Learning to Be an Author
There was a point in time, a little more than a year ago, when I thought simply putting something on Amazon would be enough to score a few sales. I proudly posted a short story, put up a Facebook post to my family and friends, and waited for a rush of sales. I don't need to tell you what actually happened.
If there is a way to go about self-publishing all wrong, I've probably done it.
I could go on for awhile with this list. The point I'm making is that I've made mistakes and I'm writing about them so that you don't have to suffer the same ones.
For the sake of research, I decided to revisit a few of my mistakes on purpose, just to have some real data to share. I posted an Amazon story and two stories on Wattpad in January and have done absolutely zero promotion on them.
The Amazon story went live on January 10. I have zero sales, and nary a Kindle Unlimited download. I didn't bother researching my keywords, I just picked ones that seemed logical and went from there.
On Wattpad, I put up two stories, one on Jan. 11, the other on the 15th. The first story has one read. The other one has four (and none since Jan. 30). As with Amazon, I did relatively haphazard tagging without much investigation into competition.
So then I decided I would add a new story on Wattpad, and promote it on Twitter with a Twitter card. That story went live on Feb. 12, and it already has six reads (though no votes). Most of those came right after I promoted it.
So what's the point of all of this?
It's really been the whole point of this series in my blog, that writing something is often the easiest part of the whole process. And your writing will not simply be "found" on any of the popular sites.
For one, there are scores of other people who spend far more time on promotion than they do on their writing. They know how to game the algorithms on Amazon or Wattpad to get their stories toward the top of the search results. It's basically a snowball rolling down a hill from there.
The other major factor is that people are not so willing to part with their valuable reading time. It has to be worthwhile. Good descriptions and good covers are major parts of getting onto someone's Kindle.
Clearly, if I knew the cure to those issues, you'd already know about me as an author. I'm still learning (slowly). I am finding that there really is no substitute for taking your time. It takes time to build a blog, a following, fans, connections and skills to become your own agent (which is really what a self-published author is.)
Others are doing it better than I am, and I'm ok with this for now. I also understand that occasionally people just get lucky. They strike a chord with the right person and score tons of traffic through one social media mention.
I know my moment is waiting out there. I know that I am a very good writer. To me, it's not a matter of "if" but "when". I'm trying lots of different things. I'm looking for opportunities. I'm biding my time.
While I'm wrapping up this part of the series, I plan on revisiting this after a while. I think it will be a fun exercise to see what I've learned and what new things I'll have to offer. Thanks for reading!
The adage might be that you can't judge a book by its cover, but every author can tell you that is exactly what happens.
Most people in the industry, including other self-published authors, will give you the sound advice to hire someone to do it for you. For some, such as myself, there is absolutely no budget at all for it, let alone the $300 or so you'd need for a reasonably good cover for your work.
It can be done by yourself, but you need to be prepared for a lot of angst and frustration along the way, especially if you're committed to doing it all for free.
Here are some things you will need:
A photo editing/illustration program. The best free option is a program called GIMP. Shave your head bald before attempting to use it, so that you can spare yourself the pain of ripping out your hair as you try to understand the features. It does almost everything that the more expensive Photoshop will do. Photoshop can be used for free for 30 days on trial, but Adobe forbids "for-profit" usage during the trial. You've been warned. (By the way, you will NEVER come close to mastering Photoshop in 30 days or even reach the level of putting together an awesome cover. You've been double-warned.)
Access to royalty-free art. There are a ton of sites which offer this, such as Flickr, Pixabay and others. Pay close attention to the individual license on the picture. Some prohibit commercial use while allowing personal use (which means you can't use it for a book cover on a book you intend to sell). Others allow any use, but prohibit modification, meaning you can't change the colors or elements in the photo. In practical terms, that license is also useless. You could try your hand at taking the pictures you need, but you're going to find it far more challenging than you thought it might be. (Another warning, from someone who's tried.)
Access to royalty-free fonts. Just because you can download and install a font doesn't mean you can use it for your book cover. Google offers around 90 free fonts, about 5% of which are actually usable for a book cover. You can find other fonts using a Google search, there are some nice ones that you can use without the slightest hint of acknowledgement or payment. As with the other things you'll need, you shouldn't simply click on the license agreement without reading it. It's silly to risk find yourself sued (as the whole point is to save money) for lack of reading some of the most compelling literature around. You'll be smarter after you finish reading one, or at least, older.
An above average understanding of the "rules" of graphic design. I put rules in quotes because they are sort of suggestions, or possibly outrageous demands, or sound advice. Google will have lots to offer on the subject, nearly all of it confusing and inconsistent. The best advice I can give is to look at real book covers on actual books at a bookstore, and try to make your stuff look like their stuff. This may require you to erase the Comic Sans font from your computer so that you'll never, ever be tempted to use it for anything that you want to sell.
Patience and time. Count on spending a few weeks tinkering with your design. Just like your writing, you won't often get it right on the first try. Get a stress ball and a pillow to shout curses into while you learn the design software. Save a dollar a day while you're designing your own cover, and give up when you have enough saved to hire someone.
Research. Look at every book cover possible in your planned genre. Don't use some cute Martha Stewart font on a true crime book cover. Don't use a picture of a bloody knife on a children's story about cutting your finger. Know what is supposed to go on the book cover to match it to the genre.
I nearly forgot to mention tools that will build the cover for you, with minimal amount of effort. I'm not familiar with every tool, but I can speak to a couple of them:
Kindle Cover Creator: Honestly, I would say to not waste your time with this tool. Your 6-year-old niece is capable of putting together a better cover than this tool. The fonts are pretty limited, as are the templates. And you still largely need your own artwork.
Canva: Canva is a little more flexible and isn't limited to putting together book covers. You can do Twitter posts, logos, and tons of other things. The catch is that it's only mostly free. If you don't have the exact photo you want and need to look in the Canva library for it, it'll set you back $1. Doesn't sound like much and it isn't, but the better art is behind their paywall, which is a little pricier.
Best of luck no matter what you decide to do. I won't say that it isn't possible to do you own cover, as many self-published authors do just that. You should have some idea of what you're getting into before you try to do it yourself. The last thing you want to do is torpedo the potential sales of your well-written manuscript by putting a sub-par cover on it.
I've come to the conclusion that people who ask for submissions for works to publish might be petty control freaks.
Just go to any online magazine and click on their submissions link, then roll your eyes at all of the crazy formatting requirements for your submission. Each is slightly different, but most demand some kind of antiquated font, margin and spacing requirements and specific ways to address them in a cover letter.
And these are the people who largely control whether you'll start to get noticed in the writing world.
There was a time, during the days of typesetting, that things had to be just so in a manuscript. You couldn't change a font with a simple "Ctrl + A" then a click of a mouse. You couldn't add spacing on your own.
This is not 1919, though. In 2019, we ought to be able to accept manuscripts that come to us in a readable format. Instead, I feel like a kindergarten student having to follow the teacher's directions just to have a shot at hearing the likely "no" from the publisher.
I simply cannot imagine being so off-put by a font or spacing or choosing to indent a first paragraph that I would throw my hands in the air and refuse to publish (nay, flat out refuse to read) what might possibly be the next masterpiece of fiction.
Now I have not yet learned this lesson the hard way, but I'm waiting for it, because sometimes the directions are so confusing that I'm bound to mess up.
I might also point out that we live in a day and age where we could simply create a web page in which the author can simply paste the text into a form. It can then be automatically formatted into your obsessive-compulsive demands.
My work gives me a lot of freedom in terms of formatting things. I am not used to boundaries and demands for things such as double-spacing and Courier font. Not even the helpful bloggers on the internet can give you a crystal clear definition (or god forbid, a template). These people could possibly put Nigel Tufnel and his sandwiches to shame.
I'm not advocating that people send things out in crazy curly fonts that are impossible to read, but one ought not to be summarily rejected for submitting something in Georgia font instead of Garamond. It isn't a deal breaker.
And yet, these publishers threaten writers with out-of-hand rejections for failing to follow their sometimes unclear directions.
It's yet another reason that I've decided to heavily invest my time and efforts into self-publishing. I'm not sure I want to participate in a world of control freaks and subjective (read: arbitrary) judgments which block my work from reaching the word because my margins aren't exactly one inch all the way around.
(If you are one of these people, or you have been rejected because of formatting issues, I'd love to hear your stories. Please comment!)
Anyone who is serious about being an indie author knows you eventually have to get your own website.
You need a place on the Internet to showcase you: your blog, who you are, what you write, etc. But most people haven't the slightest clue where to begin.
I personally chose Weebly as the place to host my website, even though I have a reasonable background in some of the nuts and bolts of webpages. Part of it was time. I didn't, and still don't have the time to lay out webpages just so, style them, optimize them for mobile displays and all of the other details that make some sites great.
The other major factor was cost. Wordpress would have probably been a better way to go in the long run. But their pricing model promises to nickel and dime you with different things you'll eventually want. Wordpress is sort of like buying a new car a few parts at a time, with markup on each part.
Weebly isn't perfect by any stretch, but I cashed in on a Cyber Monday deal and got my site, domain, and a few bells and whistles for less than $75. If you have done research, that's a pretty competitive rate.
Where this particular site has gone wrong for me is: while they do make it relatively easy to build pages with almost no knowledge whatsoever, they don't help in the places where it matters the most. There are spaces on your page builder for SEO (Search Engine Optimization), but there is almost no guidance on what you need to put in there.
If you leave it blank, you've got no shot whatsoever of a total stranger happening upon your site, which is what you need if you're ever going to make it as indie writer. (Friends and family will buy a few of your books, but not nearly as many as you need them to.)
I went the route of "I'll get to that later". So I've wasted a little more than a month with my own site and little chance of anyone finding it without my help. Weebly (and I suspect most others) don't do a very good job explaining this part of the site building process.
A few days after I created my site, I got a cryptic email about something with Google and indexing. I didn't understand it, and thought I'd get back to it some other time. It turns out that I never made my site available to Google, so I was never, ever going to show up in searches. Oops.
It turns out you need something called Google Search Console to help you get through the indexing process and work on your SEO. The console will go through your site pages, then tell you what changes you might want to make. In my case, I had to add a sitemap and a few other things. Weebly thankfully had a sitemap for my site available, but again, did not really mention that you had to pass it along to Google for your site to show up in their searches.
(If you're in the know about a lot of this stuff, go ahead and enjoy a hearty chuckle at my expense.)
Lastly, Weebly gives you a pretty false sense of how your site is doing. It shows consistent traffic on my site (20-25 unique users per day at a minimum). The reality, according to Google Analytics (another must-have for managing your site), is far more grim. I get a handful of visits in a week.
Where does the difference come from? Well, Weebly counts spam traffic to your site in your stats, Google largely filters it out. These visits are not by actual people, they never look at a single thing on your site. I've yet to figure out what the exact purpose of this traffic is, but apparently it isn't harmful.
So now I'm on the right track, though I've wasted more than a month worth of my investment due to a total lack of understanding about my site. Don't make my mistake. Live with having a subdomain (www.yourname.weebly.com) while you set every last detail the way you want it, then invest the money to remove the shackles of Weebly's domain and ads on your site. (Or Wordpress, or Wix, or whatever. All free sites are pretty much the same in this respect.)
And for heaven's sake, learn a little bit about being a webmaster before you're the master of a website.
I learn something new everyday.