NOTE: This piece originally published on Medium’s Writers’ Blokke.
It’s been quite the journey since Bounty went live on Amazon in 2015.
I call it a journey because of how much I’ve learned in the six years I’ve been able to add the word published in front of author. Not just about the craft of writing, of storytelling itself, but the ins and outs of publishing. Self-publishing, to be specific.
See, the stereotype among the “self-publishing is bad” crowd is that we crank out any old dribble we please and upload it to Amazon without any care for spelling, grammar, or human decency. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we self- and independently-published authors put plenty of time, effort, and work into our stories far beyond the words on the page.
That said, I made a lot of mistakes early on. Chances are, I’m still making mistakes today. Truth is, being a self-published author is a never-ending exercise in learning. We hone our craft, we study market trends, we discover why even the prettiest cover might not work for our book and why the most expensive editor might be the worst one to read your manuscript.
So here are five lessons I’ve learned in the process of publishing six full-length novels, a collection of short stories, a non-fiction book, and submitting three short stories that wound up in published anthologies. Five things I wish I knew before I even started.
These seem obvious in hindsight, but…
You need to market your book before it’s published.
Remember what I said above about some things seeming obvious?
Yeah, well, I published Bounty with no announcement. No fanfare. No website. No social media posts. Nothing. I was on Twitter and Facebook at the time, but those weren’t outlets to plug my writing. I was just a rando with an @. I published Bounty on a whim, mostly to prove to myself I could do it…then I sat there wondering why no one was flocking to Amazon to grab their copy.
(Spoiler alert: it was largely because no one knew about it.)
This has obviously gotten better and easier as I’ve published more books and built up a fanbase of sorts (comparatively meager, though it may be), but it’s not as simple as “if you write it, they will come.” They will only come if they know about it, and hitting Publish in the dark of night and then going to bed isn’t gonna get the word out.
In hindsight, the website and social media should’ve come first. I should’ve set up my newsletter first. I should’ve worked out a marketing strategy of sorts to drum up interest for Bounty before it went live — rather than put it up for sale and try to play catch-up afterward. It wouldn’t have guaranteed anything, but my brand as an author would’ve been stronger if I’d put in the effort to build it beforehand.
Artistic purists won’t like to hear this, but the brand is just as important as the art. It needs just as much attention, if not more at times.
Do not neglect your cover. Repeat: Do NOT neglect your cover!
That old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” sounds great in theory, but in practice, everyone judges books by their covers. Even those of us who say we don’t…we actually do.
Part of the rush job I mentioned above in publishing Bounty included a last-second, thrown-together cover that looked terrible, gave no clue as to what kind of book I’d written, and no one could tell what the image on the cover actually was (and that image will never again see the light of day). My sales reflected this reality because, frankly, I didn’t know any better until I started talking to other self-published authors.
Bounty has gone through three covers, because it took me entirely too long to realize that looking good isn’t enough. The cover has to also say something about what’s on the pages inside, and if you’re writing a series, then each cover has to be consistent enough visually that readers can tell it’s one of yours with just a glance.
Mine didn’t get right until I hired a cover artist who’s also a fan of the series. Sarah Anderson knows what makes my books tic, and she’s a great cover artist to begin with, so it’s a partnership I should’ve struck way sooner than I did.
Like it or not, the cover can make or break your book.
In marketing your book, less sometimes means more.
It can be tempting to shout your Amazon link to the world 15 times a day, every day, for an entire calendar year. Sometimes, it might even feel like that’s what you have to do. But that’s not necessarily true, especially on social media. In fact, social media users (and the ever-nebulous algorithms) detest that sort of thing; Twitter will actually suppress tweets that include links (this isn’t because the little blue bird hates you — it’s likely an attempt to get you to use Twitter’s [paid] advertising service).
Fact is, social media posts actively selling your work only work a small fraction of the time. The bulk of my success, marketing-wise, has come from 1) newsletters (mine and in paying newsletter services to have my work added to their content), 2) actually connecting with potential readers beyond simply plugging my book, and 3) creating more content (i.e., writing more books…keep this one in mind for later).
Endless hashtags won’t sell books. Endlessly posting your link in #writerslift threads might actually hurt your engagements. Even those who follow you because they like your books won’t want to see you hawking your wares 24/7.
Make sure you’re still presenting yourself as a person, not just someone desperate for a sale (even if you are, in fact, desperate for a sale).
Immerse yourself in the indie author community.
There are several reasons to do this. First and foremost, the vast majority of indie authors are kickass people, and who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with kickass people? You’ll also likely find a treasure trove of great books to read on top of all that. What’s not to like?!
Don’t expect all these other authors to buy your work, though. Some will, and some might become huge fans of yours, but consider anything like that a bonus.
Note the key word above: community.
Indie authors don’t have large publishing houses supporting us; most of what we do is all on our own. That can be great in many ways, but it can also be a pain. An expensive pain. Immersing yourself in the indie community can help with that; you might find a cover artist willing to work for a discount or an editor who accepts payment plans or you might find an author you can trade services with (i.e., I’ll edit your manuscript if you do my cover art).
I offer freelance editing services for a fraction of what other editors charge for just this reason; I want to help other indie authors get their stories out in the world.
Who would know your struggles as an indie author better than other indie authors? We don’t view each other as competition, and the vast majority of us are glad to help out any way we can (even if it’s something small, like retweeting your book link).
Sometimes, your best marketing tool is to keep writing.
There’s a saying that the best way to promote your first book is to release your second. There’s a nugget of truth to that, because from what I can tell, the authors with the largest libraries tend to be some of the most popular.
Imagine you stumbled upon a book you loved. You tore through it in a day and then you went to find the author on Amazon, only to discover…what you read was all they had, and there was no sign that they were working on anything else (even worse if that book was supposed to be the start of a series).
Before publishing Betrayal in April 2020, I had gone nearly three years between releases, and I truly think that was part of my issue. I wasn’t putting out enough content at a consistent rate, and with my series in limbo because of this…
Some writers will complete several books before releasing any of them; that way, they have a backlog of content they can release at whatever interval they choose without worrying about what happens if the words suddenly dry up for no reason. Whether you do that is up to you (that’s the beauty of the indie author game), but keep in mind productivity might be your best friend from a marketing perspective.
That’s not to say you need to release something every month. But whatever schedule you choose — a new book every six months, one new release a year — try to keep that consistent, so your fans know what to expect.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if I had known these five things before I published Bounty, I think that book launch would’ve been much more successful and I might be a better, more popular author today.
About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.