I published my first book, St. Charles at Dusk, on September 26th, 2011. Four years have passed, and with them, more learnings than I could ever fully wrap my mind around. In those early days, I was a woman alone on an island, getting all my advice from Google. I didn’t know a single other author who had published their work.
Flash forward four years. I’m no longer a woman alone on an island, but one surrounded by hundreds of authors, thousands of readers, and years of experience (with many years still ahead). I have seventeen original titles out (and numerous boxed sets), and an endless quantity of ideas. I’ve been lauded by esteemed authors, and appeared on the USA Today Bestsellers list, twice. I’m nowhere near an expert, and far from perfect. I’ve had successes and setbacks, like any author, and I move forward knowing I’ll have more of both. I’m excited to have more of both, because the setbacks teach me, and every learning in this world is a gift.
Perhaps a new author will stumble on this post, and find it helpful. Maybe a tenured author will read through and nod their head. In any case, I hope your journey finds you well.
No Two Author Journeys Are Alike
No, really. Every single author has their own experiences, their own luck, their own skills and tools. Even if you took two authors who write identical genres, covers, and used identical marketing strategies, they would not share the same results. It’s fruitless to compare your journey with any other author, or to ask yourself “why am I not seeing the same results?” unless you truly do have something that needs changing (covers that don’t grab attention, editing issues, as examples). You’ll drive yourself crazy making comparisons, which will lead to negative feelings, inevitably resulting in creative blocks. Control what you can control, and understand the rest comes down to timing, luck, and the humors of the universe.
The Best Marketing for Your First Book is More Books
The very first thing I did when I hit publish on Dusk was research how the hell I was going to get the book in front of readers. Naturally, some of my friends and family bought it, probably half from support and half from shock. But I had no clue how to get it in front of a broader audience, and I spent way too much time (creative time) trying to solve this.
It wasn’t until I joined several author loops that I understood why this was a waste of my time. Let’s say a reader bought Dusk and loved it. They go to find the next book and… nothing. In the time it takes to write another book, that reader will have moved on and forgotten their love of the first one.
On the other hand, if they love that first book and find half a dozen more, you’ve now found yourself a fan willing to wait for future releases. They’re invested, and fans who are invested will keep checking back.
Learn your craft. Write well. And keep doing it!
Marketing is an Art, Not a Science
And, like any art, the interpretation varies by audience. What works for one, may be a turnoff for another. The only consistency I’ve found is that moderation is key. Readers don’t want endless advertisements from you, but if you don’t tell them how and where to find your work, how will they know?
Over half the posts on my social media accounts aren’t about my books, but they are peripherally related: articles/pictures on New Orleans (where my books are set), writing anecdotes. They’re thematically in line with my brand, which inevitably also relates back to my work, even if indirectly.
Finally, loss leaders. Perma-free, or lower price ($.99) for first in series (while a blow to your ego, which you need to learn to check anyway in this business) is a proven tool, and a great way to bring in new readers.
Get to Know Other Authors
As friends and comrades, not a potential audience. While half of what I learned these four years has been through trial and error, the other half came from the various author loops I’m a part of. While mileage varies by author (see the first point), there’s much to be learned from what others have done. They are also the only ones in the world who will understand what you’re going through when the words won’t flow, or you get a review that hurt (even when you know you should shake it off).
Also, some of my dearest friends in the world are authors. So there’s that.
Writing is a Full Time Job, Even if You Aren’t Writing Full Time
If you think writing a book is the beginning and end of it, you’re in for a rude surprise. The quantity of things you need to keep track of, head up, and be on top of is endless. I keep a checklist for publishing each book, and there’s over forty items on it. That’s only for publishing! Maintaining my social accounts, my website, and other “businessy” things takes up more time than the writing. I love running my own business, but organizational skills aren’t optional.
Your Brand is Everything
I knew this going in, as my other career sits in the corporate world. Everything you do should be purposeful.
Execution isn’t as easy as knowledge. Everything I say, everything I post, is a reflection of my brand. This isn’t simply posting about relevant things (as I mentioned above, with sharing items related to my books), but understanding the words we use have power, and are remembered. Venting about a lack of sales or other publishing frustrations might garner sympathy but will get you branded as unprofessional. Getting involved in drama is something others will remember. Responding to reviewers (especially negative ones) will only lead to misery.
Lastly, and this is a tough one when you’re friends with so many authors and want to help them: be mindful of who and what you promote. Your readers will look to the content you share as endorsements from you. This isn’t to say that you can’t help your friends. I co-created a blogger page to help share for others, because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to read everyone’s work. My author page remains reserved for content I’ve read and can stamp with a personal endorsement.
Creative Control is a Curse as Much as a Blessing
I’ve self-published 100% of my titles, and I have NO regrets in doing so. I’m not looking for a book deal, for many reasons, but not the least of which is that I love having full creative control over my work.
A few years ago, I learned Photoshop so I could design my own covers, largely because I wasn’t able to articulate to others what was in my head. The result? Six or seven different iterations of covers before I landed on the design I have now (which I adore). While I’m in love with the end result, getting there involved a lot of hair loss. When you know you can change things, that thought never leaves the back of your mind. In other words, a “to do” list that never shrinks.
This applies to other aspects of the business as well, the biggest one being content. Now, finding errors and uploading corrections on the fly is a fantastic benefit. But as you grow in your writing, inevitably it will improve. Yay, right? Yes. Except, when you re-read your earlier work and want to re-write the hell out of it, so it matches your current skill-set.
I’ll admit to having done this with Dusk, for many reasons. Never again. At some point, you have to accept your writing will improve, and most readers will enjoy watching that evolution. Your work represents different eras in your writing life, and you should be proud of them all.
In addition to everything else we manage, the lure of “shiny objects” in the form of outside marketing tools bubbles to the surface. Anything from blog tours, author events, giveaways, and advertising. As with everything else, mileage varies. What works for one, may not for another, and *who* you employ to help with these things matters a great deal. Look for endorsements from other authors.
Finally, there are items with very little ROI you may decide still matter. Author signings, for example. Few authors end up with a profit in the end (between the cost of books, swag, and table costs, it’s an expensive endeavor), but find it worth it to network with readers and authors. But that’s a decision you need to make with your broader business goals in mind. Personally, I do 2-3 a year, and I’m very targeted on which ones. As my books are set in New Orleans, I do an annual event there. I live in Portland, so I’ll do them here, because I don’t have to factor in travel costs.
Write First For Yourself
This is a polarizing stance, honestly. Writing is a business, and chasing trends will often result in more money and recognition. If you’re a writer who is versatile enough to do this, then I won’t discourage you, especially if your goal is to write full time.
Personally, when I write for anything other than where my creative genius drives me, it turns out to be uninspired drivel. Readers pick up on that. They want to hear your voice loud and clear, and it will only come across as such if you’re inspired. Besides, constantly worrying about every word will only stifle creativity. Let the words flow, and be unapologetic.
So, follow the inspiration… wherever it takes you.
Know When You Need to Slow Down
With almost two dozen titles behind me (most of which were done over the latter two years, as I had a break between Dusk and the others), I look back and I’m glad I busted my ass, forgoing sleep for my muse, working two jobs. Why? Because now I’ve bought myself some time to slow down. My series grows more and more complex, the deeper in the story goes, and I can’t churn out a book in two months anymore. I need time to sink into the world I’ve created.
I waited almost my entire life for Stephen King to finish the Dark Tower Series. If you’ve given readers a reason to come back, they won’t forget you.
Authors, feel free to chime in with your learnings as well!