Pro of self-publishing: you get to do everything yourself.
Con of self-publishing: you get to do everything yourself.
Over the past year or so, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my experience in the realm of self-publishing. Some have wondered because they’re considering trying it for themselves. Others have simply been curious, wondering how it all works and how I manage to juggle the writing, editing, artwork, publishing, marketing, etc. all by myself. It can be tricky. It can be tedious. It can be time-consuming. But in a lot of ways, that’s half the fun of it. We’ve all heard the phrase “blood, sweat, and tears” — the more time and effort you put into something, the prouder you’ll be of the outcome. I’ll admit, I despise the process of formatting the paperbacks for my books; I become practically homicidal and I’ll probably bite your head off if you bother me while I’m working. But there’s no better feeling than holding that first proof copy in your hands and flipping through the pages and thinking “…I did this.”
I spent a LOT of time working on Ronan while I was on vacation over the 4th of July weekend and ended up explaining the publishing process — specifically when it comes to self-marketing — to various family members. Since then, it’s been on my mind quite a bit, even more so during the past couple of days because I made the decision to push Ronan’s release up to an earlier date. I had originally wanted to release it on Labor Day but was afraid people would still be out camping/barbecuing and didn’t know if that would affect sales. September 14 just seemed so late, so I ended up changing it to even earlier. The new release date is SEPTEMBER 1. That way, people will be able to download the book in time for the long weekend, and I should have plenty of time to order copies for the signing I’ve been invited to at the end of the month.
A comment was made about needing to stay on top of marketing if I was going to change the release date, especially if I decided to go earlier. I agreed wholeheartedly and then stopped and asked myself the all-important question: How can I spread the word quickly and efficiently without being obnoxious? Luckily, the Ronan proof arrived yesterday, so that gave me a good opportunity to make the announcement. But then I started thinking a little harder. I asked myself, “Hey, what is my marketing strategy anyway?”
As I mentioned, this is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately, and I was inspired to write this post after reading a guest post called Controlling Your Own Fate by the super-awesome G.S. Jennsen over on Read Write Muse. As you might guess from the title, the post focuses mainly on how indie authors have the power to control their publishing experience and make their own decisions. It’s 100% true, and 100% of the reason I love being an indie author. I love creating my own story, I love creating my own covers, I love to hate formatting the paperbacks. And while I would by no means consider myself an expert, I feel like I kinda sorta know what I’m doing in those areas.
But when it comes to marketing, I have no clue. Sure, I’ve taken a couple of marketing classes, but only because all the IT students were forced to take them as part of the overall management curriculum. I’m a poor recent college graduate who can’t afford to hire a publicist, and even if I could, I’m not sure if I’d want to. I get my royalties each month and turn around and spend them on more hard copies or some posters or, in the case of this month, some promotional bookmarks. But despite the fact that I don’t really have a real strategy, I still feel like it’s something I can kind of figure out through trial and error. To me, marketing is just as personal as the actual writing or cover design, and even though I’m sort of muddling my way through it, I love the element of control and independence.
When it comes to marketing, I’ve always started by following one major rule, something I’ve come to call the Golden Rule of Marketing:
“Market unto others as you would have them market unto you.”
I take a moment to ask myself, “What makes me want to buy something?” Well, usually, I see it in some sort of advertisement, and I like the way it looks. Maybe it’s something I need and it’s on sale for a few days. Maybe it’s a brand new product I’ve never heard of but it has really good customer ratings. Those sorts of things are what prompt me to take a closer look by visiting the company website or searching for the product in a store…just like how people go visit Amazon or Goodreads when they’re intrigued by an advertisement for a book. Once I get to the store, I can study the product a little more closely. Maybe it ends up not quite being what I was hoping for; the colors are duller than they were in the ad or there’s some fine print the ad didn’t include. Or maybe this thing is exactly what I needed and I end up being really happy with it. Either way, this is the same experience customers have when they get on Amazon/Goodreads to check out synopses and reviews and decide whether they’re going to buy certain books. They’ll see these details and either a) buy a book because they’re still interested, or b) forego it because they realized it wasn’t really what they were looking for.
Regardless of what I’m shopping for, I want to see an ad for something (preferably in some creative or striking media format) and be able to go dig a little deeper. When I take a closer look at the product, I want to see that it’s exactly how I imagined it (if not better), because I’m not a fan of being led on. If I feel like my time has been wasted, chances are I won’t come back. These are all things I take into consideration when deciding how to market my own books. I try to do it in such a way that I would want to buy them if I were another person who happened to stumble upon them. I also want to attract the right audience, people who will actually want to read the books. In the process of following this Golden Rule of Marketing, I follow three simple sub-rules:
1) Thou shalt not spam. This is something I’m afraid a lot of authors struggle with. Yeah, you want to sell more copies of your book — who doesn’t? — but for the love of all things, don’t be obnoxious. It’s especially an issue on Twitter. I’ve unfollowed (or at least muted in TweetDeck) a couple of people who posted nothing but ads (and mostly praise) for their books every five minutes. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sharing a good review — I do this myself sometimes — but there’s such a thing as tact. Besides, if I follow someone on Twitter, it’s usually because I’m genuinely interested in them as a person. Sure I want to keep up with their writing shenanigans, but nobody wants to be inundated with ads. Now maybe book spamming works for some people. Maybe I’m just too irritable, but when I see all that spam, I get annoyed enough that I want to buy anything but that book. I just don’t want to be “that person.” I’m content with creating a new ad once a month or so and pinning it to the top of my Twitter profile so it’s still the first thing people see when they visit the page.
2) Thou shalt be honest. This is another one that just seems really simple to me, but I feel like people still struggle with it. When I’m marketing a book, I try to paint as big a picture as I can (without giving away the whole book, of course) so that readers should, theoretically, know exactly what they’re getting into. I see some people trying to market their books as “bestsellers” simply because they reached x rank in x category on Amazon for-a-couple-of-days-that-one-time. My books aren’t bestsellers — I’m lucky if I sell a copy a day — so I would never market them as such. I try as hard as possible to not share my own opinion about my books, because it should be a given that an author likes his/her own book (this is why I refuse to rate my own books on Goodreads). Like I mentioned, I’ll share the occasional blog post or positive review, and I sometimes include snippets of reviews in the media I create. It’s basically a way of saying, “Hey, in case you don’t trust my opinion because I’m the author, here’s what this other random person had to say about it.” I wouldn’t call attention to the fact that my book had 10 five-star reviews if it also had 20 four-star reviews; I’d advertise it as having an average rating of 4.3 stars. I especially wouldn’t want to see a book marketed as having nothing but five-star ratings and then go find that there’s only one actual rating and it’s from the author him/herself. I try to just be objective and state facts. For me, it’s not even a matter of informing and persuading – I’m just trying to stick to the informing part and let readers make their own decision based on the given information. I never say, “Hey, read my book.” If someone contacts me to tell me how much they enjoyed the story after they’ve read it, I’ll usually ask if they’d be willing to leave a quick review when they get a chance, simply because when it comes down to it, reviews are often what sell more books.
3) Thine advertising media shalt be aesthetically pleasing AND accurate. By accurate, I do partially mean honest, but I also mean specific. Defined. For example, I write sci fi, and I want people to be able to take one look at the media I post and be able to tell it’s sci fi without me having to hashtag it or explicitly say so. I’m not going to use sparkles and rainbows in an attempt to draw the eye; I will use strategically-placed lens flare that matches that sci fi theme. Likewise, I’m probably not going to use a lot of bright, cheery colors when advertising a book series that centers around a cold-hearted assassin. There will be lots of shadows, smoke effects, and probably some blood splatter (hurrah for downloadable GIMP brushes!). The media should help tell the story or at least fit with the theme. Here’s a peek at one of the designs I’ve been playing with for those promotional bookmarks I mentioned:
It shows the characters in kind of a mysterious light and makes use of the All-Important Lens Flare. In addition, it depicts a theme that isn’t explicitly stated in the back cover blurbs of the books, but it’s still intriguing. The Ronan banner I made to announce the new release date uses all the same elements as the book cover, but I rearranged them and added a new one (because let’s face it – who doesn’t want to look at Aroska? 😉 ). I get a lot of my space/nebula backgrounds from Pixabay and Morguefile — both sites have thousands of stock photos free for commercial use. Pixabay tends to have a better selection as well as better-quality, but I’ve found useful things in both places.
Now the “aesthetically pleasing” part is where it gets a little trickier. Not everyone is an artist; I get that. I’m lucky to have been blessed with some artistic talent, although I’m completely self-taught so I technically still don’t know what I’m doing. But I like straight lines, symmetry, matching color schemes, etc. I have a fairly extensive collection of Ziva Payvan series artwork at my disposal and I like to use it as a marketing tool. As a visually-oriented person, I love to use graphics as an advertising medium, so I try to create things that are a) tasteful, b) informative, c) honest, and d) look nice. I want people to be able to look at an ad for my books and recognize the care I’ve put into creating it (which could very well help lead them to buy the actual book). Quite frankly, I’ve seen some really awful info graphics, as well as some really awful book covers. I find myself wishing I could help the author re-design it, but the majority of the time there’s nothing I can do, and I have to just focus on making quality products of my own.
I participated in a free book promotion on the 4th of July with some other indie authors from Goodreads, so I made a simple graphic to advertise it. Obviously there are the cover images for each book, and the text in the ad makes it very clear that they are free and when. The flag image reinforces the fact that the promo is because of the holiday, and the starry background reinforces the sci fi theme. In addition, the partial user review at the bottom gives potential new readers an outside opinion. Overall, the graphic is informative, it states honest facts, it’s symmetrical (although the drop shadows kinda throw everything off), and it’s easily shareable or pin-able and doesn’t need to be posted every 5 minutes to get the message across.
These are just the guidelines I like to live by as I continue on through this crazy self-publishing adventure. As someone who doesn’t like to call attention to herself or be in the spotlight, it has been hard to figure out exactly how to market my books (and myself, for that matter). But that Golden Rule of Marketing is something I’ve had in my head since Day One. I don’t want people’s books shoved in my face, so I won’t shove my books in other people’s faces. I don’t want to be led on by advertising, so I won’t lead people on in my own advertising. I want to create visually-appealing media that reinforces both of these other goals. While I believe everyone should strive to be tactful, honest, and refined, I’m not saying everyone has to follow these sub-rules to a T, but if everyone followed the Golden Rule itself, the indie publishing community could be an even better place than it already is.