Learning to Be an Author
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.
Let me start by saying that I have mixed feelings about Wattpad. It seems like a great idea in terms of building a fanbase, but it comes at the cost of sacrificing being paid for that particular work.
This is the crux of my quandary with Wattpad. I don't want to give away good work for free when I know I could be selling it. I feel like I would be putting the "second string" line of stories up on there. And that comes with a little bit of risk.
On one hand, I could find people really like my also-ran stories and flock to my "good" ones that I'm selling on Amazon. But more likely, I'm not putting out enough quality work on Wattpad to generate interest for anyone to want to pay for the better stuff.
I believe that every artist has an innate sense of when something is truly good versus work that isn't quite as good. Music albums are filled up with mediocre or middling songs spread around the "hits" on the record. I have no doubt that the artist is keenly aware of which songs are likely to be a big hit the minute the song is created. The same thing goes with my work. I know when something is excellent, and I know when it's passable.
And I just can't bring myself to give away anything great.
But I'm at a point where my sales are pretty flat and I have to try some more drastic marketing strategies to get my name out there. There's no point in writing anything great if no one knows about it. I probably have to drop one of my better works out there for free on Wattpad for the sake of trying to gather some more followers.
As with all my ventures, there is a careful balance to be struck in terms of time. I can't afford to spend too much time on things that have no quantifiable way to measure their value. I just don't have much time to spare, and I don't feel like I have much of a guarantee that publishing on Wattpad will pay off the way I'd like it to.
I am going to start off on Wattpad with some stories that I have already published for free on my website. These are not my best work (though some are pretty good). From there, I'm going to progress through an "organic" stage, where I see how much traffic I get just leaving it sit there; then a "promotional" stage, when I'll advertise it a little on Twitter. I'll post back the results in an update in a few weeks.
I'll probably try a few of the integrations as well, putting it out through Smashwords and Goodreads as well, to see what happens. At this point, I don't have much to lose. At least maybe I can help set some expectations for others looking to make the same plunge into the world of giving your work away.
I must admit, I never thought that getting reviews would be the struggle it has been. I thought my friends and family, my biggest supporters, would throw me a bone with some glowing (albeit biased) reviews. I (as of this writing) have four reviews, only one of which came from a person I know personally.
This means that total strangers are more willing to offer something nice to say about my writing than people I know.
Some of you are probably enjoying a laugh at my expense right now. I'm ok with that. I didn't know any better. (Or you may be a person who's struggling with the same problem.)
You'll hear a ton of different excuses: I don't have time, I forgot, I never write reviews, people will know that I know you and I'll get in trouble with Amazon...I could fill this whole post with the different things I've heard.
Those who know me personally have no issue whatsoever telling me in person what they think of my writing, so it's not like they don't have an opinion. But getting them to offer it to the rest of Amazon, well, that's totally out of the question.
I've learned that this really isn't limited to people you know, reviews in general are a rare animal. You have to evoke a strong reaction (in general) to push someone to the point of writing a review. They love it. They hate it and curse the day you were ever born, rue that you learned to write in their native tongue and admonish the world for giving you paper to write on. Those people write reviews.
Occasionally, you get someone who just likes to offer their opinion on something. One of my reviews is from such a person. His review is neither detailed, nor scathing, nor helpful, nor anything, really. I still appreciate it because he at least put in an effort to say something. (Seriously, mom, you can't write a short sentence?)
I've also tried giving away my short stories on Twitter, in the hopes that some of the readers (who are mostly indie writers such as myself) would post a review. No such luck. In their defense, I've never asked. There's something that doesn't feel right about asking people to review your work. I wish it were a common courtesy among writers, but that isn't the case. I don't really have a problem with people getting my work for free and not reviewing, in the end I'm happy that they show enough interest to go out to Amazon and get it.
Lately, I've tried a different tack. I do the reviews. I don't ask for quid pro quo, I think that is a little underhanded in terms of how Amazon wants the system to work. I have noticed people that offer money to get reviews, or offer to write a review for a nominal fee. I don't feel either way does much of a service to the writer. I am certain that it increases the likelihood that you will eventually get a terrible review that calls the paid ones into question. I wouldn't want that sort of thing associated with my work, it is strong enough to generate positive reviews on its own.
So what have I learned about reviews?
It's a numbers game. You have to have a lot of readers to generate one review. It's hard to pin down a ratio for me, in terms of how many readers I have versus the number of reviews, but I would say that it's a safe bet to count on 25 sales at a minimum to get one review. That doesn't guarantee a positive review, just a review in general. The number is probably double that or even triple to say for sure that you'd get at least one 5-star review.
From my own reviewing experience, I've also learned that I am not too inclined to leave terrible reviews if the writing is bad. I've had at least one work that I had to pass on in terms writing a review, because I couldn't find anything in particular to praise about it. I don't want to crush someone's spirit, even though I know not everyone is cut out to be a writer. Even bad writers sell books, some even have fans. There's a market for everything, even terrible writing. Giving a bad review isn't going to accomplish much other than to deflect a sale or two away from someone.
I don't know if I will ever reach a point where I actively go out and ask people to review my work, I feel like it will happen organically as I build an audience, or perhaps a fan base.
I am not an idiot, I do have a basic understanding of how keywords work. Attaining any level of mastery of them has eluded me thus far.
It's true, I can't even get to the top of an Amazon search for my own name. "M.S. Miller" will probably net you a few results on the first page that are mine, but often something else shows up at the top. It's as if Amazon is saying, "Clearly you did not intend to look for this new, independent short story author, so here's what we think you actually meant."
Up to this point, I haven't spent nearly enough time trying to figure out Amazon's algorithm for keywords and searching. I've found that even if you pick a keyword that people use regularly, there's little chance of you getting on the first page of results. Other, better-selling writers will claim the top spots. In the world of search results, if you land on the second page, you may as well not come up in the search results at all.
So now I've come to loathe this part of the publishing process. It's incredibly vital for you to do it perfectly to have even a fighting chance as an independent author who isn't advertising, but I just do not have the time to invest in typing every possible combination into Amazon in order to study and document the results.
There is a tool out there that seemingly does that for you, called KDP Rocket. I only partially understand how it works, so I am not going to get into the specifics on it. I don't understand it well enough to put myself in a position where the software can pay for itself (it's not free). It's a non-starter for me, to invest money into something without having some assurances that it will be money well-invested. (I will pause here to actively solicit your KDP Rocket success stories/offers to help me understand it.)
And yes, I've run Google searches for alternatives and articles to help educate me. I'm still not completely understanding how one can easily find good keywords without devoting several hours of time. My current method just involves guessing, which probably explains my current sales numbers to a large extent. I know I have to get better, but I don't have the time to learn it and no one is offering something quick and easy that meets my budget requirements (free). (Another pause while you offer a free tool that you use that works well.)
Lastly, I understand that keywords are only part of the battle against Amazon's algorithm. Reviews factor into search rankings too. Sounds like a good topic for next week.
If I went back a little more than a year in time, I was fresh off self-publishing my first story on Amazon. It was thrilling, to have something I'd written "out there".
I posted something on my personal Facebook page urging people to go get copies. I sold a couple to friends and family. It was a novelty factor, honestly. It didn't get me very far at all.
This may sound a little thick, but I didn't completely understand why I hadn't gotten a small but steady stream of sales just by having it available for Kindle. I really did not have the first clue about how to market my story.
This was my first lesson in marketing: your personal circle means well, but they are probably not going to help you sell books. Most of them don't know anything about marketing either.
Some of them were kind enough to share my post to their friends, but I was never able to see whether or not I actually picked up any sales from those efforts. Amazon doesn't give you the fine details on who bought your books, at least as far as I know (which may be another thing I have yet to learn about).
I focused my efforts on building a little library of items for sale on Amazon. Go ahead and chuckle now, at the idea of adding more things for sale when your first item isn't selling. I thought maybe I could increase my presence enough to change my numbers. It was not a formula for success. It dawned on me after a few months that I needed to find ways to reach out to total strangers.
In March, I started a journey on Twitter, a social media platform that I did not at all understand. I always had the thought, as someone older that Twitter and Facebook did the same things essentially. Given that profound lack of understanding, I've been slow in figuring out Twitter. I've just hit 700 followers, after 10 months of being active on the site.
Things like reach, impressions, interactions -- those were all foreign concepts to me, and ones that I learned about the hard way. I would post text posts with one hashtag, promoting my stories. I don't remember getting a single "like", let alone a sale from those.
I went back to writing, and spent some time reflecting on what I was and wasn't doing. I had a very productive period of writing over the summer, but it came at the expense of my things for sale. I put almost no effort at all into my Amazon offerings, and it showed.
During that time, I came across a bit of mentor in a way, though I doubt she would call herself that. Cindy Kolbe responded to my request for a critique partner for my newly-written short stories. I, in turn, started reading her yet-unpublished memoir. (Cindy's book was eventually picked up by a publisher and is due out in a few months.)
Cindy had 18,000 followers (and counting) on Twitter. She had a website devoted to her book. And all of this before attempting to sell her book. She would probably tell you that she did not do anything extraordinary to help me, but she answered my questions and gave me some pointers on building a platform as an author.
So now I have my own website. It has its flaws, but it is showing steady growth. Even on days where I do absolutely nothing related to it (the weekends), I still get a modicum of traffic. These are (hopefully) people that are finding my site and potential "fans", people that might buy things or at least ones that enjoy my writing. It's a start.
I conducted a little test of my Twitter following during December 2018, to find out where I am in terms of progress. I put my items on Amazon (all short stories) for free at different times and built a promo card on Twitter for it.
The results were encouraging. I pretty much doubled my "sales" for the year. I have readers in Australia, the UK, Spain and Brazil. (KDP Beta Reports show market info for free, if you're wondering how I learned that.)
These were some new lessons that I learned going into 2019:
In my next post, I'll take you along for the ride as I talk about my marketing ideas for the year ahead. Perhaps a few of you who know better will be able to help steer me away from things that waste my time and efforts.