So you want to be an indie?

I received an email from someone today asking my thoughts on a couple questions he had. I spent several hours replying to this email because it needed unpacked. Yet, at the end, he will have to make his own decisions.

I thought I’d share a bit from that email here in case someone else needs this kind of help.

First, a little about me and my journey so far:

I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve been studying publishing since I was 13. In my 20’s, I was getting close to a publishing contract when my life got flipped upside-down. I got lucky when I got taken out of writing before I got that contract. Traditional publishing would have chewed me up and I wouldn’t be writing today. The world has changed much since then, including my personal world. Art came into my life at that point and I started writing/illustrating comics. I started having booths at comic conventions and arts/crafts shows in 2007. Shortly thereafter, I started writing stories again. I published my first novel in 2011. I have spoken to writers groups and I have given panel presentations at a few conventions, both where I have suggested the panel topic and where I’ve been invited to attend as a panelist. Since 2011, I have published 7 novels (with several in various stages waiting for publication because one person can only do so much), 26 shorter works (again, with several more written and awaiting publication), 2 non-fiction books, and a children’s book. I haven’t had a chance to work on my comics in many years though I do hope to get back to them someday. I also paint fantasy art and I narrate audiobooks. 

Can being on panels and speaking at conferences be helpful with book marketing?

I can also say that out of the several panels I’ve done, where I’ve had audiences ranging from 10-50 people, I’m lucky if 3-5 people come to my booth afterwards to talk directly to me. Out of those people 1-2 might buy a book. One lady after a special book convention came to speak with me because she was intrigued by something I said (I can’t remember what it was that I said) during the panel and she wanted to ask me more about it. I think she bought a book just because she felt bad about taking up my time. That was not a very cool sale to make. There’s no triumph to pity sales like that and I doubt she has become a long-term fan. Unless you’ve already built up an audience who wants to come and listen to you (think Kevin J. Anderson’s and Brandon Sanderson’s fans), your time is better spent at the booth where you can be pitching at everyone who might be interested in your book. I do know I have missed sales because I was off doing one of these events and not in my booth — the people I have watching my booth keep count for me (and I know I miss 100% of the sales I don’t pitch because no one loves my book as much as I do). Some people came back to talk to me; I know because they tell me — and this is because they want to talk to me about my stories because my covers intrigue them enough to remember them. Selling = sharing enthusiasm, and no one has as much enthusiasm for your story than you do. This is why I know my time is better spent in my booth. I take very little time away from my booth because I know the sales are to be made by me being there. I’m not a big enough name yet (like Kevin J. Anderson and Brandon Sanderson) to have crowds of people salivating for me to show up for two hours and sign a few books. But they have paid their dues and become good storytellers. So, right now, I’m down in the trenches working to build an audience; paying those dues!

Your best sales tools are a great cover, good sales copy (blurb), and your words (you’re a storyteller; words are tools, use them as you need them). All these sales tools can be learned. That is paying the dues, especially in this new world of indie publishing.

Your best marketing is always to be writing the next story. Always.

Everything beyond that (ads, panels, shows, social media posts, blog tours, podcast interviews, etc.) needs to come secondary to writing and producing the next book.

The ultimate thing to remember is that you are building a fan base. You are the brand, the storyteller. Someone who buys one of your books while you are “unknown” is taking a chance on you, whether you’re making that sale on Amazon or at a show. They don’t know if your book is good or bad. Your job is to entertain them by telling the best possible story you can (and ultimately to keep doing that and getting better). They have spent their hard earned money on an untested, unvalidated product. You hope they enjoy it enough to send their friends. When the friend buys your book, you are hopefully making another fan.

I know there are a lot of gurus around these days who tell you that you have to have all these beta readers and street teams and massive marketing budgets and be on podcasts or blog tours. I’ve watched many “gurus” in many different industries (because I watch people in business, self-development, and art as well a writing because I have in interest in these) and they do one of two things: they either fade away (usually because they can’t keep up the churn needed to sustain their processes, and every so often I get “I’m back” emails from them after they’ve had a break and need to start making money again. They don’t realize that it was their own system that caused their burnout, so I’ll be getting another “I’m back” email in another 2-3 years) or they start trying to sell you in becoming a coach, usually wanting you to become “certified in their proven method” so that they can sit back and make a percentage of money off of you. One guy I followed just sent out an email like that to me last week. I wanted to respond with, “I’m a writer, not a coach. I’ve got my next fiction book coming out. Where’s yours?” Most of these people have less than 10 years in the business. They want to reach success now, now, now, but they give little though into how to really sustain it and grow it for the future. Your copyright will be good for 70 years beyond your death. That could be a good legacy.

But you build by getting readers one book sale at a time and treating them right. Audiences quickly become savvy to the newest marketing ploy. This takes time and most people aren’t willing to wait for it.

As I’ve said before on this blog, a shop doesn’t have just one product. A doctor doesn’t see just one patient. A lawyer doesn’t have one client. Accountants don’t just do one tax return. No, each one has hundreds if not thousands of clients. A doctor, lawyer, and accountant all have invested major time and money getting the education they need for their profession. If you want to sell books (which is what a publisher does), then you have to realize that you need to be selling books internationally in as many places as you possibly can be. You will need to spend money and you will need to keep getting an education in writing and selling if you want to succeed — you need to keep improving and this will never stop. Doctors, lawyers, and accountants all do continuing education every year in order to retain their licenses. You will be no different. Keep studying what others are doing and consider if it is right for you, and if it’s not right now, will it be right for you later on. Maybe you are not ready to have a table at a show now with 1 book, but what about in 2-3 years when you can have 10 books and 30 short stories out.

You will need a variety of cash streams – think water: a drop to a trickle, a trickle to a stream, a stream to a river, a river to an ocean. Let it build. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. Flash in the pan success won’t help you if you are gone in 10 years. Plan for the future. Follow the advice of people who have blazed the trail for more than a decade. In today’s world, everyone and anyone considers themselves a guru – I spoke about them above. Wave goodbye to them. Learn from the people who respect what they are building. Each story is a property and it is good for 70 years beyond your death. If you don’t understand this, please get a copy of The Copyright Handbook.

That is the publisher hat. 

The writer hat is another. Writers sit in a room and make stuff up. They do not sell books. They do not even think about books. They tell stories. They remember that they are storytellers. And they play. Go read this blog to understand further.

Here are a few questions for you. Check in with yourself and answer them honestly:
   Do you love telling stories? Would you continue to tell stories if you never got paid for them?
   Do you have the funds available to set up for small craft shows including getting books for them?
   Do you have the funds available to set up for a larger shows if you wanted to do them?
   What does success look like to you?
   Are your goals money-based? If so, do you realize that you can never control someone else’s wallet? Money can dry up in a heartbeat.
   What are your goals that are completely in your control? These types of goals can include daily word count goals or number of titles released in a year. 
   If you have word count goals, do you know how much you have to complete each day to hit a yearly goal?
   Is writing fun?
   Do you understand business? Do you have a love of business? What business books/magazines do you currently read on a regular basis?
   Do you understand the different business entities and have you set the appropriate one up for your current level? Do you understand why this is important?
   Do you understand copyright? Do you understand why you license stories as an indie author/publisher and how that differs from selling stories?   Do you continue to learn your craft to become a better storyteller? Do you know what stage you are?
   How many of the myths of publishing do you believe? Search on Dean’s site for the Sacred Cows or get the book

The answers to those are for you alone. 

Those questions can be changed for just about any art form. Change writing to painting or sewing or whatever you do. The questions remain valid. We live in a creator economy. These are some things I wish people had pointed out to me a decade ago. I’d be so much further ahead.

If nothing else, perhaps you’ve gained a new awareness of how much learning you still need to do. It really doesn’t end.

But writing… still the best job in the world.

Time to go play.