I’ve been trying to think of photos to include in this post that are relevant to what I’m talking about because Barbara Ross says we should definitely include visuals to break things up in our posts. Barb is brilliant, and I rarely disagree with anything the woman says. However, I still can’t come up with anything particularly relevant as a visual here, so this post is peppered with photos of Magnus and Marji, our Maine coon and Mississippi mutt. Because the pain of honest self-publishing advice may be mitigated by Cat and Puppy, or at least that is the hope.
Early this month, I was very pleased to appear as a guest on a panel on the various avenues for authors in publishing today, at the Maine Crime Wave in Portland. There was a lot to get to, however, and not much time at the end of the day to actually address everything, so I thought I would take this opportunity to answer one of the questions I never got to on the panel.
This just happens to be one of the questions I get most frequently from self-published and would-be self-published authors, and also happens to be the thing I consider to be the most important tip I give during my workshops and seminars on self-publishing. That question:
What is your number-one piece of advice to help an indie author succeed today?
The answer, sadly, is not what most writers want to hear.
Before I tell you what it is, I’ll qualify this by saying that my response varies depending on how you define success. If you simply mean you’d like to finish your novel, have it professionally produced, and then see it on your bookshelf and the bookshelves of those nearest and dearest to you…well, then, all you really need to do is focus, take a look at the mountain of information available to self-published and traditionally published authors alike, and have at it. If you’re intent on finding a traditional publisher, of course, this route is not so easy, but if you don’t care about sales and you just want to self-publish a book that looks good, you can totally do that.
In my experience, however, most writers mean a little more than simple production when they say they want to succeed as an author. The number of books they’d like to sell varies, of course, but just about everyone wants to sell something.
And that, friends, is where the heartache begins.
Because my number-one piece of advice to those writers, without exception, is the last thing they want to hear:
Write more books.
In this world of literally millions of authors trying to entice a limited pool of readers, one book by one more author barely makes a ripple. Two books stand a better shot. Three and you’re really getting somewhere. Four… Now you’re talking. And once you hit books five and six, you’re ready for the big time.
This is an entirely different animal than the traditional publishing model, where everything is riding on the commercial success of that first book. Most traditionally published authors (I’m speaking particularly of those published with the Big 4 – or 3, or however many major publishing houses there are now) don’t even get a shot at that second book in the series if the first doesn’t sell well. Smaller publishing houses may be more patient and/or forgiving, but there’s still a lot of pressure on those first titles.
In self-publishing, however, today’s conventional wisdom is to not even bother releasing your first book until you have book two done and book three well on its way. If you’re able to do that, the most successful indie authors then release a book either every month or every three months, depending on the genre (every month for romance and possibly science fiction; every three months for mysteries, as readers aren’t quite as voracious as they may be in the aforementioned niches). Take note that this is for the first three books in the series, not a publishing schedule to be maintained for the life of one’s career. Though some do that. Personally, I think the writing too often suffers as a result.
Having subsequent books written or well on their way before the first one is out means you don’t fall into the dangerous self-publishing trap of trying to write and release three or more books every year. Writing well requires percolation, and this kind of pace means you get no space from your manuscript before you’re sending it off to the editor. If you can be patient and just work with those first books on your own, you can (at least in theory) take as long as you like to write and perfect them before sending them out into the world.
Once the third book is out, you’re able to pull the trio together into a box set. This is where the magic starts to happen. After that, you can take a little bit of a breather while you work on the next book (or books) in the series.
But what if I write stand-alone literary mysteries, you ask?
Honestly? Then, consider the first thing I mentioned in this post: What is your idea of success? If it’s to sell well and receive critical attention, head to the closest mystery convention and start talking to agents. Even then, though, be prepared to at least consider what a sequel might look like. Yes, authors like Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt have made names for themselves for their stand-alone, literary/psychological thrillers, and other recent hits like The Girl on the Train mean there are still publishers who will take a chance on these rare gems, but they are definitely not the norm (Stephen King and the other well-established mainstream authors notwithstanding, of course).
I know that all of this sounds clinical and cynical and, frankly, not that much fun. I suppose it is all of the above, in some ways. But in other ways, I think it’s a liberating way to approach things. Right now, I’m in the process of finishing up the third book in my Flint K-9 Search and Rescue series. After that, I have a three-book arc I’m doing for my Erin Solomon series, with the lofty goal of finishing all three prior to publication, and then publishing one every three months once they’re complete. In theory at least, that means I’m then free to devote my time to marketing and promotion for the subsequent nine months, without desperately trying to get the next book done. I’m terrified about approaching things in this way, but I’m also genuinely excited about what it may mean when the trilogy is complete. I’ll keep you posted on how things go and whether I end up abandoning the whole notion as the months wear on, but at the very least I think it’s an experiment worth trying.
If you’re agonizing about getting your first book out there, or that first book is already out and you’re busy pounding the pavement desperately trying to get sales and attention, I encourage you to take a step back. Waiting isn’t fun, but the process of writing that second book is hugely beneficial. You learn more about your characters, you learn more about the craft of writing itself, and you have that much more time to build a mailing list, get your website and social media in order, and get feedback (and potentially reviews) from beta readers and fellow authors. And by the third book, your characters are old friends and this whole writing thing is a piece of cake. Sort of. Okay, not really. But the bit about the characters is true, at least.
And that is my number-one piece of advice for self-published authors. I’d love to hear how you feel about it, whether you’re a reader or an indie or traditionally published author yourself. Do you think you’d have the patience to keep one or even two books on the shelf while you write the next in the series?
Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of The Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries, and teaches workshops on self-publishing throughout New England. To learn more, visit her website at www.jenblood.com.