Ten Key Things I Learnt Through Indie-Publishing a Novel

On the 30th July 2021 I decided to self publish one of the three novels I’ve spent the last six years writing. Five weeks later I held my launch party for it, and here are some of the key things I learnt along the way.

NB: I realise that some of what I’m going to recommend costs money (often not insignificant amounts) – but I’ve tried to keep it to those things I’ve found to be absolutely brilliant.

1. Set yourself realistic timelines

I launched my novel after the realisation dawned that I’d soon be visiting several of the places that feature in it; creating some perfect opportunities for PR. (Which used to be my job). This was not enough time – and if I can avoid anyone else experiencing the stress I created for myself… you’re welcome.

I chose to publish initially through KDP on Amazon – whose customer service is, of course, fantastic. But you need to do things slowly – for mistakes you make when uploading sometimes cannot be rectified later. Top tip: your book’s title and your subtitle should precisely match those on your front cover. Mine didn’t – so I had to republish the printed version of the book – which caused me great angst that I might lose my reviews (I didn’t).

Publishing only through KDP means my book is currently only available on Amazon. Later, I’ll also place it on Ingram Spark for wider distribution (into any shops that will take it etc.) Top tip: your printed book will need to have an ISBN and you can use the same number for both KDP and Ingram Spark. You can buy them (I’d suggest in a batch of ten) from here. Others with more experience than me suggest not using the free Amazon ones.

Back to the benefits of KDP… No matter how many proofreads you (or others do; even professional editors) you’ll still keep finding typos etc, and you can correct these for free on KDP (you just make the corrections then re-upload your manuscript) – but you have to pay to make corrections on Ingram Spark. So I’d use KDP to perfect your book as much as humanly possible, then move onto the next stage. (And trust me, whatever your feelings about Amazon, by this stage it will feel like your friend).

Once you’ve uploaded your book, it will take about a day for the book (print or e-book) to go ‘live’ but then you need to allow for about four days to send yourself a copy to check everything’s okay with the printed version, then about two weeks to get your author copies – should you feel you need them. These are perfectly normal editions of your book, the difference being that you pay cost price for them – which in my case was £3.88 for a 318-page book – plus delivery.

2. Vellum is a writer’s Viagra

It’s amazing. Vellum is a piece of software developed by Pixar that magically converts your Word document (in my case) into a properly – and beautifully – typeset book. It gives you various chapter header etc styles that you can play around with too. I am the least techie person out there, but had mastered Vellum within minutes. And I absolutely love it. I’ll now also transpose my unpublished novels into it – which I can then read as if they’re properly published books. (Including on my Kindle.) Unfortunately you need to have a Mac in order to download it, but apparently people buy second-hand ones just to use it. It’s that good! Top tip: buy the full print and digital package – you’ll need both for your printed version and ebook.

3. Take the free advice

There is tonnes of advice on indie-publishing – they’re an extremely welcoming group. In fact, there’s so much advice it can become a bit overwhelming. So the three best sources of information I’ve found are:

Joanna Penn. She’s brilliant. I would first get her free How to Self Publish (I literally followed it word-for-word). I then bought her How to Market A Book – not least because I felt I should pay for something! She’s clear, concise, incredibly knowledgeable and very reassuring.

Twenty Books to 50k on Facebook. This social learning group has taught me so much. They’re very serious about how they operate and strictly regulate the site (for instance, they won’t post your question if they think you should have looked in other places first) but I’ve learnt so much from following them.

David Gaughran – who looks a bit like the David Letterman of indie-publishing (2020 version). I’ve followed his free entry course (a mixture of him speaking to video, links and words) and read two of his books: Let’s Get Digital (also free) and Amazon Decoded.

As I said, there’s so much advice out there, it can become too much to take on. So I made the decision to stop with these three – and, even doing that, sometimes I have to take a break, take a breath (or even a bath), then go back to the learning.

4. Creating a book cover isn’t simply a question of good design

And in many instances you have to leave your personal tastes at the door (as well as your desire for originality). Branding is also my bag, so I thought I’d find this part easy: but in fact it’s been the hardest. Gaughran has a brilliant section where he reels off specific themes, tropes and emotions expressed by the covers of books in certain niche genre (Starting from Zero: 2.3: Assess Your Presentation). The book discovery service Bookbub suggests that their readers love seeing, for instance, the ‘gorgeous dresses of bygone eras on historical romances’, while subscribers to their Christian fiction list love ‘gentle colour palettes and elements that recall the simple pleasures of living’. (Did I mention that indie-publishing will involve a deep dive into the world of sub-genre?)

However, if you’re in something like the vaguer genre of ‘contemporary romance’ (as I am) then it gets a lot harder. I read a couple of articles on genre, (here and here) but am still not convinced I’ve got it right. For a start, so many of the books are written in first person, while mine is written in third. I know these are very specific issues to me – but definitely something you need to think about. And you need to really do your research before commissioning a designer.

If you’re using one – who specialises in book covers for your genre (which I’d really recommend, if you can afford it) – you’ll also need to create some kind of creative brief. Here’s some pages from mine.

This is a really useful link that my designer sent me to use a cover template generator. Then once you’ve had your cover designed, check it amongst other books of your genre.

5. Once you’ve published your book, you can’t change certain key things

These include your book title and subtitle, your ISBN (for printed), your imprint – the ‘publisher’ name you’ve used. My email is @happyshed, so I called mine Happyshed Press. It can be anything you want – bearing in mind it needs to look professional.

Equally important, you can’t untick a box called ‘Expanded Distribution’ which you’ll find near the top of the pricing page. If you’ve ticked this, then you won’t be able to also publish your book with Ingram Spark – so be very careful what you do at this point. If you get something wrong (like I did) you’ll have to unpublish your book then publish it again with a new ISBN number.

6. You can place your book within ten separate categories on Amazon

This is definitely the best thing I learnt from Gaughran. When you put in your book details it will ask you to choose two categories. So I chose: fiction – romance – romantic comedy and fiction – contemporary women.

But what you can actually do is choose ten categories, then write to Amazon through Author Central and ask them to swap them in. You’ll need to read David’s book for the section on category metadata to find out why this is so important, but I really recommend it.

7. Court your Key Words

Gaughran’s book is all about increasing your visibility on Amazon (bearing in mind it holds around 8,000,000 titles). And, after categories, keywords are another important way of doing this. Both he and Penn recommend Publisher Rocket to do this. I ummed and ahed, as it’s yet another £89, then decided download it for the free trial. And now I think I might well keep it. As someone who had to do their GCSE Maths a couple of years ago (lower level only), I never thought I’d find spending an afternoon looking at keyword metadata half as satisfying as I did. Here is not the place to go into this in detail, but let’s explain it briefly.

Amazon allows you 7 keywords (or phrases) alongside your categories. I put as one of mine: ‘how to break your addiction to a person’ as that’s what my character needs to do. Using the software, this is how many people (roughly) search that phrase on the site:

NB: I actually began using that example thinking it was a really stupid one, and find myself surprised by the results. However, having watched a quick video on how to use the software, the guy said only go for competitive scores of below 50, possibly 40, so I probably won’t use it.

8. It’s a painfully steep learning curve – but deeply satisfying too

I think this is probably my most important learning. I’ve been writing novels for a long time, I have an MA in professional writing, I write articles for the Bookseller and have interviewed some of the industry’s top agents. But until going through the process of self-publishing, I don’t think I’d begun to understand the issues of writing to market.

Now, I understand that designing a cover is far harder than you think – and has to follow very specific criteria in order to convert a two-second glance into a purchase; I understand that – despite there being hundreds of genre and sub-genre, your book has still got to fit somewhere – and it’s not good enough just to write what you want and hope it will find a landing mat. I understand that writing is a business, and that, if you want to be published successfully, you’ve got to start with your reader first. And you’ve got to know that reader, and your niche, absolutely inside out. Which, despite having worked on this for years, I simply hadn’t got to grips with.

9. Self promotion is hard – and pretty yuck to do

The final thing I’ve learnt is that, while your book might be as important to you as a first baby or a new house – to everyone else it’s, ‘just a book’ – and that includes your nearest and dearest. You can ask for reviews (and a few will trickle in – for which you’ll feel eternally grateful; just as you adore those friends who post about your book on social media). You can hope people will read it and like it. You can burst with pride (and relief) when they do. But to everyone else it’s… just… a… book. And pretty soon you’re going to have to stop relying on your family and friends and go off down the lonely road of self promotion. Which is hard, and pretty horrible to do.

Because you’re already feeling pretty exposed, and one casual negative comment from someone within the industry (as happened to me) can shatter your confidence. Particularly as at this point, being a newbie indie-publisher means you’re also still feeling very much out in the cold. But it’s worth remembering that even as a traditionally published author, these days you have to do a lot of promotion yourself – so you might as well get the hang of it early on.

I’d suggest do what you feel comfortable with when it comes to self promotion. For years I’ve felt like the painfully shy woman in the corner of the room who nobody talks to on Twitter. Funnily enough, writing in a pen name on a new account means I feel a bit more confident to chat in my actual voice. Although I’m still the one in the corner – just smiling a little more bravely. I looked at TickTock – and although I know it sells books, it’s just not me (maybe it’s an age thing). I’ve tried my hardest with metadata and will shortly move into the world of Facebook and Amazon advertising – so there’s another steep learning curve ahead.

But I know how to hold a party, I’m comfortable on Facebook and Instagram, and I know how to do PR – so those are the things I’m going to concentrate on for now. Because, while there have been many, many steps in writing a novel, this last one has been a giant one.

I went into it with the idea of ‘making a book’ and I’ve made one – and learnt so much along the way, and it’s made me a better writer because of it. So would I recommend the experience? Yes, I absolutely would.

10. It’s fine to take comical ‘before’ shots – but make sure you have some glam ‘after’ ones too

My final key learning. Once you’ve worked so hard to set the scene at any point of your journey, don’t forget to record it properly – for apart from anything else, you’ll need it for your content on your social media. If you have a launch, buy that new dress, put your hair in curlers and some lipstick on, but get someone to take a photograph of the end result, don’t just take selfies of you looking daft throughout the day.

At least I got a few photos of the launch – although, again, I could have made sure they were better – particularly as my husband’s a great photographer.

So, my final thought on this experience? That I’ve been writing alone for so long now – having to persuade my poor family to occasionally read what I write; but rarely reading aloud. So to stand there on a balmy September evening, reading extracts from my novel to an 50-strong audience that was literally spellbound – well that’s worth more than I can possibly describe. And it’s good to finally have Tassie out there.

Published by Jess Morency

Feature writer, teacher and brand consultant

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