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Managing Expectations for Indie Authors (or, What Did You Think Was Gonna Happen?) [Guest Post]

The following is a guest post by Christopher Starr, an awesome Duolit reader. We redacted a few of his more ‘colorful’ words, but you know what he was trying to say 😉 It’s a bit more in-your-face than our normal guest posts, but makes a very important point!

When the gates to publication came crashing down and everybody and their mama was able to participate in the indie publishing gold rush, a couple of things happened:

  • Everybody and their mama DID actually participate and the quality of the written and electronic publication got socked Ralph Kramden-style–POW! Right in the kisser!
  • Indie authors flooded every electronic medium possible, tweeting and Facebooking, Goodreading and Shelfari-ing. We built blogs, made fanpages and listened with rapt attention to the Konrath, Locke and Hocking fables, knowing one day indies would sing songs of our success, wishing they were us.

Yeah, that [it-shay] is not going to happen.

See, this is where the idea of Managing Expectations comes into play.

Don’t walk into this industry with delusions of grandeur: the Konrath, Locke, Hocking fables are the result of much harder work than they imply. Is it possible for your recently published baby to fall into the hands of a Kardashian who tweets you to international acclaim? Absolutely. Is it likely? Come on. If that’s your plan, hang it up.

A more realistic approach is to treat your book like a business and act accordingly.

And I’m still figuring this out.

I’ve made mistakes, I’ve undermined my own efforts, I’ve hampered my own sales. So this is not a “Hey, I’m awesome, listen to me” post (though I am awesome). This is an “I learned something and I’m passing it on to you” post.

You and Your Book Are a Business

This was my first mistake and the one most of us make. We are authors and artists, storytellers not business people, right?

But, truth is, once you make a decision to write a book AND sell it to people, you are going into business. You become Author, Inc. and your books are the product. You are officially in the entertainment industry. And that’s the time for you to act like it.

You know what makes a business a business? Product and profits. And a plan. Your book is your product; you must make it the best product it can possibly be.

I know, I know, you wrote the 21st century War and Peace, right? But you’ve only sold 4 copies. That equals no profits, buddy. And profit, my friends, is the name of the game in business.

Your plan is what gets you from product to profit. No business proceeds without a plan and if you don’t have one, you’re already behind. Deborah Riley Magnus has amazing stuff on this—check out her post Writers Write. Successful Authors Have a Business Plan.

When you think about your writing career as a business and your book as a product, you can’t really argue with start up costs, can you? That’s what Toni was getting at in ‘The Costs of Self-Publishing’ —start up costs for this entrepreneurial venture you’ve decided to engage in.

You can’t argue with spending the money or bartering for a professional to do the things you can’t (like design a cover). It’s just good business.

Look at Coca-Cola. They are the largest beverage company in the world. They have quite a few products, right? Sodas, water with vitamins, water that actually makes you thirstier (I’m looking at you, Dasani). They invest in R&D, marketing, design, distribution, cross-promotion.

You are Coca-Cola; your books are your product.

No matter how phenomenal the drink, if you put it in a plastic cup and sell it like lemonade in front of a garage sale, well…when was the last time you bought that lemonade?

You’re a business. Act like it.

Nobody Cares…Yet

When I put my book out, had a real author page on Amazon and made my obligatory Facebook post to friends and family, I expected the sales to take off.

Instead, I heard crickets.

Know why? No one cares.

Just because you managed to string together plot and characters, can figure out how to navigate CreateSpace and Pubit, and your mama thinks “Baby, it was good!” doesn’t mean anybody actually cares about your book. They might. If they knew it existed. They don’t so…they don’t.

Let’s skip the Coke analogy and think about Sprite. Sprite could have decided to fight 7-UP for the same “un-cola” drinkers but instead, they went after a very different market.

Sprite decided to be THE drink for the young urban community. They researched and targeted this market and found a way to make them care. They got rappers and basketball stars and made a generation care about their drink. You know to Obey Your Thirst, right? That’s why. You gotta be Sprite.

Right now, you’re selling lemonade. In a red Solo cup.

Making them care means identifying your readers, researching that market, giving them something they are not getting somewhere else.

You know who figured that out? The chick who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. No, she cannot read a map (I live in Seattle—she was dead ass wrong on a LOT of things) and yes, there are a million other words besides “murmur,” but this book  is giving a specific market exactly what they want and it’s flying off the shelves.

Fifty Shades of Grey is exactly what the adult women who like Twilight want to read.

When you figure out who your readers are and give them exactly what they want, you’ll begin to see similar results.

Hire an Editor. Seriously.

This is the primary thing indie authors get dinged for. And it’s not just typos, though they run through our literary community like the plague. And I thought I could catch them too. I was wrong. So are you. And they are a big deal. I have a typo in the “Look Inside” sample on Amazon.

Would you drink Coke if the bottler didn’t bother to make sure someone wasn’t going to grow an 11th toe from drinking it? No, you’d sue the [it-shay] out of them and bad mouth their product to everyone you knew.

You might not forgive Coca-Cola for such transgressions, yet we expect our readers to accept ours as human error; to suck it up and KEEP COMING BACK? Recommend our work to their friends?

Before the indie publishing boom, there were gatekeepers—people who would toss your manuscript for typos and poor syntax and grammatical errors.

We can bypass those people now, but I learned from Jurassic Park that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

We have a responsibility to make sure our product is as close to perfect as possible. And dumb mistakes make us look, well, dumb.

Your readers are saying, “I know it’s only 99¢, but why should I spend a dollar on an author who doesn’t know their parts of speech?” How much confidence are you giving them in the quality of the rest of your book?

Hire an editor. Not just for grammar and typos but for plot and continuity and pacing.

Workshop your novel. Treat it like you want someone to buy it. Because you do.

Graphic Designers, Website Builders, E-Book Formatters—They’re Professional On Purpose

We were all taught you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

You know why? BECAUSE WE ALL JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS! It’s human nature to see something and make an assessment.

Look, I know you can make your cover on Createspace in 37 minutes. I did. And what I got looked like something created by Boo Productions. So, I got some professional help and came up with something substantially better.

Graphic and web designers are worth their weight in gold. They know things you don’t. They can do things you can’t.

These are people who understand how the human eye responds to certain colors and shapes or how to optimize a website for SEO or what the hell a vector graphic is. And they’ve managed to get their hands on an $1800 software package that you don’t have or don’t know how to use.

So, don’t [poop] on what they do. Respect them. Pay them. The Book Cover Archive has over 1300 examples of excellent covers AND offer books on book cover design. Check them out!

I have a special place in my heart for e-book formatters.

Natasha Fordren at The E-Book Artisans is a goddess to me. I do not know how to format epub or mobi files and, frankly, I don’t want to learn.

If your ebook is missing a table of contents or is poorly formatted, your readers will not forgive it. And PDF is not an ebook option. Period.

Market, Market, Market

But market like you have some sense.

Just putting a link to something about your book on every social media outlet you can think of doesn’t work. In fact, it’s annoying.

And if you’re tweeting a snippet of a review or telling me you got five stars or just a line with no context—STOP IT. NOW. What am I supposed to do with that? Booo. Just stop.

Take your cue from the movies. Studios plan their release dates and begin building buzz about 6 months before the movie drops.

They choose the radio and tv shows that BEST CAPTURE THEIR TARGET MARKETS, drop teaser trailers, conduct interviews with blogs and media outlets, build momentum through Facebook fanpages and engage their readers/viewers.

Look at your book, find a film that matches your book’s tone or customer and see how they market. And then do that.

Movies are also screened for critics and reporters before they release. There’s a literary equivalent of this, its called Get Reviews…BEFORE You Publish. I file this under: “Ooooohhh! I wish I had known that when I started.” You know why? More reviews and ratings make the Amazon recommendation machine promote your book AUTOMATICALLY.

These are all things publishers do. 

What we need to do is to act like those publishers, to look at our books less like literary works of art and more like products. To act like the businesses we are. If you want to focus solely on writing, indie publishing is not for you: find an agent and shop your manuscript.

Otherwise, let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to business.

Christopher C. Starr is the founder of Sanford House Press, an indie publishing house. The Road to Hell is his first novel and the launch of the HEAVEN FALLS series. Chris lives in the Seattle area with his wife, two kids and his husky, Rocky the Wonder Dog. 

  • Yes! As someone who was initially a business major in college, this is exactly what I stand for (without the curse words, of course). It is SO important to treat your writing as a business. Indies can’t just rely on putting their book out there and doing nothing. Yes, you have to write the next book, but you also have to be really smart or you’ll go broke.

    Here’s something outrageous: Write a business plan! It’s not that hard. Do you need a business license in your area? How much exactly do you need to invest? Think about how much you’ll be spending monthly on your writing business (newsletter service, web hosting, etc). Think about your overhead costs (book cover, editing, etc). Look at how many books you need to sell before you’re in the black. Plan how you’re going to grow your author platform and market your book.

    Or ignore all of this, but don’t expect to make a living out of it. I plan on making a living as a indie so my business plan is being written, I’ve got my business license and website, and I spend time learning as much as I can, and of course, writing,

    • You are so ahead of me, Yesenia! It took me a while to look at what we do, what I do, as a business. And I’m still figuring it out. Often these ideas are pitched to non-fiction writers; I think everyone believes the rules are different for novelists. Took me a while to figure out.

    • :) Well, I’ve always wanted to start my own business. Then I realized…WAIT! Writing is a business! LOL The faster you realize that, the faster you’re on the track to making a living as a writer. For the most part.

  • Great Post, Christopher

    As soon as you decide to sell, you become a BRAND. You need a plan and a vision and something grander than ‘buy my book’

    So easy :) yeah right haha

    Great points, though. A post all indie readers should take a look at

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Thanks Matthew! I think the best thing you said was “You need a plan and a vision and something grander than ‘buy my book.'” That’s something to think about

    • Yep, having a bigger plan is important. These days each project needs a few dimensions. If it’s all about the sell, it will be hard to gain momentum

  • Christopher, yes, yes, yes!
    Self published authors ARE starting a business, and I agree, we need to act accordingly. That includes having a budget, plan and marketing timeline. Thanks for this post, loved it.

  • This is a colourful post with some smart thinking. Thanks.

  • I like the comments here! Yes if you plan on making money writing you need to treat it as a business and you should realize it WILL take time and money before you make anything. Writing no matter how you publish is a hard thing to make millions on, I suggest looking around at other indie authors as well see how they market their books and how well they do (I know a few that post up the numbers so others can see how their marketing and business plans worked for them.) It’s great stuff :)

  • I like the comments here! Yes if you plan on making money writing you
    need to treat it as a business and you should realize it WILL take time
    and money before you make anything. Writing no matter how you publish is
    a hard thing to make millions on, I suggest looking around at other
    indie authors as well see how they market their books and how well they
    do (I know a few that post up the numbers so others can see how their
    marketing and business plans worked for them.) It’s great stuff :)