Self-publishing is a difficult thing to get right; treating it like traditional publishing adds unnecessary and costly steps to the process. You’re putting yourself out there in the world — a risky proposition already — don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
When I put my first bestseller — a roleplaying game book — on the market, I began with a Kickstarter to raise funds. RPG books require a lot of art, so I needed the upfront funds to get the project going.
Unfortunately, I didn’t count the cost where it mattered most: the traditional publishing steps.
Beta readers, editors, art directors, developmental editors, layout designers…many positions that I didn’t need, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought that if traditionally published books have all these things, I’d better have them too. I didn’t want to look unprofessional.
Following the typical advice, I wasted money and made the process take longer than it should have. I almost tanked my career before it began.
Learn from my experience, go into your self-publishing career with precisely what you need, and skip on what you don’t.
7 Things you don’t need to self-publish your book
There are many things you need to publish your book, but first, let’s look at what you don’t need.
Unfortunately, we humans need validation. Too many authors have imposter syndrome when it comes to clicking that publish button.
Let me be the one to tell you: if you are self-publishing, you don’t need anyone’s permission. Digital platforms have leveled the playing field and removed the need for gatekeepers. There’s an audience for your work; it’s up to you to find them, and you already have the necessary tools.
You are bravely setting off on your own to make the career of your dreams — don’t ask if it’s okay to do so.
2. 5,000 Twitter followers
Have you ever seen those “writers lifts” on Twitter? It’s where someone puts up a post to get people to comment, and everyone follows each other. The whole concept is a part of the “follow for follow” trend — an attempt to get to arbitrary milestones that people think will impress an agent or publisher.
The follow for follow game is like having a newsletter with 5,000 subscribers that will never read it.Tweet
Even traditional agents and publishers have caught on and are now asking to see your engagement. Why? Because everyone who followed you did it out of social obligation to return the favor — they don’t care about anything you have to say or sell.
You don’t build engagement by having massive numbers of followers; you build engagement by offering value to your followers, which has the side effect of increasing your number of followers as people learn that you’re the real deal.
Twitter is a great platform to communicate with your audience, but it’s more effective when that audience finds a link to your Twitter profile from your work and decides to follow you. Trying to build an initial audience to sell books to on a platform that limits you to 240 characters is sub-par, at best.
3. A blog
Like Twitter, a blog is a great way to communicate with your audience. Since your audience includes readers, some of them will appreciate the longer blog posts — you can go more in-depth on a subject than you otherwise could in a tweet.
Such communication, however, comes later, once you’ve built your sales funnels and have products to put out there.
Your daily writing should focus on books that you’ll sell, not blog posts to build an audience.
One Exception: If blogging is one of your planned revenue streams, then you want to be focusing on it. Otherwise, build your website, tell everyone how excited you are to connect with them on social media, and get to writing your book.
4. An agent
You’re self-publishing, which means you are putting your work up for sale without the help of a publishing team.
An agent’s job is to put on a talent show (their slush pile) and hope to find a book they can sell to a publisher. Publishers love them because they serve as a gatekeeper that doesn’t have to be paid until they find something worthwhile.
You don’t need an agent to put your work up on Amazon. You need a book and a WiFi connection.
5. A publishing contract
When you publish to Amazon, you sign a user agreement, not a publishing contract. Self-publishers don’t need to query publishers or fill out their contracts. For some, that’s the reason for self-publishing in the first place.
When I started — trying to publish my work traditionally — I talked to several agents who said they wouldn’t work with me until I got a publishing contract. But publishers won’t talk to you unless you have an agent. It’s a vicious cycle.
No wonder traditional publishing lacks diversity — you need to sell your soul, and give away all control of your work, to get in the room.
6. A creative writing degree
I went to college for Creative Writing; I came away with debt. That’s about it.
The part of creative writing courses that you benefit from is not the teacher’s experience, but the criticism of the other students.
This is a double-edged sword because you always need to be improving your craft. What you don’t need, however, is a college-level course on biology, math, or political science.
The best place to learn craft is reading, which is also the best place to learn about other subjects. You don’t need to sign up for college to read — you need to sign up for a library card.
7. An editor
The last thing you don’t need is probably the most contentious.
For traditional publishers, editors serve as the ultimate gatekeeper under the guise of a quality control agent. If all they did was line editing — going through your work and finding grammar mistakes — then they’d be somewhat helpful, but they do more than that, and none of it is in your best interest.
When an editor at a major publisher gets a hold of your book, they are looking at it through the lens of the publisher, who seeks to make your book identical to the bestsellers in their catalog.
Those books were likely bestsellers because they were different, but publishers are too afraid to take a chance on someone new.
To publish with a traditional editor, your job is to make your story read like everyone else’s, but unique in characterization and setting. If you try to be unique in the telling of your story, an editor is unlikely to entertain the first page.
Editors also vet a draft for political and social views that go against whatever the publisher values. They have agendas that you need to help fulfill; if you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter if your draft is the next War and Peace, it won’t be published.
7 Things you need to self-publish your book
Now that we’ve gone over what you don’t need to publish your book let’s look at some things you need.
1. A solid story
You don’t have to impress agents or other professional gatekeepers, but you do have to impress the most critical gatekeeper of all: paying customers.
If someone loves your book, they’ll share it with their friends. If they hate it, they’ll share that too.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into what makes a good story — and much of it is subjective — but take your work seriously. If you expect people to pay cash money for it and spend an average of 12 hours reading it, make sure you’ve put in ample work to deserve that investment.
2. Good writing habits
Making money as a self-published author requires that you write a lot. To do that, you need to have a daily writing habit that puts sellable words into a draft.
Stephen King recommends 2,000 words a day, and Hemingway said:
“You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” — Hemingway
Whatever you choose, a hard word count, or an emotional stopping point, you need to be writing if you’re going to make it in the self-publishing business. You can maybe get away with one or two days off a week, but you need to make it something you do most days. I find that writing Monday through Friday allows me to recharge before coming back to it Monday morning.
3. A newsletter
This is why you don’t need to solely focus on Twitter or a blog for reader engagement, although you should still include them somewhere in your plan.
Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, etc., could go out of business or change their algorithms so that you are now invisible to your readers. If you collected their email addresses, however, you always have a means of reaching your audience.
In 2015, 4.4 billion people had active email accounts worldwide, which has likely grown in the half-decade since.
Email isn’t dead, but we don’t stare at it like we do social media, waiting for something to pop into our inbox.
The engagement your newsletter gets — how effective it is for you — depends on how you put it together. It’s an art form all it’s own, with plenty of trial and error.
Get this setup ASAP.
Aside from internet tools like email and newsletters, you’re going to need some computer software to get your work out into the wild. Some software will help you write your books, while others will help you make it better. To use some of these tools, you might have to hire someone to work for you, as I did.
Which software you use will depend on your preferences. Here’s what I use:
- Scapple to brainstorm. It has a simple UI that gets out of my way so I can mind map my stories and article ideas. I’ll be honest, though, I’ve largely replaced this with a good old pen and paper notebook, but I go back and forth every few weeks or so.
- Scrivener to write fiction — I write my articles directly on the platform I’m posting on, or Mac Pages if I’m submitting somewhere. Scrivener gives me control over outlining, research, versioning… it’s so powerful for its cheap price point.
- Grammarly to replace a human editor. I go over my words several times, and if I’m writing fiction, I’ll rewrite them once or twice. That’s a lot of clean up. Plus, as I said earlier, I’ve found that human editors inject their biases into the work, which diminishes its purity and causes us to argue. Working with Grammarly has been a dream. I won’t be looking back anytime soon.
- Adobe Software for art and other layout needs. This is where I need to hire out to someone else. I draw some mean stick figures, but for professional work, I need help. That and Adobe scares me — it’s so complex.
I’ve used Ulysses, Word, ProWriting Aid, and even wrote a novel on Google Docs. They’re all excellent. What matters is that you find a set you enjoy and work them for all they’ve got.
5. A deadline
This is a tricky one. You need to have a publishing schedule of some kind, but unless you’re incredibly Type-A, it doesn’t have to be a set date. I know writers who do that — they know themselves so well that they can predictably set a publishing date.
I work on a monthly schedule. On the first, I lay out the rest of my month on a dry-erase calendar. I note the days when I’ll release my newsletter, foreseen days off for holidays or birthdays, etc.
I also include one or two projects I’ll try to complete that month.
Whatever method you use, and there are many, if you are taking your career as seriously as you should, you need a way to keep you on track. Without a deadline of some kind, you’ll work on the same book for years. Trust me — I’ve got a particular novel series that I’ve been working on since 2014 because I never gave it a deadline.
6. A good artist and layout designer
Do not skimp on your cover. I’ve written before about how it is the most important element of your novel. Without a well-thought-out cover, no one will ever pick it up and see your words.
Don’t leave this to chance. Hire a professional artist to do your cover. And if you are like me, you might want to get someone — or the same artist — to do the layout of your print covers and any artwork within your book.
7. Knowledge of sales funnels
A sales funnel is like an oil funnel but for marketing. It has three or more stages:
Stage One: lead someone into the funnel with a low cost, low commitment product of value.
Stage Two: once in the funnel, you can begin selling them and building for a more intensive commitment.
Stage Three: this is where you hit them with a large purchase.
A sales funnel for your first novel trilogy might look like this:
- Give the first book for free to get the reader into the funnel, often called a “loss leader”.
- At the end of the book, ask for their email address — newsletter sign up — to get the second book for free.
- Charge for the third book.
That’s a great sales funnel for first-time authors who are still building an audience. With a free book and an exchange of a book for an email address, that’s a lot of value for the reader. The next sales funnel could be different, like a free short story with the opportunity to buy the first book at a discount, or the entire series for a drastically reduced cost. There is no one way to set up a sales funnel.
Every series or trilogy you put out will have its own sales funnel. Treat them like small businesses that you set up and manage separately.
Bonus Point: the most important thing you need for a successful self-publishing career is speed. Traditional publishing can afford to put books out slower, but self-publishing needs to be lightning fast. If you’re serious about self-publishing, make sure you are doing everything you can to move quickly.
Always be publishing.
I hope this helps you start your self-publishing career. For more no-nonsense self-publishing advice, sign up for my newsletter.