The tales of an unapologetic nerd
This past week, I celebrated my FIRST WHOLE YEAR as a published author! And, as you can see from the numbers, I ACTUALLY MADE MONEY OFF OF THIS?! Yes, internet, I did. And I continue to do so. With just two published works so far, I'm feeling remarkably confident about my future as a writer and creator, and I'd love to share with you now some of the tips and tricks that have worked for ME in my journey. They may just be little things, and simple ways to make it in this world, but they've kept me going for a year now, and helped me find relative success. Indie authors out there, take note! Everything may not work for you, but I give you these tools in your own journey, that you may be better armed to face your own path and fight your own dragons.
1) Invest in good cover art
Someone once told me that your cover is your greatest asset as an indie author, and oftentimes your only billboard. Having been around the convention block a few times now, and seen what other indie authors are putting out there, I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: PAY FOR A COVER ARTIST. In all honesty, the MS Paint "I want to write but can't afford an artist" look does not usually pay off. It will not matter that your writing is great, and it will not matter that your story is spectacular. If your cover does not grab people right as they walk away, 9 times out of 10 they won't be buying a copy of your book.
In fact, my cover art is what got me and my book into my local Barnes and Noble branch. The visuals are so professional, that the saleswoman who initially started carrying my work didn't even realize I was indie. And neither do the readers. At the end of the day, people will always judge a book by its cover. So turn that to your advantage! Make your work pop off the shelves and stand out in a crowded convention center! Make sure when people are scrolling through Amazon, they have a reason to stop on your book. I wouldn't be doing half as well as I am without my cover artist, Fiona Jayde. I owe so much of my success to her artistry.
2) Find your market
I myself have had a remarkable amount of success at conventions. In fact, there's several hundred more dollars unaccounted for in the Book Report graphic above, simply because they were all cash sales at cons and events. Just a week after my first book was published, I hit the road and set up a booth at Ancient City Con. There, not only did I make back my booth cost (plus a little extra) but I learned some valuable lessons about myself as a salesperson. My theatre background and naturally-bubbly personality both grant me the skills necessary to thrive in a person-to-person marketing setting. While the internet is a great place to network and sell your product, I have done the best in the past year face-to-face with the readers. People get excited to talk to me about my work, and they enjoy spending time at my booth and getting to know me as a person.
That isn't to say the convention approach will work for everyone. There's a fine line between being an engaging vendor and harassing people, and I've seen it go very very badly. On the other hand, just sitting silently and waiting for people to notice your work can be just as off-putting. A little tip from a professional performer: talk to people about other things. Compliment their shirt. Ask them how their day at the con has been. Gush over their hair color. If they want to know more about your books or your merch, they will take the next step. You just have to make yourself a safe, friendly person to talk to. It comes naturally to me, but I hope that little bit of direction can help you have a more successful time at your next event.
In addition to finding what market works best for you, don't try and torture yourself to learn a marketing tactic or technique that just isn't your speed. Yes, there are tried-and-true methods of marketing on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But, just like with writing styles or habits, not every approach will work for every author. Try them all, and learn what you can, but at the end of the day you'll have more success if you feel comfortable with what you're doing.
3) Find Your Tribe
Whether in-person or online, there is always a support group to be found for aspiring artists. We creators need a specific type of love and care to make the magic happen, and finding those people who know how to take care of your unique brand of creativity-induced crazy is remarkably important. Without mine, I could never have made it through this first year, or published to begin with. Sometimes, it's something simple, like finding friends who will come to your signings and buy your books, just to support you as a person. Other times, it's people lending their own talent to your project, like my dad did when he painted my map, or my sister still does when she proofreads my pages for free. And then, there's another kind of support. A daily, never-ending journey. Here, we find the partners. The best friends. The boyfriends or girlfriends. The Twitter families. The coworkers. Those who know what you're going through, and pick up the slack while you push through your next chapter or a particularly bad writer's block. For me, I had an entire team willing to make sure I was fed and watered. To manage my business while I was deep in writing mode at night. To reach out whenever they found an event they thought my books would do well at. To be there, when I needed to scream into the void about the bad days.
Find your tribe. You'd be amazed how helpful people who are already in your life can be when you just reach out. And if not? Make a new group. Find an online family, or an ally at a local bookstore or coffee shop. Build a community around yourself. After all, it's dangerous to go alone.
4) Don't be afraid to ask
Waltzing into my local Barnes and Noble and casually asking for a book signing was absolutely terrifying. But guess what? It paid off big time. Not only did they say YES, but they are still carrying both of my books to this day! And displayed front-facing, people. IF YOU ARE IN THE BOOK BUSINESS YOU KNOW WHAT A BIG DEAL THAT IS! *ahem* Again, please refer to Tip #1: cover art.
What started out as a dream has turned into a recurring signing event every few months (in fact, I have one tonight), a monthly gig hosting their YA Book Club, and an incredible relationship with the men and women who work there. For a little indie gal like me, this is the greatest achievement of my career so far. I glow with pride and joy every time I see that my books are still in stock, or being re-stocked because the original batch sold out. And it never would have happened if I hadn't just asked. Will everyone always say yes? Absolutely not. But if you don't even try, you might miss out on something amazing.
5) Never stop learning
It's painful to hear, and painful to say to another creator, but sometimes the reason your project isn't as successful as you'd like is because it's simply not up to the caliber it should be. And that's okay! The good news is, you took the first step! You finished your book, and put it out into the world! That's further than a lot of people ever get in their lives, and you should be proud of yourself. Celebrate that achievement, first and foremost, before you read any further!
Celebration done? Okay, now for the hard part.
Your work may not be as good as you think it is. And while it is important to have a supportive tribe, you also need critics who are comfortable telling you what is wrong with your book. If you're not willing to take constructive criticism, or you refuse to continue honing your craft, you're selling yourself short. You're doing your self a disservice by not continuing to grow and learn as a writer, and artist, and a storyteller. You deserve to have your story told, and to have people want to read it. Sometimes, that means going back to the basics, and re-learning some things you may have forgotten. Take a writing class. Pick up a novel in a genre you may nave never considered reading before. Find someone willing to tell you the truth. In those moments, when we are faced with our own weaknesses as creators, something magical happens: we learn what we are truly made of.
I have been told, time and time again, things I need to fix. And, with a lot of them, the critic was right. But by the time I published, I knew what was good about my work, and what wasn't. Not only did I put forward the strongest piece I could at the time, but my heart has not been broken by the handful of bad, potentially hurtful reviews I have received. Being sure of myself and my style has given me great confidence to face the internet trolls. When someone says "this character didn't behave like a strong woman should," I know that their definition of strength is different than mine. And that's okay. I know my character is who she is meant to be.
I never would have gotten there if I hadn't been ironing out the problems in my own writing over the past twenty years. In fact, I am still ironing to this day. Finding the weakest points of my own craft and stamping them out, so when I am confronted with an enemy I know I can hold my chin high and say, "that is your opinion." Think of it like learning to cook: it doesn't always come easily, and you could spend a lifetime discovering new tricks and new recipes.
This is just the beginning of my personal Indie Author Survival Kit. And, as I mentioned, the advice may not be for everyone. But please, don't hesitate to reach out if you need a friend in the business. I'm going through all of this one day at a time, just like many of you. I learn something new every day, and I'm grateful for it. Now, it's your turn. What are some things YOU have learned on your Indie Journey? How can you help better the writing world with your knowledge? Feel free to share! And, in the meantime, keep writing! Someone out there needs your book. I'm just giving you the tools to try and help make sure they find it.
Recently, a question floated my way: What is the hardest part of being a self-published author? The manuscript or the marketing? For a moment, I was all set to say "MARKETING! Hands down!" Until I realized ... the answer, for me, is neither of them. The HARDEST part of being a brand new self-published author is treating it like a job.
My life has always been extremely hectic. I have had multiple jobs at once since I entered the work force at 16. If you read my first post, you'll remember that my work schedule is INSANE, and mostly self-inflicted. In the last little while, however, I have managed to being paring down my jobs to only the most necessary gigs. Things that get me health insurance, and help pay my rent. I wouldn't call them "survival jobs," as I enjoy doing them. The plan was always to be an actor and a writer, and the acting/performing side of my life is solid and fulfilling.
That being said, I'd always imagined I would get a contract with an established publisher, and be able to live off an advance while working on my next book. I could take only the acting jobs I really wanted, just to stay busy and keep one foot in the business, and the rest of my time could be spent writing. With the choice to self-publish instead, my lifestyle and day-to-day schedule has been thrown into chaos. Let's break it all down, shall we?
I work Full Time for Universal Studios Orlando. That's 32 hours a week spent performing in their theme parks. 40 if I pick up an extra day, but for the sake of argument let's call it 32.
I also run an entertainment company, which takes up at least six hours a day. On the nights we don't stream, it's slightly less, but on the nights we DO stream it is slightly more, so we're going to average that out to 42 hours a week. That still puts my current time spent "working" at 74 hours per week. Okay, still manageable. Not GREAT, but still a functional, if busy, schedule.
But wait ... I still have to write. If I ONLY spend 1 hour a day (which is less than ideal) writing, that gets me to 81 hours a week with the extra 7 hours of writing time. And that would put my next book release at ... I don't want to THINK about how far away. Suffice it to say, it's not the best writing schedule.
Then there's brand management. Even if I combine marketing and social media for the company AND my book, that is a giant time commitment in and of itself. Say I only dedicate one hour a day to the marketing side of things -- 88 hours total of my week are WORK. And I haven't even calculated in miscellaneous issues, like setting aside time to record my audio books, commuting, or the time spent auditioning (which is PART of my job as a performer.) So let's call that 2 hours per week, on average, bringing us up to a nice spicy 90 HOUR WORK WEEK.
And I am only GUARANTEED a paycheck from 32 OF THOSE HOURS.
In the midst of all of this, I've also got regular human functionality to contend with. I either have to schedule in time to meal prep, or get used to ordering in. My health problems make finding time to work out a medical necessity, oh, and did I mention the ever-present anxiety and depression? There are days when it is genuinely impossible for me to find the energy to give a damn about ANY of it. We've got writer's block in the mix, and physical/mental issues that cause me to oversleep. I'd LIKE to spend any time ever with my boyfriend, or support my friends in their shows and events and baby showers. Oh, and I very much enjoy dedicating time to personal hygiene.
For those of you with mental health and physical concerns of your own, you're probably sitting there wholeheartedly understanding this dilemma. For those of you that don't, trust me when I say: I WISH I DID NOT HAVE THEM. I wish my body and brain would just let me charge through life without stopping. But even then, this work schedule would be INSANE. And finding the motivation to power through it all, and believe in myself enough to justify the schedule, is a job of its own.
I am THRILLED that I have enough passion in my life to fill it with things that keep me going. But I would be lying if I said it was easy. I am constantly working to find better ways to structure my time, and better ways to market myself so that, one day, writing WILL be my full time job. But I know it never will be if I don't treat it like it already is. So, to answer your question, THAT is the hardest part of self-publishing. Hard work, with no promise of payout for your efforts. It is every entrepreneur's struggle, and I raise a well-earned glass to every one of you out there, fighting alongside me to bring your passions to life. Here's to the 90-Hour Work Week. May we all conquer and tame it.
The whole weekend was an absolute blast, and I am already gearing up for my next con (when and where still to be determined) however, there was something that was brought up time and time again while I was at ACC. People were constantly shocked that I was "just an indie author." So, let's CHAT, shall we?
About three years ago, I typed the final period on the final page of my first novel. The feeling was MAGNIFICENT ... followed by months of endless agony. Nobody wanted it. Here it was, this beautiful thing that I had poured my whole LIFE into for almost a decade and nobody wanted to buy it from me. I submitted to publishers who were accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I submitted to agencies. I submitted to contests, magazines, the works. I trudged through the next two years with a giant black cloud hanging over my creativity. I had been all fired up and ready to get right to work on Book II from the moment I finished Windswept. Literally, THE MOMENT! I celebrated the completion of my final chapter by typing "Chapter One" in a brand new document, not five minutes later! But when nobody wanted to take a chance on me, I started to lose hope in my own vision for the series. I knew I was a good writer -- I just wasn't good enough.
And that was the first lie I told myself. See, in the months that would precede my decision to self-publish, I re-read many of the rejection letters I was sent over the years. And nowhere, in any of them, was there even the merest suggestion that my writing was the problem. I, as an artist with self-esteem issues (and a human with basic instincts of self-preservation) had BUILT THAT INTO THE CONVERSATION! My brain said "Oh no, they've rejected us! They don't like our work! WHAT DID I DO WRONG?!" In my case? The answer was, more or less, nothing. Their concern was not with content, it was with length.
Wait ... so, you mean to tell me, that without EVER reading more than five pages and the final word count, these people decided that the story was too long for a debut novel, and rejected it?
Why yes, yes I am. I was told over and over again that my book was just too long for a starter novel. Or, just as often, too long for Young Adult. And that's when I realized -- these were not the publishers for me. Anyone who thinks it's okay to limit the length of a novel JUST based on arbitrary word count is NOT somebody who I would like to do business with. Now, if you'd read my book and said "yeah, that scene in the tavern could have been a bit shorter, it got kinda boring," I could understand! But there were no content notes. No suggestions of actual STORY-BASED CONCERNS! Just the idea that my book, for some reason, was "too long."
If you were a reading child, or if you are now a reading adult, who enjoys epic fantasy, then I think it's safe to say that length doesn't scare you. Most of us want something more. We get swept up in these tales, and we ache when they are over. We constantly long to disappear into the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia and Hogwarts, and our hearts break when the final words are finished. That is my audience, and that is who I write for every day. Could I have edited my manuscript, made the adjustments they suggested, and gotten an official book deal? Most likely. Am I glad I didn't? Absolutely.
The story of "that month I decided to just go for it already" is going to be its own whole THING in a later post, so please allow me to skip all the mess in the middle for now, and jump to THE CON! Three days of sitting in a booth, chatting with strangers about my book, and having a very similar conversation each and every time. It usually went something like this:
Them: Hi wow what's this book about?
Me: It's about a boy named Fox, born in a land without magic, who discovers that he alone has an ancient and mysterious magical gift.
Them: Oh cool! This cover is great, it looks like a real book!
Ahem. While I am FLATTERED (because I poured a lot of money into a decent cover designer, and I worked my ass off to GET this book out on time) I also have to say something on behalf of all of us who choose to self-publish, for one reason or another: THEY ARE ALL REAL BOOKS. It doesn't matter if we published because we didn't want to edit, or because we disagreed with a publisher, or even because we suck. And yes, some self-published authors genuinely went that way because they couldn't write, and they couldn't take the critique and work their project into something marketable. BUT EVEN SO, more power to them. They made something unique, and they followed their own vision, just like I did. Now, I put the work into it. For most of my life, I have been training to be a writer. I got lucky enough to train with a bestselling author as my mentor, and I know many people are not given that opportunity, but I took it and WORKED. HARD. And, at the end of the day, that will show in my reviews. And my sales.
But they are all real books. And we are all REAL writers. We just took a different path, because for one reason or another, traditional publishing didn't pan out for us. And I'm here to tell you, it's not always because you're a bad writer. Or because you're stubborn and can't take notes. Sometimes, it's because you're not willing to compromise your dream. And that's OKAY. I'm going to be fighting to market myself, probably for the rest of my career, because I didn't make changes to pander for a book deal. But that's MY journey to take. And it doesn't make me a less-qualified creator.
To all the readers out there who think indie authors aren't "real" authors, you're right. We are so much MORE than that. We are writers, designers, formatting experts, one-man marketing departments, entrepreneurs, proofreaders ... and that's not including most of our full-time survival jobs. They have yet to create a proper term for all of the things that we are.
And to all of the writers out there, deciding if you should self-publish or hold out for a contract, ask yourself what I did: Why am I doing this? Always remember if you're in it for the money, or if you're in it to have your story told. Yes, listen to the publishers, listen to the agencies. But hear what they are ACTUALLY telling you, and think about what it means for your story. Are they asking you to improve your writing, or fit their mold? I support either choice, but no matter what you do, believe in yourself. No matter how it happens, you've made a real book.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.