7 Things I Learned From Publishing My First Novel

7 Things I Learned from Publishing My First Novel

Two weeks ago, I published my first novel, Expendables. “Self-published” is the term often used, but as I feel many people have negative connotations around self-publishing, I prefer the term “indie-published”. Last week, I talked about some of the lessons I learned from writing that book and today, I’m going to focus on the publishing and marketing side.

I am far from an expert on this, but over the past year, I’ve tried my best to learn from more established authors and experts on publishing and book marketing. And there is a ton of information out there (thank you, internet!). So much so, that’s it can be overwhelming. This post is more a reflection on my experience as a whole, rather than a list of what worked for me and what didn’t. (Though if you want that, just drop me a note in the comments below. I’m still working out the data.)

Actually, publishing a book on Amazon is a fairly straightforward process. To make it even easier for myself, I signed up for Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing 101 course last year, which takes you through the process. Getting your book found is another matter! This is what every indie author will tell you, though, of course, it doesn’t really sink in until you actually try it for yourself…

1. Prepare the Ground Work in Advance

It may seem counterintuitive to market a book you haven’t finished writing yet, but if you want to actually get some sales when you launch your book (other than from friends and family), you need to start your marketing well in advance of pressing the publish button.

I was starting from nothing. As I want to continue to write and publish books and grow a community of readers who enjoy and want to buy them, building an email list was the main focus of my pre-launch marketing.

Four months before publishing Expendables, I wrote and published a 13,000-word prequel to the series. Outsider isn’t available on Amazon (at the moment – this may change), but you can download it for free by signing up to my Readers’ Club. I joined promotions on Instafreebie and BookFunnel to get this book into the hands of new readers.

By the time I launched Expendables I had around 1,400 people on my mailing list. Of course, not all of them bought the book (I wish!). I think I got perhaps 30 sales during launch week. But they were 30 sales I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Plus, this is a long-term game. If I was only ever going to publish one book, I wouldn’t have bothered growing a newsletter list.

I also had a small subset of my Readers’ Club who joined my Book Launch Team. I sent them a free advance copy of Expendables before it got published and from this, I managed to get a number of reviews up on Amazon before the launch. Some authors do this really well and get 100+ reviews in a really short space of time. I’m still working on this, but hoping I can grow my Team to help with this in future.

2. Set Yourself Small Goals

This really depends on your personality. For some people, setting huge goals inspires them to work harder. For me, I’m happy to work my backside off but struggle with a sense of failure when I don’t hit my goals. So, by many author’s standards, I kept my goals really small. In case you’re interested, here they are:

  • Sell 100 copies in the first month
  • Get 10 4 or 5* reviews before launch day
  • Get 20 5* reviews in the first month

So far I’ve sold 71 copies, so I’ve still got a bit of a way to go to hit my goal in the next couple of weeks. (So if you’re stuck for Christmas presents for fans of fast-paced dystopian fiction… nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) I had 10 reviews across 3 platforms (Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Goodreads) before launch so I’m counting that as a tick, but I still need to get a few more to hit my target of 20.

It’s really difficult to know what response you’re going to get to your first novel, and there are different marketing strategies you can follow depending on your goal. If you’re not planning on doing any marketing at all and you don’t have a following, then I’d suggest setting your expectations at the low end! Conversely, if you have a large following and/or a large budget to spend on ads, you can reasonably expect a much higher number of sales.

3. The Indie Author Community is Incredibly Supportive

This is hands down the BEST thing about being an indie author. Or any author, for that matter! There are so many people out there who are willing to share what they know and what publishing and marketing strategies have and haven’t worked for them. Entire Facebook groups and websites are dedicated to helping authors help other authors.

Every time there was something I was unsure of, or couldn’t figure out, I searched these groups and forums. 95% of the time, someone had already asked the same question. And if I couldn’t find the answer there, then a quick post usually yielded half a dozen useful replies.

You don’t have to struggle in isolation. But you do need to reach out to people. And give more than you take. At the moment, I still feel like a newbie in this world. What help can I offer having only published one book? But I do what I can and hopefully someday, I’ll be in a better position to give back.

If all this sounds terrifying, you’re not alone! Many authors (including myself) are introverts. Which is what makes the internet such a wonderful thing. You can interact with people online without having to worry about making small talk.

Networking with other authors should also be part of your marketing strategy. Whether it’s sharing each other’s books in your newsletters, joint promotions or sharing social media posts, by working with other authors you can access a much larger group of potential readers. Which is good for everyone!

4. It Will be More Work Than You Think

Waaay more work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Or can afford a great virtual assistant. Which leads me on to my biggest lesson learned…

Don’t plan to publish your book as soon as it is finished.

And by finished, I mean edited, proofread and formatted. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, if you’re scrambling around trying to get your files formatted, checked and uploaded, working out what keywords and Amazon categories to use and making sure your pricing is set right, you’re not spending time on marketing. Or writing the next book, which is arguably just as important.

For many experienced authors, the process of publishing a book is second nature. But if this is your first book, please do yourself a favour and give yourself plenty of time to get everything sorted. Otherwise, you will end up in a frantic mess trying to do a million things at once. Which as we all know, is bad for productivity.

Secondly, if you have your book ready a month or two in advance, you can take advantage of some additional marketing opportunities, such as getting editorial reviews from book reviewers and booking promotions for launch week. It also means that if you’ve opted for a pre-order period, you can upload the final book files when you set up the pre-order rather than uploading a temporary file and praying to the Amazon gods that the correct file goes out to your readers.

A month before my launch date, I sat down and worked backwards from the launch date to set out what I needed to get done by when. This scared me. A lot. Admittedly, if you’re just publishing an ebook, there’s less to do, but I was publishing an ebook and print version and needed to factor in time for a print proof to be ordered, delivered and checked. I’d suggest doing this checklist at least three months before your intended launch date, so you don’t end up staring at your computer one night with a wee sinking feeling in your heart.

5. Different Things Work for Different People

The indie community is incredibly useful and supportive, but it can also be overwhelming. When you’re publishing your first book, you want a blueprint for what you have to do to achieve your goals.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but this doesn’t exist.

Why? Because different authors have different goals. If your goal is to get your book into as many readers hands as possible, then you may choose to give your book away for free. If your goal is to make money from sales, then this probably isn’t a good strategy (unless you have a good backlist to earn from).

Also, look at the assets you have compared to other authors. For example, an author who’s spent years building up an email list of dedicated fans may simply send a mailshot out to his newsletter list announcing the launch of his latest book, knowing that he’ll get enough sales from this to kickstart his launch. If you’ve got a list of 20 people who haven’t read your work, you’re unlikely to get the same results.

Finally, the tools and platforms you can use to market your book change fast. What ‘everyone’ was doing two years ago is likely to be quite different from what’s most popular now. But remember, the principles of marketing don’t change so quickly.

So, what do you do? I’d suggest searching out other first-time authors in your genre and looking at what they did, and what worked and didn’t work for them. Also look at what more experienced authors are doing, but then think about how effective these methods would be at the stage you’re at in your author journey. Pick and choose to come up with a list of marketing methods that you think could work for you. Then test them.

Yes, this will take time. I refer you back to point 4 above…

6. Make Time to Celebrate Your Success

Finally, whether you blow your goals out of the water or are secretly disappointed you didn’t get that number one bestseller tag, make sure you celebrate your achievement. You’ve written and published a book! Out of all the thousands (millions?) of people who say they will one day write a book, you have gone ahead and done it. And not just that, you’ve let your book baby out into the world for other people to read.

Despite all the work (and money) I’d put into crafting a professional novel, when I launched my book, I was terrified. What if no one read it? Or what if they did read it and hated it?

So if you’re about to hit publish on your first book or your latest work, I feel your pain. And I think most authors feel like that at some point in their career. It takes a lot to push through the fear of failure and rejection to put your book out there. Celebrate that.

7. Remember This is Only the Beginning

A friend messaged me to ask how I’d celebrated my book launch. I replied truthfully, saying that I’d worked until 9.30pm to get a story I was writing for an anthology to my editor, and then collapsed, exhausted into bed.

Yup, I pretty much failed to properly ‘celebrate success’ (to be fair, I did celebrate a bit more the weekend following the launch!)! But there is a point to this. You can’t make a living from one book. (Okay, maybe Harper Lee can, but there’s an exception to every rule.) And it’s tough, though not impossible, to get a good return on marketing one book. Plus, I had readers already demanding the next book in the series. (And yup, that made me feel pretty damn good!)

If you’re first book doesn’t do as well as you hope, then don’t get disheartened. This is just the beginning of your author journey. You can write as many books as you want. You don’t get just one bite of the cherry. Look back on the book you published five years ago and feel it’s not up to scratch? You can rewrite it. Rebrand it. Remarket it.

Remember, you’re an indie publisher. The power to change things is in your hands.

This is the second of two articles in which I reflect on my experiences of writing and publishing my first book. Click here to read my post on five lessons I learned from writing my first book. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on writing your first book. Please post below or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

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