common denominators. As you state, it’s especially important to have a positive attitude and sense of humor. Also, persistence.

    I’m glad you backed off from your original idea of not publishing until you have three books. I believe, this is the time to make a move as an indie author, before the rest of the industry fully wakes up.


  21. Thank you, Bob for the tips. In other words, we still have to do the work. It’s fine by me. :-)

  22. Thank you for this post. It’s very encouraging for me. I’ve written two books and I’ve been getting frustrated at my pace. But reading your post makes me realize I’m right where I should be – maybe even a little ahead. I need to take a deep breath and not put so much pressure on myself.

  23. This is actually the closest I’ve come to wanting to publish via kindle. Thanks.

  24. All good points. I like the ones on consistency (that would be my blog), finding a niche (I write general fiction though some could be put on in historical fiction and I definitely write historical nonfiction), and I work on creating a community and joining into communities where I can give.

    I self-published my first novel after years of submitting and I AM doing a lot of marketing, but I’m working building a readership. The prequel is getting spruced up and I’m still querying other novels. I’m approaching the marketing of the book through book groups, libraries, giving talks on the story behind it (The CCCs in the 1930s) and niche readers. I continue to write.

  25. At first it was really hard to hear “your first book won’t be your best” but now I understand and I think more budding writers need to hear those words from the get-go. It is a “marathon” process. I’ve trained, I’ve done my practice runs and behaved myself (mostly). Same goes for writing and getting to the finish line.

  26. What about EDITING?

    Authors can not edit their own work. This, to me, remains the biggest failing for the vast majority of self-published books.

  27. There IS a secret handshake. This…is it–these 7 steps. Marvelous success, and terrific advice, or … our goal *and* our compass. :-) And a compass for a changing landscape, but so many opportunities are opening up–is the glass half full or half empty? It’s Applied Publishinomics (publishing + economics).

    As an aspiring novelist (and freelance editor–sorry I couldn’t resist), thank you for the great advice!!

  28. Bob,
    Echo Janice, above. Off to write. Seven Steps. BLOG first then finish the submission for comp.
    Thanks for the reminders,

  29. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Incredibly useful. Great suggestions.

  30. I enjoy it when i am able to do my own self publishing for my own literature. It makes everything just so much better.

  31. Persistence and reading are key, I think. Read the best writers in your genre and learn from them, and never stop learning and improving.

  32. It is in reality a nice and helpful piece of info. I’m happy that you just shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Great article, well written & informative. Hopefully many authors with take it to heart & learn from it. Continued success

  34. Thanks for sharing. Great information very interesting. As I truly believe in positive energy! I certainly think a sense of humor is a good thing! Glad I stopped in.

  35. Reblogged this on Reece Evhans and commented:
    This is a really great post. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me. I recommend you follow Bob’s blog. It looks like he’s got some great stuff for fellow indie authors.

  36. Reblogged this on Literary.Schizophrenia and commented:
    Good advice…

  37. I stopped worrying about whether or not I was going to be “successful” and started focusing the majority of my energies into writing the damned book.

    Everyone seems to have this wonderful and “grand” ideas on how to market yourself, promote yourself, and what-the-fuck-ever, but in the end, it’s pretty much a useless endeavor of wasted energy and time.

    With everyone in known *existence* trying to become the top dog, most end up burning themselves out trying to remain “visible” and a great many of them are never heard from again. (I should know: I’ve been witnessing this for the past 15 years on the internet on a number of platforms and sites.)

    I’ve burned myself out trying to get people’s interest in what I do as a writer. And because of such, I no longer have that much interest in marketing or promoting myself *because* I don’t know *when* my books will become available. I just don’t know.

    So instead of listening to everyone’s fucking “advice” on how to best market yourself, I instead just work on writing the novel. I don’t worry about what people say or think anymore.

    Because it’s not important. It never will be.

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